Whatever happened to movies about dudes just being dudes? You know, red-blooded guys carpe-ing the diem, showing their strength, buddying around in the most traditionally masculine manner of all? I’m throwing down the gauntlet. We deserve more films with men manning up in the most primal, bestial way they know: The art of dance.
After watching Thomas Vintenberg’s Danish Oscar-winner Another Round, I was consumed by the picture of once-dissociative schoolteacher Martin (recurring odd bird of the moment Mads Mikkelsen) unleashing every sober, rational and grief-stricken thought through a spontaneous dance finale. Though the actor has admitted to being aghast at his own rustiness, Mikkelsen’s years of professional dance shine through. Under dappled arcs of champagne and beer, Martin finally releases his previously inaccessible joy, leaping and whirling to Scarlet Pleasure’s “What A Life.” More than formal training or skill (impressive though it may be), the emphatic, radiant expulsion of all the doubts that had been plaguing Martin is an infectious narrative catharsis, which is only—finally—achievable through movement.
I simply needed more, and so, out of a thorough and pristinely academic search through narrative film, I present to you a short list of seven favorite cinematic moments of dudes being dudes, being dancers. This list excludes traditional musicals, and instead focuses on the moments in which dance is the only way for dudes to tap into the deepest wells of honesty, joy, or heartbreak in a non-heightened world.
Claire Denis’ sensual, balletic portrait of French soldiers whose only tangible passion is their work in the French Foreign Legion is undeniably a masterpiece on its own. Repressed homosexuality, explosive anger and unnameable longing collide in Denis’ adaptation of Herman Mellville’s nineteenth century novella Billy Budd, where soldiers play fight, practice assault and psychologically torture each other under the hallucinatory desert sun.
When the central protagonist of the film, Adjudant-Chef Galoup (Carax favorite Denis Lavant), becomes unnerved by the arrival of handsome, magnetic Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin), Galoup’s inability to process his churning desire leads to a vow of ruination that eventually results in his dismissal from the Legion. With his only calling destroyed, Galoup’s final moments on screen transform him into the expressive man that he could be. In an empty, mirrored corner of a club, Galoup starts dancing to Corona’s “The Rhythm of the Night.” He makes a few false starts, tentatively spinning and flicking an arm, then self-consciously tending to his cigarette. He finally lets loose in a spectacular show of jumping, spinning, and flailing that continues into the credits. His freedom is both mental and physical as he becomes unaware of his movements, reveling in the slack of the reins he usually keeps on unspeakable emotion.
White Nights is a film filled with more professionally performed and choreographed scenes then many of the entries on this list, but it’s also filled with more everything than any film on this list, including KGB espionage, Helen Mirren and Isabella Rossellini with overdrawn Russian accents, and Mikhail Baryshnikov swinging from a makeshift laundry line to his great escape. But most importantly, it is an excuse for Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines, two undisputed masters of their crafts, to dance together. The plot is a cockamamie piece of mostly anti-Soviet propaganda: Baryshnikov plays a Russian dancer taken into custody and forced to dance when his plane to Japan crash lands in Russia, of all places. There, he begrudgingly teams up with an American tap-dancing Vietnam War defector played by Hines, who at first delivers a wounded speech about the worthlessness of American patriotism (he’s right, you know), but eventually agrees to help him flee.
With two dancers this remarkable in a straight drama, there are so many scenes to choose from, including Baryshnikov making fun of his own impeccable technique and then pirouetting eleven times in a row in a spiteful fit or aimlessly jete-ing across the floor of the empty theatre he once called home. However, the real centerpiece of the film is when the boys finally duet in a combination of precise yet explosive ballet, tap, and jazz choreographed by none other than modern dance legend Twyla Tharp. To the tune of David Packs’ synth-heavy “Prove Me Wrong,” they fly across the floor of the rehearsal studio, matching each other with every leap and carefully-timed drag of their feet. The scene is impeccably photographed, capturing their impossibly smooth glides and figure-skating-on-land routine with a rare respect for their entire bodies. Finally, the dance asserts, the two have truly teamed up, and together they’re unstoppable. The scene ends with Baryshnikov instructing Hines that they’ll flee “tonight,” but the rest of the film hardly matters when all you’ll want to do is rewatch that two and a half minutes over and over until you absorb just a hint of their cool.
In Taika Waititi’s fourth feature, thirteen-year-old Ricky Baker (the ultra-charismatic Julian Dennison) has been deemed a “bad egg” by New Zealand Child Protective Services and is sent from the city to the farthest foster outpost they hope will either clean him up or shut him up—but they don’t care much either way, as long as he’s out of their hair. Surprisingly, Ricky’s delinquency meets its match in the foster parents of the exuberantly loving Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and curmudgeonly Hector Baker (Sam Neill), who finally make him feel as though he has a permanent home. Of course, Bella dies, and suddenly Ricky is left to do what he does best: Run away before he’s carted off yet again.
As a city kid in the wilderness for the first time, it’s not long before Ricky gets hopelessly lost, runs out of his rations, and starts to see his canine sidekick Tupac as a mirage of cake. A grumbling, grief-stricken Hector is determined to bring him back safely, but fractures his foot in a spittingly funny fight with Ricky, and must wait out the weeks it’ll take to heal before they can journey back to an incompetent “civilization.”
Though Ricky feigns hatred for his foster “uncle,” the dance that lands him on this list says otherwise. As they wait for Hector’s foot to heal, Ricky takes to amusing himself with a Walkman fashioned from fern stems and branches, and bopping to the imagined bass line of Dave Dobbyn’s “Magic (What She Do).” He throws himself fully into popping and locking, carelessly muddying his once-precious kicks, and delivering the funkiest robot to grace the forest floor. As he offers his uncle a turn with the Walkman, it’s clear that—despite the tragedy of the one person who unconditionally loved both Ricky and Hector passing—Ricky derives a shining sliver of hope from not having to run away alone. The dance marks the start of the film’s third chapter, and the real start of the adventure that will bond the two misfits for life.
Re-imagining the lives of Black queer men in 1920s Harlem, Isaac Julien’s 40-minute black-and-white fantasia is a combination of gorgeously designed costumes and reenactments, archival footage and audio, and a non-linear summoning of the ghost of Langston Hughes. Created by Julien during his time as member of the Sankofa Film Collective, the film dips in and out of a mourner’s dream as he attends Hughes’ wake, transporting him to the smoky speakeasy below and dream worlds of men who look like they stepped out of a Mapplethorpe exhibition. Visual and literary poetry take turns infusing each scene, resulting in an experimental narrative that includes the viewer in its spell and determination to revive Hughes and his contemporaries, if even for a moment.
Intimate movement is integral to the entirety of the film, with couples holding each other close on the Cotton Club-esque dance floor, or seducing the camera and each other with a glide of their hand and a lingering, penetrating gaze. In its triumphant final sequence, the patrons of the club break out of their couples to form a joyous, thrumming crowd together on the dance floor. To the pulsating beat of a house track, the dancers lose all inhibitions, smashing glasses and spinning under a disco ball that shines like a sentry through the smoke. It’s an infectious joy that threatens to sour as a group of policemen outside noisily ready themselves to destroy their sanctuary. However, the pigs burst into a suddenly deserted club, baffled and duped. As an angel scoffs at their stupidity from a balcony, it’s safe to assume that the dancers have merely roamed to continue their sparkling joy in another location, and the cops aren’t invited.
In Wong Kar-wai’s hair-rending depiction of a toxic romance crumbling over and over again, dance is one of the only tools that heals a rift, if only for a little while. Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) are a couple already on their way to a break-up when, in an effort to revitalize their relationship with a roadtrip to the majestically captured Igazu Falls, their car breaks down and they become stranded in Buenos Aires. Left with barely enough money to find a room for the night, they have to scrounge up enough to purchase return tickets, with Lai becoming a club promoter at a local tango bar that caters to Taiwanese tourists and Ho engaging in sex work with older Argentinian clientele. The flippancy with which Ho regards both his own safety and Lai’s money divides them once again, and they break up for a time before Ho’s injuries mount and Lai takes him into his minuscule, filthy rented apartment.
Though Lai at first refuses to participate in Ho’s attempts at seduction, in such close proximity they inevitably find their way back to each other, reaching a pinnacle with Ho teaching Lai to tango in the sparse apartment kitchen. For a moment, everything—abject poverty, a relationship bereaved even as it lives, being strangers in a strange land—falls away. They sway and box-step, breaking in and out of dance as Ho cradles Lai. In that combination of strength and physical care, you can nearly hear their racing inner monologues stop, and they once again succumb to the cycle of their own bad romance.
The Full Monty walked so Magic Mike could hump the floor. In Peter Cattaneo’s enthusiastic comedy, former steelworkers of Sheffield, South Yorkshire have mostly been reduced to unemployment and petty crime in selling the scrap metal from their now-nearly defunct steel mill employers. One of the workers, Gary “Gaz” Schofield (a delightfully squirrelly Robert Carlyle), facing the threat of his ex-wife revoking custody over his young son, comes up with a get-rich-quick scheme kickstarted by a cadre of infatuated women outside a Chippendales. He’s going to form his own revue alongside his unemployed friends, and they’re going to be taking it all off.
Many scenes in this film are deserving of celebration, including Carlyle’s inspired demonstration of a Chippendales act that ends in him stuck in his own shirt, and of course the wildly successful culminating striptease to “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” However, no scene captures the irrepressible urge to cut a rug better than the ensemble subtly dancing in line at the unemployment office. As soon as Donna Summer’s ungovernable bop “Hot Stuff” comes over the PA, all six amateur strippers fight (and lose) the instinct to bust out their routine, silently thrusting and tapping their feet in unison as they refuse to make eye contact with anyone around them. Tom Wilkinson’s effortless spin as he makes it to the front of the line ties up a perfect piece of comedy gold, and cements this moment on my own list of cinematic achievements of the 20th century.
What I wouldn’t give for a Julian Dennison/Abigail Breslin dance-off. Technically, the culmination of this Roadtrip In Which Everything That Can Go Wrong, Does movie doesn’t only center around dudes, but when beleaguered dad Richard (Greg Kinnear), suicidal uncle Frank (Steve Carrell) and ultra-angsty brother Dwayne (Paul Dano) unleash their best Drunk White Dude At A Wedding moves to support undisputed heart of the film Olive (Breslin), they’re forming the strongest bond they’ve ever known.
Directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris pull off one of the most joyous sequences committed to film when Olive, buoyed by an insatiable need to participate in the Little Miss Sunshine child beauty pageant and moves from her just deceased grandfather (Alan Arkin), arrives at the talent portion in full Rick James “Superfreak” splendor. While the organizers of the pageant try to stop her unbecoming bumping and grinding from ruining the sanctity of their event, her previously quarrelling family cheers her on. As soon as the emcee tries to physically chase her off the stage, Richard wrestles him into the wings, encouraging Olive to keep going, and eventually joins in, to the shock and horror of the rest of the pageant board. As mom Sheryl (Toni Collette) watches in awe, and eventually jumps onstage as well, the men of the family do their level best to make sure Olive feels safe, joyful, and perfectly at ease flipping off anyone who would want her to shrink herself for their own comfort.
Shayna Maci Warner is a Brooklyn-based film programmer, preservationist and GLAAD-awarded critical queer. Their words on queer feelings and films appear in Autostraddle, The Film Stage and Film Cred, among others, and they write a horny newsletter about the girls and gays that make movies worth watching. You can summon her by yodeling “Desert Hearts was robbed!” into the sunset.