We cannot tell a lie: There are some seriously terrible films playing at the 30th annual Outfest, the gay and lesbian film festival that runs July 12-22. Such is the nature of a festival that encourages young, do-it-yourself filmmaking (and which has 12 days to fill).
Outfest veterans will forgive the turkeys, and so will we — eventually. In the meantime, here are some films that surprised and moved us and, better yet, renewed our faith in the possibilities of queer cinema.
How to Survive a Plague
"If you're the last person alive in Chelsea, please turn out the lights," requests an exhausted, HIV-positive man near the end of this magnificent documentary by journalist-turned-filmmaker David France. With footage culled from 700 hours of video, most of it shot by amateurs, France takes us deep within the terrifying first decade of the AIDS pandemic. Our witnesses are members of ACT UP, the activist movement formed by New York City's besieged gay community, which ultimately waged a staggeringly effective war on society, the scientific community and government alike. Heroes abound — some still living, too many long dead — in this electrifying, heart-wrenching tale. —Chuck Wilson
I Am a Woman Now
In this subtle, affecting documentary, director Michiel van Erp tracks down five European women of varying backgrounds whose commonality is that each was born a man, and each received sex-change surgery from the same French doctor. These "hormone sisters" underwent their transformations in the 1950s and '60s, when acknowledging gender confusion, much less acting on it, took unprecedented courage. Today, the women are in their 70s and content in the choice they made half a century ago, although one acknowledges that she "never thought of being an old lady. That wasn't part of the fantasy." —C.W.
The phrase "ahead of his time" is so overused as to be meaningless, but nothing else describes Jobriath, the first openly gay (not coyly bisexual) rock & roll singer. Armed with musical gifts that spanned genres and a persona that rivaled Bowie's, and backed by one of the most massive PR campaigns in music industry history, Jobriath was poised to smash barriers of industry and societal homophobia in the early '70s. Unfortunately, he and his powerhouse manager underestimated how deeply entrenched anti-gay bigotry was. Director Kieran Turner has crafted a loving, impeccably researched film that employs animation, witty commentators, glorious, rare archival footage and lots of Jobriath's own music to make the case that a true genius fell through the cracks. —Ernest Hardy
Keep the Lights on
"You smell like you," Paul (Zachary Booth) says to his lover, Eric (Thure Lindhardt), when they lie together for the first time in a long while. It's this degree of intimacy that draws Eric, a Danish-born documentarian living in Manhattan, to Paul, a publishing exec whose life is slowly ravaged by his drug habit. Filmmaker Ira Sachs tracks Eric and Paul over the course of a decade, with time proving that Eric is as addicted to Paul as Paul is to his drugs. In the end, this somber but wonderfully adult film suggests that love may be the harder high to kick. —C.W.
There's a lot that is superficially familiar about the Swedish film Kiss Me, in which Frida (Liv Mjönes), a sexy, blond firebrand, disrupts the planned nuptials of Mia (Ruth Vega Fernandez), a slightly uptight brunette. Making matters worse, the two are also about to become stepsisters, as their respective parents are engaged. Exploding all the clichés is a smart, psychologically astute script, an excellent cast and assured pacing that lets the romance develop believably — warts, barriers, triumphs and all. Writer-director Alexandra Therese Keining doesn't reinvent the wheel, but she does create a solidly entertaining drama that pulls you in and holds you from first frame to last. —E.H.
Mommy Is Coming
This new film by director Cheryl Dunye (The Watermelon Woman) is only an hour long, but it probably contains more explicit sex than all other Outfest movies combined. Set in Berlin, where sex without handcuffs and dildos is clearly frowned upon, the film tracks the carnal adventures of two young women (Lil Harlow and Papi Coxx) whose relationship has reached an emotional stalemate. Dunye, who portrays a cabbie who sees all, manages in 64 minutes to address questions of gender identity, the limits of transgression and the relevance of "love" with visual flair and a gleefully dirty mind. —C.W.
At one point in the excellent documentary Vito, the iconic queer-rights activist and visionary film critic Vito Russo, who pioneered serious study of queer imagery in Hollywood film, states that he absolutely lived the life he wanted to live. Director Jeffrey Schwarz pulls together staggering archival footage (from protest marches to clips of Russo's public-access TV show to bits of Bette Midler performing at the Continental Baths) and moving interviews with friends, family and colleagues to powerfully illustrate how Russo's personal story is one of the archetypal queer American stories. Hugely moving and even more inspiring, Vito is a sublime choice for the festival's opening-night film. —E.H.
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An underground pansexual club held in the Silver Platter, a gay Latino bar located near MacArthur Park, Wildness made trans women its heart and soul. In this smart, insightful documentary on the rise and fall of both the weekly club and the bar that hosted it, director Wu Tsang (who wrote the voice-over script with Roya Rastegar) tackles issues from homo- to transphobia to immigration to the soft brand of gentrification that queer artists might bring to disenfranchised areas where they land. It's heady, layered, politically charged stuff that Tsang makes both accessible and deeply human. —E.H.
Young & Wild
After being expelled from her religious school for "fornication," 17-year-old Daniela (Alicia Rodriguez) is sent to work at a local TV station run by evangelicals. What kind of trouble could she get into at a station filled with celibates? In a virtuoso debut, Chilean director Marialy Rivas mixes animation (a flaming vagina, a dick-blessing Jesus), on-screen text (reader postings from Daniela's blog) and voice-over to illustrate the inner workings of Daniela's mind. Based on a true story, Young & Wild lives up to its title while asking tough questions about lust and faith and how to survive when you feel both in your heart at once. —C.W.