The Ornithologist. Indulgent in every sense of the word, João Pedro Rodrigues' The Ornithologist is as delicious and surreal as queer cinema gets this year. To put it simply, this is a film about an ornithologist, played by the gorgeous and talented Paul Hagy, who wanders through a forest and is subjected to numerous baffling and erotic experiences. Loosely based on Saint Anthony's journey, every minute of this movie is filled with Christian imagery (as well as visions of other cultures and religions) that teeters on a fine line between enlightening and blasphemous. It's not the nudity, bondage, watersports, and wound fingering that seduces the viewer, though; it's the gorgeous cinematography, the leisurely pacing, and the soundscape that washes over you.
God's Own Country. In contrast to the last film, Francis Lee's God's Own Country is pure realism. Sparking frequent comparison to Brokeback Mountain, this is a work that shows that sometimes relationships are as messy and frustrating as they are fulfilling and incredibly hot. Lee strikes a delicate balance in exploring how his protagonist Johnny (Josh O'Connor) deals with his self-loathing, sexuality, and family issues, while developing the romantic relationship between him and the Romanian farmhand (Alec Secareanu) in a tender and honest way. A work like this could easily slip into melodrama, but there's a sincerity in its presentation, and the chemistry between the actors makes every glance, glare, fight, and fuck feel natural.
Battle of the Sexes. What might initially seem like a simple biopic about the famous tennis match between Billie Jean King (played here by Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is so much more. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' film sets aside Riggs' antics to focus on King's life off the tennis court, particularly in how her relationship with her hairstylist Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) unfolds. From the very first haircut, Stone and Riseborough make it seem as if they're meant to be together through their glances, their words, and their touches. Every shot of the two women onscreen speaks volumes about their relationship, and it's one of the most tender developments of a queer romance onscreen this year. It's a film that never betrays its characters for dramatic effect or a big fight, and it's a fiercely feminist and optimistic note that offers some hope in an age when it feels like the nation is regressing rather than progressing.
Atomic Blonde. Some might dismiss Atomic Blonde as nothing more than a frivolous action film, but David Leitch's riveting spy thriller is as subversive as it is action-packed. Rather than solely delivering gorgeously shot punch after gorgeously shot punch, Atomic Blonde critiques itself and other works of its genre while still adhering to many of its rules. Charlize Theron delivers another iconic woman with Lorraine Broughton, and her bisexuality provides a surprising emotional through-line to a spy story that could have been otherwise forgettable. Here we see James Bond in the form of a woman, and it's as sexy and compelling as you'd imagine.
The Shape of Water. Every fiber of The Shape of Water screams queerness. This is a film that respects and adores the "others" of the world, whether they're people with disabilities, people of color, gay people, or tall, attractive creatures held hostage in a government facility. Its main antagonist is a straight, white, privileged, middle-aged American man who sexually harasses women and tortures humans and creatures alike — so basically the peak representation of oppression. Guillermo del Toro delivers not only a gorgeous fairy tale made for the people on the fringes of society, but also a truly queer movie that nails the feeling of otherness, of being unloved, and of being trapped in a world that isn't meant for you. There's a love of sex, a love of classical filmmaking, a love of fantastic scenarios, and a love of horror on display here, and it all blends together to form a wonderful work of art.
Honorable mentions: François Ozon's Frantz subtly explores obsession and roleplaying. Todd Haynes' Wonderstruck lovingly shows how outsiders shape and tell their own stories. Matt Spicer's Ingrid Goes West dives into an identity crisis and the façades we erect to "fit in." Julia Ducournau's Raw tears apart sexuality and shows us a woman who consumes that which she loves and wants to be. Hurry and see them all.