Listen to Austin 360 Radio

This Pride Month, take a scenic tour of queer movies

Eric Webb
Adepero Oduye stars in writer/director Dee Rees' "Pariah."

It’s Pride Month. I just wanna watch a good gay movie, you know?

You can play “Moonlight” or “Call Me By Your Name” or “Carol” when you want something that comes to top of mind. Hollywood has started making (small, baby) strides in telling thoughtful LGBTQ stories in polished, high-profile films. But if you’re like me, you know there’s historically a lot more chaff than wheat when you take a spin around your favorite streaming service.

Your friendly neighborhood journalists at the American-Statesman have found themselves taking furlough weeks the past few months. For me, that’s meant digging into some deep cuts from the queer film canon lately. Mind if I share?

» RELATED:Austin Pride cancels 2020 event, plans to return in 2021

A great shame of mine: I haven’t logged enough hours with the work of beloved Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. On a trip to Montreal last year, I watched the Antonio Banderas-starring “Pain and Glory” and thought, “Oh, that’s why I was supposed to watch all those Almodóvar movies.” Why not go for a younger Banderas vehicle, I thought, with some beefcake scenes. That’s what led me to 1987 gay noir “Law of Desire.”

It’s the pulpy tale of a director, Pablo (Eusebio Poncela), whose lover leaves him, so Pablo takes up a little passion in the arms of a hunk (Banderas), who quickly becomes obsessed in that special, murder-y way. Meanwhile, Pablo’s transgender sister, Tina (Carmen Maura, a cisgender woman), is raising a young girl and also gets tangled up in the sexy web of deceit.

As you could probably guess from the title, “Law of Desire” digs deep in the human heart, giving us characters whose love, lust and compulsion manifest in both beautiful bedroom scenes and horrifying acts of abuse. The trope of homicidal gay is present, perhaps, but there’s real tenderness, too, especially with Pablo and his first lover.

And Almodóvar, who knows beauty when he sees it — again, the Banderas of it all — constructs gorgeous set pieces, from mood-lit altars to silent, towering lighthouses witnessing crime and crashing waves.

Maura’s performance also is full of life, though it would be better for a trans story to be told with a trans actor. If you want to keep things running with the Spanish cinema, I can’t recommend Sebastián Lelio’s 2017 drama “A Fantastic Woman” enough. Starring trans actress Daniela Vega in a truly exhilarating, gutting performance, this isn’t one I watched this month, so I’m cheating, but I’m sure you’ll forgive me.

Back to the 1980s. I queued up “Parting Glances” recently, from director Bill Sherwood in 1986. I would see the cover all the time in the dearly departed Vulcan Video on Elizabeth Street, with a young Steve Buscemi staring behind a pair of shades.

One of the first American films to address the AIDS crisis, “Parting Glances” is a quotidian slice of life in Reagan-era New York City. Michael (Richard Ganoung), whose partner Robert (John Bolger) is leaving the country for a work assignment still takes care of his sarcastic ex, Nick (Buscemi), who has AIDS. The characters converge at a farewell party for Robert.

There’s not a single beat that’s overwrought, with plain talk about the waking nightmare ravaging an entire community. “Parting Glances” is sad and sweet in equal measure — my favorite genre — and charmingly low on polish, but high on humanity. Come for the canon, stay for the early roles for Buscemi and Kathy “Mimi on ‘The Drew Carey Show’” Kinney.

Also, that movie has multiple Bronski Beat songs, which we all know is the hallmark of quality queer cinema.

» RELATED:Austin-tied ‘Miss Juneteenth’ is a love letter to Black women in Texas

If you’ll hop on a skateboard and slide into the ’90s with me, I’d been wanting to catch up on my Todd Haynes bona fides. Man can’t live on “Carol” and “Velvet Goldmine” alone. Some friends and I got our hands on underground classic short “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” recently, but I took a mission into “Poison” by my lonesome. It’s Haynes’ first feature, a transgressive three-part mood board of gay themes partially inspired by the works of author Jean Genet.

I have trouble enough meeting my yearly Goodreads goal, and Genet’s stuff sits on my “Want to Read” list, so I can’t speak to how well Haynes interpreted the work. I can tell you how trippy “Poison” is, and how you should under no circumstances watch it in daylight. Like, definitely detach from reality as much as you can. Its three parts — “Hero,” “Horror” and “Homo” — are pretty accurately named, weaving together styles of a TV tabloid, a black-and-white creature feature and a Euro-flavored prison picture, respectively.

That last one is obviously of particular note to us in a Pride Month roundup of queer indie flicks (though the other two pack a metaphorical punch). “Poison” is an unabashed, arty time capsule of the AIDS crisis; no wonder it’s an early spark in the New Queer Cinema movement.

Another filmmaker of that school, Gregg Araki, also goes for the confrontational, but he paints with a fire hose instead of a brush. I came to Araki through 2010’s “Kaboom” and the recent Starz series “Now Apocalypse,” which was basically “Kaboom” but on TV. Good? I can’t commit that word to my byline here. Frothy. Based on those two works, I would have pegged the filmmaker’s references as “guys who model for the front of underwear packages” and “notable works of nihilist thought.”

Imagine my delight that “The Living End,” from 1992, is that whole vibe. While we’re in the mood for moodboards, I’d also tack on “road trip crime cinema” and "USA network at midnight back in the day.” In the film, drifter Luke (Mike Dytri) and film critic Jon (Craig Gilmore), both HIV positive, go on the run from the law with a car, a gun, the sun and very floppy hair. You don’t have to look far on the internet for the “Thelma and Louise” comparisons. “The Living End,” while also not great-good, is candy of a certain sort, with the nutritional value of fearless provocation about living in a plague while polite society watches you die.

One last stop in the 1990s: “The Watermelon Woman,” from director/writer/editor/star Cheryl Dunye in 1996. Considered the first feature film directed by a Black lesbian, it’s a blend of comedy, romance and documentary. Cheryl (played by Dunye, seemingly playing a version of herself) is a video store clerk who’s also searching for the real identity of a Black actress from the early days of Hollywood known only as the “Watermelon Woman.” In the meantime, she falls in love with a woman who frequents the video store. The film feels DIY through and through, but Dunye’s feat is impressive nonetheless, as is how the camera luxuriates in a scene of lesbian desire.

» RELATED:Austin LGBTQ film fest AGLIFF going virtual for 2020

Flash forward to 2011 to my favorite stop on this recent gay media tour: Dee Rees’ “Pariah.” Alike (Adepero Oduye) is 17, and life’s dealt her the cruelty of being a lesbian with a deeply nonaffirming family. Her religious mother (Kim Wayans, breathtaking) cuts off any signs of Alike’s sexuality blooming right at the bud, and her cop father (Charles Parnell) refuses to see what he doesn’t want to.

I won’t try to soften the blow for you too much: “Pariah” is crushing to watch. It’s worth sitting in Alike’s world, if only to marvel at how her sense of self bleeds through every time her world tries to cement over it. The girl is a poet, and her statement of self — “I’m not running, I’m choosing” — stirs long after the credits roll. A feast of good lighting, too. Rees’ film should be the one you watch from the list, if you watch one at all.

“Naz & Maalik” is another Big Apple story of teens in trouble, less intense than “Pariah” but still with heart to spare. Naz (Kerwin Johnson Jr.) and Maalik (Curtiss Cook Jr.), two Black Muslim teens in Bed-Stuy, are best friends and, when their families aren’t around, a little bit more. Similar to “Parting Glances,” Jay Dockendorf’s film feels like a walk through the city with friends over the course of a day. In “Glances,” the national shame of how AIDS patients were treated hummed along in the background; in “Naz & Maalik,” it’s the cultural shames of racism, homophobia and post-9/11 Islamaphobia. The two young leads are endlessly magnetic, and while you spend the whole runtime fearing the doom that creeps behind them, this film’s world is never quite so neat.

Our final destination is fresh. Josephine Decker’s “Shirley,” released just a few weeks ago, turns the traditional biopic genre on its head. Author Shirley Jackson, of “The Lottery” fame, is played by Elisabeth Moss as pure ferocity, and Decker lets her loose into a story of horror and erotic thrill. “Shirley” foregrounds its queerness less than the other films on this film tour, but the crackling desire between Moss and co-star Odessa Young as the author’s live-in assistant is spellbinding all the same.

Where to watch online

“Law of Desire”: Available on demand on major platforms

“A Fantastic Woman”: Available on demand on major platforms

“Parting Glances”: Free on Tubi, available with a subscription to Kanopy or Fandor

“Poison”: Free on Tubi and Pluto TV, available with a subscription to Kanopy or Fandor

“The Living End”: Available on demand on major platforms and with a subscription to Kanopy or the Criterion Channel

“The Watermelon Woman”: Available on demand on major platforms and with a subscription to Amazon Prime, Kanopy or the Criterion Channel

“Pariah”: Available on demand on major platforms

“Naaz & Malik”: Free on Tubi, available on demand on major platforms and with a subscription to Hulu

“Shirley”: Available on demand on major platforms and with a subscription to Hulu