2020 was a queer (as in strange) year, wasn’t it? Two movie theaters in Philadelphia, The Ritz at the Bourse and the Riverview, shut down completely. The pandemic prompted people to stay at home and watch films. Film Festivals shifted to virtual platforms. But for all the unwanted changes, there were some terrific — and some not so great — LGBTQ films this year. Here is a rundown of some highlights and lowlights in the year in queer film.
2020 was a great year for trans visibility, and not just because Elliot Page made headlines. There were several films by and about the trans experience. “Lingua Franca” by trans writer/director (and star) Isabel Sandoval, was a thoughtful drama about the relationship that develops between an undocumented transgender Filipino caregiver (Sandoval) and the grandson, Alex (Eamon Farren) of her charge. Traversing not dissimilar territory was the less impressive (and more melodramatic) “The Garden Left Behind,” which chronicled Tina’s (Carlie Guevara) budding activism for trans rights, her undocumented status, and the impact of violence against transpeople (of color in particular). In contrast, the documentary, “The Right Girls,” was an urgent, cogent chronicle of three transgender women who journey 2400 miles through Mexico to America with the “Migrant Caravan” in 2018.
Other documentaries were eye-opening too. “Disclosure,” by out trans director Sam Feder, recounted how transgender characters in film and on television influenced attitudes about and members of the trans community. The uplifting “Born to Be” profiled Dr. Jess Ting, a compassionate and pioneering surgeon who performs gender-affirming surgeries at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. And “The Second Life of Jamie P” provided an up-close — and at times too personal —profile of Jamie Peebles, a 63-year-old man transitioning to female.
Non-fiction portraits of LGBT people in 2020 were mostly sublime. “Oliver Sacks: His Own Story,” was a fabulous tribute to the late, gay neurologist and bestselling author. The entertaining documentary, “Mucho Mucho Amor” showcased Walter Mercado, a gender non-conforming Puerto Rican astrologer and an irresistible, larger-than-life showman. Rachel Mason’s frisky documentary, “Circus of Books,” introduces viewers to her parents, Karen and Barry, who owned the title hardcore gay adult bookstore. The stylish doc, “House of Cardin,” fashioned a peppy look at the “label, logo and legend” that was Pierre Cardin. And “Cunningham” was an entrancing celebration of out gay choreographer Merce Cunningham.
Looking into politics — a topic that was very 2020 — “The Fight” was an inspiring portrait of the important work being done by the ACLU. One of the case studies in the film, Stone v. Trump, was about the transgender ban on military personnel and was argued by Joshua Block and Chase Strangio. The latter had a U.S. Supreme Court victory this year with Bostock v. Clayton County.
“Welcome to Chechnya” was a devastating documentary that shone a critical light on the horrific antigay purges in Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechnya. While in “Bully. Coward. Victim.” Ivy Meeropol made a very personal film about the vile Roy Cohn, a man who sought the death penalty for her grandparents (Julius and Ethel Rosenberg).
Looking back at the lesbian films this year, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” was Celine Sciamma’s exquisite, exceptional slow-burn romance set in the 1700s France. When Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), without the latter’s knowledge, these two women fall unexpectedly in love. Likewise, “Ammonite,” by out gay filmmaker Francis Lee, was an empowering story of love’s transformative effect on Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), a fossilist, and Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan), a society lady, in 1840s England. Another same-sex period piece was “Summerland” a heartwarming drama about Alice (Gemma Arteton), a misanthropic, single lesbian who is unexpectedly forced to care for Frank (Toby Osmond), a child evacuee during WWII. Her experience prompts her to reflect on her past relationship with Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).
Two of the best lesbian films of the year were about teeangers. “La Leyenda Negra,” a gorgeous black-and-white feature about Aleteia (Monica Betancourt), had an undocumented teenager in Compton capturing the eye of her classmate Rosarito (Kailei Lopez). And the charming lesbian romcom, “The Half of It,” by out filmmaker Alice Wu, put a contemporary spin on “Cyrano” as Paul (Daniel Diemer) hires overachiever Ellie (Leah Lewis) to pen a love letter to her crush, Aster (Alexxis Lemire).
One of the worst lesbian films was Miranda July’s excruciating “Kajillionaire.” Gina Rodriguez is the sole ray of light as a lesbian who infiltrates a con artist family in this woefully unfunny comedy.
Out lesbian actress-turned-director Clea DuVall’s “Happiest Season,” had its fans, but this holiday-themed romance insultingly forced its queer lovers (out actress Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis) back into the closet to teach the straight folks a lesson. How is that considered progress? Stewart was much better in “Seberg,” an engrossing biopic about actress Jean Seberg who was under surveillance by the FBI for her association with the Black Panther Party.
Another notable film this year was “Aviva,” writer/director Boaz Yakin’s bold, gender-bending dance drama about two lovers played by two men and two women. Over the course of the story, all four actor/dancers end up naked and in same-sex situations.
Out queer writer/director James Sweeney’s “Straight Up,” was a terrific and hilarious rom-com about Todd (Sweeney) who confesses “I think I’m not gay” to his friends. When he meets Rory (Katie Findlay), they couple up in comfortable nonsexual heterosexual domesticity, but the film asks: Can their relationship last?
Similarly, “Almost Love,” by out gay writer/director Mike Doyle was an affable romantic comedy-drama about a handful of gay and straight neurotic New Yorkers struggling in their co-dependent relationships.
Some strong gay films this year were coming out stories. Gay writer/director Alan Ball’s engaging, poignant drama, “Uncle Frank,” had the title character (Paul Bettany) forced out of the closet at his father’s funeral. “And Then We Danced,” the first queer feature from Georgia, had closeted Merab (Levan Galbakhiani), falling for Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), his rival for a position in a dance ensemble. “Dating Amber,” by out gay filmmaker David Frayne, has Eddie (Fionn O’Shea) fake dating Amber (Lola Petticrew) because both are presumed to be queer by their classmates. They are both gay, of course, but it is not exactly easy for either of them to be out in 1995 Ireland.
Li Cheng’s excellent romantic drama, “José,” featured an indelible screen debut by out gay actor Enrique Salanic as the title character, a gay teenager whose tryst with Luis (Manolo Herrera) impacts him greatly.
Disappointing was the new film version of “The Boys in the Band,” which failed to capture the intensity of the stage production, opting instead to include flashbacks and gratuitous nudity rather than concentrate on the forceful performances.
But arguably the best queer film this year was “Antebellum,” by codirectors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz. This fever-dream mash-up of genres and overlapping storylines deals with race and empowerment making it was perfect for 2020. Featuring queer actresses Janelle Monáe and Kiersey Clemons, this knottily-plotted, keep-you-guessing thriller sure polarized folks — but it proved an audacious and auspicious debut by Bush and Renz, who are partners in life and film.
Here is hoping for more great LGBT films in 2021!