Milk

  • Directors: Gus Van Sant
  • Producers: Dan Jinks, Bruce Cohen, Michael London
  • Writers: Dustin Lance Black
  • Genres: Biography, Drama, Romance
  • Actors: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, James Franco, Alison Pill, Victor Garber

Milk opens with archival footage of police raiding gay bars and arresting patrons during the 1950s and 1960s, followed by Dianne Feinstein’s November 27, 1978, announcement to the press that Milk and Moscone have been assassinated. Milk is seen recording his will throughout the film, nine days (November 18, 1978) before the assassinations. The film then flashes back to New York City in 1970, the eve of Milk’s 40th birthday and his first meeting with his much younger lover, Scott Smith.

Unsatisfied with his life and in need of a change, Milk and Smith decide to move to San Francisco in the hope of finding larger acceptance of their relationship. They open Castro Camera in the heart of Eureka Valley, a working class neighborhood in the process of evolving into a predominantly gay neighborhood known as The Castro. Frustrated by the opposition they encounter in the once Irish-Catholic neighborhood, Milk utilizes his background as a businessman to become a gay activist, eventually becoming a mentor for Cleve Jones. Early on, Smith serves as Milk’s campaign manager, but his frustration grows with Milk’s devotion to politics, and he leaves him. Milk later meets Jack Lira, a sweet-natured but unbalanced young man. As with Smith, Lira cannot tolerate Milk’s devotion to political activism, and eventually hangs himself.

The last scene is an aerial shot of the candlelight vigil held by thousands for Milk and Moscone throughout the streets of the city. Pictures of the actual people depicted in the film, and brief summaries of their lives follow. This includes a note that Dan White’s lawyers used the infamous Twinkie defense to get White’s conviction reduced to voluntary manslaughter.

American Beauty

  • Directors: Sam Mendes
  • Producers: Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks
  • Writers: Alan Ball
  • Genres: Drama
  • Actors: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper

Lester Burnham (Spacey) is a 42-year-old father and advertising executive who serves as the film’s narrator. Lester’s family life is messy—his wife Carolyn (Bening) is an ambitious real-estate broker who feels that she is unsuccessful at fulfilling her potential, and his 16-year-old daughter Jane (Thora Birch) is unhappy and struggling with self-esteem issues. Lester himself is a self-described loser in a dead end job with despicable bosses he does not respect. Lester is reinvigorated, however, when he meets Jane’s friend and classmate Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari) at a high school basketball game. Lester immediately develops an obvious infatuation with Angela, much to his daughter’s distress. Throughout the film, Lester has fantasies involving a sexually aggressive Angela in red rose petals. The Burnhams’ new neighbors are Col. Frank Fitts, USMC (Cooper), his dissociative wife Barbara (Janney) and his teenage son Ricky (Bentley). When introduced to the gay couple living two doors down, Col. Fitts reacts with homophobic disgust.

Over the course of a few days, each of the Burnhams individually makes a life-changing choice. Carolyn meets real estate rival Buddy Kane for a business lunch and ends up beginning an affair with him and later takes up shooting lessons. Seconds away from being downsized, Lester defiantly blackmails his boss, quits his job and takes up low-pressure employment as a burger-flipper at a fast food chain. He continues to liberate himself by trading in his Toyota Camry for his dream car, a 1970 Pontiac Firebird, starts running and working out to “look good naked” in order to have a body that will impress Angela, and starts smoking marijuana. Jane grows increasingly disillusioned with and distant from Angela, allowing herself to develop a romantic relationship with Ricky. Ricky and Jane bond over what he considers to be the most beautiful camcorder footage he has ever filmed, that of a plastic bag dancing in the wind; meanwhile, Ricky also quickly befriends Lester and secretly acts as his marijuana supplier.

Ricky and Jane enter the kitchen to find Lester dead, hunched over in a pool of his own blood. Ricky studies Lester’s face, intrigued by the fact that Lester almost has a hint of a grin on his face. In his final narration, Lester looks back on his life, intertwined with images of everyone’s reactions to the sound of the subsequent gunshot and Lester’s death, including one blood-soaked and shaken Col. Fitts returning to his home with a gun missing from his collection. Despite his death, Lester, from his vantage point as narrator, is happy, explaining that it’s hard to be mad when there’s so much beauty in the world.