If you need proof that Sean Penn may be his generation’s greatest actor, I present his latest work in “Milk” - Gus Van Sant’s biography about California’s first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk.

Penn practically disappears in the role of the title character, giving a performance as powerful and impressive as any of his previous works (including his Oscar-winning role in “Mystic River.”)

But Penn is just one reason why “Milk” is worthy of its eight Academy Award nominations. The film has a talented cast, some sharp direction and a story that is as relevant today as it was when it unfolded in the late ’70s.

“Milk” begins in 1970 with its title character marking his 40th birthday. Before long Milk has moved to San Francisco with his lover, Scott Smith (James Franco), and quickly becomes one of the most influential figures in the gay community.

After several attempts at public office, Milk is eventually elected as a city official, but 11 months into his tenure, he is assassinated at the age of 48 by fellow San Francisco supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin).

Penn’s work alone is enough to make “Milk” an interesting picture, but the rest of the cast delivers as well. Franco is very good as Milk’s emotional center, while Brolin continues his string of solid work with a rather sympathetic portrayal of Milk’s eventual assassin.

There is also good work from Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna and Alison Pill.

Van Sant delivers some of his best work behind the camera in more than a decade. He is aided by a script from Dustin Lance Black that wisely chooses to focus most of the story on Milk’s fight against the Briggs Initiative - a proposed law that would have made firing teachers and any public employee who supported gay rights mandatory.

It’s an argument still relevant today with the recent fights against same-sex marriages across the country, making “Milk” more than just a standard biography. It’s a film not afraid to take a stand and make its audiences question their views as well.

DVD dandy of the week

This week’s dandy is “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” (B), writer/director Kevin Smith’s hysterically offensive comedy with a romantically sweet center.

Seth Rogan and Elizabeth Banks play Zack and Miri, lifelong platonic friends who have reached rock bottom financially.

Desperate for money, they decide the best solution is to make an adult film based on “Star Wars.”

Zack and Miri enlist the help of friends (Craig Robinson and Jeff Anderson) and several willing strangers (Jason Mewes and Traci Lords) to get the project going, but once the cameras start rolling, Zack and Miri begin to realize they may actually have feelings for each other.

For the first two-thirds of “Zack and Miri,” Smith has made a film that rivals Judd Apatow (the man behind “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up”) in filth and laughs.

Rogan, an Apatow regular, is in his element, while Banks proves she can be just as dirty and funny as the guys.

Both are nearly upstaged by scene-stealing supporting performances from Anderson and Mewes (a Smith mainstay who really should be in more projects).

I will concede that once “Zack and Miri” starts to get soft and gooey, the edge and the filth loses a little steam. Still, I can’t think of a recent comedy that has made me laugh as much.

“Zack and Miri Make a Porno” is rated R for strong crude sexual content including dialogue, graphic nudity and pervasive language and will be available Tuesday on DVD.

— Movie reviewer/sports writer Micheal Compton can be reached by phone at 783-3247 or by e-mail at mcompton@bgdailynews.com.

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