What do we have to do to get some queer Oscar nominees out there? A lot more, apparently. This year’s lineup of Academy Award nominees, disappointingly, leaves much to be desired in terms of queer representation. The fact that these oversights follow a year of efforts by filmmakers to create dynamic, nuanced works featuring the LGBTQ+ community is especially disappointing. To make up for their snubs, we’re once again doing our part to recognize the best LGBTQ+ films released last year.
Best picture: “Rocketman”
The only selection on this list to have received any kind of recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — a best original song nomination for “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” — “Rocketman” is a biographical film tour de force, equal parts charming and heartbreaking. It’s not just Taron Egerton as Elton John who gets to belt out classics such as “Honky Cat” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” — just about everyone in the cast gets their turn to shine as a vocalist, blending biopic with campy musical in a way that cheekily mirrors the essence of the man whose life is playing out on the screen. It’s also the first movie by a major studio to feature a sex scene between two men (John himself made sure it wasn’t cut out), which goes to show that, slowly but steadily, progress toward mainstream acceptance of queer sexuality is being made.
“Rockrtman” is currently available on Amazon Prime Video.
Best actress: Molly Shannon, “Wild Nights with Emily”
A preoccupation with the mysterious and celebrated Emily Dickinson is nothing new for the world of cinema. Most recently, this has manifested in a new Apple TV+ series, in addition to our pick for best actress, Molly Shannon, playing the titular poet in “Wild Nights with Emily.”
The enigmatic Dickinson is brought to life in carefully articulated strokes. The ever-hilarious Shannon delivers a performance like only she can — her depiction is bursting with humor yet tempered with expert timing and consideration. Rather than limiting Dickinson to the cloak of obscurity that so often plagues retellings of her life, Shannon illuminates the film’s approach to telling Dickinson’s story with refreshing candor. The film chooses not to dance around her queerness, but to instead bulldoze any expectations of the contrary. Shannon is a worthy opponent to the canon built around Dickinson’s life, and her portrayal of the poet feels honest, light and masterfully articulated.
“Wild Nights with Emily” is currently available on iTunes and Amazon.
Best screenplay: “Booksmart”
By way of biting wit, wholesome relatability and belly-laugh-inducing humor, “Booksmart” charmed audiences when released last summer. Contrary to its box-office numbers, the film amassed a small but devoted cult-like following that, beyond its dynamic representation, rightfully lands the film on our list.
The directorial debut of Hollywood heavy-hitter Olivia Wilde, “Booksmart” tells the charming story of two young women, best friends Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), on the brink of college with little to show for it. After realizing their wilder peers are going off to the same Ivy League schools that they are, they decide that up until now they’ve played it too safe. The film subsequently follows their one night reclamation of adolescence. With a simple enough premise, the film succeeds in the way that it, like its protagonists, refuses to play it safe. “Booksmart” regards its teenage heroines as flawed, gross, beautiful and brilliant — privileging its young protagonists with the same vulgarity as the genre’s male contemporaries. Beyond this, the film readily accepts a world in which oft-reproduced archetypes have little bearing on reality. Your local mean girl has a heart, your local douchebag loves a good musical and everyone, be they queer, straight, stoners or straight-A students, can be booksmart.
“Booksmart” is currently available on Amazon Prime Video and Hulu.
Best international feature film: “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”
There is literally nothing out there like “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” Step aside, “Blue is the Warmest Colour” — a much better piece of lesbian French cinema is here to take the throne. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” has actually received a great deal of accolades, and rightfully so. Its representation of female sexuality and the love that blossoms between painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant)and aristocrat Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) is tender, fiery and told in the manner that all narratives about queer women should be told: through the female gaze. Although the tale is a tragedy and its beginning tells us so, there’s nothing about the film that feels exploitative in how it deals with such tragedy. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” defies notions of how women are conventionally portrayed on-screen, and it’s a story that haunts you with its beauty well after the final scene.
Although last year’s Oscars saw new contemporary queer classics such as “The Favourite” acknowledged by the academy, it’s hard not to feel as if this year is somewhat of a step backward. Queer films overall are often cheated of any mainstream recognition. But in our little queer Oscars, at least, these films have a chance to shine.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is currently playing at Landmark’s Albany Twin.