And the films played on: 17 essential movies about HIV/AIDS


Updated: December 1 is Worlds AIDS Day, an opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV/AIDS, show their support for people living with the disease and to commemorate people those we have lost.

Each World’s AIDS Day we update the Queerty list of the best in HIV/AIDS films. This year’s entry is Beats Per Minute, a moving French drama about love and loss in the early days of activism.

These 17 cinematic breakthroughs represent some of the most interesting, complex and portrayals of the epidemic and the suffering, struggle and inspiration it has engendered. Some are groundbreaking, others are award-winning but all are essential to understanding the impact HIV and AIDS has had on our society.

Check out Queerty’s picks for 17 essential films about HIV/AIDS.

An Early Frost (1985)

An NBC made-for-television movie, An Early Frost was the first major film to deal with HIV and AIDS. Aidan Quinn plays a successful lawyer who, on returning home to visit his parents (played by Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands), reveals that he’s both gay and living with AIDS.

Parting Glances (1986)

First-time director Bill Sherwood died of complications from AIDS in 1990 without finishing another film, but Parting Glances nonetheless stands as an impressive legacy. This independent film explores 24 hours in the lives of Michael (Richard Ganoung) and Robert (John Bolger) as Robert readies to leave for Africa on a long-term assignment and Michael tends to his ex, Nick (Steve Buscemi in his first major role), a punk rocker battling AIDS as his band makes it big.

As Is (1986)


Pre-dating Larry Kramer‘s The Normal Heart by a month, William M. Hoffman’s As Is was one of the first plays to deal with the AIDS epidemic. Hoffman adapted the play about effects of AIDS on a group of friends living in New York City as a television production starring Jonathan Hadary, Robert Carradine, and Colleen Dewhurst.

Longtime Companion (1989)

The first widely-released film to tackle the subject of AIDS, Longtime Companion chronicles the first years of the epidemic through the lives of a group of gay men (Dermot Mulroney, Bruce Davison, Mark Lemos, Patrick Cassidy, John Dossett and Stephen Caffrey) and a straight sister (Mary-Louise Parker). The title was taken from the words used to describe the surviving same-sex partner of an AIDS victim in a New York Times article.

The Living End (1992)

Gregg Araki’s New Queer Cinema take on Thelma & Louise finds two gay, HIV-positive men (Mike Dytri and Craig Gilmore) on the lam with nothing to lose after one of them kills a homophobic police officer. Luke (Dytri), a gay hustler, and Jon (Gilmore), a timid movie critic, embark on a hedonistic road trip with only the motto “Fuck everything” to guide them.

And the Band Played On (1993)

HBO adapted the 1987 nonfiction book by Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, into this Emmy-winning docudrama starring Matthew Modine as Dr. Don Francis, an epidemiologist struggling to identify what would eventually become known as HIV/AIDS. Featuring an all-star cast, the film explores the infighting among the scientific community that hampered the early fight against the epidemic.

Zero Patience (1993)


Before his short internment in Egypt, openly gay filmmaker John Greyson wrote and directed this musical about alleged “Patient Zero,” Gaëtan Dugas, the gay flight attendant linked to the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic in Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On — he’s played by Jeffrey Nordling in the HBO docudrama, which premiered on the same date as Zero Patience. Greyson’s film refutes the “Patient Zero” theory as the ghost of “Zero” (Normand Fauteux) begins a romance with Victorian sexologist turned modern day museum taxidermist, Sir Richard Burton (John Robinson).

Philadelphia (1993)

Tom Hanks won his first of two consecutive Best Actor Oscars for his portrayal of a gay man fired from his law firm once it is revealed he has AIDS. Denzel Washington plays a homophobic small-town lawyer, the only person willing to take his controversial case, who in the process overcomes his bigotry. Antonio Banderas rounds out the superb cast as Hanks’ lover.

Jeffrey (1995)

A gay romantic comedy about AIDS? Yup. Based on a play by Paul Rudnick, Jeffrey (Steven Weber) has sworn off sex all-together due to his increasing paranoia over the AIDS epidemic. That is until he meets the perfect man in Michael T. Weiss, a charming, HIV-positive hunk who challenges his convictions. It’s a little stagey but gets bonus points for Patrick Stewart and Bryan Batt (the closeted Salvatore from Mad Men season 1) as a constantly bickering gay couple.

The Cure (1995)


Two young boys from Minnesota embark on an adventure to New Orleans in hope of finding a cure for AIDS, from which one of them is dying. Erik (the late Brad Renfro), a loner with a neglectful mother, finds kinship in Dexter (Joseph Mazzello), who contracted the disease through a blood transfusion. Erik’s mother doesn’t approve of their friendship due to her own prejudices and ignorance, but Dexter’s mother sticks up for the boys as their friendship is a great comfort to her son.

It’s My Party (1996)


Based on the death of famed architect and designer Harry Stein, It’s My Party reunited Olivia Newton-John with her Grease director, Randal Kleiser, who was also Stein’s ex-lover. Eric Roberts leads an all-star cast as Nick Stark, a gay man slowly losing his grip on life and reality. He throws a two-day party for friends and family with the intention of committing suicide at its end. Stark’s estranged lover, Brandon (Gregory Harrison) also arrives as an uninvited guest and is treated as such by Nick’s loved ones, who feel Brandon abandoned him at his most vulnerable.

All About My Mother (1999)

Pedro Almodóvar took home the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for this drama about Manuela, a single mother (Cecilia Roth) who travels to Barcelona after losing her teenage son in a car accident. There, Manuela befriends several characters including Rosa (Penélope Cruz), a young nun, Agrado (Antonio San Juan), a transsexual prostitute and the estranged father of her son, Lola (Toni Cantó), a transvestite dying of AIDS who never knew he had a son to begin with.

Angels in America (2003)

Tony Kushner’s epic 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning play ran away with 11 Emmys and five Golden Globes as a mini-series for HBO, helmed by director Mike Nichols. Meryl Streep and Al Pacino lead a stellar cast (including Emma Thompson, Mary-Louise Parker and Jeffrey Wright in the role he originated on Broadway) in this sweeping exploration of societal upheaval amidst the backdrop of AIDS and Reagan-era America.

The Witnesses (2007)


Sarah (Emmanuelle Béart) and Mehdi (Sami Bouajila) are an unhappily married couple living in Paris in 1984. Sarah’s close friend, Adrien (Michel Blanc) — a middle-aged gay doctor — meets Manu (Johan Libéreau) an attractive younger man, while cruising, and though Adrien is madly in love with him, their relationship remains platonic. Mehdi and Manu, however, begin a sexual relationship that becomes even more complicated after Manu is diagnosed with AIDS. Along with Manu’s sister Julie (Julie Depardieu), the characters become witnesses to the devastation of the disease.

Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire (2009)

Mo’Nique delivers an Oscar-winning performance for the ages as Mary Johnston, mother of Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), a morbidly obese teenager who has undergone years of mental, physical and sexual abuse. After being raped on numerous occasions by her father, resulting in two pregnancies, Precious learns that she is also HIV-positive. Yet she manages to find a new lease on life through a caring teacher (Paula Patton) and a tough social worker (Mariah Carey).

The Dallas Buyers Club (2013)


Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto are earning rave reviews in this recently released tale about homophobic, drug-addicted rodeo cowboy Ron Woodroof. After being diagnosed with AIDS and given 30 days to live, Woodroof (McConuaghey) begins taking AZT, the only FDA-approved drug legally available in the U.S., which subsequently almost kills him. With the help of his doctor (Jennifer Garner) and Rayon (Leto), an HIV-positive transgender woman, Woodroof begins running in illegal anti-retroviral drugs from all over the world. They form the Dallas Buyers Club, one of dozens of drug clubs that pop up around the country helping to prolong the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS. However, the FDA soon catches wind of Woodroof’s operations and sets out to shut it and him down.

BPM (2017)

UPDATED: The latest addition to the list may well be the best.

Each year, countries are invited to submit one (and only one) film to the U.S.-based Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for consideration in the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film category. This year France selected as their official entry BPM (Beats Per Minute), a film about a group of tireless HIV/AIDS activists in the 1990s in Paris. And for good reason: BPM, written and directed by Robin Campillo, has already won the Grand Prix at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, earning overwhelming acclaim from audiences and critics at the festival. “An involving and erotically charged discourse that puts sex and politics on the agenda without ever compromising on cinematic flair,” writes Katherine McLaughlin.

Have any other HIV/AIDS-related cinema we may have forgotten? Sound off in the comments below! 

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