My Christmas Eve was all about movies — one in the theater and two on the Blu-Ray.
My least-favorite of the three was Milk, actually showing in theaters. This had been highly touted to me, and it’s actually quite good. Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, and James Franco are all brilliant and the rest of the cast is good as well. A few scenes are genuinely moving in a way that’s weird, and the movie has a lot of contemporary resonances. My first instinct was to say that the problem with the film is that the pacing is odd, but I think the problem may actually be that on some level Harvey Milk’s story isn’t that interesting. If he’d succeeded at winning an at-large council seat or getting into the State Assembly, that would have been something. But exactly as you’d expect, he lost those races. And when he did win it was, as the film makes clear, all thanks to the change in San Francisco electoral procedures — the decision to move to geography-based constituencies and to draw a very Milk-friendly district. It seems to me that there’s probably a fascinating story about how and why that switch was made, but Milk doesn’t tell the story, possibly because Milk wasn’t a central player.
The best movie I watched was Transiberian. It’s really good — my new favorite movie of 2008. I tried to recommend it to some friends earlier, but I had trouble offering a description that sounded appealing. It’s about a couple that takes a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway to try to rekindle their marriage but winds up mixed up with the Russian mob. And it’s fantastic. You should rent it. And in case you’re curious, the depiction of Russian train travel is very faithful to my memory of how things were done in 1998.
Last came Donnie Brasco, which I’ve seen several times and always loved. The mafia drama is a very crowded media space and I think this film is an underrated contender in the genre. Among other things, it doesn’t a brilliant job of avoiding the traps of either glamorizing gangsters or engaging in preachy moralizing.