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Sundance 2020: The LGBTQ Films We Can’t Wait to See in Park City

From Josephine Decker's latest invention to Laverne Cox's history of trans cinema, the year in queer film is off to a bright start.

gay films sundance

Photos Courtesy of Sundance

From launching “Boys Don’t Cry” in 1999 to premiering “Call Me by Your Name” in 2017, the Sundance Film Festival has long housed some of the most transcendent, experimental, and provocative queer films of the last decades. This year is shaping up to be no different, with many of the most anticipated premieres promising thoughtful LGBTQ-related content. Though it’s impossible to know until we’ve seen the films, IndieWire culled the lineup, polled filmmakers and producers, and consulted GLAAD in order to create a list of the most exciting queer films playing the festival.

Laverne Cox executive produces the first cinematic history of trans representation in film, tapping the likes of Mj Rodriguez, Lilly Wachowski, and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Yance Ford to provide commentary. New offerings from masters of the avant-garde Miranda July and Josephine Decker both promise queer elements, while “How to Survive a Plague” filmmaker David France returns to form with a difficult and important dive into the horrific state-sanctioned torture of LGBTQ people in Chechnya. Dee Rees returns to Park City with her latest film, while the shorts program features a bevy of work from up-and-coming queer filmmakers.

Here are the most exciting narratives, documentaries, and shorts heading to Sundance this year.

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“Kajillionaire”

It’s been nine years since Miranda July last made a movie (the oddly wrenching breakup drama “The Future”), though the genre-agnostic writer/director/performance artist’s influence can be seen in the films of Josephine Decker, Sean Baker, and Greta Gerwig. After a devastating performance in Decker’s remarkable “Madeline’s Madeline,” July will return to Sundance as writer/director for the third time since her debut feature, “You and Me and Everyone We Know,” took home a special jury prize for “Originality of Vision.” The film stars Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger as con artists who have trained their daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) to follow in their footsteps. But their little operation hits a snag when Wood’s character develops a special connection with their latest mark (Gina Rodriguez). A queer love story played by two out bisexual actresses inside a tantalizing premise from a visionary filmmaker? That we can’t wait to see.

“Shirley”

Michael Stuhlbarg and Elisabeth Moss appear in Shirley by Josephine Decker, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Thatcher Keats.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

“Shirley”

Courtesy of Sundance

Josephine Decker’s hotly anticipated fourth feature stars Elisabeth Moss as prolific horror author Shirley Jackson, but anyone familiar with Decker’s work will not be expecting a traditional biopic. Your favorite “Call Me by Your Name” dad Michael Stuhlbarg co-stars as her professor husband, Stanley Hyman. In the film, the couple’s lives are upended by the arrival of a young couple (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young) who become inspiration for Jackson’s next novel. Decker has earned a devoted cult following for her expressionistic avant-garde films, which include 2013’s “Butter on the Latch,” the erotic thriller “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely,” and last year’s meta-drama “Madeline’s Madeline.” With her unique vision and the fearless duo of Moss and Stuhlbarg, sparks are sure to fly.

“Bad Hair”

In 2014, the Sundance premiere of “Dear White People” launched Justin Simien as a force to be reckoned with, leading to a development deal with then-scrappy streamer Netflix. The resulting TV series became a critical and commercial hit for Netflix, which will release a fourth and final season later this year. In the meantime, the out filmmaker has been cooking up his long-awaited second feature, a satirical psychological thriller about a women whose scalp injury lands her with a weave that has a mind of its own. The film stars Vanessa Williams, Lena Waithe, Blair Underwood, and Laverne Cox, with a breakout performance from lead Elle Lorraine.

“The Last Thing He Wanted”

Out filmmaker Dee Rees’ Netflix adaptation of author Joan Didion’s 1996 political thriller “The Last Thing He Wanted” stars Anne Hathaway as a journalist who stops her coverage of the 1984 U.S. Presidential election to care for her dying father — and inherits his position as an arms dealer for the U.S. government in Central America. Rees directs from a script she co-wrote with Marco Villalobos. Willem Dafoe, Toby Jones, Ben Affleck, Rosie Perez, and Edi Gathegi round out the main cast. Cassian Elwes serves as producer on the project, marking his second pairing with Rees.

“Uncle Frank”

“American Beauty” may not have aged as well as some of his other work, but Alan Ball revolutionized TV with the creation of HBO shows “Six Feet Under” and “True Blood.” Though he’s been out of the independent film game for awhile, so has his film’s star, Paul Bettany, who’s been stuck in the Marvel Universe for the last decade. Set in 1973, “Uncle Frank” follows a gay NYU professor and his 18-year-old niece as they road trip to their small, Southern hometown for a family funeral. Bettany is joined by stellar cast that includes Steve Zahn, Margo Martindale, and Judy Greer. Here’s hoping the “Six Feet Under” vibes jump off the page.

“I Carry You With Me”

Prolific documentarian Heidi Ewing makes her solo directorial narrative debut with a bittersweet gay romance seen through the eyes of one aspiring chef’s decision to cross the border from Mexico to the United States. Premiering in the genre-bending NEXT section, Ewing wrote the screenplay with Alan Page Arriaga, and the duo tackles this American Dream story through the fertile soil of food ethnography. The film was shot by rising Mexican cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramírez, who has racked up more than two dozen films to his name since 2010. As the most explicit queer romance playing the festival, be sure to look out for this one at the LGBTQ festivals later in the year.

“The Nowhere Inn”

The unique and often baffling intimacy between queer women is ripe for satire in this hybrid documentary about musician St. Vincent (née Annie Clark), which is told through the eyes of Carrie Brownstein, Clark’s fellow musician, former girlfriend, and current best friend. The playful mockumentary pokes fun at the search for authenticity in art and obsession with fame, unspooling increasingly absurd situations to prove that entertainment will always win out over truth-telling. “The Nowhere Inn” is the feature directorial debut of Bill Benz, an editor and director on “Portlandia” and “Kroll Show,” which gives a hint about the tone of the film.

“Mucho, Mucho Amor”

Walter Mercado Mucho Mucho Amor

“Mucho Mucho Amor”

Courtesy of Sundance

After directing one of the most wholesomely entertaining documentaries of 2018, “Science Fair” co-director Christina Costantini returns with a slightly edgier premise that’s just as fun for her second feature documentary. She collaborates with a force behind another underseen gem, “The Last Resort” director Kareem Tabsch. Together they’ll tell the story of astrologer and TV personality Walter Mercado, a gender non-conforming Latinx icon famous for wearing fabulous capes who mysteriously disappeared before his death this year. Both directors have shown a strong command of storytelling in documentary, and with such a fun subject, the film could end up a real crowdpleaser.

“Welcome to Chechnya”

The Oscar-nominated director of “How to Survive a Plague” is keeping details of his latest project tightly under wraps, but we do know the film will explore the former Soviet country of Chechyna and its stringent anti-gay laws. This will be France’s third feature, following 2017’s “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” though he recently loaned his name as executive producer to the gay comedy “Cubby,” which played well on the 2019 gay festival circuit. A former journalist, France is a reliable non-fiction storyteller and his latest is likely to generate major discussion about LGBT persecution around the world.

“Whirlybird”

Matt Yoka’s documentary “Whirlybird” focuses on the life of transgender helicopter pilot and reporter Zoey Tur. A pioneer of helicopter reporting, Tur has logged more than 10,000 flight hours covering news events in Los Angeles ranging from the riots of 1992 to the O.J. Simpson Ford Bronco chase of 1994. The film tells the story of Tur’s gender transition while simultaneously capturing the identity and evolution of Los Angeles, as seen from Tur’s unique vantage point in the sky. The film combines intimate interviews with Tur and people who know her with some of the most captivating aerial footage of Los Angeles every captured on video.

“Disclosure: Trans Lives Onscreen”

In her growing role as executive producer, Laverne Cox has put her name behind a new documentary about the history of transgender narratives onscreen. The description sells the film as a trans version of “The Celluloid Closet,” offering a much-needed survey of 100 years of footage, from “A Florida Enchantment” (1914) to “Pose” (2018). The film is directed by Sam Feder, who rose to prominence with “Kate Bornstein is a Queer & Pleasant Danger,” an entertaining and moving portrait of trans icon known affectionately in the community as Auntie Kate. Queer film scholar and archivist Jenni Olson also serves as a consulting producer. Laverne Cox, Mj Rodriguez, Lilly Wachowski, Yance Ford, Chaz Bono, Jamie Clayton are all interviewed in the film, positioning “Disclosure” as the definitive history of trans cinema.

“The Shawl”

The Shawl gay film

“The Shawl”

Courtesy of Sundance

It’s an embarrassment of riches in this animated documentary, which follows the fabulous romance of Dusty Childers and Shane O’Neill, two legends of New York’s downtown theater and comedy scenes. Out director Sara Kiener makes her filmmaking debut after years of supporting independent films in her role at Cinereach, where she championed projects such as “MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A.,” “Beach Rats,” “I Am Not Your Negro,” and “We the Animals.” As the film’s logline describes: “After years of long distance, a pair of big and beautiful boyfriends celebrates their reunion at a Stevie Nicks concert, where they share a brush with magic.” With such dynamic characters narrating their own love story over whimsical animation, “The Shawl” is certain to dance into our hearts.

“Dirty”

Just three short films into his burgeoning career, out filmmaker Matthew Puccini has quickly established himself as one of the most accomplished shorts filmmakers working today. His last short, “Lavender,” which starred Michael Urie as one third of a tender throuple, premiered at Sundance last year before being acquired by Fox Searchlight. His newest film casts trans actor Morgan Sullivan in a sultry-looking romance.

“Buck”

Fresh off the success of his feature documentary debut “Pier Kids” (2019), Elegance Bratton joins forces with fellow NYU Grad Film alum Jovan James for a short that directly addresses the HIV-positive members of the black gay community. The film is heavily inspired by infamous Democratic donor Ed Buck, whose penchant for watching vulnerable black men overdose resulted in the tragic deaths of Gemmel Moore and Timothy Dean. The film explores notions of depression, chemical dependency, HIV, and human empathy.

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