Movies allow us to take in sweeping views, armies of thousands, ancient lands that no longer exist, and magical ones that never did. But they also give us a lens into microscopic levels of human intimacy so we can share in the triumphs and tribulations of complex individuals.
It's this second quality of cinema that has made it a perfect art to memorialize, teach, inspire, and recount the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, by bringing audiences into the close confines of personal victories, private suffering, and the hideous, human immediacy of an epidemic that ravaged a generation of gay Americans.
A number of films have memorialized that time, using the art of moviemaking to reach audiences even today. Here is a list of ten powerful films that tackle the AIDS crisis, after the break.
The Normal Heart (2014)
Based on the 1985 play of the same name by Larry Kramer, The Normal Heart was realized as a movie by HBO which premiered last Sunday. It tells the semi-autobiographical story of a New York City writer who fights to raise awareness about the AIDS crisis in the face of a gay community, city, and nation in denial.
Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
A carefree, bigoted ne'er-do-well in 1985 Texas lives hard and plays hard, but when his fast lifestyle brings him face to face with the HIV/AIDS crisis, he must overcome his narrow-mindedness to battle the disease.
When a young lawyer on the fast track to success is fired, he turns to a former courtroom opponent - and homophobe - to help him get justice for his wrongful dismissal.
Based on the 1994 rock musical by Jonathan Larson, Rent echoes the plot of the 19th Century opera La Boheme in telling the modern story of artists, musicians, misfits, and free spirits struggling to live and love in an already apathetic world made harsher by AIDS.
Love! Valor! Compassion! (1997)
Eight gay men spend the summer holidays together at a beach house in upstate New York. Yes, there's drama. There is also warmth; at its heart, this film is about the different ways people love each other. (The 1994 stage production on which the film is based featured a nearly identical cast, only the Jason Alexander character was played by Nathan Lane).
Longtime Companion (1989)
Perhaps the earliest film to put a face to the AIDS crisis, this film parallels many set in the early 1980s: gay men struggle to accept the reality of AIDS in its earliest days, and then they must fight for their lives and their friends. "Longtime companion" refers to mentions of surviving partners in obituaries of the time.
Angels in America (2003)
Angels in America is a movie for people who love movies. It relies on full-blooded special effects, silver screen stars (Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson), cinematographic miracles, and epic scope to recount the tale Tony Kushner first penned for the stage in 1993. When a gay man is diagnosed with AIDS, his life falls apart: his boyfriend abandons him, his body decays, and even his sanity is shattered. Or is it? When the intricate web of people around him and the delusions inspired by his sickness begin to connect in unusual ways, it may lead, if not to salvation, then at least a great adventure.
It's My Party (1996)
Nick's AIDS-ravaged immune system opens him up to a terrible disease that has claimed the lives of many of his friends, but which he vows will not claim his. He gathers his friends and family around him for a final day of celebration before he takes his own life.
Sex has become too complicated for Jeffrey, so he swears off love altogether. Enter an HIV-positive hunk (Michael Weiss of the Pretender fame), and suddenly Jeffrey is wondering if love is worth it even if you risk losing it. (Patrick Stewart gives a hilarious turn as the effete, urbane, fuchsia beret-wearing Sterling).
Precious, a young woman abused by her mother and raped by her father, HIV-positive and pregnant by incest, gets her first bit of good luck when a school administrator moves her to a new school where she meets a few women that can help her face the monumental adversity around her. (True, Precious does not speak specifically to the LGBT community's encounter with HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, but that's where a lot of its power comes from: reminding contemporary audiences that HIV/AIDS is still with us, and it does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Considering the particular affect the disease has on African Americans, Precious deserves a place on any list of movies about HIV/AIDS).