BEST OF 2009: Gay Films on DVD
by James Van Maanen
2009 was a decent year for finding good gay-themed films on DVD. While Milk might seem a shoo-in for the list, I would suggest instead renting the original documentary about Harvey Milk, which is superior to the Van Sant film in almost every way (except budget). My choices this year include one very fine lesbian movie; I wish there were more in this vein to recommend. Some of these are more subtle than others in the manner in which they address their gay themes, but each is worth seeing and thinking about. I’ve chosen my top 12, not on the basis of whether the main characters are gay, or whether the film in question is a "gay movie." Instead, I’ve tried to choose films in which gay characters and themes are used more richly and inventively. God knows there were a number of other movies not included here that gave center stage to gays (Were the World Mine, et al.), but that didn't necessarily make their quality of a higher order. In past years, I've included the first two films from the Eating Out franchise; the latest addition, however, while not bad, just didn’t quite make the cut. (Each subsequent film in this three-part series has grown slightly less acerbic and more cutesy.)
Here, in alphabetical order, are my dozen choices:
Actor-turned-director Chad Lowe's quiet, acutely observed family drama is so specific that it builds into a grand picture of a time (the 1970s), place (suburban Ohio) and people (an unusual family trying, against all odds, to be "functional.") The cast is a mix of well-knowns—William Hurt, Rita Wilson, Michelle Trachtenberg—and little-knowns (David Call, Brett Davern), who all play so well together that each moment rings true. Beautiful Ohio is not for all tastes or those with short-attention spans, but as a familial drama drawn with enormous subtlety, it doesn't get much better than this.
Political scandal, coming of age and sexuality all mix in this remarkable debut from another actor-turned-filmmaker, Luke Eberl, who was only 20 at the time. Whip-smart about people and politics, the movie is cast well, too: Steven Weber is terrific as a Congressman who takes a bright high-schooler under his wing, exuding the right mix of charm, occasional honesty and steel innards. As his teen acolyte, Alex D. Linz makes a perfect foil; you can believe his every word, idea and stance. The pivotal character who bridges Weber's world to that of Linz is played by Escher Holloway, who possesses the kind of quiet charisma that should have us seeing much more of him in future.
Chris & Don: A Love Story
Guido Santi and Tina Mascara's documentary tells the story of the very long-term relationship between writer Christopher Isherwood and painter Don Bachardy—venerable icons of gay life from a time when most were closeted, holding the door tightly shut from the inside for dear life. Full of terrific interviews and film footage from an era long gone, this inspiring and surprising doc is also, finally, extremely moving.
An iconic fragment of the French gay '70s that has not been seen since its 1976 debut, this a kind of doc in which writer/director Philippe Vallois and his film both search for a replacement for his lover and supposed star—who is in prison for multiple petty larcenies, and thus, unable to either film or fuck. In fact, the movie comes close to being a near (and quite early) example of a mockumentary. It's full of knowing ironies; deliberately provocative (in its own day, but even now) with its views of handsome young men, often full-frontal and sometimes engorged; exhibiting sly humor combined with vexing self-satisfaction and self-pity. As was the wont of filmmakers in this era, the footage alternates between color and black-and-white. Trust me, all of it is fun.
Gorgeous black-and-white cinematography of Latin American panoramas and a couple of hunky guys are the main reasons to view Santiago Otheguy's La León, an interesting if slow-moving character study of a good-looking middle aged fellow in a tiny port town whose gayness seems to ruffle the feathers of only one particular tugboat captain. Problems inevitably ensue, but the odd and oddly appealing life our "hero" leads almost makes up for the movie’s sleepy pacing. And, oh, that cinematography!
The New Twenty
Chris Mason Johnson’s stylish but deeply-felt tale of college chums reuniting 10 years later is a killer ensemble piece, beautifully acted and full of smart writing that bares character while keeping the plot unfurling nicely. So well do we grow to know these half-dozen people that, by the film’s end, we don't really want it to. One of the unusual strengths of the movie is that it shows a group of friends in which gay and straight characters easily intermingle yet still have their issues.
Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist
Sure, it's the subsidiary characters here who are gay, but they're such a delight and drawn so interestingly that it’s no wonder the film won a GLAAD award. Not that Nick and Norah themselves aren't a lot of fun: who can resist the easy charisma of Michael Cera and Kat Dennings? And Alexis Dziena is way-weird as the zonked best friend. The movie has plenty to offer, including its take on the New York and Brooklyn music scenes. Watching it is like getting an extra-special tour of the Big Apple and environs.
Ron Davis and Stewart Halpern-Fingerhut's documentary tracks a recent Miss Gay America competition, bringing us close to several of the leading contestants. We get to know them, sometimes their friends or significant others, and why they want so much to win. Most fascinating of all is the twosome made up of a contestant and his best friend (who isn't gay but still clearly loves his BFF, and will do anything for him).
This was also a GLAAD nominee for "Outstanding Wide Release Film"—surprise—for the unusual way in which it handled homosexuality among the British gangster set. Although it's not the main theme, it comes back and back again (in the form of supporting character Handsome Bob, played by Bronson's Tom Hardy), and used in a funny and shockingly non-judgmental manner. The movie itself is lots of fun, with smart turns from Gerard Butler, Thandie Newton and especially Tom Wilkinson, nearly unrecognizable in this role.
Movies that have tackled the question of Christian sexuality or "ex-gays" (men who have supposedly fought and succeeded in surmounting their homosexuality via their strong belief in Jesus)—Saved!, Fall From Grace, For the Bible Tells Me So—have found the Christian part of the equation wanting. What makes director Robert Cary's Save Me such a find—and a fine example of the religion-struggling-with-sexuality bind—is that, here, both sides are filled with caring, decent people trying to do the right thing. The combination of sharp writing and direction, coupled with excellent performances from Judith Light, Stephen Lang, Chad Allen, Robert Gant and Robert Baker, results in one of the best this year.
's broadside against the fundamentalism of the Orthodox Jewish community in Israel is full of life and growth for its protagonists, as well as some of its lesser characters. In a female seminary, the bond experienced by two girls results in some truly wonderful experiences, as well as disappointment and sorrow. By the end of this remarkable film, which features the magnificent Fanny Ardant in a supporting role, you’ll feel like you yourself have made an important journey.
Although officially released on DVD in 2008, Stealth is a film I didn't catch up with until this past year. But as it’s so good, I must include it as one of this year's bests. Lionel Baier, who directs and stars, gave us the unusual Garçon Stupide a few years back, and his latest is even better—lighter, funnier and more accomplished. A young man's discovery of his Polish ancestry leads him to question his gay identity and take a cross continent trip to his "source." Along the way, he's met with surprise and personal change, taking the viewer on (dissenters might say "for") some ride!
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