This is part of our 2020 Preview. Follow along as we explore all the things that have us mildly hopeful in the new year.
Queer film had quite the showing in 2019. Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Wild Nights with Emily, Pain and Glory, Booksmart, and End of the Century are just a handful that prove the point. As a more conservative, traditional world learns to embrace a beautiful reality in which anyone can love anyone, Hollywood seems to be revving its engines in anticipation (and by Hollywood, I mean Ryan Murphy, but we’ll get to that later). More gay, trans, lesbian, and other queer projects are being bought at film festivals, greenlit by major studios, distributed to wider audiences, and celebrated by greater masses.
Of course, conglomerates like Disney (which assumedly still have too many outdated traditionalists in power to take significant steps forward) are trying to get the best of both worlds by touting a background kiss between two women in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker as if they made the next fucking Brokeback Mountain. So, there’s a lot of ground to be gained when it comes to widespread embrace and moving past falsely based corporatization of queerness. But there’s plenty to look forward to outside of that. For the sake of avoiding potential major studio publicity stunts and conjecture on filmmakers’ purported sexual orientation, all of the films on this list were chosen because they have confirmed queer characters and/or plotlines central to the film.
And Then We Danced
Swedish-Georgian writer-director Levan Akin returns with his third feature, a politically charged coming-of-age drama about a dancer in Tbilisi, Georgia, who slowly comes to terms with what it means to be gay within a traditional culture of dance in a staunchly conservative country. It premiered in the Director’s Fortnight sidebar at Cannes in May to critical praise, has had immense success in Sweden since, and has reignited political turmoil over queer identity in Georgia. Plus, the lead role is played by a real (non-actor) dancer. Expect to be impressed. (Release date: February 7th)
Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
After an egregious first attempt to immortalize the bisexual antihero Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad, Margot Robbie is back with her own solo film in the DC Extended Universe. Of late, there’s a slightly renewed hope in DC’s efforts, which began as the bottom of the barrel sludge. Whether you loved it or hated it (I fell somewhere in the middle), Joker was an anomaly as far as comic book conventions are concerned, and DC was the studio willing to take the risk on it. Here’s to hoping the success of Joker — in the context of extended universes — will lead to more original comic book films. Birds of Prey will be the first test. (Release date: February 7th)
While still relatively unknown by US audiences, Chilean writer-producer-director Pablo Larraín has spent the decade proving nearly everything he touches turns to gold. If you count its Fall premiere in Venice, Ema marks his sixth masterwork of the 2010s. By its public US release date (expected sometime in the summer), it’s his first of the 2020s and an auspicious kickoff for any director. The film follows a prodigious experimental bisexual dancer (Mariana Di Girolamo) and her husband/choreographer (Gael García Bernal) in a Chilean mountain town as they navigate a tumultuous familial situation. Do yourself a favor and don’t look up the plot details. Larraín is terrific at slowly unfolding labyrinthian mystery and Ema is an exquisite example. The textural riches of fire, movement, music, and color—on top of the ever-twisting narrative—will leave you stunned. (Release date: TBD)
At this point, it seems as if gay writer-producer-director Ryan Murphy simply speaks his projects into being without any trouble. The man practically owns the TV side of the medium, but he’s about to be back in cinemas. This fall, we will see him dive into his first theatrically distributed feature since Eat Pray Love in 2010. Since signing his record-breaking $300 million contract with Netflix in 2018, Murphy’s confirmed that he has more than 10 projects greenlit at Netflix that range from Andy Warhol documentaries to Tinseltown dramas to The Prom, an adaptation of the Broadway comedy musical of the same name, starring Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, Awkwafina, James Corden, Keegan-Michael Key, Kerry Washington, and Andrew Rannells. Regardless of how you feel about Murphy and his distinctly colorful style, the man’s made a career out of championing trans, gay, lesbian, and other queer stories from the margins. The Prom is in the right hands. (Release date: TBD)
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie
Another musical adaptation (this time from the West End), Everybody’s Talking About Jamie follows a teenage aspiring drag queen extraordinaire who faces prejudice due to his sexuality and love for drag. The film is set to be directed by Jonathan Butterell (in his feature debut) and choreographed by Kate Prince, the same two that put on the West End production. Richard E. Grant will co-star alongside newcomer Max Harwood as a former drag queen named Loco Chanelle. The musical was adapted from the 2011 documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, so in a sense, the story is returning home to the screen. (Release date: October 23rd)
Queer icon Kristen Stewart teams up with the wonderful Mackenzie Davis in a rom-com about coming out of the closet. One of them plans to propose at the other’s family holiday party, but her plans are thrown off-course once she realizes that her girlfriend hasn’t come out to her surprisingly conservative family. Clea DuVall will direct the screenplay she co-wrote with Mary Holland. This is only DuVall’s second screenplay and directorial effort. Her first, 2016’s The Intervention, didn’t offer a terribly distinct expression, so it’s hard to know what to expect. Here’s to hoping the Stewart-Davis dream team will make all the difference. (Release date: November 20th)
HBO bought this dark comedy about the largest embezzlement scandal in public school history at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall for nearly $20 million. Many expected a late fall/early winter release after rave reviews out of the festival, but now that that’s in the past, it seems as if it won’t come around until closer to summer. Seemingly the team behind the film, including writer-director Cory Finley (Thoroughbreds), is aiming for Emmy nods for their all-star cast led by Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney, and Ray Romano. Jackman plays the Long Island Superintendent, a closeted gay man who has no problem swindling the community out of their taxes if it means “free” plastic surgery for himself. (Release date: TBD)
If you’ve ever questioned whether controversial auteur Paul Verhoeven gets off on being a provocateur, you’ve probably only seen Total Recall. The Dutch 81-year-old is a mastermind when it comes to offending audiences, and Benedetta — an adaptation of Judith C. Brown’s Immodest Acts – The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy — has the potential to be his most incendiary work. Why? It’s about a lesbian nun. It’s as if Verhoeven chose a story that intersects two of the most opposing forces on the planet: the Catholic church and queer sexual expression. Some of you might be thinking, “Well, maybe it won’t be very explicit. Maybe it’ll be sweet and romantic and uplifting. Maybe it will start a healthy conversation between Catholics and the queer community.” To that, I say, “The nun’s areola is sticking out of her dress on the teaser poster.” (Release date: TBD)
Boys in the Band
The second Broadway musical adaptation on this list coming out of Ryan Murphy’s $300 million Netflix deal, Boys in the Band, was an Off-Broadway success in 1968 that Murphy revived on Broadway in 2018 and is now producing for the screen. The plot follows gay men at a New York City birthday party, and all of them will be played by openly gay actors, including Jim Parsons, Andrew Rannells, Matt Bomer, and Zachary Quinto, all of whom are reprising the roles they played in the 2018 revival. Broadway director Joe Mantello is directing a screenplay penned by original playwright Mart Crowley. The whole gang is on board! (Release date: TBD)
2020 is the year we meet Viggo Mortensen, writer and director. He’s spent the past three decades delivering incredible performances, while occasionally sprinkling in the opposite (cough, Green Book, cough). He has a habit of working with great directors, especially David Cronenberg, with whom he’s had a longstanding personal and professional connection. It’s time to see what he’s learned from the greats. He’ll also produce and play the film’s lead, a gay man whose conservative father (Lance Henriksen) comes to stay with him, his husband, and their kids. The film will debut at Sundance at the end of the month. The fate of its distribution will depend entirely on how it plays. (Release date: TBD)
This tender film about an aging gay couple on a road trip across the UK has already picked up distribution in several major markets overseas, but it’s yet to ink a US deal. Harry Macqueen’s second feature is led by Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci, the latter of whose character faces a case of early-onset dementia that adds a layer of emotional and relational complexity to the tour. Dick Pope shot the film, so we can count on some beautiful British landscapes undergirded by what’s likely to be a couple of impressive romantic and dramatic performances by the two stars. (Release date: TBD)
Latina writer-director Janicza Bravo debuted her first feature, Lemon, at Sundance in 2017, and she’ll be returning with her second in 2020. The film follows a woman named Zola (Taylour Paige) and her boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) on a weekend trip to Florida. Riley Keough will play a sex worker named Stefani and Colman Domingo will play her pimp, a brutal man who goes by X. A24 owns distribution rights and will likely wait to see how it performs at Sundance before they announce any concrete plans. Lastly, Bravo was able to secure a rare score from indie musician Mica Levi (aka Micachu), who up this point has only scored four films in her career (Under the Skin, Jackie, Marjorie Prime, and Monos) all of which are terrific. (Release date: TBD)
Bonus: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Wide Release)
Céline Sciamma’s lesbian masterpiece already ravaged critics and overseas audiences in 2019, but it received a very limited release in the US, most screenings sprinkled around New York City and Los Angeles at an inconsistent rate. But, taking a relatively unparalleled risk (for a French queer period piece), Neon has slated a wide release in the States that begins on Valentine’s Day. If you haven’t gotten the chance to see it, you — and I can’t stress this enough — must. From the rich, textural costume and production design to Claire Mathon’s stunning cinematography to Sciamma’s brilliant screenwriting and direction to the powerhouse performances by Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a feast for the senses that’s so much better than most films, it’s almost rude. (Release date: February 14th)