2017 was a great year for queer films and queer filmmakers: Out queer directors helmed nearly half of my favorite films and are at the top of my ten-best list. But thanks to the homophobic notion (and self-fulfilling prophecy) that audiences will support only one queer film (you know which one) at a time, most people missed what I loved best, especially moviegoers who don’t live in New York City or L.A. (See the full results of the Village Voice Film Poll here)
My pick for the best film of the year, BPM (Beats Per Minute), is an astonishingly accurate and moving account of ACT UP in the early 1990s. The film didn’t premiere in my art house–friendly city until two weeks ago, months after it opened in New York, when most of its rapturous reviews were first published.
When BPM failed to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, some people tried to downplay its achievement. BPM is about the collective, mostly queer activism of ACT UP made by the same people who were participants in its history. The director, Robin Campillo, who also co-wrote the script, belonged to ACT UP Paris in the Nineties, and his co-writer, Philippe Mangeot, was once president of the group. Although activists have sometimes made well-reviewed documentaries about their work, BPM is the rare, great narrative film made by activists, based on their own lives. Campillo and Mangeot are working in the tradition of writer-directors like Chloé Zhao, Andrea Arnold, and Sean Baker who actively collaborate with people in circumstances close to those of the characters in their films, so that the finished product attains a verisimilitude far out of reach for most Hollywood movies.
The first, botched protest in BPM immediately brought me back to my own queer activism in the early Nineties. I had forgotten that some of the actions I had taken part in or helped plan had, like the one in the film, taken an unexpected turn (more than one character uses the word violence, though no one is hurt) that opponents would later try to use against us. BPM is a fictional story about made-up characters, but the screenwriters use their inside knowledge to make a film that dishes up one truth after another, not just matching memories of the time, but adding detail, refreshing what might have been half-forgotten. We see the main character, Nathan (played by gay actor Arnaud Valois), becoming a core member of ACT UP Paris as he starts a sweet romance with HIV-positive group stalwart Sean (the great Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), taking care of Sean as his health deteriorates (including that famous hospital hand job, after which the two giggle like nine-year-olds telling fart jokes) through Sean’s death. In the end Nathan participates in the protest that uses Sean’s ashes. When I saw the film with friends who were about my age, who knew people with AIDS who had died, neither friend (including one who usually likes only action films) could get over how well the film had captured both the grief and, in some scenes, the joy they too remembered from that period.
Barely anyone in the U.S. has seen my other top pick, The Ornithologist (written and directed by Portugal’s João Pedro Rodrigues), an amalgam of nature documentary, man-lost-in-the-wilderness tale, gay erotica, and manslaughter that is also the story of Saint Anthony of Padua. The mixture sounds like one of those vomit-inducing drinks that combines every type of alcohol on the shelf, but Rodrigues, best known in this country for O Fantasma (2000), transitions through The Ornithologist’s seemingly discordant elements as gracefully and expertly as Paul Hamy, playing the main character, swims through the river at the film’s start.
Dee Rees’s Mudbound, though it doesn’t have any queer content, retains the unmistakable stamp of the queer Black director (she also co-wrote the Oscar-nominated script), who previously directed and wrote films about queer Black women: Pariah and the HBO biopic of Bessie Smith, Bessie. Like The Ornithologist, Mudbound combines what shouldn’t work (not just one voiceover but many!) into a profound and beautiful whole (the film’s director of photography, Rachel Morrison, is the first woman, so also the first queer woman, nominated for an Oscar for Best Cinematography). Mudbound also features more knockout performances than any film in recent memory. Though only Mary J. Blige’s wary Florence is Oscar-nominated, Garret Hedlund, as drunken, charming Jamie; Jason Mitchell, as Florence’s son, the returning Black veteran Ronsel; and Carey Mulligan, as the wife and mother whose life didn’t turn out how she imagined, are just as good.
Many moviegoers (including some well-known critics) also never saw Black, queer writer-director Angela Robinson’s Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. This film, a biopic of the original Wonder Woman comic book’s creator, William Moulton Marston (played by Luke Evans), is a family portrait of Marston, his wife, Elizabeth, their live-in girlfriend, Olive, and the children they all raise together. Rebecca Hall, unjustly ignored during this awards season for one of her best performances (in a career full of great work), plays Elizabeth, the psychologist and academic who, after she and her husband are fired for their unconventional relationship with Olive (who was once their student and assistant), becomes the family breadwinner with a secretarial job. Hall gives the role a ferocity and astuteness that make her moments of tears and tenderness with Bella Heathcote’s Olive (who more than holds her own) all the more striking. The film’s three-way sex and light bondage were part of the publicity leading up to the movie’s release, but those scenes don’t prepare the audience for Wonder Women’s emotional breadth.
The protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after a police officer killed Mike Brown are at the center of Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’s documentary, Whose Streets?, but so is the relationship between protest leaders Brittany Ferrell and Alexis Templeton, who, between scenes of protest and arrest, get married and raise Ferrell’s young daughter together. No director since, well, Dee Rees has presented a relationship between two Black queer women onscreen as lovingly and matter-of-factly as Folayan and Davis do.
So many good queer films came out in 2017 I wasn’t able to include ones that would have made my top ten any other year: Joachim Trier’s witchy, coming-of-age story Thelma (he also co-wrote the script), and Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s Battle of the Sexes, in which Emma Stone’s Billie Jean King (also ignored in award contests) tells us with her enormous eyes the intense feelings Andrea Riseborough’s Marilyn Barnett stokes when she runs her hands through King’s hair. Later, when King, in bed after the two first have sex, explains they can’t be together, she looks at Barnett the same way, letting both her and the audience know she won’t be able to stay away. Stone and Thelma’s Kaya Wilkins, playing Thelma’s would-be girlfriend, Anja, both have the most convincing and persuasive cruisey stares of the year. If we don’t yet have an award for that category, we should.