Chris New | Film | Gay Seniors | Jeremy Renner | Nathaniel Rogers | Tom Cullen

Movies: Best LGBT Characters of the Year

Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glenn (Chris New) in "Weekend"... one of the best films of 2011

...would live in the movie theater but for the poor internet reception. He blogs daily at the Film Experience. Follow him on Twitter @nathanielr.

Meryl Streep, recently profiled on 60 Minutes, was asked about playing characters who seem so incredibly different than she herself is, like her upcoming role in The Iron Lady which opens in a week's time. Her answer intrigued:

It always really bothers me when people imagine that characters who don't look like you or don't have the same accent as you are far from you. A great actress Sybil Thorndike said 'I think we all have the germ of every other person inside of us.' And I believe we do."

This is true enough. A well written character of any type can feel human and relatable to anyone with a working imagination. This is especially true for minority moviegoers who learn instinctively to recognize themselves in people who look and seem nothing like them at first glance. Sometimes we have to go long stretches without seeing mirror-like reflections in mainstream pop culture. We may have a germ of every other person inside of us, but it's still thrilling to see something closer to yourself on the screen.

So herewith a list of the best LGBT movie characters of this past year in film. Tis the season of...list making.

Three notes before we begin: I missed the Iranian lesbian drama Circumstance which I've heard is quite good; I'm not touching Pedro Almodóvar's The Skin I Live In so as to avoid spoilers; The highest profile film skipped on this list is J. Edgar because you're better off doing just that.



This list is dedicated to Jeremy Renner's "Agent Brandt" in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (fun movie) who I pretended was gay the whole time. Rather unexpectedly Renner/Brandt rewarded my mental acrobatics by quipping that Paula Patton's Agent had the easy job during their nuclear code nabbing mission in Dubai --  "Next time I get to seduce the rich guy."


Potiche-jeremie10. LAURENT (Jérémie Renier) in Potiche
This comedy from out French auteur François Ozon didn't need a gay character to endear itself to LGBT audiences. Catherine Deneuve, the hilarious (subtitled) banter and retro 70s eye candy, already performed that trick. But one of Ozon's best jokes in this delightful confection is the latent über gayness of Deneuve's son Laurent; you see it coming long before he does.

08. EVERYONE in X-Men: First Class
Mutants are... different, feared, ridiculed. It's a metaphor, see? Or at least it was a few films ago. Magneto (Michael Fassbender) may have bedded Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) in this reboot but it was his BFF Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) who he kept locking eyes with. 

09. LISBETH SALANDER (Rooney Mara) in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Everyone's favorite socially maladjusted bixsexual goth icon hacker is back albeit with a new face (Rooney Mara's exquisitely expressive one... even when Lisbeth is trying not to express anything). Lisbeth's number on the Kinsey Scale seems to have shifted ever slightly towards heterosexuality in this new version but she has considerably less angst about girl-on-girl action than about the men. Stick to the ladies, Lisbeth! [Reviewed]


07. PETER GUILLAUME (Benedict Cumberbatch) in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Cumberbatch's nerve-wracked spy is not the only Gay in this ultra handsome espionage thriller but naming the others would give too much away. And the movie doesn't want to give anything away, with all the characters keeping their secrets close to the vest and the movie barely whispering them. Nevertheless it's gay enough that Kathy Burke gets a memorable cameo as the department fag hag "My lovely boys... 'The Inseparables'" she says, caressing photos of her former co-workers. 

Heartbeats-boys06. FRANCIS (Xavier Dolan) in Heartbeats aka Les Amours Imaginaires 
The beautiful and talented French-Canadian Xavier Dolan wrote, directed and starred in his first two features and film number three is already on the way. Get in early since he'll only be collecting more fans. Heartbeats follows two best friends Francis and Marie (Monia Chakri) who war over the affections of Nicolas (Niels Schneider) who may be into one of them or both or neither. Some people find the film too slight but its so superbly stylish and the bitchy catfights feel human and aggrieved as opposed to performed in reality-tv ready way. See it! [Currently available on Netflix Instant Watch]

05. THE KREWE OF YUGA (various) in Sons of Tennessee Williams
This documentary focuses on a gay rights struggle involving New Orleans costume balls which predated the Stonewall riots by nearly ten years. The documentary tries to do way too much considering its short running time, but I would gladly sit through entire documentaries about any of the original members of this Krewe. Their stories were fascinating, funny and heartbreaking. 


04. HUBERT PAGE (Janet McTeer) in Albert Nobbs
Glenn Close's dream project about a woman masquerading as a male waiter in 19th century Ireland is totally stolen by her co-star. Janet McTeer also plays a woman living as a man, but one with a far clearer grasp of her sexual identity. McTeer works emotional wonders in her short screentime especially when she's expressing her feelings for her companion Cathleen, "my life". The love is entirely palpable. Expect McTeer to make a run for a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

03. RUSSELL & GLENN (Tom Cullen and Chris New) in Weekend
Perhaps I should've given this duo the top spot, but they have an advantage as there's two of them. Rising actors Tom Cullen and Chris New work miracles together as a shy lifeguard and outspoken artist in this perfectly modest but transcendent romance. If you haven't seen it yet, you're crazy. If you have, see it again. It's currently available on Netflix Instant Watch. [Read also: Director interview]

Pariah-adepero02. ALIKE (Adepero Oduye) in Pariah
This feature from lesbian filmmaker Dee Rees made a splash at Sundance last January but Focus Features has mysteriously held it back from release for an entire year. It's marvelous and if it had had a bigger release earlier you might see it winning more critics awards than just a few prizes at the Black Film Critics Circle. Alike, a shy lesbian in a rough Brooklyn neighborhood, is one of the most authentic feeling gay characters to come along in years and from an underrepresented group at that. Oduye proves herself a major new actress as she charts Alike's teen moodswings, sexual excitement and the nervous reaching for inner strength as she faces fickle friendships and homophobic parents. [Opens December 28th in Limited Release]

01. HAL (Christopher Plummer) in Beginners
Like Alike in Pariah, Hal is another under represented gay figure on movie screens. How many full characterizations of gay seniors do we ever get to see? Christopher Plummer's sweet buoyant work as a man who comes out of the closet very late in life elevates this already fantastic whimsical drama about a single artist (Ewan McGregor) struggling to understand his own relationship to romance while grieving the loss of his gay father. The best thing about the movie might well be the sympathy it has for all of its characters and their romantic compromises and quandaries. It looks unblinking at the sexuality of a senior citizen -- how rare is that in the movies? -- and rather than reverting to tired ageism or stopping short at tolerance, expresses admiration and love. "He never gave up." [Review & Director interview]


What were your favorite gay characters and moments in cinema this year?

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  1. The only two films listed here that I saw were Weekend and Beginners. At the risk of sounding overly negative, I have to say that neither was a good film, albeit for different reasons.

    Weekend was full of filthy language--F-bombs seemingly every 10 seconds, for no apparent purpose.....and just reminded me of all the empty one-night stands that all of us have had plenty of in our lives.....same kinds of "conversations" and the same kind of emotional distance.....I guess you could say it was realistic, but I didn't need a movie to know what such experiences are like and I doubt any gay man does.....and the notion that they were "in love" by the end of the weekend came across as absurd.......

    Beginners was also a mix of the realistic with the totally unrealistic. Perfectly believable that a man who grew up in the early part of the twentieth century would have married and lived a closeted life--nothing unrealistic about that......but the idea that, in his 70's, he would come out and be fallen in love with effortlessly by a guy 30-40 years younger than he was.....well, only in Hollywood......

    I HAVE seen some good gay films this year--Undertow, the Peruvian film, was quite good, as was The Kids are All Right, both making their points without being preachy, and with very interesting, realistic character there is some good stuff out there.....

    Posted by: Rick | Dec 22, 2011 8:08:24 PM

  2. I can't say enough how much I liked 'Weekend'! It was such a revelation to see realistically portrayed gay characters who were just people. I am ecstatic it's on Netflix streaming as I can't wait to show it to my friends and dive in again.

    Posted by: princely54 | Dec 22, 2011 8:08:31 PM

  3. I haven't seen many of these films, but I emphatically agree on Janet McTeer. Brilliant. I just wanted more of her. I would urge folks to watch the film a second time and reconsider Close's performance as well.

    As I told a friend, Weekend couldn't have been any better if it included George Takei cartwheeling naked through the streets of Nottingham.

    Posted by: melvin | Dec 22, 2011 8:18:25 PM

  4. I think 2011 is notable for its almost complete absence of gay men in the movies. None of the big commercial movies had anything worth mentioning. As far as Hollywood is concerned, we are persona non grata as far as inclusion in its movies.

    Posted by: jason | Dec 22, 2011 8:23:43 PM

  5. I'm going to try and hit two birds -of them is you, Jason- with one stone as there is an omission on this list.

    If the X Men are in this list, then how come ALBUS DUMBLEDORE isn't here? He was in the biggest movie of the year, after all, not to mention that he's one of the most recognizable and loved characters of modern literature and films.

    Powerful, wise, loving and a fatherly figure for Harry, I'm pretty sure that when Rowling disclosed his orientation 4 years ago, it changed a lot of people's perception for the better.

    Posted by: stranded | Dec 22, 2011 9:05:20 PM

  6. "Filthy language"? Oh Rick -- on top of everything else you're a tiresome prude.

    "Beginners" was totally realistic.

    I can see why you hate it so much. IT ACTUALLY HAPPEEND YOU NIT!!!!

    "Undertow" is more your speed -- a love story between a ghost and a live person. Both suitably "Butch" of course.
    A Major Snore!

    Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Dec 22, 2011 10:14:53 PM

  7. Oh DAVID. Name calling. Because someone had a different opinion than you. I guess for some, it didn't get better. I wonder what snotty comment and name you'll sling my way.

    Posted by: JimmyD | Dec 22, 2011 10:43:20 PM

  8. How many bitchy comments and annoying responses must David Ehrenstein post on this site before you ban him from Towleroad, Andy? He is one of the biggest trolls on the Web.

    Posted by: John | Dec 23, 2011 12:30:27 AM

  9. PETER GUILLAUME (Benedict Cumberbatch) isn't gay in the LeCarre books, but I can see the plot-logic the opportunity for some damn-fine eye-candy.

    Posted by: Ted B. (Charging Rhino) | Dec 23, 2011 1:20:08 AM

  10. Weekend hit just the right note. Saw it twice.
    And John Grant's music fit perfectly in it.

    Posted by: Ljc | Dec 23, 2011 2:19:14 AM

  11. Yeah...It sounds really interesting. I like it .I have read everyone's views for it.All have its own so respect all of them..

    Posted by: Watch Movies Online | Dec 23, 2011 2:51:15 AM

  12. I appreciate the notice about several films I haven't seen yet. I did like "Beginners" but have to insist that the picture was totally stolen by the little dog.

    Posted by: Christopher Walker | Dec 23, 2011 5:34:35 AM

  13. I keep hearing terrible, terrible things about Weekend from people I respect... But as it's on Netflix Instant now, I suppose I'll just have to see if the people I know and like are right or if complete strangers on the internet have a higher opinion...

    Posted by: Phil | Dec 23, 2011 7:50:57 AM

  14. Out of the hundreds of wide-release movies, there was probably only one or two that showed a male-male relationship. Even then, there was really not much there. It would appear that Hollywood is becoming increasingly homophobic.

    At the end of the day, we need to recognize that Hollywood is not gay-friendly and that perhaps it's time for us in the GLBT community to bring it down as an institution.

    Posted by: jason | Dec 23, 2011 7:54:46 AM

  15. Oh if we could all be as hip as Ehrenstein who's fashion lineup of opinions are as predictable as gravity. Indeed, a major snot with extended pinky and crooked knee. Bleh! Oh and ain't nuthin the matter with masculine. Try it if you can. "Weekend" sucked.

    Posted by: uffda | Dec 23, 2011 8:41:24 AM

  16. "I keep hearing terrible, terrible things about Weekend from people I respect..."

    I cannot imagine what they would be. It's a very honest and touching love story. Sexy too.

    Maybe that was what they found so terrible.

    "Oh if we could all be as hip as Ehrenstein"

    From your keypad to God's tin ear.

    "Extended pinky and crooked knee"


    Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Dec 23, 2011 9:03:17 AM

  17. Beginners is a well-meaning and sweet film with wonderful performances by Plummer and Ewan McGregor, the woman who plays Plummer's late wife, and the dog. But it is ruined by the really bad acting and unintelligible diction of the French actress who plays the girlfriend. One can never figure out why she is sad since you can hear barely half her dialogue.

    Posted by: Jay | Dec 23, 2011 9:19:58 AM

  18. Rick, at the risk of sounding negative, both of your reviews are quite stupid. "Filthy language"? What are you, a nun? And 'Beginners' is SUPPOSED to be somewhat unrealistic, THERE'S A TALKING DOG IN IT. And it's not the director's job to conform to what you personally feel is realism.
    To anyone reading this, WEEKEND and BEGINNERS are both very good, very beautiful movies, and you won't see two better gay-themed films from 2011. Ignore Rick's shallow, ignorant critiques.

    Posted by: Ian | Dec 23, 2011 9:48:10 AM

  19. "And 'Beginners' is SUPPOSED to be somewhat unrealistic, THERE'S A TALKING DOG IN IT. And it's not the director's job to conform to what you personally feel is realism."

    In general defence of Rick's point:
    the only effective movie is one that is at some level realistic - that is to say, authentic. Just because a film has fantastical elements doesn't mean it may abrogate the basic obligation of being emotionally authentic. And if it's not, then the movie doesn't work.

    And while a director should not be obligated to 'conform' as you put it, to audience expectations, she/he has to produce something that resonates, to at least one person.

    Posted by: Nat | Dec 23, 2011 10:25:27 AM

  20. "Realism is one of the 57 Varieties of Decoration" -- Raymond Durgnat

    There's no guanartee for "resonance." "Weekend" and "Beginners" worked perfectly for me, Ian and I suspect a number of others. But no one can force Rick to like it.

    And no one can force me to like that preening fraud "The Artist" either.

    Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Dec 23, 2011 12:29:27 PM

  21. Cloudburst.

    Posted by: Randy | Dec 23, 2011 1:38:09 PM

  22. I thought "Weekend" was good, but overrated--nothing "Before Sunrise/Sunset" didn't already do, and way too many drugs. (I don't object to people enjoying their recreation, but I wondered how much it affected their supposed "love" for one another.)

    Right on choosing Hal from "Beginners"--one of the loveliest performances (and films) of the year.

    I would, however, also like to make the point that Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) in "J. Edgar" is a great character not dissimilar to Jake Gyllenhall's Jack Twist--you see him looking at Edgar (Leonardo DiCaprio) with such complete and undisguised adoration, and you slowly see the light in his eyes and all of his hopes for a romantic life together dying over the years. Their scene in the hotel where Tolson finally unleashes on Hoover, and Hoover's devastated, whispered confession after Tolson leaves, was what made "J. Edgar" work for me despite its remoteness and restraint.

    Also, where was Woody Harrelson's shamelessly Puckish gay sports writer from "Friends With Benefits," or the bisexual Adam (David Streisow) at the triangle's vertex in "3." I also loved the military cadets in "Private Romeo," the politicians in "Four More Years," the transgendered German teenager Lukas in "Romeos," and the romantically cold-cocked Tommy in "The One" (which idiotically jettisons the character at the end, but the actor Ian Novick is sensational).

    Posted by: Dback | Dec 23, 2011 1:46:51 PM

  23. David Ehr...@ that's OK sugar, you can spell it out: ROTFALMAO: Right On.The Facts All Leave Me Anxiously Overexposed.

    You're fun.

    Posted by: uffda | Dec 23, 2011 2:58:43 PM

  24. When I look at the other characters on it, I'm not really sure why Lisbeth Sander is there tbh.

    Posted by: Bryan | Dec 23, 2011 3:38:14 PM

  25. J Edgar is worth seeing if for nothing else than Leo's very fine performance and literate screenwriting by Dustin Lance Black. There is so much drivel on the screens now that support for a worthwhile film is important to film makers who take small risks to making larger ones so that we can see a fuller picture of our lives on the screen.

    Posted by: Robert | Dec 23, 2011 4:42:00 PM

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