7. Angels in America (Mike Nichols, 2003)
Yes, I know, this is not an actual film. This is a 6 part miniseries. Nevertheless, it has earned its place on this list due to its colossal undertaking on the topic of the AIDS epidemic back in 1985.. Still, its authentic lifeblood drifts from the elegiac telling of various relationships collapsing in cataclysm, due to its participants´ concealed guilt.
“Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody know” – expresses Al Pacino´s character at the end of Chapter 1. This is a scene of almost abdominal distress, where he is being diagnosed with the disease by his personal Doctor, who by the way, do not dares label him with such term. With Pacino´s monologue, the curtain for the theater of themes that will distort and disfigure the story at will, is left gut wrenchingly open.
A Mormon and his wife coming to peace with his sexual identity, a hypochondriac clerk declining to take care of his infected lover out of disgust, a racist lawyer being treated by a queer, black nurse; all of them members of this storytelling synergy, all of them ghosts living under the premise of Pacino´s theory, galloping in whiffs of loneliness and despair, desperately trying to recognize themselves through seizures of remorse, within a society that refuses to declare and conjure their existence.
This is a cinematic piece you truly appreciate only if such appreciation comes from a condition of instinct, and not from a position of reason.
Much as in The Graduate and Who´s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, with Mike Nichols ‘blocking and framing, you never feel that the screen is plastered by actors moving in rehearsed meditation, but by fleshed characters exasperating in heartrending flow.
By the power of inertia, the characters of this series displace away from each other in forgotten logic, migrating further and further away until their presence is a lonely dot, as if their bodies could not be able to stand the scratching of the other´s soul. This is the most dactylic dance of individuals, moving closer to the most eloquent of dooms.
8. Bent (Sean Mathias, 1997)
This is the story of a broken man, who finds himself in a state of recollecting and gluing together all the torn apart pieces of his own identity, when being held prisoner at the most shattered of places: at a concentration camp in Nazi occupied Germany.
Max is a rotten man, he says so himself. He has a rotten way of seizing opportunities, always taking profit of the people who cares for him. But do not blame him so fast, he is just embracing the concept society has bestowed upon his condition. In the eyes of the Third Reich, every living, homosexual man was a rotten thing.
In one of the best scenes of the film, Max, who has already begun to experience mix emotions of nostalgic attraction towards other prisoner at the concentration camp, is forced along with him, to stand formation under the burning sun, after hours of moving and piling up rocks in foolish routine. Both shirtless and toasted by the heat, they stand immobile, physically very close to each other but unable to touch. Their bodies resemble rusty, languid irons, and with the stickiness of their sweat, their pale skin almost glitters in phosphorescent beams.
In a conversation as elegant as it is raunchy, they begin to imagine and vociferate to each other through liquid whispers, how their first sexual encounter would be, if possible under other circumstances.
There is a shot of their hands almost daring to touch, longing for a desired connection, but blocked by an invisible force field. They seem electrified by the intensity of their muttered exchange, in such a way that, when they reach orgasm, their eyes rollover and their knees tremble like jam. They unravel themselves almost spiritually, almost leaving the physicality of their lacerated bodies to reach out for a celestial death.
This is a beautiful portrayal of virtuous love in the most harrowing of places. Notwithstanding, throughout the entire film, we want to reach out and connect with it as profoundly as the characters do with each other. Unfortunately for us, regardless of how good the foreplay is, we never accomplish that longed, overly awaited, cinematic frenzy we were desperately craving for, with Bent.
9. Law of Desire (Pedro Almodovar, 1987)
Just as Hitchcock was the master of suspense, Pedro Almodovar is the master of raw melodrama. His films are soap operas made especially for the outcasts, for the freaks of nature, and the exiled minds. To the unaccustomed masses of refined palate, his cinema is one of bestial fantasy, but for us, the misfits of society just like him, the stories he tells are fairy tales overcharged with honest realism.
Law of Desire is a hodgepodge of convoluted plot lines; they misguide us through a nostalgic labyrinth of sexual dissolutions, cubist portraits of farce and irony, and splashes of colorful, overly dramatic dialogues. The film is a charade in motion; it constantly sucks us in and out through various layers of understandings and misunderstandings.
Due to its theatrical performances and pantomime subplots, it could easily be considered a cinematic piece of ridicule; but it could never be treated like such, since the film is meant to be so bizarrely perfect, within all its erotic surrealism and intricate storytelling.
From the fluffiness of the hairstyles to the mannerisms a character must assemble through his persona, Pedro Almodovar is a kinky perfectionist. Just look at the placement of the male physiognomy within this film.
Take a look at the way Pablo and Juan embrace each other in bed; analyze the piercing black eyes of Antonio Banderas as he strolls around in his white underwear, developing a dangerous infatuation that soon will become murderous obsession. It is all controlled under this basis of perfection, under these parameters for vulgar poetry and morbid beauty.
Law of Desire is packed with all of Almodovar´s fetishes and narrative compulsions: Rape, incest, gay triangles, closeted homosexuals and concealed transsexuals.
It is well known that whenever he tries to liquefy all these elements inside the same visual blender, the result is not always brilliant but parsimonious. Nevertheless, if Almodovar is really good at something, is at his ability for casting light to those secret desires we refuse to acknowledge. He is the voice of lunacy, and he bestows sound and movement to the maddening side of the human condition we concisely pretend to reject.
Yes, his cinema is bestial and raw, but in contrariety to what others may express, it is never corrupt or unprincipled in regards to the levels of strangeness and weirdness it portrays.
10. Maurice (James Ivory, 1987)
Maurice is about the disarrays of first loves, but it is also about how love is never equal, how it is never the same eluding entity roughhewn by our deepest yearnings. It changes through its many faces and facets. Most importantly, the film is about how love changes us.
Maurice is constructed under a harmoniously, pensive pace, that oddly enough, organically accelerates the excruciating downfall of the characters. Remember, these are gay, English men living in pompous, beginning of the 20th Century Britain. They are doom to fall by the means of their condition.
The performances are sound and calm, always moving through gentle tempo. All the reactions, exaltations, and permutations are savagely automated; torn apart but solid, as if they were not allow to occur, as if the characters were pronounced dead if dared to demonstrate a hint of their hidden sentimentality. They all wear soft, conciliatory facades, not because fear overwhelms them in exposing their true self, but because it is through the art of concealment that they find a dash of honor within their unnatural code of behavior and survival.
There is a scene in the film where Maurice is told by his first love, Clive, that if they continue to pursue their affair, they will unequivocally be left floating on nothingness, utterly penniless, and as socially corrupt as morally destroyed.
To avoid such appalling fate, Clive says, they most each depart ways and try to find what they feel for each other, in the arms and breasts of a female companion. Clive even amuses to suggest that Maurice´s sister would make a suitable wife for him. When hearing these words, Maurice´s face fractures in heartbreaking disillusion.
You can actually see the muscles of his face aching, discomposing and collapsing in tragic disbelief, like an old construction pretending to hold the weight of the centuries, and now, finally succumbing to their intransigence.
Maurice launches himself against Clive. They argue, they yell, they kiss, and they bite each other´s lips as they crumble in bleeding agony-“What sort of ending is this?”, “What will become of me?”-Maurice babbles in despair.
This is what happens when the facade is lost from grasp, and claws, teeth, blood and fists is everything that remains.
11. Beyond The Walls (David Lambert, 2012)
Paulo is a pianist who looks as if his skin has been pulled over by an invisible vacuum cleaner inhabiting inside his nose. He is fragile in the same way chopsticks are flimsy and frangible. He moans and squeaks about everything; be it pain or pleasure, he always sounds the same, like a sad Chihuahua dog with an injured leg.
The sum of these physical and personal attributes makes it even more surprising and choking for us, when we discover at the beginning of the film, that he has a girlfriend who already suspects his sexual preferences. I mean, how dull and dumb can she actually be, not to realize such conjecture after being together for quite a while? But I guess that the awful truth this film sturdily expresses is: When love strikes us hard, it blinds us with absolutely no remorse.
Paulo meets Ilir, an Albanian bartender and musician with the face of a rough, half-demolished sculpture, and the idiosyncrasy of a true artist who from time to time, enjoys expanding his mind with the recreation of drugs and the games of excess. Despite coming from a factor of inevitability and not from a component of decision making, after just 3 dates, they undertake something most couples postpone with defying eloquence for years: moving in together.
In one of the best sequences of the film, they buy a sadistic sex toy. It is a metal lock, very much like a chastity belt, where one of them has to encage his penis inside it. The only way to open it is with the sole key that the other partner must possess at all times.
Ilir is going away for two days for a music gig, he asks Paulo to wear the flagellating mechanism while he is gone, as an irrevocable proof that they belong to each other and to no one else. Paulo accepts, and Ilir takes the key with him. Ilir never comes back, since he is imprisoned for smuggling drug through the border during his trip.
I once heard a metaphor that I think this movie reflects superbly: “Life is like a bookshelf you dedicate all your time into arranging and choosing the books you want to billow it with. When you finally think you are done organizing it, someone unexpected steps into your life with such bullheadedness, that he sends you flying against the bookshelf, crashing and destroying the whole alignment.
After you recover from the fall, and you commit on restoring the collection all over again, you realize after all this time, how many shitty selections there were on your shelf, even before the slump.
12. Eyes Wide Open (Haim Tabakman, 2009)
When watching this film, I was reminded of Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”. In the first few chapters of the book, Tereza confesses to her husband, Tomas, about a series of nightmares she´s been having in regards to his infidelities and affairs with other women.
In one of those dreams, she is unwillingly enforced to watch him have sex with another woman in the middle of a dark room; without her being able to move or blink. The pain she feels internally, an affliction that arises from her soul, is unbearable, so she decides to stick small needles under her fingernails, and close her hand in the form of a fist. That way, the physical pain would suppress the one emanating from her soul.
I want to avoid getting into specific details about this film. Why? Because watching it without really having any notion about what you are visually adventuring into, is like performing a brain surgery, without really knowing what the hell you are supposed to do. It is a quiet exploration of the human psyche, and a silent observation of how broken and mangled the human spirit can be, if focus on the personal task of destroying it with no consequence. The story is a ride of patient assimilation and introspection, it is about poetic distress.
Two devoted Jew men, living in one of the most orthodox neighborhoods of Israel, initiate a blatant romance that will dare punctuate the rigidness of their cloistered environments, and sacrifice the looseness of their private felicities.
In the scene where they kiss for the first time, before letting their emotions outburst in disregarded eroticism, they circle around each other the same way warriors perform a defiant ritual: concentrated but totally high-strung. They get closer to each other, and then they separate again. Thinking about it, more than warriors they look like two lost kids who have been abandoned in the cold; and now, they are unable to decide if they should hug each other in order to survive.
Like Milan Kundera´s novel, this film is also about the soul´s contradictions, the spirit´s weight and lightness. It is about how much of the weigh crunching our soul are we willing to give up to make our existence a little bit more bearable.
It is about how much emotional weight should we install on those things that from the beginning of our lives, we are told we must let go for our own good, but later on we realize those are the things for which we are willing to endure the most excruciating of pains. Even needles under our fingernails.
13. My Own Private Idaho (Gus van Sant)
This film is a dreamy experience. But dreams are not always a good thing. They can be treacherous and fuzzy, above all, elusive. A life of constant dreaming is a life made out of chunks, of fragment episodes. Nothing is meaningful since everything is substantially reduced to slices of circumstantial existentially.
My Own Private Idaho is the story of a narcoleptic hustler, whose life, and all the ephemeral events axing around it, are cut in halves due to the dream-like and tragic quality of his condition.
Mike tramps through life, delving into worlds of sleepy wonder where every time, it gets harder and harder for him to resuscitate from the ravages of slumber. He awakens surrounded by orbits of depravation, completely disposed from the tribulations of attachment. His only companion in this wretched crusade that leads nowhere is Scott.
Their bond is never romantic, despite the fact that Mike adores him in melancholic secrecy. Their relationship is a pact of drifters made out of solid communions; neither of them will be lonely throughout this journey, as long as they have each other. Or at least, until one of them decides to make a U turn in the opposite directions from which the other one is heading to. That is exactly what happens with Scott, when he falls in love with a girl, leaving Mike to his own luck.
Much like James Dean and Heath Ledger, River Phoenix was one of those tragic Hollywood stories marked by the sign of excess and demise. His overwhelming talent was a fluttering spark that lost grip from its light way too soon. His portrayal of Mike is a frozen paradox, an almost prophetic image announcing with such irrevocable dreaminess, the inevitable future that was waiting for him. His performance has a devastating sense of doom in all of its decorum.
Every time Mike blinks or grins, you can perceive a glimmer of hope struggling and pleading to be left untouched, against the heartbreaking premises of River´s secret sufferings. My Own Private Idaho was River´s last ode to the world, a melody of creamy vignettes acting out as a farewell letter.
Consciously or unconsciously about such sadness, Gus van Sant captured that feeling of lonesomeness with superb affinity; and so it was that with such painful departure to a dying, flickering star, a new kind of life and sunrise was breathed in, into the spectrum of gay cinema.