The year’s best queer films are at times haunted by the dread of AIDS or paternal loss, of sons holding on to their fathers’ hands but not until the fathers are dying. Many of these films are also driven by the fear of shame over unpredictable bodily alliances. Sometimes that shame is overcome with the help of literature. Other times literature is all one has left, along with the testimonial properties of heartbreak. The sad link between these films is that the resilience of queer lives is only matched by the resilience of shame as an affect structuring bodies from Brooklyn to Yorkshire, and seemingly forever. No wonder some have learned to just keep on cruising, as if to take off before queer guilt turns up to remind us of queerness’s heavy price.
Most remarkably, however, may be how, in 2017, queerness on screen is no synonym for homosexuality writ large, but a strategy—unconscious, corporeal, literary—of resisting and unsettling categories. A way of daring the body to go elsewhere and the unsaid to be uttered at last, as silence has never not equaled death. A way of coming and going instead of having to choose one or the other. Queerness appears beyond its sexual meaning, as that ultimate form of derailing, popping up in the middle of Parisian orgies and auditoriums, in highbrow fantasies of the Italian countryside and in the numbing gloom of British wilderness: a little bit of love where there was only lust, control, or erudition. Diego Semerene.
On paper, Alain Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical sounds like a great many relationship dramas. Léo (Damien Bonnard) is a drifting screenwriter who alternatingly resides in hotel rooms and crashes with strangers, becoming involved with Marie (India Hair), a woman living somewhere in the French countryside. They have a child together, and Marie leaves Léo and the baby, which inspires the man to grapple with his selfishness as he struggles to raise his son and come up with a screenplay adequate enough to pay his mounting expenses. But little is ordinary about Staying Vertical, which has more in common with Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake than is initially apparent. Both exhibit a powerfully tactile understanding of sexual relationships as universes onto themselves, both overwhelmingly concern stifled male sexuality, and both pivot on heroes who are essentially and existentially displaced voyeurs. Guiraudie simulates true chaos by refusing to adhere to standardized notions of foreshadowing and payoff. This film can’t be called a thriller, domestic drama, or morality tale, as it’s a hybrid that captures various interior states of panic and detachment—as well as a longing for escape from these emotional realms. The climax restores some measure of orientation with poetic symbolism that contextualizes Staying Vertical as a coming-of-age story, but it scarcely reassures us, because Guiraudie has so confidently sent us scurrying out and about in the desperate farcical wilderness, where anything goes. Chuck Bowen
Strong Island is most compelling as an examination of director Yance Ford himself, a transgender man who struggled with his sexual identity throughout his time at Hamilton College, which overlapped with his brother’s death. Ford excavates this past as a simultaneous act of civic justice and personal understanding. The most powerful passages here invoke a contrast between two very different Yances: the stone-faced man we see in stark, close-up confessionals, a rigorously self-assured person who talks truth to power on racial injustice and the dehumanization of crime statistics, and the young person glimpsed in photographs who once identified as a woman and grappled with her estrangement from her family. Both Yances directly inform the way the filmmaker views his relationship with his brother’s death today. Sam C. Mac
No orgy is complete without the participation of at least one person for whom the word “prophylactic” means “pocket protector.” João Pedro Rodrigues isn’t the only filmmaker contributing to our current and unmistakably pink-sploitation renaissance. But with all due deference to this, the year of the peach, Rodrigues is arguably the only one who consistently makes films without a safe word. Such is his dogged pursuit of culturally hyperconscious pleasure that he even inverts what would be typically thought of as text and subtext in arty rough trade. Rugged naturalist Fernando’s (Paul Hamy) picaresque river trip bears surface comparisons to the life of St. Anthony of Padua, patron saint of missed connections. But, long before the director himself emerges to add meta to his money shot, The Ornithologist is cruising the nooks and crannies of its creator-protagonist’s amygdala, from the rope burns of bondage to covert, subterranean piss play. If Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake transmogrified into Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World,” that would only begin to suggest the ways that The Ornithologist’s survivalism playfully distorts the earlier film’s death impulse. Eric Henderson
The most beguiling aspects of Joachim Trier’s Thelma aren’t in the present-day relationship that the titular character (Eili Harboe) develops with her female college classmate, but in the queerness of the child she once was. Whether we believe Thelma’s child self to be a telekinetic killer or the projection of parental nightmares, here queerness appears in the surrendering to sexual curiosity but also in the general strangeness of our most primal feelings, such as making a little brother disappear. Although Thelma’s flashbacks aim to elucidate some of the mysteriousness of the narrative, they amount to a much creepier standalone tale of sibling rivalry and Scandinavian froideur with lethal consequences. The child is refreshingly allowed to take shape as the mound of incomprehension and cruel desires it so often is. Semerene
In the underrated Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, Stephen Cone sketches out an unassumingly astute cinema that aims to expose the bread and butter of American sexuality—religion, hypocrisy, repression—without shaming it. Cone achieves this through a complete lack of interest in stylistic experimentation, and delectably so. In his new film, his images are once again much like his main characters: awfully conventional on the outside but boiling on the inside. In Princess Cyd, he continues to explore white people’s stowed-away desires through the deceiving aesthetics of a Lifetime movie—a courteous sadism of sorts that cloaks uncomfortable truths with the most familiar of aesthetics. Princess Cyd focuses on the awkward relationship between a successful (and successfully frigid) writer, Miranda Ruth (Rebecca Spence), and her literature-averse niece, Cyd (Jessie Pinnick), when the latter comes to visit her aunt in Chicago for a couple of weeks. They’re largely alien to each other in a home haunted by memories of Cyd’s deceased mother, Miranda’s sister. The erotic tension between the two is only faintly palpable, as Cone is no unabashed provocateur. Although Miranda’s literary passion and independence, her tacit queerness, awaken Cyd’s own queer feelings, they get quickly diverted toward another woman, local butch barista Katie (Malic White). By then the cat’s out of the bag, and both aunt and niece have learned to accept the risks—without the shame—that come with strange books and strangers’ bodies. Seremene