Where once onscreen representation of the LGBTQ+ experience was scarce (at best), these days smart, dynamic and truly inclusive queer content is becoming more commonplace. Characters in our favorite TV shows and films are expanding beyond “the gay BFF,” “the murderous lesbian,” and the “suicidal homosexual” tropes, and stories where the lead’s sexuality isn’t the whole point of the plot are also finally being made (see the wonderful Schitt’s Creek).
There are also a number of new movie releases on the way. With the early part of 2021 filled with festivals—including Raindance, Sundance, Glasgow Film Festival, and the British Film Institute’s Flare (dedicated solely to LGBTQ+ programming)—it looks as though it could be a defining year for queer cinema.
From a South American-set thriller to a documentary celebrating the power of the dancefloor, here are 10 of the best new queer films coming to a screen near you.
1. Rebel Dykes (UK, 2021)
“It wasn’t like we woke up and decided to be rebel dykes. We had things to rebel against,” says Karen Fisch towards the end of this fascinating exploration of 1980s lesbian London. This post-punk, working-class collective of friends, lovers, activists and anarchists found each other at Greenham Common peace camp and went on to fight for their right to express their sexuality, identity and desires on their own terms—in strong opposition to the rhetoric of the day.
From squats and sex parties to abseiling into the Houses of Parliament and interrupting the BBC’s Six O’Clock News while live on air, these people helped pave the way for a safer, more liberated world for all queer people, regardless of identity, race, class, ideologies or sexual desires. Using archive home video, protest music, assorted flyers and paraphernalia from the time, this is a visual masterclass in a radical 1980s aesthetic and a BFI Flare highlight.
2. My First Summer (Australia, 2020)
This beautifully shot coming-of-age drama written and directed by Katie Found is a quiet, slow look at loss, friendship and first love. The sheltered Claudia (Markella Kavenagh) is left alone in a remote cottage after her mother’s suicide; comfort arrives in the form of Grace (Maiah Stewardson) who carefully helps to bring Claudia back to life. The teens fall in love, though it’s not long before the adult world encroaches on their idyllic summer. A bold debut about gentle desire.
3. Well Rounded (Canada, 2020)
“You don’t give a shit about my health. My weight offends you. Let’s start there.” Canadian comedian Candy Palmater is just one of six utterly engaging voices representing BIPOC, LGB2TQ+, and disabled and fat voices in this uplifting and powerful 61-minute documentary from Shana Myara. It examines the challenges of existing in a fatphobic, heteronormative, racist world; there’s struggle—some of these stories, particularly at the hands of health professionals, are utterly appalling—but there’s also revolution, liberation and radicalization.
4. Cured (US, 2020)
For queer Americans in the 1950s and 1960s, the battle for freedom wasn’t only a legal and cultural fight—to be gay meant being fired from work, social exclusion, prison sentences, mental hospitals, conversion and electric shock therapy, and in certain cases, a lobotomy.
This in-depth study of mid-20th-century US queer history features newly discovered archive footage and interviews with people who put their lives and livelihoods on the line for our future freedoms. Child psychiatrist and social activist Lawrence Hartmann, GLAAD co-founder Ron Gold, activist and photographer Kay Lahusen and her partner Barbara Gittings (who organized the New York chapter of the seminal lesbian organization, Daughters of Bilitis), and social justice campaigner Reverend Magora Kennedy are just a few of the prominent names to be featured. Directed by Bennett Singer and Patrick Sammon, Cured is a moving and very necessary piece of filmmaking.
5. Cowboys (US, 2020)
An emotionally taut piece of cinema from director Anna Kerrigan about a well-intentioned father, Troy (Steve Zahn), doing his best to protect his transgender son Joe (Sasha Knight) both from the world at large and his own mother, Sally (Jillian Bell), who is unable to accept her child’s gender.
Set in the vast landscape of Montana’s spectacular Glacier National Park, Cowboys is as visually entrancing as it is riveting. Zahn and Knight deliver nuanced performances and the story, which flits between flashback and the present day, reveals not only Joe’s journey through identity but Troy’s own mental health struggles, too. A quietly gripping movie that delivers a much-needed positive outcome without succumbing to cliche.
6. Where Love Lives (UK, 2021)
From legendary British label Defected Records comes this uplifting documentary focusing on the eponymous, super-inclusive night Glitterbox. Nightclub performers, DJs and pioneers such as Honey Dijon, TeTe Bang, Lucy Fizz and John “Jellybean” Benitez passionately discuss the power and importance of the dance floor as a unifying space and a place of acceptance. As Pose’s Billy Porter says: “The only reason I’m still alive is because I found life on the dance floor.” While not everyone around the world is able to party just yet, the sheer energy, enthusiasm and soundtrack of this one-hour offering will transport your mind, body and soul straight to the club.
7. The Dose (La Dosis) (Argentina, 2020)
This sinister tale set in a palliative care ward sees seemingly capable and caring nurse Marcos Roldán (Carlos Portaluppi) secretly expediting the lives of severely ill patients. When ingratiating new nurse Gabriel (Ignacio Rogers) shows up for a shift, it seems like Marcos has some competition. A tense tale charged with themes of masculinity, ethics, alienation and slow-burn psychological threat, this homoerotic thriller is tightly wound right to the very last scene.
8. Kiss Me Before It Blows Up (Kiss Me Kosher) (Germany, 2020)
Israeli director Shirel Peleg has a lot to unpack in this unconventional love story set in Tel Aviv, yet she explores race, religion, queer love and generational trauma with a very light touch. Bar owner Shira (Moran Rosenblatt) introduces her German botanist fiancée Maria (Luise Wolfram) to her Jewish family—much to her grandmother’s dismay. Complications and miscommunications abound, putting the pair’s wedding in doubt. This intergenerational look at love, like many on this list, offers a refreshingly hopeful outcome while raising interesting ethical questions.
9. Rūrangi: The Yellow Affair (New Zealand, 2021)
Possibly the best offering at BFI Flare, this smart, sensitive, brilliantly executed movie from Max Currie and trans writer Cole Meyers follows trans activist Caz Davis (Elz Carrad) returning home after a decade away to the dairy community of Rūrangi.
His return—the first time since transitioning—provokes strong reactions, particularly from his father Gerald (Kirk Torrance), but what’s so effective about Rūrangi (originally a TV series now turned into a film) is the way it thoughtfully paints shades of grey. We don’t always get things right, but we have to keep talking, listening and trying. Populated by Māori people and gender-diverse actors and crew, this feels deeply authentic. Recently picked up by Hulu, this is an award-winning exploration of how love can, sometimes, overcome all.
10. Sweetheart (UK, 2021)
A highlight of the Glasgow Film Festival and led by the utterly charming newcomer Nell Barlow, this coming-of-age comedy from Marley Morrison centers around deeply awkward 17-year-old AJ (Barlow) who is forced to join her family on holiday at a caravan park. Without wifi and antagonized by her mum and sister, the week is saved by the arrival of lifeguard Isla (Ella-Rae Smith). Quick-witted and understated, Sweetheart is a feel-good story that leaves everyone on a high.