The LGBT film highlights of 2016

As we bid farewell to a terrible year, at least we can remember some excellent films telling lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender stories, says Alex Davidson.

Alex Davidson
Updated:

Departure

Departure

2016 has been an exhausting, often worrying and unnervingly unpredictable year, but, despite the prevailing tensions, it’s been a strong 12 months for world cinema, including a number of excellent features with LGBT themes. While there has been no major breakthrough LGBT smash this year, as there was with Pride in 2014 and Carol in 2015, there was still plenty of queer cinema to discover.

Théo and Hugo and Eisenstein in Guanajuato

Théo and Hugo and Eisenstein in Guanajuato

One of the highlights of the year was Théo and Hugo, a sweet and very sexy tale from Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau (Drôle de Félix, Born in 68). It’s a romance about two gay men who meet in the famous Parisian sex club L’Impacte. Opening with a lengthy, brilliantly shot sex scene (the story is told in real time), the film suddenly switches tone following the revelation that one of the men is HIV positive, and the guys start to form a bond that goes way beyond sexual attraction. What starts as an erotic thriller develops into one of the touching romances of the year.

For me, though, the very best gay-themed film was Peter Greenaway’s thundering return to form, Eisenstein in Guanajuato. It follows Battleship Potemkin (1925) director Sergei Eisenstein as he collects inspiration and footage for what would be an uncompleted film: ¡Que viva México! A larger-than-life firebrand, the queer director loses his virginity to his guide for the trip in a scene that is pure Greenaway – while being penetrated for the first time, Eisenstein debates political history and power dynamics with his lover. Eisenstein is an extreme character, as played by Finnish actor Elmer Bäck, but the pathos of the lonely and difficult man is finally surprisingly moving.

Théo and Hugo deservedly won the Teddy award, honouring queer cinema, at the Berlin Film Festival. The Oscars, alas, were a washout for LGBT films, although Alicia Vikander won the supporting actress Oscar as the wife of trans woman Lili Elbe in the rather dull The Danish Girl. Carol should have won a clutch of awards but left with nothing – it wasn’t even nominated for best picture. Luckily another honour was soon bestowed – in the BFI’s poll of the best LGBT films of all time, Carol took the top spot, despite having only been released a few months previously.

Nasty Baby and From Afar

Nasty Baby and From Afar

Nasty Baby starts as an intimate study of the relationship between a gay couple and a woman who offers to act as a surrogate mother for them, and finishes in a mad 15-minute metaphor for the callousness of gentrification. Great dialogue, great performances, but the ending didn’t work for me at all.

Class commentary of a different sort could be seen in Venezuelan drama From Afar, which took home the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. A middle-aged man picks up young working-class men to strip for him, but when one of them assaults him, a weird friendship starts to blossom. It’s one of the best, if saddest, films of the year, and despite off-putting reviews that suggest audience patience is needed for its slow pace, I found it constantly gripping.

Holding the Man and Closet Monster

Holding the Man and Closet Monster

The coming-of-age drama is a favourite sub-genre for LGBT storytellers, and 2016 gave us two tales of adolescent love and longing. Holding the Man, adapted from Timothy Conigrave’s superb memoir, gets off to a wonky start as men in their late 20s unconvincingly embody the roles of lovestruck schoolboys. The film takes off when the men reach adulthood, however, as a devastating HIV diagnosis changes the dynamic of their relationship, and it’s a hard heart that won’t be moved by the film’s ending.

Receiving far less fanfare was the release of a marvellous Canadian teen drama that flirted with magical realism – Closet Monster. It tells the tale of a lonely, artistic gay boy who, longing to flee his unstable father and conservative hometown, retreats into a fantasy world. I’ve never seen a gay film like it, and I can’t wait to see what director Stephen Dunn makes next.

Burn Burn Burn and Departure

Burn Burn Burn and Departure

It was great to see a couple of British films with strong central gay characters. Burn Burn Burn developed into a sharp and often very funny road trip about the relationship between two young women who go on a journey to scatter the ashes of one of their friends. Chloe Pirrie is excellent as a chronically guarded woman who is jolted into changing her life after discovering her girlfriend has been unfaithful. It boasts a terrific script by Charlie Covell, a talent to watch. Meanwhile, Alex Lawther confirmed his reputation as one of the UK’s finest young actors in Departure, playing a pompous, rather pretentious young man exploring his sexuality on a grim family trip to France with his neurotic mother (Juliet Stevenson).

Summertime and The Neon Demon

Summertime and The Neon Demon

The best lesbian film to get a UK release was Summertime, Catherine Corsini’s powerful romantic drama set in early 1970s France when sexual revolution was in the air. A woman from the city meets a woman from the country at a feminist protest in Paris, and they begin a passionate affair. But when the country girl is forced to return home following her father’s stroke, the depth of their commitment is tested. It’s a fiery film with two intriguing heroines, and it captures the liberal zeitgeist beautifully. Another interesting depiction of a gay woman could be seen in Nicolas Winding Refn’s flawed but entertaining The Neon Demon. Jena Malone’s literally predatory lesbian Ruby may not be politically correct, but her sequences crackle with energy, and her final scene is unforgettable, if insane.

United States of Love and I, Olga

United States of Love and I, Olga

Two chilly eastern European films presented lesbian characters in a less than flattering light. It’s unclear whether Renata (Dorota Kolak) in Tomasz Wasilewsk’s United States of Love is gay or simply a woman symbolically obsessed by a young female model. The film is packed with metaphors for post-Soviet Poland, so I incline to the latter. It’s a relentlessly bleak, occasionally brilliant film that I never want to see again. I, Olga followed the true life story of a young lesbian who would become the last woman executed in the Czech Republic, after ploughing her truck into a bus queue in Prague, killing eight people. Michalina Olszanska is too mannered in the role, and the film never really considers how Olga’s sexuality contributed to her isolation under a repressive regime.

A couple of lesbian films that sounded great on paper disappointed when they made it to the big screen. Julianne Moore and, especially, Ellen Page were good in Freeheld as lovers who are faced with homophobic legislation when one of them falls terminally ill and is unable to transfer her pension benefits to her partner. But the script was bland, the direction flat, and Steve Carell is awful as a flamboyant civil rights activist. It was still a lot better than The Girl King, a potentially fascinating biopic of the lesbian Kristina, Queen of Sweden, previously immortalised by Greta Garbo in the Hollywood classic Queen Christina (1933). Someone made the terrible decision to have the dialogue spoken in English rather than Swedish, and the performances are very uneasy as a result.

Girls Lost

Girls Lost

If it was a sub-par year for lesbian films getting a cinema release, it was a dire one for films with trans characters, a disappointment after 2015 had given us Tangerine, Something Must Break and 52 Tuesdays. For much of the year, it looked like Benedict Cumberbatch’s controversial turn as supermodel All in Zoolander 2 would be the only trans character to make it to the big screen. Luckily a hugely imaginative Swedish fantasy came to the rescue with a supernatural tale that, while not exactly trans, breathed with a genderqueer sensibility. Alexandra-Therese Keining (Kiss Me) spins a wild story of three bullied girls who discover that they change gender when they drink the nectar of a strange plant. It’s brilliantly acted by its young cast and constantly surprises the audience.

Ghostbusters and Independence Day: Resurgence

Ghostbusters and Independence Day: Resurgence

Once again, Hollywood blockbusters were careful to the point of cowardice in their portrayal of gay characters. Director Paul Feig confirmed that Kate McKinnon’s zany character in the Ghostbusters reboot was gay, but Sony neutered the script until only the most devout queer theorist could read her as lesbian. Brent Spiner’s delightful performance as an eccentric scientist who helps save the day in Independence Day: Resurgence was the highlight of that rather wearisome movie, but he is denied any intimate contact with his male lover in the film. On a less tasteful note, Alice Wetterlund got some laughs as a cocky lesbian on the prowl in Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, while Deadpool, although guilty of queer baiting, took a few risks in its pansexual superhero, played with relish by Ryan Reynolds.

Many key LGBT film directors released excellent work, even though the films themselves did not feature queer storylines. These included Pedro Almodóvar (Julieta), Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Cemetery of Splendour), Ira Sachs (Little Men), Tom Ford (Nocturnal Animals) and, most poignantly, Chantal Akerman, whose final film, No Home Movie, a study of her elderly, dying mother, became one of her few films to get a UK cinema release. Her incredible body of work remains shamefully inaccessible.

Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures and Janis: Little Girl Blue

Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures and Janis: Little Girl Blue

Even if it was an uneven year in queer representation in fiction films, a handful of documentaries revealed some fascinating queer stories. Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures was a warts-and-all study of the difficult and provocative photographer Robert Mapplethorpe – the anecdotes about his more spiteful moments add spice to an enlightening tribute to his talent. Janis: Little Girl Blue was a poignant take on Janis Joplin, and featured interviews from her lovers, male and female. As well as confirming her extraordinary singing talent, the palpable charisma in archive interviews with Joplin herself reveal her to be a great raconteur.

On a more outlandish note, Author: The JT LeRoy Story is an engrossing account of one of the great literary hoaxes of modern times, while the extraordinary revelations of Tickled, which starts as a study of a weird, if tame, fetish website and unwinds into a wider tale of false identity, threats and blackmail, made for a jaw-dropping viewing experience.

Moonlight and The Handmaiden

Moonlight and The Handmaiden

2016 has been a lousy year for LGBT rights. The US has an openly homophobic vice president and an incoming president whose commitment to gay and trans rights, like so many of his policies, is unnervingly vague. North Carolina’s bathroom bill, a state-wide law determining that people must use the public restroom that corresponds to the gender on their birth certificate, was a disturbing and blatantly transphobic act. Homophobic attacks rose by 147% in the three months after Brexit. It is likely that we will see more political queer films in the coming year as a response to the human rights hurdles that are likely to come.

On a more optimistic note, some strong LGBT films from the 2016 festival circuit will hit UK cinema screens next year. Miami-based drama Moonlight looks set to receive a number of Oscar nominations and may even take home a trophy or two. Xavier Dolan returns with his flawed but entertaining chamber piece It’s Only the End of the World. Who’s Gonna Love Me Now?, about a rejected Israeli man who finds love and support in the London Gay Men’s Chorus, is the best documentary, queer or otherwise, I saw this year. And the word is very strong on The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook’s erotic adaptation of Sarah Waters’ lesbian classic Fingersmith – it’s one of my top priorities for 2017.

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