Being a year where everyone was trapped indoors glued to their screens meant, for moviegoers, that smaller films were able to sneak onto the radar, and that especially extended to queer storytelling in 2020.
From unlikely romances like Miranda July’s “Kajillionaire” to genre-pushing nonfiction portraits like David France’s “Welcome to Chechnya” and Rachel Mason’s “Circus of Books,” there were plenty of enjoyable and inspiring LGBTQ movies to engage with in an otherwise dour and painful year.
In “Monsoon,” Henry Golding burst out of the matinee idol image he established in “Crazy Rich Asians.” Mart Crowley’s scandalous 1960s play “The Boys in the Band” lived again on Netflix. In “Lingua Franca,” Isabel Sandoval wrote, directed, and starred in a breakout indie about an undocumented trans Filipina worker. In “Shirley,” Elisabeth Moss once again burned down the screen in her sly and kinky turn as gothic writer Shirley Jackson.
Yet there were also movies as queer in their expression as in their content, like the body-swapping, gender-bending horrors of Brandon Cronenberg’s “Possessor,” or the cross-dressing marauders of the outback in “True History of the Kelly Gang.”
Here are the 12 best queer films released theatrically or on streaming services in 2020.
Exuding charm, infectious energy, and unshakeable confidence, Alice is the teenage trans girl protagonist of your movie dreams. She’s a runner-up in a reality competition show for young models, which she never lets her adoring public forget via her bubbly YouTube updates. She’s living her best life in a chic Brazilian city when her father unexpectedly moves her to the more conservative countryside. As Alice contends with boys’ school uniforms and ignorant bullying, she also opens herself up to new forms of friendship. First-time feature director Gil Baroni makes a grand entrance with this flirty, heartfelt, and celebratory trans comedy. More trans films like this one, please. —JD
“The Boys in the Band”
Director Joe Mantello, who first revamped the play on Broadway three years ago with an all-star cast of out-gay male actors, brings that exact same troupe and sensibility to his new film adaptation. Produced by Ryan Murphy for Netflix, the result is a sophisticated, at times sexy, and always tart-tongued revival. The gayed-up “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” surmounts the challenges typically faced by stage-to-screen adaptations, specifically the utter confinement to a single space. It also features an unexpectedly fierce Jim Parsons in his best performance ever. —RL
“Circus of Books”
It’s hard to think of a better premise for a documentary than a gay porn shop run by a straight Jewish couple, but throw into the mix that their daughter is the filmmaker and you have one of the most surprising films of the year. Filmmaker Rachel Mason follows in the footsteps of hybrid documentarian Kirsten Johnson, but throws in a heaping dose of Borscht belt humor, Jewish tradition, and gay history. Her loving account of her parents Barry and Karen Mason, and how they came to run one of LA’s most popular gay cruising spots, is the perfect blend of personal excavation and engaging storytelling. Karen emerges as the film’s comic lead and quintessential Jewish mother, haggling at the sex expo and questioning her daughter’s artistic choices in the same breath. It’s the unexpected confluence of these eclectic elements that make it such a singularly delightful film. —JD
The latest from “Fire” filmmaker Deepa Mehta, “Funny Boy” is a luminous coming-of-age tale seen through the eyes of a relatable yet entirely unique experience. Based on a beloved novel by Shyam Selvadurai, the film follows a queer Tamil boy coming of age amid rising ethnic tensions in 1970s Sri Lanka. As if with the breezy wave of a hand, Mehta has woven these intricacies with a painterly touch, stacking the opposing forces of sexual and cultural identity into a whirl of color and emotion and memory. “Funny Boy” is heavy but never burdensome, lighthearted but never lightweight. In sweet protagonist Arjie, we find a joyous portrait of awakening, reckoning, and holding onto oneself. —JD
Miranda July’s dry, mannered sensibility is on full display in this story about a family of con artists, played by Evan Rachel Wood, Debra Winger, and Richard Jenkins, whose lives are upended by the arrival of a charming stranger, played by Gina Rodriguez. What soon emerges is a fizzy romance between Wood and Rodriguez, which outshines the more twee aspects of July’s approach. Their love ultimately becomes an act of rebellion against a couple of terrible parents. —RL
Isabel Sandoval’s masterful portrait of a trans Filipina immigrant is so intimately rendered it almost feels too close at times. Premiering at Venice Days, the film was entirely directed, written, produced, and edited by Sandoval, who also plays the film’s lead. Sandoval is the closest thing queer cinema has to a trans auteur working on such a level. The film follows an undocumented trans woman as she saves up for a green card marriage, which becomes complicated by newfound romance. Sharply edited and shot with an austere beauty, “Lingua Franca” is a profound example of what happens when marginalized voices are given full creative control. —JD
In Hong Khaou’s lovely and hushed “Monsoon,” the debonair Henry Golding emerges from upstart Hollywood stardom as a calm, but still cool and compelling dramatic lead. It’s hard to take your eyes off of him, and that’s not just because he’s in nearly every shot. He carries his gay soul searching well, playing an expat returning to his roots in Vietnam. Meanwhile, a romance blooms with a man played by Parker Sawyers, which is bolstered by an obviously steamy chemistry between the two leads. Some viewers may groan that the straight Golding is playing a gay character, but what’s most quietly revolutionary about “Monsoon” is that it makes no show out of gayness at all. —RL
Courtesy of Netflix
“Mucho Mucho Amor”
The English-speaking world had Miss Cleo, and the Spanish-speaking world had Walter Mercado. While one turned out to be a con artist, the other disappeared from public eye without so much as a characteristically dramatic flourish. The legendary Puerto Rican psychic and astrologer captivated the Latin world with his glamorous style, gender-nonconforming persona, and warmhearted cosmic readings. With this lovingly crafted documentary about his life and career, directed by Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch, he reached a well-warranted new level of fandom. We should be thanking the filmmakers for spreading the joy of Walter Mercado far and wide. —JD
In Brandon Cronenberg’s gory, slick techno-thriller, Andrea Riseborough’s screen time is limited as Tasya Vos, as she spends most of the movie hijacking Christopher Abbott’s character. But her specter hovers over the entire movie as the puppeteer of madness, hired by a shadowy operation to take over Abbott’s body, and kill his future father-in-law, the head of a major data-mining company. If the body-hijacking element isn’t inherently queer enough, there’s an absolutely outrageous sex scene midway through the film where Riseborough emerges with a fully erect penis meant to be Abbott’s (or is it?) as her mind and his body struggle to wrest control. —RL
Josephine Decker’s eerily unhinged dark comedy lets Elisabeth Moss do what she does best: Gradually and maniacally losing her mind and taking everyone else down with her. Her portrayal of horror novelist Shirley Jackson is as narcissistic as her Becky Something of “Her Smell,” and as delusional (or not?) as her “Invisible Man” character. Her obsession with young and impressionable Rose (Odessa Young) borders on Sapphic, though she never allows herself to indulge in anything too pleasurable other than drink. There’s a touch of Joan Crawford in the acerbic jabs she levels at her husband Stanley, played by “Call Me by Your Name” favorite Michael Stuhlbarg, one of the only actors who could go head to head with Moss. Watching the sparks fly is as satisfying as anything in “Mommie Dearest.” —JD
“True History of the Kelly Gang”
The Ned Kelly you see in director Justin Kurzel’s “True History of the Kelly Gang” is not the one you know. Instead, he’s a punk-rock poet with an Oedipal complex, a fumbling romantic, even a sensitive soul, and, finally, a revenge-thirsty murderer. The film presents an unapologetically queer reading of Ned Kelly’s identity, which is something Kurzel said wasn’t intentional. The Kelly gang don women’s dresses to terrorize British colonists, and the film otherwise has an insistent sensuality that’s blatantly homoerotic. All three of the main male cast members — George MacKay as Ned Kelly, Nicholas Hoult as Constable Fitzpatrick, and Charlie Hunnam as Sergeant O’Neill — deliver everything-but-full-frontal nude scenes that highlight every chisel of their muscly bodies, and crank up the sexual tension in any room. —RL
“Welcome to Chechnya”
David France’s courageous and gutting documentary portrait of the Russian government’s institutional homophobia and enabling of hate crimes in its territories ignites a necessary look into the global war on gays. Using artificial intelligence, hidden cameras, and facial replacement technology, France managed to film actual LGBT Chechen refugees as they tunnel their way out of the Russian Republic, and out of danger. This is a vital story in terms of its global impact, but also a formally daring feat that stands on its own terms as a piece of cinema. —RL