2013 was a banner year for LGBT cinema, even if it might not necessarily seem that way from everyone’s end-of-year coverage. There’s no giant Oscar vehicle like “Milk,” for example. Moreover, as Indiewire explained this summer, queer films just don’t make that much money anymore. It’s not all that difficult to work yourself into a bleak mood, pining for the good old days of New Queer Cinema. The critical success of a Palme d’Or winner that arguably uses a lesbian love story to make a retrograde philosophical point about the female orgasm doesn’t exactly help.
However, I swear that 2013 was a banner year for LGBT cinema. The proof is in the films themselves. Great movies from all across the world played the queer film festival circuit, made into theaters and found their way to VOD. A “newer” wave, if it can even be called that, has been cropping up everywhere. It’s a Renaissance in miniature, defined by no single style or thematic thrust.
And so to write a simple top ten list of films seems impossible. Simply deciding what would and would not qualify would be a difficult enough task, and would probably miss the point of contemporary works of art that draw their inspiration from bending our perception of gender, sexuality and even truth. Instead, here’s a look back at the biggest trends or stories of 2013 in LGBT cinema, all worth celebrating.
Among the greatest queer documentaries are those that blur the line between life and art, films like “Paris Is Burning” and “Portrait of Jason” that show how our identities themselves are often works of performance. The latter’s restoration and revival this summer was a high point of the year, but it was also joined by a number of new documentaries depicting the lives of queer artists and the queer art of living.
Some of these films look into the wider lives of already famous figures, like “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia” and “I Am Divine.” Others shine a light on those slightly less known, including the beautifully warm “Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton” and the mysterious “Finding Vivian Maier” (which will open in 2014). “Fifi Howls from Happiness” cracks into the secluded exile of Iranian artist Bahman Mohasses, while “Exposed” opens up the world of burlesque performance. Finally, films like “Mohammed to Maya” and “Lucky” take a note from Shirley Clarke and find inspiration in the lives of those simply going about their remarkable lives as human beings.
Certainly the most exciting queer debut of 2013, Stacie Passon’s “Concussion” is worth celebrating for a number of reasons. The script is refreshingly blunt and Robin Weigert’s central performance is among the best of the year. Beyond that, however, Passon’s commitment to intriguing new ideas around marriage and relationships articulate an alternative to the potential mainstreaming of heteronormative American society in the queer community. Or, to be less fancy about it, “Concussion” is the kind of thoughtful debut that we don’t see too often, and even less so when it comes to lesbian characters.
Joao Pedro Rodrigues
João Pedro Rodrigues has spent the year tearing down the means of cinematic expression and rebuilding it in ways we may not entirely understand just yet. He’s not alone in this, and his work fits well into the context of other bold Portuguese filmmakers like Miguel Gomes. Yet there’s something unique not only about Rodrigues’s films but his work this year in particular. “The King’s Body” is a fascinating, barebones (and bare-chested) interrogation of masculinity, history, Fascism, and the financial crisis made with a great deal of inspiration and very little extravagance. “The Last Time I Saw Macao,” on the other hand, is a post-colonial film Neo-Noir that ends the world. Eerie, crepuscular and staggeringly unexpected, it’s an entirely new sort of filmmaking.
The films of Quebecois wunderkind Xavier Dolan have had quite the journey to American theaters. His second feature, “Heartbeats,” was released in the US in 2011. His first feature, on the other hand, got trapped in distribution limbo for years. “I Killed My Mother” finally got a run this spring, followed a few months later by “Laurence Anyways,” his third feature. The latter, a three-hour romance of epic proportions, is his best work yet. Whether “Tom at the Farm” will secure US distribution remains to be seen, but this year may have finally given him the attention he deserves as one of the most exciting new filmmakers of the decade.
Human Rights Docs
Alongside the plethora of queer profile documentaries, there was a smaller group of international films that sought to highlight the human rights struggle of LGBT people around the world. It’s worth mentioning “The Abominable Crime,” which looks at the legal and social violence committed against the LGBT community in Jamaica, but the bigger story is a trio of documentaries that focus on Sub-Saharan Africa. While addressing similar subjects, all three are essential. “Call Me Kuchu” tells the story of Ugandan activists, including murdered pioneer David Kato, struggling against an increasingly hostile political climate. “God Loves Uganda,” on the other hand, explores the role of American evangelicals in the nation. Finally, “Born This Way” is a deeply intimate portrait of the community of Cameroon, living in a similar context.
Malgorzata Szumowska’s “In the Name of…” won the Teddy Award at the Berlin Film Festival, and it may have signaled the arrival of Polish Queer Cinema on the international scene. This remains to be seen, of course, but its impressively wrought story of a priest and his crippling desire for a younger man is something to behold. Then there’s “Floating Skyscrapers,” a devastating and doomed love story that somehow manages to be even more erotic and emotionally potent than “In the Name of…” Both films breathe a thin, sparse air that captures the loneliness of the closet in a way that seems both strikingly new in style and tragically old in its social implications.
It’s been an interesting year for LGBT cinema in France. The lead story is obviously “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” with its endless controversies and loud posturing in the French press by everyone involved. However, an awful lot more went on. Alain Guiraudie’s “Stranger by the Lake” won the Queer Palme, of course. François Ozon’s “In the House,” which opened in the US in April, is his best movie in years and perhaps the best script of his career. Finally, Yann Gonzalez’s M83-scored debut feature “You and the Night” is a breathless, charmingly revolutionary 21st-century riff on the early orgiastic experiments of Pedro Almodóvar. It sits without US distribution, but let’s all cross our fingers and hope that changes soon.
Side by Side
It was a big deal when Tom Daley came out. It was a slightly smaller deal when the rumors began that his boyfriend is Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. However, I would argue the biggest deal might be what Black was doing that week, off in St Petersburg. Earlier this year I devoted a column to the legal troubles of the Side by Side International LGBT Film Festival, in the fallout after Putin’s new anti-gay legislation. Frankly, things did not look good for the struggling organization, facing both financial strain in the courts and threats of physical assault at their events. But in November, in the face of bomb threats (not new for Side by Side), the sixth edition of Side by Side went forward. Black and Gus Van Sant flew over to present “Milk” in a number of cities, and led post-screening discussions. Russia may be a long way from resolving the violence of homophobia, but it’s hard to imagine even steps in the right direction without institutions like Side by Side.