We may live in a post-Brokeback America, but the truth is that Hollywood still does not really like us queers very much. Sure, a few movies that prominently feature queer protagonists pop up every once in a while – sometimes to considerable success, like last year’s Milk. However, most titles manage to evade wide distribution, due likely to middling reviews, the box office performance of previous queer films and the resulting fear of studio executives to take a risk on anything less than conventional.
2009, a year plagued by a faltering economy and the prominence of Beck/Palin wingnuttery, was no different. Many of the overtly “queer” movies released this year disappointed (Outrage), were denied a prominent release (A Single Man), or underperformed (Brüno). Still, finding queerdom in the cinema this year was not a completely lost cause.
While LGBT culture struggled this year for more visibility at the multiplex, queer sensibilities still snuck their way into a lot of mainstream films. Some movies featured overtly queer characters, while others offered queer-friendly deconstruction of social mores around sexuality and gender. Queer subtext was prevalent in the movies we saw; you just needed to look for it.
I have compiled a list of some of 2009’s more noteworthy titles – good and bad – and have assessed exactly how “queer” they are, based both on how prominently queer characters are featured and on the sophistication of the filmmakers’ tackling of politics of gender and sexual politics. Then, I awarded each movie with a ranking on my patent-pending “Queer-O-Meter,” which ranks a film on a scale of 1 (Michele Bachmann) to 10 (Todd Haynes).
So, without further ado, let’s talk about some of 2009’s movies:
Antichrist (Dir. Lars von Trier)
What’s the Deal: In the wake of their son’s death, a therapist brings his wife out to a remote cabin in the woods to treat her for her crippling depression. Together they uncover some terrifying and truly gruesome truths about themselves.
Is it any good? Depends on what your definition of “good” is. Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe (who are only known as “Man” and “Woman”) are terrific in the leads, but the script eventually transitions from a fascinating deconstruction of loss and depression to a bizarrely cynical exercise in self-torture. While some of it worked for me, there is no way I will ever see it again.
Queer-O-Meter: 6, though“queer” is the wrong word to describe Antichrist. From the mutual loathing between Man and Woman to some disturbing imagery that employs misogyny and horrifically graphic genital mutilation, the movie takes an aggressive step beyond the scope of simply challenging heteronormativity. It is – for lack of a better phrase – the strongest case against heterosexuality seen in the cinema all year.
Broken Embraces (Dir. Pedro Almodóvar)
What’s the Deal: The latest film from the beloved queer Spanish director, Broken Embraces,is basically a love letter to the cinema and the talents of Almodòvar’s muse, Penelope Cruz.
Is it any good? Almodóvar, who made Talk to Her, Bad Education, and Volver, has had a hell of a decade, but this is probably the least essential of his recent movies. Still, you cannot deny the sheer warmth and passion in the director’s technique. Penelope Cruz has never been more ravishing.
Queer-O-Meter: 4. Some queer characters make a lasting impression, but the daring exploration of sexual and gender taboos that define Almodòvar’s other flicks is relatively absent. Embraces is a movie made more for the cinéphile, telling a story where the movies become both an agent of joy and a tool of destruction.
Brüno (Dir. Larry Charles)
What’s the Deal: Sacha Baron Cohen’s follow-up to the absurdly popular Borat, Brüno tells the story of a gaudily faggy German fasionista looking to elevate himself to celebrity status in the United States.
Is it any good? It is clear that Baron Cohen had a harder time duping his subjects than he did in Borat. Brüno feels more written and considerably less spontaneous than its predecessor and, as funny as it can be, I continue to have a hard time defending the deceptive tactics of team Charles/Cohen.
Queer-O-Meter: 9. Featuring talking penises, kinkier-than-kink sex, and a mechanically accurate scene involving fellatio and the ghost of Rob Pilatus, Brüno’s greatest success is its ability to deconstruct stereotypes and to push a (presumably) hetero audience well beyond its zone of comfort. GLAAD’s assessment of this movie’s potential harm to the LGBT social movement couldn’t have been more off.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Dir. David Yates)
What’s the Deal: Yeah right, like you don’t know what this one is about.
Is it any good? J.K. Rowling lapdogs were predictably upset by the movie’s departure from its literary counterpart, but those of us in the real world will find this a solid installment in the Potter franchise. Still, Prisoner of Azkaban remains the best Potter flick.
Queer-O-Meter: 2. Albus Dumbledore, Hogwarts’ presumably queeny tendencies – professes his love for knitting early on, but the heart of the story – Harry Potter in love – follows the same tropes of every other breeder-oriented teen romance you have seen.
Humpday (Dir. Lynn Shelton)
What’s the Deal: Two straight friends decide to film an amateur gay porn film – starring themselves – and submit it to the upcoming Humpfest film festival.
Is it any good? In a word? Simple. In another word? Brilliant. The movie manages to avoid the pratfall of hipster progressive didacticism and proves to be an honest and hilarious breakdown of male friendship and sexuality.
Queer-O-Meter: 9. The characters in Humpday ask themselves some rather difficult questions, and are made to come to terms with their own identity by means other than the heterosexist privilege of assumed acceptance. So rarely in the movies does the discourse of sexuality ever feel this refreshing and truthful.
I Love You, Man (Dir. John Hamburg)
What’s the Deal: PaulRudd comes to the realization that his only real friendship in his life is to his fiancée, and thus sets out on a mission to find some male friends.
Is it any good? In the same vein as all those Judd Apatow comedies we have seen, the comic pacing in I Love You, Man is reliably by-the-numbers. Still, the movie carries a certain endearing sweetness that is irrepressible.
Queer-O-Meter: 6. Think Humpday sans intent to fuck. There is nothing revolutionary about the movie’s gender politics, but there is a certain perversity to watching a guy courting prospective male friends via heteronormative dating conventions.
Outrage (Dir. Kirby Dick)
What’s the Deal: A documentary following the rise in prominence and eventual downfall of several closeted conservative politicians.
Is it any good? Single-minded in its anger at the hypocrisy of queers who earn political capital at the expense of other queers’ rights, Dick’s movie is appropriately…wait for it…outrageous, but it makes no conclusions about its subjects that you haven’t already made.
Queer-O-Meter: 2. Dick clearly is an ally to the queer community, but the political discourse he constructs is nothing revolutionary.
Ponyo (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki)
What’s the Deal: Ponyo, a goldfishwho lives in the sea with her overly protective father, falls for a human boy and decides to leave the sea to be with her love.
Is it any good? Miyazaki, who frequently collaborates with Studio Gibli, is unprecedented in his ability to transport viewers to breathtaking and fully immersive worlds. His work in animation is as essential as anything coming from the wizards at Pixar.
Queer-O-Meter: 6. I spoke to somebody at last year’s Gaylaxicon who lamented Ponyo for being heteronormative in the way its principal character embraced the “human” world and abandoning the exotic other. I, however, saw a poignant story of a sheltered individual raised by a protective and fear-driven parent in a world she did not belong in; resolute in her resolve to be with the one she loves. Sounds kind of queer to me.
The September Issue (Dir. R.J. Cutler)
What’s the Deal: Anine-monthlook in the life of Vogue editor Anna Wintour, as she and her subordinates assemble the largest issue in the history of the magazine.
Is it any good? It is a great documentary in a year rich with great documentaries. Wintour – who inspired the Meryl Streep character in The Devil Wears Prada – is a delightfully frigid, subject, but even more fascinating than the Vogue legend is the incredulous magazine staff under her command.
Queer-O-Meter: 4. Like Outrage, the documentary’s structure boasts no real innovations, but viewers have much to appreciate in the extravagant fashion and flamboyant energy on display. September is essential viewing for the future queer fashionistas of the world having trouble finding their calling.
Sherlock Holmes (Dir. Guy Ritchie)
What’s the Deal: A cinematic resuscitation of history’s most famous detective and his…ahem…partner in crime-solving.
Is it any good? The director of Snatch realizes an appropriately gritty presentation of 19th Century London, but the mystery at the heart of this story, while ambitious, is disappointingly flaccid. In the end, the whole thing feels more like a 120-minute episode of Scooby Doo.
Queer-O-Meter: 7. You don’t have to be as smart as Sherlock to detect the underlying homoeroticism between the two protagonists, with Robert Downey Jr. playing a charmingly disheveled Ernie to Jude Law’s finicky Bert. Had this relationship been given the proper attention it deserved, there might have been a movie worth seeing.
A Single Man (Dir. Tom Ford)
What’s the Deal: George, coping (poorly) with the sudden loss of his lover, lives out his last day on earth, which he plans to punctuate with the insertion of a pistol into his mouth.
Is it any good? Despite the vivid imagery and elaborately contrived production design, it is the performances by Colin Firth and Julianne Moore that truly cannot be missed. Their onscreen chemistry hints at a kind of personal history that even the most talented screenwriter cannot properly convey.
Queer-O-Meter: 10. Aptcomparisons have been drawn between this film and Haynes’ Far from Heaven. Indeed, Ford’s simultaneously idyllic yet tempestuous production of an oppressively homophobic existence mimics Heaven’s near-academic ability to blend weighty issues into a uniquely queer diegesis. More notably, not since at least 300 has the beauty of the male form been celebrated and idolized with such gleeful fetishism.
Taking Woodstock (Dir. Ang Lee)
What’s the Deal: A young gay man,desperate to save his family-run motel, finds himself hosting the definitive rock concert of American history.
Is it any good? Not the masterpiece we come to expect from the director who made Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Lust, Caution, but not entirely deserving of the vitriol it has received from critics. Still, I could have done without all of those embarrassing Jewish stereotypes.
Queer-O-Meter: 5. Lee, who also directed gay-themed movies like The Wedding Banquet and Brokeback Mountain, is better known for his cerebral, Bergman-like emotional discipline than he is for his queer sensibilities. Nonetheless, it is interesting to see a queer character in the movies with a clearly established – though never explicitly defined – sexual identity. Oh, and Liev Schreiber as the cross-dressing, gun-toting chief of Woodstock security is a blast.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
What’s the Deal: The epic continuation of the definitive battle between good and evil, as the Autobots take on the dastardly Decepticons in the blah, blah, blah, blah, blah…
Is it any good? At the risk of indulging in too many superlatives, the second Transformers is as much a cinematic abomination as its predecessor. It is bloated, messy, and absolutely no fun.
Queer-O-Meter: 0. Not only is Transformers completely devoid of any kind of queer subtext, it whores itself out to an ideal in which everything wrong with America – heterosexism, gender stereotypes, white supremacy et al. – is lionized, fetishized, and rewarded.
Whip It (Dir. Drew Barrymore)
What’s the Deal: A high school teenager, dragged unwillingly by her mother to compete in one beauty pageant after another, secretly pursues her true passion, enlisting in a roller-derby team.
Is it any good? At its core, this sports flick as been seen countless times before, but what elevates Whip It above convention is Barrymore’s tensely filmed roller derby sequences and Ellen Page’s reticent feminist virtuosity.
Queer-O-Meter: 5. This is the Hollywood movie that fans of the Minnesota Roller Girls would want to see. While the politics at play here never depart from the “girls are just as tough as the boys” gender binary, the girls in Whip It do take as hard of a beating in the ring as any other male-centered sports flick. What’s more, we even catch a glimpse of some (non-exploitative) girl-on-girl action.