Even though 2017 has been almost universally shitty for everything else, it’s been a great year for queer movies.
Back in February — following the Oscars flub of the century — we celebrated the Best Picture triumph of Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’ gorgeous three-part tale of of a young black man growing up in Miami and discovering his sexuality. Following the critical and commercial success of Todd Haynes’ sumptuous lesbian romance Carol, which in 2015 had signaled what looked like a sea change for LGBT films, Moonlight’s win seemed poised to usher in a new era in which deserving queer films could finally make it big.
Unlike the few LGBT Oscar contenders and winners of years past (those helmed by straight heroes whose emotional development relies upon queer tragedy-cases who are more props than people) Carol and Moonlight were tenderly crafted stories about self-discovery and queer love. Even if they did have what could be considered blind spots, they were widely beloved and widely recognized by queer and straight audiences alike. Both movies felt like victories.
This year, we were promised some big “exclusively gay” moments in blockbusters, like the new live-action remakes of Beauty and the Beast and Power Rangers in March, which ended up failing to deliver. We were also helplessly queer-baited by superheroes in the franchise giants Wonder Woman and Thor: Ragnarok. It seems the world is not yet ready for LGBT characters headlining our biggest budget films (though it was nice to see a happy queer ending in a mainstream comedy like Rough Night, despite the film’s general mediocrity.)
Still, it was a good year. Instead of waiting months to see the One Big Queer Movie, which might not be all that big or all that great, we were instead blessed with what felt like an unprecedented number of options: some movies that were terrible, some that were iffy, and some that were spectacular. Granted, many of the best offerings were small indies in limited release, so only those of us living in a few select cities have been able to see them right away. Also, mirroring mainstream media at large, queer stories by and about cisgender men, white people, or both have gained most of the attention and clout — and are still the most likely to get made.
The LGBT sea change we’ve been hoping for still hasn’t dramatically shaken up Hollywood, at a time when Hollywood’s been grappling with some other major reckonings. But during a year when I haven’t felt hopeful about much, I do feel hopeful about the future of queer cinema.
Here are the 2017 films about LGBT characters I think are worth seeing, generally categorized, but in no particular order. It’s by no means a comprehensive list, and for the sake of space I only included narrative features (but do check out Chavela, On Top, and The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, plus all its backlash). I only included films that explicitly dealt with overarching queer themes, but LGBT people working behind the camera are just as notable and just as significant, so you really need to see, for example, Dee Rees’ remarkable Mudbound (while you’re at it, check out her 2011 film Pariah, about a 17-year-old black girl coming to terms with her sexuality, one of the best lesbian films ever made). And please — avoid The Assignment at all costs.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
If you, like me, were a little disappointed that Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman didn’t include any explicitly queer characters, take comfort in the fact that at least Wonder Woman’s origin story is really, really queer. Angela Robinson’s biographical drama is based on the life of the psychologist William Marston, who helped invent the lie detector and later created the character of Wonder Woman. Marston (Luke Evans) and his wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) both fall in love with their research assistant, Olive (Bella Heathcote), and their yearslong romantic relationship serves as the foundation upon which Wonder Woman is built. For a film about radical feminist ideals, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is told in quite conventional ways, including an awkwardly forced framing device. Even the sex scenes feel rather chaste and goofy — despite the frequent deployment of role-playing outfits — but Robinson treats this relationship with such tenderness and a refreshing lack of sensationalism that it’s worth watching.
Find out how to watch it here.
Battle of the Sexes
Lesbian feminist icon and tennis champion Billie Jean King goes to battle with the self-described male chauvinist Bobby Riggs in Battle of the Sexes, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s film that’s loosely based on a major turning point for women’s tennis. Steve Carell’s is wonderfully wacky and charismatic as Bobby Riggs, and Emma Stone as Billie Jean is charming and easy to root for, especially as she starts grappling with her sexuality. She begins having an extramarital affair with her hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), while on the road. Her relationship with Marilyn involves some lovely scenes, from bookended erotic haircuts to the requisite 1970s “driving in a cool car in California” moment, but Marilyn mostly serves as an inconvenience Billie Jean needs to wrestle with on her road to victory rather than a fully fleshed-out love interest. But, like Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Battle of the Sexes is a sweet, earnest, easy-to-root-for film, one that highlights an important part of LGBT history with gusto. They’re both a little corny and a lot predictable, but they’re also uplifting stories of triumph — still rare for queer films — and I’m glad they exist.
Find out how to watch it here.
BPM (Beats Per Minute) / (120 battements par minute)
Like A Fantastic Woman, BPM is specific in its portrayal of queer struggle and both individual and institutional queerphobia, but not at the expense of queer humanity. The result is a tremendous, specific portrait of a diverse and fully realized ensemble cast, with all their strengths and joys and messy imperfections.
Robin Campillo’s film about AIDS activism in Paris in the early 1990s, based on his own personal history with ACT UP, is part procedural, part grand historical drama, part love story. BPM delves into the nitty-gritty of ACT UP’s activist organizing, complete with warring factions: the more conventional leaders vs. the radicals who want to be louder, angrier, harsher, queerer. One HIV-positive radical, Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), falls into a relationship with the HIV-negative Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a handsomely rugged newcomer to activism and through whose eyes we see most of the film. But it’s Sean who’s our true protagonist.
Sean and Nathan’s first sex scene leaves nothing to the imagination, from conversations about and the putting on/taking off of condoms, swapping positions, and breaks to talk about family histories and past lovers. As they’re talking, their bodies transform into their younger selves, and we see, almost seamlessly, the scene turn into both men’s first times with other men. It is the greatest gay sex scene you’ll see this year (or, perhaps, ever?) because of everything it manages to do —drive the plot forward and deepen Sean and Nathan’s new connection — and, quite frankly, it’s incredibly hot. In a later sex scene, when Sean’s gotten sick enough to be hospitalized, we see Nathan reaching into Sean’s pants, touching and kissing him, despite the Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions visible on Sean’s torso, or perhaps even because of them, or some complicated blend of both. It’s sex as caregiving, a loving gesture that raises Sean up as he’s dying but also acknowledges that he’s still very much alive.
As my friend John Sherman recently wrote, BPM amounts “to a rich portrait of HIV/AIDS as a disease not of the dying, but of those fighting to survive.” Nathan and Sean are our central lovers, but their comrades include those who are both HIV-positive and -negative, teenagers and their mothers, men and women. And even as we see some of them die, slowly and devastatingly, we also see them dancing. Celebrating. Living.
Find out how to watch it here.