Outfest, L.A.'s gay and lesbian film festival, ended Sunday, reminding us that films about the LGBT experience serve an important role in the community, from teaching teenage boys and girls that it's all right to kiss other boys and girls, respectively, to connecting social activists with images supporting their issues of choice. Despite the occasional non-heterosexual character produced by Hollywood studios, these films tend to remain within the domain of “independent film,” a genre rife with multitudes of low-budget projects of varying degrees of quality.
So how do uninitiated viewers choose which LGBT films are worth the time? Ask someone who has watched lots, and lots, of movies.
We turned to the experts: directors and programmers of film festivals around the world, the unsung heroes of the industry who watch countless hours of films. Twenty-three film festival directors and programmers — including John Cooper, director of Sundance Film Festival, and Jim Carl, who has programmed the North Carolina Gay and Lesbian Film Festival for the past 15 years — agreed to participate in our survey, and they received no instructions other than to list their favorite “must-see” films.
This wasn't a competition to discover the most artistically significant or socially relevant works of cinema; the goal was just to recognize the movies that are good. Creating an LGBT-themed film inherently pushes a progressive agenda, but that doesn't matter if people won't watch it.
The process illuminated a collection of films integral to the LGBT experience that cover a comprehensive range of issues, from love and sex to homophobia and AIDS — films that educate as well as entertain.
Below are the top 12 films from the survey, in no particular order. Now that Outfest is over, it's time to fire up the Blu-ray player.
1. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)
Three drag queens jump on a bus and drive across the Australian Outback, on their way to perform in a casino. Cue the hijinks! Bring on the costumes! On the surface, Priscilla is a comedy featuring men in dresses lip-syncing disco songs, but beyond the sequins and wigs is a touching story about growing up, growing old and, most importantly, friendship and family. This was one of the first major films to portray a transgendered woman, Bernadette Bassinger (played by Terrence Stamp), as a legitimate character; it also broke ground by giving wacky drag queens Mitzi Del Bra (Hugo Weaving) and Felicia Jollygoodfellow (Guy Pearce) the intellectual depth and full emotional range of any other person on screen.
2. Longtime Companion (1989)
Longtime Companion was the first major film to honestly portray the AIDS crisis in the United States, a subject that for years was taboo in the media. At the time, AIDS was known as “gay cancer,” and the term “longtime companion” was used in newspaper obituaries when awkwardly referring to the partners of men who died from the disease. The ensemble cast — including Mary-Louise Parker, Campbell Scott and a young and adorable Dermot Mulroney — created characters that were sympathetic and interesting, never falling into the traps of asking for pity. “Longtime Companion was not only one of the first mainstream films to deal with AIDS,” says Jim Farmer, director of Atlanta's Out on Film, “but it was one of the first mainstream films to portray gay men with such sensitivity and dignity.”
3. Paris Is Burning (1990)
Outrageous gowns and flawless beauty could earn you a spot on the dance floor, but it was your attitude that made you a star. Paris Is Burning documented the “underground” world of New York drag balls in the 1980s, a tight-knit gay subculture that was mainly the realm of African-Americans and Latinos. The balls were part escapism from impoverished life, part raucous party, and they became extended families for the contestants who strutted down imaginary fashion runways, reveling in their own glamour. This engrossing documentary captures the spirit of the balls as well as the energy of the performers who compete in them.
4. Desert Hearts (1985)
Sometimes a good love story is all it takes to make a great film. Set in 1959, Desert Hearts begins with Vivian (Helen Shaver), a well-spoken and uptight English professor at Columbia University, going to Nevada so she can file for divorce from her husband, which was a necessary routine at the time. There in the desert she meets Cay (Patricia Charbonneau), a free-spirited beauty who immediately falls for Vivian. The story is kept simple, perhaps because falling in love is already complicated enough, while the sexual tension between Vivian and Cay builds to a palpable high. This is a thoughtful, beautiful film that depicts lesbian relationships with elegant sophistication, as well as a heavy dose of passion.
5. Milk (2008)
Harvey Milk was the first openly gay politician to be elected to office in the United States when he won a seat on San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, but he hadn't held office for long before he was assassinated, along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone (their killer, fellow Supe Dan White, was convicted only of manslaughter instead of murder, having claimed “insanity due to depression”). It was a terrible ending to an inspiring person who fought against blatant anti-gay bigotry and homophobia. The biopic Milk, starring Sean Penn in a performance that won him the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, delivers a historical account of Milk's rise to office and subsequent murder, as well as his personal life, the friends who motivated him and the other people who helped give a voice to the LGBT community. The importance of Milk is twofold: It teaches the community about a pivotal point in its history, establishing roots and depicting the struggles experienced by past generations, and it presents these lessons in a touching, clever story that is just a very good movie.
6. Mysterious Skin (2004)
Perhaps the creepiest film on this list, Mysterious Skin is not for the faint of heart. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Neil, a sexually compulsive teenager who uses prostitution for emotional fulfillment as well as survival. Brady Corbet plays Brian, a socially inept nerd plagued by a nagging nosebleed problem and an obsession with alien abduction. The two boys lead separate lives through most of the film but are connected by flashback scenes from when they played on the same youth baseball team — and had a coach who did very, very bad things. Erotic yet grotesque, Mysterious Skin pushes the boundaries of LGBT film by daring to tell a shocking story that leaves audiences simultaneously exhilarated and disturbed.
7. Beautiful Thing (1996)
Set in suburban London, the premise of Beautiful Thing is typical: Boy thinks he might be gay, boy falls in love with boy next door, boy's mother finds out, all hell breaks loose. But this film is actually much more than just a typical “coming out” tale, as it also touches on issues of bullying, child abuse and the plight of parents who may not always make the right choices but nonetheless try their best. At once charming, funny and sad, if you don't feel warm and fuzzy when the end credits roll, perhaps you should go to Oz and see the Wizard because you probably need a new heart.
8. High Art (1998)
“I have a love issue, and a drug problem … or maybe I have a love problem, and a drug issue, I don't know…” is the catchphrase from this lesbian melodrama, starring Ally Sheedy and Radha Mitchell as women whose lives seem to be polar opposites. Lucy (Sheedy) is a dark-spirited, tortured artist who uses her drug addiction as an excuse from allowing herself to be happy, while Syd (Mitchell) lives the life of a conventional well-to-do yuppie who is as upwardly mobile as she is vanilla. But when they meet, it seems it is Lucy who knows what she wants — namely Syd, who faces excruciating choices about what she really wants out of life. More than a typical movie about sex and drugs — and there is plenty of both — High Art is a master class in acting, with the cast delivering rich, gritty performances that take the audience on a nerve-wracking ride as Lucy teaches Syd a thing or two about love, happiness and relationships.
9. The Wedding Banquet (1993)
Wai-Tung Gao, a Taiwanese man in New York, agrees to marry Wei-Wei, a Chinese artist in need of a green card, to make his parents happy. There's just one problem: Wai-Tung is already in a relationship with another man, Simon, a small detail they need to hide when Wai-Tung's parents arrive and plan the wedding of a lifetime. Director Ang Lee (see Brokeback Mountain) crafted this lively rom-com with a dry sense of humor and just a touch of political incorrectness to make things interesting, and what results is an engrossing, charming and funny film. “When you need to have 'the talk,'” says Kristian Salians of QFest Houston, “The Wedding Banquet is the film to give Mom and Dad. Behind its demure exterior is an unforgettable ending that opens up almost any family to the joy of having a queer child.”
10. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
Spawned from the cult-hit Off-Broadway musical of the same name, Hedwig and the Angry Inch stars John Cameron Mitchell as the title character, who escaped communist East Berlin by marrying a male American soldier — after having male-to-female gender-reassignment surgery. When the surgery goes terribly awry, the soldier abandons Hedwig; she eventually finds herself alone in the U.S. tormented by her failing career as a glam-rock musician, as well as the “one-inch mound of flesh” that remains between her legs. Composer/lyricist Steven Trask received a Grammy nomination for the score, and Mitchell's turbulent, funny and totally unapologetic performance earned him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor.
11. Bound (1996)
At its core, Bound is a Mafia movie: Violet (played by Jennifer Tilly) devises a plan to double-cross her money-laundering boyfriend, Caesar (Joe Pantoliano), so she can steal $2 million and run away with Corky, the sexy plumber who works on her pipes. In this story, however, the plumber is played by Gina Gershon — remarkable not only because of the delicious on-screen chemistry between Gershon and Tilly but also because the film never asks for the audience's approval of its featured lesbian relationship. On the contrary, their love affair is just one part of the shocking twists and turns that layer the entire story. This was the first film written and directed by the Wachowskis, the sibling duo who later created mega-blockbusters such as The Matrix trilogy, and the film is evidence of their knack for crafting an absolutely thrilling ride filled with sex and violence. “Bound unleashed a non-punch-pulling, girl-power energy that was just plain sexy,” said John Cooper, director of the Sundance Film Festival. “I showed it when I was [director of programming] at Outfest, and even though many thought the audience would be put off by the violent elements, instead they stood and cheered for the film. A memorable time in the theater that night.”
12. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
With a long list of film industry awards, as well as eight Academy Award nominations and three wins, Brokeback Mountain is perhaps the most celebrated film on this list. This story of two cowboys and their long, tragic love affair depicted gay male relationships with grace, passion and a sense of conflict that has rarely been seen on screen. Directed by Ang Lee and adapted from a short (but very powerful) story written by Annie Proulx, scenes between Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) unfold with a sexual tension that often borders on breathless. The inability of Ennis to express his feelings develops into a repressed rage that Ledger masterfully boils within him, as it burns across his face without him saying a word — up to the final scene, as he lovingly adjusts Jack's shirt sadly hanging on his closet door.
The survey involved input from the following 23 directors and programmers, both current and former, from film festivals around the world. Listed with their names are “honorable mentions” of additional films they nominated as some of their personal favorites.
Adam Baran, Outfest: L'Homme Blesse (1983)
Rachael Brister, Seattle GLFF: “Anything by Pedro Almodovar”
Kimberly Bush, Reel Affirmations (Washington, D.C.): Aimee and Jaguar (1999)
Jim Carl, North Carolina GLFF: Bedrooms and Hallways (1998)
Arturo Castelán, MixMéxico!: Boys in the Band (1970)
John Cooper, Sundance Film Festival: Gods and Monsters (1998)
Scott Cranin, Philadelphia QFest: Trick (1999)
Lisa Daniel, Melbourne (Australia) Queer Film Festival: Edie and Thea: A Very Long Engagement (2009)
Levi Elder, Damn These Heels (Salt Lake City): Swoon (1992)
Jim Farmer, Out on Film (Atlanta): Torch Song Trilogy (1988)
Scott Ferguson, Inside Out (Toronto): 20 Centimeters (2005)
Michael Gamilla, ImageOUT (Rochester): The Kids Are All Right (2010)
Jake Gonzales, Austin GLFF: To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995)
Manny de Guerre, Side by Side (St. Petersburg, Russia): Prick Up Your Ears (1987)
Jill Kornberg, Reel Q (Pittsburgh): Relax, It's Just Sex (1998)
Mitchell Leib, Reel Q (Pittsburgh): Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss (1998)
Henrik Meumann, Mix Copenhagen: Harvest (Stadt Land Fluss) (2011)
Jain Moralee, Queerscreen (Sydney, Australia): Cloudburst (2011)
KC Price, Frameline (San Francisco): Maurice (1987)
Kristian Salinas, QFest Houston: Querelle (1982)
Michael Stuetz, Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972)
Kareem Tabsch, Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival: Boys Don't Cry (1999)
Kim Yutani, Outfest (Los Angeles): I've Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987)
…and if I may add one more: Ma Vie en Rose (1997), a Belgian film about a little girl who was born a boy. Please see this film, it is genius.