Iconic AIDS-related Films Through the Years

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World AIDS Day asks us to consider how AIDS has influenced our world and culture. There are several classic films—from dramatic features to shorts and documentaries, both American and international—that have shown the impact of the AIDS epidemic. Passing over projects that originated as plays (Jeffrey, Angels in America, The Dying Gaul, Love! Valour! Compassion!), here is a list of ten films that give critical perspectives on the crisis.

How to Survive a Plague (2012)

This Oscar-nominated documentary, about ACT-UP is staggeringly great. Chronicling the empowerment of the gay community and its supporters as they came together to fight for rights for people with AIDS, director David France effectively shows how unlikely activists—particularly Peter Staley and Bob Rafsky—were incredibly inspiring as they mobilized a community. France also clearly unpacks the medical challenges that surrounded AIDS treatment in its early years, and the splintering of ACT-UP. This film documents life during wartime, and watching the battles—won and lost—is truly life affirming.

Parting Glances (1985)

The late Bill Sherwood’s outstanding feature (alas, his only feature) may be nearly 30 years old (yikes!) but Parting Glances stills feels fresh and winning. Chronicling a day in the life of Robert (John Bolger) and Michael (Richard Ganoung), two lovers and their coterie of New York friends, Parting Glances was one of the first American films to deal with AIDS, including a subplot about Nick (Steve Buscemi in his screen debut) as a man dying from the disease. This low-budget charmer sensitively depicts the impact of AIDS on the gay community. If you haven’t seen it—or haven’t seen it in a while—give Parting Glances another look.

The Living End (1992)

Gregg Araki’s breakout feature depicted two HIV+ guys—Jon (Craig Gilmore) and Luke (Mike Dytri)—who hit the road and embark on a crime spree in a giant Fuck You to the world. Buoyed by an exciting, anarchic spirit and unapologetic ACT-UP style attitude, Araki’s infectious film is a queer classic. Whether Jon is forced to have sex at gunpoint, or Luke instructs his partner, “When I start to come, choke me….” the guys’ intimacy is as palpable as their anger. Araki also notably depicted a man with AIDS in his astonishing 2005 film, Mysterious Skin.

Longtime Companion (1989)

Showcasing one of the most moving scenes in AIDS film history—Bruce Davison, in an Oscar-nominated performance, helps his dying lover “let go”—Longtime Companion is an impassioned portrait of a group of New York friends dealing with their numbers dwindling from the AIDS epidemic. Boasting a terrific cast that includes Campbell Scott, Dermot Mulroney, Mary Louise-Parker, and Michael Schoeffling, Longtime Companion is both witty and moving. Just try not to cry watching this film. 

A Home at the End of the World (2004)

Yes, novelist Michael Cunningham’s The Hours is the better known (and arguably better) film, but this modest indieabout the love/friendship between two men (Colin Farrell and Dallas Roberts) and a woman they both love (Robin Wright)—features a touching storyline about a character who has AIDS. A Home at the End of the World may feel a little dated now, but it still packs an emotional wallop.

A Year without Love (2005)

This exquisitely filmed Argentine import—based on the published diaries of Pablo Pérez—is an absolutely riveting drama that humanizes an HIV-positive young man (Juan Minujín). The adorable Minujín is fearless in his role, which involves some kinky S&M sex scenes. Credit is also due to filmmaker Anahi Berneri, who films the fucking as artfully as she does an AIDS cocktail pill dissolving in a glass of water. This is a fantastic, penetrating piece of cinema, and while perhaps difficult for some to watch, extremely rewarding nonetheless.

Tumbledown (2012)

It’s almost a spoiler to reveal the HIV storyline in Todd Verow’s Tumbledown. . However this intriguing, intricate and sexually explicit story—about a love triangle gone wrong—is a shocking and important entry in the AIDS film cannon. The insidious topic and interesting treatment of date rape is explored here much for thoroughly than in films like Urbania.

Dallas Buyers Club (2013) A surprisingly funny and touching drama about Ron Woodroof, (Matthew McConaughey, in a remarkable, Oscar-worthy performance), an HIV+ man who finds a way to beat the system by subverting the medical profession and pharmaceutical companies to treat his disease. The film succeeds in showing how the personal became the political for Woodroof, a man who helped the queer community only after he realized that like them, he too needed support he could not get from doctors and big pharma.

Blue (1993) The late, great gay filmmaker Derek Jarman’s final theatrical release was this experimental documentary of his life with HIV. Jarman uses a single composition of a blue screen as the image while in voice-over, he describes his thoughts about life and death. The staccato image is a symbol of his sightlessness—AIDS had destroyed his retinas. While it sounds rigorous—and some of it is—Jarman’s poetic narrative is filled with beautiful imagery. A very powerful self-portrait, Blue is fascinating, and an appropriate, elegiac last film.

Last Address (2010)

Ira Sachs’ remarkable short Last Address, is available on youtube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YKKeWsMyDXQ. This 8 1/2-minute film is a silent meditation of residences where those who died of AIDS lived in New York City. It is poignant and very moving.  Check it out today.

Philadelphia (1993)

This landmark film for Hollywood—the first studio film to address the AIDS crisis—features Tom Hanks, in an Oscar-winning performance as a man dying of AIDS seeking justice, with Denzel Washington as his lawyer.Gary M. Kramer

Greg Kabel

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