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The Best Queer Films of 2019, From ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ to ‘Booksmart’

From lush period romances to a wacky Emily Dickinson comedy, 2019 was another amazing year for LGBTQ film.

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Over the course of the last four years, there has been at least one queer film in the Oscar race each year. “Carol” in 2016, “Moonlight” in 2017, “Call Me by Your Name” and “A Fantastic Woman” in 2018, “The Favourite” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” in 2019. Alas, barring any big surprises, the streak may be broken at next year’s ceremony. That’s not a reflection of the many excellent LGBTQ films released this year, of which there are a variety. Celine Sciamma’s stunning masterpiece “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” was passed over as France’s Oscar submission in favor of Ladj Ly’s “Les Miserables,” and Levan Akin’s powerful coming-of-age story “And Then We Danced” was recently left off the short list for Best International Feature.

Oscars or not, there is still so much to celebrate in queer cinema. More and more filmmakers are not only embracing queer characters and storylines, but learning from criticism about the difference between tokenizing “representation” and authentic and textured storytelling. What’s more, Hollywood is beginning to understand that LGBTQ filmmakers are the best shepherds to bring queer stories to life. Smaller, independent films are garnering interest on the worldwide stage as streaming sites make content more accessible.

Each year brings more varied and inspiring queer films, one just has to know where to look. Here are the best LGBTQ films of 2019.

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“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”

By now you’ve likely heard enough about “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” even if you missed its one-week theatrical run. Never fear — Celine Sciamma’s luscious tour-de-force will return to theaters in February, arriving as the perfect Valentine’s Day event for the discerning cinephile. There are only four characters in the film, all women: A painter, her elusive subject, her mother, and their maid. The setting is a damp and nearly empty manor house on an island in Brittany, the part of France that bears the closest resemblance to England.

A British austerity permeates the film’s first act, all cold shoulders and sidelong glances between the women, but Sciamma delivers the French passion by the film’s fiery conclusion — and then some. While the romance is undoubtedly the heart of “Portrait,” Sciamma also seamlessly infuses the film with evidence of women’s limited options, or rather, the endlessly creative ways they learned to skirt the rules. Shut out by a home country that stubbornly refuses to honor its great women filmmakers, the film itself stands ablaze in defiance of — and in glaring contradiction to — the dominance of men. Burn it down.

“End of the Century”

“End of the Century”

Cinema Guild

Few films have captured the dual fleeting and enduring nature of intimate connection as poignantly as “End of the Century.” The film, an elegant three-hander that mostly revolves around two men who meet-cute on a Barcelona balcony, leaves a lingering impression on the heart. Like a great poem, “End of the Century” gives voice to a seemingly indescribable feeling, one anyone who’s ever fallen in love will recognize from deep in their soul — as if bumping into an old friend you forgot how much you liked. Written and directed by Argentinian filmmaker Lucio Castro in his feature debut, “End of the Century” is the natural descendant of lush romances like “Weekend” and “Call Me By Your Name,” and will certainly endure as one of the most evocative gay films of the decade.

“And Then We Danced”

In Swedish filmmaker Levan Akin’s intimate tour-de-force, a young man comes to terms with his sexuality amid the hyper-masculine world of traditional Georgian dance. Framing his gentle coming-of-age tale around such a traditional piece of Georgian culture, Akin has made an inherently political film, rendered in sensitive terms with a celebratory spirit. With distinctive features and a lithe physicality, lead actor Levan Gelbakhiani toggles effortlessly between child-like innocence, explosive anger, and wisdom beyond his years. His riveting performance is indisputably the heart and spine of the film. Because of the sensitive subject matter, Akin and his team had to use guerilla filmmaking tactics to shoot in the conservative country, giving the film a gorgeous cinema verite quality. The film has stoked protests in Tblisi, where it was shot, proving that queer filmmaking is still a political act.

“Wild Nights With Emily”

Throughout her career as a playwright and independent filmmaker, Madeleine Olnek has been the absurdist voice reminding people of a pesky little fact Hollywood would rather forget: Lesbians can be funny, too. For her third feature film, following 2011’s lesbian alien rom-com “Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same” and 2013’s lesbian hustler comedy “The Foxy Merkins,” Olnek stepped up her game with a star-studded period farce about — say it with me now — lesbian Emily Dickinson.

“Wild Nights With Emily”

Greenwich Entertainment

An off-kilter comedy with some serious scholarship behind it, the film radically upends the myth of Emily Dickinson as a reclusive spinster who feared publication. It also shines a light on her nearly 40-year-long romantic relationship with her sister-in-law, Susan (Susan Ziegler). The film is bolstered by a luminous lead performance from none other than Molly Shannon, who supported her old NYU buddy (Shannon credits Olnek as being “the midwife for Mary Katherine Gallagher,” her most famous “SNL” character) in this scrappy micro-budget gem of a comedy. In a sea of serious and often tragic queer films, “Wild Nights With Emily” was a guffaw of fresh air.

“Pain and Glory”

For their seventh film together, Antonio Banderas did more than reunite with Pedro Almodovar, whose films launched his career nearly four decades ago. This time, Banderas had to play a loosely fictionalized version of his beloved friend and collaborator — warts and all. Draped in a mouth-watering Almodovar wardrobe full of to-die-for color-blocked vintage shirts, Banderas plays the Spanish filmmaker with a gentle warmth, underpinned by the low hum of mortality anxiety.

“Pain and Glory”

Sony Pictures Classics

In classic Pedro fashion, the film feels like a series of vignettes, each more poignant than the next, that are as indelibly linked as moments in a life. The film is romantic, such as when the director reunites with an old love, darkly funny; like when he answers audience questions over the phone while smoking heroin; and nostalgic, in the cozy scenes of his country childhood. It’s an expertly-crafted tone poem, a celebratory but honest accounting of a life well-lived, and the natural evolution of an artist whose singular vision has forever changed cinema.

“Booksmart”

As (actually funny) comedies become more and more rare, “Booksmart” arrived guns blazing to kick off the summer. Starring the charismatic duo of Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever as best friends who played it safe in high school, “Booksmart” is basically the movie version of that rule-following friend who gets blackout drunk after her first Appletini. Following the two goody-goods’ roundabout journey to their first (and last) high school party, “Booksmart” is an ode to female friendship that isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty. Dever’s Amy has been out since sophomore year, she just hasn’t ever kissed a girl. Her all-too-relatable arc involves the heartache of realizing her tomboy crush might not be gay giving way to a surprise bathroom hook-up with a brooding emo cutie. Directed by Olivia Wilde, (lesbians won’t soon forget her bisexual heartbreaker turn in “The OC”), “Booksmart” wears its queerness as naturally as a valedictorian pin.

“Her Smell”

There’s hardly a moment to breathe in “Her Smell,” Alex Ross Perry’s devastating spin down the rabbit hole of an egomaniac rock star’s complete mental breakdown. Aptly named Becky Something, (she really is something — she also doesn’t know what she is), Elisabeth Moss is maniacally unhinged in one of the most grueling and transporting performances of her career.

“Her Smell”

If progress is measured by women getting to be just as despicable as men do in the movies, then Becky is the new benchmark for unlikable women characters. She spits, snarls, and seduces her way through her cursed collaborators, the most loyal of which is androgynous bass player Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn). Looking like a cross between Joan Jett and Shane from “The L Word,” Mari is the ultimate nod to the riot grrrl bands Perry is so clearly drawing from. Though they’re cute as the up-and-comers, all puppy dog eyes for the rock legend, real-life couple Cara Delevingne and Ashley Benson don’t stand a chance. It’s Becky’s world, we’re all just dying in it.

“The Queen”

With appearances from Andy Warhol, Edie Sedgwick, and Dorian Corey, Frank Simon’s 1968 documentary, gorgeously restored by Kino Lorber, is a long lost treasure of queer cinema. The mesmerizing film follows a New York City drag pageant, presided over by late transgender icon Flawless Sabrina, who wrangles an eclectic mix of characters with a firm and quippy hand. Vivid, funny, and shot on film in a thrilling fast and loose style, “The Queen” is a priceless time capsule and a rare window into our beautiful history.

“Consequences”

“Consequences”

Uncork’d Entertainment

Darko Stante’s impeccably crafted debut feature is boosted by an electrifying performance from its smoldering young lead, the equal parts brooding and babyfaced Matej Zemljic. The story centers on a wayward teen interred in a lawless youth detention center by his own parents. As he is seduced by a current of petty crime and attention from another boy, even harder than he is, the film can be difficult to stomach in its portrayal of teen male rage. But where other films wallow in internalized homophobia, “Consequences” embraces an almost brutal defiance of shame. The film thrums with a vibrant current — propelled by a dizzying churn of cigarettes, cocaine, fistfights, and shirtless young men — until arriving at its predictably explosive conclusion. The film’s perspective may be austere, but its heart is defiantly exuberant.

“The Heiresses”

Bearing a lovely resemblance to Sebastián Lelio’s 2013 film “Gloria,” “The Heiresses” follows one woman’s mid-life sexual reawakening in painstaking detail. When her partner goes to jail for fraud, Chela (Ana Brun) is forced to sell many of her family heirlooms to earn her bail money. When she begins driving a taxi for the local neighborhood women, her long-dormant desires are suddenly unearthed by a younger customer. Under Paraguayan writer-director Marcelo Martinessi’s deft hand, Chela transforms from a sullen recluse to a fully alive human with her own desires and needs. Women’s sexuality, especially older women’s sexuality, is so rarely treated with such care and tenderness, that “The Heiresses” feels vital in creating a cinematic language for it.

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