Note added on August 2, 2017: I just rewatched Angels in America, Mike Nichols’ 6-hour AIDS-era accounting of the spirit of American democracy. (How else should I describe it?) In light of that experience and in its afterglow, which I’m going to live with for several days, there is no film on my list or BFI’s that compares in any serious way to its ambition, humor, pathos, its sheer audacious lunacy, and well, the size of its balls. Yet does it appear on any critics’ list here? Perhaps because it was made for TV in episodes (so was Decalogue) although clearly a film? Or perhaps because it has America in the title? Or perhaps, as I mentioned in a tweet today, it’s because we were simply not ready in 2003 to recognize its brilliance, nor the fact that its timeliness did not keep it from continuing to feel prophetic in the years since. Revelatory still.
In the dialectical spirit of Liz Phair’s song-by-song response to the Stones’ Exile on Main Street, I present my alternatives to The BFI’s list, The 30 Best LGBT Films of All Time. Any list with such a pretentious and implicitly self-aggrandizing name deserves some kind of response, so I made an attempt, with some mischief.
I tried to avoid listing any films from my recent best-of list, but couldn’t always. I’ve highlighted in red the films that I like from the BFI’s. Like all my lists, I’ll add to this one as I think of, or discover more. There are few masterpieces in my alternative list, even less consensus; but there’s plenty of pleasure, and that’s the point.
To be clear, this is not my definitive attempt to list the best gay movies of all time, nor even to list my favorites of all time. It’s a response to the BFI’s seriously flawed one, suggesting that there are always more doors to open and paths to take.
Instead of Carol (2015), I nominate Go Fish.
It’s too soon to tell whether or not Todd Haynes’ film is any sort of masterpiece, but it is his most conservative to date, and represents a kind of capitulation to nostalgia. Whereas his Far From Heaven manipulated our expectations, and our memories of past film form, narrative, and style, and thus allowed space for reflection about how we live and think about living now, Carol seems to ask us to accept nostalgia as a way of making our wishes come true, and the contradictions and problems with that approach, both as filmmaking and in the character of Carol, are left on the table, unexamined. It’s elegant and modern, sure, and self-consciously so — much of the fascination of the film derives from Blanchett’s rich and mysterious performance within the almost-too-perfect mise-en-scène— but where that leaves us at the end of the film, I don’t know. I’ve only seen it once, so I might be wrong, but for now I say we hold off in calling it the greatest LGBT film of all time. Exclamation point.
Go Fish, on the other hand, while not a masterpiece in any kind of establishment-cinephile sense (you’re going to get sick of my saying that), it’s also an honest, intelligent, fun slice of Chicago lesbian life, full of the energy of new voices and the discovery of filmmaking to express those voices. As such, it’s in the tradition of dozens of important, influential, idiosyncratic, and personal black and white underground features ranging from Chan Is Missing to Mala Noche, which I also listed below. Go Fish, as a worthy representative of that tradition, deserves a place on a list like this.
Full disclosure: I worked on Go Fish, in a small way, knew everyone involved and was on-set for many of the shots. I’m also an extra in the café scene. But I’ve been in a handful of underground films, but Go Fish is the only one that made me cry with joy when congratulating the director after the premiere screening.
Along with Weekend (2011), I nominate Velociraptor, Chucho E. Quintero’s last-day-on-earth, comedic drama. The couple in Quintero’s film is a pair of best friends, one straight, one gay. The gay friend needs his anal-sex cherry popped before the world ends, and hopes his buddy can help him out. If that scenario sounds crass, it’s not. It’s tender.
Also check out these interesting films with male/male couples: Christopher Munch’s speculative The Hours and Times (1991); Ira Sachs’ Love Is Strange (2014), which features one of the most touching gay-movie couples ever, performed by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina; and also the counter-couple in Miguel Arteta’s sometimes brutal fantasy, Chuck and Buck.
Along with Happy Together (1997), I nominate The Long Day Closes, not because there are any thematic or stylistic parallels to make, but because the grace and lucidity of the latter make a nice contrast with the spontaneity and incoherence of the former.
Perhaps the most baffling and unconscionable omission from the BFI lists — it’s not even mentioned once — is this beautiful and heart-breaking, autobiographical, directed-daydream from one of our greatest living [English] directors, Terence Davies. (So, WTF, BFI?!) His film is the most complete and moving cinematic expression of what growing up in the closet feels like, something Wong Kar-Wai doesn’t know shit about, conveyed through images and sounds that express, contemplate, and confess: isolation, longing, loneliness and the awakening of an artistic temperament. But Kar-Wai’s film is about feeling and posing; Davies’s film is about feeling and thinking.
We also learn more about the interior life of a particular gay person in single shots in this film that just about any other on any of the lists — the slow tracking of sunlight across a floor, a working-class hunk observed from a window who acknowledges a boy’s gaze, the rapt pleasure of a boy on balcony watching a movie. Very few moments in the Long Day Closes can be described as gay ones, and it’s far from being only or mostly about growing up gay — it’s also about the indefinite striving toward a kind of sad, spiritual ecstasy, conveyed through erotic and masochistic fantasies; the love of movies; the suffering of a mother; and more. I’ll take all those moments over what I’m supposed to swallow from the fake lesbians in Mulholland Drive.
Along with Brokeback Mountain (2005), I nominate Cowboy Forever, a droll and touching first-person re-enactment of a gay gaucho’s crush on his padrinho; Song of the Loon, a sincere, melodramatic, men-in-the-woods erotic tale based on the eponymous novel; and Stewart Main’s Te Keremutunga o Nga Atua (Twilight of the Gods, 1996), about the violent and passionate encounter between a European soldier and a Maori warrior.
Along with Paris Is Burning (1990), I nominate Alain Berliner’s Ma Vie en Rose, which I must have watched 20 times.
Instead of Tropical Malady (2004), which I was cool to the first time I watched it, and still haven’t warmed up to, I nominate Chookiat Sakveerakul’s The Love of Siam, Ha Yoo’s Ssang-hwa-jeom (Frozen Flower, 2008), and Stanley Kwan’s Lan Yu (2001), all of which provide plenty of heat.
Along with My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), which I love, I nominate Michael Satzinger’s playful and sexy, old-school experimental video, Das Flüstern des Mondes (Whispering Moon, 2006).
Instead of All about My Mother (1999), I nominate Hong Khaou’s Lilting (2014).
Along with Un chant d’amour (1950), I nominate Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks and Scorpio Rising.
Along with My Own Private Idaho (1991), I nominate another Van Sant film, Mala Noche, and also James Bolton’s The Graffiti Artist.
Instead of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), I nominate…hell, I’m stumped here.
Along with Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013), I nominate Barbara Hammer‘s Dyketactics, History Lessons, and Nitrate Kisses, all of which provide a potent and indispensable context for and dialectical critique of the partially straight male gaze in Abdellatif Kechiche‘s film.
Along with Mädchen in Uniform (1931), I nominate The Children’s Hour. But I don’t consider either one of these films as exemplary.
I haven’t seen Show Me Love (1998). [2020 note: Now I have. So I’ll nominate El Tercero, instead.)
Instead of 16. Orlando (1992), which is too flawed to be on a list like this, I nominate Nagisa Ôshima’s Gohatto (1999).
Along with Victim (1961), which seems more like an honorable historical curiosity than a work of art, I nominate Les feluettes, or Lilies, directed by John Greyson, another film that’s mysteriously absent from the BFI list. His Proteus is also more than worth a look.
Along with 18. Je, tu, il, elle (1974), I nominate Adam Salky’s Dare (2009).
Along with 19. Looking for Langston (1989), I nominate Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied.
Instead of Beau Travail (1999), which I wouldn’t put in an LGBT list anyway (a case of identitarian stolen glory), I nominate Hussein Erkenov’s Sto dney do prikaza (100 Days Before the Order, 1991), and Martín Farina’s Fulboy (2015). Perhaps the best counter to Beau Travail’s inclusion, however, is Mark Rappaport’s Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992), another inexplicable BFI omission.
Instead of the execrable Stranger by the Lake (2013), I nominate William Friedkin’s Cruising, which is a lot less sex-phobic than SBTL; James Franco’s Interior. Leather Bar.; João Pedro Rodrigues’ O Fantasma (2000); and Vincent Dieutre’s Leçons de ténèbres (1999), because I need that many films to wipe the memory of the first one away.
Instead of Theorem (1968), which after three watches I still don’t see the appeal of, I nominate Philippe Vallois‘s Johan (1976).
I haven’t seen The Watermelon Woman (1996) in years, and I’d forgotten that my old friend Guinevere Turner is in it, so I’ll skip this one until I re-watch it.
I like Pariah (2011), but I’d have to watch it again.
Instead of Mulholland Dr. (2001), which doesn’t belong on this list for a number of reasons (the lesbianism in this movie is primarily a reflection of Lynch’s heterosexist fantasies not the characters’ desires, which doesn’t make it bad. It just doesn’t make it gay), I nominate the Willow/Tara scenes in Once More, With Feeling, the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Lynch fanatics think he’s dark, but Once More, With Feeling is about living in the dark, not just visiting it, or dreaming about it.
I can’t think of anything better than Shirley Clarke’s singular Portrait of Jason (1967).
Instead of Dog Day Afternoon (1975), ugh, I nominate Silverlake Life, because remembering how we managed to stay alive in the real world and how we learned to die seems more important than a movie about a bank heist. Dog Day Afternoon is only incidentally T.
Instead of Death in Venice (1971), which has to be the most flaccid and witless film on the BFI list, I nominate Richard Kwietniowski’s Love and Death on Long Island (1997) which is anything but.
And for further viewing in a similar vein:
- Pianese Nunzio, 14 anni a maggio (Sacred Silence)
Written and directed by Antonio Capuano
114 min, Italy, 1996
- Les amitiés particulières (That Special Friendship)
Directed by Jean Delannoy
100 min, France, 1964
- Our Lady of the Assassins
Directed by Barbet Schroeder
101 min, Spain | France | Colombia, 2000
- Il sapore del grano
The Flavor of Corn
Directed by Gianni Da Campo
93 min, Italy, 1986
I’m happy with Pink Narcissus (1971), but also think you would like Sissy Boy Slap Party and Genji Nakamura’s weird, sexy and hilarious Kyokon densetsu: Utsukushiki nazo (Beautiful Mystery).
I like Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) well enough although I can’t see why it should rate so highly on a list like this unless it’s fulfilling some bisexual quota. So. I nominate Sébastien Lifshitz’s Les corps ouverts (1998), and Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s groundbreaking and surprisingly unsentimental TV-movie, Two of Us (2000).
Instead of Tomboy (2011), which…what? I nominate Jamie Babbit’s But I’m A Cheerleader (1999).
Instead of Funeral Parade of Roses (1969), I nominate David Fourier’s very funny short, Majorettes dans l’espace (1997).
That’s it. What would be your responses to the BFI’s list? Let me know in the comments and win a prize.