14 movies from Sundance that prove 2023 will be a massive year for queer cinema
Lesbian werewolves, Bad Bunny and more penises than Euphoria: the fest's LGBTQ offerings truly had everything
Queeries is a column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
We're barely one month into 2023, and it's already shaping up to be quite the year for queers queers dominating the cultural landscape.
In January, LGBTQ audiences were the primary reason M3GAN became the month's biggest breakout box office hit, and the queer love story episode of The Last of Us became the most talked-about hour of television since the gays were trying to murder Jennifer Coolidge (except this time, the gays were trying to murder zombies, and technically also — albeit lovingly — each other). And it seems like we are only getting started, if the 2023 Sundance Film Festival has anything to say about it.
Sundance — generally considered the world's ultimate showcase for independent film — is no stranger to premiering great LGBTQ movies. It was literally the birthplace of New Queer Cinema in the early 1990s, and has since been the first place audiences have laid eyes on films like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, The Kids Are All Right, Tangerine and Call Me By Your Name (among so many others).
But even for Sundance, this 2023 edition seemed extra queer. There were a whopping 18 feature films at the festival centred on LGBTQ stories, which accounted for roughly one fifth of its entire program.
Screening in front of live audiences in Park City, Utah this year, it was the first time the festival was able to do so since before the pandemic started. But while I am certainly an advocate for a cinema being the ideal place to watch a movie (and am so glad Sundance was able to return to in-person), I was very grateful that the festival also continued its virtual element, allowing press unable to make the trek to access almost its entire lineup from home.
Which is exactly what I did, spending most of last week watching every single one of Sundance's queer offerings (and even a few of its straight ones!).
I am delighted to report that the vast majority of these films were good, if not great. In fact, I feel that is my responsibility to you, the reader, to briefly rundown the 14 LGBTQ films I was impressed by at the festival (or my little home version of it), so that you can make a note to find your way to them when they come to a cinema, streaming service or local film festival near you (as most of them should by the end of 2023). That's notably one more film that I felt compelled to recommend from the entirety of 2022!
Presenting an embarrassment of queer Sundance riches, which has something for pretty much everyone under the LGBTQ umbrella:
Gael Garcia Bernal delivers his most charismatic performance to date (which is really saying something given his track record of effortless charm) in this wild biopic of "the Liberace of luca libre." Directed by Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Roger Ross Williams in his narrative debut, Cassandro follows Saúl Armendáriz (Bernal) on his fearless journey to become a rare openly gay star in the Mexican wrestling world of the early 1990s.
A fiery, joyous portrait of an unlikely icon led by an electrifying Bernal and featuring great supporting turns from Roberta Colindrez (A League of Their Own), Raúl Castillo (The Inspection) and none other than Bad Bunny, Cassandro has the potential to be one of the year's big queer crowdpleasers.
William Oldroyd's follow-up to his acclaimed 2016 debut Lady MacBeth (also known as the film that launched Florence Pugh's career), Eileen was one of the most talked about films at the festival — largely because of the sharp turns its narrative takes that you should go out of your way not to spoil before you see it.
What I can safely tell you about it is that it's set in 1960s Massachusetts and stars Anne Hathaway and Thomas McKenzie (both of whom are absolutely serving) as two women who develop a flirtatious relationship working together at a prison. All I'll say about what happens from there is that if you loved Todd Haynes' Carol but also wish it was messier and a lot more sinister and unhinged, this is the film for you!
Sundance kicked off what will surely be a huge year for actress Lily Gladstone. While she is soon likely to get a lot of attention for her lead role opposite Leonardo diCaprio in Martin Scorsese's Killers of the Flower Moon (rumoured to be heading to Cannes Film Festival this May), that will hopefully draw some toward her work in Erica Tremblay's debut feature, Fancy Dance.
The film follows Jax (Gladstone), a queer Indigenous woman living on the Seneca-Cayuga Reservation in Oklahoma who is trying to hold her family together in the wake of her sister's disappearance. Thanks to Gladstone's deeply committed performance and Tremblay's assured direction, what results is a nuanced and all-too-rare exploration of the human costs of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women epidemic.
It's Only Life After All
One thing I learned from Sundance 2023: the Indigo Girls deserve way more than we as a society have given them.
I'll admit I was only casually aware of their music and contribution to LGBTQ visibility before seeing it, but Alexandria Bombach's documentary It's Only Life After All very much changed that. Blending archival video and present-day interviews with years of camcorder and audiotape footage taken by the Girls themselves, the film paints a deservedly adoring portrait of Amy Ray and Emily Sailers, the two women who came together in the 1980s to form a folk-rock duo that quite literally saved the lives of so many queer folks.
This is the only film on this list that was not a world premiere at Sundance (it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year, where it won the festival's Queer Palm for best LGBTQ film). Joyland is an extraordinary Urdu and Punjabi-language film from director Saim Sadiq which was just shortlisted for the best international feature Oscar. Though it ultimately was not nominated, that helped it finally secure a distribution deal so that it can come to a cinema near you (hopefully) and you can see for yourself why it's so special.
Centered on a Pakistani man who falls in love with a trangender woman, the film is a devastating exploration of the widespread harm caused by traditional gender roles and repressed sexuality.
Winner of both the audience award and the Innovator Prize in Sundance's NEXT program (interestingly the exact same awards that another transgender-focused documentary, Framing Agnes, won at the festival last year), KOKOMO CITY unapologetically presents the stories of four Black transgender sex workers in New York and Georgia. The confident and assured directorial debut of two-time Grammy-nominated songwriter and producer D. Smith (who also shot and edited the film), KOKOMO CITY boldly tells a whole lot of truths that seldom are discussed in mainstream culture through its quartet of protagonists.
Little Richard: I Am Everything
Oscar and Emmy-nominated filmmaker Lisa Cortés gifted us with something at Sundance that's been long overdue: the definitive documentary on the (very) complicated legacy of one Richard Wayne Penniman (aka Little Richard).
The film rightfully posits Richard as the true king of rock 'n' roll, exploring the genre's Black, queer origins and how they were appropriated by white mainstream culture. It also explores the complexities of Richard's life as a queer man (which he announced and then denounced several times throughout his career) and some of his queer predecessors and contemporaries that history has largely ignored.
Ultimately an extremely entertaining history lesson, Little Richard: I Am Everything offers us a reminder of what a singular icon its subject was.
There are three films on this list that I feel safe assuming will end up among my absolute favourite of this year, and Vuk Lungulov-Klotz's revelatory directorial debut Mutt is one of them.
Set over the course of 24 hours in New York City, the film is centred on Feña (Lío Mehiel, who became the first trans actor to win an acting prize at the festival for their visceral work here — notably also their screen debut). In the midst of transitioning, Feña is having a very challenging day trying to juggle largely unexpected interactions with their ex-boyfriend (Cole Doman), half-sister (Mimi Ryder) and father (Alejandro Goic). What results is a deeply poignant and moving film about moving through life that heralds several new exciting new queer talents.
The only Canadian narrative feature to screen at this year's Sundance also just so happens to be about a hockey-playing, lesbian werewolf teen.
That description, though, significantly reduces Jacqueline Castel's genre-bending My Animal, a film that comes 23 years after Ginger Snaps showed Canadians know how to make an original teen werewolf movie (and a few months after Skinamarink showed we are great at indie horror in general).
With My Animal, Castel gives us queer teen romance, family drama and monster horror all in one with the story of Heather (non-binary performer Bobbi Salvör Menuez, who is fantastic), the aforementioned teen werewolf hockey player. Surely destined for cult classic status like its predecessors, My Animal did Canada proud at Sundance.
One of my most anticipated films of Sundance (and of 2023 in general), Ira Sachs' Passages sure didn't disappoint. Starring Franz Rogowski as a narcissistic (perhaps even sociopathic) filmmaker who leaves his husband (Ben Whishaw) for a woman (Adèle Exarchopoulos) he starts an affair with, the Paris-set film is an intense and intimate (the sex scenes are ... truly outstanding) examination of our sexual and emotional impulses.
Expertly directed by Sachs (who has already offered us modern queer classics like Love is Strange and Keep The Lights On) and featuring award-worthy performances by its main trio (Rogowski in particular), Passages was my favourite film — queer or otherwise — of Sundance this year.
The Persian Version
One of the Sundance's biggest award winners (it took home both the audience award and screenplay award in the festival's U.S. Dramatic Competition), The Persian Version marked filmmaker Maryam Keshavarz's return to Sundance after winning that same audience award in 2011 for Circumstance, which explored queerness in modern Iran.
This time, Keshavarz cleverly follows the relationship between an Iranian-American lesbian (Layla Mohammadi) and her mother (Niousha Noor) over several decades. Vibrant and often hilarious, The Persian Version offers an all-too-timely celebration of Iranian womanhood.
Rotting in the Sun
If there was an award for most onscreen penises (hundreds?) or graphic gay sex at Sundance, there is no doubt it would bestowed upon Sebastián Silva's riotous meta-comedy Rotting In The Sun. (Take that, Euphoria!)
The film stars Silva as a heightened (we assume) version of himself who spends his days taking copious amounts of ketamine while researching painless ways to kill himself as his maid (Catalina Saavedra, who won an acting award at Sundance in 2009 for playing the titular character in Silva's The Maid) cleans up around him. Things take takes a turn when Silva runs into social media influencer Jordan Firstman (also playing himself, and doing a hilarious job at it) at a queer nude beach in Mexico, and then takes quite another when Silva goes missing (which his maid may or may not have had something to do with), leaving Firstman on a mission to find him.
A biting satire of class, queer culture and filmmaking itself (among other things), Rotting in the Sun is so much more than the sum of all its penises.
The history of New York City's Meatpacking District is told through the voices of the transgender women of colour who lived it in Kristen Lovell and Zackary Drucker's illuminating and powerful documentary The Stroll (yet another festival prize winner, this time for special jury award for "clarity of vision").
Now a gentrified, corporate area of Manhattan, the film takes through the era before that, when trans women of colour lived, worked, loved and died on its streets. What culminates is one of the many films at Sundance this year that felt like essential new entries in the burgeoning canon of trans cinema.
Sold to Searchlight at the festival in a huge $8 million deal, you can be assured you'll soon be able to see what is pretty much inarguably the most hilarious entry on this list: directorial duo Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman's mockumentary Theatre Camp.
Set at a camp for budding performers in upstate New York (AdrirondACTS, lol), the film stars Gordon alongside a winning ensemble (literally, it took a special award at Sundance for best cast) that includes Amy Sedaris, Jimmy Tatro, Patti Harrison, Ayo Edibiri, Noah Galvin and Ben Platt (with the latter two also co-writing the screenplay). A sort of zany queer sibling to the best Christopher Guest movies, you should feel pretty confident putting Theatre Camp high up on your list of films to be excited about in the rest of 2023.
Keep an eye out for all of these films, which will likely all make their way to LGBTQ film festivals, regular movie theatres or one of the many, many streaming sites at some point this year.