Despite its location, smack dab in the middle of one of the most conservative states in America, the Utah-based Sundance Film Festival has been a huge supporter of queer cinema since its inception nearly three decades ago. The extraordinarily long list of modern queer cinema classics that have premiered at the festival includes Todd Haynes’s Poison, Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning, Tom Kalin’s Swoon, John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right.
This year’s edition – which wraps up Jan 27 – was no exception. In fact, the number of exceptional films by or about queer folks may have exceeded any previous edition of the festival. Of the 115 feature films that screened, at least 13 of them were directed by an openly queer filmmaker, while 12 featured prominent queer content or characters. And best of all? Almost all of those films were really good.
Here are six standouts, all very strong possibilities to screen at Toronto’s Inside Out LGBT Film Festival this spring.
The first film ever to adapt the work of gay literary icon David Sedaris, Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s COG manages to do justice to Sedaris’s unique voice and sense of humour while giving it a stamp of the director’s own. Based on an essay from Sedaris’s Naked, the film is based on experiences Sedaris (played by the wonderful Jonathan Groff) had when he travelled to rural Oregon to work as an apple picker. Through encounters with a glorious variety of locals, he experiences revelations about his religion and sexuality that are handled with a lovely mix of humour and heart.
While Sundance’s queer offerings were mostly of the male variety, Stacie Passon’s Concussion helps compensate. The story of a suburban lesbian housewife (an amazing Robin Weigert), Concussion is likely to be dubbed “the lesbian hooker movie.” But it’s so much more than that. While Weigert’s character decides to secretly become a sex worker for women – and not tell her wife and kids about it – the film uses that context to explore a complex woman who implodes amidst the heteronormative lifestyle that crept up on her. It also offers what will likely be the hottest lesbian sex on a big screen this year.
Interior. Leather Bar and Kink
James Franco was very much the talk of Sundance this year, thanks to his involvement in two films that deal with marginalized sexuality: Interior. Leather Bar (which he co-directed with Travis Mathews) and Kink (which he produced). The former finds Franco and Mathews attempting to remake the 40 minutes of explicit SM material cut from the 1980 film Cruising, which starred Al Pacino. A mix of documentary and fiction, the film uses that context as a jumping-off point to examine ideas of queer sexuality in Hollywood in a fun, insightful way. The latter – directed by Christina Voros – is a straightforward documentary that looks at the world inside the San Francisco armoury that houses the porn production facilities of BDSM website kink.com. It breaks through the misconceptions facing both BDSM in general and the porn associated with it; together with Leather Bar it gave Sundance a double dose of cinematic sex positivity.
Kill Your Darlings
Daniel Radcliffe makes a bold attempt at making us forget all about Harry Potter in John Krokidas’s directorial debut, Kill Your Darlings, the true story behind the murder that brought together Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs at Columbia University in 1944. Radcliffe plays Ginsberg at a time in his life when he was just discovering his queer sexuality. Krokidas doesn’t hold back, offering audiences some intense sexual tension between Radcliffe and Dane DeHaan (who gives a star-making performance as Lucien Carr).
Yen Tan’s quiet, moving Pit Stop didn’t get the same amount of attention as the other films on this list at Sundance, but it’s just as deserving. The film depicts a series of characters living in small-town Texas, among them two lost gay men in their mid-30s (Bill Heck and Marcus DeAnda). Similar in tone to 2011’s queer cinema breakout Weekend, Pit Stop has a sincerity that creeps up on you and will linger in your mind long after the credits roll.