The LGBT film highlights of 2015

It was the year of the strong lesbian, while trans characters also flourished.

22 December 2015

By Alex Davidson

Tangerine (2015)

2014 was a great year for gay men on film, but very few lesbian and trans films made it into cinemas. That all changed in 2015, as several fantastic LGBT films featuring strong queer female characters – lesbian, trans and bi – made it into multiplexes and arthouse cinemas across the UK.

Carol and The Duke of Burgundy

The most acclaimed and heavily publicised LGBT film was Carol, Todd Haynes’ marvellous adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt. The old-style Hollywood tone of Cate Blanchett’s performance, the subtler, more naturalistic turn from Rooney Mara, the sheer gorgeousness of it all and the most moving delivery of the simple line “I love you” I have ever heard in a film make for a thrilling cinema experience. Mara is tipped to win an Oscar, although it will be a shame if it’s for supporting actress rather than the lead, as has been rumoured.

My favourite queer movie of the year, however, is Peter Strickland’s swoony, sapphic delight The Duke of Burgundy, a lush, curious dream of a film about two women living in a world without men. Sidse Babett Knudsen (the prime minister in Borgen) and Chiara D’Anna are marvellous as the strange couple; they bring out the wicked humour in the script, from D’Anna enthusing about a ‘human toilet’ to Knudsen stuttering her way through awkward sex talk. It’s astonishingly beautiful, too, with a mesmerising sequence in which the screen is overwhelmed by a fluttering cloud of moths.

Appropriate Behaviour and Grandma

One of the greatest comedies of the year featured a bisexual central character, a rarity in cinema. Hugely quotable, with an unforgettable three-way scene and a hugely likeable, flawed hero, Appropriate Behaviour is an explosive debut for director-screenwriter-actor Desiree Akhavan. Her Q&A after the film’s screening at BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival was a hoot. Elsewhere in comedy, Lily Tomlin has been tipped for an Oscar nomination as the cranky lesbian title character in Grandma, a vehicle that allows her to play to all her considerable strengths. It’s been a delight to see the career resurrection of this great actor, with both this and the Netflix series Grace and Frankie. In the tense Korean drama A Girl at My Door, a film with echoes of Twin Peaks, Doona Bae gives an excellent performance as an alcoholic policewoman stationed in a crime-ridden backwater town. Her homosexuality, revealed half-way through the film, is used against her by her enemies.

A number of renowned queer directors returned to the silver screen, with new films from Terence Davies (Sunset Song), Xavier Dolan (Mommy), Carol Morley (The Falling) and Céline Sciamma (Girlhood), although none were explicitly LGBT in their content. François Ozon’s mischievous and delightful The New Girlfriend was certainly queer, although to reveal how would spoil some of the plot turns of this mesmerising mystery, while Gregg Araki’s White Bird in a Blizzard, certainly his best film since Mysterious Skin (2004), also featured queerness as a key plot point.

Dear White People and Love Is Strange

Another of the comedy highlights of the year, race satire Dear White People, directed by Justin Simien, featured Tyler James Williams of Everybody Hates Chris fame as a gay student whose sexuality distances him from his peers as much as his race. It’s an edgy clever film – most of the best lines go to Tessa Thompson’s firebrand radio jockey, who walks off with the film. The best feature film about gay men was probably Love Is Strange, starring John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as lovers in the latter days of a tender, loving 39-year relationship. I wasn’t mad about the ending, but the two actors have great chemistry, the screenplay is superb, and it’s Lithgow’s best role in years.

Pasolini and Futuro Beach

Other gay films of note include Pasolini, Abel Ferrara’s intriguing biopic focusing on the last days of the great director, played by Willem Dafoe. Futuro Beach, a sell-out smash at BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival, certainly had its admirers. For me it was too serious, and needed more scenes establishing why exactly the two men at its centre would fall in love with each other. But there’s no denying the effectiveness of the last third, in which a figure from the past unexpectedly shows up and jolts the narrative back into action.

Gay men were perhaps better served by TV in 2015. At the start of the year, Russell T. Davies made a triumphant return with Cucumber, a sprawling drama following the fall-out after a disastrous night in the life of a gay couple, played brilliantly by Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri. The sixth episode, featuring a moment of shocking violence, was one of the television highlights of the year. More recently, London Spy delighted and infuriated viewers in equal measure, in a dark and noirish mood piece starring Ben Whishaw as a gay man trying to find out what happened to his lover, who vanishes suddenly under suspicious circumstances. The first two episodes are almost flawless, although the ending was a bit of a disappointment, despite the excellent performances.

Nasty Baby and The Danish Girl

Cannes, Berlin and Venice all have film awards dedicated to queer cinema. To no one’s surprise Carol won the Queer Palm at Cannes. More intriguingly, Nasty Baby, a film about a gay couple wanting to have a child with their friend (Kristen Wiig), which will get its UK release next year, won the Teddy award at Berlin. I loved it until its last 15 minutes, when its admittedly brave narrative choices spiral the film into an unsatisfactory mess. But the first 90 minutes are very entertaining, with an especially strong performance from Reg E. Cathey, who has scarcely been mentioned in the reviews I’ve read. The Queer Lion went to The Danish Girl, a film that fails to do justice to early trans pioneer Lili Elbe. Eddie Redmayne is fine as Elbe (although the dominance of cisgender actors playing trans roles remains embarrassing), and Alicia Vikander is very good as his wife. Yet the film is far too safe, and falls disappointingly flat.

52 Tuesdays and Tangerine

Elsewhere, however, it was a great year for films about trans people. 52 Tuesdays (2013), which closed BFI Flare: LGBT Film Festival two years ago, finally made it into cinemas. It’s a touching Australian tale of a teenage girl’s relationship with her mother, who is transitioning from female to male. Tangerine is a breathless whizz through the lives of two LA hookers, one on the hunt for the woman who slept with her unfaithful boyfriend. That it looks great despite being filmed entirely on a mobile phone is the least of its triumphs. The rapid delivery of the often hilarious dialogue may require more than one watch. Meanwhile, Something Must Break, Ester Martin Bergsmark’s simultaneously raw and poetic portrait of a complex relationship in the life of a trans teen living in Stockholm, boasted strong performances and a very touching sex scene.

Dressed as a Girl and Chemsex

Documentaries gave us some intriguing perspectives of very different gay lives. Dressed as a Girl documented the thriving east London gay scene, which continues on even as venues close across the capital. The cabaret performances themselves are a mixed bag, although the record of scene stalwart Scottee’s funny and poignant monologues are valuable. David Thorpe’s Do I Sound Gay? is a warm and funny look at the stereotype of the ‘gay voice’, with funny, sharp contributions from Tim Gunn and David Sedaris. Conversely, Chemsex is one of the darkest and most intense docs of 2015, exploring the chemsex sub-scene in London’s gay community.

Problematic images of gay people cropped up in mainstream flicks. Lips were pursed when, in the silly but occasionally funny Get Hard, Will Ferrell visits a gay bar full of predatory homos and narrowly backs out of performing fellatio in a lavatory. It’s a dumb scene with tired stereotypes, but it’s harmless enough. Far nastier was a horrible skit in Chris Rock’s comedy Top Five, in which a closeted gay man fond of anal stimulation is the subject of a nasty revenge from his girlfriend – she shoves a tampon covered in Tabasco sauce up his arse. It’s a prolonged and utterly unfunny sequence, all the more surprising given it was written by a talented comedian. Another boring cliché – the sexless gay man pining after the unattainable straight hero – cropped up through Daniel Brühl’s shirt-sniffing maître d’ in Burnt.

But some box office hits featured more engaging representations, such as John Cena’s gay-but-he-doesn’t-know-it bodybuilder in Trainwreck, unaware that all of his tough-guy threats come across as violently homoerotic. Dope was a weirdly overrated sleeper hit, but out of its trio of misfits at the centre of the story, at least Kiersey Clemons’s lesbian is given a couple of punchy lines, and, unlike her hapless male friends, gets laid.

Richard Glatzer and Chantal Akerman
Chantal Akerman image courtesy of Elizabeth Lennard/Opale/Leemage

It was also a year when two very different queer filmmakers left the building.

Richard Glatzer, who died in March, directed and wrote several films with his partner Wash Westmoreland, from the bawdy comedy of The Fluffer (2001), the quirky coming-of-age film Quinceañera (2006) and, most triumphantly, last year’s Still Alice, which won an Oscar for Julianne Moore, playing a woman with Alzheimer’s.

In a year in which the BFI has celebrated strong women behind and in front of the camera, one of world cinema’s greatest directors died in October. Chantal Akerman seldom explored LGBT themes in her work, with the notable exception of Ju, tu, il, elle (1974), but she was a feminist pioneer. With Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), made when she was just 24, she gave the world a unique and troubling epic that offered a scathing critique of female repression. She is the youngest of all the directors featured in the Sight & Sound poll of the greatest 100 films of all time (the film came 35th), and continued to make interesting and challenging films to the end – her final film, No Home Movie, has been named one of the 10 best films of 2015 in another Sight & Sound poll.

Closet Monster and Departure

What is there to look forward to in 2016? I haven’t seen the controversial Stonewall yet, although I’m intrigued to see it, if only to see how far it goes in whitewashing a key part of queer history. Freeheld has had mixed reviews, although I will watch anything with Julianne Moore in it. But some great indie films played at this year’s BFI London Film Festival. I am keeping everything crossed that Closet Monster, a hugely imaginative Canadian coming-of-age film featuring a talking hamster voiced by Isabella Rossellini (a conceit far less obnoxious than it sounds), gets a release – I loved it. Take Me to the River, a genuinely unnerving drama about a gay teen at a nightmarish family reunion, also deserves a wide audience.

From Afar, the Venezuelan debut from Lorenzo Vigas about the relationship between a middle-aged gay man and a petty criminal who steals from him, is constantly surprising, and unexpectedly won the Golden Lion at Venice. And homegrown feature Departure stars Juliet Stevenson as the troubled mother of a boy (Alex Lawther) exploring his sexuality on a holiday in France. Here’s hoping some more strong lesbian and trans films will feature alongside them in next year’s round-up.

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