Hallelujah. It's a good year for Outfest, L.A.'s annual gay and lesbian film festival. This year's films are varied, complex and, best of all, thematically mature. Perhaps, at long last, queer cinema is leaving its extended adolescence behind. Here are 10 highlights.
Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton
"He was an outsider's outsider," says one of Big Joy's talking heads about influential experimental filmmaker and poet James Broughton. The iconoclast's groundbreaking film work was influenced by Cocteau while his literary endeavors set the stage for the arrival of the Beats. Directors Eric Slade, Stephen Silha and Dawn Logsdon are respectful of their subject but don't shy away from the less noble aspects of his life (i.e., the wives and children who were casualties of his evolving sexuality identity.) Packed with film clips, home movies and photos, Big celebrates a man who found endless joy in his queerness. (EH)
Born This Way
Directors Shaun Kadlec and Deb Tullmann document the legal and cultural homophobia faced by LGBT people in the small African nation of Cameroon, while also capturing extraordinary courage from its nascent queer-rights movement, from a gay man dodging death threats from his neighbors to lesbian survivors of "corrective rape" to fierce heterosexual gay-rights lawyer Alice Nkom. Born's upbeat ending, meant to celebrate the resilience of its subjects, feels forced in light of all they're up against, but it's a rare misstep in the film. (EH)
A guaranteed tear-jerker, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason's documentary fleshes out the heartbreaking story of Tom Bridegroom and Shane Bitney Crone, whose fairy-tale romance came to a tragic end with Tom's accidental death. Following that loss, Tom's family displayed staggering cruelty to Shane, including barring him from Tom's funeral. Especially timely in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, the film (whose title is taken from Tom's real and apt surname) painfully illustrates the human cost of the now-dismantled Defense of Marriage Act. (EH)
God Loves Uganda
Director Roger Ross Williams' timely documentary on the volatile battle around LGBT rights in Uganda might be the best look to date at the subject. A heady, engrossing exploration of the ways in which race, sexuality and market- and hate-driven religious conservatism imported from America are fueling the country's deadly bigotry, the film connects dots that often are obscured or simply ignored when Uganda's brutal homophobia is discussed. Fast-moving and packed with information and analysis, God Loves Uganda is one of the must-see films in this year's festival. (EH)
Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia
In his last years, Gore Vidal played the role of elder statesman–as-curmudgeon, and director Nicholas Wrathall's documentary captures him in fine form in his twilight: Vidal's elegantly low-key diss of Christopher Hitchens at a book signing is masterful bitchiness. The film's strength is the way it uses Vidal's life (illustrated in vintage photos, newsreels and home movies) to catalogue 20th-century America's myriad political and social changes, with Vidal — a blue-blood class traitor — offering biting critiques of every cultural and political plot twist, right until the end. (EH)
I Am Divine
One of the most joyous and bittersweet films in this year's festival is Jeffrey Schwarz's look at the life, career and massive cultural influence of queer icon Divine. John Waters, Mink Stole and Divine's mother, among others, offer anecdotes and analysis to explain how the overweight, big-hearted, painfully shy man they knew created one of the most radical, profane pop culture figures ever. Highlights include lots of clips from rarely screened, little-seen early John Waters films. (EH)
Lovers Luke (Samuel Pettit) and Jonah (Sean Rose) have been inseparable since they were 4, but Jonah is going to college, leaving Luke behind in their tiny Southern town. Writer-director Mark Thiedeman, collaborating with cinematographer David Goodman, is fascinated with light and texture. (He's a junior Terrence Malick.) Prepare to be patient, but don't be surprised if you're haunted days later by a long close-up of two sets of scuffed sneakers rubbing together playfully. The young men wearing those shoes are lying together on a bed, kissing, presumably, but mostly giggling, with a joy as pure as sunlight. (CW)
The lesbian role in both the macro feminist movement and the gay-rights battle is too often obscured. Director Myriam Fougère's exquisite, globe-trotting history lesson on the centrality of lesbians to both movements is informative even for scholars of lesbian and feminist histories. Stock footage, mesmerizing original interviews and a political point of view that factors in issues of race and class ground the film's heady ride through issues ranging from separatism to the importance of women's art in times of revolution. (EH)
The Other Shore: The Diana Nyad Story
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The greatest marathon swimmer in history, Diana Nyad, now in her 60s, is determined to complete her lifelong dream of swimming from Cuba to Florida. In this gripping documentary, director-cinematographer Timothy Wheeler (who's Nyad's nephew) takes us into the ocean with Nyad and her amazing support team. Watching Nyad brave a jellyfish attack is truly harrowing, but admiration gradually gives way to concern and then dismay as the defeated swimmer talks herself, and those around her, into yet another attempt. And then another... (CW)
Five years after his virtuoso debut, The New Twenty, writer-director Chris Mason Johnson returns with a daring tonal shift. With a delightful feel for period detail (phones with long, tangled cords!), Johnson takes us to San Francisco, circa 1985. AIDS terror has everyone on edge, including Frankie (Scott Marlowe), a dancer trying his best not to panic. Are those freckles or lesions on his back? Should he take the new HIV test? Filled with gorgeous all-male ensemble dance numbers, Test is a slow build but deeply rewarding. Here's hoping it doesn't take Johnson five years to make his next film. (CW)
OUTFEST | Citywide | July 11 - 21 | outfest.org