The Berlin International Film Festival isn't just one of the world's most respected and diverse platforms for bold new global cinema—it's also one of the most queer-embracing mainstream film fests on the planet. Known to locals and movie industry types as the Berlinale, the star-studded festival always includes an exceptionally strong LGBTQ presence, including numerous world premieres and daring new works from a rainbow of nations. Near the end of the party-packed 11-day fest, a special jury bestows one of the most revered prizes in queer filmmaking, the annual Teddy Awards.
This year's LGBTQ roster is particularly strong at the Berlinale, which runs from Feb. 9-19, with more than 20 feature-length films from across the globe. Here are our picks for the fest's top titles to watch.
A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica) (Chile)
Daniela Vega, the fantastic Chilean trans actress who headlined 2015's “The Guest” (“La Visita”), stars this time as Marina, who upon the sudden death of her older lover Orlando, faces both scrutiny from the police and utter scorn and abuse from Orlando's former wife and family. This is the one LGBTQ-themed film that'll be competing this year for the Berlinale's prestigious Golden and Silver Bear awards.
My Wonderful West Berlin (Germany)
Sure to be a huge hit with the hometown queer crowd, this latest from documentarian Jochen Hick (who has previously explored the hidden gay history of East Germany) looks at the gay heritage of West Berlin, where one of the world's oldest LGBTQ neighborhoods and communities managed to persevere in spite of the Berlin Wall, laying the groundwork for the city's status today as one of the world's top gay capitals.
Sex-positive director Travis Mathews (“Interior,” “Leather Bar” and “I Want Your Love”) premieres his latest film at this year's Berlinale, the story of a gay drifter/filmmaker who returns home to the margins of homophobic small-town America to face his own dark and mysterious past.
Probable lover to Frida Kahlo and definite muse to Pedro Almodóvar, Chavela Vargas was one of Mexico's best loved singers, and lived openly as a lesbian until her death in 2012 at the age of 93. This loving documentary traces her long life and success, and features never-before-seen interviews with Chavela herself, as well as her partners and contemporaries.
The Misandrists (Germany)
Generally male-slanted queer movie provocateur Bruce LaBruce is back with a different kind of story, as an army of radical female lovers/terrorists prepares to finally topple the patriarchy for a lesbian intifada, thus ushering in the new female world order. Leading the cast as Big Mother is LaBruce veteran Susanne Sachsse—who also stars in another film LaBruce is debuting at the Berlinale, “Ulrike's Brain,” where she's a doctor who communicates telepathically with the preserved brain of German leftist revolutionary Ulrike Meinhof.
Freak Show (USA)
Longtime producer Trudie Styler (who's also Mrs. Sting) makes her directorial debut with one of the buzziest premieres at this year's festival. Based on a young adult novel by James St. James, “Freak Show” is the tale of teen Billy Bloom, a recent arrival at Eisenhower Academy, where his cross-dressing ways put him in conflict with the ultra-conservative student body, headed up by super-mean girl Lynette (Abigail Breslin). Billy's played by Alex Lawther (the young Alan Turing from “The Imitation Game” and star of last year's festival hit “Departure”), with Bette Midler as his mother and Laverne Cox as a local news reporter.
The Wound (South Africa)
Another darling from this year's Sundance, this bold and unique coming-of-age story revolves around Johannesburg teen Kwanda, who dares to question the annual ritual circumcision of Xhosa tribal teens, and Xolani, a closeted gay man who returns to the countryside every year to help oversee the custom's initiates.
Bones of Contention (Spain)
Spain may today be one of the world's most gay-welcoming countries, but just a few decades ago, things were very different. This first-ever full-length documentary explores the plight of LGBTQ people under Spain's brutal fascist dictator Francisco Franco, with stories woven together by the words of the country's most famous poet, Federico García Lorca—who himself died at the hands of a gay-hating Franco militia in the early days of the Spanish Civil War.
Call Me by Your Name (USA)
Hot off its rave-reviewed Sundance Film Fest debut just a few weeks ago, this adaptation of the Lambda Literary Award-winning novel by André Aciman tells the story of 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet), who falls in love with older college student Oliver (Armie Hammer) one late '80s summer along the Italian Riviera.
God's Own Country (UK)
In what's been hailed as a British “Brokeback Mountain,” Johnny is a rugged young North Yorkshire man who faces utter desolation as he tries to keep his family's farm afloat, but whose world changes with the arrival of Romanian migrant worker Gheorghe.