Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, filmmaker Ryan White learnt some of his earliest lessons about sex from a tiny, Jewish psychologist in her mid-50s with a thick German accent and a titillating disregard for anatomical prudishness. The darling of radio call-ins and television talk shows, Dr Ruth Westheimer was a powerhouse of sexual literacy, renowned throughout the country as much for her liberal use of the words ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ as she was for her diminutive 4’7” frame.

Celebrated as a springboard for emerging cinematic talent, the Sundance Film Festival returns to London this May/June at the Picturehouse Central with an eclectic and informative mix of features, documentaries, shorts, discussions and talks. We’ve picked five favourites you won’t want to miss.

XY Chelsea follows Manning full circle, from her release in the spring of 2017 to her recent re-incarceration for refusing to testify before a grand jury against Julian Assange earlier this March. As much a testament to her resilience as it is a record of her activism, XY Chelsea offers an intimate portrait of a woman struggling to survive under the weight of unparalleled public scrutiny.

“I was extremely relieved to sit down to lunch with him and have him say, ‘Ask me anything you want’” says Dexter Fletcher when I ask him what it was like when he first met with Elton John, the subject of his latest film, Rocketman. The biopic, which catalogues Elton’s meteoric rise to fame from the 60s to the early 90s, is a fantastical parade of colour, costumes and camp, punctuated with elaborate musical reveries that let the story drift into moments of dream-like wonder.

A funny, touching portrait of Frank Sidebottom, Manchester’s maverick comedian, and Chris Sievey, the eccentric and obscure artist who created him; Being Frank tells a twisted tale of split personalities. With insights from Chris’ family, friends, and colleagues, including Jon Ronson, John Cooper Clarke and Ross Noble amongst others, Being Frank reveals the unknown story of a wayward genius.

Transmilitary, a documentary more than six years in the making, captures the highs and lows of a dedicated group of activists as they lobby for the recognition they deserve. It’s a rousing and necessary feature that’s fundamentally grounded in the honesty, openness and courage of its four lead characters – Senior Airman Logan Ireland, Corporal Laila Villanueva, Captain Jennifer Peace and First Lieutenant El Cook. Hopeful and heartbreaking in equal measure, Transmilitary reminds us of the power of personal stories to affect political change.

An international porn icon, Jonathan Agassi, has had a meteoric rise to fame, but at what personal cost? Tomer’s film sensitively explores the tension between professional success and personal loss in a way that’s never once prurient or judgemental. It’s a moving examination of loneliness, addiction and trauma that deserves to be seen.

Whilst aural storytelling is a tradition as old as time, podcasting has breathed new life into spoken word. Here we shortlist our favourites for spring, from memoirs about mental health, to documentary anthologies, cultural critiques to fictional feminist dramas about art and attraction.

One of the largest and most significant celebrations of queer cinema in Europe, the 33rd edition of acclaimed LGBTQ film festival BFI Flare, returns to the Southbank from 21st March to 31st March this year. Featuring a powerful, thought-provoking and eclectic mix of features, shorts, discussions, talks, workshops and club nights, this year’s festival reflects on themes of sex, identity, politics and community.

In 2009, aged 18, student filmmaker Lukas Dhont happened across the story of Nora Monsecour whilst leafing through a Belgian newspaper. Nora, a young trans girl, wanted to become a ballerina but her school had refused to allow her to switch classes. That story and the courage Nora displayed in asserting her identity, captivated him, “I was immediately very drawn to her as a person, I thought, wow how extraordinary that a 15 year old is able to be so true to herself.”

Featuring a powerful, thought-provoking and eclectic mix of features, shorts, discussions, talks, workshops and club nights, this year’s BFI Flare reflects on themes of sex, identity, politics and community. We spoke to festival programmer Zorian Clayton, to help shortlist a selection of essential docs from this year’s programme.

2018 was a remarkable year for documentary cinema. We enjoyed insightful and unsettling features about the impact of anonymous lobbying groups on America’s political system in Dark Money; mind-bending psychological puzzles and thrilling family dramas in Three Identical Strangers; necessary and informed explorations of what life is like growing up in an Islamic caliphate in Of Father & Sons and poetic, intimate portraits of race and class in the deep south in Hale County This Morning, This Evening.

2018 was a remarkable year for queer cinema. We’ve enjoyed Oscar-winning trans narratives that inspire and energise with A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica); powerfully intimate documentaries about queerness past and present with McQueen, Studio 54, Susanne Bartsch: On Top and Shakedown; breakout indie hits with The Miseducation Of Cameron Post and Rafiki; and even blockbuster teen rom-coms with Love, Simon. How will 2019 fare?

Once dominated by bros shouting over one another about sports, or straight, white comics making jokes about ‘the missus;’ the last few years have seen podcasting breath new life into spoken word stories. From much-needed investigations into ISIS, to fictional feminist stories about art and attraction, we shortlist our favourites from 2018.

Throughout 2018 we’ve seen widening social divides as our beliefs become more entrenched, and the stories we see and share become increasingly tailored to our interests. Political unrest has been catalysed by erratic, and frustratingly binary approaches to nuanced social, economic and international issues, and, whilst some journalistic institutions have been attacked, undermined for the way they seek to challenge authority, others have begun to thrive in a new age of misinformation. Throughout it all, a host of insightful and necessary documentaries have catalogued these changes, reflecting this new set of preoccupations back at us, working to inform viewers about the changing status quo whilst simultaneously providing a platform for marginalised communities to raise their voice above the din.

In 2018, the cinema feels like a more precious space than ever. How many other places do we have in the world where we go to sit, in the dark, with our attention entirely transfixed on one thing for at least an hour? In fact, how many spaces do we have where there’s a social contract that we all put our phones away? As a sanctuary of escapism from endless newsfeeds, the cinema is where we took refuge this year. And thank God we did, because it was a great year for film.

Robert Shafran’s first day of college in 1980 got off to a peculiar start. Classmates he’d never met kept calling out to him, welcoming ‘Eddie’ back to school, as if greeting an old friend. When Eddie’s slightly bemused roommate – who knew that Eddie hadn’t planned to return to class that year – found Robert, he was stunned. Whilst certain that the man standing in front of him wasn’t Edward Galland, he was the spitting image of his absent friend. The hair, the eyes, the nose, the mouth, even the way Robert carried himself, was indistinguishable. After a frantic drive to Eddie’s house, the two men, newly reunited, soon realised that they were, in fact, identical twins. When the story ran in the New York Post, and another 19 year-old, David Kellman, realised he was their triplet, the story went from a happy accident to an unthinkable coincidence.

Take a look at any of Sebastián Lelio’s recent films and one thing becomes abundantly clear – the Chilean director has a particular knack for telling thoughtful stories, anchored by complex, compelling, assertive women. Perhaps best-known for his Academy Award winning A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica) – which sees Marina Vidal fight for an acknowledgement of her humanity and her grief after the death of her long-time lover Orlando – his latest feature pushes that sensibility a step further. Disobedience, based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Naomi Alderman, follows Ronit as she returns home to the Orthodox Jewish community where she grew up, in preparation for her father’s funeral. There she reconnects with old childhood friends, Dovid and Esti, reigniting a relationship that pushes the boundaries of faith and sexuality. With its focus on these three friends, their history, how they challenge one another and, in the process, themselves, Lelio elevates the story to what he calls “a baroque piece where you have three narrative lines which are mixing all the time.”