The year 2015 saw the release of the best queer films in recent memory — the stylistic and sophisticated “Carol,” directed by Todd Haynes, and the gritty and brutally honest “Tangerine,” directed by relative newcomer Sean S. Baker.
Both films prove similar and yet worlds apart in style and subject matter. First, with Haynes’s “Carol,” with what the director got (at times comically) wrong with his other queer cinematic undertaking “Far from Heaven,” “Carol” delivers. How exactly? Most strikingly, and without giving away any endings, Haynes finally gives the audience a happy one. What the oppressive 1950s took away in “Far From Heaven,” the post-war decade gave in the form of an unprecedented upbeat, promising, and altogether believable ending in “Carol.”
Based on the 1952 book, “The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith, writing under the pseudonym “Claire Morgan,” the titular Carol, played by the incredible Cate Blanchett, who somehow oozes style by just looking at a toy train set in a department store while wearing a fur coat that seems practically part of her. There she meets the meek Therese, played by Rooney Mara. Their relationship builds from there. Watch too for notable performances by Sarah Paulson as the loyal confidant and Kyle Chandler as the frustrated, red-faced husband.
Destined to be a cult-classic, “Tangerine” follows Sin-Dee, played by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, a transgender sex worker fresh from a month-long stint in jail as she hunts down the pimp boyfriend who broke her heart. Helping her out is her best friend and fellow sex worker Alexandra, played by Mya Taylor. Defying and defining casting conventions, both individuals were actual sex workers turned actors, plucked by the director from the Los Angeles LGBT Center. If you find suspect society’s holding up the likes of Caitlyn Jenner as a model of transgender life, let “Tangerine” provide a bookend to that.
Queer cinema is fraught with pitfalls. Gay men are either left to be noble AIDS patients or the poor losers in love and life. Lesbians are depicted as bullish threats to both traditional masculinity and femininity, if they appear at all. Transgender individuals are seen as a dangerous in-between to be both mocked and pitied. In the two films offered here, all characters navigate a world not exactly set up for them — “Carol” with style and grace and shielded by wealth and class, the girls of “Tangerine” armed with friendship and fierce loyalty.
Again, without spoiling anything, both films culminate in locations that are strikingly beautiful in their own ways, “Carol” in the fabled and now-shuttered Plaza Hotel’s Oak Room, and “Tangerine,” believe it or not, in a 24-hour Santa Monica Laundromat. In both locales, we get the backdrop of what is left after everything else is stripped away, but especially in “Tangerine” when two defeated trans hustlers have quite literally nothing left but each other.
The most remarkable aspect of these two films is the time and budget in which they were prepared. “Carol” was shot in 34 days on classic Super 16 mm; “Tangerine” was filmed entirely on iPhone 5s smartphones and took a mere 18 days. Both proving in the day of star warring and space swashbuckling that overly produced scenes do not always deliver.
Oscar nominations are announced on Jan. 14. Will “Carol” get noticed? Most certainly, as Blanchett was magnificent and her stellar performance in 2013’s “Blue Jasmine” certainly cemented her as one of the best Hollywood has to offer. Will “Tangerine” get a nod from the academy? Though filmed not far from where the Oscars are to be presented, I’m guessing academy members have overlooked these people and will continue to do so. But maybe they’ll surprise me.
“Tangerine” is currently streaming on Netflix; “Carol” is in theaters.
Brock Thompson is a D.C.-based writer.