The Best And Boldest LGBTI Films Of 2014
Could this be the biggest ever year for queer filmmaking?
You wouldn’t know it by looking at your local listings, but there are a LOT of films being made about the LGBTI experience right now. They can be pretty hard to find in Australia – frequently relegated to festivals in the major cities or quiet home entertainment releases on DVD, Blu-ray, or iTunes (and sometimes not even that) – but they are indeed out there. Maybe Australian Netflix can act as a more convenient home? We live in hope. Either way, here’s an extensive, intensive (and yet still not complete) list of films that you should know about from the year that was.
Xavier Dolan (Again)
If it seems like there’s a new Xavier Dolan movie every year, it’s because there is. The 25-year-old Québécois filmmaker has already made five incredibly accomplished pictures, perhaps the most well-regarded of which was last year’s Tom at the Farm. This year we finally got to see the Hitchcockian thriller with a queer-erotic twist, following the grieving partner of a closeted man meeting his late boyfriend’s mother and brother on an isolated country farm. The tension between Tom and the homophobic brother soon gives way to a simmering, repressed sexual energy and some truly catastrophic mummy issues.
Speaking of mummy issues, his next film (out in Australia in March) is Mommy (2014). While not explicitly gay – the lead character’s sexuality is hinted at and misdirected, but it’s easy to assume – it is a majestic and epic examination of three lost souls in the not-too-distance future. Filmed in am unfamiliar Instagram-esque square format, Mommy may just be Dolan’s best film yet, assured and confident in its visual flourishes, yet even richer in its drama.
It’s been a huge year for queer filmmaking on the festival circuit, starting with Daniel Ribeiro’s The Way He Looks (2014), which won the Berlin Film Festival’s prestigious Teddy Award for queer cinema this year and follows a blind, closeted school kid and the new boy that he forges a friendship with. It’s sweet in much the same way as gay coming-of-age classic Beautiful Thing (1996) and is a must-see for gay audiences young and old. It competed against The Circle (2014), which blends a dramatised account of Zurich’s underground gay nightlife post-WWII with the documentary examination of two of its most prominent members (both of whom are still alive today). Will either of them be Oscar-nominated?
Sundance also premiered several films with queer content, including the two youth-skewing titles Life Partners (2014) and Appropriate Behavior (2014). The former stars Leighton Meester and Community‘s Gillian Jacobs as gay and straight best friends who are torn apart by Adam Brody (naturally). It’s cute, if somewhat unfinished and too similar to Bridesmaids (2011). Appropriate Behavior on the other hand is a deliciously original comedy from American-Iranian writer/director/star Desiree Akhavan about a bisexual Brooklynite.
Gerontophilia (2013) by sensationalist controversy-stoker Bruce LaBruce was a most unexpected film. Unlike L.A. Zombie (2010), which was banned by the Australian government, this could conceivably get a PG rating if ratings boards wouldn’t flinch at a film about a teenager and an octogenarian having a relationship. It’s funny, touching, and a dramatic leap forward from the Canadian director’s grungy, underground aesthetic. He’s following it up in perhaps more expected fashion with a film called Twincest (2015).
Out of Cannes, Saint Laurent (2014) is by far the superior of the two Yves Saint Laurent biopics from this year, flaunting its subject’s homosexuality like a badge of honour. And while I haven’t been able to catch Respire (2014) yet, this film about two 17-year-old girls who form a dangerous bond was a Cannes sensation and is directed by Inglourious Basterds (2009) star Mélanie Laurent. Think Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994) goes to France.
At the Stockholm Film Festival, which I attended in November, I saw François Ozon’s The New Girlfriend (2014), a film about a new widow (played by Romain Duris) who dresses as a woman named Virginia while beginning a relationship with his wife’s best friend, Claire. Despite raising many important issues relating to the fluidity of sexuality, gender, and modern families, Ozon should’ve known better than to treat the material like a tone-deaf soufflé. Especially since the openly gay Frenchman has made such powerful works of queer cinema as A Summer Dress (1996) and Swimming Pool (2003). Mario Fanfani’s Summer Nights (2014) appears to be a far better take on similar material, having won the Venice Film Festival’s big queer prize.
One of the best films of 2014 is actually an Australian one. 52 Tuesdays (2014) won director Sophie Hyde the award for Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival and was filmed one day a week over a year – echoing the realtime structure of Linklater’s Boyhood (2014). It provides a keen and previously unrecognised insight into the life of modern Australian trans people and teenagers.
Far less people saw this superior Aussie drama than they did Dallas Buyers Club (2014). Especially once that controversial white-washing of the ’80s AIDS outbreak won three Oscars, including one for Jared Leto’s performance as a transgender woman. Similarly, Eddie Redmayne will soon be the next big actor to step into the shoes of a trans character in Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl. Originally set to star Nicole Kidman, it will tell the true story of Lili Elbe, one of the first people to ever have sex reassignment surgery.
On the small screens, television has become a powerful tool in bringing stories about transgender men and women to big audiences with Transparent, Orange is the New Black, and even Glee making big strides, while the Australian made-for-TV biopic Carlotta was a ratings hit for ABC1. Starring Jessica Marais both before and after her surgery, it’s a fine production with a glamourous reproduction of Sydney’s Kings Cross district in the 1960s. And at least in this case the casting of a woman is in line with the gender of its subject.
At a Cinema Near You
I admit I was skeptical about Pride (2014) applying the feel-good gloss of The Full Monty (1996) to the story of Thatcher-bred miner’s strikes of the 1980s. But much like its openly queer characters who win over the homophobic residents of a Welsh mining town, I found myself falling for its genuine good nature.
Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader took their Saturday Night Live rapport and made The Skeleton Twins (2014), about suicidal siblings who come together after a decade apart. Hader’s performance as the gay Milo is particularly excellent. Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” will never be the same.
Strangely, 22 Jump Street (2014) and Bad Neighbours (2014) may just be the gayest Hollywood movies has ever made. The two of them go to extraordinary lengths to highlight the homo-subtext inherently found within so-called bromances and stars Channing Tatum and Zac Efron don’t shy away from sexualising their bodies. Bless them.
Benedict Cumberbatch will hit cinemas on January 1 with Oscar-buzzed The Imitation Game (2013) about the true story of WWII code-breaking hero Alan Turing. Sadly, apart from an extended flashback sequence to Alan’s schoolyard infatuation, the movie is decidedly quiet on the matter of his sexuality which was illegal at the time and punishable by chemical castration. Despite controversy over its rating, Love is Strange (2013), out in March of next year, is an affectionate story of two elderly men (Alfred Molina and John Lithgow) who are finally legally allowed to marry, an act which brings about new melancholy challenges.
Lastly, intersex people are by far the least represented of the LGBTI rainbow, yet with the Aussie sci-fi thriller Predestination we got the first major motion picture to deal with the subject matter that I can recall. The film’s labyrinthine structure involving time travel and multiple personalities is wholly preposterous, but all of the gravitas that it gets is thanks entirely to Sarah Snook’s performance. You won’t be able to forget her.
This is Real Life
As always, it pays to be attentive to documentaries if you’re interested in LGBTI subject matter as the genre is positively overflowing with titles. I was frustrated by the high-profile The Case Against 8 (2014) for failing to critique the conservativeness of the lawyers in charge of fighting California’s Proposition 8. The Overnighters (2014) is a far better documentary, examining the intricate ways homosexuality can affect even the most surprising people.
Heartbreaking in different ways is Happy Valley (2014), about a Penn State football coach involved with sex abuse cover-ups and how this revelation affects even those who are not directly involved. Then there’s Out in the Night (2014), following four African American lesbians and the racial and sexual discrimination they discover when they’re put on trial for attacking a man who threatened them.
My two favourite gay-docs of the year are Mala Mala (2014) and My Prairie Home (2013). The former features April Carrión from the most recent season of RuPaul’s Drag Race and looks at the booming drag and trans culture of Puerto Rico and the efforts made by those people for government recognition, while My Prairie Home (2014) is an amazing musical-documentary about the exquisitely talented non-gender conforming Canadian performer Rae Spoon as she travels across the Canadian prairies making a living as a musician.
The Best of the Rest
Sometimes films just can’t be as easily defined, and that’s certainly the case of Lyle (2014), which will screen at next year’s Mardi Gras Film Festival (Feb 19 – Mar 5). It stars Gaby Hoffmann as a pregnant woman who suspects her child is demonic and that her girlfriend and landlord are involved. It riffs heavily on Rosemary’s Baby (1968), but is an interesting work in its own right.
Issues of homosexuality and queerness are raised in such disparate films as prison drama Starred Up (2013) and quirky musical-slasher comedy Stage Fright (2014), which are both out now on DVD. Then there’s Gregg Araki’s Twin Peaks-inspired murder mystery White Bird in a Blizzard (2014) with Shailene Woodley, and Drunktown’s Finest (2014) that touches on mysticism and dual-gendered people within the Native American community.
Lastly, I would be remiss by not mentioning The Normal Heart (2014), the HBO adaptation of Larry Kramer’s famed play which stars Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, and Jim Parsons. As with all Ryan Murphy productions, it errs on the side of crass manipulation, but I can’t deny shedding several tears by the film’s powerful conclusion. As progress marches on, year after year, the film is a sobering reminder of where we once were.
Glenn Dunks is a freelance writer from Melbourne who is currently based in New York City. His work has been seen online (Quickflix, Onya Magazine and his own website), in print (The Big Issue, Metro Magazine) and on on the radio. He also works as an editor and a film festival programmer while tweeting too much @glenndunks.