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The best LGBT films of 2016

Despite slim pickings, these five LGBT-themed films sent a cease and desist letter to heteronormativity

The African American Film Critics Association has proclaimed 2016 to be the “best year for black cinema”, thanks to late-year releases like Hidden Figures, Loving, Moonlight and Fences. There were also major box office returns for Ride Along 2 and Boo! A Madea Halloween. Factor those in, and this represents a “bonanza year” for black film, to use the AAFCA cofounder’s words, after the crustless Wonderbread 2015 brought us.

Not so bonanza for the gays. The LGBT community clung on to TV boons like Transparent and Eyewitness and tirelessly quoted RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars 2 until their lipstick wore off. We weathered a dry spell this year at the cinema. I’d argue that Moonlight – a three-act showpiece about a black man struggling with his sexual identity – was the only high-profile LGBT film that anyone heard of or saw this year (not counting the flagrant bromosexuality we enjoyed in Richard Linklater’s ode to short shorts, Everybody Wants Some!!)

Still, representations of LGBT people in film are on the rise. A study by GLAAD found that “of the 114 releases GLAAD counted from the major studios in 2014, 20 (17.5 per cent) contained characters identified as either lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.” These are the most up-to-date statistics available, and they provide hope: LGBT people experienced a slight increase in representations on screen from the year prior.

Put them in all the films you want. Representation is only one half of the problem. The other is whether or not anybody sees them. Seeking out LGBT films has to be an active experience. If nobody watches LGBT stories, it only becomes more difficult to make more. A large amount of releases featuring or created by LGBT people were robbed of viewers due to shoddy distribution deals, bad marketing, or, put delicately, totally sucking. In 2016, we were left to pick over bones. But some of what did manage to eke out a release is genuinely worth tracking down.

MOONLIGHT

Even with a straight man at the helm, Moonlight remains a disarming portrait of acceptance that will move you to horking sobs. It is the most important film of 2016. Mahershala Ali will likely score a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. In short, it deserves all the praise being heaped onto it. Split into three chapters, the film spans Chiron’s life as he grapples with his sexuality as he grows up in Miami. The first chapter establishes Chiron as the bullied son of a crack addict mother, who prioritises her next fix over caring for her child. Chiron befriends a neighbourhood drug dealer, Juan, who takes him under his wing. As a teen, he continues to be bullied. His first gay experience takes place on the beach when his only friend, Kevin, gives him a handjob. Later in life, Chiron finds himself pushing drugs when he is contacted out of the blue by Kevin. Watching as Chiron reconciles his relationships – with his mother Paula, with Kevin – and justifies his actions is heartbreaking, but inconceivably powerful.

FIRST GIRL I LOVED

With the inevitable comparisons to Blue Is The Warmest Color (2013), every lesbian film trailing in its soggy-eyed wake has to either do what it did better or veer away from its emotional navel-gazing completely. First Girl I Loved won an Audience Award at Sundance for its casual treatment of a girl crush and the selfish asshole who gets in the way. Anne spots Sasha, the star of her high school baseball team. When she confides in her best friend, Clifton, he rapes her, calls her a dyke, and continues to lash out as the two girls grow increasingly closer. Running through a narrative of relative innocence is a deeper one of consent – an issue that rarely finds itself played out on film. This is one high school movie that won’t bang you over the head with cliques or stereotypes. Despite its heavy content, First Girl I Loved is more sweet than sour.

KING COBRA

Before the first bead of sweat drips down James Franco’s torso, you know what follows will be unbridled raunch of the Franco gay fantasy variety. In fact, King Cobra puts My Own Private Idaho to shame with its gratuitous and often quite sexy cutaways. But that’s what’s good about it – a refusal to apologise for its outward sexiness. Though it suffers from a bit of hammy acting and campy lines, it must be taken at face value: King Cobra is a movie about a porn star. This true story is briefly told in an infamous Rolling Stone article called “Death of a Porn King”, about the making of famous twink Sean Paul Lockhart into gay porn star Brent Corrigan. The producer responsible for discovering and grooming Lockhart trademarks his porn name, so when Corrigan opts to break off their working relationship upon realising his true star power, he ends up shackled by his contract. He isn’t allowed to use the name Brent Corrigan in any other productions, essentially barring him from working with any competitors. That is, unless he can figure out how to break the contract.

AUTHOR: THE JT LEROY STORY

The best documentary of 2016, Author: The JT LeRoy Story, takes one of the publishing industry’s biggest hoaxes and disentangles it through eye-smacking archive footage and audio interviews spanning years. JT LeRoy was a fictional character, a trans truck stop prostitute created by a woman named Laura Albert. Albert masqueraded as LeRoy over the phone and in writing, eventually hiring a boyfriend’s sister to embody the character in person. LeRoy befriended celebrities who admired her writing – people like Winona Ryder, Michael Pitt and Asia Argento. Her ruse was perfect, penetrating the upper echelons of Hollywood society. Until she was exposed by New York magazine and her A-list friends turned their backs on her. Come for the sidewinding plot, stay for the incredible phone call where Courtney Love interrupts herself to snort a line of coke.

BEING 17

How a 73-year-old director made such an accurate depiction of gay teenage life beats me. France continues to lead the way with LGBT releases like this year’s other standout, Theo and Hugo. Being 17 is frustrating and triumphant in equal measure. Thomas, who lives on a farm out of town, comes to live with schoolmate Damien in order to be closer to his mother who is sick in hospital. Damien resents Thomas for sucking up to Damien’s mum. The pair goad each other on, denying their feelings for one another until it reaches a head when Thomas is expelled from school for punching Damien in the face. That disorientating smack is the catalyst for a new start to the boys’ relationship. What is most sincere about Being 17 is how figuring out your sexuality can be a game with no instructions. Nothing is cut and dry, which is why a film about discovering who you are amidst the flurry of shit that rains down around you in real life is such a welcome entry into the genre.