This year the BFI and organisations across the country marked the 50th anniversary of the partial legalisation of male homosexuality in the UK. It was a time for reflection, marked by the restoration and rerelease of two landmark gay British films, Victim (1961) and Prick Up Your Ears (1987). These pioneering works helped pave the way for the much greater range of queer cinema that audiences can access today, and the number of excellent LGBT films released in 2017 is testament to the filmmakers’ bravery.
The gay film to have reaped the widest critical acclaim in 2017 is Call Me by Your Name, a gorgeous, dreamy romance set in northern Italy in the 1980s. Timothée Chalamet is remarkable as Elio, a young man who begins an affair with his father’s student, Oliver (Armie Hammer). It’s a film of exquisite moments, such as Elio’s confession in the market square and the father’s touching monologue near the film’s end. Even the now-famous sequence featuring a brief, passionate fling with a piece of fruit is weirdly moving. It’s a triumph for everyone involved in the film – not least for James Ivory, now in his late 80s, who wrote the screenplay.
My favourite film of the year was God’s Own Country, which shook up the clichés of the traditional British rural misery drama and gave audiences an unexpectedly romantic vision of gay love in the Yorkshire dales. The last few minutes – including the delirious credits sequence – are simply gorgeous, and beautifully directed by Francis Lee.
Meanwhile, Xavier Dolan (Tom at the Farm, Mommy) returned with It’s Only the End of the World, a tough drama about a gay man returning home to inform his family that he’s dying. It’s one of Dolan’s most inconsistent works, alternating from low-end TV drama theatrics to daft symbolism. But the extreme use of close-ups on his actors add effectively to the claustrophobic atmosphere, and a vivid memory of adolescent lust, accompanied by Exotica’s exhilarating tune ‘Une miss s’immisce’, shows Dolan at his best.
February marked a key moment in queer film history. After decades of awarding the top prize to great films with dubious representations of queer characters (Midnight Cowboy, The Silence of the Lambs, American Beauty), the Academy gave the best picture Oscar to Moonlight. It was the biggest upset at the Oscars since the bland Driving Miss Daisy took the award in 1990, although this time the surprise was a pleasant one, a case of the low-budget underdog beating the glitzy favourite (La La Land).
The botched announcement, with Faye Dunaway reading out the name of the wrong film, will forever be remembered as a delicious slice of chaos and drama, but it shouldn’t overshadow the remarkable achievement of Moonlight, a poignant and sensitive depiction of a young man trying to come to terms with his sexuality.
In this year’s line-up of possible Oscar contenders, Emma Stone and Andrea Riseborough may make the shortlist for their roles as Billie Jean King and her lover, Marilyn Barnett, respectively, in the hugely enjoyable Battle of the Sexes. As the story focuses on King’s tennis match against Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), it doesn’t mention the bitter ending to the relationship, leading to Barnett’s outing of King, but both actors are excellent in their scenes together, showing the beginning of a relationship that would change King’s life.
A minor fuss was made over Disney’s delightful reboot of Beauty and the Beast, updated with a more explicitly feminist heroine, an interracial relationship and, most contentiously, a brief illusion to the homosexuality of LeFou (Josh Gad). It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene, which would have avoided a lot of fuss if director Bill Condon hadn’t boasted about its inclusion, which led to the film being pulled from cinemas in Kuwait and, inevitably, it being given an adult certificate in Russia. Still, at least the character’s sexuality wasn’t excised from the film entirely, as befell Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) in Thor: Ragnarok, whose brief scene suggesting her bisexuality was cut from the film.
It wasn’t a great year for independent lesbian movies getting a UK-wide release. Some of the most memorable lesbian characters appeared on the periphery, such as Rachael Stirling’s sharp script supervisor in Their Finest and Cherry Jones’ feminist professor in Sally Potter’s The Party, brutally described as “a first-class lesbian and a second-rate thinker” by Patricia Clarkson’s wisecracking cynic. One of my favourite films of the year was Lisa Gornick’s The Book of Gabrielle, a witty drama about a lesbian Jewish artist who becomes strangely attracted to a confident male writer (loosely based on Philip Roth). It’s wonderful to see Gornick making films again, after a lengthy delay following her festival hits Do I Love You? (2002) and Tick Tock Lullaby (2007).
The most jaw-dropping queer film released in 2017 was João Pedro Rodrigues’ The Ornithologist. Rodrigues’ O Fantasma provoked much derisive audience laughter when I saw it at the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival back in 2000, but The Ornithologist embraces its moments of absurdity with much more wit and intelligence. It follows a man studying black storks in Portugal, whose experiences begin to imitate moments from the life of St Anthony of Padua. It’s funny, weirdly sexy, and like nothing else I’ve seen before.
Another one-of-a-kind mystery unravelled in Amat Escalante’s The Untamed, in which a group of people seek sexual pleasure from a possibly malevolent tentacled organism. One of the creature’s visitors is a gay man, whose sudden disappearance has a tumultuous effect on the lives of the other characters.
Speaking of tentacles, a giant octopus made an unsettling debut in The Handmaiden. This was Korean director Park Chan-wook’s frenzied erotic thriller based on Sarah Waters’ crime novel Fingersmith, in which a female con artist is employed to help exploit a vulnerable Japanese heiress. Unexpected romance flourishes, but there are several more twists and turns before the film comes to a thundering climax. This being a Park Chan-wook project, there’s lots of violence, lots of kink and a welcome serving of humour. It’s also the most beautiful film of the year, filled with lavish spectacle.
Two films that scooped queer prizes at major film festivals were finally released in the UK. I haven’t seen Tomcat, an Austrian drama about how a relationship between two gay men is shaken following an unexpected act of violence, which won the Teddy award at Berlin. Icelandic coming-of-age film Heartstone, which won the Queer Lion at Venice, is a sensitive tale that treats the adolescence of teenage boys, so often played for laughs, seriously, and makes excellent use of the country’s eerie volcanic landscapes.
A Nordic film that got more attention was Tom of Finland, about the artist who specialised in homoerotic imagery. It’s well acted, but it needed a little more spark and bawdiness to offset the downbeat tone.
Several films focused on gay teenagers. Irish comedy Handsome Devil, set in a boys’ boarding school, was sweet, if a bit safe. German teen romance Centre of My World was good, and very well acted, but far too long. I didn’t share the love many audiences had for Beach Rats, about a boy trapped by the heteronormative framework in which he and his friends live, who has sex with men in secret. For me, the protagonist needed more development to hold my interest, but I am in a minority.
A couple of powerful documentaries focused on queer subject matter. After an eternity on the film festival circuit, the marvellous Who’s Gonna Love Me Now? finally appeared in cinemas. This award-winning film follows the inspiring personal journey of Saar, a gay, HIV positive man struggling to reconcile with his Israeli family, who finds love and acceptance after joining the London’s Gay Men’s Chorus.
Nick Broomfield’s latest portrait, Whitney: Can I Be Me, suggests, not altogether convincingly, that Whitney Houston’s relationship with her ‘best friend’ may have been romantic, and that her need to suppress her sexuality contributed to her downward spiral. Although I wish Broomfield would steer away from celebrity subjects in favour of the excellent social justice films that launched his career, the footage of Houston away from the media and the screaming fans is very moving, and a sharp contrast to her public persona.
2018 already has some prime LGBT films raring for their release date. The much loved Chilean drama A Fantastic Woman boasts a terrific performance from Daniela Vega as a trans woman who faces prejudice following the death of her lover. Robin Campillo’s 120 Beats Per Minute throbs with the thrill of passionate debate, as Parisian activists argue about how best to combat political inaction towards the AIDS crisis. And The Wound explores masculinity and closeted sexuality in the unfamiliar world of the Xhosa community in South Africa.
I can’t wait to see new films from Silas Howard (A Kid like Jake), Rupert Everett (The Happy Prince) and, especially, Desiree Akhavan (The Miseducation of Cameron Post), whose Appropriate Behaviour (2014) is one of the best romantic comedies of the last decade.