My relationship to queerness and my relationship to cinema is a real “chicken/egg” situation, although I was more cognizant of my love for film at an earlier age than I was of my queer identity. But, since I came out, the two have been near inextricable: Through film, I saw what queerness could be, what it was once seen as, what it has been coded as. I have watched queer history and politics, queer joy and pain, queer holiness and profanity, queer pride and protest. Cinema, as an art form that reflects and refracts the culture within which it is made, can be as limitlessness as queerness itself. To find oneself in cinema, latently and explicitly, is rare when you’re not of a dominant social group. When you do find a version of yourself, or many, a tectonic change occurs. You see the world, and you see cinema, in a different way. You can even find community. That’s queer cinema’s power.
For the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, I thought it might be fun to reach out to some of the writers I most respect and admire and share what their favorite queer films are—all the explosive, exciting, strange, erotic, titilating, bizarre, tragic, thrilling queer cinema that has haunted and shaped us as writers, as queer people. But, the legacy of the gay rights movement in general extends beyond just a 50-year mark. Queer cinema and the writers and critics who adore it and support it, here and elsewhere, look to the queer future, like icons Vito Russo and B. Ruby Rich. So, as opposed to limiting our critics and movies to just 50, I thought it might be an even greater symbolic gesture to include the responses from everyone who graciously submitted.
Here she is, girls, here she is, world: 50+ queer writers and their 50+ favorite queer films (listed in chronological order).
Daniel Mallory Ortberg
@Danielortberg; Slate’s “Dear Prudence”
Sylvia Scarlett (1935, George Cukor)
Before Bringing Up Baby, before The Philadelphia Story, Cary Grant fell for Katharine Hepburn as a boy in Sylvia Scarlett. It’s directed by George Cukor, who was at that point the unofficial social director of gay Hollywood. Obvious transmasculine resonance of The Boy Kate aside, there’s also Cary Grant’s fabulous vocal drag as he slides in and out of a Cockney accent and deeper into a wonderfully bewildering T4T, con-artist-on-con-artist vibe. (Kate kisses Dennie Moore, too, just to keep the score even.)
@jake_pitre; Catapult, The Globe and Mail
Johnny Guitar (1954, Nicholas Ray)
Nicholas Ray’s expert fusion of the western and the melodrama is a politically aggressive metaphor for McCarthyism, bursting with a kaleidoscopic color palette and the underlying tension of (queer) sexual repression. Johnny Guitar probes the violent vagaries of masculinity, matched with a dedication to exploring the power of desire, a power that can be destructive and generative at the same time. This has a defining performance from Joan Crawford, but there’s also Mercedes McCambridge, who plays the vengeful Emma, an all-time queer character, a vile and vindictive woman who stands in glorious contrast to the expectations of unproblematic LGBTQ+ representation we’re supposed to want now. Johnny Guitar is a reminder that being absolutely singular can be the most liberating thing in the world, but danger is inextricable from that defiance of the status quo.
@cinementalist; New Review of Film and Television Studies, film/TV professor
Scorpio Rising (1963, Kenneth Anger)
Kenneth Anger’s 1963 short Scorpio Rising is a wet fever dream about the homoeroticism of then-new symbols of white male masculinity—from the fascination with leather, boots and motorbikes to the lithe beefcakes gracing “physique magazines.” In asking audiences to re-see their recent past, it suggests things may never be as simple as they appear. And as the 30-minute montage builds we find ourselves challenged. Why are gay men drawn to fashions reminiscent of Nazis? When is spitting an assault and when is it an expression of sexual feeling? (Todd Haynes will return to this question in his 1991 film Poison.) By the final scenes—as a leather daddy defiles a Catholic altar with thrilling gusto—Anger reminds us that gender, religion, fascism and so forth are about the repression of queerness not just in policy but in style, that aesthetics and politics are inseparable. However, Scorpio Rising’s real sting lies in its wit. Of course, it seems to say, queers are experts in the drama of gender and cultural morality, in the costume and choreography of sadomasochistic relations. The film’s peppy pop soundtrack is vital in this respect. It makes the images ironic, teaching us that listening is as important as looking (and might free us from the scopic regime rooted in Christianity’s fetishization of iconography). Scorpio Rising’s camp attitudes showed we might stand apart from the trauma, even get turned on by it and laugh at it, modeling a way of thinking that would become a crucial survival skill for the rest of the 20th Century.
Funeral Parade of Roses (1969, Toshio Matsumoto)
Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses shocks you into realizing what cinema is capable of. Matsumoto descends gleefully into the underground culture of 1960s Tokyo, loosely transposing the story of Oedipus Rex onto the life of a drag performer named Eddie (played by Shinnosuke Ikehata, also known simply as “Peter.”) Funeral Parade of Roses eludes genre—coolly slipping between noir, tongue-in-cheek gags, horror, vox pop interviews and balls-to-the-wall insanity—operating through total anarchy, passing between melodrama and surreality in the flicker of a frame. Matsumoto proudly uses the lexicon of the French New Wave, but to be simply radical in presenting his narrative is not enough. He plunges through his work, like the dagger well-bloodied by the film’s end, with the spirit of experimental filmmaking. One character meant to simultaneously stand in for and poke fun at Matsumoto, a handsomely bearded revolutionary artist who goes by “Guevara,” showcases his mind-bending films for his friends as they all pass around a joint. (The film they watch is actually an earlier work by Matsumoto himself.) An awed, blissed-out spectator quotes avant-garde legend “Monas Jekas.” This hazy hangout captures in a microcosm the experience of watching Matsumoto’s feature-length mind-fuck. His Funeral Parade is a textbook case-study in the dance between what Parker Tyler dubbed, speaking of the films of Andy Warhol, “drag time” and “drug time.” It’s a celluloid hit of amyl nitrate, never to be forgotten.
@RebeccaPahle; Boxoffice Pro
Something for Everyone (1970, Hal Prince)
Michael York embodies pure bisexual chaos energy in the 1970s comedy-drama Something for Everyone, one of the three films directed by legendary Broadway producer/director Harold Prince (Cabaret, Company, Sweeney Todd, Fiddler on the Roof, and a whole boatload of others). Something for Everyone’s poster crows that York’s butler character “did it… to everyone!” That “did it” is “had sex with,” all with the goal of worming his way into the circle of a post-war Austrian family with a big fuck-off castle and a fancy title but no money. But, oh, Michael York’s charisma (and his penis) can change that “no money” thing. A social climber with scruples as dull as his cheekbones are sharp, York sets about manipulating a countess (a fantastically arch, not to mention fantastically garbed, Angela Lansbury), her son (Anthony Higgins) and her daughter-in-law (Heidelinde Weis) in this dark-yet-gleeful romp. Something for Everyone is loosely based on an excellent novel called The Cook by Harry Kressing; in adapting it to the screen, Hugh Wheeler, who wrote the book for musicals A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd, added more A) gayness and B) scheming. What else do you need?
Trash (1970, Paul Morrissey)
Paul Morrissey’s Trash was shot with ten bucks and a roll of Scotch tape in the basements and back-alleys of Manhattan in the winter after Stonewall, but it contains one of the best lines in American cinema (“We need welfare and you can’t have my fucking shoes!”) as well as its most tragic performance: The bravura screen debut of Holly Woodlawn. I’d describe the story, but like a foggy evening, Trash is best enjoyed with no warning. In the corrosive spirit of the best pre-Code movies, Trash reveals the truths of its time while rendering its era even more inscrutable, and it has profoundly moved me since I first saw it on VHS as a teenager in my parents’ basement. I return to it because it offers a tutorial in human dignity, but also because it reminds the artist that there are no excuses: one must simply keep turning on the camera, keep pointing it in the right direction, and keep listening closely. A key high-low cultural enigma and the essential masterpiece of the American queer cinema, Trash has the guts to rescue the viewer who needs it most, as well as the immortal courage to demolish any and all customary notions of taste. No volume of queer history is satisfactory without working knowledge of Trash’s last half hour, and no list of the best American comedies is complete without it either.
@blakersdozen; The Daily Beast
Pink Flamingos (1972, John Waters)
John Waters taught me queer could be anything I wanted, even a murderous drag queen who eats shit. The worry that I’m too This or too That melts away before Her Filthiness Divine—her eyebrows, her voice, her malignance. I’m positively humdrum in comparison, but we all succumb to the narcissism of small differences measuring ourselves against the people around us. Pink Flamingos, which depicts two families competing for the title of Filthiest Person Alive, asks you to unbind your imagination and think of how strange things could be rather than how boring they are. It sprints beyond any bounds of taste or politeness, disregarding them as only starting lines in the race to the bottom. It is the opposite of Positive LGBTQ Representation In The Mainstream Media. It is the ur-outsider movie that shows, far better than any kind Pride slogan could tell, that you can be whatever you aspire to be—beautiful and/or disgusting.
@ShelleyBFarmer; RogerEbert.com, Slate, Paper Magazine
Je, tu, il, elle (1974, Chantal Akerman)
Akerman’s Je, tu, il, elle was the first film I saw as a young woman, increasingly aware of my bisexual identity, that felt as though it had my number. It wasn’t simply the acts of bisexuality, though the main character played by Akerman has sexual encounters with men and women (with the former, a desultory handjob; with the latter, an extended sequence of ravenous communion). I had seen literal examples of bisexuality onscreen—most notably the simultaneously prurient and bloodless sex of Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, seen as a sex-mad and tragically chaste teenager. Varda’s film did something more interesting, more shockingly personal: She captured the psychic and spatial qualities of queerness, of bisexuality in particular. The first sequence of the film—in which Akerman’s character recites letters in voiceover, lies on a mattress on the floor, eats endless spoonfuls of sugar from a bag, and methodically moves the position of her mattress within her room—uses extended takes, deliberate motion and repetitive gesture in a way that creates an atmosphere of longing (a state that we all know is canonically queer). Her constant shifting of position and various attempts to achieve some sort of fulfillment (gulped sugar, rearranged furniture) suggest an identity in flux. The final sex scene between Akerman and her female lover is characterized by a kinetic, voracious hunger for each other’s bodies—an explosion of delayed desire, the bursting into fullness of a coming out.
@schlockvalue; Instagram: @askanybuddy
Passing Strangers (1974, Arthur J. Bressan, Jr.)
Though it may be hard to imagine now, adult films were once one of the primary forms of gay media. They told gay stories for a gay audience at a time when the most Hollywood could bother with was trash like A Different Story and Partners, and are the direct forerunners of both the gay indie film movement of the mid-’80s and the much-lauded New Queer Cinema of the ’90s. At the forefront of that transition was Arthur Bressan, whose eight theatrically released features blurred the lines between the “adult” and the respectable, the private and the public—films that would be invited to play festivals like Berlinale abroad, but were relegated to the porno houses back home.
His debut, Passing Strangers, is many things—a loving portrait of hippie-era San Francisco, a romance, a porno movie—but at its core, it’s a coming out story, not just for its 18-year-old protagonist, but for the emerging queer community itself. While it wasn’t the first film to tackle that age-old subject (Dick Fontaine’s Happy Birthday, Davy and Gorton Hall’s The Experiment beat it by a couple of years), it is the first to feel truly emotionally authentic and to successfully translate those intertwined feelings of sexual liberation and awakening political consciousness to film. The finale—shot at one of San Francisco’s first Gay Freedom Day parades—is exhilarating. A landmark film.
@ryanhoulihan; The Outline
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
(1975, Jim Sharman)
When released, The Rocky Horror Picture Show was a flop. At the time, American audiences weren’t so into musical numbers and definitely were not flocking to see a grindhouse take on the genre. But in true queer fashion, the film took to nightlife to spread its wings. Thanks to midnight screenings and word-of-mouth, a cult following soon assembled, blending drag, camp, call-and-response cues and genuine appreciation for dance numbers and dark aesthetics. The story of the film itself follows a boring, newly married heterosexual couple as their minds and bodies are toyed with (and expanded) by a transvestite alien and their other-worldly friends. Sex, sequins and rock and roll await both fans new and old—but please note that the fully Rocky experience can only happen in at a live-screening stocked with toilet paper, confetti, toast and rubber gloves.
Norman… Is That You? (1976, George Schlatter)
This 1976 feature-length sitcom took a flop Broadway show, African Americanized most of the leads, then somehow flopped again, but I have a soft spot for its good-badness. In the film directed by George Schlatter (Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In), Sanford and Son’s Redd Foxx plays Ben Chambers, an uptight man who is horrified to learn that his son, Norman (Michael Warren), is gay and boyfriends with the swishy Garson (Dennis Dugan, who went on to direct Adam Sandler films). Blustery Ben does everything to try to turn Norman straight, including fix him up with a female hooker (the statuesque Tamara Dobson), but nothing seems to work! The result—despite all the wisecracks and stereotypes along the way—is kind of gay positive, especially since camp icon Pearl Bailey plays mama, there are bits for Wayland Flowers and his puppet goddess Madame, and disco diva Thelma Houston sings the witty theme song, “One Out of Every Six.” This silly farce has precious little queer insight or sensitivity, but I love it, like a fabulous old pair of shoes that don’t fit but you can’t seem to toss. Norman Chambers may not be perfect, but he’s a better queer icon than Norman Bates, and I enjoy the fact that Ben bonds with Garson. Best of all, having an interracial gay couple at the core of the film was quite bold, though audiences of all races and sexualities stayed home in droves.
Brian Eugenio Herrera
@stinkylulu; author of Latin Numbers: Playing Latino in 20th Century Popular Performance
Carrie (1976, Brian De Palma)
No film captures queer interiority as vividly as Carrie. Sure, it’s not a film “about” homosexuality, but this story of a bullied teen outcast reverberates for GenX-me as deeply and truly queer. The film begins as Carrie White (the indelible Sissy Spacek) experiences menstruation for the first time at school and is spectacularly humiliated (“Plug it up!”) by her fellow students. We soon understand that everyone in her community considers Carrie a queer and pitiable freak, someone easier to ignore than to treat with kindness. So, naturally, no one notices that Carrie’s sexual quickening has also supernaturally activated her latent telekinetic powers. “Creepy Carrie” is first mocked or ignored by her community; then, when welcomed to normativity (aka “invited to the prom”), the display of tolerance becomes its own cruel and humiliating joke. But Carrie bashes back, manifesting a vengeful vision of high school as hellscape, before finally staggering home only to be reminded that, for freaks and queers, home houses the most hellish hazards of all. Here again, the powers activated by the surge of sexuality in Carrie’s body prove more forceful than anything her community, her school or her family can do to her—and this might be why I treasure Carrie so and why I follow Carrie White across media (novel, multiple films, TV miniseries, even a Broadway musical). When Carrie discovers her sexuality, she also discovers her power to make a different world. For me, that’s about as queer as it gets.
Hausu (1977, Nobuhiko Obayashi)
It took me a couple viewings (and a couple years’ worth of self-analysis) to see the queerness in this gonzo Japanese horror classic. The film, about seven teenage girls being picked off in increasingly bizarre ways in a possessed house, is queer in the way you latch onto when you’re questioning. It’s queer in its atmosphere, and its narrative margins. The house is haunted not just by supernatural beings but by the avenging spirit of an older generation denied a blissful, heterosexual closure. The bond between the seven girls is more than just subtextually queer—it’s representative of the way the queerness of youth is strangled and stomped on by cishet parents. The house “eats unmarried women,” the film’s horror borne of a subtly homophobic viciousness. Obayashi’s aesthetic fixations, too, have a queer sensibility. He rejects cinematic dogma and revels in the possibilities of the medium, using every trick and technique he can think of to hilarious and horrifying effect. It’s easy to categorize as simply campy, but few films have ever displayed such a profound (and profoundly queer) love of cinema art.
@colettearrand; The Wanderer, them.
Cruising (1980, William Friedkin)
Sometimes I feel like straight, Catholic men are uniquely situated to make films about gay men. I used to be a straight, Catholic man, at least in public, and when the shame my religious beliefs bestowed upon me wasn’t suffocating, it was erotic. William Friedkin’s gay duology, The Boys In the Band and Cruising, are very straight, very Catholic movies—one smothering, the other titillating—both making the argument that, whether they care to admit it or not, gay men need rescuing from their desires. I prefer Cruising, as the matter-of-fact way in which Friedkin drops Al Pacino in a leather bar and makes him part of its culture is an admission that those desires and their outcome—the anonymous, leather-clad sex around which Pacino’s Steve Burns is half-repulsed, half-desirous—are, in fact, incredibly hot. Discovering it in college after a guest lecture by one of the men who took part in protests against the film, Cruising opened a door to a part of my identity that I otherwise had no means of discovering, a moment of clarity not unlike confirmation. Unlike confirmation, what I learned from Cruising stuck. I’m glad it did.
Liquid Sky (1982, Slava Tsukerman)
Without relegating to the margins of traditional coming-out stories, Liquid Sky no doubt has self-discovery on its mind, and offers up an appropriately bewildering narrative in turn. By way of an alien abduction picture set inside the early ’80s East Village club scene, Liquid Sky navigates the labyrinth of awakening gender identity, and the collisions inevitable in the drive to see yourself and to be seen by others. Just as present is the magic that comes from being born anew and embedded in the world of young queerdom. The film’s centerpiece, star Anne Carlisle, plays both an underworld celebrity named Margaret and Margaret’s professional, creative and romantic rival Jimmy. Her electricity in both roles, likewise the mystifying form of the extraterrestrial visitors, underlines foremost that this may be a confusing adventure, but it’s also an incredible one.
@eric_shorey; Nylon, Oxygen, One37PM
Liquid Sky (1982, Slava Tsukerman)
Invisible aliens land on an artist’s rooftop and invade Manhattan’s gay punk clubs in the early 1980s, feeding off of orgasms and heroin highs. A neon drenched portrait of the no-wave scene, Liquid Sky has protagonists waxing poetic about the emptiness of the human condition while applying thick blacklight-reactive pancake makeup before endless nights of dancing and heavy drug usage. Are the extraterrestrials eating up queers an early, ominous metaphor for AIDS? Probably! Either way, the action pauses at several points in the film for the most heart-wrenchingly garish fashion shows ever depicted in cinema history, set to the abrasive sounds of glitching analog synthesizers. Liquid Sky went on to inspire the short-lived electroclash movement of the early ’00s and has since become an underappreciated portrait of a queer New York City that no longer exists.
Marya E. Gates
@oldfilmsflicker; Cinema Fanatic
Desert Hearts (1985, Donna Deitch)
If I hadn’t already realized I was pansexual, Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts, and specifically Patricia Charbonneau’s iconic entrance, would have sealed the deal. In fact, I’m sure this film has been a turning point in many a queer woman’s life in the 30 years since its release (check out the great reference to it in Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post). Based on the 1964 novel Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule, the film follows a buttoned-up Columbia University professor Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) who comes to Reno to obtain a divorce from her husband and falls hard for a free-spirited younger woman named Cay (Charbonneau). Between Robert Elswit’s neon-lit cinematography and the sizzling chemistry between the lead actresses, Deitch’s lush romance continues to reach in and put a string of lights around viewers’ hearts.
@foxe_steve; Paste Magazine
Film: A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985, Jack Sholder)
If much of the ’80s slasher boom wrestled with sexual anxiety, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge is one of the only mainstream horror movies that added queerness to the equation. A rushed sequel without original creator Wes Craven’s input, Freddy’s Revenge breaks the logic of the Nightmare films by having Freddy appear in the real world—killing in dreams is pretty much his whole hook!—but has become a cult classic apart from its franchise legacy based purely on screenwriter David Chaskin’s embrace of the infamous maxim “subtext is for cowards.” Featuring young actor Mark Patton (who had just played a gay character in another film, and was desperate not to be typecast) as Jesse, one of the genre’s few male “Final Girls,” Freddy’s Revenge turns the scarred dream predator into a physical manifestation of Jesse’s conflicted sexuality, and even features a scene where Freddy kills Jesse’s gym teacher in a BDSM-inspired shower scene, not long after Jesse accidentally runs into him at a gay bar. Patton, who is gay in real life, struggled with the film’s legacy, largely leaving acting as a result of the experience, but has embraced Freddy’s Revenge as a queer camp classic in recent years. Rarely has the idea of monstrous desires been made more literal than at the blade-fingered hands of Freddy Krueger’s second outing.
Moonstruck (1987, Norman Jewison); Fiddler on the Roof (1971, Norman Jewison)
I’m interpreting “queer” somewhat loosely here, but I think [Moonstruckoonstruck manages to skewer concepts of romantic love, family obligation, marital morality and social convention without coming across as cynical or tongue-in-cheek. It perfectly captures the absurdity and futility of heterosexual love, while celebrating the redemptive power of good sex and frank communication. Watch on a fourth date after a heavy Italian dinner.
And though ostensibly about heterosexuality, Fiddler is obviously gay. It is a lavish musical dramedy with high highs and low lows, an adaptation of Sholom Aleichem’s Yiddish classics (as adapted onto Broadway), telling the story of a rural Jewish community in the violent waning days of the Russian Empire. Interestingly, Fiddler is told through a man’s POV, but the female characters—a mix of stereotype, comic parody, genuine warmth and nuance—are the drivers of the plot. As a queer film, Fiddler allows its audiences to seriously interrogate and make space for such big concepts as tradition, marriage, family and belonging. It makes space for complexity in dealing with the problems posed by changing times, offering parallels through which we might view better the changing sexual and political mores of our moment. Plus, I think Fiddler is honestly essential reading in understanding the subtextual Jewishness of so much of 20th century queer comedy. In that respect, it’s a classic that bears continual rewatching.
@bstolemyremote; Bloody Disgusting, Anatomy of a Scream
Hellraiser (1987, Clive Barker)
Hellraiser is Clive Barker’s feature directorial debut, its queerness courtesy of S&M imagery that imbues it with a dangerous, sexual tone. On the surface, it’s a horror film about a box that summons Cenobites, creatures from another dimension who inflict pain and pleasure on unsuspecting mortals. Everyone naturally focuses on Pinhead et. al, but the really queer stuff is the rich melodrama occurring within the façade of the Cotton family’s unassuming domesticity—namely infidelity, forbidden love and familial mistrust.
The instigator of all of the trouble is Frank (Sean Chapman), whose whole aesthetic is basically “sweaty shirtless sex appeal.” He’s the black sheep of the Cotton family, the kind of character who fucks so well that the MPAA ordered the number of thrusts in his sex scene reduced to avoid a harsher rating.
Frank’s victim/partner in crime is Julia Cotton, his sister-in-law. The ruby-haired matriarch is so enamoured with Frank’s good dicking that she lures anonymous johns into a murder room so that her skeletal lover can suck up their juices and reconstitute himself. It’s the kind of “love conquers all” storyline that only works because actress Claire Higgins is so committed to her evil stepmother role. Julia is fierce, she’s unapologetically sexual and she gets the job done (with a hammer no less!). For these reasons, Julia is a legit diva icon and Hellraiser is a queer masterpiece.
Law of Desire (La ley del deseo) (1987, Pedro Almodóvar)
Almodóvar’s steamiest movie opens with a man, in just his tight white briefs, touching himself and kissing his own reflection (“Think that it’s me you’re kissing and you like it,” a man’s off-camera voice instructs him). We’re watching a film within a film; it’s the first of the many meta-textual moments that anchor this 1987 comic thriller about a gay director’s ill-fated love affair—well, more like summer fling—with a crazed young man (played by a smoldering Antonio Banderas, oft-seen also in just his y-fronts). It wasn’t my first Almodóvar but so many of its salacious images seared themselves into my brain that it may as well have been. Gleefully tackling a Highsmithian protagonist who mines and embodies the alleged dangers of queer desire, La ley del deseo is an arch noir painted with bold bright colors, the kind that can make you blush and cringe in equal measure, usually within the same scene.
Law of Desire (La ley del deseo) (1987, Pedro Almodóvar)
You never forget your first love. For gay cinephiles, the same holds true for the first bent piece of celluloid. Now, it’s easy to queer your childhood favourites in retrospect, but I’m talking about the first piece of adult LGBTQ cinema that you recognize as such. One of my first such encounters was with Pedro Almodovar’s Law of Desire. The Spanish auteur often makes visually ecstatic movies about movies, but he scripts them with the depth and intricacy of a novel, so I’d like to imagine he’d love the fact that I fell for him text first, reading (and re-reading and re-reading) the local paper’s review of a boldly gay movie I was convinced I would never be allowed to see. The review fascinated and horrified the young me with its description of a scene in which the filmmaker directs a young man to masturbate against a mirror, and with the details of the three main characters: a promiscuous gay director, his psychotic fan/lover and the filmmaker’s trans sister acting out her own incestuous melodramas on the side.
A year later I did see the movie and it was more than I’d hoped for: the saturated colors, the even more intense emotions, the dangerous romanticism! Carmen Maura crying while the soundtrack promised “you will have a thousand affairs.” Antonio Banderas with his legs up in the air. These sights permanently altered me.
@jaymichaelson; The Daily Beast
Dead Poets Society (1989, Peter Weir)
Dead Poets Society is queer the way I was queer when I saw it in 1989: closeted, sublimated, boiling over. On the surface, it’s the story of a Whitman/Thoreau/Romanticism-soaked poetry teacher (played by Robin Williams) inspiring his students to seize the day. It’s also a tragic, Separate Piece-style bromance between two roommates: a shy, awkward Ethan Hawke and a skinny-gorgeous, budding thespian played by Robert Sean Leonard.
Yet beneath this surface, it’s all queerness, repression and eros. While the “friendship” is never sexualized, Leonard’s character’s sexuality (and Hawke’s intense love for him) is dog-whistled in a way that would’ve made Vito Russo proud: The way he freezes up when a hyper-masculine buddy brings call girls to a Dead Poets Society meeting, his repressed-then-sublimated yearning for poetic self-expression and (spoiler-trigger-etc.) his suicide, which seems under-determined by the overt plot but inevitable by the logic of queerness in the 1950s.
I, too, thought that I was inspired by carpe diem; I went to college the next year, determined to be a poet and live an extraordinary life. I did end up doing that. But then, why did I also see every play Robert Sean Leonard was in? Why did I, pre-internet, follow the twists of his life in magazines and newspapers? Why was I so focused on living an eros-filled life of poetry, shouting my barbaric yawp, as it were, while my friends were getting laid? For years, Dead Poets was a queer riddle I didn’t yet understand.
Edward II (1991, Derek Jarman)
I was a bit of a late bloomer when it came to queer culture that really resonated with me. I don’t remember what it was that got me watching Jarman’s Edward II, just that I was watching it on my own, on a laptop, like it was a dirty little secret. It cast a spell on me: its anachronistic anarchism, a queerness that I hadn’t seen articulated so explicitly before, the beginnings of a fascination with Tilda Swinton that’s never gone away. Edward II showed me what queerness in art could mean, how many different forms it could take. It was tragic, but not in the same deliberate, Hollywood-tearjerker way that films like Milk are. Jarman’s films have always been political more than anything else, so it’s no surprise he brings elements of queerness and punk to Marlowe’s tragedy, with protestors squaring off against riot police, brandishing signs reading “gay desire is not a crime” and “get your filthy laws off our bodies.” Like all of Jarman’s work, Edward II retains a sense of urgency, still necessary viewing for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet. Jarman reclaims history, challenging the vilification of queerness and pulling a centuries old text by the scruff of the neck into a modern context. Not “gay” as in “happy,” but “queer” as in “fuck you. “Ever since I first saw Edward II, it feels as if I’ve been lost in its sprawling castle, and I’ve never had any desire to come out.
@Camera_Angel; Slicin’ Up Eyeballs podcast
The Silence of the Lambs (1991, Jonathan Demme)
I’ve decided to take this opportunity to chronicle my journey of transness through cinema (but I’ll exclude pornography). The most important film is The Silence of the Lambs and its “woman suit” conceit, which, though twisted, resonated with me as a young man desperate to escape masculine expectations. The Crying Game later showed me transsexuality could be beautiful and part of society. The Skin I Live In was a forced feminization tale of dysphoria I fell for instantly. The first film to truly make me question my own relation to gender was Laurence Anyways, if for its utter failure to convey an understanding of trans psychology that even as a then literal man I felt I had. Perhaps still most embarrassing, Frozen’s coming out anthem “Let It Go” stayed insistent in my then-genderqueer head for a few days until I relented and decided to transition. Under The Skin’s uneasy inhabitance of a physical form spoke directly to my still ongoing failure to relate to my body. Both the old and new Ghost in the Shells furthered this thread of eternal discomfort. When this lack of promised new bodily comfort led me to begin to question trans psychological orthodoxy, Dressed to Kill showed me fiction could provide alternatives. At last, a return to the old well of Silence of the Lambs illuminated to me something difficult and unpopular, but something that finally brought me peace through a transition of validity and passing anxieties: Even an ethically sourced woman suit couldn’t put me truly inside femaleness. But that’s OK; a broader lesson of The Crying Game still applies: It doesn’t mean I can’t be a hot trap.
@reverse_shot; Film Comment, Reverse Shot
The Long Day Closes (1992, Terence Davies)
The very particular pains and pleasures of the pubescent queer experience have rarely been adequately captured onscreen. Perhaps these tender years need a more abstract approach, one free of linear cause-and-effect narrative and given to the kinds of visual and aural ruptures that only a daringly personal filmmaker can bring. Enter Terence Davies, the great British director who has spent a good deal of his brilliant career exorcising the demons of his Liverpudlian youth in the 1950s. The traumas of growing up gay in repressive England—where consensual sex between men was outlawed until 1967, let’s not forget—and the self-hatred it can instill don’t make for trendy stories of pride, but in this case they do result in something even better: true, honest works of art. Of these, 1992’s The Long Day Closes is the most poignant, an exquisitely beautiful yet unsettling evocation of the roiling internal landscape of a movie-loving pre-teen—Davies surrogate Bud (Leigh McCormack)—who stares out at a confusing world with wonder, befuddlement and desire. The Long Day Closes takes up residence in the in-between space in which queer people (and especially queer aesthetes) often inhabit. For this writer—once a queer kid himself—there’s likely no more powerful or erotic movie image than the early moment in which a shirtless, sweaty yard laborer catches the eye of a young Bud, who’s staring, as he always seems to be, from a window. Caught looking, Bud feels that instant pang of shame, and sinks from the window in embarrassment. Good thing—at least for the time being—there’s always another spectacular Technicolor movie world for Bud to escape into.
@ehnewman; Los Angeles Review of Books
Death Becomes Her (1992, Robert Zemeckis)
I adored Death Becomes Her when I first saw it as a child, but I only came to appreciate (what surely resonated for me then as) the film’s gay sensibility as an adult. I wanted to live like Isabella Rosselini, dripping in jewels (and nothing else), eternally beautiful and young, attended by a beefcake houseboy in her LA mansion. Fashion, location and taste may change, but the outlines of our desires are a constant, no? I still delight at the razor sharp barbs that fly between aging movie star Madeline (Meryl Streep) and her novelist friend Helen (Goldie Hawn), sterling examples of the acerbic queer humor in which the side-splitting takedown is also an act of love. It’s no surprise that the film has been much adored by the drag community, who find in Streep and Hawn rich possibilities for diva camp. Death Becomes Her also featured ambitious special effects that lent the movie a wonderful surrealism, only enhancing its comedy. I’d rather watch Hawn emerge out of that bloody Greystone fountain, the gaping hole in her stomach framing Streep and Willis like a family portrait, than Robert Patrick oozing into shape as the T-1000 in Terminator 2, which came out a year earlier and set a new standard. If you haven’t seen it, you should. But first, a warning—“NOW a warning?!”—you’ll be quoting it for weeks to come.
@tonyahardingjr; Lady Science
Film: Single White Female (1992, Barbet Schroeder)
Queer obsession is a fraught topic in both film and politics. The fuzzy, often illusory line between “I want to be with you” and “I want to be you” permeates many queers’ formative memories—the blister-bright nausea of being enamored and hoping, through enough painstaking mimicry, that those feelings will be returned in kind. But that mimicry is itself a spectacular horror, for both the object and the subject. Single White Female succeeds by turning the outsized feelings Hedy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) holds for Allie (Bridget Fonda) into camp-ghastly visuals: nearly matching hairdos, a murdered puppy, Steven Weber’s cock. What could be a better image of soured loyalty than Hedy stalking her imagined cariad with a meathook, eyes dulled like an abandoned dog?
There is nothing graceful about this movie—and Allie’s devoted gay upstairs neighbor may as well be played by an Egg McMuffin. When the right to exist openly is not guaranteed, any film that offers a glimpse of the messier side of queerness, however obliquely, is always a political risk. Queer film is never not problematic, then, especially when it had to adhere to the plodding and pathologizing tendencies of ’90s psychological thrillers. Still, at its best, Single White Female sees some of us queers as we were at our worst: driven to monstrous devotion for people who would have rather kept us as a convenient anecdote.
@worstcinephile; Wylie Writes
Batman Returns (1992, Tim Burton)
Tim Burton’s second stab at the Dark Knight is rarely engaged through a queer lens, but the film articulates queer despair and loneliness, as well as politics, in ways that very few A-budget pictures at the time were able to express so discreetly. While I may have—and perhaps should have—picked a more celebratory, upbeat film, Batman Returns is consistently on my mind, strangely enough as a character study, for how it represents so clearly and yet so bleakly the darker side of queer life—failure, abandonment, isolation—and the heteronormative fear of a radical politics so consistently disparaged by the neoliberal centrists who run the show. Unlike a number of Hollywood films, Batman Returns ends rather depressingly: Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) does not end up in a monogamous, heterosexual relationship with Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) after “coming out” as Batman (he ends up, then, quite literally closeted). The leather-wearing Catwoman spends much of the film exacting revenge on predatory men—including Batman himself—after suffering for years as a lonely, cat-owning, plush-collecting secretary. Finally, Danny DeVito’s carnivalesque Penguin, who is abandoned by his wealthy parents in the very first scene, attempts to assimilate politically by running for Mayor (albeit deceitfully), and ends up on a mission to kidnap and murder every child in Gotham City, a direct result of reproductive futurity. While certainly this subtext may invite interpretations of the film as “conservative” or “regressive,” the film’s evident sympathy with its characters (even the Penguin’s death is presented tragically) certainly validates the downside of growing up feeling different and abandoned, especially in the midst of the Culture Wars.
Careful (1992, Guy Maddin)
Set in a fictional Alpine village so threatened by avalanche that the citizens remove the vocal cords of their livestock, never speak above a whisper and keep their emotions strangled, Careful isn’t subtle about its central metaphor. But then, what self-respecting ultra-low budget parody of German Mountaineering films of the 1930s would be? The forbidden love that drives the plot is Oedipal, not gay, but hoo boy is this movie hilariously, exultantly, bioluminescently queer. When I saw it in 1992, its numerous, exquisitely mannered aspects—acting, directing, costumes, makeup, set design—had me bark-laughing in a nearly empty theater; my fellow audience members were really not vibrating at this movie’s frequency the way I was, and still do, and always will. But it’s the script that’s crawled inside my heart and has taken up permanent residence: “Don’t stand so close to the walnut tree!” “Never hold a baby’s face near an open pin!” “We can live on berries, and grasses, and the small animals we can kill with sharp sticks!”
Joseph P. Henry
Fast Trip, Long Drop (1993, Gregg Bordowitz)
The word “crisis” in “The AIDS Crisis” is an impossible referent, understood as usefully designating a historical period yet also under constant stress to include the present-day inequalities and exigencies of HIV and AIDS. Gregg Bordowitz’s 1993 film essay Fast Trip, Long Drop plumbs the textures of “crisis” more than most other moving-image documents of AIDS and queer culture in New York of the period. Mixing various genres, from documentary footage of ACT-UP marches to scripted send-ups of liberal AIDS politics and stock sequences of demolitions and stunt accidents, the film asks how a community can still learn to historicize itself in the face of its own extinction. Still to this day, Bordowitz’s artistic gift is to find the long histories and theories within even the most immediate hungers of our emotional lives (Fast Trip locates shtetl culture as a curious past cognate of queer experience). His tone is ferocious and analytic, and often funny: Filmmaker Bob Huff caricatures Larry Kramer as “Larry Blamer,” more splenetic patriarch than community activist, while artist Andrea Fraser provides a star turn in her character “Charity Hope-Tolerance,” a PWA and repository for white-hetero projections of HIV/AIDS.
Yet Bordowitz reserves his most cutting introspection for his own effort—a cable TV show he created in 1988 with Jean Carlomusto titled “Living With AIDS.” Softened into a patronizing “Thriving with AIDS,” the program becomes a forum for Bordowitz’s old world world-historical alter ego, Alter Allesman: “I have fantasies of murder,” Allesman boldly confesses on air. “Not famous people, not politicians, movie stars, a no one. Someone I pick up, a trick. I’m fucking him and I’m gonna infect him. The entire purpose of reaching orgasm is to give him AIDS. It’s just a fantasy, just a fantasy, but it’s very important to me to feel like my fantasies are powerful; I desperately need that. If our fantasies cease to be compelling, even only to us, then we’ve lost. Then we’re truly dominated. And I feel that way. I’m no longer a Person With AIDS. I am AIDS.”
Caden Mark Gardner
@cinematrans; MUBI, Hyperallergic
Safe (1995, Todd Haynes)
What happens when you do not know the words to describe what is wrong with you? Carol White (Julianne Moore) rapidly decays into irresolution in Todd Haynes’s 1995 masterpiece in ways that are simultaneously visceral and frustrating. What she believes to be environmental illness, one that has her body rejecting a lot of her femininity and housewife roles, is not as cut and dry as she claims it to be. This leads to a further false path in Louise Hay-inspired New Age thinking, abdicating all autonomy of her body and conscience in favor of positive thinking.
I first watched Safe in college, a time where I was starting to shed my denial of being trans after avoiding it. The film is often synonymous with AIDS allegory, but Haynes also lets that disease exist in his world. Carol’s issue is far more tied to the self. I read Safe as a body dysphoria story. Carol White felt like an unsolicited mirror that I needed at that point in my life, as she was often searching for the words to her problem but then always seemed to avoid the interrogation of the self. But I would come to find the words to describe how I feel and interrogate my problem. Safe as trans allegory might read as a reach for some, but in getting to the bottom of trying to confront the unexplainable in your body and mind feeling at odds, I cannot think of a better film.
@marflukebill; Field of Vision, filmmaker
The Cherry Cherry Chainletter Tape, Joanie4Jackie (1995, K8 Hardy, Sara Marcus, et al)
About five years ago—and about 15 years too late—I developed a hard and fast infatuation with the Joanie4Jackie chainletter tapes, a sort of girls-only VHS mixtape delivery service devised by Miranda July in Oregon in 1995. The idea was that July would disseminate a call for submissions through letters and zines, asking young women around the country to send her their films, which she would then dub to a VHS and send to everyone who submitted. The resulting tapes (there were about fifteen before July donated the archive to Bard, where the program was continued as a club) fuse shorts from underground favorites like Vanessa Renwick, trailers for films by Sarah Jacobson (Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore) and queercore hero G.B. Jones (“The Yo-Yo Gang”), and work from rural teens who would never make another film. Everything is so raw, everyone is so young, nothing is clothed in curtains of metaphor or subtext. In one short Tammy Rae Carland uses the camera as a proxy for her mother and comes out to her. These were consistent themes: coming out, speaking out loud, yearning, releasing desire, feeling unsafe and in need of being heard. In addition to the directness, the cut-and-paste aesthetic, born of both necessity and the influence of filmmakers such as Jennifer Reeves and Peggy Ahwesh, was super inspiring to me. It also hurt, to identify so strongly with this aesthetic, these stories that commanded a gender-exclusive space so strongly that to be viewed with “masculine” eyes felt like a violation.
I befriended a recent Bard grad with access to the entire archive, as well as several filmmakers who had been J4J mainstays. We played the tapes at a few DIY venues before the collection ultimately moved to the Getty Museum. A lot of the filmmakers showed up. I tried not to apologize for being the “only man in the room” and failed miserably. They were thankful for the screening, my heart pounded. Look for Dulcie Clarkson and Tara Mateik’s work, as well as Sarah Kennedy’s, for some great gay coming-of-age stuff, in addition to those listed above, but really everything on the tapes is worth watching.
@Lena_Houst; Film Misery
Bound (1996, Lana & Lilly Wachowski)
Watching the Wachowskis’ pre-transition films feels like the trans equivalent of early queer-coded Hollywood cinema. It’s hard not to notice the identity exploration and societal anxiety bubbling beneath their grand, sophisticated allegories. In their debut, Bound, though, queer desire is not only foregrounded, but luxuriated in. A pulpy lesbian noir whose sexual expression borders on pornographic, I can imagine queer viewers in 1996 reading this as a scopophilic masculine fantasy by two fetishistic film bros. Seeing it now, though, I can only see it for what it always was: an expression of repressed queer desire from two women tired of being told who they are by others.
There’s an element of performance to most closeted queer life, but flirtatious mafia-girlfriend Violet (Jennifer Tilly) has built her life on performed masculine fantasy. “Let me guess, deep inside you, is a dyke just like me,” lesbian ex-con Corky (Gina Gershon), constantly covered in juicy grime and oil, sarcastically darts at Violet after acting on their sensual, frank foreplay. Corky struggles accepting Violet’s genuine desire becuase of her hetero-appeasing presentation and transactional connection to men—but love isn’t business. It’s not a coordinated exchange of goods. It’s trust: Trusting someone to be who they say they are in close, open quarters. The queer dissonance of Bound is personified by the two apartments the action plays across. One a chic, stainless lie. The other’s a bare-bones, sensually plastered mess. It’s the truth, though, and there’s plenty room to paint on a clean canvas.
@tracedthurman; Bloody Disgusting
Scream (1996, Wes Craven)
You can’t tell me that a horror film that climaxes with its two male killers (Matthew Lillard’s Stu and Skeet Ulrich’s Billy) violently penetrating each other with knives isn’t queer. The stabbing so clearly represents their first time having sex with each other (a painful flip-flopping anal penetration for the virginal duo). Even if you don’t read it that way, you can’t deny that there is some definite homoeroticism peppered throughout the film. The video store scene alone, in which Stu fingers Randy’s (Jamie Kennedy) earlobe while draped over his shoulders, nearly cements the former’s queer status. In addition to Billy and Stu, you’ve got queer screenwriter Kevin Williamson’s genius meta dialogue and a fantastically bitchy queer icon in ambitious reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox). What makes a fantastically bitchy character like Gale Weathers so queer, you ask? The fact that she embodies the personality traits so many queer people have to learn in order to defend themselves agains the constant onslaught of social ostracism and abuse. We, as queer people, learn at an early age that if you can’t fight with your fists, then fight with your tongue. Gale Weathers (and other fictional characters like her) is the personification of that mantra. So yes, Wes Craven’s Scream is the queer slasher film you never knew you wanted.
@TrevellAnderson; Out Magazine
The Watermelon Woman (1996, Cheryl Dunye)
There’s something revolutionary about the idea of reclaiming and asserting one’s history, and that’s exactly what Cheryl Dunye set out to do with The Watermelon Woman, which she wrote, directed, edited and starred in. Known as the first feature film directed by a Black lesbian, the 1996 romantic comedy-drama tells a story hardly ever told. About a young Black lesbian (Dunye) who works at a video store during the day and wants to make a film about 1930s Black actresses who were forced to play mammies, sometimes uncredited, the film explores the diffculties in navigating archival sources that erase and ignore the legacies of Black queer women in Hollywood. The Watermelon Woman is a perfect example of Dunye’s unique “Dunyementary” style, wherein she blends narrative and documentary techniques (with a major assist in this film from director of photography Zoë Leonard). It’s a piece of queer cinematic history that deserves all of the praise.
@woahitsjuanito; Miami New Times
End of Evangelion (1997, Hideaki Anno)
The first time I saw Shinji Ikari, I hated him. I hated him because he cried. I hated him because he never knew what he wanted. I hated him because he wasn’t active enough a participant in his own life. I realized years later I hated him because I was him. In creating Neon Genesis Evangelion, Hideaki Anno made an incredibly ambitious show fueled by sheer emotional instability, one that he’d expand and further queer with the masterpiece that is End of Evangelion (which works as either an alternate ending to the series or a continuation of Shinji’s cyclical narrative, depending on interpretation).
Here was a film that took all of the self-loathing, codependency and anxiety from the series and blew it up, having Shinji face everything from his need for physical and emotional affection from men and women alike to the literal end of the world as he knows it, complete with a departure from traditional animation into live-action, bridged together by experimentation in the vein of Stan Brakhage. End of Evangelion works best as a queer horror film, its imagery laden with sex and death, manifestations of desire being skewed by body horror and outright annihilation. What little optimism exists in its frames is short-lived, more interested in reflecting the way its protagonist’s fractured reality—triggered by a war between the beliefs that were imposed upon him with the facts that life has thrown at him—and creating an imaginative realm with which to explore his insatiable need to be both alone and not.
@trishbendix; The New York Times, them., Tidal, Bustle
All Over Me (1997, Alex Sichel); Fucking Åmål (Show Me Love) (1998, Lukas Moodysson)
I put these two together because they are that way in my heart: both gritty indies about awkward tomboyish teenage lesbians falling in love with their effortlessly beautiful blonde best friend. The angst of the ’90s is so palpable in every facet of these films—one set in Hell’s Kitchen, the other in Åmål, Sweden—not just in the writing and performances from young, vulnerable newcomers but the soundtracks (riot grrrl and queer folk punk like Ani DiFranco, Sleater-Kinney, Babes in Toyland, Helium in All Over Me, and Robyn’s first big pop hit “Show Me Love” in Fucking Åmål, which was adopted for the American title). Both films expertly conveyed the ache of first love and discovery of sexuality without forcing the traditional tortured “coming out” narrative. The kinds of complicated female friendships turned sexual and romantic are a pinnacle of lesbianism, for better or for worse, and these two films captured that tension.
Velvet Goldmine (1998, Todd Haynes)
When I first saw Velvet Goldmine, teen-me was utterly gobsmacked. I didn’t clock that its central queer love triangle was a fantastical re-imagining of the rumors of rock stars David Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. I didn’t realize that Haynes had snatched the plot structure of Citizen Kane to unfurl his own tale of ambition gone awry and love lost. I didn’t know what to make of the suggestion that Oscar Wilde wasn’t just gay, but also an extraterrestrial. I was agog at the boldness, glam rock, gender-bending fashion and sex appeal so thick you could practically smell the sweat and lip-gloss. As a baby-bi, I was excited by the sights and the sounds, but not yet ready to confront how deeply I was connecting to the story of a gay teen finding his identity by swooning over rock stars.
Watching it decades later as an adult and out bisexual, I still revel over its allusions, subversions, sex appeal, spectacle, killer songs, as well as soul-quaking performances from Toni Collette, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and Ewan McGregor. But I was stunned by how teen-me had missed the point of this movie I’d long loved. It was never really about the rock stars. Velvet Goldmine was about how their story framed the coming out of an average gay teen, played by a wide-eyed and beaming Christian Bale. At its core, Hayne’s glitter-flecked drama is about the confusion, fear, excitement and ultimate liberation of coming out, complete with all the celebratory glitter such an accomplishment deserves.
Get Real (1998, Simon Shore)
There are few films which so accurately capture the idiosyncrasies of growing up queer in the south of England—perhaps because, for sure, it’s a boring (and specific) setting. But there is Get Real. Not to evoke one of those rancid Twitter memes, but here, the cinematic parallels to my life are omnipresent: the homoerotic banter of the hyper-macho football lads, the facile teachers, the unattainable muses. Shore’s depiction of Little England is one which, for me, quite literally hits close to home. You see, Get Real was shot, and ostensibly based, in Basingstoke, a suburban-come-rural town some 20 miles from my home city of Winchester.
There’s one key difference: For the venemously witty Steven (Ben Silverstone), the twinky protagonist of Get Real, his muse becomes attainable. This is the athletic, archetypal and masculine-yet-sensitive-but-very-fucking-confused John (Brad Gorton). He’s manifestly presented as the ideal, with his bulging muscles, “head boy” badges (as Steven says, “I wish it was an invitation”) and latent sensitivity. It should be very intimidating: After all, there’s nothing that scares gay men more than beautiful male bodies. But it was through John, at least partially, that I could reconcile my outward masculinity to my inward queerness. That, quite naturally, bred a much needed sense of belonging. John’s story is tragic: He isn’t able to reconcile it all. He doesn’t come out. But you know he’d be fine if he did; and that’s partially what hurts, for sure, but it’s also what resonates. Seeing Get Real made me, well, get real.
@carolaverygrant; Motherboard, IndieWire
Adolescence of Utena (1999, Kunihiko Ikuhara)
What does it mean to be a queer body existing in a heteronormative space? Nearly every queer film asks this question at some point, but few are about demolishing the heteronormative ideal as explicitly and as proudly as Adolescence of Utena, legendary anime director Kunihiko Ikuhara’s queer magnum opus. A drastically different retelling of Ikuhara’s television program Revolutionary Girl Utena, Adolescence follows Utena Tenjou as she duels the entire Ohtori Academy Student Council in order to gain ownership of the Rose Bride, Anthy Himemiya. But where Revolutionary Girl followed Utena and Anthy’s attempts at actualizing as their full, queer selves within the constraints of the heterosexual environment they’ve been forced into, Adolescence ends with them moving past the bounds of cisheteronormative power structures, complete with astounding body transformations, deeply sensual imagery, gleeful absurdism and Ikuhara’s signature meta-toying with the structures of Japanese animation. Utena and Anthy don’t just break free from the normative standard, but from the film itself, and the result is one of the most joyfully indescribable queer masterpieces of all time.
@tymitchellxo; The New Inquiry
All About My Mother (1999, Pedro Almodóvar)
Perhaps a queer film is about diva worship. Perhaps it’s about sapphic divas. Perhaps it’s about trans women. Perhaps it’s about a queer director, and that’s all it takes. Perhaps it’s about sensitive boys who die young. Perhaps it’s about hustlers and hookers who bandage each other’s wounds. Perhaps it’s about surviving sickness, especially when it’s not your own. Perhaps it’s about AIDS. Perhaps it’s about running away, and running back, and away again. Perhaps it’s about the spotlight. Perhaps it’s about the dressing room. For me, I believe any great queer film must be, at its damp and velvet core, about my mother.
@pilotviruet); TV Guide
But I’m A Cheerleader (1999, Jaime Babbit)
I have a memory of secretly watching But I’m A Cheerleader on my computer, quietly crying in the middle of the night. There’s a scene in which Graham (Clea DuVall) and Megan (Natasha Lyonne) have sex for the first time: “I’ve never felt this way before,” Megan tells her, “Except for when I was cheerleading.” Of course it’d eventually become obvious why I felt so overwhelmed but, at the time and with no blueprint for queerness, my totally rational response was to join my school’s cheerleading squad. What I’ve always loved about But I’m A Cheerleader, besides every single thing DuVall does, is the way it found humor in something horrible (and how it emphasized the darkness through bright, garish hues), a trusted defense mechanism. But I was also obsessed with how comfortable Graham felt in her gayness, a concept that both seemed utterly foreign to me and gave me something to strive for. I kept returning to the movie, looking for clues to explain why I was so drawn to it; to be honest, I didn’t even register how important it was to both my queerness and gender identity until I was an adult and read this beautiful essay by Brad Nelson. Eventually, I did get it—and also learned that I was, without a doubt, a horrible cheerleader.
Y Tu Mamá Tambien (2001, Alfonso Cuarón)
I saw Y Tu Mamá Tambien with my mother. I was a freshman in high school dressed in Goodwill clothes, and an older classmate with cool girl bangs recommended it to me. She had seen it at the one theater for arthouse films in downtown Cincinnati, frequented by college students and other strangers who aspire to casually use mise en scene in a sentence. Because I was 14 and young for my age, I asked my mother to rent it for me from the video store where she worked. She had never heard of it before; her tastes skewed toward Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts.
To approach a film like Y Tu Mamá Tambien—a Mexican neorealist sex romp turned existential travelogue—through the lens of memoir might seem a paltry response to its brilliance, but one’s favorite queer film is a reckoning with time. It is dependent upon where we were in our lives when we happened upon Parting Glances or Go Fish, what we brought to the experience with us.
My own bisexuality was just on the tip of my tongue the day I put the VHS in our combination VCR/DVD player. I had only been presented with two options: fishing and hunting with my stepfather or Will and Grace, a show I still love deeply. But there was never a sense that my own queerness could be mapped out for myself, that I could be a different kind of queer person than the handful of options I had presented. It was just more hand-me-down clothes that didn’t quite fit.
Like Alfonso Cuaron’s later Roma, Y Tu Mamá Tambien is a film about many things. It examines political and class divides in Mexico at the turn of a new millennium. It’s an incisive look at the aggressive posturing of teenage masculinity, in which young men objectify the women around them as a thinly veiled mask that obscures how utterly terrified they are of them. But even more than that, Cuaron’s first masterpiece is about two best friends fumbling their way out of the tunnel of late adolescence, momentarily finding each other’s bodies in the darkness.
The plot is simple enough: Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) meet an older Spanish woman, Luisa (Maribel Verdú), at a wedding. Undeterred by the fact that she is Tenoch’s cousin’s wife, they invite her to a secluded beach they call “Heaven’s Mouth,” one they made up just to impress her. To their surprise—and ours—she accepts. Luisa has cancer and is looking for somewhere to die. The journey to their nonexistent paradise becomes a tangle of confused feelings and buried sexual longing, one eventually culminating in the film’s literal climax: a threesome between Tenoch, Julio and Luisa. The longtime friends share a long kiss just as the image fades to black.
Tenoch and Julio aren’t gay, and they end the film still identifying as straight men, but many of the best queer films aren’t explicitly queer. Instead they teach us something about ourselves and our own desires. For me, it was a glimpse at the freedom to make mistakes as we try to become the people we will be.
@georgeciveris; Columbia Journalism Review, stand-up comedian
The Dreamers (2003, Bernardo Bertolucci)
When I was 13, I walked to the video store a block from my family’s apartment and spotted an orange-tinted DVD cover featuring three hot people (two men and one woman) looking horny, naked and bored. A matter-of-fact critical blurb seemingly unconcerned with its subject’s artistic merit simply read, “A steamy, erotic thriller.” The steamy film in question was Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers. Much like the dreamier of its two male leads, the version I rented was uncut. At one point in the film, one of the men slits a banana vertically in half by plunging his finger into its head. In another shot, the woman appears in nothing but a white bedsheet balanced on her waist and black evening gloves, resembling the Venus de Milo (a note: being attracted to men is gay, but being attracted to Eva Green is queer). One of the men is American and the other one is French, as is the woman, who is his sister. They all take a bath together. The French woman removes the American man’s underwear, revealing a small photograph tucked underneath his half-erect penis. Earlier (or later, I can’t remember) he masturbates in front of a poster of Marlene Dietrich, who comes to life, takes a drag of her cigarette, looks me right in the eyes, and says, “Honey, you’re a faggot.”
@jshawhan; Out and About Nashville
Tropical Malady (2004, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
With its bifurcate structure, this film presents that quintessential emotional tangle as both the internal (youngish love, the mesh of another’s musics, idyllic pursuits, the occasional organic ritual of folklore) and the external (siege mentality, the ultimate unknowability of another, the perpetual lurk of isolation). It’s a queer work of art by one of the greatest living directors, and it resonates continuously in the viewer. It’s a more versatile Gerry, to name another beloved queer film by another queer director, and though it doesn’t fill the vessel of personal experience as viscerally as The Master or To The Wonder, to name two deeply queer films made by straight people, there is a magic in Tropical Malady that I wish for everyone.
Honorable mentions: Urbania, The Servant, Score, Freeway II: Confessions of a Trickbaby, Women in Love, Grace Jones: A One Man Show, Taxi Zum Klo, Addams Family Values
@JimFarmer3; Georgia Voice, Out On Film
Mysterious Skin (2004, Gregg Araki)
Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin—based on the novel by Scott Heim—is my absolute favorite LGBT-themed film. A never-better Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as a hustler whose life eventually crisscrosses with a young man (Brady Corbet) who he first met as a boy. The performances are exemplary, with supporting turns by Elisabeth Shue and Mary Lynn Rajskub. The first time I saw this I literally almost lost my breath; it’s emotionally devastating at times. Yet despite its grim subject matter—sexual abuse—it’s a lyrical and hopeful film, one about the connections we form with others, intentionally and unintentionally.
@josesolismayen; The New York Times
Undertow (Contracorriente) (2009, Javier Fuentes-León)
I first watched Javier Fuentes-León’s Undertow in the aftermath of an intense, but short-lived, romance. He was an American doing humanitarian work in the Third World, I was from the Third World and at age 24 it seemed like I’d never live anywhere else. When he left, my heart left me. It was the last time I cried. So watching the forbidden affair between a small town, married, fisherman (Cristian Mercado) and the light-skinned painter Santiago (Manolo Cardona) visiting from the capital hit a bit too close to home.
Sensually shot by Mauricio Vidal, who captured the beauty and danger of the sea, and sensitively acted by Mercado and Cardona (Ledger and Gyllenhaal who?), Undertow showed me that sometimes films can provide the answers your soul is seeking. Fuentes-León captures the intense pain of lost love, while highlighting the importance of community. I don’t know if Undertow is necessarily my “favorite” queer film (that title would probably go to The Wizard of Oz, which I can recite from beginning to end) but it’s certainly the one that’s haunted me the most. Unlike the man who got away, Undertow lives within me.
@wjmcentee; The Brooklyn Rail
Beginners (2010, Mike Mills)
No widower has rejoiced as gleefully as Hal Fields. Not that his wife’s passing was any reason to celebrate, but it (macabrely, humorously) offered him a few, remaining months to embrace his queerness and become a jubilant fixture in LA’s vibrant community of middle-aged and older gay men. As Hal, Christopher Plummer’s dive into the dating scene, attempts to understand house music and coming out to his son—in a purple sweater!—is utterly delightful. The film is a quiet testament to second chances, acceptance and unbridled joie de vivre, even as Hal’s heath wanes. Beguiling without becoming too twee, the film also has one of the best meet-cute scenes in recent memory, with Ewan McGregor and Mélanie Laurent connecting at a Halloween party over a dog, a therapist couch and laryngitis.
@benfraserlee; The Guardian
Weekend (2011, Andrew Haigh)
Given the relative scarcity of gay content in my youth, I became accustomed to settling for very little. A homoerotic overtone, a mournful glance, a grotesquely exaggerated stereotype—all felt like something yet also nothing, a cruel tease of representation that was still far out of reach. But then in 2011, I sat down to watch Weekend in a busy London cinema surrounded by other gay men and found myself somewhat overwhelmed by the time it was over.
While I’d spent a large portion of my life desiring any form of multimedia gayness, my youthful curiosity had admittedly swayed toward more carnal gratification. Watching Andrew Haigh’s lo-fi drama, I realized that, above all else, I was really craving the chance to experience big screen same-sex romance. His naturalistic, impeccably acted film about two men sharing a first, and probably last, weekend together is a woozy, hair-raising mosaic of intimate moments, relatable to anyone experiencing that initial rush yet, more importantly, it was relatable to a gay man like me. It might not seem as defiantly queer as many films on this list, but in portraying gay love in an unfiltered, unabashedly tender light, it remains quietly radical nonetheless.
@cinemabite; The AV Club, HuffPost, TV Guide
Tomboy (2011, Céline Sciamma)
Some of my most vivid childhood memories are tethered by a sequence of emotions: complete freedom followed by immense shame. No film has captured that experience as palpably as Tomboy. Céline Sciamma’s tender look at a child’s exploration of gender identity follows Mikael/Laure (Zoé Héran), a French 10-year-old assigned female at birth who introduces himself as a boy after moving to a new Paris suburb. Mikael spends his summer playing soccer with the neighborhood boys, slowly taking his shirt off as he shyly enters the game. He proudly surveys his new short haircut in the mirror, crafting a mustache out of the trimmings.
The first time I watched Tomboy I was early into my transition as a trans adult, and I cried thinking back to my younger self. I felt that same elation and freedom on the days I ran around my Southern California cul-de-sac as a kid, playing shirtless alongside my brother, and again when one day I took a pair of scissors to my long hair and chopped it off. But similar to Mikael’s experience, my actions were eventually met with reproach from a mother embarrassed to see her child dressing and behaving like a boy.
Sciamma’s film isn’t a perfect trans or gender nonconforming narrative—the ending suggests Mikael’s (who now goes by Laure again) gender exploration was just a phase, and as a cis filmmaker, Sciamma can only uncover so much about the experience of growing up as a gender nonconforming kid. Still, it’s a film that intimately gets what was going through my head as I stood in the mirror and smiled, looking at the kid with jagged short hair who looked a little bit more like me.
@renjender; The Village Voice
Concussion (2013, Stacie Passon)
“Not the Will Smith movie,” I explain when telling people about writer-director Stacie Passon‘s debut (which premiered at Sundance in 2013). Ironic, considering the main character Abby (a spectacular Robin Weigert, the therapist in Big Little Lies) throughout this film so clearly gives no fucks about any man. Abby’s a stay-at-home mom married to another woman, a sexually indifferent divorce lawyer, in wealthy, suburban New Jersey. When Abby’s son accidentally hits her in the face with a baseball, Abby calls him a “little shit,” and decides to go back to work in an unrealistically white New York City, renovating and then flipping a loft. As the loft becomes more presentable, Abby, after a couple of encounters with sex workers, becomes one herself, inviting women into the loft’s big bed.
Passon lived with her wife in the suburb and house where much of Concussion takes place. After her son hit her with a baseball, Passon didn’t become a sex worker, but did start writing this film. Concussion’s satire is full of insider detail, like the way the housewives obsessively exercise (in slow motion, with Bowie’s “Oh You Pretty Things” synched to their yoga poses and spin classes) and fixate on interior design (the wrong wall tile interrupts a sexual encounter), but Weigert’s Abby, whether in the city, wearing her CBGB shirt and a smirk of disbelief, or in suburbia freaking out her straight writer-friend with the taboo dreams she’s had about motherhood, has a lived-in sexiness that makes this film a classic.
First Period (2013, Charlie Vaughn)
A low-budget, gay, high school romp, this cheap and tacky film captures all the most playful aspects of camp. Writer and star Brandon Alexander III fills the movie with life, playing new girl at school Cassie Glenn, who is determined to ascend the ranks of popularity. The jokes are unceasing, the acting slides between brilliant and dreadful with ease, and it’s clear everybody involved had the best time making it. It’s the first thing I suggest whenever we’re having a movie night.
@ZacharySire; Vice, Str8UpGayPorn
Under the Skin (2013, Jonathan Glazer)
In recent years, Scarlett Johansson has come under fire for playing characters of different ethnicities and gender identities than her own, but I’ve never felt more connected to the character she played in 2013’s Under the Skin: An alien masquerading as a Scottish woman who uses her perceived sexuality to lure horny young men into an alternate reality where they are killed and their bodies are harvested to fuel an extraterrestrial universe, or something. To be clear, it’s not the sex (or the murder!) that makes Under the Skin a queer masterpiece, it’s what happens in the movie’s third act—when Johansson’s alien character begins to see itself as human—that makes it so relevant for anyone who’s ever struggled to assimilate in a society to which they’ll never belong. As the alien abandons its deadly mission in favor of attempting to live a mundane human life, carrying out basic human routines and forming basic human relationships, it eventually faces a tragic demise while realizing that it will never fit in. I’m not saying that growing up as a closeted gay boy in Orange County, California in the 1980s is the same thing as an alien trying to live as a woman in modern day Scotland, but Under the Skin is an artful (the score, sound, cinematography are gorgeous) and horrifying cinematic reminder of the devastating consequences one might face while pretending to be something they are not.
Willow Catelyn Maclay
Under the Skin (2013, Jonathan Glazer)
An explicit transgender cinema does not exist. Historically we have had little to no control over the images of us that were presented in movies. To this day, there is still very little in the way of literal representation of transgender people on screen. It is essential to take transgender cinema and make it our own, as specific as a personal gender identity itself. For me, Jonathan Glazer’s, Under the Skin is the closest I have come to seeing a cinematic interpretation of how I process gender and sexuality. On the surface this movie isn’t about transness at all, but predator-prey dynamics and black widow spider mentality as science fiction, until those roles reverse in an empathetic twist that ends in violence. But it isn’t that simple. How the creature, played by Scarlet Johannson, who has taken on the form of an attractive woman, attempts to understand her new gender and her new body is directly synonymous with trans femininity. It doesn’t matter whether or not this was intentional, because transgender women have reclaimed the movie as theirs. The cinema of transgender people must operate in this fashion, because if it didn’t, we would have no stories, because Hollywood has only ever been interested in corpses, fools and monsters.
@jourdayen; Bitch Media
Bessie (2015, Dee Rees)
Dee Rees’s melancholic erotic imprint is visible on all of her films, from the lesbian coming-of-age drama Pariah to her most mainstream feature, the Southern Gothic drama Mudbound. Her sophomore feature Bessie combines the queerness of her first feature with the sweaty Southern emotional desperation of her third. The Bessie Smith (Queen Latifah) we see at her most passionate is surrounded by women, whether it be her lover Lucille (Tika Sumpter) or her mentor Ma Rainey (Mo’Nique). Rees depicts Rainey’s relationship with Smith as a queer mentorship; Rainey teaches Smith how to be bravely perform her sexuality on and off the stage. One scene shows Rainey dressed in a suit and top hat covertly hitting on Smith. Once she is rebuffed, Rainey takes to the stage and reveals herself, effortlessly switching between the fast-talking man and the woman he’s done wrong. Bessie captures queer relationships with black women while also depicting the different ways black queer women can perform their gender and sexuality. Rainey is the stud, Lucille the femme—Smith fluctuates between both, often angsting over which one she should be. Bessie has all the trappings of a biopic with the rhythms of fascinatingly bittersweet queer journey.
@katienconnell; Another Gaze
Film: Mommy (2015, Xavier Dolan)
Xavier Dolan’s Mommy is a near-Baroque contemporary drama laced with dystopianism and soundtracked by late-’90s/early 2000s pop-rock hits. It’s also Dolan’s film with the most conceptual mileage. Set in St. Hubert, Québec, Mommy centres widowed single mother Diane Després (“Die” for short—played by Anne Dorval) and her sometimes violent teenage son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) who has come home from a recent stay at a state funded hospital in which he violently injured another boy. In her struggle to manage Steve’s aggression, loss and loneliness, Diane seeks out help from their neighbour Kyla (Suzanne Clement), a quiet, preppy math teacher in a drained-of-life heterosexual marriage who Diane watches from her basement window. As they work together to care for Steve, Diane and Kyla become a pseudo-couple and their mutual desire simmers under the surface.
It’s moving to see all three characters grow through their precariously stitched-together kinship, and though it’s heartbreaking when the family fantasy falls apart, this resonates with the social impositions that often prevent queer love from being realized. While I think Dolan intends us to think about parents and their children, the ambiguities between Diane and Kyla have lingered for me with far greater intensity over the years. Ironically, Mommy is Dolan’s film that gives the least explicit attention to LGBTQ characters or issues. But it’s in the ways director and performers implicitly connect ideas and feelings about desire, power, class, and family that Mommy becomes Dolan’s most transgressive and nuanced queer film to date. Some genuinely exciting camerawork, stylish costumes and an unforgettable lip sync to Céline Dion’s “On ne change pas” also make Mommy worthwhile.
The Duke of Burgundy (2015, Peter Strickland)
Everything I know about cinema, I learned from queer pictures and their lash-batting to earlier, straighter-laced movies. That my film studies education is as inverted as I am was once a source of much unpleasant self-flagellation: Why couldn’t I have learned sensibly and chronologically, like a proper critic? Citizen Kane before, not after, Velvet Goldmine; The Beguiled (1971) before The Misandrists. I’ve since accepted this fate as a sensibility and an asset: I love it when an art film—say Carol, The Heiresses or Knife+Heart—satisfies my hankerings for a risque queer world apart, and then blesses me with a series of referenced films to see after the credit cascade.
In the case of The Duke of Burgundy, I was blessed with a whole new genre: giallo. Peter Strickland’s third feature is set in a world void of men and ripe with mannequins and kaleidoscopic sequences. At once period and contemporary, two entomologists, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), conduct a regimented sadomasochistic relationship in the privacy of their tellingly tidy villa. Gradually, the performativity unravels and we realize that power is wielded by an unexpected party. While it’s not a film for those desiring blunt-force romance and sweet nothings, The Duke of Burgundy does nail the miscommunications and erotic frustrations that occur in relationships—both vanilla and spiced—between women. The same goes for its Jesús Franco homage.
@YesItsAlistair; Film Inquiry
The Duke of Burgundy (2015, Peter Strickland)
As Hollywood’s representation of LGBT relationships frequently go out of their way to appear heteronormative to appease the conservative mainstream, it’s only a slight surprise that the most emotionally rewarding recent depiction of queer relationship dynamics can be found in a homage to the European softcore porn of the ’70s. Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy may be riffing on the exploitation films of Jess Franco via the tortured chamber drama of Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, but it’s no arthouse exercise in refining the trash of the past through the lens of something altogether more respectable.
It’s the rare example of a very specific genre homage that firmly grounds its fantasy world in something more emotionally tangible: a kinky throwback on the surface that couldn’t feel further removed from an artificial construct when examining the very concept of fetish, and how this can affect the balance in a relationship when this desire isn’t shared. Prior to the film’s release, Strickland stated in interviews that he didn’t want to reveal his own sexuality, simply because that ambiguity could lead to his film being read in two different ways. But there’s no overbearing male gaze to his film in the way his comment implies there could be if read in a certain light—it’s an unmistakable work that, beneath the human toilets and boot polishing, finds something heartfelt and profound to say about modern queer relationships.
@RichJuz; Jezebel, Slate
The Duke of Burgundy (2015, Peter Strickland)
By venerating labels and exposing their shortcomings, Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy cultivates a thoroughly modern fluidity despite its ambiguous setting of somewhere in Europe at some point in time. The sexual dynamic of principals Cynthia (a world-weary Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (a batty Chiara D’Anna) initially seems clear—the former the top, the latter the bottom. But soon, it’s clearly opaque as we find out that Evelyn’s actually directing things, bottoming with such force that she’s actually topping. But the screw turns some more and suggests that in bottoming through topping, Cynthia’s submission is the real driving force, thus rendering her a dom top who sub tops. The layers are endless, just like in life. Alternately absurd and desperately sad in its depiction of what people will do to hold onto love, The Duke of Burgundy marries high cinema sensibilities (Buñuel and Fassbinder are both clear influences) with Eurosleaze (the dreamy atmosphere and lurid sex are ripped out of the book of Jess Franco). The result is a movie that is at once trashy and profound, a perfect metaphorical depiction of great gay sex.
Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (2016, John Lee)
The first time I saw this film it was such a pleasant surprise! I’m not concerned with palatability of queer representation in art, but I still enjoy accessible and less sexualized representations and wish I had more access to them when I was young. But certain silly and unpretentious renditions of queer romance in films intended for children and families have fallen short and read as saccharine to me, or have read as so polished and wholesome as to be totally alien to my own experience. To see a film that is sweet, charming and whimsical, and for it to be truly bizarre and singular with so many formal experiments and gags that are so weird or so drawn out they could read as off-putting to an unprepared viewer (the alien! the balloon gag!), and for the driving narrative pull to revolve around a crush between two men, was and continues to be a delight.
@gabebergado; Teen Vogue
Other People (2016, Chris Kelly)
Chris Kelly has gotten a lot of buzz this past year for the hilarious Comedy Central series The Other Two and his 2016 film Other People is also a fantastic piece. David (Jesse Plemons) navigates various forms of queer trauma, including a breakup and his father’s refusal to accept his sexuality. But at the center of the movie is David taking care of his mother dying from leiomyosarcoma, played brilliantly by Molly Shannon. The movie deftly balances grief and humor (and features an iconic dance scene with Josie Totah) as David deals with his personal problems while also coming to terms with what losing his mother might mean. It’s set in Sacramento, too, so think of it as an older, gay Lady Bird.
@NielsPutman; Filmmagie, Kortfilm.be
BPM (2017, Robin Campillo)
It’s not the loud voices of protest in Robin Campillo’s political film that echo long after the end credits grace the screen, but it’s arguably its equally radical emotional core that makes the biggest sound. BPM focuses on the ACT UP Paris movement of the early ’90s, tracking the effects of their manifestations both politically (raising awareness to a vital cause that was being neglected by the government) and emotionally (within the internal structure of the family-like group). Acting up bears chaos and adrenaline, and the filmic antidote to these energetic highs lay in the tender love story between Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and Nathan (Arnaud Valois). Their very first sex scene is one of the most intimate and raw portrayals of lovemaking between gay men ever put on screen, and a key example of the authenticity Campillo strives for. That Sean is HIV-positive doesn’t reduce the scene’s erotic tensions, nor its romantic values; a spark of truthfulness that rings even harder when destiny strikes during the film’s tragic end and the notion of the LGBTQ+ community as “a chosen family” grows as fundamental as its upfront political context. BPM is therefore not solely a crucial addition to queer cinema and its inevitably grim AIDS chapter, but also carries an inferior statement that redounds living as a queer to something political in itself.
Hereditary (2018, Ari Aster)
Is Hereditary my favorite queer film ever made? Nah. Is it my favorite trans film ever made? Also probably nah, but there are times I think it might be. Ari Aster’s 2018 horror movie is, viewed through one light, the story of a trans guy who really committed and got the body he’d always dreamed of. Even setting that aside, it’s a movie about demonic possession, which isn’t like being trans but is like being trapped inside a body you don’t really understand or want and trying to claw your way out of it, which we can relate to. And like so many accidentally trans movies (unlike the mainstream, cis-approved Oscarbait Danish Girls of the world), Hereditary is a movie that seems to have started from a cis director muttering to himself, “Hm. Bodies are weird!” and then every trans film fan shouting, “YES THEY ARE!” and just going to town. (The trans YouTube critic May Leitz posted a terrific manifesto on the film, and journalist Sasha Geffen talked to other trans Hereditary fans.)
I had seen many movies that connected to my own transness before Hereditary, but I came out in March 2018 and Hereditary was the first movie I saw that I realized I was explicitly enjoying on some level that was solely because I was a trans person. In its meticulously constructed world and its tiny dollhouses, I recognized some part of the rigorous order I had tried to impose upon myself before the walls of my own gender started coming down. And as the movie is smashed to utter pieces in the final third, where some critics felt the film went too far into the supernatural and surreal, I saw some reflection of my own ridiculous journey. To become myself, I had to destroy something else. Hail Paimon. Hail me.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019, Céline Sciamma)
Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is about two women who fall in love with art and one another. Under the veil of romance is also subtle commentary about societal hierarchy and how women circumvent it. While the film takes place in the 18th century there is also something modern about the characters and the way they rebel against the patriarchal pressures of womanly expectations. Portrait doesn’t go out of its way to proclaim its queerness, it just is—and that is so refreshing.
@ABaran999; Queer/Art/Film; The Creative Resistance
I Am a Woman Now (2011, Michiel van Erp)
Michiel Van Erp’s glorious and glamorous 2011 documentary tells the story of five pioneering European trans women who were among the first to undergo gender confirmation surgery with Dr. Georges Borou in Casablanca in the 1950s. Returning to their respective countries, the five subjects became cabaret superstars, got embroiled in tabloid scandals, and wound up living uncharted lives—and aging very gracefully, very tastefully and very fabulously, which is so much fun to get a glimpse of. “Is there anything you would do differently?” one of the women asks the legendary April Ashley. “I would like to have been more rich,” she replies, sipping champagne and looking ever the picture of the grand dame she is. The greatest thing queer documentaries can do is open our eyes to the histories that so many people—both straight and gay—have gone to great lengths to hide. Van Erp’s extraordinary documentary brings April, Colette, Jean, Corinne and Bambi’s stories out of the tabloids and puts them in their rightful place as trans pioneers vital to global queer history. It’s never been released on DVD in the United States, but I hope someone eventually will. Hint, hint!