When John Cooper took over one of the biggest jobs in movies as the Director of the Sundance Film Festival five years ago, one of the changes he introduced was a better slate of LGBT movies. This openly gay man who reputedly prefers being home with his husband and 3 children in suburban L.A. rather than in the limelight of the red carpet has on his watch since introduced some extraordinary fine queer cinema, and this year was no exception.
By Roger Walker-Dack | January 2014
They were two standout hits that both deservedly received critical acclaim from the Sundance audiences who can be a tough crowd at times. Firstly director Ira Sachs followed his 2013 hit 'Keep The Lights Out' with a wonderful narrative called 'Love is Strange' about two men in their 60's who finally get married after being coupled for 39 years. Alfred Molina and John Lithgow gave exquisite performances as the devoted couple that suddenly has to deal with one of them being mercilessly fired from his job teaching at the Catholic School even though that had known about him being gay for years. They subsequently have to give up their Manhattan apartment and become homeless. The consequence of them living apart places enormous strain not just on their relationship, but also on those of the friends and families that pitch in too help.
It's a very real and remarkable love story that has some great dry wit, pure and unadulterated tenderness and more than it's share of heartbreaking moments. Lithgow and Molina are pitch perfect in this tale that may first appear to be about how discrimination was not defeated with D.O.M.A. but is essentially much more about how love really will conquer all.
The best LGBT documentary was unquestionably 'The Case Against 8’. When the US was reeling from the success of Prop 8. in the 2008 Election, which suddenly banned same-sex marriage in California overnight, activist Chad Griffin had the inspired idea of hiring Ted Olsen the infamous Republican Lawyer who had helped George W Bush snatch the Presidency from Al Gore in the Supreme Court. It turned out to be a shrewd move as Olsen is primarily a humanitarian, and one of the very best advocates in the country, and together with co-counsel David Boiles a leading Democratic Lawyer, he put together a formidable team to mount a Case that went on to change the course of history.
We all know the final outcome when 5 years later the Team reached the Supreme Court and D.O.M.A. was overturned and same-sex marriage was legal once again in California (and kick started battles in other States). However what is delightfully surprising and completely compelling is the very human behind-the-scenes story. Filmmakers Ben Cotner and Ryan White were giving unprecedented access and were there filming every single step of the way. They spent endless emotional days and sleepless nights with the entire team and the Plaintiffs and ended up with over 600 hours of footage. What they achieved, along with editor Kate Amend, is a remarkable concise and spellbinding account that covered this historic turning point in a style it so richly deserved. It perfectly captured the sheer energy of all the people who put their own lives on hold and gave this fight their all to insure that gay men and women should be accorded this basic human right, and with such dignity. It moved many of us to tears... no easy task with a hard bitten Sundance audience of film-industry pros.
Coming up close third was Jennifer M. Kroot's enchanting documentary 'To Be Takei'. George Takei's career and persona really took off when he 'came out' of the closet in 2005 at the ripe old age of 70. Primarily known for playing 'Sulu' in 'Star Trek' for several decades, he suddenly became a major celebrity and a leading gay political activist and was popping up everywhere. His very public marriage to his husband was the first same-sex one to be performed in West Hollywood in 2008.
Takei is an immensely charismatic figure and disarmingly charming, on top of which he has a fascinating story having been interned with his family and other Japanese Americans during World War 2. The movie is a delightful as the man himself.
Madeleine Olnek, writer/director of the quirky 'Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same' was back at Sundance with another very cute little comedy 'The Foxy Merkins'. Margaret is down on her luck and homeless in Manhattan and has become a lesbian hooker in training. Her mentor Jo, is a beautiful woman from a wealthy family who is something of an expert on servicing woman, even though she claims to be straight. The two of them trying to ply their trade together is hilarious as each one of their clients is more bizarre than the last.
Writer/director/actor Desiree Akhavan's comedy 'Appropriate Behavior'... her first feature film... is based on her own life growing up as an Iranian/American bi-sexual woman in New York. Desiree's character Shirin is struggling to be a part of a perfect Persian family, which isn't easy. Acceptance eludes her from all sides: her family doesn't know she's bisexual, and Maxine her ex-girlfriend cannot understand why she doesn't tell them. After her brother announces his betrothal to a perfect Iranian girl that his parents approve off, Shirin goes off the edge and embarks on a series of pansexual escapades, whilst trying to work out want went wrong with her relationship with Maxine.
Ms. Akhavan's movie is a real treat due to a combination of her very sharp writing and also her delightful deadpan performance that imbues so much terrific humor and warmth even in her angst ridden moments. It is a deliciously funny movie that will surely make Ms. Akhavan a rising star to watch.
Diversity is always much in evidence in the roster of movies at Sundance, and the Australian movie '52 Tuesdays' was a prime example. 16-year-old Billie moves in with her divorced father when her lesbian mother decides to transition gender. To insure that Billie has quality time with her mother they agree to meet every Tuesday for the next year... which is the basis of the story. 'James' as the mother is now known has a bad physical reaction to the testerone injections and meanwhile has secretly started dating a female co-worker. Billie doesn't want to lose her mother and behaves abominably linking up with couple of her schoolmates and experimenting sexually and becomes part of a ménage a trois. 'James's' brother Harry is gay but has fathered a child with a woman. Everybody in this family has tried both sides of the fence sexually it seems, even Billie.
The fact they literally filmed this over a year... on every Tuesday... may add to the uniqueness of this wee movie, but it sadly adds a little too much repetition as the on-screen calendar counts down the weeks. The character of 'James' however was very well written and was an excellent portrayal of how tough transiting can be both physically and emotionally.
'Drunktown's Finest' set on a beautiful desolate Navajo reservation in New Mexico was about three young people searching for love and acceptance. One was a college bound, devout Christian looking for her birth family; another a rebellious and angry father-to-be who was trying avoid the life of petty crime all his friends reveled in; and the third was a gorgeous but promiscuous transsexual. The fact that the latter's story was treated in the same tone as the other two without resorting to sensationalism was refreshing. Even more so when he/she was portrayed as a very nice person
What was disappointing was a British movie from newbie director Hong Khaou called 'Lilting'. When Richard's Chinese boyfriend Kai dies, he takes over the role of visiting Kai's mother who doesn't speak any English and lives is a nursing home. It's a very uneven drama and as much as one wished it to succeed, Ben Wishaw's performance as Richard was surprisingly wishy washy.
'Jamie Marks is Dead' a wee supernatural story is not a 'gay movie' in the true sense as once Jamie is dead, and Adam becomes very very close to him (his ghost that is), its more about the fact that he feels sorry for not defending him when he was gay-bashed, rather than lasting after him now. Worth seeing anyway .
One last… but most important… gay movie is Alain Guiraudie's intriguing new thriller ‘Stranger By The Lake’ which is about as homoerotic as can be without crossing the divide into soft porn. It was shown in Sundance’s Spotlight section for movies that are about to hit the big screen any day now. Scheduled to open in the UK on 21st February, we will publish our review nearer the time. For now, I will just say that is sensationally wonderful, and is destined to be gay classic.
So the big question after Sundance is, will we ever get to see these movies ourselves? And the resounding answer is definitely ‘yes’ for the most part. ‘Love is Strange’ has already been picked up by Sony Classics and so hopefully get a very wide release, probably in the summer. ‘The Case Against 8’ was made by HBO as is already slated to be shown on US TV in June… gay pride month… and is rumored to be heading over the Pond very soon. With the advent of my Companies releasing Indie movies via Streaming, you probably wont have to wait too long to see these cream of the Sundance crop.