It’s been a banner year for gay Rachel Weisz fans. For her first Sapphic outing, the British actress stepped into the producer’s chair and enlisted Chilean auteur Sebastián Lelio to direct this evocative romance set in London’s Ultra Orthodox Jewish community. Weisz plays Ronit, a Rabbi’s daughter who goes by Roni after leaving the community for an artist’s life in New York. When she returns for her father’s funeral, she discovers her childhood best friends Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) and Esti (Rachel McAdams) are married, despite her teenage fling with Esti. Not one to view morality in black and white, Lelio shifts the film’s perspective; it begins as Roni’s story of mourning, then brings Esti’s sexual awakening into focus, and ends with Dovid’s moral dilemma, which he resolves with a poignant sermon on freedom. Like the braids in a Challah loaf or Havdalah candle, the film weaves their three narratives into a moving work of art.
4. “Paddington 2”
A master of disguise, the impeccably dressed Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant) is the most codedly queer movie villain since Ursula the Sea Witch. In contrast to Disney’s not-so-subliminal messaging about heteronormative gender roles, in director Paul King’s capable hands, Phoenix’s flamboyance is not a means to revile him, but a way of understanding his motives. As a washed-up actor clinging to the last shreds of fame, Grant delivers one of the best performances of his career. Dodging his leading man phase as quickly as Phoenix steals Aunt Lucy’s London pop-up book, Grant surprised with physical comedy chops and the specificity of his character work, while anchoring Buchanan emotionally with his solipsistic vulnerability. And, unlike Ursula (or Scar, or Gaston, or Jafar, or any number of Disney’s fey movie villains that teach kids gay people are evil), Buchanan gets his happy ending. In the post-credits scene, he’s behind bars in a “Follies” kickline, flanked by men in glittering pink striped pajamas, beaming at his (literally) captive audience.
3. “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
It’s hard to believe, and maddening as hell, that no film has ever portrayed the unique friendship between lesbians and gay men, the backbone of the queer community. (The queer community encompasses more than just lesbians and gay men, but for simplicity’s sake, the movie doesn’t.) Existing somewhere between symbiosis rooted in shared struggle and sibling rivalry rooted in envy, the relationship between these once separate communities became a sacred connection during the early days of the AIDS crisis. Lesbians were caring for their gay friends on their deathbeds and carrying ACT UP banners beside them, screaming into the void together.
In director Marielle Heller’s hands, Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) embodies everything women aren’t supposed to be: Aging, ambitious, average-sized, lesbians. No wonder she’s bitter. When Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) flounces down on the adjacent barstool at Julius, the pair understands each other intrinsically, even if they are justifiably guarded. Set in New York at the height of the AIDS crisis, the movie is really a love story about two cynics on the fringes of an already small but rapidly shrinking circle. Everything else — the literary quips, the nervous flirtation, the thrill of the heist — is just gravy.
2. “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood”
Outrageous, sex-obsessed, flirtatious, and full of life — Scotty Bowers is living proof that the 21st century may be the least sexually liberated period of the modern era. Bowers was just 23 years old in 1946 when he started turning tricks at the Richfield gas station on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Van Ness. The way he tells it, Walter Pidgeon drove up in his Lincoln Continental, and asked him to come take a dip in his pool. Within days, he had more customers than he could handle, and he began recruiting his old service buddies for some fuller service work. Though he earned the nickname “pimp to the stars,” he never took a cut of anybody’s earnings. He loved sex, and he wanted everyone to have as much of it as they wanted, in whatever form they wanted.
The film offers plenty of eyebrow raising stories for old Hollywood voyeurs — Scotty claims Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Cole Porter, and even the Duke and Duchess of Windsor among his clientele — but Scotty is the real story. His views on sexuality, even at 90-something, feel like a surprisingly radical relic of a different time. He did women, he did men, in groups and in the bushes. He began “tricking” (his parlance) young, many might say too young, and filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer does an excellent job of gently pushing him to re-examine his past. “Oh, come on, Matt,” he says, indignant. “I never had a problem with that shit at all, baby.” One of the last remaining witnesses to a bygone era, Scotty Bowers has the last laugh.
1. “The Favourite”
Yorgos Lanthimos’ British royal court period drama pits Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone in a lesbian love triangle that makes even the messiest queer poly drama look like child’s play. Sweating through her cascading silk gowns and fur robes, Queen Anne (Colman) is the model of pouting petulance, and her bodily urgings and waning health make her the perfect mark for the ambitious Lady Sarah (Weisz), who nightly services the Queen and daily rules her with an iron fist. Lady Sarah is a study in emotional manipulation, sprinkling coquettish flattery in with her stinging barbs and power hungry warmongering. It’s no wonder when Abigail (Stone) arrives, a fallen aristocrat now forced to work as a maid, she sees an opening, and a softer touch endears her to Anne.
With lines like “I like it when she puts her tongue inside me,” “The Favourite” is as queer as it comes. Lanthimos is a master world-builder, but veers ever so slightly towards the accessible in his first major Oscar contender. (Unlike on his other films, he didn’t write the screenplay, Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara did.) Lanthimos brings the weird, but grounds his 18th century drama in the rules of its time, which it turns out were just as farcical and dangerous as a Yorgos Lanthimos film.