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    The Best and Worst LGBTQ Films of 2019, Plus a 2020 Preview

    By Gary Kramer–

    As 2019 comes to a close, here are ten highlights—and one lowlight—from this year’s cinematic output along with a look at four films opening in early 2020.

    Best of the Year (in alphabetical order)

     5B is a compassionate documentary, named for the First AIDS Ward, which opened on July 25, 1983, at San Francisco General Hospital. This film recounts the experiences of various nurses, doctors, and patients through candid, moving interviews about the fears, tragedies, and occasional triumphs that took place in the ward during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Ultimately life-affirming, it shows the resilience of these unsung heroes committed to both a cause and a community, and their efforts to maintain dignity and care above all. 

    Booksmart This absolutely hilarious high school comedy features dozens of belly laughs as Molly (Beanie Feldstein) the valedictorian and her lesbian BFF Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) try to make up for all the fun they missed in one night. (Amy’s unexpected sexual encounter is pricelessly funny). Full of clever word play and sight gags, the film is never smug or smarmy, which is why it works so well.

    By the Grace of God, about the Lyon church’s child abuse scandal, chronicles the efforts of several victims of pedophile priest Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley) to bring the situation to light and demand accountability from the Catholic church. This is an absorbing film made with considerable empathy and righteous anger. Out gay filmmaker François Ozon’s concerned approach never allows By the Grace of God to become too melodramatic or histrionic.

    End of the Century Out gay writer/director Lucio Castro’s feature debut was an absolute gem. This hypnotic romance starts with an erotic tryst between Ocho (Juan Barberini) and Javi (out gay Ramon Pujol) but it becomes something more complicated and exciting as it unfolds. Pure magic.

    The Gospel of Eureka by out gay filmmakers Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher’s cross-cuts between performances of the Great Passion Play, a dramatic reenactment of Christ’s last days, and Live Underground, a popular bar where drag queens lip sync gospel songs. The film provides apt lessons of tolerance to illustrate the humanity of these people who live side-by-side. The film includes several lyrical and powerful moments that indicate just how fragile that balance can be.

    The Heiresses Out gay writer-director Marcelo Martinessi’s absorbing Paraguayan drama depicts a period of crisis and change experienced by Chela (Ana Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irun), two 60-something lesbians. Martinessi coaxes excellent performances from his two leads, and he draws viewers into the drama by using both muted and vivid colors and by shooting the characters in an intimate style that practically eavesdrops on their lives. This is a slow film, but it rewards patient viewers.

    Pain and Glory Out gay writer/director Pedro Almodóvar’s outstanding film—about a filmmaker (Antonio Banderas) in physical and emotional pain—is absolutely exquisite. Using flashbacks, vibrant colors, and layering truth, memory, and fantasy, Pain and Glory becomes a remarkable and affecting film about love, loss, and creative expression. It is also buoyed by Banderas’s exceptional, Oscar-worthy performance.

    Sauvage This is a fantastic but brutal drama about Léo (Félix Maritaud), a down-on-his-luck gay male prostitute. Writer/director Camille Vidal-Naquet shoots the cruising area scenes like a nature documentary, but Sauvage/Wild is a raw and immersive experience thanks to Maritaud’s full-bodied performance as the frequently naked Léo, who is seen being used, bruised, and abused. Viewers may actually feel as battered as the character by the end of this stunning film.

    Sorry Angel Out gay filmmaker Christophe Honoré’s stunning, affecting drama is set in 1993 France. It alternates between Jacques (Pierre Deladonchamps), an HIV+ writer in Paris, and Arthur (Vincent Lacoste), a Breton. Honoré’s elliptical narrative approach keeps the men apart for much of the film, detailing their lives and other relationships. Sorry Angel, however, captures a feeling of romance and intimacy that is so strong, viewers may also experience the flush that comes from unexpected love. This melancholic romance is often swoon-inducing.

     Temblores (Tremors) Out gay writer/director Jayro Bustamante’s film is an exquisite—and exquisitely made—drama from Guatemala. Pablo (Juan Pablo Olyslager) is an upper-class, evangelical and married father of two who leaves his family for Francisco (Maurio Armas). The ripples of his coming out create the tremors of the title. Temblores is a quietly powerful film buoyed by Olyslager’s remarkable performance as a man torn between his true nature and what is expected of him by his family and society.

    Worst of the Year

     Giant Little Ones This over-stuffed drama has Ballas (Darren Mann) claiming his best friend Franky (Josh Wiggins) performed oral sex on him one night. This leads to various discussions of homophobia and acceptance that cudgel viewers. It is awkward to watch Mouse (Niamh Wilson) express her genderqueer identity, but watching Franky’s gay father (Kyle MacLachlan) have a heart-to-heart with his son about queer sexuality while they are literally standing in his closet is too much. It is admirable that out gay writer/director Keith Behrman wants to address important issues of queer sexuality, but he does it in such a ham-fisted and preachy manner that he shouldn’t have bothered.

    Looking Ahead to 2020

     Invisible Life, opening January 3, is directed by out gay filmmaker Karim Aïnouz. A tale of two sisters kept apart, the film, adapted from a novel, is a lush, powerful, and exquisitely acted melodrama.

    Cunningham, also opening January 3, is a fabulous documentary about the out gay dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham. The performance scenes are spectacular—especially in 3-D!—and the discussion of his life and career is fascinating.

    And Then We Danced Opening in February, this film is set in Tbilisi where Merab (Levan Galbakhiani), a closeted young dancer in a Georgian National company, finds himself attracted to Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), a replacement performer. This is a heartfelt story of a young man’s sexual awakening that also illustrates the difficulties of being gay in Georgia. Controversy occurred earlier this year when conservative groups protested and threatened screenings.

    Portrait of a Lady on Fire (scheduled for a Valentine’s Day release) is out director Céline Sciamma’s stunning, slow-burn romantic drama set in 1700s France. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is hired to paint Héloïse (out actress Adèle Haenel) without the latter’s knowledge. As the two young women slowly get to know one another, a friendship develops, and they soon fall in love.

    © 2019 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer

    Published on December 19, 2019