Philadelphia is an example of so many things that signify excellent filmmaking, but one of them is showing something that is simply true to life: When we get to know people who are different from ourselves, we become better people. Tom Hanks gives an unparalleled performance as Andrew Beckett, a man fighting for his dignity and his life, who convinces small-time (and homophobic) lawyer Joe Miller, played by Denzel Washington, to represent him in a wrongful-termination suit. The film came out in 1993, before there were revolutionary drugs that helped save the lives of many people with HIV and AIDS. Meanwhile, it followed the initial shock of the epidemic, which led to heightened paranoia on one side, and on the other, a better understanding of the virus itself. Philadelphia is undoubtedly a groundbreaking time capsule. —M.G.
When I came out in the mid-to-late ’80s, “women” and “AIDS” were rarely uttered in the same breath—not to mention that lesbians never even came up in conversations about the epidemic. Fast-forward to 1998, when HBO released the film Gia, in which rising star Angelina Jolie played queer supermodel and heroin addict Gia Carangi, who died of AIDS in 1986, at age 26. The film came out a solid 10 years after my introduction to ACT UP and AIDS activism at New York City Pride, and yet I was stunned that Carangi, an impossibly vibrant presence, had succumbed to the disease and I’d never even heard about it when it happened. Jolie deservedly won Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards for her visceral portrayal of the complicated Carangi, who was so popular in fashion circles that when Cindy Crawford came along they dubbed her “Baby Gia.” But she also had great support from Faye Dunaway as Carangi’s modeling mentor, Mercedes Ruehl as her mother, and Elizabeth Mitchell as the love of her life (at least according to the film). While the movie offered an eye-opening first look at women and AIDS, it also held up as an epic love story when thoughtful depictions of women in love were still few and far between. —T.G.
Set in 1985 in San Francisco, Test is a breathtaking little film about the early days of AIDS, the first HIV test, and life as a young gay man with a burgeoning artistic career. Comparisons to Parting Glances are warranted, but this 2013 film has a dancer’s sensibility, a lithe fluidity, that works well for the story. The lead character, Frankie, is a modern dancer, bullied at work for his lack of masculinity and his inability to be macho on the dance floor (in a dance company filled with gay men, mind you). Frankie’s also trying to become the man he’s meant to be—whatever that is—and find love (or sex), and decide whether to get “the” test. It’s a reminder to viewers who are too young to remember what life was like before AIDS, but in a sexy way; as when Frankie and a lover talk about whether they’ve ever used condoms—the answer is no, because in 1985 those were for straight boys—and end up in bed blowing them up like balloons. And because director Chris Mason Johnson is a former choreographer, the scenes of the dancers are always beautiful and captivating too. —D.A.M.
9. An Early Frost
The first film of any kind to tackle HIV, this 1985 made-for-TV movie stars Aidan Quinn (Captain Gregson on Elementary these days) as a gay man revealing both his sexual orientation and HIV-positive status to his family and his fellow attorneys. It was heralded as the first time mainstream America saw someone with HIV as a person instead of a number, at a time with an AIDS diagnosis usually meant death. An Early Frost garnered industry and critical acclaim (14 Emmy nominations and four wins) as well as popular support (34 million viewers for the first airing), and its groundbreaking subject matter opened the gate for many other films on this list. —K.O.
10. The Living End
One of the earliest entries in the New Queer Cinema genre, filmmaker Gregg Araki’s bold and raw 1992 dramedy The Living End follows two gay, HIV-positive men—one brash and reckless, the other rather meek and cynical—after they meet and end up on the road trip to end all road trips. A homophobic cop is killed en route, and the pulchritudinous (and often shirtless) couple, in a queer Gen-X motif, adopt the motto “Fuck everything.” Of course, critics noted parallels to Thelma & Louise, dubbing The Living End a gay version of the feminist classic. It’s not a film for everyone, but for its generation, it was perfect: cynical, confrontational, romantic, confusing. —D.A.M.