It’s important that at the end of another twelve months of movies we pause to reflect, critique, and celebrate all that the queer cinematic year had to offer.
There were plenty of directorial debuts in 2021; Daniel Sanchez Lopez brought us Boy Meets Boy––feeling like a chapter in an alternative gay Before trilogy, and Marley Morrison took us on a queer holiday, in the well-received drama, Sweetheart. However, in one of the most memorable debuts of the year, Samuel Van Grinsven delivered both a coming of age story and a thriller for the Grindr generation in the provocative Sequin in a Blue Room. The film was incredibly reflective of modern gay hook-up culture, leaning into the positive and negative aspects associated with it. This up-to-date approach proved that Grinsven is a new—and more importantly—enlightened voice in queer cinema and one that will have audiences hotly anticipating his future work.
Whilst younger gay men are often the predominant focus of queer cinema, Harry Macqueen’s sophomore film, tender drama Supernova gave some much-needed representation to older gay men. Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci starred as a long-term couple, Sam and Tusker, who travel to the Lake District as Tusker’s dementia progressively worsens. Macqueen’s touching story of love and loss was a hit with both audiences and critics and poignantly contributed towards the variety of gay men that cinema puts front and center.
Moving even further into the mainstream, the stage show adaptation Everybody’s Talking About Jamie was released onto Amazon Prime in September. Whilst on paper it sounded like a fabulous drag queen musical set to add some sparkle to screens, the film was surprisingly melancholic and unfortunately over-long. Despite this, it seemed to connect with a lot of viewers and it’s reassuring to see studios investing in productions like this.
More recently Netflix have enjoyed success with their first-ever gay Christmas rom-com, Single All the Way. It’s not going to be topping any “Best Christmas Movies of All Time” lists but nonetheless it was a refreshing take on the queer festive film that thankfully avoided the tired coming out cliché. Also available on Netflix, although of an entirely different style, was Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, which saw Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst starring in a western that explored toxic masculinity and repressed sexuality. Whilst her film might be somewhat of an acquired taste for casual film fans it was a huge hit with critics and is set to sweep this year’s awards season––apparently, Netflix is versatile?
Some further viewing from female directors that also featured members of the LGBTQ+ community other than gay men, and that were maybe not seen by as many include; The World to Come, Tove, Titane, Shiva Baby, and Cowboys. Shiva Baby was another feature film debut, this time from Emma Seligman whose film followed Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a young bisexual, Jewish woman who reluctantly attends a shiva with her family, with some hilarious and equally anxiety-inducing results. Whereas, Anna Kerrigan wrote and directed Cowboys, an important story about a young trans boy, Joe (Sasha Knight) and his Father, Troy (Steve Zahn) who attempt to evade police capture after Troy removes Joe from a dangerous domestic situation.
2021 also saw a wide range of queer documentaries released, covering an interesting collection of subjects. Stacey Lee’s Underplayed explored the gender inequality in the EDM (electronic dance music) industry. Her fascinating film gave insights into the origins of EDM and explained in a striking way how the inequality in this industry only increases when further aspects such as race and sexuality are also considered.
Eammon Ashton-Atkinson told the story of the world’s first gay rugby team in Steelers. His film delivered far more than simple sporting coverage though, gathering captivating testimony from players and coaches about the various stigmas and challenges that come with being queer in sports. However, Steelers wasn’t the only documentary to discuss sports this year as excellent Hulu documentary, Changing the Game covered the important conversation of discrimination against transgender athletes. The discussion was led by three teenage athletes with direct experience of this––trans people included in talking about trans issues, imagine!
In August, Netflix released Pray Away, which exposed the cruel and harmful practice of conversion therapy. Whilst many countries are in the midst of fighting for a legislative ban on the practice this proved to be a timely release that supported the conversation. However, it fell short of its vast potential, only scratching the surface of the issue and failing to shine its spotlight on the people most affected by this abuse.
Otherwise, documentaries Rebel Dykes and Mothers of the Revolution both explored the Greenham Common protests against nuclear weapons being homed on English soil, as well as the subsequent queer communities that came together as a result. Both were celebrations of what queer women achieved, and celebrated their culture and communities that had often been misunderstood and unfairly treated.
Beyond these queer titles and documentaries mainstream cinema has also seen some great representation. Unsurprisingly the horror genre was one of the best when it came to including queer characters. Horror has always enjoyed a close relationship with queerness and this year was no different. Sequels like Candyman and Halloween Kills featured underrepresented groups of gay men in happy relationships. The former saw Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and Kyle Kaminsky as a queer couple and––spoilers––in somewhat of a revelation for the genre, they didn’t die. This very trope, of gays being killed in horror films, was brilliantly referenced in Christopher Landon’s camp body-swap slasher, Freaky. One of his characters, Josh Detmer played by non-binary star Micha Osherovich, gave audiences a wonderfully self-aware moment of comedy in the process. Whilst US audiences enjoyed Freaky at the end of 2020, UK audiences had to wait all the way until July to get in on the slasher action.
One title that audiences got to enjoy simultaneously was Leigh Janiak’s Fear Street trilogy, the first chapter of which was released onto Netflix in July. It showcased progressive writing by having two main queer characters. So often queer people are seen as minor or secondary characters only, so to have a trilogy of widely accessible films have two queer characters at its forefront was a massive step forward in queer representation.
Another example of this was seen in Chloé Zhao’s Eternals which featured Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos, the very first gay superhero to appear in an MCU film. Whilst he was a supporting character it was great to see him as part of a happy family with children. This was a much better example than the so-called representation in Avengers: Endgame. It would appear Marvel is finally learning––it only took them twenty-six movies. Although this wasn’t the only film with mass appeal that made clear the queerness of their characters. In No Time to Die, Daniel Craig’s final outing as superspy James Bond, it was confirmed that Ben Whishaw’s Q is queer. Bond and Moneypenny barge in on him at home in the midst of him preparing to entertain a love interest on a date and it’s revealed Q is waiting on a he.
However, the most family-friendly of all the 2021 releases to do this has to be The Mitchells Vs. the Machines. To have main character Katie, voiced by Abbi Jacobson be queer is the progression that is needed in family films like this, and sets a great example of how to include LGBTQ+ characters in movies that families will watch together––more of this please.
Looking forward though, what queer titles should we be anticipating? Well, although it was released in the US in December, the animated documentary Flee will be released in many other countries, including the UK in 2022. This stunning piece of cinema tells the story of Amin, a queer refugee who escaped conflict in Afghanistan as a child. It’s the definition of a must-see and is set to be a favourite this awards season. Another that’s hoping for some awards attention is the official Austrian selection for Best International Feature Film Oscar, Great Freedom. This prison drama offers an emotional exploration on fragile masculinity and queer intimacy whilst remembering a whole generation of men, imprisoned simply for being themselves. The film will be released at the beginning of March next year and will hopefully be a highlight in another year of quality queer filmmaking. ♦