A very queer year in film

There were some great, several good — or very good — and a handful of bad – or very bad — LGBT films that screened in Philadelphia in 2019. Here is a recap of the year’s best and worst as well as a handful of titles worth watching.


End of the Century.” Out gay writer/director Lucio Castro’s absolutely hypnotic romance opens with Ocho (Juan Barberini) and Javi (out gay Ramon Pujol) meeting for sex, but it shifts gears and becomes something transcendent.

Pain and Glory” Out gay writer/director Pedro Almodóvar’s outstanding film — about a filmmaker (Antonio Banderas) in physical and emotional pain — is absolutely exquisite. Using flashbacks, vibrant colors, and layering truth, memory and fantasy, “Pain and Glory” becomes a remarkable and affecting film about love, loss, and creative expression. It is also buoyed by Banderas’ exceptional, Oscar-worthy performance.

Booksmart” This absolutely hilarious high school comedy features dozens of belly laughs as Molly (Beanie Feldstein) the valedictorian and her BFF Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), a lesbian, try to make up for all the fun they missed in one night. (Amy’s unexpected sexual encounter is pricelessly funny). Full of clever wordplay and sight gags, the film is never smug or smarmy, which is why it works so well.

Sauvage” A fantastic but brutal drama about Léo (Félix Maritaud), a down-on-his-luck gay male prostitute. Writer and director Camille Vidal-Naquet shoots the cruising area scenes like a nature documentary, but “Sauvage/Wild” is a raw and immersive experience thanks to Maritaud’s full-bodied performance as the frequently naked Léo, who is seen in devastating situations. Viewers may actually feel as wrecked as the character by the end of this stunning film. 

Vision Portraits” Out gay writer-director Rodney Evans’ extraordinary documentary juxtaposes his experiences as a visually-impaired filmmaker with three other low-vision/blind artists: out gay photographer John Dugdale, dancer Kayla Hamilton and writer Ryan Knighton. This film investigates how and why blindness is not limiting for these artists, but more importantly, “Vision Portraits” never gives in to the “super-crip” trope that insists its subjects are inspirational or that Evans is making a hagiography. It provides new ways of seeing. 


This Is Not Berlin” Yes, writer and director Hari Sama’s semi-autobiographical drama is yet another film about two teenagers exploring their sexuality and struggling to find their place in the world. But this drama, set in 1986 Mexico City, seduces viewers with its depiction of the underground club scene where its androgynous lead Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León), and his bestie, Gera (José Antonio Toledano) discover themselves. This film is an affectionate portrait of youth — gay and straight — as they share heady experiences of sex, drugs and punk music. 

Wild Nights with Emily” Lesbian writer and director Madeleine Olnek’s comedy, about Emily Dickinson (Molly Shannon) and her lover and sister-in-law, Susan (Susan Ziegler) in 1860 Amherst, is deliberately more mild than wild. But it is funny, feminist revisionism.

Halston” Out gay filmmaker Frédéric Tcheng’s documentary on the gay fashion icon features nearly 2000 striking photographs, as well as film clips and footage of his life, work and clothes that nimbly depict the designer’s experiences and hubris.

Rocketman” Director Dexter Fletcher’s jukebox musical biopic of Elton John, generates goosebumps as John (Taron Edgerton) and his lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), find their groove, but the film’s rehab-flashback narrative device is hokey — even if it allows for the film to showcase lavish musical numbers, fabulous costumes and several of John’s greatest hits. An enjoyable high-energy film of this larger-than-life performer.

Papi Chulo” Out gay filmmaker John Butler’s poignant comedy-drama, “Papi Chulo,” is about a lonely Los Angeles weatherman’s (Matt Bomer) bromance with Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño), a day laborer he hires. This modest film sneaks up on viewers, becoming heartfelt and affecting thanks to Bomer’s committed performance.


Mapplethorpe” A missed opportunity. If only Ondi Timoner’s ambitious biopic was as stimulating as the titular artist’s work. But this dud never provokes or creates much emotion. It just fails to capture its subject’s essence.

Giant Little Ones” This over-stuffed drama has Ballas (Darren Mann) claiming his best friend Franky (Josh Wiggins) performed oral sex on him. This leads to various discussions of homophobia and acceptance, but out gay Canadian writer and director Keith Behrman gets preachy and contrived, tackling important issues of queer sexuality in a clumsy manner that dilutes the impact of its messaging.

Aniara” This imaginative Swedish sci-fi film, “Aniara,” considers big philosophical themes of life, death and birth, as well as love and sex, and anxiety and despair. It also depicts Mimaroben’s (Emelie Jonsson) attraction to Isagel (Bianca Cruzeiro), a comely pilot. But the drama in “Aniara” is just too low-key and passive to generate much interest, and the characters are mostly ciphers.

Vita & Virginia” This handsome but disappointing romantic drama artfully, if emptily, depicts the true-life relationship between writers Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) and Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki). Taking an interesting tale of queer literary history, filmmaker Chanya Button teases out the spirit of the women’s relationship, but not its heart. 

Before You Know It” Rachel (director Hannah Pearl Utt) is a lesbian who manages her family’s theater. After her date with Celia (Ayden Mayeri) ends early, and her father (Mandy Patinkin) suddenly dies, Rachel and her irresponsible sister Jackie (co-writer Jen Tullock) meet the mother (Judith Light) they never knew. Alas, much of this forced sitcom-y film is unfunny, and the belabored characters and situations wear down audiences as much as they do Rachel.