When Warren Beatty announced, after a flummoxed pause, that La La Land had won Best Picture at last year’s Oscars, triumphing over fellow frontrunner Moonlight, many were disappointed, but few surprised.
In fact, we had already resigned ourselves to La La Land, a musical love letter to Hollywood and romantic clichés, besting the much more powerful portrait of the black LGBT experience. We had even already drafted a frustrated think piece on the significance of the slight which we were prepping to send when it was announced in a kerfuffle that Moonlight had indeed won.
Rarely does the cinema maxim “a story we need now” hold up as fiercely as it did when Moonlight burst on the scene last year, a story told in three acts about a black man named Chiron struggling to accept his identity, his sexuality, and his masculinity throughout a life full of barriers—some cultural, some familial, some societal, and some institutional and political.
With the awards ceremony taking place just a month after Donald Trump’s inauguration, there was a bit of revenge fantasy to the whole proceeding as well, with a film about and made by the underserved, underrepresented, and unspoken-for triumphing over the establishment, white privilege, and elitism.
All that, and it was a story that was gay. That mattered.
Moonlight was the first LGBT movie to ever win Best Picture in the Oscars' 89-year history. As Nico Lang wrote in Salon at the time, “The Oscars have long recognized movies where LGBT people were props or tropes. Moonlight makes us human.” It was just a decade before when Brokeback Mountain suffered the most controversial Best Picture loss in the awards’ history, spurned by the organization’s institutionalized homophobia; voters even publicly said they refused to watch the film because it was a gay love story.
This year proved that Moonlight might not have been a break in the tradition of dismissing narratives centered around LGBT characters — lest it be an opportunity to hand a celebrated (straight) Hollywood A-lister a golden statue for their bravery in portraying a LGBT person. While hardly certain, there’s a very real chance that the sweeping, sumptuous LGBT romance Call Me By Your Name could win several marquee categories at this year’s ceremony, including Best Picture.
That Call Me By Your Name figures so heavily into so many awards races, and that it has been embraced so passionately by a swath of critics and awards voters hardly limited to the LGBT community, is fitting for an arguably unparalleled year when it comes to the quality and quantity of LGBT films that have made an impact.
It is dejecting that, despite the strength of these films, there still seems to be an unspoken mandate that only one major film carry the torch as a representative for the entire genre.
It’s heartening that a story like Call Me By Your Name even managed to break through. Still, it’s absurd that BPM, the French film chronicling the AIDS activist group ACT UP in Paris in the 1990s, failed to land on the Oscars shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film, given its rapturous critical reception since its debut at Cannes.
But rather than wallow in the slight, let’s celebrate BPM for what it is: a vital and rousingly alive film about the crucial and sometimes messy activism of this band of crusaders, managing to be both epic and intimate while showing how seamlessly a movement envelops the lives of its people, from the political stage to romances and to the death bed.
The film is sexy and sexual. It grieves. It invigorates. It challenges. It swoons. It is both intrinsically LGBT, by virtue of its subject matter, but so immediate that its power can’t be caged into a demographic niche.
Call Me By Your Name deserves every accolade it’s getting, but BPM should be alongside it in every major Best Picture category.
A far more confined, though just as emotionally explosive, story is the British indie God’s Own Country, a film that’s been branded the British Brokeback Mountain because of the setting of its love story. A farm hand in north England who numbs his loneliness with binge drinking and casual sex finds his life transformed by the arrival of a Romanian migrant worker, both tortured and consoled by their passion and connection. But Brokeback comparisons are too reductive.
There’s a frankness to the way film undulates between brutality and tenderness, from its complicated yet simple courtship to the unforgiving, gorgeous countryside that serves as its backdrop. Writer-director Francis Lee's naturalistic style lends the story both its dignity and its carnal sexuality, featuring sex scenes that are among the most explicit of the year but so emotionally raw they could hardly be ruled salacious or gratuitous. Few love stories pulse with such intensity.
Intensity, too, is nearly an inadequate word to describe transgender actress Daniele Vega’s performance in the Chilean drama A Fantastic Woman. Vega plays Marina, a trans woman who, after her partner dies, is debased, degraded, and suffers relentless indignity while refusing to falter in her otherwise simple and utterly human mission: to say goodbye to her lover. She faces every hostility with defiance and grace, energizing a film that playfully dances between tense thriller, chamber piece, dreamlike fantasy, and revenge tale as nimbly as Vega calibrates her performance. A landmark Best Actress campaign was mounted for Vega, and she deserves every cent spent on it.
A quieter, though equally impressive and commanding performance, comes from breakout star Harris Dickinson, the 21-year-old lead of the Sundance hit Beach Rats. Playing a Brooklyn teen who cruises gay sex sites on nights when he’s not with his girlfriend or gang of Coney Island urchins, Dickinson shades the experience of a teen’s sexual awakening with a understated, simmering confliction and frustration that is at once grueling and even sensual to watch. Eliza Hittman won Best Director at Sundance for the poetic seediness with which she captured teenage wonder, managing to be both compassionate and aloof in a judgement- and sermon-free look at gay sex in the city.
And then there’s the peach.
Every second of Call Me By Your Name is soaked with sun, sweat, and longing, a story of first love through the eyes of a young gay man set on the Italian seaside in the ‘80s. There’s a meticulous, crafted beauty to the technical elements of the film, all the better to underscore the untethered emotions and liberated hormones that emanate from the performances of Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer. The heartrate-spiking excitement of sex and attraction is contagious, tempered by a moving speech delivered by Michael Stuhlbarg that clarifies the whole story. It’s a romance as spectacularly made as any in the last decade of film.
Our own personal movies best-of list would likely devote five slots to these five LGBT films. Not to make a point, but because they were some of the most emotional, exciting, progressive, cinematically lush and surprising films of the year.
And those are just the most superlative. We haven’t even mentioned the nuanced portrait of young sexuality in the delightful Princess Cyd, or the unexpected warmth and romance of the frankly, perhaps even aggressively, sexual Paris 05:59: Theo and Hugo, which opens with a graphic 18-minute orgy scene.
In Battle of the Sexes, Emma Stone and Andrea Riseborough portray the central love story between tennis star Billie Jean King and hairdresser Marilyn Barnett with such tenderness and subtlety that the ostensible “point” of the film—the gender showdown between King and Bobby Riggs nearly seems like a ham-fisted afterthought.
The Charlize Theron action thriller Atomic Blonde was pulpy and slapdash and wantonly adventurous in every way you hoped a “female James Bond” spy movie would be, but perhaps more monumental given the fact that Theron’s character was matter-of-factly bisexual.
Then there’s a laundry list of documentaries: Women Who Kill, Strong Island, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, Rebels on Pointe, The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin, and This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous, which ended up a surprisingly insightful look at the intersection of the transgender experience, millennial connection, and fame.
What is the point of recounting all of this? For one, excellence matters, and it’s necessary to champion excellence in films like these when still, just because they center on LGBT characters and narratives, they are ghetto-ized, often not taken seriously by major awards organizations, and not given the visibility necessary to make a cultural impact.
It matters to feel seen. It matters to have a spectrum of experience represented. It matters to have stories told, and told well. It matters to feel both unique in your community, but also of a universal, normalized experience. It matters to feel worthy of greatness. And this year, there was a lot of that.