Sean Penn disappears into the role of gay activist Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s 2008 Oscar winner, a full-force performance that ranks among his best and breathes deep, important respect into Milk’s complicated and remarkable life. While the film inevitably builds to Milk’s tragic assassination by Dan White (Josh Brolin), the stories and people that take us there play out with rich rewards. Milk’s big, wild life — and one that eventually delivered a huge impact, one of his consistent worries throughout the film, relatable to anyone — is given the vignette treatment, but Penn’s steady performance and a slew of strong supporting turns push it way above other biopic territory. James Franco is particularly moving as Harvey’s lover Scott Smith, while Diego Luna’s heartbreaking Jack Lira steals the screen in every scene. What’s most moving — and, admittedly, wrenching — is how timely the story of “Milk,” set mostly in the ’70s, still feels today. It’s an urgent call for action, both personal and political, and the message sticks long after the credits roll. —Kate Erbland
14. “I Killed My Mother”
Xavier Dolan’s “I Killed My Mother” marked the emergence of an exciting new filmmaking talent. The Montreal actor, a mere 20 years old, displays a startlingly mature perspective on human behavior in his triple threat position as writer-director-star. He plays Hubert, a gay teen constantly at odds with his uptight single mother (Ann Dorval). Although described as a coming-out story when it first made waves at Cannes and beyond, the movie isn’t exclusively focused on Hubert’s sexuality. The title itself becomes a narrative device, toying with viewer expectations and suggesting that it could transform into matricidal horror at any moment.
Fortunately, “Mother” has more legitimate concerns to focus on. Hubert’s heated conversations with his well-intentioned mom contrasts with the relative tranquility he brings to his relationships with other people, including his easy-going boyfriend, Antonin (Francois Arnaud), whose own mother’s progressive, nonchalant attitude about her son’s dating life drives Hubert to develop further disdain for his situation at home. The stuff that makes us laugh also gives us pause. One night, Hubert takes speed and confesses his personal turmoil to his sympathetic parent. In a later scene, she unloads on the principal of his private school with a vulgar rant that’s both hilarious and brutally honest. The movie is touching, intense and always completely credible. Dolan would later increase his stylistic ambition with “Laurence Anyways,” “Mommy” and several other audacious filmmaking experiments in his dizzyingly prolific (yet still young) career — but “I Killed My Mother” is the greatest distillation of his ability to explore the disillusionment of young adulthood in frank, unnerving terms that clearly stem from a personal place. —EK
13. “Blue Is the Warmest Color”
Abdellatif Kechiche’s rigorously erotic three-hour romance initially spawned Cannes walkouts before picking up the Palme d’Or, split three ways between Kechiche and his stars Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux, proof of the level of dedication all three of them poured into a wild (read: maybe even nightmarish) shoot. While “Blue” earned big buzz because of the obvious — its long-form sex scenes, alternately hot and totally exhausting — that only obscures the finer points that Kechiche and his ladies put on the ill-fated romance between Adele and Emma.
Hormonally speaking, it’s essential that the film opens when Exarchopoulos’ Adele is still slogging through high school, all burning desires and deep boredom, the perfect time for her to meet and fall obsessively in love with the slightly older Emma. There’s no love quite like the first (or one as confusing), and while Adele’s awakening isn’t just about sex, but also her sexuality, that her most formative of experiences comes at the hands of another woman is simply one facet of a highly relatable love story. Sure, audiences may still flock to the film for its unbridled sex sequences, but there’s no scene more telling than Adele, stuffing her sauce-stained face full of spaghetti, bursting with new desires that have to be redirected somewhere. —KE
12. The Kids Are All Right
Ever a tough audience, Lisa Cholodenko’s witty family drama was divisive amongst lesbians, who resented the message behind the movie’s central love triangle. But it’s hard to criticize any movie where Annette Bening and Julianne Moore are this good — and playing lesbian partners, no less. Like many marriages, their neuroses and charms co-mingle to create a killer cocktail of witty bitterness and festering resentment. When their precocious teenagers upend their lives in search of their sperm donor, it throws a wrench into their precariously contented lives. Mark Ruffalo is perfectly cast as the free-spirited consummate bachelor, whose charm and allure become a little too seductive. But the marriage, like the kids, turns out all right, and that pesky thing called dramatic conflict (necessary to any story) is resolved — lesbian identity in tact. Funny, charming, and unafraid to dig into 21st century’s particularly narcissistic brand of ennui and discontentment, “The Kids Are All Right” will always be queer canon — whether persnickety lesbians like it or not. —JD
11. “Call Me By Your Name”
At 89, James Ivory has delivered one of the best screenplays of his career, an adaptation of André Aciman’s novel directed by Luca Guadagnino with a startlingly degree of erotic intensity. The summer romance in rural Italy between teen Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and the strapping young scholar Oliver (Armie Hammer) takes place with an expressionistic quality worthy of ‘70s-era Bertolucci, and takes a classy approach to the subversive kick that such a taboo relationship entails. The movie never treats its characters’ desires as anything but an exciting rush of romantic possibilities (and one icky scene involving fruit) — at least until the summer comes to a close, and young Elio learns the hard way that he’s been living in a fantasy propelled by passion. Chalamet’s star-making performance is a risky maneuver that sets the stage for a promising career, and the character’s warmhearted father (Michael Stuhlberg) gives a closing monologue about the nature of love and yearning for the ages. This is a emotionally riveting coming-of-age story told with such remarkable honesty and lyricism that it exists out of time — it could have played to a rapt audience 40 years ago, and will almost certainly have the same effect 40 years hence. —EK
Next up: A gender-bending musical, a contemporary farce, and an exquisite con.