There are two reasons Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom is so notable in the gay film canon. The first reason is the obvious one: the Logo channel-produced show jumped to the big screen after several successful seasons to continue the story of four friends who stick together through the good boyfriends and the bad. The fact that they’re gay black men only makes it more groundbreaking. The second reason is that while the comparison to Sex and the City is inevitable, Noah’s Arc creator and screenwriter Patrik-Ian Polk does something that his SATC counterpart, Darren Star, could not — make a decent movie. Where SATC stumbled in transforming from a half-hour show to a film, Noah’s Arc ably managed the transition, creating a stand-alone story for newbies and veterans alike. Addressing issues specific to the black gay community as well as the gay community at large, Polk’s film deserves recognition for its quality, achievement, and pure entertainment value. Sometimes it’s a soap opera, and sometimes it stands on a soapbox, but it’s consistently enjoyable.
”There is a right to privacy but not a right to hypocrisy,” says Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) in Kirby Dick’s absorbing documentary. The line that could serve as a subtitle for the movie and for those like the District’s Michael Rogers whose activist-journalism is depicted the film. Running through the history of outing to and including the as-yet unanswered questions about former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R), the film includes interviews with out politicians like Frank and D.C. Councilmember David Catania (I-At Large) and politicos like former Human Rights Campaign Executive Director Elizabeth Birch and writer Andrew Sullivan. Passed over by GLAAD for any of its awards, the film did catch the attention the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which gave it a 2010 Emmy nomination for Outstanding Investigative Journalism — Long Form.
Antonia Bird’s 1994 drama was one of the first to fully explore the struggles of priests with gay proclivities. In addition to its lead narrative about an outed British Catholic priest and his crisis of faith, the film explored other controversial theological issues facing the church from a liberal perspective. Naturally, this led church officials to protest the film and even call for a boycott of Disney, parent company of the film’s distributor Miramax. Though some critics and viewers found Priest to be heavy-handed and preachy, the movie is especially appealing and compelling for provoking thought about hot-button topics, such as whether homosexuality and Catholicism have to be mutually exclusive practices, and whether priesthood celibacy is appropriate in the modern era — foreshadowing a real-life discussion on the topic when the Catholic sex-abuse scandals hit nearly a decade later. The film also offered affirming representations of gay people at a time when mainstream pop culture was just beginning to look beyond a narrow focus on gay stereotypes and the AIDS crisis. The sex scenes between lead actor Linus Roache and Robert Carlyle may be tame — and watered down for the U.S. version, with at least one nude shower scene excised — but the fact that expressions of gay love were presented at all, in a realistic, non-exploitative way, was ahead of its time.
Jonathan Caouette was a filmmaker long before he even realized he was a filmmaker — shooting himself as a pre-teen performing overwrought, “semi-drag” routines, capturing on Super 8 and video everyone around him, documenting his daily routine. Eventually he put the pieces together — combining them with an unflinching quest to connect with and perhaps save his mother, Renee — and Tarnation was born. In the world of cinema, Tarnation is a singularity — the spontaneous result of an unharnessed creative spirit. The movie is a thunderously emotional, avant-garde head trip depicting not only Caouette’s evolution into a fully formed gay man, but the harrowing mental deterioration of his mother, subjected to years of shock treatment as a girl. It’s a testament to the days of art-house filmmaking, informed as much by Jean-Luc Godard as it is by master documentarian Frederick Wiseman. Caouette hasn’t been heard from since Tarnation‘s release, yet a quick trip to IMDB reveals that a sequel may be in the offing this year. We can only hope the gifted Caouette can still hit the high note he did with his astonishing debut.
At its best, Thai culture is playful and sweet. On both fronts, The Iron Ladies delivers as a sort of The Bad News Bears meets The Adventures of Priscilla mash-up. It also goes a bit further, though, in that this story of a volleyball team manned mostly by gays, transsexuals and transvestites, who win a national championship is based on the true story of the 1996 national Thai amateur volleyball champs. With loads of mirth, this Siamese celebration tells that story in ways that are silly, sentimental and worth cheering for. Notably, the movie earned a level of success worthy of the team it portrays, taking the Audience Award for Best Feature at both the 2001 San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival and New York Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.
Lisa Cholodenko’s Oscar-nominated film about lesbian moms and their kids both delighted and angered the gay community. Cholodenko, who co-wrote the script with Stuart Blumberg, has been praised for portraying a same-sex household in a natural, unassuming manner. The film tackles weighty issues with humor and levity, allowing for the more serious moments to stand out without being depressing. Yet, the project has also been vilified for plot points that veer wildly off course and ultimately negate the reasons it deserves praise in the first place. What isn’t up for debate is the quality of the performances given by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore. Both have scene-stealing moments that define the film, and make suffering through the wonky storyline worthwhile. While the film might not have been nominated for Best Picture if there weren’t currently 10 films filling the category, Bening is well-deserving of her Best Actress nod. Most importantly, the film deserves to be lauded for being recognized as a film about lesbians rather than a lesbian film.
Like And the Band Played On just two years before it, The Celluloid Closet took a work of written history and translated it to the screen — in this case, very appropriately, given that Vito Russo’s work chronicled both Hollywood’s portrayals of homosexuals onscreen and the closeted lives of the homosexuals who made the movies both in front of and behind the camera. Of course, the movie poster for the documentary says a lot about Hollywood — Harvey Fierstein and Lily Tomlin are billed below such straight (but supportive) luminaries as Susan Sarandon, Tom Hanks and Whoopi Goldberg. Still, The Celluloid Closet ranks as one of the few films that should be required viewing not only for anyone who cares about LGBT issues, but for anyone who cares about how our entertainment culture subtly — and sometimes overtly — shapes our opinions of those we consider ”others.”
Right out of the gate, The Rocky Horror Picture Show bends gender: The lush, red screen-sized lips mouthing the words to Science Fiction Double Feature are clearly those of a woman, but the voice is almost certainly… male? (It is, though one could argue Richard O’Brien’s singing voice is devoid of gender entrapments.) From there things just get more gendery-bendery in the screen adaptation of O’Brien’s insane — and insanely great — stage musical. It’s shocking schlock on a stick, and none of it makes much sense — you just kind of have to go with the narrative’s goofy flow. By the time we get to the climactic “floor show,” sanity has pretty much run screaming from the building. Tim Curry commands his every moment onscreen as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, serving up a magnificent, high-octane camp performance. He’s (almost) matched by starchy Barry Bostwick and saucer-eyed Susan Sarandon as the crisp-and-clean couple Brad and Janet who unearth their buried-libidos under Frank-N-Furter’s erotic tutelage. And then there’s blond bombshell Peter Hinwood, scorching the screen in little more than a gold lamé speedo and Mercury boots. Hinwood — who left acting after Rocky to become an antique dealer — is the kind of studpuppy who would make even the most deeply closeted gay man stand up and shriek, “Toucha, toucha, toucha me! I wanna be dirty!”
At the start of the ’80s, Blake Edwards honed in on the conceit of the classic cross-dressing comedy, Some Like It Hot — two men pretending to be women — and took it up a notch for Victor/Victoria. A notch? Being Blake Edwards, he actually went all the way to 11 in the story of a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman in order to be a star on the decadent stages of pre-war Paris. In retrospect, the comedy feels retrograde, but for its time it broke ground in putting forth a sympathetic gay main character (Robert Preston, in an Academy Award nominated role), and slyly undermining the chiseled masculinity of James Garner, who falls for Julie Andrews’ cross-cross-dresser. The art deco design of the performances still sparkle (and likely inspired some of Baz Luhrmann’s more lurid concoctions). The slapstick and farce is occasionally too broad, but they are often inspired, notably in the finale drag performance by Preston that brings down the house, both onscreen and in your living room. Of the late Edwards’s many excursions into the comedy of gender and orientation, Victor/Victoria sits gleefully at the top.
As the United States spent years arguing and battling over ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” we were often reminded how so many of our allies, such as Israel, had already allowed open service by gays and lesbians without ill effects. True, as far as it goes, but that doesn’t mean that each of those armies was a utopia for gay soldiers. Yossi & Jagger is a love story set in the Israeli army between a commanding officer, Yossi (Ohad Knoller), and his second-in-command, Jagger (Yehuda Levi). This is not director Eytan Fox’s deepest or best film — that would be, so far, the brilliant Walk on Water — but it is an important and stirring exploration of love in the military. It may not track well to the American military experience — Israel is a nation of compulsory military service for all, which changes the tenor of service — but it is a sweetly disarming tale that earns its right to tug at your heartstrings.
It’s fitting that this list starts with And the Band Played On and ends with Zero Patience, because while the two films share the AIDS epidemic as a subject, they couldn’t be further apart than A and Z. Where Band is didactic, Zero Patience is unabashedly polemic. Director John Greyson rehabilitates the story of Gaëtan Dugas — the flight attendant and alleged ”Patient Zero” who some claimed initially spread HIV to Canada and the U.S. — as an AIDS musical that tries to demolish the myths and hysteria about the disease. Many films claim be radical, few actually are. Zero Patience is one of those few. Also worth catching is Greyson’s equally radical approach in Lilies, a tragic love story in a 1952 prison, where the inmates present a play about three students – and their loves and denials – from 40 years earlier (all the roles are played by men). As the bishop forced to watch the play witnesses, there is power in everlasting love and the consequences of long-forgotten actions. It’s stunning, lyrical masterwork.
What are some of your favorite gay films? Please comment below to let us know for future lists.