As the pandemic approaches its one-year mark, the film industry continues to adjust to this new world. Release dates have been pushed, drive-ins have made a moderate return, and film festivals have gone online. While I would do just about anything to sit in a movie theatre again — except risk pandemic safety — that last change isn’t all bad. Film festivals going online means that more people can watch a wider variety of lesser known films!
I was lucky enough to be on the screening committee for Newfest, New York’s largest LGBTQ+ film festival, this year and I am so excited about the final program. And if you live in the US you can watch the films! Even if you’re not in New York!
It’s a big slate with 120 films, panels, and virtual events from tomorrow, October 16th through October 27th. To help you choose what to check out, here are my top ten recommendations.
Bonus #1 – Shorts: Dream a Little Dream
I haven’t seen all of the shorts that are being screened and haven’t even seen all the shorts in this program BUT I did want to mention it, because it has two of my favorite shorts I watched. Maxwell Nalevansky’s Jazzberry and Xanthe Dobbie’s Elagabalus are both electrifying shots of queer creativity and they should not be missed.
Bonus #2 – No Hard Feelings (dir. Faraz Shariat)
This list doesn’t include films only about queer men, but this movie is very good and you should watch it!!
Bonus #3 – All Trans Brokeback Mountain Screenplay Table Read (prod. Gaby Dunn)
Conflict of interest: I am in this! But even if I wasn’t in this I’d still recommend it, because who wouldn’t want to watch Brian Michael Smith, Leo Sheng, Alexandra Grey, Jen Richards, and a bunch of other trans actors (yes, myself included) perform an all-trans version of Brokeback Mountain?? I mean, come on.
10. Ahead of the Curve (dir. Jen Rainin)
Since you’re here on Autostraddle dot com, there’s a good chance you’re someone who cares about the past and future of lesbian media. This documentary about Franco Stevens and the founding of Curve magazine (originally Deneuve) is a fascinating look at the last 30 years of lesbian media, representation, and culture. The film works as both an essential historical record and an exploration of where we are today — and where we might be tomorrow.
9. Rūrangi (dir. Max Currie)
Trans person returns to their small town post-transition has become something of a trope, but what elevates this New Zealand film is its sharp trans and queer perspective. Before activist Caz returns home, we get to see him in his community surrounded by a wide variety of other trans people. And once he arrives, conflict with his dad is accompanied by support from his queer woman friend from childhood and the rekindling of a past romance. This isn’t a fish out of water story centering the reactions of cishet people. This is Caz’s story and the story of the queer and trans people of various genders who fill his life with meaning.
8. Kelet (dir. Susani Mahadura)
This hour-long documentary about Kelet, a Somali trans woman living in Finland, is a gorgeous portrait of the Helsinki ballroom scene and this one captivating individual. The quiet moments between Kelet and her friend Lola are as arresting as the ball scenes and the film ends up being a testament to chosen family and the struggle to own your culture and yourself. There’s a sharp difference between Kelet’s experiences modeling in normative spaces and her intracommunity performances and Mahadura’s camera emphasizes these differences. Kelet is searching for where she belongs and it’s a pleasure to witness a part of that journey.
7. Shiva Baby (dir. Emma Seligman)
This is officially a comedy, but with its horror movie score, claustrophobic cinematography, and premise of running into your sugar daddy and your ex-girlfriend at a shiva, I think it’s safe to say this is the scariest movie of the festival. Rachel Sennott stars as Danielle, a 20-something on the precipice of college graduation who has no idea what to do with her life — career-wise or otherwise. Seligman does such an excellent job capturing a specific type of Jewish culture and the simmering anxiety it induces. The cast — that includes Dianna Agron! — is excellent, especially Sennott who excels equally in moments where she’s living a nightmare and in moments where she is the nightmare. It’s probably good that I had to watch this at home because I spent the whole movie shouting NO at the screen.
6. Forgotten Roads (dir. Nicol Ruiz Benavides)
This movie has EVERYTHING. A 70-something lesbian rediscovering her sexuality. Another 70-something lesbian who is married to a man but moonlights as a queer lounge singer. Gays, against all odds, learning how to drive. UFOs. Yes. UFOs. Benavides’ debut film is emotionally accessible and artistically esoteric and that combination makes for an incredible viewing experience. I have seen a lot of lesbian movies in my time and it’s always special when something not only surprises me with its quality but actually just surprises me?? There has truly never been a movie like this one. UFOs!!
5. Your Mother’s Comfort (dir. Adam Golub)
This documentary about Brazilian trans activist Indianara Siqueira is more than just a portrait of a person. Through Siquiera, Golub’s film captures all that she cares about and represents. The film shows the power of sex worker-led community action and mutual aid. It shows the impossibility and the necessity of marginalized people fighting for our lives. And, specifically, it shows the tumultuous recent years of Brazilian politics and the impact of Siqueira and Casa Nem, the house she runs for trans youth. There are so many moments of joy, so many moments of pain. Witnessing Siqueira’s persistence — and her doubts — is a gift right now especially. When I say this film is inspiring I don’t mean that in a surface level hopeful documentary sort of way. I mean it gets under your skin, buries itself deep within, and helps you to keep going another day. If you’re feeling lost in the weeks leading up to the US election, let this film be your comfort.
4. Welcome to the USA (dir. Assel Aushakimova)
This is the first Kazakh lesbian film I’ve seen and it’s always such a treat to get a window into a new country’s lesbian culture and cinema — especially when the film is this good. The title eludes not to the film’s setting, but to protagonist Aliya’s future destination. She has won the green card lottery and is beginning to say goodbye to a home she resents. Saltanat Nauruz is wonderful as Aliya. This is a subtle film and it’s effective largely because of her performance. The whole film feels culturally and personally specific even as it explores issues many queer people face such as obligation vs. desire. This isn’t a plot-heavy film, but what’s on screen lingers long after it ends.
3. BloodSisters: Leather, Dykes, and Sadomasochism (dir. Michelle Handelman)
Autostraddle is co-presenting this 25th anniversary screening of Michelle Handelman’s seminal documentary which means with the code AUTOSTRADDLE20 you get $2 off! So that should make the already enticing prospect of watching this documentary all the more enticing. This portrait of the San Francisco leather scene is graphic and tender. It’s a snapshot of a subculture in a specific time as well as a larger statement about BDSM and BDSM among dykes. It’s so exciting that this film is being rediscovered and will be available for you all to watch!
2. Tahara (dir. Olivia Peace)
There have been a lot of queer coming-of-age movies about a girl in love with her “straight” best friend, but few capture the depth of that experience like Tahara. With the backdrop of a classmate’s suicide and a deliciously awful object of desire, this movie becomes less about the angst of a teenager and more about the search for meaning in a meaningless world. Jess Zeidman’s script is hilarious and specific and director Olivia Peace makes bold choice after bold choice each more effective than the last. The film has a claustrophobic Instagram square aspect ratio, heightened animated sequences, and other sharp formal risks that all work to deepen the story. Cinematographer Tehillah De Castro’s work is phenomenal in moments both bold and subtle. Madeline Grey DeFreece carries the film with a grounded and charming performance and Rachel Sennott is once again a hilarious Jewish nightmare. This is a teen comedy, but it’s a teen comedy about grief, manipulation, and autonomy. It gave me a whiff of horrifying nostalgia before settling into something deeper, something more present. I think this is a really remarkable film!
1. TIE: Alice Júnior (dir. Gil Baroni)/Always Amber (dir. Hannah Reinikainen, Lia Hietala)
This is a tie because I love both of these films so deeply and because they’re both phenomenal coming-of-age portraits of trans teenagers entrenched in social media.
To explain all the reasons I love Alice Júnior would be to spoil one of its sweetest surprises. But what I will say is that occasionally I watch a movie or a TV show that changes what I dare to expect from trans media and this is one of those films. We simply do not get trans media this inventive and charming and queer and FUN. This is a trans girl coming-of-age romcom that doesn’t shy away from the realities — or the specificities — of being trans, but still manages to have the humor and charm of any cis fave. Anne Celestino Mota is incredible as Alice, a character who would fit right in with the rebel girls of the best late 90s/early 00s romcoms. She’s so funny and real and it’s such a thrill to see what a talented trans actor can do when given actual good writing. Every choice big and small is done so right and I’m used to it being done so wrong and I just love this movie so much I want to SCREAM. This is what we deserve! This is what we could have! This is what we DO have! FINALLY.
Always Amber is about a genderqueer teenager named Amber, but this isn’t a straight forward documentary about a trans teen. Reinikainen and Hietala follow Amber’s lead, telling the story through videos Amber records themself and focusing on what Amber cares about most. Because, yes, Amber is trans, but they’re also a teenager and what matters to them most is their friend drama with another trans teen named Sebastian or their romance with another trans teen named Olivera. Unsurprisingly, this group of trans teens have more interesting and complex things to say about gender than the vast majority of discussions we usually get to see in media. This documentary is about a person and it’s about a generation and it’s about a future that is yet to exist. It’s a political declaration that all people regardless of age should get to determine how they present and how they’re addressed and who they are. Amber gets to experience an adolescence most of us were denied. It’s a delight to spend time with them in their world. But in showing this near-fantasy it reveals an even greater one. Amber actually deserves more. Amber deserves a world where they don’t have to fight for themself or their community — where it’s just inevitable.
Movies can reflect our world. They can also imagine a better one. Alice Júnior does both. Always Amber does both. Two special films and the standouts of this year’s Newfest.
Join us and NewFest for the virtual screening of Bloodsisters: Leather, Dykes, and Sadomasochism, director Michelle Handelman’s enduring 1995 film that documents the queer outlaws of the San Francisco leather scene. Get a Festival Pass or tickets with a $2 discount at newfest.org/festival with the discount code AUTOSTRADDLE20. The New York LGBTQ Film Festival runs October 16-27 and features 120+ new films and events on demand. See you there!