“A Single Man” (2009)
The gorgeous costumes and lavish period details were to be expected in Tom Ford’s “A Single Man,” but few could’ve predicted the level of emotional intimacy the fashion-designer-turned-director uncovers in his bold feature filmmaking debut. Colin Firth gives his most soul-shattering performance as George, a repressed gay man in 1962 England who is still grieving the loss of his former love eight months after his tragic death. Over the course of a single day, George’s suicidal mentality gets a startling wakeup call in the form of two life-changing encounters. The first, a budding relationship with one of his students (Nicholas Hoult), reinvigorates his openness to love in ways he didn’t see coming. The second, a dinner date with his best friend (Julianne Moore), confirms the all too melancholy notion that loneliness, repression and a desire for things we can’t have hold no bounds. Suffering transcends sexuality, and Ford creates a universal character study born from this fact.
“I Killed My Mother” (2009) and “Laurence Anyways” (2012)
Quebecois filmmaker Xavier Dolan has become one of the biggest voices in queer cinema at a relatively young age, and his own experiences navigating his sexuality have produced some of the most emotionally arresting queer films of the last decade. “I Killed My Mother” remains the most biographical film the 26-year-old filmmaker has ever made. Starring Dolan opposite Anne Dorval, the drama centers on the combative relationship between a mother and her gay son. While the mother isn’t necessarily against her offspring’s sexuality, the ways in which he has been hiding his true identity from her provides a catalyst for their deteriorating bond. More ambitious but equally as piercing is “Laurence Anyways,” a romantic odyssey about a heterosexual relationship that comes undone and reshapes after the husband reveals he is transgender. While “The Danish Girl” has painfully taken a similar story and explored it through a heteronormative lens, “Laurence Anyways” understands the ways in which gender and sexuality push and pull romantic attraction and commitment. Both films here are daring in subject matter and deeply resonant in emotion.
Sean Baker’s latest is a ramshackle romp about two transgender prostitutes in Hollywood who endure various dramas on Christmas Eve. Set over the course of a single day, the vibrant movie plays out like a buddy comedy, as fellow prostitutes Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) wander around the streets and undergo a series of misadventures. Their plight adopts an unsuspecting screwball mold — a canny trick that manages to make their tale universally relatable. This is progressive, boundary-pushing storytelling so charmingly rendered that its daring qualities sneak into the picture and hit you when you least expect it. The final impression is that no matter their larger challenges, these spirited urban characters triumph simply by surviving another hectic day.
“Appropriate Behavior” (2014)
Desiree Akhavan makes an unforgettable debut film as the director and star of this poignant comedy-drama about how we restructure our lives after a breakup. Akhavan’s Shirin finds herself in a conundrum after her relationship with Maxine ends and she’s forced to move into a new apartment. Although Shirin’s mother questions her unexpected life changes (she was unaware of her daughter’s sexuality and is confused as to why she’d move out of an apartment she was sharing with a “friend”), Shirin takes up an interest in teaching film to children, while walking the fine line between letting go and falling back into old relationship habits. Akhavan may not be breaching any new territory here, but her warm and affectionate script nails the ways in which we self-destruct and grow in moments of change. Through her struggles, Shirin finds the courage to open up to her family and move on from Maxine, and it’s an infinitesimal triumph that radiates in the biggest way possible.
“Stranger by the Lake” (2014)
Alain Guiraudie’s French thriller won the Queer Palme at Cannes in 2013, and it’s one of those special queer films that exists outside of the traditional comedy and/or drama genres. Fully embracing the tension and meticulous subversive thrills of Hitchcock and Verhoeven, Guiraudie crafts a bone-chilling psychosexual thriller about a young man and his erotic relationship with an older man he meets at a gay swimming hole. The rhythmic way the director introduces his setting and character (we see Pierre Deladonchamps’ Franck’s daily routine at the swimming hole over and over again) make each subtle change have the dramatic whiplash of a roller coaster. As Frank’s bond with the mysterious Michel grows more passionate, Guiraudie counterbalances what looks like love with an uncomfortably mute and menacing atmosphere. Through a mixture of queer cinema and the erotic thriller, Guiraudie expertly shows how seduction transcends sexuality. Straight or gay, he forces each viewer to feel the erotic heat and startling danger that comes with any fresh relationship.
“Blue is the Warmest Color” (2013)
Making waves at Cannes in 2013 by winning the Palme d’Or for director Abdellatif Kechiche and both lead actresses, “Blue is the Warmest Color” thoughtfully depicts the sexual realization of schoolgirl Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos). While her gossiping friends believe that Adèle should be with any boy she chooses, she instead finds an intense attraction to a blue-haired lesbian artist named Emma (Léa Seydoux). The film follows the ensuing romance over the course of several years. Every nuance of their relationship is explored, from differences in parenting (Adèle’s parents are conservative; Emma’s are far more accepting) to Adèle’s subsequent exclusion by her friends. While the film drew criticism for its explicit sex scenes, the raw, carnal energy of these moments show Adèle’s sexual awakening in such a visceral nature that her attraction to Emma cannot be denied or misunderstood. You’ve never felt the heat of attraction quite like this.
“Love is Strange” (2014) & “Keep the Lights On” (2012)
Ira Sachs is one of America’s essential queer filmmakers, and his films represent some of the most emotionally ripe and relatable romances of the past decade. His most personal film to date, “Keep the Lights On” chronicles the relationship between a Danish documentary filmmaker living in New York City and a lawyer in the publishing industry with a drug addiction. Based on his own relationship with literary agent Bill Clegg, “Keep the Lights On” finds Sachs detailing the complications of maintaining a healthy relationship no matter how close or distant the viewers’ own struggles with love may be to that of the protagonists. He strikes a similar chord in the softer chord in the more tender “Love is Strange,” which stars Alfred Molina and John Lithgow as an older gay couple who face personal challenges after they are kicked out of their apartment and forced to live separately. With a rare sensitivity to his characters that is so human it hurts, Sachs continually makes queer films that are universal in their understanding of love as it grows and ages.
Unlike the stagey and cloying “Stonewall” from earlier this year, Matthew Warchus’ infectiously spirited “Pride” does a powerful job of evoking an era of great change, risk and bravery in the gay community. Starring a British ensemble for the ages, including Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West, Paddy Considine and Andrew Scott, “Pride” recounts the efforts of the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners campaign in 1984 England. The group included gay men and women who were in favor of the UK miners strike, and their efforts to raise money for those workers affected by the strike resulted in communities putting sexuality behind them in order to come together for the greater good. With an inspirational story and a cast of sublime actors, “Pride” leaves a smile on your face and motivates you to make a difference.
“The Kids Are All Right” (2010)
Another rare slice of queer cinema headed by two major movie stars, Lisa Cholodenko’s loving comedy-drama was all the rage on the 2010 festival and awards circuit. Starring Julianne Moore and Annette Bening as a married couple thrown into crisis after their kids form a relationship with their sperm donor father, “The Kids Are All Right” is a strongly acted observation on the battle between new life changes and traditional family values. Much of the movie circles back to themes of discovery; not only are the kids discovering their real parentage for the very first time, but so to are the married women realizing their own late-in-life needs and rediscovering through betrayal and confusion why it is they fell in love in the first place. “The Kids Are All Right” doesn’t make a thunderous roar or leave a devistating impact, but its understanding of core family dynamics makes it perhaps the most accessible indie on this list.
Andrew Haigh is currently earning raves for “45 Years,” but he refined his skills for humanism in “Weekend,” a small scale debut film that packs enough truths about the confusion and anxiety of love that it might as well be a romantic epic. Taking a page out of the “Before Sunrise” playbook but cranking up levels of intimacy, “Weekend” is the story of two men who meet, talk and discover a singular bond between them over the course of one long day. With expert chemistry and recognizable humility, Tom Cullen and Chris New do wonders as the two leads, one a cruising lost soul leaving England in the morning and the other a student artist with a smoldering confidence. As the two open up to one another, each defining charismatic — one vulnerable, one strong-willed — bleeds into the other, resulting in a relationship that runs deeper than anything they’ve experienced previously.
“Carol” may be a brand new entry in the queer indie canon, but it more or less represents the closest thing to “Brokeback Mountain.” Starring two high profile heterosexual stars, the movie makes a play for the mainstream while remaining utterly devoted to its themes of sexual identity and repressed romance. Like “Brokeback,” the stars are merely the entryway into a delicate world where every gesture, glance and touch carries the enormous passion of a great melodramatic moment. Todd Haynes is less concerned with graphic intimacy (though he does explore that with the grace of a master filmmaker) than he is with the passion that exists behind closed doors, one that’s forced to hide in the shadows as two lovers experience an entire romance through suggestion. When the pair is finally allowed to come together, the fireworks are overwhelming and sublime. Not since “Brokeback” has a queer film gotten so much recognition on a larger platform, and considering it’s been a decade, it’s about damn time.