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Top 10 queer movies of 2019

Blade film critic offers his favorites of the year

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Downton Abbey, gay news, Washington Blade
The downstairs cast of ‘Downton Abbey,’ one of the year’s best movies. (Photo by Jaap Buiterdijik; courtesy Focus Features)

Movies are multi-faceted to begin with; with queer auteurs, casts and crews, it gets even more complicated. Look in the Blade’s Jan. 3 edition for a full “year in review” roundup in film and many other categories, where I’ll recap more thoroughly the year’s LGBT cinematic highlights. This, however, is my official 2019 “top 10” list.

The number one movie of the year was undoubtedly the magnificent “Pain and Glory (Dolor y Gloria)” by queer auteur Pedro Almodóvar. In this deeply moving story based loosely on the filmmaker’s own life, long-time Almodóvar collaborator Antonio Banderas plays gay filmmaker Salvador Mallo whose physical and psychological ailments have kept him away from the camera. Banderas won the Best Actor prize at Cannes; Almodóvar veterans Penelope Cruz and Julieta Serrano turn and a great supporting cast turn in richly nuanced performances. 

The rest of the Top 10 include (in alphabetical order):

“Downton Abbey.” Creator Julian Fellowes seamlessly moved his elegant television serial to the big screen without missing a beat. The sumptuous high-class soap opera included fun new characters (Imelda Staunton as the formidable Maud Bagshaw), delicious quips from the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) and a visit to a gay pub by butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier). A special mention goes to “The Chaperone,” a side project by Fellowes, “Downton” director Michael Engler and “Downton”star Elizabeth McGovern which offers a delightfully subversive look at Midwest American life in the 1920s.

“End of the Century.” With bold and exciting artistic choices, first-time director Lucio Castro creates a steamy mystery about two men who meet on the streets of Barcelona.

“Frankie.” In a transcendently luminescent performance, the brilliant Isabelle Huppert plays a dying French actress who has gathered her large complicated family together for one last holiday. Working with co-screenwriter Mauricio Zacharias, gay filmmaker Ira Sachs skillfully guides the large international cast through complex physical and emotional terrains building to a powerful final tableau. Marisa Tomei is great as Frankie’s best friend Ilene.

“Little Women.” Writer/director Greta Gerwig offers a fresh, dazzling and thoroughly contemporary take on the beloved classic by Louise May Alcott. Gerwig’s powerful queer adaptation focuses on the rivalry between Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) and her sister Amy (Florence Pugh). Gerwig writes with a confident flair and directs with a steady hand; the supporting performances are all wonderful. 

“Marriage Story.” Writer/director Noah Baumbach’s incisive and insightful examination of a dissolving marriage features searing performances by Adam Drive and Scarlet Johansson (who also get to perform two numbers from “Company,” Stephen Sondheim’s musical about marriage).

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” This sumptuous French period drama tells the story of a young female artist who falls in love with her subject. The richly sensuous and thoughtful exploration of art and romance won the Queer Palm at Cannes where lesbian filmmaker Céline Sciamma also won the screenwriting award.

“Rocketman.” Using the pop superstar and gay icon’s own music, director Dexter Fletcher leads audiences on a fantastic journey through Elton John’s early life, including his childhood, his rise to international stardom, his coming out, his addictions and his decision to enter rehab. Taron Egerton is fantastic as Elton and the costumes by Julian Day are, of course, fabulous.

“Us.” Jordan Peele’s 2017 debut feature “Get Out” was a penetrating analysis of racism in America. His second feature is a devastating critique of the American Dream with indelible performances by Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke and Elisabeth Moss.

“Where’s My Roy Cohn?” In this excellent documentary, long-form journalist turned documentary filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer profiles Roy Cohn, the closeted gay lawyer who was the mastermind the Lavender Scare of the 1950s and who served as a mentor to Donald Trump.

Honorable Mentions go to “1917,” Sam Mendes’ technically dazzling and emotionally devastating World War I tale; “And Then We Danced,” a deeply political story about the romantic relationship and artistic rivalry between two male dancers; “Ask Dr. Ruth” a thoughtful and clever documentary about the Holocaust survivor and pioneering sex therapist who became a fierce LGBT ally; “Booksmart,” Olivia Wilde’s funny and sensitive story about two high school best friends, one lesbian and one straight; and, “By the Grace of God” a clear-eyed and piercing denunciation of clerical abuse in the French Catholic Church by queer auteur François Ozon.

The list of honorable mentions continues with “Harriet” featuring a riveting by Cynthia Erivo as freedom fighter Harriet Tubman; “Knives Out,” the clever all-star whodunit helmed by Rian Johnson; “Parasite,” Bong Joon Ho’s visually stunning and searing satire on class warfare in South Korea; “The Two Popes” with splendid scenery and memorable performances by Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins as Pope Frances and emeritus Pope Benedict; and “Waves” a visceral exploration of an affluent African American family in crisis by Trey Edward Shults.

The (Not So) Guilty Pleasure of the Year was the thoroughly enjoyable “Charlie’s Angels.” Camp goddess and queer icon Elizabeth Banks (who served as producer, director, writer and star) provided a stylish, suspenseful and clever reboot of the ’70s TV series. The movie had a delightfully queer and feminist sensibility (with Kristen Stewart as a pansexual Angel) with strong central female performances, a great supporting cast and delicious cameos by Laverne Cox, Danica Patrick, Ronda Rousey and Jaclyn Smith, one of the original Angels.

Finally, a word on the passing of a cinematic era. With the release of “Star Wars” (now called “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope”) in 1977, creator George Lucas changed the way movies are filmed, scored, marketed and merchandised. Since then, the Skywalker sage has gone through some significant ups and downs, but it has remained an inescapable cultural milestone. With the release of “Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker,” the big-screen cinematic franchise will come to an end, even though the theme park attractions will go on forever.

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Oscar-nominated ‘Nimona’ an essential gem for queer fans

Rescued from oblivion of studio politics, film rings palpably authentic

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The two queer protagonists of ‘Nimona.’ (Image courtesy of Netflix)

If you weren’t already a fan of ND Stevenson’s webcomic-turned-graphic-novel, last summer’s release of Netflix’s screen adaptation of “Nimona” likely escaped your notice. But with its emergence on multiple critics’ choice lists and awards show ballots for 2023, it’s time for you to pay attention.

Created while Stevenson — who has since come out as a trans man — was a student at the Maryland Institute College of Art and initially distributed on Tumblr, the comic was published in print in 2015 to become an award-winning bestseller. It’s an adventuresome sci-fi/fantasy blend set in a futuristic world where the fairy tale knights of medieval tradition have been given a high-tech makeover; but what captured its audience even more than its high-spirited, whimsical creativity was its unsubtle exploration of LGBTQ identity, underscored by a same-sex love interest for its hero but resonating most deeply through its shape-shifting title character and a plot that revolves around the systematic suppression of “otherness” by society. Yet, “controversial” elements notwithstanding, it’s fully and unapologetically targeted toward YA readers – the very audience, of course, that is most in need of its messaging in a time when the discourse around queer identities has become an omnipresent source of existential anxiety for young people attempting to come to terms with any non-hetero-normative leanings that might be bubbling to the surface of their developing psyches.

When Stevenson – who went on from the success of “Nimona” in print to become the creative force behind numerous queer-friendly projects in various media, including a stint writing for Marvel (the comics “Thor” and “Runaways”), Disney’s animated “Wander Over Yonder” series, and the acclaimed Netflix reboot “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power” – came out as trans in 2020, the themes of queer acceptance in his seminal work were illuminated beyond a shadow of a doubt. In the meantime, “Nimona” had already been optioned to 20th Century Fox Animation as the basis for a film adaptation, produced by their subsidiary Blue Sky Studios; when Disney acquired the rights to Fox and its properties, the movie fell under its control. According to staffers, commenting in the wake of Disney’s then-CEO Bob Chapek’s clumsy response to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” political campaign, the film had already experienced pushback from studio executives over its LGBTQ themes, and especially its inclusion of a same-sex kiss – and when COVID-related financial pressures led to budget cuts, Blue Sky, was officially shut down, along with “Nimona” and all the rest of its projects.

Thankfully, that wasn’t the end of the story. “Nimona” was picked up by indie production company Annapurna in 2022, with Nick Bruno and Troy Quane stepping in as directors, and Netflix granted distribution rights. The completed film, with all of its intended queer elements firmly intact, was given a limited theatrical release in June of 2023, debuting as a streamer on the Netflix platform a week later – to the delight of fans who had believed the long-awaited project to be a lost cause barely a year before.

It took another six months or so for the rest of the world to take notice, but thanks to its inclusion on critics’ choice lists and awards-season buzz in the wake of multiple nominations, “Nimona” has become one of last year’s “hidden gems.” and now stands within plausible reach of achieving the highest possible honor from the Hollywood movie industry: the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

Of course, whether or not it wins that (or any other) accolade has little objective bearing on its quality as a film; while positive steps toward inclusion and acceptance of LGBTQ characters and stories may be a laudable accomplishment in today’s tenuous social environment, they don’t necessarily equate to cinematic excellence from the wider perspective of aesthetic analysis. Fortunately, in this case, the two viewpoints merge perfectly to provide a movie that is at once keenly relevant to queer life in the modern age and defined by an artistic vision that transcends any political agenda or clumsy social engineering in which it might otherwise have allowed itself to become mired. While it may place its queer or queer-suggestive characters front-and-center in the spotlight, its message is unmistakably aimed toward anyone who feels (or has ever felt) like an outsider in a world that rewards conformity over individual truth – and let’s face it, that means everybody.

In Bruno and Quane’s finished film, there is no effort to obscure or downplay the story’s queer underpinnings: the hero, a newly minted knight named Ballister Boldheart (voiced by Riz Ahmed) is unequivocally gay, deeply in a fully requited love affair with fellow knight Ambrosius Goldenloin (YouTube star Eugene Lee Yang), and his shapeshifting sidekick, the titular Nimona (Chloë Grace Moritz), is so obvious an allegorical avatar for trans-hood that only the most oblivious of viewers could miss it. That’s fortunate: deprived of its deeper purpose of accessibility for those “outside the norm,” there would be nothing all that special about “Nimona” beyond its admittedly stunning visual design, which evokes connections to thematically related movies from “Sleeping Beauty” to “Star Wars” and everything in between. But though it makes painstaking effort to honor those and other influences within the scope of its pointedly progressive narrative, it establishes and inhabits its own distinctive milieu, carving a space for itself in which it feels neither derivative nor mired in gimmicky conceit – and it achieves this mostly through its loyalty toward (and empathy with) the characters whose status as outsiders to the mandated cultural standard makes them even more relatable.

Admittedly, it’s hard to miss the allegorical broad strokes in the plot, in which Boldheart, the first knight without a direct link to the ancient bloodline of the ruling class, is framed as a political criminal and targeted for elimination by a governing system steeped in long-standing traditions and prejudices, or to its seemingly juvenile title character, a girl with the ability to transform her physical being at will who is branded and persecuted as a “monster” because of it. As the story progresses, revealing even more hidden-in-plain-sight correlations to the “real” world, it’s difficult to imagine even the most obtusely straightforward viewer being blind to the story’s clear message about the corrupting influence of ancient and unquestioned preconceptions on the systems that govern our world.

Its aggressively deployed messaging, however, is not a detriment; “Nimona,” rescued beyond probability from the oblivion of studio politics and economic setbacks, rings all the more palpably authentic for wearing its agenda on its sleeve. In its unequivocal and undiluted embrace of the queer experience of “otherness” which lies (barely) beneath its every nuance, it becomes the inclusive, gay-and-trans-affirming parable it was always intended to be, emerging as a front-runner in the yearly race for accolades from a cautiously mainstream industry establishment in spite of its unapologetic queerness.

If that doesn’t make it essential viewing for queer movie fans, we don’t know what would.

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French ‘Lie With Me’ believes in love after love

A compelling story about the capacity of human beings to heal

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Victor Belmondo and Guillaume de Tonquédec in 'Lie With Me.' (Photo by Michael Crotto; courtesy Cinephobia Releasing)

Sometimes, a love story is about what happens after it’s over as much as how it starts.

Take, for example, the French import “Lie With Me,” which makes its U.S. debut via DVD and VOD on Feb. 15. Based on Philippe Bresson’s 2017 novel “Arrête avec tes mensonges” (“Stop With Your Lies”), it was filmed in 2021, hit the European festival circuit in 2022, and received a general release in its homeland in early 2023, and is making its first appearance on American screens at a time when most film buffs are already looking toward whatever 2024 movies might be coming our way after the hoopla of awards season fades into the background for another year.

Don’t let its status as a “late-bloomer” put you off, however. As any true film buff knows, such circumstantial factors have nothing to do with a movie’s inherent worth or quality. Indeed, it’s often the most overlooked films that ultimately prove also to be the most satisfying, and even if it doesn’t come with the kind of industry buzz that often holds a perhaps unwarranted sway over the tastes of the moviegoing public, this one strikes enough of an emotional chord for queer viewers (especially those who came of age in an earlier generation) to make it worth going out of one’s way.

Directed by Olivier Peyon from a screenplay he wrote with Vincent Poymiro, Arthur Cahn and Cécilia Rouaud, “Lie With Me” is a slice-of-life character study, set in the mid-1980s, in which a celebrated-but-controversial gay author – Stéphane Belcourt (Guillaume de Tonquédec), now in advancing middle age – returns to his hometown of Cognac as the “guest of honor” for the anniversary celebration of a company that produces the city’s namesake liqueur. It’s a bittersweet trip for him, conjuring painful teenage memories of a first love who disappeared from his life without explanation and has left him yearning for closure ever since; but his melancholy is displaced by unexpected intrigue when he discovers that Lucas (Victor Belmondo), the young man responsible for his invitation to the festivities, is the now-adult son of his long-lost paramour, opening up the possibility of finding answers he never thought he’d have – but only if he can let his defenses down enough to ask the necessary questions of Lucas, who seems to be seeking some answers of his own.

Tinged with wistful nostalgia and built around an eminently relatable coming-of-age narrative that invites comparison with movies like “Call Me By Your Name” or any of the countless similar tales of painful first love that have been a staple of queer cinematic romance since such things were “permissible” on the screen, “Lie With Me” fully assumes the wistful tenderness of its genre by interweaving his main story with the one which happened all those years ago – the unexpected and clandestine affair between younger Stéphane (Jérémy Gillet) and his sullen, secretive, and deeply-closeted classmate Thomas (Julien de Saint Jean), rendered with the kind of fragile sweetness that gives such tales of youthful awakening their irresistible appeal, largely thanks to the authenticity and chemistry of the two young actors who play it out for us. Even so, it takes a more brooding and palpably melancholy tone than most of us might be used to in a love story, partly due to the fact that the romance at its center has been over for decades, yet still casts a long shadow over its haunted protagonist, who seems never to have been able to fully give his heart (or, more to the point, his trust) to anyone since. It’s a romantic movie, to be sure, but one in which the romance is viewed through the bitter hindsight of a man who was left burned by it, and becomes even more un-requitable with the revelation of tragic developments that came in the years between.

As a consequence, it can sometimes feel like a depressing slog; Stéphane’s jaded, defensively deployed misanthropy occasionally becomes as much an obstacle to our empathy for him as it does to his making real connections with the people around him on the screen, and there are times when our patience with his self-imposed emotional isolationism wears thin. Yet that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Peyon’s film is not exactly a “love story” in the usual sense, but an exploration of what happens to someone in the aftermath of a loss – and the emotional devastation it has wrought on their life –  that has been kept, undiscussed and unprocessed, as a kind of lifelong “sacred wound.”

Yet it’s also an exploration of how such trauma can finally begin to be healed through connecting with others who share a common sorrow. As a balance to Stéphane’s guarded, occasionally abrasive persona comes the younger Lucas’ outgoing, approachable enthusiasm for connection, which comes in even greater contrast to his older counterpart’s attitude as we gradually discover his own hidden sense of loss; it’s this quality that serves as catalyst in bringing the two men together, despite reticence in both of their corners, and ultimately brings the story to a denouement that, while far from the kind of happy-ever-after ending so many queer viewers usually long to see, might just allow them both to achieve something like closure.

The result is a film that overcomes its own gloom to offer hope without resorting to wish-fulfillment fantasy – something it owes to its insightful and autobiographical source novel, a critically-acclaimed bestseller (transcribed for English-language publication, surprisingly enough, by actress Molly Ringwald, who enjoys a lesser-known career as a writer and translator) in its native France, and to the savvy adaptation from Peyon and his fellow screenwriters. The humanity essential for making it work, however, is delivered through the work of its two leads, with the César Award-winning de Tonquédec’s unvarnished star turn as Stéphane finding a natural symbiosis with the affable Lucas brought to life by rising talent Belmondo – and yes, if you’re wondering, he is the grandson of Jean-Paul Belmondo, the late French New Wave screen legend whose iconic looks and charisma he has certainly inherited. Alongside Gillet and de Saint-Jean, veteran French actress Guilaine Londez rounds out the main cast with a memorable performance as a provincial event coordinator with more observational savvy than she lets on.

None of that is likely to be enough to give “Lie With Me” the kind of feel-good appeal so many modern queer audiences hunger for; though drawn with enough depth and complexity to elevate it above the familiar-yet-still-relevant tropes of its narrative – doomed same-sex love, tragic queer victimhood, the self-sabotaging power of internalized homophobia – it still tells a story that feels frustratingly repetitive to the generations that didn’t live in the era it takes place, and perhaps even for many of those from the generations that did. We can’t argue with preference, so if its subject matter and thematic palette seem to you like something you would rather skip, then you’re probably right. For anyone else, though, it’s a thoughtful and ultimately compelling – if not quite uplifting – story about the capacity of human beings to heal.

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For queer film nominees, look to GLAAD, not Oscar

Annual awards highlight performances you may have missed

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Sterling K. Brown in ‘American Fiction.’ (Photo courtesy of Amazon MGM Studios)

Hollywood awards season is a bleak time for new releases, simply because most of the offerings being highlighted on our screens – both big and small – are literally last year’s news. Even so, it’s a welcome chance to catch up on some of the titles we may have missed before a nomination or two earned them a place in the spotlight they might not have gotten the first time around.

Unfortunately, the competition roster for Oscar — as well as many of the other big award bodies — is woefully short on movies where LGBTQ characters and themes are placed front and center. Don’t get us wrong: There are quite a few historic nominations in this year’s mix for queer talent and content. Still, if we’re searching for the year’s best in queer and queer-inclusive cinema, we have to look elsewhere — and that, of course, means GLAAD.

The nominees for GLAAD’s 35th Annual Media Awards, presented since 1990 to “honor media for fair, accurate, and inclusive representations of LGBTQ people and issues,” were announced on Jan. 17, in the wake of the organization’s acceptance of the iconic Governors Award at the 2023 Emmys Ceremony for its decades of unwavering advocacy and the positive impact it has made in normalizing a queer presence in mainstream television entertainment; its picks for the year’s best film offerings, though they have been (unsurprisingly) overshadowed by the Academy Award nominations that were announced a week later, embody the kind of cinematic excellence we love while also ensuring that LGBTQ stories and experience are not erased from the cultural narrative – and it’s that last bit that makes watching them feel just a little bit more like lending your support where it’s truly needed.

That’s why we’re taking the time to highlight some of the titles that can be found there. Some of them – “All of Us Strangers,” “The Color Purple,” “Knock at the Cabin” and “Blue Jean,” among a few others – we’ve reviewed previously, but we’d love to focus your attention on some of the “hidden gems” that more or less came and went without the kind of fanfare they truly deserved. Because it’s a long list (GLAAD divides its movie categories to reflect wide- and limited-release films, as well as differentiating between narrative, documentary, theatrical and streaming/made for television productions) we really only have room to point out the ones we consider the “cream of the crop.” But we encourage you to check out the full list of nominations on the GLAAD website for more. And since the awards also cover television, literature, comics, and journalism (yes, the Blade is a previous winner!), there’s plenty to explore even if your tastes run toward other forms of media than the movies.

Included alongside the aforementioned titles among the nominees are:

AMERICAN FICTION: Also up for a few Oscars, this satirical look at race in America from writer/director Cord Jefferson delivers a tongue-in-cheek narrative about a Black author (Jeffrey Wright) who adopts the pseudonym and persona of a wanted felon to make a point about the way Black stories are accepted in the white American mainstream, only to achieve success beyond anything he’s written under his own name. It’s a delicate balance between plausible premise and farfetched conceit, but Jefferson makes it work, thanks to a likable performance by Wright, and scores extra points with his treatment of a secondary plotline in which the author’s newly out-of-the-closet brother (Oscar-nominated Sterling K. Brown) embraces his life as a gay man.

ANYONE BUT YOU: Loosely inspired by Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” this fluffy rom-com follows Bea and Ben (Sydney Sweeney and Glenn Powell), who – after a fumbled first date – find themselves thrown together at the destination wedding of their own siblings (Alexandra Shipp and Hadley Robinson) and forced to make nice with each other for the sake of the happy couple. We won’t lie: it’s neither deep nor terribly insightful, but it has its heart in the right place, not to mention a lesbian wedding at the center of its premise, and the eminent watch-ability of its two charismatic stars does the rest of the heavy lifting required to make it an enjoyable, love-affirming romp.

MOVING ON: Written and directed by Paul Weitz, this revenge comedy reunites iconic “Grace and Frankie” co-stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as two estranged BFFs who bury the hatchet in order to get even with the husband of a recently deceased friend. The material doesn’t always match the level of talent brought to the table by its legendary leading ladies, but their chemistry more than makes up for the gap, making this one a surefire hit for a movie night on your couch.

ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE: From the bestselling YA novel by Benjamin Alire Sáenz comes this endearingly hopeful film adaptation from Aitch Alberto, in which a pair of Tex-Mex teens in El Paso (Max Pelayo, Reese Gonzales) grapple with cultural expectations and gender norms as they come to terms with their attraction for each other – and, for a refreshing change of pace, this time their immediate families are mostly in their corner. Like many queer-themed indie gems, this one shines brighter than its mainstream-produced compatriots simply by virtue of not having to care about alienating audiences still wrapped up in homophobic traditions and beliefs – making it more of a must-see for LGBTQ viewers than most of the year’s higher-profile offerings

JOYLAND: Shortlisted but ultimately passed over for nomination in Oscars’ Best International Feature category, Pakistani filmmaker Saim Sadiq’s drama centers on a low-income family that is rocked when the father (Ali Junjera) takes a job in an erotic dance theater and becomes infatuated with his transgender co-star (Alina Khan). Addressing hardline cultural norms about sexuality and gender roles, it was predictably subject to censorship and controversy in its native country – but nevertheless managed to emerge on the world stage (it took both the Jury Prize and the Queer Palm awards at the Cannes Film Festival) as a prime example of cinema’s ability to “speak truth to power” in a way that transcends the moral outrage leveled by those unwilling or unable to accept its message.

ORLANDO, MY POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY: Nominated in the Documentary category, this audacious work of cinematic activism from Paul B. Preciado brings together trans and nonbinary performers of all ages in an exploration of Virginia Woolf’s century-hopping novel “Orlando,” the tale of a young Elizabethan nobleman who morphs into a woman halfway through the story. Illuminating his own transformation through the authentic voices of the players he brings together, the director captures a universal connecting thread among the trans and gender-non-conforming talent he enlists for his film, daring to suggest that the “norms” enshrined by mainstream culture are ultimately political constructs opposing the natural flow of individual self-actualization. It’s a powerful argument, making for a not-to-be-missed gem of a movie.

The GLAAD Media Awards will be presented, across two ceremonies, on March 14 and May 11, 2024.

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