Top 10 queer movies of 2019 – Washington Blade

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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