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You might’ve missed 2016’s delightfully diverse array of LGBTQ films—many good ones remained obscure, overlooked even by gay media—but the year had several strong female-led films (including three powerful documentaries) and a mild-to-wild selection of psychodramas (including Moonlight and a haunting Korean film). We collected trailers from 10 of the best and scribbled about their uniqueness. Grab some popcorn—you’ll be amazed.
1. Author: The JT Leroy Story
In 1999, JT LeRoy—a 19-year-old, homeless, transgender, HIV-positive, former truck stop sex worker—achieved instant literary fame after publishing two semi-autobiographical books. But soon after, a New York magazine writer and many others began questioning the author’s true identity. Combining recorded phone conversations with LeRoy’s celebrity friends (like Courtney Love), animated excerpts from LeRoy’s confessional stories and revealing interviews with his creator, Laura Albert, Author: The JT Leroy Story examines the real-life experiences behind LeRoy’s personal stories and a surprisingly emotional look into the people behind “the greatest literary hoax of the 21st century.” (Read our review of the film and our interview with Albert).
2. Closet Monster
Haunted by the divorce of his parents and a hate crime against a local gay teen, 18-year-old Oscar Madly can’t wait to escape his rural home town. His only friends are his aspiring model gal pal and his talking pet hamster (voiced by Green Porno actress Isabella Rossellini). While Oscar wants to go to college and connect with his sexually ambiguous co-worker, his over-imaginative anxieties threaten to overtake him in moments of wondrous yet heart-wrenching surreality. The semi-autobiographical film from Canadian writer-director Stephen Dunn defies expectations and avoids storybook endings with a masterful lead performance by Connor Jessup.
3. The Handmaiden
Beautifully crafted by famed Korean director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy), The Handmaiden will keep you on edge with its twisted plot lines: there’s the unbelievable identity of the title character, a Japanese heiress and her complicated relationship with her wicked uncle, plus the secret plan to steal the heiress’s fortune. Loosely adapted from Fingersmith, a 2002 novel set in the Victorian era, The Handmaiden moves the story to 1930s colonial Korea. A lesbian love story emerges in this sexy thriller with haunting images from the mansion and seductive love-making scenes between the two female leads that will take your breath away. —Charles Thompson-Wang
Considered the spiritual successor to the 1990 film Paris is Burning, Kiki reveals just how vital and vibrant New York City’s ball culture remains for young LGBTQ people of color left behind by conservative politics and the marriage equality movement. The film’s vivacious cast provides unflinching views into the everyday struggles of sex work, transphobia, HIV and institutionalized racism without ever deflating into preachiness. But the film’s real star is the ballroom itself as a cheerfully chaotic, flamboyant and unapologetic space for self-expression and survival.
Also, check out the related 2016 documentary Strike a Pose, about the six gay (and one straight) “Vogue” dancers in Madonna’s controversial 1990 Truth or Dare tour.
5. King Cobra
When big-dicked, baby-faced gay porn star Brent Corrigan came onto the scene in 2004, his massive popularity vaulted him into work with bigger studios like Jet Set Men and Falcon. But in his first days, two rival porn producers fought over control of his sweet, sexy ass, and their rivalry ended in a scandalous murder that dominated the gay porn blogosphere for nearly a year. King Cobra makes high melodrama of this lowbrow material with slick stylish cinematography—and James Franco and Christian Slater battling as seedy adversaries. Plus, Molly Ringwald makes an appearance as Corrigan’s concerned mother. So much wicked and winking fun. (See our synopsis and pics from the film’s premiere.)
While some have compared it to the 1996 film Beautiful Thing, Moonlight far outshines its predecessor in its scope, grittiness and emotional complexity. At its heart, Moonlight is a love story that follows Chiron (pronounced Shy-rone) as he grows up in the Miami slums alongside his boyhood friend, Kevin, and his drug-addicted mother, Paula. The unabashed intimacy between its black and Latino characters struck audiences for its tenderness and rarity on the silver screen, even as its scenes explore age-old themes of identity, masculinity and the pressure to conform.
7. The Neon Demon
There are several reasons why The Neon Demon flopped in the box office: For all its over-stylized horror ambitions, its superficial, dreamlike quality showed through its bedazzling art direction. Nevertheless, the vibrant lighting and dramatic makeup did make for eerie eye-candy in its vampiric tale of Los Angeles fashion insiders preying upon a seemingly innocent newcomer. The necrophiliac undertones, deliberately icy acting and consequential lesbian encounter all add to its menace. Whether it ever achieves cult status, its resplendent and haunting visuals will stay with you long after.
8. Other People
We hardly need another life-affirming dramedy about a child struggling with their cancer-ridden parent, but Other People overcomes its well-trod material by focusing on David, the flailing 29-year-old protagonist who returns home to care for his dying mother, Joanne (played by SNL comedienne Molly Shannon). Shannon delivers solid laughs despite some predictable comic moments, and its best scenes arise from David’s sexuality: His vulnerable yet matter-of-fact goodbye sex with his new ex and his awkward conversation with his unaccepting dad. Both make his depression and low self-esteem seem more human than hackneyed, ultimately strengthening the film’s comedic heart.
9. Ovarian Psycos
Joanna Sokolowski and Kate Trumbull-LaValle’s surprising documentary joins a female biker gang in East Los Angeles (think Schwinn rather than Harley) as they forge a sisterhood during their full-moon bike rides. Xela de la X, the titular gang’s founder, emerges as the film’s most compelling figure—she’s a poet and an “at-risk adult” who rooted the Psycos’ identity in gang culture, Latina mythology and feminist liberation, yet she feels pulled between fostering the gang and raising her young daughter. Ultimately, X and her sisterly Psycos ride against the post-colonial machismo that has imprisoned, controlled and exploited women’s bodies. Watching them will make you want to join.
10. Sausage Party
While you might not expect it from Seth Rogen, Sausage Party has lovable characters (including a lesbian taco voiced by Salma Hayek); feel-good, sing-along musical numbers like “The Great Beyond”; and even an action-packed sequence involving an evil feminine hygiene product desperately seeking revenge against the main character, Frank, a sausage, for accidentally deflating him. In typical Seth Rogen fashion, this film packs in lots of sickening adult humor. The final scene especially—a gigantic food orgy—will leave you utterly speechless. —C.T.W.