The 10 Best Films About HIV/AIDS

1
The 10 Best Films About HIV/AIDS

Normal-Heart-1.jpg
The Normal Heart (HBO Films)

If truth be told, there has often been a sameness in the way that Hollywood has treated stories about AIDS, often depicting right and wrong in simple, black-and-white terms while readily assigning the victim status to anyone who has been infected.

all fairness, many of these excesses are simply a reflection of their times, capturing headlines with movie-of-the-week immediacy—and often with a healthy dose of fear-mongering. As such, a number of films considered landmarks at the time of their release simply don't hold up as well, say, 10 or 20 years later.

The ten films included in this list—some well-known, others little-seen—don’t entirely overcome these issues but in their own way resonate in a fashion that both enlightens and moves. They manage to serve as both historic record, while bringing to life the emotions and struggles that are relevant today as they were then. 

Herewith are our nominations for the 10 best films about HIV, in descending order:

2
1. How to Survive a Plague (2012)

hr_how_to_survive_a_plague_4.jpg
How to Survive a Plague (HBO)

This sweeping, Oscar-nominated documentary rightly deserved the many accolades it received upon its release in 2012. Its clear-sighted and often unforgiving depiction the early days of the AIDS epidemic provided the film a contextual backdrop and clarity that many films, including The Dallas Buyers Film, simply lacked.

In doing so, the filmmakers achieved something more than just an historic record about the rise of ACT UP and the AIDS activist movement in the U.S., but an incredibly moving portrait of the rage, loss and hope felt by those who refused who refused to sit on the sidelines even when faced with their own impending deaths. Without doubt, How to Survive a Plague is a must-see. 

3
2. Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989)

Common Threads AIDS Quilt
Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (HBO)

The importance of the Names AIDS Memorial Quilt, in what it symbolized and what it achieved, is sadly vanishing from the public consciousness. Common Threads, an extraordinary documentary by filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, remains one of the most impactful films about the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Told from the perspective of those infected, as well as their parents and loved ones, the power of the documentary lies in the fact that many of people we meet in the film will soon be among the dead memorialized on the quilt.

The quiet, almost suffocating despair that pervades the film is often overwhelming, while the final laying of the quilt—filling the entire National Mall in Washington, D.C.—packs an emotional punch that can neither be easily shaken nor forgotten.

4
3. Angels in America (2003)

angels-in-america-508a6b31d807c.jpg
Angels in America (HBO Films)

Most films that cast their eye on the early AIDS crisis do so with an almost necessary artlessness, raw in their depiction of human loss and the cruel failings of governments and humanity. Angels in America, the Emmy Award-winning HBO miniseries based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tony Kushner, remains one of the powerful and poetic films about the epidemic, combining historic figures, biblical allegory and a sweeping scope that captures the breadth of the human response in a way no other film can. A truly monumental piece of filmmaking.

5
4. The Normal Heart (2014)

normalheart01.jpg
The Normal Heart (HBO Films)

This highly charged HBO production serves as something of a companion piece to 2012's How to Survive a Plague in its telling of the early AIDS epidemic and the emergence of the activist group, ACT UP. Based on the Tony Award-winning 1985 play by ACT UP founder Larry Kramer, the film retains much of the anger and caustic immediacy that it so memorable on stage.

While the dialogue is occasionally didactic and the narrative is far too choppy and episodic, the film feels as if it was made by someone who fully felt the full weight of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s... and it was. Capped by awards-worthy performances from Mark Ruffalo (pictured), Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons and Joe Mantello, The Normal Heart beats fully and richly.

A worthy companion piece is the 2015 HBO documentary Larry Kramer in Love & Anger, which paints a less sanitized (and arguably more compelling) portrait of the playwright and activist.

6
5. The Lazarus Effect (2010)

The_Lazarus_Effect
The Lazarus Effect (HBO)

There have a been a number of films depicting the AIDS crisis in Africa, some of which (like 2004’s Oscar-nominate Yesterday) succumbed to all-too-easy melodrama or one-dimensional characterizations of cultures that simply don't ring true. A far rounder and more honest depiction can be found in the 30-minute documentary, The Lazarus Effect, which describes the impact of free antiretroviral drug programs on HIV-infected individuals in Zambia.

Produced by Spike Jones (Her, Being John Malkovich) and directed by music video director Lance Bangs, the film benefits from a pared-back style of filmmaking which allows the interviewees to speak for themselves without either being objectified. Sure, it's almost strategically uplifting—and something of an advert for the (RED) organization—but its sincerity and clarity remains doubtless and true.

7
6. Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Dallas-Buyers-Club-McConaughey-Leto
Dallas Buyers Club (Focus Films)

When marketing the 2013 film, Dallas Buyers Club, many in the production adamantly stated that the film was not about AIDS. And, in truth, they're largely correct. Depicting the exploits of Ron Woodruff, an HIV-positive cowboy who started trading in non-FDA-approved AIDS remedies, Dallas Buyers Club was simply too good of a story not to be told.

While the filmmakers may have taken a few historic liberties in the dramatization of Woodruff's tale (and took the easy way out by portraying FDA officials and AIDS researchers as cartoonish buffoons), you can’t help but revel in the hell-raising star turn by Matthew McConaughey in the lead role. He sells the film and, in the end, you can't help but buy.

8
7. An Early Frost (1985)

EarlyFrost2.jpg
An Early Frost (NBC Productions/The Criterion Collection)

This 1985 television movie was considered a landmark at the time of its release and rightly so. Broadcast on NBC in 1985, An Early Frost was the first major film to dramatize the AIDS crisis in America, winning numerous awards and garnering an audience of over 34 million viewers.

Telling the story of a young attorney who decides to inform his parents that he is both HIV and gay, An Early Frost was credited with pushing HIV into the public consciousness at a time when stigma and prejudice ran high (so much so that the network lost $500,000 in revenue when jittery sponsors pulled advertising). While some elements of the film don't hold up as well after 30 years, An Early Frost still remains genuinely thoughtful and thought-provoking.

9
8. Longtime Companion (1989)

longtime-companion
Longtime Companion (MGM Home Entertainment)

Although a number of theatrical films preceded it (among them, the impressive Parting Glances in 1986), 1989's Longtime Companion is credited with being the first wide-release film to chronicle the AIDS crisis in America.

Spanning the years 1981 to 1989, the film benefited from strong cast performances, a sensitive script by Craig Lucas, and astute direction by Norman René. While the episodic nature of the storyline doesn’t hold up all that well at times—making the film feel more like a time capsule—the scene where David (played by Bruce Davidson) tells his dying lover that "it's alright to go" remains as haunting and quietly devastating as ever.

10
9. And the Band Played On (1994)

AndtheBandPlayed-On.png
And the Band Played On (HBO)

 Like An Early Frost before it and Angels in America after it, And the Band Played On was considered something of a television landmark at the time of its broadcast. Based on the best-selling non-fiction book by Randy Shilts, the film tells the story of HIV/AIDS from the discovery of the first cases in Africa in 1976 through the political, social and scientific upheavals that marked the 1980s.

While the film provides a compelling, panoramic view of the epidemic in the early years, there remain moments of preachiness that have become even more dated over time (due, in large part, to weaknesses in the source  book itself).  Still, And the Band Plays On is a worthy addition if only for the ambitious, near-epic scale of the film and performances that linger in memory long after viewing.

11
10. Philadelphia (1994)

philadelphia-tom-hanks.jpg
Philadelphia (TriStar Pictures)

Philadelphia is the film included on almost every top 10 list about HIV and for good reason. Whether you like it or loathe it (yes, there are people who do), it is undoubtedly the film that changed the social landscape at time when the anger vented at the Reagan/Bush administrations was nearing boiling point. Anchored by a affecting performances by Tom Hanks (pictured), the film's impact in 1994 was undeniable, logging over $200 million in box office receipts and winning two Academy Awards.

Yes, the film is unerringly safe and manipulative in the way that only Hollywood "issue films" can be. Yes, it played out more like a Frank Capra movie than an insightful social drama. And yes, a few scenes are still pretty cringe-worthy. (Watching Denzel Washington's character explain homophobia to his on-screen wife is a particular jaw-dropper.)

But, these caveats aside, Philadelphia was film that got people to sit up in their chairs, and that alone makes it worth seeing.

Continue Reading