Dog Day Afternoon (1975, directed by Sidney Lumet)
Many people don’t think of this bank robbery film as LGBTQ if they are only familiar with from a pop culture reference standpoint. The main character, Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) is robbing the bank to get money for his lover, a transwoman, enough to pay for her transition surgery. This is a significant plot point in the second act, and I love how Lumet never tries to play the reveal for laughs. It’s accepted by everyone as just part of what is going down. This film is also a great anti-cop moving showing them as not all that intelligent, disorganized, and ultimately cruel. The classic scene where Pacino shouts “Attica!” refers to a prison rebellion from a few years prior, which ended with 33 inmates and 10 guards killed when the governor ordered state police to violently take back the facility.
The Times of Harvey Milk (1984, directed by Rob Epstein)
From my review: Director Rob Epstein has created a profoundly absorbing documentary with some of the best interviews I’ve seen in a doc of this style. The people he speaks with still love Harvey with all their hearts some six years later, and I imagine even to this day. What is so important about the interviews is both their personal recollections of the man but also the way they were radicalized in the wake of his murder. It makes complete sense that the LGBTQ participants were outraged, but what is most telling to Milk’s legacy is a gruff union guy speaks frankly that if it was only the mayor who was murdered, the killer would have gotten a life sentence. He elaborates that because Milk was a gay man and the jury was so meticulously stacked that a poisonous message was being sent to gay people in the Bay Area.
Desert Hearts (1985, directed by Donna Deitch)
From my review: The romance at the center of Desert Hearts is all about a clash of not just sexuality but regional views, age, and class divisions. Vivian comes from a wealthy, more academic culture, and Cay is all about freewheeling in the Nevada desert and drinking at the bars. We don’t get to see the love story develop in the way we might expect until both women are away from the prying eyes of others. Vivian even bristles when Cay tries to hold her hand in public, afraid of a stranger’s admonishment. While Vivian is a decade older than Cay, Cay walks with more confidence in herself, having learned to face down the judgemental looks of others for a long time.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001, directed by John Cameron Mitchell)
I saw this in the theater with three friends, and we had so much fun. I’ve revisited it over the years, and it stands up as my favorite of John Cameron Mitchell’s work (though I need to revisit Rabbit Hole one of these days). Hedwig is a transwoman from East Germany who finds herself in middling Kansas town after partnering up with an American soldier. Her operation is botched, leading to the titular “angry inch.” Hedwig eventually meets Tommy, a musically talented boy who Hedwig wants to share her creativity with. The songs here are spectacular, with a wide variety of energy levels and styles. John Cameron Mitchell plays Hedwig and has such powerful charisma and screen presence. He hasn’t had many more on-screen roles since his debut feature, but I think he’d be perfectly capable of it.
Mysterious Skin (2004, directed by Gregg Araki)
I find most Gregg Araki films incredibly grating and so stylistic they veer into eye-rolling absurdity. He completely surprised me with this muted yet still aesthetically pleasing character drama about two young men with shared trauma in their past. Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a gay man whose irresponsible mother (Elizabeth Shue) leads him to leave town and make money as a sex worker. Brian (Brady Corbett) has spent years troubled by an incident of lost time, leading him to believe he was abducted by aliens. These two characters paths crossed as children and are destined to cross again as they confront what happened to them. Araki manages to be bold and restrained in the right moments, the soundtrack by Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie is beautifully textured and sets the perfect mood for this picture.
Weekend (2011, directed by Andrew Haigh)
From my review: Weekend vibrates with the tactile feel of early love, the early morning headache after a night of drinking, the haze of a tryst half-remembered. You can feel that nervous emotion the morning after, the tightrope of how intimate we should be after our night together. Russell brushes his teeth before making coffee and bringing it to Glen, whom he left sleeping in bed. There’s the exchange of numbers, the questioning of whether we will see each other again. Then that moment where the unnameable truth of love has born fruit and the immediate fear to rush away from its intensity. Haigh masterfully captures the pain of goodbye when the circumstances of life draw you apart from a person, the person you know you need to be with. He smartly drowns out Russell’s words with the sound of a train so that we only see their arms clutching each other tighter, see them kiss in the hope that it will tether them across oceans until they meet again.
Tangerine (2015, directed by Sean Baker)
From my review: From the opening moments, you know you are in for a nonstop burst of energy in Tangerine. Much like Sin-Dee, who refuses to smoke a joint because she only does uppers, this film has a continual momentum. This dynamic is aided by the technique of filmmaking on display, an iPhone with some apps, and at times a Steadicam rig. That sense of rolling energy is supported by this incredibly new mode of making movies and with our two trans main characters. Sean Baker is doing something very experimental yet familiar, made apparent with his use of the old standard “Babes in Toyland.” Baker wants to blend the modern with the classic and create a new kind of film.
Other People (2016, directed by Chris Kelly)
From my review: John David is back at his childhood home in Sacramento under heavy circumstances. His mother, Joanne, has a severe form of cancer to treat, and the family is coming to terms with the fact that she will not last much longer. David had a falling out with the family in college when he came out as gay, and that history resonates now. He feels awkward and out of place with his sisters and father. He does bond deeply with his mother, though, and their story is the crux of the film.
Moonlight (2016, directed by Barry Jenkins)
From my review: The acting throughout Moonlight is superb. Chiron is played by a succession of three actors: Alex R. Hibbert (Chiron at 9), Ashton Sanders (Chiron as a teen), and Trevante Rhodes (Chiron as an adult). It’s weird to say I was glad Rhodes didn’t get a Best Actor nomination for an Oscar, but that is only because the character is a collective of three commanding performances. The only way to do justice would have been to have a single nomination for three actors. I have not read much about the production and rehearsal process, but the synchronicity between these performances is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I have to wonder if the movie was made sequentially so that Hibbert set the foundation of the performance, Sanders studied that and adapted, and finally, Rhodes was a culmination of his own thoughts of the character filtered through these two others. As a result, Chiron is one of the most fully realized characters I have ever seen on screen. He is a living breathing person who I feel like I’ve met.
Call Me By Your Name (2017, directed by Luca Guadagnino)
From my review: Working in the background as always is the underappreciated Michael Stuhlbarg. Stuhlbarg is doing similar phenomenal work in del Toro’s The Shape of Water. He becomes a figure of frantic paranoia that film, but here, he is gentle and delicate in how he speaks. His final speech to Elio on the nature of love and the embrace of suffering and heartbreak is one of the great dialogues on the subject in cinema. There is a sense of his own experiences buried beneath the words, never spoken. There is also the fear of a father, not that his son is gay, but that his son might interpret this pain as a signal to never love again. He makes very clear to Elio that love is fleeting yet precious.
A Fantastic Woman (2017, directed by Sebastián Lelio)
From my review: Marina is a transwoman living in Santiago, Chile, who works as a waitress and sings on the side. She’s in a relationship with Orlando, an older man who dreams of spending his later years with her. One night, Orlando wakes up feeling strange and ends up falling down the stairs when he struggles to get up. Marina rushes him to the emergency room, but he passes from a brain aneurysm. Marina calls Orlando’s brother and leaves the hospital suddenly worried about coming face to face with Orlando’s disapproving family. She finds that his son and second wife are unwilling to deal with the aftermath with understanding and patience. Marina struggles to carve out space for her to mourn Orlando and make herself acknowledged as one of his loved ones.
A Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019, directed by Celine Sciamma)
From my review: For the majority of the film’s runtime, we do not see a single male character on screen. In the third act, when a man is found eating breakfast in the kitchen, it is a jolt to the system, signaling that whatever has come before is over. The expectations and duties of these women must be resumed, and the life they were able to experience for a brief time is over. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a subdued and even unsentimental look at a relationship between two women in a time where they had no future where they could stay together.