Making a list of 10 truly great LGBT films even at LGBT-specific film festivals is sometimes trying, let alone at a generalized festival playing films of all sorts. And while Sundance has always been a bit queerer than your average major festival, in my seven years of Sundancin’ I’ve never seen a slate so packed with high quality queer content (though granted I didn’t have the pleasure of attending the new queer cinema-heavy early to mid-1990s editions of the festival). From powerful documentaries to dark, funny narratives that offer diverse explorations of the human condition, here’s the films that stood out for me personally (and notably I did not see World Cinema directing winner “52 Tuesdays,” which I’ve heard is fantastic):
Appropriate Behavior (directed by Desiree Akhavan)
Desiree Akhavan’s debut feature offers up the story of a young woman (Akhavan herself) struggling to become a tall order of a trio: An ideal Persian daughter, a politically correct bisexual, and a hip, young Brooklynite. While the film could have easily ventured into a sort of feature length version of “Girls” (if Lena Dunham was a bisexual and Persian, that is), it develops a true voice of its own in Sundance breakout Akhavan, who tackles an intersection of identity with a somehow charming mix of humor and desolation (give this woman whatever she wants for her follow-up!).
The Case Against 8 (directed by Ben Cotner and Ryan White)
Ben Cotner and Ryan White deservedly won the doc directing prize at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival this past weekend for their film “The Case Against 8.” Shot over five years, the film offers an incredible inside look at the legal battle behind overturning Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California back in 2008. It’s an inspiring journey that Cotner and White (along with editor Kate Amend, who deserves serious credit here) tightly put together into a very powerful film about a legal battle that will and has dramatically changed the legal rights situation for gay and lesbian couples in the US. But more over, it’s a film about people of all different backgrounds and political views — the main lawyers in the case, David Boies and Ted Olsen, famously went head to head in the case Bush v. Gore that ended up decided the 2000 presidential election — coming together to enact change that they seem to so deeply believe in.
The Foxy Merkins (directed by Madeleine Olnek)
Madeleine Olnek continues the absurdist tone of 2011 Sundance highlight “Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same” with the “The Foxy Merkins” — a wacky tale of two lesbian prostitutes (Jackie Monahan and Lisa Haas, the latter of which so-wrote the film with Olnek) who work the streets of New York City. One is a down-on-her-luck newcomer to the scene; the other is a beautiful (and straight) grifter who’s got things down. Their adventures are bizarre and offbeat and probably not for everyone, but they sure did work for me: I found “Merkins” to be downright hilarious.
Jamie Marks Is Dead (directed by Carter Smith)
Genre was a very big part of Sundance 2014, and it got its own queer bent thanks to emerging director Carter Smith (who made the incredible short film “Bug Crush”) and his “Jamie Marks is Dead.” Adapted from Christopher Barzack’s young-adult novel “One for Sorrow,” it follows teenage Adam (a fantastic Cameron Monaghan), who takes an interest in the death of constantly bullied classmate Jamie Marks (Noah Silver) only to find his ghost emerge in his closet. Which I realize sounds exactly like the hokey “gay ghost movie” billing the film got going into Sundance, but “Jamie Marks Is Dead” goes well beyond that with its poetic, haunting meditation on queer longing and connection without ever going there in the ways you’d expect.
The Overnighters (directed by Jesse Moss)
I really shouldn’t say why this stunning documentary belongs on this list — or anything about it, for that matter. The less you know going in, the better. But I will say that Jesse Moss’ “The Overnighters” does a remarkable job at incapsulating so much of what is wrong in contemporary American in its story of a North Dakota pastor trying to figure out how to affect change in his community. It’ll likely be at every doc festival this year — just go see it.
Lilting (directed by Hong Khaou)
Ben Whishaw stars in this devastating film about a young man who, in mourning the death of his boyfriend, decides to try and build a relationship with said boyfriend’s Chinese mother (a remarkable Pei-pei Cheng). Except she both doesn’t speak English and didn’t even (officially, at least) know that her son was gay. Continuing a trend in Sundance’s LGBT films in dealing with ideas of finding human connection and intimacy during moments of hardship (see “Love is Strange,” “The Skeleton Twins” and “Jamie Marks Is Dead” — all on this list), “Lilting” marks the extremely promising debut of UK-based director Hong Khaou, who will definitely leave your heart significantly melted with his first feature film.
Love is Strange (directed by Ira Sachs)
John Lithgow and Alfred Molina give heartbreaking, complex and perhaps even career-defining performances in Ira Sachs’ all around lovely “Love Is Strange.” As Ben (Lithgow) and George (Molina), the two portray an aging gay couple who — after finally getting the chance to tie the knot after 39 years together — run into serious financial troubles when George is fired from his job at a Catholic private school when word gets out about his nuptials. This evolves into a nuanced, beautiful portrait of not only their love but the love of the many friends and family members around them, with Lithgow and Molina providing the centerpiece of an impressive ensemble (that includes Marisa Tomei and Cheyenne Jackson). Overall, it’s really a testament to Sachs, who continues to prove himself one of American independent cinema’s truest voices of humanity.
My Prairie Home (directed by Chelsea McMullan)
This gorgeous National Film Board of Canada musical documentary takes us on a journey through both the landscapes of the Canadian west and of the mind of marvellous transgender singer Rae Spoon. Director Chelsea McMullan uses endlessly stunning cinematography to interpret Spoon’s songs (which are really quite fantastic), intercut with raw and affecting interviews with Spoon as the singer recalls life growing up as a transgendered youth in a troubled, religious household.
The Skeleton Twins (directed by Craig Johnson)
“The Skeleton Twins” gave us a very notable new queer voice in co-writer and director Craig Johnson (who deserves Sundance breakout status for his on stage performance before a “Twins” screening alone). Starring Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader as estranged siblings who come together after Hader’s openly gay character tries to kill himself, “Twins” mixes melancholy and hilarity in its ode to family needing to stick together. And while Wiig is reliably great, Hader gives probably the most layered, moving performance I saw at Sundance. Between this and Stefon, Hader is quickly drifting into gay icon territory, as far as I’m concerned.
White Bird in a Blizzard (directed by Gregg Araki)
“White Bird in a Blizzard” was Gregg Araki’s ninth film at the festival following “Kaboom” (2011), “Smiley Face” (2007), “Mysterious Skin” (2005), “Splendor” (1999), “Nowhere” (1997), “The Doom Generation” (1995), “Totally F***ed Up” (1994), and “The Living End” (1992). And while definitely one of his least queer, it still — without giving too much way — falls comfortably into this list. A sexy, hilarious, brutal and altogether Arakian take on late 1980s surburbian teenage angst, “White Bird” follows Kat (Shailene Woodley) as she comes of age amidst the disappearance of her disturbed trainwreck of a mother (Eva Green, in a glorious Mommy Dearest-type performance that should alone make it worthy of inclusion here).