13 brilliant pieces of contemporary LGBTQ cinema

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A collection of terrific films from modern LGBTQ cinema to add to your to-watch list – and feel free to add your own recommendations to the list too.

The definition of what constitutes LGBTQ cinema can be debated. Does a film have to explicitly deal with LGBTQ rights and issues to classify? Or can films which just forefront queer characters and their experiences also be regarded as such?

I believe both can be true and that we should celebrate the diversity within this type of cinema and the different approaches that films take. With this is in mind, I have curated a list of thirteen brilliant pieces of contemporary LGBTQ cinema (loosely defining contemporary as meaning they have been released in the past ten years).

The list below is not exhaustive and whittling it down to just 13 choices was no easy feat. The fact there is such a wealth of films to choose from is a credit to the current state of LGBTQ cinema, although there is still a way to go in terms of equal representation across the community.

There were many great films that just missed the cut. Honourable mentions go to Alain Guiraudie’s Hitchcockian erotic thriller Stranger By The Lake, as well as Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a sterling take on Lee Israel and early nineties Manhattan. I’d also like to mention Desiree Akhavan’s defiant conversion therapy drama The Miseducation Of Cameron Post, and give a special shoutout to Levan Akin’s spectacular And Then We Danced, whose cinematic run was cut short back in March but is now available to rent and buy in the UK.

So, the films below are not listed in any particular order. They are not the only brilliant examples of contemporary LGBT cinema out there, nor are they perfect, but they are an eclectic mix of styles and genres that are a great place to start your viewing; each one depicting LGBTQ stories with nuance and flair.

Carol (Dir: Todd Haynes, 2015)

Back in 2016, the BFI announced Carol had been voted the best LGBTQ film of all time. Beautifully directed by Todd Haynes and featuring stellar performances from Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara; it is not hard to see why so many find this resplendent, fifties set romance to be a masterpiece. Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel, Haynes’ film takes inspiration from fifties photography, capturing the evolving relationship between an older woman in the midst of a divorce and a young aspiring photographer. From Sandy Powell’s gorgeous costumes to Edward Lachman’s exquisite cinematography, everything about Carol immerses you in its intoxicating love story. Yet, the immaculate visuals never detract from Phyllis Nagy’s magnificent screenplay, remaining focused on the central depiction of a queer woman who has spent much of her life trying to construct the archetypal American nuclear family, as she then falls in love with a young woman who is in the process of realising her own sexuality.

Rafiki (Dir: Wanuri Kahiu, 2018)

A landmark in both African and LGBTQ cinema, Wanuri Kahiu’s tender and heartfelt drama about the burgeoning romance between two young women is a gem that is worth seeking out. Set in Nairobi, Rafiki (Swahili for ‘friend’) follows Kena and Ziki as they increasingly develop feelings for one another, having to then contend with pressures from their families and deal with the larger political pressures that surround LGBTQ rights in Kenya. The first Kenyan film to be screened at Cannes, Kahiu’s film was banned in its home-country because of “its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism”, where to this day, it remains a criminal offence for LGBTQ people to have sex. Putting aside this unnecessary controversy, Rafiki is a vibrant, colourful tale of young queer love featuring two brilliant performances from Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva, whose chemistry makes the happier moments of Kahiu’s film a joy to watch.

Weekend (Dir: Andrew Haigh, 2011)

Set in Nottingham, Andrew Haigh’s intimate film charts the relationship between two strangers across a single weekend. Tom Cullen and Chris New star as two guys who meet in a gay bar on a Friday night. What seemingly begins as nothing more than a hook-up develops into a touching brief romance, as the pair spend the following couple of days in each other’s company. Told with such simplicity, Weekend is a remarkably perceptive reflection on the complexities of modern queer desire. With a central premise that has echoes of David Lean’s Brief Encounter – another excellent British romance and a film which resonated with gay audiences – Haigh’s film is a striking relationship drama which avoids clichés of any kind, resulting in a deeply authentic piece of cinema that communicates the specificity of the gay experience.

Love, Simon (Dir: Greg Berlanti, 2018)

Some might scoff at the inclusion of such a commercial, mainstream film in this list, but it is precisely the conventional nature of Love, Simon that makes it a landmark of LGBTQ cinema. Greg Berlanti’s film about a closeted high-school teenager who meets an anonymous, closeted student online became the first film released by a major Hollywood studio to focus on a gay teenage romance. Putting aside the fact it took until 2018 for that to happen, Love, Simon is a delightful, heart-warming watch that includes many conventions found in previous coming-of-age films. There are highly moving moments between Simon and his parents which beautifully epitomise the importance of on-screen representation. Though far less explicit in its treatment of sex than other films about teenage LGBTQ characters, like last year’s hilarious Booksmart (another must-watch), Love, Simon is ground-breaking for its portrayal of queer love in the much-established mainstream genre of teen romance.

Pariah (Dir: Dee Rees, 2011)

Known more for her recent star-studded films like Mudbound and The Last Thing He Wanted; Dee Rees’ debut feature is really worth seeking out. Based on her short film of the same name, Pariah is a semi-autobiographical look at the life of a young, African-American woman as she begins to embrace her queerness. Fronting a brilliant cast, Adepero Oduye delivers a great performance as Alike, the seventeen-year-old accepting her identity as a butch lesbian, having to then navigate the realities of her situation. Beautifully shot by Bradford Young, who would later go on to shoot the likes of Selma and Arrival, Rees’ film contains moments of great humour and warmth, as well as scenes of pain and heartbreak. Pariah perceptively tackles issues of religion and class, in addition to those of race and sexuality. Rees’ debut feature is stunning and a far too rare piece of LGBTQ cinema that centres on a queer black woman.

120 BPM (Dir: Robin Campillo, 2017)

Winning the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2017, Robin Campillo’s 120 BPM follows the Paris division of the AIDS activist group ACT UP, a grassroots political group who worked tirelessly to improve the lives of those with the disease and to help find a cure for it. Set in nineties France, the film charts the actions of the group, later focusing on the personal stories of some of its members. Campillo co-wrote the screenplay alongside Philippe Mangeot, using their experiences as part of the group to craft an exhilarating piece of cinema. The film’s attitude towards its subject matter feels remarkably fresh, bypassing the more clinical, neutered approach found in other films, especially when it comes to showing gay sex. 120 BPM is frank in depicting the excruciating realities of the virus, but it also showcases the vitality of those who fought and suffered it. From sex to rage to grief, Campillo’s film expresses passion in its varying forms.

Tangerine (Dir: Sean Baker, 2015)

A Christmas film like no other, Sean Baker’s Tangerine follows two trans women on Christmas Eve in California as one of them learns that her boyfriend has recently cheated on her. Shot on three iPhone 5S devices, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor give unforgettable performances as Sin-Dee Rella and Alexandra, two sex-workers who share a resilient if chaotic friendship. Even in difficult circumstances, their affection for one another shines through. The film is witty and empathetic with a great cast of characters, offering a vivid and up-close portrait of the day in the life of two women that are not defined by their transness or their occupation. The chemistry between Rodriquez and Taylor is joyous as the pair traverse the streets of Hollywood; Sin-Dee in pursuit of her disloyal boyfriend and his mistress, and Alexandra as she prepares to give a musical performance at a local bar. Combined with Baker’s impressive visuals, Tangerine is a fun, affecting film.

Tomboy (Dir: Céline Sciamma, 2011)

Quite honestly, several of Céline Sciamma’s films are exceptional pieces of LGBTQ cinema and could have made this list, not least her most-recent work, the breath-taking Portrait Of A Lady On Fire. However, I’ve chosen her understated 2011 drama Tomboy, as it deserves to be more widely-seen. Zoé Héran stars as Laure, a ten-year-old child who adopts the name Mickäel and presents as a boy to the local kids when Laure’s family moves to a new neighbourhood. Mickäel forms friendships with some of the kids, developing a particularly close relationship with a girl called Lisa. The film’s treatment of topics like gender nonconformity and gender expression is ingeniously simple, with Sciamma ensuring Tomboy remains open to various interpretations. Héran’s performance as the eponymous tomboy is truly remarkable, and beautifully enriches Sciamma’s ambiguous approach to its material. Whilst not as visually arresting as her other work, Tomboy is a brilliant film nonetheless and well worth watching.

Call Me By Your Name (Dir: Luca Guadagnino, 2017)

Setting hearts ablaze on its release, Luca Guadagnino’s sumptuous and tender adaptation of André Aciman’s novel was critically lauded, including a much-deserved Oscar win for James Ivory’s superb screenplay. Set somewhere in Northern Italy in the summer of 1983, Call Me By Your Name is a glorious portrait of queer first love, following seventeen-year-old Elio as he falls for a twenty-four-year-old grad student who comes to stay with his family. Aesthetically, it is exquisite, but Guadagnino’s film is also emotionally overwhelming, partly thanks to Timothée Chalamet’s outstanding performance. A late scene between Elio and his father (terrifically played by Michael Stuhlbarg) is especially memorable, with a monologue that every queer kid would dream of hearing. The film is notably relaxed in its attitude to sexuality, refusing labels and simply allowing desire to flow freely. It is an extremely sensual and evocative piece of film that stays with you long after the credits roll.

A Fantastic Woman (Dir: Sebastián Lelio, 2017)

Winning Best Foreign Language film at the 2018 Oscars, Sebastián Lelio’s moving drama A Fantastic Woman reignited debate in its home-country over a gender-identity bill which would allow individuals to lawfully and permanently change their name and gender. The bill passed in November 2018, marking a significant milestone for LGBTQ rights in Chile. Lelio’s film centres on Marina, a young trans woman facing incessant discrimination after her older lover unexpectedly dies. Showcasing a tremendously heartfelt lead performance from Daniela Vega, who made history when she became the first openly trans person to present at the Oscars, A Fantastic Woman is a dignified study of love and grief experienced by a woman who battles so much more because of her identity. The film also includes striking moments of magical-realism, including a dazzling dance sequence in a nightclub. After making this trailblazing piece of LGBTQ cinema, Lelio made Disobedience, a film about two queer women from an Orthodox Jewish community which is also worth seeking out.

The Handmaiden (Dir: Park Chan-wook, 2016)

Directed by Park Chan-wook, The Handmaiden is a loose adaptation of Fingersmith, Sarah Waters’ hit novel about a lesbian romance in Victorian Britain. Relocating the story to 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea, Park’s film follows a cunning conman who attempts to steal from a wealthy heiress by employing a skilled pickpocket as her handmaiden. What follows is an intensely erotic and frenzied tale of greed and desire, as the heiress and pickpocket become further involved and loyalties become blurred. Both a captivating thriller and a twisted love story, Park’s film is quite simply, mesmerising. From its rich cinematography and production design to its wonderful performances to its much-discussed, multi-layered sex scenes between Lady Hideko and Sook-hee; The Handmaiden is impeccably crafted. One of the most visually arresting films of the past decade, it is a bravura piece of LGBTQ cinema.

God’s Own Country (Dir: Francis Lee, 2017)

With his upcoming feature already gaining a significant amount of buzz, it is worth highlighting the brilliance of Francis Lee’s feature debut, God’s Own Country. Set in Yorkshire and featuring the magnetic performances of Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu, the film follows a young sheep farmer who develops feelings for a Romanian migrant who comes to work on his family’s farm. God’s Own Country is a raw and extraordinarily atmospheric piece of filmmaking. The passion between the two men is palpable and their relationship is incredibly authentic. It injects romance into its rural northern England setting, crafting a powerful love story. With potent performances from both leads and a staggeringly strong sense of place, God’s Own Country is a stunning piece of contemporary LGBTQ cinema. Lee’s next film, Ammonite, stars Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan in a lesbian romance set in 1840s England, and will debut later this year.

Moonlight (Dir: Barry Jenkins, 2016)

In 2017, Moonlight became the first LGBTQ film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the film centres on Chiron, a young queer black man and his journey to adulthood. Split into three parts, the film begins with his childhood in an impoverished neighbourhood of Miami where a young Chiron is bullied for being “soft”. Following him as he gets older, Jenkins’ film offers a frank look at black queer masculinity, a topic that is not seen enough in LGBTQ cinema. Chiron represses his sexuality after being raised in a deeply homophobic environment that privileges a certain kind of masculinity. Featuring stellar performances from its entire cast, Moonlight brilliantly explores the intersection between black masculinity and sexual identity, doing so in a remarkably poetic way. It is a beautiful film that marks a key moment in the history of queer cinema.


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