Shortbus (2006)

Shortbus is the notoriously explicit, yet sweet-hearted, dramedy of New Yorkers struggling with their sex lives. As John Cameron Mitchell’s follow-up to the masterful Hedwig and the Angry Inch, it’s hard to read what exactly this movie was about beyond the narrative – but the way the narrative itself is told is truthfully pretty innovative.

The opening montage is explicit, unsimulated sex – a seemingly obscene way to kick off a film, but it frankly prepares us better for the plot lines to come. A couples counselor struggles with her own developing sexuality, a couple explore a polyamorous relationship, both explored in very descriptive, sometimes visually graphic detail. Without that boundary-pushing opening scene, however, the bulk of the movie could have just come across as “dirty talk” or some attempt at shock value. We as an audience are better set up for the real movie in store.

Much of the action (no pun intended) takes place at the Shortbus, an underground club / scene where visitors explore their sexuality, interacting with a unique cross-section of humanity and often learning more about themselves. (Side note: the Emcee played by Justin Vivian Bond is hysterical, and could not have been in enough scenes.)

Mitchell’s choice to explore the human condition through sex as a discourse is an interesting, and very innovative one – by the film’s end, though, it was unclear what exactly the takeaway was, beyond the resolution of the characters’ crises. Particularly to those of us outside the urban underground scene, who likely will not visit Shortbus-type clubs anytime soon, the world created almost seemed too foreign to relate to. Shortbus is an interesting, certainly unique ride, though even by the end I wasn’t sure where it was trying to take us.

Greek Pete (2009)

Greek Pete is the bizarre, semi-documentary, arguably-pornographic, story of a young British man who aspires to be the best male escort he can be.

We follow Pete around for the course of a year, from intimate interviews to him meeting with his clients to celebrating the holidays with his “family” of other male escorts. Compared to Pete, they seem like a truly sorry lot – casually discussing prostituting themselves out as young teenagers, facing physical abuse – while Pete went into the business, on his own accord, for the money and to be the best at something. (When speaking to a client about his aspiration to be the best male escort, he even measures himself up in relative terms – “do you think you’re the best accountant?”)

The unfamiliar, often uncomfortable, discourse in which this film operates makes Greek Pete all the more fascinating. The star, Peter Pittaros, is a “real” escort and everything about the film seems wholly convincing (at least to an outsider), making it unclear where the documentary ends and the fantasy begins.

Is it when he’s laughing about past clients with some models, before they engage in a threesome as a fat cameraman videotapes from inches away? Or when his de facto boyfriend Cai (also a call boy) watches bitterly as he serves a client?

The sad emptiness of this world hits hardest at the end. Pete’s dream has come true, having earned the award of Male Escort of the Year in Los Angeles. He returns to London, to Cai sleeping in bed, oblivious to Pete’s return. Pete scrolls through his phone and updates them on his new recognition, encouraging his friends to look it up online, says goodbye, then repeats.

It almost doesn’t matter whether the world Andrew Haigh creates (or merely visits) is real or not – the bizarre universe of these young men is nonetheless powerful for its graphic, yet refreshingly unapologetic, portrayal of the lonely life of an escort.

Inside Out (2015)

Inside Out is very possibly the best Pixar movie.

I know, I know – that’s almost sacrilege to say. Since their groundbreaking 1995 debut feature Toy Story, Pixar has two decades of high concept storytelling under their belt, challenging audiences to wonder, “what if..?” on an almost annual basis. Inside Out takes it that step further, offering a “so what..?”, satisfying conclusion worthy of the ambitious exposition. The narrative is in direct support of a very compelling premise.

Inside Out is the spectacular one-two punch that meets both of these high bars, with (literally) flying colors. Told through dazzling, candy-colored visuals, we see the development of the human mind from birth settling into adolescence. As the star human, Riley, grows older, her emotions mature – starting with pure Joy, then clashing with Sadness, and later adding Anger, Disgust, and Fear as she delves further and further into the great adventure of life.

Her emotions run wild, however, as they face their toughest challenge yet – Riley and her family move cross-country, displacing her from her home, her friends, all her sources of emotional nourishment. Thrown off-balance, her reactions are initially rash, extreme outbursts, later developing into numb, cold indifference and apathy. Inside her head, her two most powerful emotions, Joy and Sadness, have lost control of Riley (after being absorbed out of her “Headquarters”), and struggling to get back and return her to her old self again.

Along the way, like any and every Pixar movie, the two bicker but learn to coexist and even value the other. Where this excels so far beyond standard Pixar fare though, is how universal the stakes are; the necessity of stable, balanced emotions is no mere plot construction but a fundamental, sometimes challenging fact. Not many family movies will tell you it’s okay to be sad, or tackle these heavier issues of mental health and even depression.

Every step of the way, Inside Out does not feel like a film about 11-year-old Riley, or even Joy or Sadness. Not many movies seem so essential to understanding ourselves and each other, but this captivating and emotional journey tells the story of our life – of everybody’s life – to a wonderfully colorful and fabulously entertaining degree. Inside Out is the absolute must-see film of the year.

Mala Noche (1985)

If you thought Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho was a charming gateway to the Portland male hooker scene, you may want to dig even further underground into the world of Mala Noche.

This is the story of a young man, Walt, who falls in love-at-first-sight with Johnny, an even younger Mexican hooker who walks into his shop one day. Walt tries to flirt with Johnny, then directly propositions him, talks his friend into having him over for dinner, then even offers to pay him for sex. Johnny refuses, leaving Walt with his companion Pepper as the next-best option, which Walt takes.

Walt is unphased by Johnny’s rejection though, and goes to great lengths to woo him, ranging from what he sees as subtle manipulation to literally begging on his knees. The bizarre journey sounds too preposterous to be true, but when guided by Walt’s warped narration, almost every decision Walt makes is rooted in his broader scheme to get Johnny (at least, that’s what he tells us). Even after Johnny leaves town, and Walt and Pepper enter an “erotic friendship” (Walt’s words), Walt’s narration still brings up Johnny constantly.

What makes Mala Noche so fascinating is both what it is, and what it isn’t. On paper Walt sounds like a genuine psychopath, but he doesn’t do anything too extreme to get Johnny. His is a story of obsession but not hysteria. A part of Johnny clearly enjoys being pursued. Pepper first tells Walt “No sex,” but several scenes later, his rule shifts to “sex only at nighttime.”

The confounding sense of order and structure is so pleated yet flexible. It’s as if the characters tell themselves they live within boundaries, only to compromise out of them when it’s convenient. Mala Noche is not just a bizarre love triangle, but a thought-provoking piece on how we define ourselves and our actions.

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

I’m not sure Fifty Shades of Grey is really a movie.

It is indeed several scenes, containing filmed images, dialogue, and occasionally music, but it is not a coherent cohesive anything.

Dakota Johnson plays the boring Anastasia (Ana for short!), who in a fateful turn of events finds herself interviewing Christian Grey, the most eligible bachelor billionaire in the greater metropolitan area. From their first encounter, Christian is captivated by Ana (more than I can say for myself) and finds her an excellent candidate to be his next Submissive.

[Note: Ana is a creature from an alternate universe where they haven’t heard of S&M, and despite her having a 4.0 GPA (as she tells her roommate Kate, and us, in her first speaking scene), she knows nothing ofalternative forms of romance. It is a brilliant flash of irony that, in the same stage of life as her graduation from university, she gets a whole different kind of education from Mr. Grey.]

Christian (played well by Jamie Dornan) is a Dominant, who likes to be in control “of all aspects of [his] life” (that’s an actual quote), culminating in an extensive contract and non-disclosure agreement with his Submissive-to-be, of what they will and will not do. This is basically the backbone of the whole movie, so the stakes aren’t exceptionally high or compelling. (Ariel’s contract in The Little Mermaid was way better.)

What doesn’t make sense is the contract only matters sometimes, as their love affair begins regardless and pushes Ana further (no pun intended) with each additional encounter. The love scenes are actually filmed very well, underscored effectively with the soundtrack (also very good), creating probably the most erotic scenes you’ll get out of a Redbox anytime soon.

But then occasionally, they’ll bicker back and forth in negotiations around the contract – and it suddenly does matter again. Eventually, Ana gives up and leaves, though what causes her change of heart isn’t very clear. Though love is not clear as black and white – it is in shades of grey. (Get it?)

This movie is not exceptionally good, but it is interesting enough to stick through and Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey is a nice surprise given the soppy source material.