There were strong feature films (both mainstream and indie releases), fascinating documentaries and several supportive venues and festivals in Washington that are slowly growing a queer film culture here making 2014, overall, an excellent year in film.
One of the best releases was one of the first — “Stranger by the Lake.” This award-winning French film was billed as an erotic gay thriller and it lived up to that description. The action unfolds on the banks of a lake where men meet for sex, which is shown in graphic detail. The thriller starts when the seemingly innocent Franck watches Michel swim out into a lake with a man and swim back to shore alone. Director Alain Guiraudie skillfully captures the mundane yet thrilling rituals of cruising and the inscrutable passion that arises between Franck and Michel.
Other highlights included:
- • “Calvary” opens when Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is threatened with death by an unseen man in the confessional who was sexually molested by a priest when he was a boy. Among the suspects are a hypocritical closeted detective and a Hollywood-obsessed gay hustler who has also been the victim of clerical sexual abuse.
- • Based on a true story, “Pride” tells the tale of an unlikely alliance between gay and lesbian activists from London and striking Welsh coal miners. While the screenplay relies a little too heavily on well-worn plot devices, the movie is an infectious and uplifting tale of personal growth and political solidarity.
- • Written and directed by talented newcomer Julien Simien, “Dear White People” looks at the lives of four black students who get drawn into a racial incident at a predominantly white college. One of them is Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), an undergraduate journalist who doesn’t fit in with either the gay or African-American student groups. Simien’s groundbreaking film marks the first time that a gay character has been featured in a predominantly African-American movie.
- • “The Skeleton Twins” stars “Saturday Night Live” alumni Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader as estranged twins who are reunited after his suicide attempt. He returns to their hometown to recover and to reignite an affair with his high school English teacher (Ty Burrell) while she tries to work out her marriage to Luke Wilson. Both Wiig and Hader turn in strong nuanced performances and Hader’s scenes in drag are wonderful.
- • “Hector and the Search for Happiness” stars Simon Pegg as a bored psychiatrist who travels the globe to find the secret of happiness. One of his tour guides is an old friend who has found happiness by coming out of the closet.
- • Though technically a made-for-TV movie, “The Normal Heart” debuted in May on HBO and was a widely lauded adaptation of Larry Kramer’s legendary AIDS-themed play of the same name.
- • “The Way He Looks” is a charming Brazilian coming-of-age tale about Leo, a blind teenager who’s trying to escape from his overprotective mother. Leo befriends Gabriel, the new kid in town, and feelings begin to flicker between the two boys, much to the dismay of Leo’s best friend, Giovanna.
While it didn’t include any LGBT content, one of the most progressive and thought-provoking movies of 2014 was “Belle,” a beautifully filmed movie about a mixed-race heiress being raised by her aristocratic uncle in eighteenth-century England. Director Amma Asante and a knockout ensemble cast tackle complex themes of race, class and gender and tell a moving story that combines intimate details and epic historical sweep.
The year in LGBT feature films came to a dramatic conclusion with “The Imitation Game,” the story of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), the gay British mathematician who broke the German Enigma code during World War II but was later prosecuted for his homosexuality.
It was also a great year for LGBT-themed documentaries. One of the most notable was HBO’s “The Case Against 8,” which followed two California couples who brought their fight for marriage equality to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Other standout documentaries included “Shoot Me,” an incisive portrait of the legendary actress Elaine Stritch who passed away earlier this year; “Campaign of Hate: Russia and Gay Propaganda,” a searing examination of the spread of anti-gay sentiment and legislation in Russia; and, “Through a Lens Darkly,” a fascinating exploration of how photography has shaped the African-American community, including LGBT people of color.
There were, of course, a few disappointments. The highly anticipated “Love is Strange” starred John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as long-term partners whose lives fall apart when they lose their rent-controlled Manhattan apartment. Luminous performances from Lithgow and Molina could not overcome Ira Sachs’s implausible script and slack direction. Jennifer M. Kroot’s “To Be Takei” failed to create a cohesive portrait of the actor and activist, and in “Citizenfour” lesbian filmmaker Laura Portras and gay journalist Glen Greenwald failed to fully question the actions of NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden.
The emerging queer cinema scene in D.C. has been strongly supported by a number of marvelous venues and film festivals. The Landmark Theatres (on E Street in downtown D.C. and on Bethesda Row in downtown Bethesda) and the West Ed Cinema in Foggy Bottom frequently present LGBT movies, as does the newer Angelika Film Center Mosaic in Fairfax. AFI Silver in downtown Silver Spring often features LGBT works in its delightfully eclectic mix of contemporary independent releases and classics from Hollywood and international cinema.
The acclaimed D.C. Shorts Film Festival, headed by openly gay filmmaker Jon Gann, always includes strong LGBT programming, as does AFI Docs, which will now be headed by Michael Lumpkin, who served for more than 25 years as both executive director of Frameline and Festival Director for the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival. LGBT films have also been featured at the new Middleburg (Virginia) Film Festival.
With sponsorship from the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community, Human Rights Campaign and the Washington Blade, Reel Affirmations has returned to offer monthly move nights and other film events.
The early winter months of 2015 give LGBT cinephiles in D.C .the chance to watch some of 2014’s best releases on DVD and to anticipate the exciting releases of 2015.