Sexual Frankness, Strong Documentaries & Queer Twists

Two men at London’s Hoist in Charles Lum and Todd Verow’s “Age of Consent.” | NEWFEST

Two men at London’s Hoist in Charles Lum and Todd Verow’s “Age of Consent.” | NEWFEST

The year in queer film got off to a great start in January with the release of arguably the best of 2014, Alain Guiraudie’s erotic, explicit, and irresistible thriller “Stranger by the Lake.” The film did not shrink from full frontal nudity, a trait strikingly shared by a number of other films this year, most of them not specifically queer.

Lars von Trier’s fascinating “Nymphomaniac” featured a parade of penises as Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the film’s title character, recounts her multiple lovers. The documentary “The Final Member,” from filmmakers Zach Math and Jonah Bekhor, chronicled the efforts to secure a human specimen for the Icelandic Phallological Museum. Nicholas Stoller’s campus comedy “Neighbors” took a fairly predictable sophomoric turn, as Zac Efron and his fraternity brothers made casts of their cocks to raise money — and hell and eyebrows, as well. Meanwhile, in Eliza Hittman’s fantastic indie film “It Felt Like Love,” young Lila’s (Gina Piersanti) sexual coming of age reaches a harrowing point as she is confronted by several naked guys daring her to perform oral sex.

Teenagers grappling with their sexual identity were also central to several memorable gay films in 2014. The best of the bunch was Darren Stein’s “G.B.F.,” a high school comedy where the gay teen wasn’t a pariah, but a desirable accessory. “Date and Switch,” which came and went around Valentine’s Day, had best friends Michael (Nicolas Braun) and Matty (Hunter Cope) planning to lose their virginity to hot girls until Matty queers the plan when he comes out to Michael.

2014 was strong, eclectic year for global gay cinema

“Dear White People,” by out gay writer and director Justin Simien, was a clever campus satire that featured a gay student, Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), as the most complex of the four central characters. Though Lionel faces abuse, he also develops a resilience that has viewers rooting for him. In Daniel Ribeiro’s fantastic Brazilian film “The Way He Looks,” Leo (Ghilherme Lobo), a blind gay teen, may struggle with how a world he can’t see perceives him, but he is quite confident in his homoerotic desires for a school pal.

Also of note was out filmmaker Matt Wolf’s “Teenage,” a terrific documentary, narrated in part by gay actor Ben Whishaw, about the coming of age of teens from the turn of the 20th century into the post-World War II era.

John Lithgow and Alfred Molina in Ira Sachs’ touching drama, “Love Is Strange.” | SUNDANCE SELECTS

John Lithgow and Alfred Molina in Ira Sachs’ touching drama, “Love Is Strange.” | SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

Other notable LGBT documentaries in 2014 included “Jobriath A.D.,” Kieran Turner’s electrifying, strange-but-true portrait of Jobriath, an openly gay glam rocker from the 1970s who never quite became a star; “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia,” Nicholas D. Wrathall’s candid portrait of the late, great queer writer; “Before You Know It,” from P.J. Raval, about a trio of gay seniors, one of whom cross-dresses; and “The Dog,” Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren’s outstanding recounting of the outrageous life of John Wojtowicz, the man who robbed a Brooklyn bank to pay for his lover’s sex change –– and inspired Al Pacino’s unforgettable turn in Sidney Lumet’s 1975 “Dog Day Afternoon.”

The documentary “Kink” by Christina Voros explored the world of BDSM and was “presented by James Franco,” who co-directed the quasi-documentary “Interior. Leather Bar.,” a reimagining of 40 lost minutes from William Friedkin’s 1980 “Cruising,” another –– though notably less successful –– Pacino vehicle. Neither Franco project proved as sexy or illuminating as Todd Verow and Charles Lum’s excellent NewFest entry “Age of Consent,” a doc that took viewers inside the Hoist, a venerable leather club in London.

Also from London was “The Imitation Game,” Morten Tyldum's crowd-pleasing though sobering drama about gay mathematician and computer pioneer Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch, in an Oscar-worthy performance) before, during, and after World War II. In contrast, Matthew Warchus' “Pride” was the feel-good queer film of the year about LGBT activists standing with striking miners during Maggie Thatcher’s iron rule.

Other inspirational films out this year included Martin Provos’ “Violette” about the bisexual French writer Violette Leduc (Emmanuelle Devos, in a committed performance), who is encouraged in her craft by her friend Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain).

In gay filmmaker Scott Coffey’s under-appreciated comic gem “Adult World,” Amy (Emma Roberts) is a would-be poet who harasses her favorite writer, Rat Billings (a wonderfully acerbic John Cusack), to get him to mentor her. His guidance comes at a terrific and terrifically funny price.

Milo (Bill Hader), the suicidal queer sibling in gay writer and director Craig Johnson's “The Skeleton Twins,” has not quite recovered from his illicit relationship with his English teacher (Ty Burrell) when he was 15. While he and his sister Maggie (Kristen Wiig) have some fun lip-synching to Starship, much of “The Skeleton Twins” is otherwise a drag, in good measure because Hader plays Milo stereotypically gay.

Better comic material was on display in Gillian Robespierre’s “Obvious Child,” a sweet and snarky comedy about Donna (Jenny Slate) a stand-up comic who finds herself pregnant after a one-night stand. Out comedian and writer Gabe Liedman had an impressive supporting turn as her gay best friend.

Hugo Catalán and Emilio von Sternerfels in Julián Hernández’s “I Am Happiness on Earth.” | BREAKING GLASS FILM

Hugo Catalán and Emilio von Sternerfels in Julián Hernández’s “I Am Happiness on Earth.” | BREAKING GLASS FILM

An odd and maddening trend in LBGT cinema this past year was filmmakers’ use of final queer twists in their stories, a device that often left a bad taste. So — spoiler alert! —when Pastor Jay Reinke comes out in the last moments of Jess Moss’ over-praised bad unfocused documentary, “The Overnighters,” it feels like a cheat. Likewise, queer writer and director Gregg Araki’s “White Bird in a Blizzard” is supposed to shock viewers with the finale discovery that two male characters are having an affair, but the twist feels cheap and unearned. Even the “surprise” at the end of the fun dysfunctional family comedy “This Is Where I Leave You,” which reveals one character’s same-sex relationship, plays more as a gotcha than a real moment.

What felt very real on screen this year was the relationship between Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) in Ira Sachs’ touching “Love Is Strange.” This lovely, observational drama showcases a pair of powerful performances by Lithgow and Molina that offer some nakedly emotional moments.

And coming full circle, the sexiest film of the year was undoubtedly Mexican filmmaker Julián Hernández’s “I Am Happiness on Earth,” a mesmerizing romantic drama chronicling the erotic affairs of Emiliano (Hugo Catalán), a filmmaker. Featuring plenty of uninhibited sex, as well as some palpable heartbreak, Hernández’s film was scorchingly hot.