Looking back over this year’s films featuring LGBTQ+ characters, themes, and narratives, it becomes clear that there is no monolithic category of “queer cinema.” This year, queerness has been presented matter-of-factly, as a revelation, as something inherent to film form, and as something that cannot be defined. This year offered problematic portraits of queer trauma, sweet comings-of-age, and narratives built upon foundations of queer identity and desire. Some films surprised and triumphed, while others failed to do justice to the legendary figures they sought to represent. Rather than offer a ranked list of the “best” films featuring queer themes and characters, this article seeks to highlight works that are deserving of your time and energy, and offer unique visions on what it means to present queer life and experience onscreen. Of course, I must acknowledge that there are queer-oriented films I have not yet seen, including Colette, A Kid Like Jake, and Knife + Heart. Similar to my impulse to distance myself from rankings, I also cannot claim that this is a definitive list. Rather, it is a subjective account of what I think are the most interesting, artful, and nuanced LGBTQ+ films of the year.
I had the pleasure of seeing this beautiful film at TIFF and got to hear director Wanuri Kahiu discuss her commitment to an “Afrobubblegum” style that foregrounds fun and frivolous African stories, as well as her frustration with the film being banned by the Kenya Film Classification Board. Weeks later, the ban was lifted after Kahiu’s appeal to the government, representing a triumph for African LGBTQ+ people. As Kahiu herself noted, queer sexuality is only outlawed in Kenya as a result of colonial structures that contradict actual experiences of queer African people. Wanuri’s film focuses on the tentative and sweet love affair between bold and vivacious Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) and reserved and thoughtful Kena (Samantha Mugatsia). Kahiu frequently shoots her actresses in close-up, providing us with an intimate portrait of the emotions playing across their faces as they gently fall in love. She visually foregrounds the different ways the women present their femininity, with Ziki in colorful, 90s-inspired clothing and pastel pink and blue hair, and Kena in more muted tones often featuring African prints. Kahiu notes that as the women become closer to each other, they begin to resemble each other more, mirroring the experience of melting into your partner as you get to know them better. The young women face their share of challenges, including homophobia from their friends along with social repercussions resulting from the fact that their fathers are political rivals. Yet the majority of the film is spent quietly focusing on the girls’ conversations about their futures, ambitions, and identities. Kahiu plays with temporality, offering slowed-down moments and overlapping editing that evoke the dizzying feeling of falling in love, of truly connecting with someone. It is a perfect portrait of first love, of the excitement of being unsure what is going to happen next, but knowing that there is endless possibility between you and another person. What makes this film so special is Kahiu’s adept stylistic and narrative presentation of a specifically Kenyan story of two women falling in love, an experience rarely if ever depicted in cinema.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
One of my favorite pieces of film criticism this year comes from Reel Honey‘s Emily Barton, in her essay on the subtle power of queer world-building in Marielle Heller‘s Can You Ever Forgive Me? Emily beautifully parses how the film subtly references the characters’ queerness (both the brilliant Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant) while never diminishing its importance to their identities. Heller has proven her deft talent for telling slightly melodramatic stories about complicated people both in this film and her debut The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015). However, Can You Ever Forgive Me? focuses its attention on much older characters, and as Barton writes, offers a unique configuration of queer identity, one that is not salacious, overtly sexual, or youthful. The most touching aspect of this otherwise acerbic and depressing film is the relationship between Lee Israel (McCarthy) and her friend and business partner, Jack Hock (Grant). CBC‘s Peter Knegt rightfully points out that rarely if ever do we get to see films featuring queer friendships between characters of different genders. While the film does not explicitly focus on AIDS activism or larger queer communities, the friendship between Israel and Hock is a microcosm representing the way queer people care for and support one another. Moreover, this is not a film about abuse, conversion therapy, or coming-out like many of the LGBTQ-focused films of the year, but is instead a tale of broke, drunk, miserable grown-ups who need to get creative in order to pay the bills. Sure, literary forgery is not an ideal means of making money, but Israel’s story makes for a fascinating and frankly entertaining film.
Perhaps one of the most underappreciated films of the year, Miguel Arteta‘s Duck Butter is an offbeat dramedy about two women who agree to spend twenty-four hours together, having sex once every sixty minutes, in an attempt to speed up the process of getting to know a new lover. Naima (Alia Shawkat, who co-wrote the film) and Sergio (Laia Costa) meet at a lesbian bar, and after hooking up decide to eschew the drawn-out courtship process in favor of a marathon date and sex session. Throughout this truncated relationship, the women are forced to confront difficult truths about how they feel about intimacy, trust, and what they truly desire from a partner. The women speak frankly about their past relationships, their families, and the frustrations of being a young working woman. The sex scenes (there are many!) encapsulate how fun, sexy, and strange this arrangement truly is. These scenes never come off as prurient or objectifying, like many depictions of lesbian sex filtered through the male gaze (see: Blue is the Warmest Color, Black Swan), but instead demonstrate the easy chemistry between the two characters, and the fun they have experimenting with each other in bed hour upon hour. At a certain point, things get complicated and messy (as they do in all relationships), and Naima and Sergio must negotiate the terms of their relationship and how they want to proceed with each other. Duck Butter is a fascinating take on relationships featuring two wonderfully nuanced performances from its lead actresses, and is exciting for its sustained engagement with the pleasures of lesbian sexuality.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post
The second of two stories about conversion therapy this year (the other being Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased), Desiree Akhavan‘s The Miseducation of Cameron Post focuses on Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young queer woman sent away to God’s Promise, a Christian conversion camp, by her aunt Ruth (Kerry Butler). The film is based on the novel of the same name by Emily Danforth and is set in the 1990s, reflected in the music, décor, costumes, and the lack of understanding about teenage queer desire. Not to say that the world is much more understanding these days, but this film demonstrates decidedly 90’s ideas about sexuality – for instance, that women who are interested in sports are lesbians. The leaders at the conversion camp (played by a chilly Jennifer Ehle and a rather sad John Gallagher, Jr.) offer an array of conflicting messages: “gender confusion” is conflated with sexual orientation, and queer desire is alternately framed as a sin, an addiction, a sickness, and a choice. Moretz is brilliant as the laid-back Cameron, who feels her sexuality needs no label, but is nonetheless troubled by the camp’s emotional abuses. She finds solace and companionship in Jane Fonda (a wonderful Sasha Lane) and Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck), two self-assured queers who understand that they are in this predicament as a result of political and social forces greater than any individual. Akhavan is an important voice in LGBTQ+ cinema, offering wry and at times devastating tales of queerness in an unkind world. Cameron’s flashbacks to her time with Coley (Quinn Shephard) are sweet and tender, depicting moments of fumbling teenage passion, made all the more exciting by the fact that it is their little secret. However, the repercussions for closeted queer teens in the 90’s having their secrets exposed are a lot more dire than they would be for their straight counterparts, a point Akhavan sharply emphasizes.
1985 chronicles Adrian’s (Cory Michael Smith) first visit home to Texas for Christmas with his family after being away in New York for the past three years. Yen Tan‘s film, shot in beautiful black and white, draws the parameters of the closet as Adrian returns home to his family, to whom he has never explicitly come out as gay. Adrian’s queerness rests beneath the surface of every scene as he struggles to find the words to explain to his family that he has contracted AIDS. Smith imbues every move Adrian makes and every word he says with the sense that he is holding something back. The film is deeply sad in its dramatization of an experience familiar to many gay men in the 80s and 90s, having to confront your own mortality at a young age, unable to share your fears with potentially judgemental friends and family. In one tense scene, Adrian’s father (Michael Chiklis) reveals that he once saw Adrian embracing another man on the street, and demands that Adrian never come out to mother, as it would “break her heart.” Heteronormativity is enforced at every turn, as Adrian’s mother (a luminous Virginia Madsen) tries to set him up with his old best friend Carly (Jamie Chung), and his father laments how “soft” (read: queer) his youngest son Andrew (Aidan Langford) seems to be. When Adrian finally shares the devastating truth with Carly about his diagnosis, it is cathartic. Adrian lets out his grief, telling Carly he has been to six funerals in the past year, having lost so many of his close friends to AIDS. The film presents a quiet portrait of the terrifying reality of being a gay man in the 1980s, seeming to lose control of your body without the surety that your family will be there to take care of you in your final hours. This is a heartbreaking, beautifully acted, gorgeously shot film that is ultimately hopeful that there are comforts to be found, even in the darkest of places.
Disobedience and The Favourite
While these films do not have much in common, and each stand on their own as some of the best filmmaking of the year, I have grouped them together to highlight the incredible performances by Rachel Weisz this year. Sebastián Lelio‘s Disobedience is sombre and austere, set in a strictly religious Orthodox Jewish community in London. Much like 1985, this is a film about returning to one’s home under dire circumstances. In this case, Ronit (Weisz) has lost her father, and must return to a community she has been estranged from for many years. The peaceful and mannered tone of the film is disrupted as Ronit reunites with her (now married) lover, Esti (Rachel McAdams, who has never been better). Neither character seems sure of what to do with the deep affection and passion they feel for each other, but their stolen kisses and extended lovemaking session embolden Esti to admit she is a lesbian and ask her husband Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) for her “freedom.” Weisz is wonderful as the seemingly exhausted, grief-stricken Ronit, whose keen sense of humor sets her apart from the ever-serious members of her old community. This is a world where queerness is not even considered an option, and must be kept secret. Yet in the end, Dovid agrees to set Esti free and quite literally embraces Esti and Ronit, offering some sort of acceptance of their strange situation.
The Favourite presents an entirely different world, that of 18th-century Great Britain ruled by Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). Yorgos Lanthimos crafts a grotesque, ornate, and bitingly funny piece of work that is just as narratively and aesthetically exciting as his previous films, including Dogtooth (2009), The Lobster (2015), and last year’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Using a fisheye lens and deep-focus cinematography, Lanthimos beautifully frames the political and personal goings-on within the castle. The best part of the film is the endless power play between the Queen, her confidante and lover Sarah Churchill (Weisz), and Sarah’s cousin and scullery maid, Abigail (a brilliant Emma Stone). Colman gives a stunning, committed performance as Queen Anne, whose body seems to betray her at every turn, preventing her from being able to walk or even sit upright, let alone enjoy a drink of hot chocolate. She is at times deeply sensitive and wounded, and other times unnecessarily cruel, screaming at anyone who looks at her the wrong way. She is lonely and isolated, completely uninterested in the war or any other political matters. Both Sarah and Abigail use this to their advantage, Sarah in the interest of furthering her own political motivations and Abigail in an attempt to rise up the social ladder after having fallen very far. Every single person has dubious motives, but the film does not judge them. Rather, we end up rooting for everyone’s evil plans to work out, knowing full well their voracious appetites for power will leave them forever unsatisfied. This is also a film where nobody is “straight,” where the Queen’s best advisors are those who give her the most sexual pleasure, and the men are obsessively concerned with being pretty in their powdered wigs and heavy facial makeup. The Favourite is darkly funny and seductive from beginning to spectacularly messy end.
Perhaps the most commercially successful film on this list, Love, Simon is remarkable for its status as the first teenage romantic comedy to feature an openly gay protagonist. Love, Simon offers a relatively happy and positive coming-out story, in which 17-year old Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) begins a correspondence with an anonymous blogger, Blue, and is then inspired to tell his closest friends and family that he is gay. While the ride is not entirely smooth – his frenemy Martin (Logan Miller) finds his emails, screenshots them, and eventually blackmails him by posting them online – Simon’s loved ones react with love and acceptance when he comes out to them. As Peter Knegt writes, this film presents a privileged tale, as it centers on a white, upper-middle-class, conventionally attractive young gay man in a (mostly) liberal suburban community. While the film offers important representation for queer teens struggling with their identities, it should be acknowledged that Simon’s story is radically different than the way many people experience coming out, if they feel comfortable enough to do so at all. The way that Simon’s mother (Jennifer Garner) and father (Josh Duhamel) immediately accept him and tearfully reinforce their unconditional love is ideal. The sentiment that Simon is “just like you,” “normal,” and no different than he was before is repeated over and over again, demonstrating that this film subscribes to an idea of tolerance and acceptance, as long as queer people behave no differently from heterosexual people. Knegt cites the scene where Simon fantasizes about a gay as hell lifestyle in Los Angeles, where people exuberantly dance all around him, waving rainbow flags while Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” plays, only to undercut this fantasy by saying “…well, maybe not that gay.” Overall, the film offers a pleasant fantasy of coming out where people clap, cheer, and tell you how much they love you, and while it is not perfect, it is certainly a starting place for queer iterations of the idealistic romantic comedies Hollywood has been releasing for decades. We are, of course, not just like you, and all of our stories deserve to be told.