Making a film with LGBT characters and themes is no easy task, even in a post–marriage equality country like the United States. Yet around the world, brave filmmakers continue to try, and they often succeed in creating stories that increase visibility and move the cultural needle for the LGBT community.
The Advocate salutes all these filmmakers and would like to give special recognition to several standout productions. Thus, here is a list of 10 of our favorite films from 2015 (in no specific order).
The New Girlfriend
Channeling Brian De Palma and Alfred Hitchcock, The New Girlfriend is a gender-bending new film by François Ozon (Swimming Pool). Set in France, the plot centers on the relationship between the characters of Claire and David. David's wife (and Claire's best friend) has recently died, and her passing makes David come to terms with their gender identity. Claire is at first alarmed, and then is seduced by "The New Girlfriend" in her life, as were we.
It’s New York in the 1950s. You’re working as a shopgirl in a department store, when suddenly, you lock eyes with a gorgeous older woman in a fur coat. You sell her a train set, but she forgets her gloves on the counter. Perhaps you should give her a call. So begins the electrifying romance between Therese (Rooney Mara) and Carol (Cate Blanchett), women who develop a friendship and then something far deeper in a time when same-sex love still dared not speak its name. Directed by Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven), the film was adapted for the screen by Phyllis Nagy from The Price of Salt, a 1952 romance novel written by Patricia Highsmith under the cover of a pen name. At the time, the story was highly unconventional, as its lesbian characters did not die or “meet the right man” or join a convent. It took decades before the world was ready for a film adaptation. At long last, audiences can see Carol in all its glory.
The Danish Girl
Eddie Redmayne delivers an astounding performance as 20th-century transgender icon Lili Elbe in director Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl. An adaptation of a book of the same name by David Ebershoff, the film follows the remarkable love story inspired by the lives of artists Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener (played by Alicia Vikander) as their relationship evolves while the two navigate Lili’s groundbreaking journey to discover her true self. “I hope others are as inspired by Lili’s story as I was and continue to be,” Redmayne told The Advocate. “At a time in which there were no predecessors that she knew of, she still had the absolute knowledge in herself of who she was and what she needed to do to liberate herself. The fact that she valued life and authenticity enough to give her everything and anything, I think that is extraordinary.”
Grandma marks Lily Tomlin’s first lead role in a film in nearly three decades, which is one reason to celebrate. Another reason? The lesbian actress portrays a lesbian character — Ellie, a poet whose partner has recently died. The film, which has generated much-deserved acclaim for Tomlin's performance, centers on the relationship between Ellie and her granddaughter as they go on a road trip together and confront their pain. What are grandmas for, darlin’?
Tangerine is one of the year’s most acclaimed independent darlings. Directed by Sean S. Baker and Chris Bergoch, the film follows the story of two friends, who also happen to be transgender sex workers, Alexandra and Sin-Dee Rella, across the backdrop of the saturated streets of Hollywood. And it's shot entirely on an iPhone 5s. The story goes: Sin-Dee, after being released from prison, discovers that her boyfriend has been cheating on her with a white cisgender woman. Furious, she goes on a hunt for revenge and solicits Alexandra as an accomplice. And in the process, the friends show the audience a side of Los Angeles that is rarely seen in media. Nominated for four Spirit Awards, including acting nods for its leads, Tangerine is a must-see film.
Queen Latifah stars as legendary bisexual blues singer Bessie Smith in the HBO film Bessie. Directed by out filmmaker Dee Rees (Pariah), the production charts Smith’s rise to fame through the 1920s and ’30s as one of the greatest talents of her time. It also stars Oscar winner Mo’Nique as her mentor (and rumored lover) Ma Rainey. Ooh-la-la! Don’t miss this Emmy Award–winning production.
I Am Michael
Michael Glatze, a former LGBT activist, ignited a firestorm of controversy when he publicly renounced his homosexuality and became an antigay born-again Christian. This "ex-gay" story is told cinematically in I Am Michael by writer and director Justin Kelly, who based the screenplay on a New York Times Magazine article by Benoit Denizet-Lewis. Glatze himself praised lead actor James Franco, whose performance he credits with being part of his own "gigantic healing process." The rest of the cast, including Zachary Quinto as his ex-partner, do a wonderful job of telling a story that could have been quite judgmental but succeeds in recounting one man's struggle for identity.
Eisenstein in Guanajuato
Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, known for his 1925 classic Battleship Potemkin, is depicted in new, sensual light in the international biopic Eisenstein in Guanajuato. The film, which shows Eisenstein’s relationship with another man during his time in Mexico, has incited controversy in Eisenstein's native Russia, which considers him a national hero from its cultural past. Directed by British filmmaker Peter Greenaway, Eisenstein in Guanajuato has been attacked for its accuracy (or lack thereof), but it has already proved itself a relevant, passionate, and much-needed film in a world that still tries to erase LGBT history.
Boy Meets Girl
Boy Meets Girl is a romantic comedy that crosses gender lines and is set in rural Kentucky. The plot centers around four characters in a small town: a transgender woman (Michelle Hendley), a barista who aspires to be a fashion designer, a car mechanic (Michael Welch), a Southern belle (Alexandra Turshen), and a military veteran. As each of them grapples with love and identity, Boy Meets Girl itself becomes a quiet revolution in how a film with LGBT characters can be made.
French filmmaker Céline Sciamma is known for her coming-of-age classics like Water Lilies and Tomboy, which explore how young people grapple with sexuality and gender identity. Her latest film, the acclaimed Girlhood, is no less revolutionary in its portrayal of a group of African-French teens navigating race, gender, class, and their own sexual identities in the Paris suburbs.