This year in film has been quite queer if you count how many times Call Me By Your Name has been included on Best Of lists, but as we’ve seen in past awards seasons, one gay-themed film does not ensure equal-footing, nor does it indicate we’ll see a plethora of copycats in the years to come. Brokeback Mountain broke down a few barriers, Carol opened up some opportunities, and Moonlight managed to defy expectations by most mainstream standards, but by and large, Hollywood has maintained its heteronormativity, especially in a year of #MeToos and continued misogyny on behalf of its male gatekeepers, straight and gay alike.
When it comes to how queer women were portrayed on the big screen this year, there were no Call Me By Your Names to call our own, but there were other smaller scale offerings that varied in their watch-worthiness. Still, some highlighted small amounts of progress in their own respective ways, and others proved that new queer cinema is still a genre of indie gems that won’t win accolades from the typical male-dominated critics circle, but could fare better with the communities they are attempting to represent if given the opportunities to be unearthed.
There were few mainstream films released in nationwide theaters that had positive portrayals of LGBTQ women, but they were notable nonetheless.
Focus Features’ Atomic Blonde gave Charlize Theron’s protagonist a short-lived woman love interest (Sofia Boutella), making her a bisexual James Bond of sorts. The film’s lack of plot development and (spoiler!) murder of said female lover did not ultimately deliver satisfaction. Still, it was distinctive in that it allowed the lead to have same-sex attraction beyond flirtation or subtext, which has too often been the case.
In the musical-themed film Song to Song, Rooney Mara takes a female lover for a while, too, an although said lover (Bérénice Marlohe) does not perish, she receives the same amount of weight as Theron’s own gal palwhich is to say, less than her male counterparts. More explicit w4w duets take place in Hello Again, the highly queer adaptation of the off-Broadway show.
Rough Night not only featured out superstar Kate McKinnon, but had two queer women as central characters in its female-led film. The comedy wasn’t as successful as Girls Trip, and received well-placed criticism for its “We murdered a sex worker!” storyline, but Ilana Glazer and Zoe Kravitz’s central love story and respected place in their core friend group was one of the first times a major comedy has given a lesbian and bisexual woman that kind of development in a wide release.
As Adele Wolff in xXx: Return of Xander Cage, out actress Ruby Rose is visibly and openly queer, but in a stereotypical, misogynistic and womanizing way. While it’s rare that an action film have this kind of inclusion, the representation left a lot to be desired, especially as Adele never got the girl. That might have been too much for a global franchise led by Vin Diesel.
Rose also had a role in Pitch Perfect 3, though she wasn’t the problematic element of this trilogy. Instead, it’s the treatment of sole lesbian character, Cynthia Rose, and the queerbaiting of Beca and Chloe’s close but not explicitly queer friendship.
And while Wonder Woman is canonically a queer character, Patty Jenkin’s adaptation left any trace of gayness or bisexuality out of her big screen adaptation, a fact that was great fodder for an entertaining SNL sketch. Angela Robinson’s Professor Marston and the Wonder Women had a much more Sapphic spin, telling the story of the superhero’s creator and the polyamorous relationship he and his wife shared with their girlfriend.
It was full of kink, too, even more than Fifty Shades Darker, which had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-them black lesbian coupleone of Christian’s co-workers (Robinne Lee) and her wife who can be seen holding each other toward the end of the film.
Similarly in Get Out, the insinuation is that Allison Williams’ character had a relationship with Betty Gabriel‘s Georgina, whom she’s seen in a photograph with hinting they had a romantic connection similar to Williams’ with the men that she brought home to eventually be brainwashed and held captive.
It’s also worth noting that Frida Kahlo’s cameo in Coco gave the animated film a hint of queer inclusion, alongside some possibly gay uncles.
The winner for best large-scale lesbian representation in 2017 would be Battle of the Sexes, the not-quite biopic about Billie Jean King centering on one specific moment in the legendary tennis player’s life when she won a highly-watched match against the misogynistic men’s player Bobby Riggs. Battle of the Sexes had star power with Emma Stone as King and Steve Carell as Riggs alongside supporters Sarah Silverman, Alan Cumming, Bill Pullman, and Elisabeth Shue. While it was a sweet snapshot of King’s huge win for women, it was a little bit of revisionist history when it came to her relationship with her first girlfriend, Marilyn Barnett, who would eventually out King to the public.
Some of the best queer-themed cinema of the year flew under the radar, despite opening to critical acclaim at festivals. One such film was Sundance’s Lovesong, which was released in theaters and On Demand in early 2017. This love story between college friends-turned-lovers (Riley Keough and Jena Malone) is bittersweet, but so well done. It’ll leave you with an insatiable ache.
Norwegian coming-of-age thrillerThelma is another can’t miss, with several Best Foreign Film nods and truly stunning cinematography to accompany its at times horrific tale. The titular character comes into her own after falling for another woman, but finds love is not without its complications.
The campy comedy Catfight has Anne Heche and Alicia Silverstone as girlfriends, and girl-on-girlviolence, that is, involving Sandra Oh. Almost as painful to watch is 3 Generations, the well-intentioned but poorly executed story of a transitioning teen (Elle Fanning) whose biggest struggle is getting his parents and lesbian grandmother (Susan Sarandon) to understand and support him properly.
If Wonder Woman wasn’t offering the queer feminist utopia we wanted, then Bruce La Bruce provided it in The Misandrists. The satire takes place in a lesbian separatist commune where the women are part of the Female Liberation Army. When a man stumbles onto their land, chaos ensues.
Chicago-shot indies Princess Cyd and Signature Move have both won accolades from critics and viewers for coming out narratives and female-centric love stories. The latter was also praised for its unconventional pairing of a Pakistani Muslim woman with a Mexican lesbian in a nuanced romance set amongst lucha libre wrestling.
Fans of the web series Carmilla got their due in The Carmilla Movie, sinking their teeth into a longer, more in-depth scenario with out actress Natasha Negovanlis and co-star Elise Bauman fully committing to their on-screen partnership for perhaps the last time.
Three documentaries also helped to enrich lesbian cinema this year: Chavela, a telling tale of the late Mexican ranchera singer, Chavela Vargas; This is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous, an unabashed look at the life of the trans/queer YouTube star; and Small Talk, in which Taiwanese director Huang Hui-chen attempts to get her lesbian mother to open up to her.The latter was an Oscar hopeful for Best Foreign Film, but didn’t get the nod.
In 2018, we have a lot more queer women-themed films to look forward to, including some star-studded indies like My Days of Mercy (Ellen Page and Kate Mara), A Worthy Companion (Evan Rachel Wood), Disobedience (Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz), and Lizzie (Kristen Stewart and Chloë Sevigny). In February, the ensemble dark comedy The Party features out actress Cherry Jones as a “a first-rate lesbian and a second-rate thinker,” according to co-star Patricia Clarkson’s character. And at some point, Vita & Virginia should make its long-awaited premiere, as should the Anna Paquin-starrer Tell it to the Bees.
Still, these films are all about queer white women, and the only hint that 2018 will have some QWOC-focused alternatives is Israeli director Limor Shmila‘s debut, Montana, which premiered at TIFF this fall.
We might have more hope for television in the next year than in theaters, as Hollywood is still coming to terms with its lack of diversity and self-awareness. But here’s hoping that projects conceived of for 2019 will fare much better, and then we might, too.