Pride Film Roundup: Part One

A look at Queer Film favorites for Pride Month

Happy June!  Happy Pride Month!  This month calls for an exploration of some of my favorite entries into the queer film canon.  If in-person celebratory Pride events aren’t for you this year as we creep towards some semblance of our new collective normal, maybe spend some time watching your way through these films instead.  Whether you identify as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, stand in solidarity as an ally, want to widen your cinematic horizons, or find yourself with some overlap of all three, I hope this list serves as a springboard to help you dive into the world of queer cinema.  I tried to make this list as inclusive as possible, representing different stories from across the globe, populated by folks with different perspectives and different identities and I hope you find it’s scope encompassing.  If you see any glaring holes in queer representation, please reach out, I’m always trying to widen my lenses.  With all this in mind, let’s start with part one!

Y Tu Mama También (2001) dir. Alfonso Cuarón

Part road movie, part travelogue, part coming-of-age flick, this 2001 release from the now legendary Alfonso Cuarón quickly became an arthouse darling. Loosely scripted, largely improvised and viscerally shot with a handheld camera, Cuarón crafted an intimate look at sexual freedom, budding adulthood, friendship, love, loss and, at its core, adventure. The cinematography is absolutely brilliant, something we’ve come to expect from an Alfonso Cuarón film. It’s equal parts immersive and grandiose, giving it almost a documentary feel that puts us in the action firsthand, making us feel we too are driving through the Mexican countryside en route to a beach unknown. It might be an interesting take to include this film on a queer cinema list as it’s dripping with late teenage hormones, masculinity, and heterosexual sex, but the finer details are incredibly homoerotic— the margins are scribbled with love notes between the youthful men central to the story (played by a young Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal, both vibrant and impactful). At one point, our central heroine, the sexually liberated yet achingly sad Louisa (played by a luminescent Maribel Verdú) flat out makes a comment about the boys so obviously wanting to “fuck each other” when all they can do is argue about sleeping with one another’s girlfriends. Now this is the most blatant example of Cuarón calling out the underlying desire for homosexual exploration until the climactic ménage à trois scene the film has become synonymous with but the rest of film explores male on male friendships and intimacy in ways that are never heavy handed. The boys’ actions may be brash, but their motivations aren’t revealed so aggressively. These footnotes on the boys’ relationship are explored in ways that an American film would never seem to dare. The brilliant thing about Cuarón is he’s so free of American film standards. He handles these explorations of adolescence without the confines of the Hollywood machine in ways American directors would never— never mind with such nuance. Overall, Y Tu Mama También is lush and intimate and raw and pulls at the threads of something primal and real that I would never expect from a movie packaged as a road film, a label, by the way, I’m not using pejoratively.

The Handmaiden (2016) dir. Park Chan-wook

Revolving around one of the most interesting and unique storylines I’ve ever witnessed, The Handmaiden is a deliciously queer, fiercely original, mind-bending, lavish gem of a film that quickly burrowed itself in my brain, staking claim as one of my favorite cinematic experiences ever. It centers around two women, Sook-hee and Lady Hediko, and the man that brought them together, Count Fujiwara, as they dance a delicate dance of who knows who, who’s loving who, and, more importantly, who’s fooling who. The movie is a testament to the power of women as they band together to capitalize on the, to be frank, stupidity that comes with the most primal desires of men. Without giving too much away, this movie presents us with one twist after another as love blossoms and deception burns hot. Its pulsing plot and saturated aesthetic have something for everyone from commercial to indie audiences alike. The visuals are absolutely stunning despite the bleak backdrop of Japanese occupied Korea, the performances are incredibly precise, and the social circumstances are delectably idiosyncratic. Equal parts dramatic and humorous, visceral and cerebral, macabre and buoyant, this visually wondrous outing from Park Chan-wook is one of the best movies to emerge from the 2010s. When you watch, blink as little as possible, you don’t wanna miss a beat.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) dir. Céline Sciamma

At the risk of sounding too on the nose, Portrait of a Lady on Fire plays out like a painting come to life. The tableaux are carefully placed on screen and feel as if they’re gliding through time and space at the tip of a paintbrush. This is a credit to the perfect marriage of direction, acting, and especially, cinematography. The film, in French, almost doesn’t need dialogue because the actors are filling in the white space with calculated glances, carefully studied touches, and unspoken lines of poetry. The idea that our main character, Marianne, can’t paint much more than a static portrait of her subject, Héloïse, at first, because she doesn’t really know her yet, is a perfect motif. Their relationship starts transactional; the film starts truncated and constructed. But their once colorblind companionship blossoms into a passionate love affair. With this, the portrait erupts into, well, a portrait of a lady— a relationship— on fire. And the film itself metamorphosizes from paint-by-number to Vivaldi symphony. It is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in terms of plot and construction. It’s deeply affecting and has maybe the most mesmerizing final moment of any movie that year. Much like its lingering shots, this one will linger on my mind for awhile.

Moonlight (2016) dir. Barry Jenkins

I mean…what else is there to say about this piece of art? The third section of this movie is the greatest stretch of film to be produced in 2016. It ebbs and flows with emotional immediacy, dares us to breathe at any pace but its own, and swallows us up in its careful writing and searing presentation. The ensemble cast features unforgettable performances by a heartbreaking Mahershala Ali, a warm Janelle Monae, a shattered Naomi Harris, a magnetic André Holland, and a breakout Trevante Rhodes. Together, they tell a story too often overlooked. Moonlight doesn’t rely on overt sexual desire to show the connection between its two leading men, but rather all of the kisses they didn’t share, all of the hand holding they couldn’t do, all of words they continue not to say.  And not for nothing, it ends with a happy ending showing that queer stories don’t always need to end with tragedy but can indeed end with a sigh of relief, a head on another’s shoulder.  I remember reading Richard Lawson’s review of the film for Vanity Fair, thinking that nothing could describe it better than this: “[Barry] Jenkins has made a breathtaking film, one with political urgency and a deep, compassionate humanity. Moonlight is timely and timeless, a study in limits that casts its gaze up toward something transcendent.” Mr. Jenkins, a master of tone and feel, has truly outdone himself with this one.  

Disclosure (2019) dir. Sam Feder

Disclosure is an impeccably researched and presented documentary about trans lives onscreen that shows just how important, powerful and empowering it is when we let people in disenfranchised communities tell their own stories and how damaging it can be when we don’t. Featuring testimonies, thoughts, anecdotes and perspectives from trans trail blazers like Laverne Cox, Jen Richards, Alexandra Billings, Jamie Clayton, Chaz Bono, Alexandra Grey, Yance Ford, Trace Lysette, MJ Rodriguez, Lilly Wachowski, Brian Michael Smith and so many more, Disclosure splices together examples of trans representation on screen to illuminate that, largely, they’ve been damaging to the cultural perception on a macro scale and we’re just now beginning to see trans lives exhibited in a positive light on screen. And those positive examples are almost always showcased when we allow trans voices to be apart of the conversation and creation firsthand. I really believe this documentary should be shown in schools across interdisciplinary studies, ranging from film classes to classes rooted in pop culture and sociology. Truly, it should be required viewing. It reshaped my mind, exposing me to things I never even thought about or considered, especially after having seen a large number of the films presented in the doc. It’s an accessible, frustrating, beautiful, illuminating film that will hopefully lead to the world being a bit more empathetic. It’s disheartening to see how American pop culture especially has treated trans people but it’s beyond inspiring to see that they’ve never lost their shine or muted their truth. The least we could do to honor their resilience, strength, and creativity is watch and really, really listen.

Stay tuned for Part Two of this series, dropping this Friday!