Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. As part of Y2k week here at The A.V. Club, we’ve listed the 25 best films of the year 2000. These are some of our favorites that didn’t make the countdown.
After decades of slow progress in LGBTQ representation on screen, the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the late 1980s and early ’90s set things back. Almost all gay stories became tragedies centered around the devastating effects of the virus. (Even Broadway’s celebration of the sexually liberated, Rent, revolved around AZT breaks.) Drag became the first way to reintroduce gay men to audiences through stories that weren’t as sad as 1993’s Philadelphia. Over-the-top offerings such as 1994’s Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert, 1995’s To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar, and 1996’s The Birdcage provided representation, but they mainly avoided anything involving romance—or, God forbid, sex. It wouldn’t be until 2000’s Broken Hearts Club that American audiences were given a film that treated young gay men the same as their straight counterparts. It was such an oddity that they had to put the genre in the full title, affixing A Romantic Comedy on the end of it.
He’s never admitted as much, but it seems fair to assume that Broken Hearts Club writer-director Greg Berlanti saw Sex And The City’s first season in 1998 and thought, “What’s the gay version of that?” Even the opening sequence of a quartet of friends at a café gossiping about men seems like a gender-swapped version of something from the pages of a Darren Star script. At this West Hollywood coffee shop, the central figures are Dennis (Timothy Olyphant), the aspiring photographer; Howie (Matt McGrath), the grad student stuck in an unhealthy relationship with his ex (Justin Theroux); Patrick (Ben Weber), the self-proclaimed ugly duckling; and Benji (Zach Braff), the bleach-blonde party kid. But these are just a few members of the film’s large ensemble, which also includes Cole (Dean Cain), the heartthrob actor; Taylor (Billy Porter), the flamboyant diva-worshiper; Jack (John Mahoney), the elder statesman and owner of the restaurant that employs half the group; Kevin (Andrew Keegan), the “newbie”; and Anne (Mary McCormack), Patrick’s lesbian sister who asks him to donate his sperm so she can have a child with Leslie (Nia Long).
If this sounds like a ridiculous amount of characters, it is. Broken Hearts Club is a true ensemble piece that probably would have made for a better TV series than movie, which tracks given that this was the first feature from Berlanti, who started as a writer on Dawson’s Creek in 1998 and was just 28 when he was promoted to showrunner two years later. The future Arrowverse mastermind juggles myriad storylines with ease, providing a slice-of-life story of a group not much different from his own friends. In fact, most gay men living in West Hollywood in the late ’90s would probably find Broken Hearts Club more of a reflection than fiction—and that’s what makes the film so important.
“There is not a single film in the cinematic canon that paints the portrait of a gay man that any of us would aspire to be,” Howie complains during another café conversation. “What are our options? Noble, suffering AIDS victims; the friends of noble suffering AIDS victims; compulsive sex addicts; common street hustlers; and the most recent addition to the lot, stylish confidantes to lovelorn women. Just once I would like to see a gay character that is not sick, has not been laid in about three months, and is behind on his student loans.” While most wouldn’t aspire to be any of the lost and lovelorn characters of Broken Hearts Club either, it was still refreshing to see gay men on screen who enjoy sex and only deal with death due to heart disease.
When Broken Hearts Club premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in early 2000, it drew a lot of comparisons to 1970’s The Boys In The Band. It’s a fair assessment, given that both are ensemble pieces centered on a group of gay friends; the parallels between them served as a sad example of how far the HIV/AIDS epidemic threw gay cinema off its course in the three decades that separate the two films. A generation of gay men were raised to fear their sexual desires and avoid relationships that could only end in tragedy. But just as the characters of Broken Hearts Club find solace in each other, gay viewers could watch the film and see themselves—or at least a possible future for themselves. “A lot of people ask me when I first knew I was gay,” Dennis says in voiceover at the top of the film. “The fact is, I don’t know. I can’t remember. But what I do remember, what I can recall, is the moment I first realized it was okay. It was when I met these guys, my friends.”