Moonlight winning an Oscar at the start of this year was a glorious and empowering moment. Not only because it was up against La La Land, a film genetically engineered to get Hollywood’s elite swooning, but because it was a celebration of the things we are told don’t sell movies.
A predominantly black cast, a relatively unknown director, and its subject matter: an exploration of a gay man’s psyche through key stages of his adolescence. But it did sell – grossing $65m (from a budget of just $1.5m). It swept the awards circuit. And its often painful examination of the toxic vice of repression and male sexuality was cathartic for those who recognised its grip all too well.
Nobody’s saying that Moonlight ushered in a new era of cinema, or that it’s directly responsible for the films that followed. But 2017 was a year where critical and commercial success has followed films placing gay men front and centre.
This comes after years where our stories have only been told with utmost tragedy and angst. Think the doomed lovers in Brokeback Mountain, victims of a world that will never understand them, the political undercurrent in Milk, or A Single Man, a film that begins, and ends, with gay men dying. In pop culture, the term ‘gayngst’ was coined for a specific kind of angst surrounding gay men that involved repression, internalised homophobia, drug and alcohol abuse and death at the hands of straight people. Such representation says, in no uncertain terms, that we are only allowed to be visible in broader culture to show how sh*tty it is to be gay. We are bound to the inevitable tragedy of being a minority, and our seat at the table will always be one that is uncomfortable.
This year, queer cinema has helped move the conversation forward; Moonlight and Beach Rats don’t shy away from the realities intersecting class and sexuality, but they don’t wallow in trauma, either.
This is also true with Call Me By Your Name, whose upper-middle-class sensibility means the characters don’t feel stigmatised by their sexuality but are no less confused by it. Already an early Oscars contender for next year, the dizzying drama is laced with lustful glances and sunbathing bodies sheened in sweat as the two young men (Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer) desperately explore their lust for one another. The film doesn’t treat their sexuality as any particular concern to either of them; the adolescent yearning and all-consuming power of your first love feels universal.
On the other hand, in God’s Own Country, set in rural Yorkshire, the passion isn’t pretty, with feral sex scenes and an inner bitterness plaguing Josh O’Connor’s lead, the desperately unhappy farmer Johnny. The tin-coloured skies feel claustrophobic and the rolling hills cordon him off from other people in the middle of a picturesque nowhere. While Johnny connects with a Romanian immigrant, it’s a conduit to understanding his own identity as a northern, working-class man born into life on a farm. It’s not about him upping to London to live an empowered, queer lifestyle, it’s about understanding what he has access to, emotionally, and what he never will.
The best thing about the queer films this year is their limitlessness. Some men find acceptance, and some find suffering; some get happy endings while some learn that unhappiness can be fleeting but no less precious.
The enduring problem, though, is these parts are still played by straight men, and that raises other questions. Is it unusual that Call Me By Your Name shows more heterosexual sex than homosexual? Would a director show that kind of conservatism towards a film centred on a straight couple? This was the year queer cinema gained the critical acclaim it deserved. Maybe 2018 will shift the focus on the men playing the roles, too.