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AIDS at 30: A Legacy of Groundbreaking Films

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The 30th anniversary of the AIDS epidemic is a time to reflect on the lessons and wisdom gained by both the LGBT community and the world at large following three decades of tragic loss and determined advocacy.  And for millions of Americans, it was the cinema that gave the disease a human face.

Parting Glances (1986)
One of the first films to feature a character living with AIDS also happens to be one of the best gay-themed dramas ever made.  Parting Glances follows a young writer named Michael who's preparing for the impending two year departure of his live-in boyfriend Robert, while simultaneously enjoying a flirtation with a record store clerk.  Steve Buscemi gives one of his earliest performances as Michael's best friend Nick, a young man with AIDS who is attempting to cope with his own impending mortality.  Much like it had been for many young gay men of the time watching their friends get sick, Nick's illness shades even the film's most mundane scenes, while his relationship with Michael emerges as it's true heart.

Longtime Companion (1989)
For many, Longtime Companion is still one of the most honest, accurate, and gut-wrenching films to ever address the epidemic for the way it managed to depict the disease's effect on the gay community through a collection of extremely personal moments and interactions. Focusing on a group of gay male friends in early 80's New York, the film progresses steadily ahead in time over the course of several years.  As time moves on, fewer and fewer of the close-knit circle remain alive, driving home the absolute devastation it truly wrought on communities and families.  Despite the sadness, it still manages to elicit a poignant beauty with a memorable finale that still moves viewers to tears.

Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt (1989)
One of the most moving documentaries about the epidemic, Common Threads brought to life several stories from the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, which was constructed in 1987 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., as a communally created memorial to those who had been lost to AIDS. Not unlike Longtime Companion, the film's strength is in it's method of illuminating the lives of several different individuals to give the viewer a sense of how far reaching the epidemic really was. Though it was originally created for television, most came to know it after it won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

The Living End (1992)
While many films written about AIDS strive to capture the abject sadness or admirable perseverance inspired by the disease, fewer have also sought to depict the anger it ignited. Greg Araki's "New Queer Cinema" classic is certainly one of them, centering around two young gay men whose rage and disillusionment over learning that they're HIV positive inspires a cross-country road trip and crime spree a la Thelma and Louise. Like most of Araki's early films, The Living End is funny, abrasive, and anarchistic, but also possesses a memorable gravitas by virtue of its subject manner.

Philadelphia (1993)
If asked to name the most memorable film about AIDS, most Americans would undoubtedly say Philadelphia. At the time, many critics thought Tom Hanks was putting his career on the line by playing an openly gay lawyer living with AIDS who sues his corporate law firm for discrimination after losing his job. In fact, it ended up being one of his career's defining roles and won Hanks an Oscar for Best Actor in 1994. It was even a box-office hit, earning more than 200 million dollars worldwide. But more importantly, this film was the first real exposure many audience members had to a story born out of the gay community dealing with AIDS, and the inclusion of Hanks helped elicit empathy and understanding for a character mainstream audiences might not have been inclined to previously. You can watch Hanks and others discussing the universal appeal of the film in the below clip from the 1995 documentary, The Celluloid Closet. Skip ahead to 0:54:

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In the years since these groundbreaking works, a number of other films have famously featured characters living with AIDS.  The romantic comedy Jeffrey featured a gay man contemplating a relationship with an HIV-positive man, and It's My Party told the story of a man dying of AIDS who decides to throw one last hurrah to say goodbye to his friends and family.  Some of the most memorable of these films actually originated as stage productions, such as the classic urban musical Rent, and Love, Valour, Compassion, which followed a group of gay male friends meeting up at a lakehouse.  Pedro Almodovar's moving All About My Mother featured an HIV-positive nun, and Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas (who died of AIDS in 1990) is the subject of Julian Schnabel's Before Night Falls.

Those are merely a small handful of the great human stories that have emerged from the AIDS crisis, and more will continue to be made as long as remains an issue in the world.  In fact, one of the best films to emerge from this year's Sundance Film Festival is the documentary We Were Here, which recounts the early onset of the disease in San Francisco's gay community in the 1980s and is expected to be released this year.

Look for our article on television's most important AIDS milestones later this week.

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