The Year in Queer Film

Manolo Herrera and Enrique Salanic in Li Cheng's "José."
Outsider Pictures

While the pandemic certainly changed the landscape this year regarding how films were shown and consumed, there still were some notable — though also ignoble — LGBTQ dramas, comedies, and documentaries available on streaming services and at that rare cinema that was open. The shift to home viewing, however, might for some have prompted sensory overload given how many available titles there were. Many films were likely to get lost in the shuffle. And while film festivals adapted to virtual platforms, the buzz that usually accompanies such screenings was quieter online.

Here are my personal favorites — and a couple of dislikes — from the year.

Best Documentary
“Disclosure,” by out trans director Sam Feder. This engaging, affirming film evaluates how transgender characters are presented and consumed by both trans and cisgender viewers, providing a critical awareness about how we are defined by what we watch.

Filmmaker Lilly Wachowski in Sam Feder’s “Disclosure.”Netflix

Runner Up: Born to Be,” Tania Cypriano’s uplifting documentary about Dr. Jess Ting, a compassionate and pioneering surgeon who performs gender-affirming surgeries at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.

Honorable Mention: “The Fight,” an inspiring portrait of the important work being done by the American Civil Liberties Union. One of the case studies in the film — Stone v. Trump, about the transgender ban on military personnel — was argued by Joshua Block and Chase Strangio.

Best Lesbian Film: “The Half of It,” out lesbian filmmaker Alice Wu’s charming rom-com. The film may have put a contemporary spin on “Cyrano” as Paul (Daniel Diemer) hires overachiever Ellie (Leah Lewis) to pen a love letter to Aster (Alexxis Lemire), who happens to be Ellie’s crush, but this winning film is faithful to its characters, presenting their foibles while they grapple with love and independence.

Runner Up: La Leyenda Negra,” Patricia Vidal Delgado’s gorgeous black-and-white feature about Aleteia (Monica Betancourt), an undocumented teenager in Compton, who captures the eye of her classmate Rosarito (Kailei Lopez).

Dishonorable mention: “Kajillionaire,” in which viewers have to suffer through almost all of an excruciating Miranda July film to get to the lesbian kiss. Gina Rodriguez is the sole ray of light as a lesbian who infiltrates a con artist family in this woefully unfunny comedy.

Best Gay Film: “José,” Li Cheng’s excellent romantic drama that has the title character (out gay actor Enrique Salanic) falling in love with Luis (Manolo Herrera) but also worrying about leaving his hardworking mother. Salanic gave an indelible performance, and the film’s copious sex scenes portrayed emotion as much as passion. Seek this film out. A gem.

Runner Up: “And Then We Danced,” was the first queer feature from Georgia. Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) is a closeted dancer in the Georgian national dance company who falls for Irakli (Bachi Valishvili). They soon initiate a clandestine affair, but the lovers also become rivals for a position in the main ensemble. How things play out, in both love and dance, forms the emotional cores of this compelling film.

Honorable Mention: “The Old Guard,” a kickass, globetrotting piece of escapism that is not a gay film per se, but included a same-sex couple that was greatly appreciated. Charlize Theron swaggers and fights her way through this action-fantasy with panache, but it was a heartfelt speech by Joe (Marwan Kenzari) — when he is teased by a soldier about Nicky (Luca Marinelli), his boyfriend of 900 years — that delivered a sucker punch.

James Sweeney and Katie Findlay in Sweeney’s “Straight Up.”Strand Releasing

Best Gender-Fluid Film: “Straight Up,” out queer writer/ director James Sweeney’s take on sexual fluidity that has heart and mind as a gay man (Sweeney) gets involved in a non-sexual romance with Rory (Katie Findlay). The banter is witty, and the insights about love and relationships are wise. Sweeney also employed inventive visuals that add to the fun.

Honorable Mention: “Aviva,” writer/ director Boaz Yakin’s wildly original dance drama. The film’s bold, gender-bending conceit is that the lovers, Aviva and Eden, are each played by both a man and woman. As such, over the course of the story, all four actors end up in same-sex situations. The dancing is sensational, and the gorgeous performers all look good naked.

Dishonorable Mention: “Lazy Susan,” out gay actor Sean Hayes’ opportunity to wear a dress while playing the title character, Susan O’Connell, an adult woman who acts like a teenager. She’s lazy. She’s messy. She’s unmotivated. So is the film.

Best Directorial Debut: “Antebellum” by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz. This fever-dream mash-up of genres and overlapping storylines deals with race and empowerment so it was perfect for 2020. Featuring queer actresses Janelle Monáe and Kiersey Clemons, this knottily-plotted, keep-you-guessing thriller was a bit of a mindfuck — it polarized folks — but it is also an audacious and auspicious debut by Bush and Renz, who are a couple off-screen.

Most Disappointing Films: The Boys in the Band,” in its small screen adaptation, failed to capture the intensity of the stage production, opting instead to include flashbacks and gratuitous nudity rather than forceful performances.

Happiest Season,” a lesbian holiday rom-com in which out actress-turned-director Clea DuVall manages to force the queer lovers back into the closet to teach the straight folks a lesson. How is this progress?

To sign up for the Gay City News email newsletter, visit gaycitynews.com/newsletter.

More from Around NYC

>