Saturday, November 26

From Nighthawks to Tangerine: Guardian writers on their favourite LGBTQ+ movies | Film


Dexter Fletcher in Caravaggio. Photograph: RONALD GRANT

Although lionised by the New Queer Cinema movement in the early 90s – then the cuttingest edge of the cutting edge – Derek Jarman in those heady days was hardly a new phenomenon; in fact (sad to say), by then he was approaching his personal endgame. His films since the mid-70s had dominated British experimental cinema – and my favourite of his films is still the first one I saw in the cinema: his mid-80s fever-dream vision of baroque painter Caravaggio, with a cast that looks even more jaw-dropping in retrospect (Tilda Swinton! Dexter Fletcher!! Sean Bean!!!).

Jarman’s approach was to fuse the mechanics of the painter’s art with a fleshly lament for the artist’s brutal, hedonistic life: the sight of Nigel Terry shoving coins into Bean’s mouth is still an amazingly lascivious scene. Each of Jarman’s films operates as an individual facet of a single, brilliant artistic persona, so it’s hardly fair to pick one out over another; but Caravaggio, for me, is the one for the ages. Andrew Pulver


Mya Taylor in Tangerine
Mya Taylor in Tangerine. Photograph: Augusta Quirk/Magnolia Pictures/Allstar

Film-maker Sean Baker was no newcomer when he released his breakthrough movie Tangerine in 2015, but its amazing lo-fi energy and New Wave freedom had the surge of youth. Fledgling film-makers everywhere were thrilled with the news that he’d shot the entire thing on three iPhones with the Filmic Pro app and more even than this, audiences responded to the magnificent performances of Baker’s stars: Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, transgender performers playing versions of their actual selves: two sex workers, Alexandra and Sin-Dee on the tough, unglamorous streets of West Hollywood.

Having just got out of prison, Sin-Dee is infuriated to hear that her boyfriend-slash-pimp has been unfaithful and sets out to find him for a showdown – a loose “quest” narrative that facilitates all sorts of show-stopping encounters and set pieces. For so long, Hollywood had given us Kiss-Of-The-Spider-Woman casting for queer stories like this: straight actors in campface. Tangerine was powerfully authentic, raw, emotional and funny. Peter Bradshaw

God’s Own Country

Alec Secareanu and Josh O’Connor in God’s Own Country
Alec Secareanu and Josh O’Connor in God’s Own Country. Photograph: British Film Institute/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

In director Francis Lee’s 2017 debut feature, Josh O’Connor plays Johnny Saxby, an angry, sullen Yorkshire sheep farmer who lives with his grandmother and demanding father and numbs himself to his lonely, grimy existence with drunken nights and casual sex – until a strapping Romanian migrant worker (Alec Secareanu) lending a hand on the farm teaches him tenderness and contentment.

Based on his own experiences and filmed down the road from the farm where he grew up, Lee shows a preoccupation with anatomy, whether animal or human, and doesn’t flinch from muddy sex and full-frontal nudity nor barnyard births and skinning lambs. Cinematographer Joshua James Richards (later Oscar nominated for Nomadland) leans into the area’s dreariness, transforming it into a kind of rough beauty with washed out tones, eternally cloudy skies, and windswept rocky hills. The scenes of the pair’s budding romance are largely silent (all close-ups, lingering glances, and zipped windbreakers), but both actors shine – in particular O’Connor, who lost so much weight for the role that he ended up in the hospital and whose accent was so convincing in his audition tape that Lee believed he was from Yorkshire. Lisa Wong Macabasco

Stranger by the Lake

Pierre Deladonchamps and Christophe Paou in Stranger by the Lake
Pierre Deladonchamps and Christophe Paou in Stranger by the Lake. Photograph: Publicity image from film company

How far would you go to fulfil an erotic desire? In Alain Guiraudie’s 2014 film Stranger by the Lake, the lead character goes as far as a person could, in the process not just courting death but nearly lusting for it. The entire movie takes place at a remote cruising area (aren’t they all?) comprised of beach, brush and lake. The lapping of the water and rustling of the wind occupy far more of the soundtrack than any human chatter. To quote the Pet Shop Boys’ enduring anthem of gay pursuit, To Speak is a Sin.

The film’s hero, Franck, obsesses on Michele after witnessing a shocking event: Michele has just drowned his lover in the lake. In a scenario reminiscent of Jean Genet, the film unflinchingly explores the connection between self-obliteration and erotic rapture. Guiraudie individualizes the theme through the command of his camera, the beauty of his images and the certitude of his pacing. Watching the film in the context of contemporary gay life – which focuses squarely on achieving parity with the straight one – it feels revolutionary to dive into a world that’s entirely furtive, erotic and wild. Jim Farber


Ken Robertson in Nighthawks
Ken Robertson in Nighthawks. Photograph: Supplied

Ron Peck’s sobering 1978 film – which follows a gay teacher, Jim (Ken Robertson), as he scours London’s clubs and bars in search of love – was off-putting to an impressionable adolescent inching out of the closet. All those nights of dashed hopes and bad lighting: is that what lay ahead?

Now I see that the picture’s repetitive structure serves a formalist purpose, urging Jim to break the cycle that is imprisoning him, and to be honest about his needs. This he does by coming out to his prying pupils. We see Jim only at the start of the lesson, standing before his rowdy class. Thereafter, the camera in this five-minute, verité-style scene is entirely subjective, so that the students’ taunts and questions, whether hostile or merely salacious, are addressed directly to us. It places the viewer in someone else’s shoes – or, for LGBTQ+ audiences, shows what it means to stand defiantly in our own. Ryan Gilbey

But I’m a Cheerleader

Katharine Towne, Clea Duvall, Melanie Lynskey and Natasha Lyonne
Katharine Towne, Clea Duvall, Melanie Lynskey and Natasha Lyonne. Photograph: Hkm Films/Allstar

Critics were not kind to But I’m a Cheerleader when it came out in 2000. The film, which owes a huge debt to John Waters, is a cartoonish parody of gay conversion therapy camps, a subject many felt was not crying out for the comedic treatment. But as times have grown more divided and ridiculous, its radical spirit now seems ahead of the curve. Through humour, it bites its thumb at religious fanaticism, political dogma and traditional domestic gender roles.

When I first saw it, as a teenager, same-sex romance was still such a rarity on screen that I would sit through practically any sludgy, miserable drama in the hope of even a hint of queer subtext. Though it has a sweet, earnest love story at its heart, between high school queen bee Megan (Natasha Lyonne) and wisecracking tomboy Graham (Clea DuVall), I was thrilled that this was unapologetically bawdy and funny. Plus, you get to see RuPaul teaching “sissies” how to be butch, through the art of surprisingly innuendo-laden mechanics. Rebecca Nicholson


Rose McGowan, Traci Lords and Shannen Doherty in Nowhere
Rose McGowan, Traci Lords and Shannen Doherty in Nowhere. Photograph: RONALD GRANT

In the third piece of his Teenage Apocalypse trilogy – that informal banner’s promise amply delivered on by this hormone-fueled existential freakout at the end of the world – Gregg Araki condenses a soap opera’s worth of hysterically-pitched drama into a single day and only 78 minutes of real time.

Drug use ending in after school special tragedy, a pansexual lattice of lovers’ quarrels and an impending invasion of large cockroach aliens all converge at a rager thrown by Butthole Surfers frontman Gibby Haynes, though the flippant that’s-all-folks ending confirms that this is not a film of plot, but of vibes. Araki’s notion of queerness is rooted in middle-fingered rejection of the status quo, and that rebelliousness also extends to the schizoid style intent on breaking every rule of moving-picture aesthetics with its ecstatic formal experimentalism. In his use of the camera as in his characters’ use of their hungry, restless libidos, anything goes. Charles Bramesco

My Beautiful Launderette

Gordon Warnecke and Daniel Day-Lewis in My Beautiful Launderette
Gordon Warnecke and Daniel Day-Lewis in My Beautiful Launderette. Photograph: c Orion/Everett/Rex Features

Nothing happens in the first 44 minutes of My Beautiful Laundrette to suggest that we are in for a “gay movie”. The alleyway kiss between young Pakistani-English Omar (Gordon Warnecke) and his former schoolmate, Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis), two school chums who have reunited and decide to have a go at entrepreneurship, comes as a shock to the viewer – and yet their communion makes perfect sense. It’s a sweet release from the atmospheric pressures of Thatcherite London that charge this gritty and oftentimes giddy 1985 comedy-drama, made by director Stephen Frears on a shoestring budget from a screenplay by Hanif Kureishi. When Omar and Johnny first kiss, the fascist toughies that Johnny once ran around with are just around the corner, kicking cans and looking for trouble, their bellows ringing through the night air. These are desperate times, for everyone from Omar’s father, a bedridden intellectual who subsists on vodka, to Johnny’s former street associates, racist hooligans who stand even less of a chance of prospering than the immigrants they target.

Then-newcomer Day-Lewis plays reformed toughie Johnny with puckered lips and his own store of pent-up energy. He is the human embodiment of a society where appetites eclipse hope. A shot of Day-Lewis helping himself to a lick of his chum’s neck in broad daylight while his former gang members stand by, completely unawares, is a welcome reminder that eroticism needn’t hit you over the head to blow you to pieces. Lauren Mechling

Paris is Burning

A still of Paris Is Burning
A still of Paris Is Burning. Photograph: Off White Prod./REX/Shutterstock

Some movies go beyond simply interrogating a phenomenon to become an essential part of the thing itself – such is the case with Paris Is Burning, which set out to document New York City ballroom culture of the late 1980s and ended up permanently entwined with ballroom. If you’ve ever exclaimed “yaaaasssss queen!,” cast some shade at a deserving party, watched RuPaul’s Drag Race, vibed to Madonna’s “Vogue” or enjoyed Beyoncé’s Renaissance, know that you owe a debt to ballroom culture and the movie that brought it to a vastly new audience.

Jennie Livingston’s documentary delves into how queer communities of color – among them drag queens, gay men and transgender women – responded to racism, the Aids crisis, and generally being degraded by and shut out of the mainstream world by creating their own runway competitions where they could feel glamorous, honored and seen for who they actually were. Groundbreaking for daring to celebrate and humanize individuals whom the early 1990s shoved to the margins as deviants, it remains as relevant and essential as ever. Veronica Esposito


Tom Cullen in Weekend
Tom Cullen in Weekend. Photograph: Glendale Picture Company/Sportsphoto/Allstar

As a closeted gay teenager and as an out gay twenty-something, I was forced into squinting to try and see myself in sparse shreds of gayness on-screen. It was something – anything was better than nothing – but when lo-fi love story Weekend came out in 2011, suddenly it was everything.

It wasn’t just that the central block of flats where Tom Cullen’s withdrawn lifeguard lived was visible from my one-time student home in Nottingham (at a melancholic time when I would glumly, sometimes indulgently, stare out of my window, wondering if queer love would ever be a part of my life). It wasn’t just that the gay bar where he meets Chris New’s commitment-resistant artist was somewhere I once dared myself to enter until passers-by shouted “faggots” at those outside and I quickly diverted. But it was mostly because writer-director Andrew Haigh finally gave me a chance to see sex and romance as just as heady and thrilling and all-consuming for gays as it had been for straights in the many many stories I grew up with. His film captured the swell of meeting someone new, the fear over where it might go or what it might be and finally the wrench of saying goodbye too soon. Weekend pulsates with possibility, for its queer characters as much as it does for us. Benjamin Lee

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant in Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Photograph: Curzon Artifical Eye

It is true, in a literal sense, that Portrait of a Lady on Fire, French film-maker Céline Sciamma’s 2019 period romance between two women isolated off the coast of Brittany, is an ode to the female gaze. There are almost no men in the entire movie, and the central relationship develops through a mutual game of observance: a painter, Noémie Merlant’s Marianne, transmuting the force of Adèle Haenel’s Héloïse to canvas for a marriage portrait, to be gifted to an offscreen Italian count; Héloïse’s defiant memorization of Marianne in return.

But Sciamma’s direction is too sly, her love story plotted too organically, for such an overused, academic term. The gaze here is earthy, electric rather than didactic or preachy. She manages to capture, in quiet, often mundane scenes, the sweep of desire – the kindling of knowing glances, the rush of feeling seen, the burn of being known. Adrian Horton

Sunday Bloody Sunday

Peter Finch and Murray Head in Sunday Bloody Sunday
Peter Finch and Murray Head in Sunday Bloody Sunday. Photograph: RONALD GRANT

There’s a gay kiss in John Schlesinger’s 1971 love triangle that seems like no big deal, which is of course what makes it seismic: middle-aged London doctor Daniel (Peter Finch) greets his younger sculptor lover Bob (Murray Head) with a casual, couple-y smooch that, coming just four years after sex between men was decriminalised in England, feels defiant in its breeziness.

Of course, little else in this richly drawn relationship tangle is quite so simple: happily bisexual Bob is also in love with divorcee Alex (Glenda Jackson), and carries on both affairs, with all parties in the know, until circumstances dictate otherwise. At once modern and a fascinating time capsule, Schlesinger and film critic turned screenwriter Penelope Gilliatt’s tartly funny, emotionally bruising film succeeds in normalising bisexuality, homosexuality and polyamory while detailing their combined complexities even among consenting adults: even made today, it would seem bracingly forward-thinking. Guy Lodge

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