When we counted down the best gay films of 2014, we questioned what constitutes a ‘gay’ film. One year on, it remains a troublesome concept, as epitomized this year by director Xavier Dolan, known for films featuring strong queer characters such as Laurence Anyways and Tom At the Farm, as well as Adele’s recent Hello video.
‘Not that, arrogantly, you are taking for granted that the gay community and the queer community will see the film, but you sort of are, and you’re wishing that the movie will break out of those labels,’ he told HuffPost Live. ‘You don’t want to put a label on things and a tag on things and restrain them to a certain visibility and exposure.’
In compiling this list of the year’s best ‘gay’ films (and once again, we’re using the term loosely), what goes without saying is, wherever you fall on the sexuality spectrum – gay, lesbian, trans, and we’re including straight people here – these films are absolutely essential viewing for all.
Grandma enjoyed an early December UK release date (September in the US), and who doesn’t love a feel-good family movie in the run up to Christmas? Not that Grandma – in this case an uproarious lesbian poet in her 70s called Elle – exactly fits the mould. Here, veteran actress Lily Tomlin, 76, steals the show in the titular role, with a dazzling Julia Garner playing Sage, a precocious teenager who turns to Elle when she falls pregnant. Look out for Orange Is The New Black’s Laverne Cox in a supporting role as a tattoo artist called Deathy…
8 I Am Michael
The true story of how gay activist Michael Glatze rejected his homosexuality and became a Christian pastor à-la-redneck. For its fans, I Am Michael was controversial, nuanced and fascinating. For its detractors, it was a dry made-for-TV-style movie where the main character’s motivation was so poorly developed as to be incomprehensible. All this is alleviated by James Franco (Michael) being easy on the eye – for a straight man, that boy sure does love playing gay.
A brave, powerful documentary from Vice – who else? – charting the rise of ‘chemsex’, or, the mixing of drugs, alcohol, and high risk gay group sex, a scene especially thriving in London. Where, as discussed in the below trailer, five gay men discover they have HIV every day. Also known as party and play, or PNP, the film gets under the skin of the phenomena by interviewing some of the often engaging and eloquent men caught in its midst.
Warning: this tragicomedy personality study doesn’t make for easy viewing. The central character, David, is as cruel and unsympathetic and he is excruciatingly recognizable; we all know an unbearably selfish gay man-child with a big ego and an even bigger chip on his shoulder, right? Sadly, in former child actor David’s case, we aren’t talking mere character flaws; alcoholism and pathological lying pave way to a complete mental breakdown. But not before our handsome antihero tricks and cheats his way into a post as – of all things – a high school guidance counselor. Naturally, black humor abounds.
Director, writer and actor Pat Mills is the triple-talent behind this painfully funny (and scary) portrait of dysfunction.
5 Nasty Baby
This lo-fi Looking-esque comedy-drama is essentially two films sewn together, and with surprising seamlessness. What begins as a vaguely annoying and trendy tale of Brooklyn-residing hipster gay couple Freddy and Mo exploring parenthood options with kooky best straight girl friend Polly (Kristen Wiig playing to type again – no matter how charming) suddenly shifts gear and tone when an eccentric, homophobic neighbor known as The Bishop (House of Cards’ Reg E. Cathey) oversteps the mark.
Director and screenwriter Sebastián Silva stars as Freddy, offering a stylish, unique film that features one of the hottest on-screen gay couples in recent memory (Tunde Adebimpe, give us a call sometime).
Based on a rousing true story, Julianne Moore and Ellen Page star in the drama about a dying woman’s last wish for equality. Both actresses deliver effortless performances, echoing the real life women behind the political drama. Filmed when Page was about to come out, you can tell there was a real effort to ‘get it right’.
While a lot of the other characters feel like rough caricatures of what you would expect – the white dudes in charge have little else to do – it feels necessary for the simple story to take center stage. One of the best dramas of the year.
3 The Danish Girl
So, it turns out two of the best films of the year explore trans issues – and it’s interesting to note how different they are in tone and style. This gentle, restrained drama is based on the true story of artist Einar Wegener, who, in 1920s Copenhagen, became one of the first people in the world to undergo gender reassignment surgery, becoming Lili Elbe.
Eddie Redmayne dazzles in the lead role, and is surely is a contender for Best Actor; things are also looking good for actress Alicia Vikander, who plays Gerda, Einar’s wife and Lili’s loving confidant. To read our full review of the film, click here.
No one saw this one coming. What was at one point in danger of being remembered as ‘the movie shot entirely on an iPhone’ now looks likely to be remembered for what it really is: an utterly original, trailblazing modern classic.
In her acting debut, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez is unleashed as the unstoppable force of nature Sin-Dee Rella – a gorgeous, emotionally unhinged trans sex worker pacing the streets of Hollywood. Upon completing a month-long stint in prison, Sin-Dee discovers her pimp boyfriend is cheating on her with ‘fish’; she promptly goes on the warpath. May Taylor plays Alexandra, Sin-Dee’s quietly brassy BFF and esteemed colleague.
It’s a rude, crude and tart comedy that weaves a subtly complex emotional web; the laughs come thick and fast, but so do the no holds barred emotional sucker punches, moments of raw tragedy, ugliness and violence. Ultimately, this portrait of impenetrable female friendship left tears of shock, sadness, laughter and joy in my eyes. In a Hollywood first, the film’s creators and distributors are campaigning for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress Oscar recognition for the film’s openly trans stars. An aggressive, artistic explosion of a movie.
Pure, transportive, cinematic perfection – Carol is a period drama for people who don’t like period dramas; a ‘lesbian film’ as emotionally resonant with straight audiences as gay (everybody was in tears at my screening). It also possesses an elusive magic more akin to Hollywood’s Golden Age: it’s a film that’s more than the sum of its parts.
Let’s break it down. If you’ve seen Carol, you’ll know there’s little plot to speak of beyond the secret, central relationship, which begins when Therese, an unassuming retail assistant in 1950s New York, serves the older, glamorous socialite Carol, who is married with children.
There’s also a simplicity to the script. The acting, too, is underplayed, if not painfully undemonstrative. Interesting, given Blanchett’s wonderfully grotesque caricatures of late – Blue Jasmine, the Wicked Stepmother, while Mara’s most enduring character, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, isn’t much remembered for her subtlety, either.
So, given all this restraint – keep in mind, too, that Carol was made with a modest budget – how did the cast and crew achieve so much with so little? It’s like pure cinematic alchemy. As Carol’s stiff posture melts, and Therese matures and blooms with every near-imperceptible head tilt, you’ll find yourself emotionally annihilated, and loving it. The dynamic between the leads is electrifying and so, so real.
Lifted by Carter Burwell’s soaring score as well as an excellent attention to period detail, and a deft supporting turn from lady-of-the-moment Sarah Paulson, this lovely, simple film leaves its mark.