2017: A year in review for LGBT film


This year featured no shortage of fine LGBT films, documentaries and shorts that spoke to queer life in the age of Trump. Here is a roundup of LGBT films that played in (or passed through) Philadelphia in 2017.

“Call Me by Your Name” was a sensual, astonishing romantic drama brought to the screen with class and emotion by gay filmmaker Luca Gaudagnino. Adapting André Aciman’s book, out writer/director James Ivory captured the palpable romance between Elio (Timothée Chamalet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) in 1983 Italy. The film is seductive, heartbreaking and spellbinding all at once.

Another great film this year was out filmmaker Dee Rees’ “Mudbound,” which played briefly in theaters, but is currently available on Netflix. While not a queer film in terms of content, Rees’ period drama chronicles two families. The friendship that develops between the African-American Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) and white Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), both war veterans, formed the emotional center of this poignant and powerful film, which addressed issues of race, class and family in 1940s Mississippi.

Also among the best films of the year was Raoul Peck’s phenomenal documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” about gay writer James Baldwin. An urgent, cogent film about race relations, the film opened in February and played for several months, a testament to the power and legacy of Baldwin’s voice.

Other outstanding documentaries depicting queer African-American experiences this year included “Whose Streets?” a moving film about activism in Ferguson, Mo., featuring a lesbian activist, and “Quest,” a touching portrait of an African-American family in North Philadelphia. Over the course of the film, which unfolds during the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency, Quest’s daughter, PJ, comes out to her parents.

One of the year’s highlights was “Handsome Devil,” a film that unfortunately never received a proper release in Philadelphia. However, it did open QFLix, the city’s LGBT film fest, back in March. Out writer/director John Butler’s film has a gay teenager sharing a room with a closeted athlete at an Irish boarding school. “Devil” charms in part because the boys becomes friends, not lovers. This sweet comedy-drama deserves a look. It is one of the year’s best queer films.

Also from the United Kingdom was “God’s Own Country,” which depicts the tough and tender romance between a young, closeted British farmer and the Romanian immigrant who comes to help out at his farm. The film is gorgeously made by out director Francis Lee, and features strong performances by the leads.

One of the most unusual films this year was gay Portuguese filmmaker João Pedro Rodrigues’ “The Ornithologist,” an experimental film about the title character (Paul Hamy) who has a series of adventures while birding. He encounters mystical spirits, women who want to kill him, as well as a hunky deaf shepherd (Xelo Cagiao), with whom he has an erotic tryst. The film also includes bare-breasted female hunters, a golden-shower scene and shape-shifting. It’s an imaginative reworking of the allegory of St. Anthony of Padua, and it’s pretty hypnotic.

From France, “BPM” was queer writer/director Robin Campillo’s Cannes Award-winning drama about the Paris ACT UP. A sprawling, entertaining film, with a sensitive romance unfolding amid actions by the ACT UP members, “BPM” was magnifique. In France, the film has been a big success; in America, where it failed to attract a large audience, it is more of a succès d’estime.

Out French enfante terrible, François Ozon, was represented this year by “Frantz,” his handsomely mounted romantic melodrama. A remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s “Broken Lullaby,” the film has Anna (Paula Beer), a young woman in 1919 Germany, mourning the death of her fiancé, Frantz (Anton von Lucke). After she spies Adrien (Pierre Niney) at Frantz’s gravesite, Anna becomes intrigued by the handsome stranger. His connection to Frantz forms the central drama. “Frantz” may not have been typically cheeky Ozon, but it was still a worthwhile, moving film.

Another period piece that generated some attention this year was gay British filmmaker Terence Davies’ “A Quiet Passion,” a biopic about the poet Emily Dickinson (played by out actress Cynthia Nixon). Beautifully lensed, and featuring strong performances by Nixon and a scene-stealing Catherine Bailey as Dickinson’s tart-tongued friend, Vryling Buffam, “A Quiet Passion” ended up on several critics’ Top 10 lists.

Rounding out the international period dramas, “Maurice,” James Ivory’s lush adaptation of E.M. Forster’s posthumously published gay novel, received a re-release in 2017 for its 30th anniversary. The film looked as splendid as ever. James Wilby played the title character, a man grappling with his desires for his friend Clive (Hugh Grant) as well as a sexy gamekeeper, Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves).

One of the biggest hits in Mexico this year, “Hazlo Como Hombre,” about a gay man coming out to his friends, did better in the box office at home than abroad. A broad but amusing comedy that pokes fun at straight machismo, “Hombre” was criminally overlooked in America. Perhaps something got lost in translation.

American independent cinema included some interesting and exciting queer-themed titles that dealt obliquely with true crime.

“Beach Rats,” the sophomore effort by Eliza Hittman, was an absorbing character study about a closeted Brooklynite played by Harris Dickinson in a star-making turn. However, the film depicted a real-life killing a bit too closely for comfort.

“My Friend Dahmer,” which played briefly in theaters in November, was Marc Meyers’ sharp, smart adaptation of Derf Backderf’s graphic novel about the teen years of gay, cannibalistic serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. This outstanding drama benefits from Ross Lynch’s unflinching performance as the title character.

Three biopics of note this year had mixed success, critically or commercially.

“Battle of the Sexes” was an entertaining film about then-closeted tennis star Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and her on- and off-the-court rivalry with male chauvinist Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) in 1973. The film scored with critics and viewers who saw it, but under-performed at the box office.

Likewise, in the year that saw “Wonder Woman” lasso the box office, out filmmaker Angela Robinson’s origin story, “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women,” failed to make much of an impact. It was a shame because this story — that recounts the polyamorous relationship the comic book’s creator, Dr. William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), had with his wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), and their lover/student, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) — was a nifty film that deserved to be more widely seen and known.

From Finland — where else? — came “Tom of Finland,” a shrewd biopic about the gay artist Touko Laaksonen, whose homoerotic drawings pleased and excited many gay men. The film resists being overly sexual, focusing more on the emotion than the erotica.

Speaking of erotica, one of the hottest lesbian films of this (or any) year was “Below Her Mouth,” which sadly bypassed Philadelphia during its brief theatrical release. The film, which is currently available on Netflix, depicts the passionate romance between Dallas (Erika Linder), a roofer, and Jasmine (Natalie Krill), a fashion-magazine editor with a fiancé. Honestly, it’s glossy soft-core porn but it pulses with erotic energy.

While there was no overtly queer content in gay director Todd Haynes’ “Wonderstruck,” the adaptation of out writer Brian Selznick’s young-adult novel was visually stimulating as it recounted two tweens’ stories, 50 years apart. The film never quite found a large audience, but the kids and adults who connected to “Wonderstruck” defended it zealously. 

Another film for kids and adults this year was out filmmaker Bill Condon’s blockbuster, the stylish live-action remake of the Disney musical “Beauty and the Beast.” The film charmed many viewers, but it also prompted a kerfuffle with its gay subtext regarding LeFou’s (Josh Gad) sexuality.

Alas, the only prominent trans character on screens in Philadelphia this year was Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez), a hitman “punished” with unwanted gender-reassignment surgery in “The Assignment.” The film angered the trans community, and deservedly died at the box office.

But the transgender community only has to wait until February, when the excellent Chilean drama “A Fantastic Woman,” starring trans actress Daniela Vega, is scheduled to open in the area.

See? There are already queer films to look forward to in 2018.