The Essential LGBTQ
Twenty-five films that you absolutely must see (and quite a few more that you really should watch).
Given the weighty task of designating twenty-five LGBTQ films as canonical, I confess to being a bit nervous. There are truly hundreds of films I would love to mention here if I could—films showcasing great craftsmanship, important themes and landmark representations of all kinds. I wish I could include complete lists of the best films depicting queer youth, LGBTQ people of color, transgender images, all of the various national cinemas, all of the most notable queer filmmakers, not to mention all the queer films I shamefully have not yet seen. For more selections in all of these categories please explore some of the many other resources on LGBTQ cinema—perhaps even one of my books (The Ultimate Guide to Lesbian & Gay Film and Video or The Queer Movie Poster Book; or check out the Archive.org version of my queer film database, Popcorn.com). I also can’t resist recommending viewings of The Celluloid Closet and Fabulous! The Story of Queer Cinema for an adjunct overview of Hollywood and independent LGBTQ cinema.
You can see that I’m determined to cram in a bunch of qualifying caveats here to be excused for all my omissions. On that note, I have a personal aversion to many of the LGBTQ films that have been embraced as popular favorites; sorry if I’ve left off one of yours. In addition to this list, you should by all means get your hands on the films of any of these talented pioneers and currently active filmmakers: Chantal Akerman, Pedro Almodóvar, Kenneth Anger, Jamie Babbitt, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, Sadie Benning, Lino Brocka, Patrice Chereau, Lisa Cholodenko, Lee Daniels, Terence Davies, Xavier Dolan, Arthur Dong, Cheryl Dunye, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, Rodney Evans, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Eytan Fox, Su Friedrich, Marleen Gorris, John Greyson, Barbara Hammer, Todd Haynes, Julian Hernandez, Derek Jarman, Isaac Julien, Wong Kar-wai, Bruce LaBruce, François Ozon, Ulrike Ottinger, Patrik-Ian Polk, Lea Pool, Angela Robinson, Ira Sachs, Gus Van Sant, Rosa von Praunheim, Patricia Rozema, Céline Sciamma, Greta Schiller and Andrea Weiss, Yen Tan, Monika Treut, Rose Troche, Andy Warhol, John Waters and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. One final word of general guidance: If you’re wanting to see complex, sophisticated, high-quality portrayals of LGBTQ stories on film you should overcome any hesitation you might have about reading subtitles and dive into the stellar array of LGBTQ-themed international cinema. You can start with great films right here on Fandor like: the beautiful Argentine dramas I, The Worst of All and XXY; the popular French gay romance, Come Undone; Xavier Dolan’s debut feature, I Killed My Mother and Jean Genet’s short film classic, Un chant d’amour.
And without further ado, here it is, my list of essential LGBTQ films, in alphabetical order.
While I’m inclined to look mainly to independent and international cinema for the most satisfying and thoughtful LGBTQ filmmaking there’s no question that we all love a glossy Hollywood movie. It took almost twenty years for this Hollywood remake of the 1978 French art-house hit La cage aux folles to arrive in multiplexes where it made an enormous splash (it remains the number one gay box office film of all time with a cumulative lifetime gross of $124 million). The Birdcage co-stars Robin Williams and Nathan Lane as a flamboyant gay couple who run a Miami nightclub and who pretend to be straight to make a good impression on their son’s fiancé and her conservative parents. The film was nominated for Best Picture at the Golden Globes (and Lane was nominated for Best Actor in a Comedy/Musical) as well as a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Film in Wide Release.
The fabulous Wachowski’s dykes-against-the-mob love story is one of the most perfect lesbian films ever made—the stylized, disorienting cinematography is worthy of the best film noir of the 1940s while it’s also extremely well-written, cleverly designed, brilliantly directed and has a pair of super sexy lesbian characters who share a palpable desire together all the way to the film’s happy lesbian ending. It’s also a notable achievement that the film’s sex scenes between Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly are super hot and totally convincing (thanks to having sexpert Susie Bright as the film’s lesbian sex consultant).
Boys Don’t Cry
This relatively low-budget ($2 million) debut feature from Kim Peirce became the little movie that could and went on to snag the 1999 Best Actress Oscar for star Hilary Swank (as well as taking in more than $11 million at the box office). Swank’s riveting portrayal of real-life transgender hero Brandon Teena captivated and educated audiences, bringing to life his swagger and charm, and his tragic murder. Boys Don’t Cry is the perfect example of a film that simultaneously embodies and transcends the label of “LGBTQ film.”
The Boys in the Band
Love it or hate it (or probably more likely, have never even seen it!), The Boys In The Band is one of the all-time gay classics of cinema. Directed by William Friedkin (Cruising), with a screenplay by gay playwright Mart Crowley from his original stage play, this is a super campy portrayal of a quintessentially queeny gay New York birthday party foregrounding the self-hating gay host and his eclectic group of gay friends. In spite of (and because of) its often negative portrayal of gay life, this is one of the great gay camp-fests of all time—a true classic that every newly out homosexual should be required to watch. In his Screening the Sexes, Parker Tyler describes the film simply as “a bible of homosexual manners.”
Nearly a decade ago, Ang Lee’s legendary gay love story broke new ground with its poignant, smart and honest portrayal of two men in love who struggle to be true to themselves and to each other (a plot description one could also bestow on Ang Lee’s other pioneering gay feature—the upbeat 1993 gay romantic comedy, The Wedding Banquet). The combined power of Brokeback’s direction, story, screenplay, music, setting and performances have made Brokeback the most popular and most beloved gay feature of all time as it unfolds the epic story of Ennis and Jack (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal), two cowboys in love. The film was recognized with scads of awards including a Best Director Oscar for Lee, though sadly Ledger lost the Best Actor Oscar to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s amazing portrayal of the noted gay writer in another fantastic gay feature, Capote.
But I’m a Cheerleader
Featuring Ru Paul as a supposedly straight camp counselor, Jamie Babbitt’s colorful romantic-comedy is set against the backdrop of a gay conversion therapy camp and co-stars Clea Duvall and Natasha Lyonne as young teens in love. Like many LGBTQ feature filmmakers, the director grappled with the MPAA ratings board, who initially gave the film an NC-17 rating. Babbitt eventually agreed to make cuts in order to earn an R rating which would enable the film to be more widely seen. See Kirby Dick’s illuminating documentary, This Film Is Not Yet Rated for an in-depth interview with Babbitt, and others, discussing the MPAA’s apparent double-standards in regard to the ratings of LGBTQ films (Newsweek film critic David Ansen points out the board’s hypocrisy stating: “If it’s a same gender sex [scene] they seem to have a bigger problem than if it’s a man and a woman.”) Since this debut feature Babbitt has gone on to be a prolific TV director helming such popular (and lesbian-inclusive) shows as The L Word, Rizzoli & Isles and Drop Dead Diva.
With her razor-sharp grasp on the conventions of mainstream Hollywood movie-making, indie writer-director Angela Robinson created this hilarious film that manages to simultaneously spoof and inhabit the spy film genre with its tale of four teenage girls recruited by the government to foil super-villain Lucy Diamond (played by the beautiful Jordana Brewster). Seamlessly incorporating the lesbian twist (a secret love affair between the villain and one of our girl heroes) the film’s sense of humor never flags and it manages to be satisfyingly romantic and genuinely wholesome all the while. When it was released in 2004, D.E.B.S. finally achieved the milestone holy grail of being the first lesbian-themed film to be released in the U.S. with a PG-13 rating.
This period piece romance was the first lesbian-made indie lesbian film to get a theatrical art-house release. Set in Reno, Nevada in the 1950s, Donna Deitch’s adaptation of the classic Jane Rule novel, Desert of the Heart stars Patricia Charbonneau as the wild and sexy casino worker Cay who falls head-over-heels for Helen Shaver as the prim and proper uptight East Coast divorcee Vivian. Five years before the New Queer Cinema, Desert Hearts was part of what Film Comment magazine hailed in 1986 as “the Gay New Wave” (a volley of 1986 art house releases which included Desert Hearts, Parting Glances, My Beautiful Laundrette and Dona Herlinda and Her Son). During this time, feature articles in such mainstream film periodicals as Variety, American Film and Cineaste proclaimed a new movement of positive, unapologetic gay portrayals paying off at the box office, and showing that the gay market was a lucrative one.
Julie Taymor’s gorgeous rendering of the life of bisexual Mexican artist Frida Kahlo is another terrific period piece. Salma Hayek’s steamy portrayal of Kahlo earned her a Best Actress nomination and marked a first time mainstream lead portrayal of a Latina lesbian/bi woman on screen (though if you’ve never seen the San Francisco indie, Desi’s Looking for a New Girl it is well-worth seeking out to expand the category). Ashley Judd co-stars as her female love-interest Tina Modotti with Alfred Molina portraying her husband, Diego Rivera. The film also includes a very hot lesbian love scene with actress Karine Plantadit.
Another Twenty-Five Must-See Movies
The only way I was able to decide on this initial list of twenty-five canonical LGBTQ films was to simultaneously create a second list of twenty-five additional films that I would also want to be part of the canon. Of course there many, many more beyond this that are worthy of mention but these are just a few more that are deserving of shout-outs.
Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert
Born in Flames
Keep The Lights On
Law of Desire
Ma vie en Rose
No Skin off My Ass
Show Me Love
Touch of Pink
Trembling Before God
United in Anger: A History of ACT UP
The Wedding Banquet
Rose Troche and Guinevere Turner’s 1994 black-and-white ensemble comedy is akin to Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances for its pioneering depiction of an authentic contemporary (non-period) lesbian story. After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in 1994 Go Fish went on to receive theatrical release from a mainstream distributor, The Samuel Goldwyn Company. Lesbian audiences of the nineties were thrilled to see this recognizable and diverse group of lesbian friends, lovers, ex-lovers and about-to-be lovers as our protagonist Max goes looking for love in the big city (Chicago) pondering such quintessential lesbian topics as butch-femme identity, lesbians who sleep with men and the importance of nail clippers. Winner of the Berlin International Film Festival Teddy Award, the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Film in Limited Release and the Gotham Awards Open Palm Award.
Winner of the Best Director award at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, Wong Kar-Wai’s wonderfully agonizing and cinematically innovative drama of gay lovers living in Buenos Aires co-stars Tony Leung and the late Leslie Cheung in a pair of breakout performances. With their relationship in turmoil, Lai Yiu-fai and Ho Po-wing are stranded in Argentina and unable to get back to Hong Kong. Stunningly shot by cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Happy Together is one of the most provocative, dynamic and emotionally intense achievements in gay cinema history.
High Art and The Kids Are All Right
Lisa Cholodenko’s gritty debut feature took Radha Mitchell’s wide-eyed innocent into the dark underside of the New York art world via her burgeoning obsession with Ally Sheedy’s obscure lesbian photographer. Distinguished by a tremendous script (which earned her the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance), High Art was unique among lesbian films of the period for its seamless incorporation of a lesbian plot-line into a serious drama that managed to transcend the categories of “coming out story” and “romance” (and yet it was those things as well). Characterized by authentic characters and a focus on cinematic storytelling, Cholodenko established herself as an American indie auteur from the get-go. Of course Cholodenko’s 2010 lesbian family drama The Kids Are All Right is a must-see as well. Interestingly The Kids Are All Right manages to utilize much of the classic narrative anxiety of mainstream cinema’s dalliances with lesbians (where only one of them is really a lesbian and the more femme one was just experimenting with girls but is sexually unsatisfied until that guy comes along). But of course Kids turns this on its head by having Julianne Moore dump wayward sperm-donor Mark Ruffalo after their affair, return to her partner Annette Bening and proclaim her true lesbian-identity (though sadly in the lesbian role models department the two women seem to have a pretty crappy sex life). Lastly, it is also important to acknowledge that Julianne Moore’s character is in fact bisexual. A lesbian-identified bisexual, but bisexual nonetheless (talk amongst yourselves about this in the comments field below).
One of the biggest, queerest mainstream films ever released—featuring not just one, not just two, but actually three lead female characters who have their lesbionic facets (Meryl Streep as Clarissa, the contemporary lesbian; Nicole Kidman as bisexual Virginia Woolf; and the amazing Julianne Moore as Laura Brown, who shares but a brief moment of lesbian attraction to her beautiful neighbor, Toni Collette). Not to mention Ed Harris as Meryl Streep’s gay best friend and Allison Janney as her partner. Much like Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry, The Hours is one of a handful of films that simultaneously embody and transcend the label: “queer film.” Released in 2002, The Hours ultimately brought in nearly $42 million at the U.S. box office making it the highest-grossing lesbian film of all time (if we can be so bold as to describe it as such).
The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love
Writer-director Maria Maggenti pulls off a terrific teen lesbian story about the love between poor white tomboy Randy (Laurel Holloman) and her affluent African American classmate Evie (Nicole Ari Parker). Budding mechanic Randy services Evie’s Range Rover at the gas station, and things get going from there. On the film’s initial release, Roger Ebert commented, “The R rating is ironic when you reflect on how much healthier and more thoughtful this film is than so much mindless, action-oriented ‘family entertainment.’”
The Living End
In her landmark 1992 Sight & Sound article, B. Ruby Rich pronounced the dawn of the New Queer Cinema, citing films like Paris Is Burning, Swoon, Poison and The Living End. Gregg Araki’s edgy tale of two HIV-positive guys on a road trip embodied the anger and creative activism of the ACT UP era as the average gay guy Jon gets caught up with the free-wheeling hustler Luke. A politically engaged, low-budget, envelope-pushing drama from one of the most provocative and compelling queer filmmakers ever. See also Araki’s powerful gay drama, Mysterious Skin.
As a portrayal of a real-life gay hero, Gus Van Sant’s Milk is clearly one of the most celebrated and widely seen gay films of all time. Sean Penn’s Academy Award-winning performance as the pioneering openly gay politician and activist Harvey Milk ensured an even wider audience for the film. It’s kind of amazing to reflect on how many LGBTQ characters in mainstream film have been depicted as lonely or closeted (even in such hugely important films as Brokeback Mountain); Milk’s portrayal of Harvey as a proud and heroic part of a vibrant gay community is one of the film’s most notable facets. Other Gus Van Sant gay films that should be considered required viewing include his first feature Mala Noche, the legendary gay hustler drama My Own Private Idaho and his wonderfully quirky early shorts My New Friend, Ken Death Gets Out of Jail and Five Ways to Kill Yourself.
My Beautiful Laundrette
Directed by Stephen Frears from a script by Hanif Kureishi, this groundbreaking feature offers up the first fully realized gay interracial screen romance—between white punker Johnny (a very young Daniel Day-Lewis) and Anglo-Pakistani laundry owner Omar (Gordon Warnecke). Though it has an almost period piece feeling due to its early eighties production, My Beautiful Laundrette stands the test of time as it deals with racism and assimilation in Britain by way of a gay love story. My Beautiful Laundrette was part of the Gay New Wave of 1986, along with Dona Herlinda and Her Son, Parting Glances and Desert Hearts. Other excellent British gay dramas include the 1996 gay teen drama Beautiful Thing and the classic period pieces Another Way and Maurice.
Paris is Burning
Premiering at various film festivals in 1990 before being released by Miramax in 1991, Jennie Livingston’s groundbreaking exploration of the Harlem House Ball circuit made visible a little-known queer black subculture that was swiftly appropriated by the mainstream (in particular in Madonna’s “Vogue”). More importantly, Paris is Burning made gay men and trans women of color visible to themselves on the big screen. With dignity, humor and pathos the film immortalized such now beloved figures as Pepper Lebeija, Venus Extravaganza, Dorian Corey, Willi Ninja and others—and served as a vitally important conduit of culture, empowering and emboldening a generation. One of the most dynamic and cinematic queer documentaries ever made. In a word, legendary.
One of the most beloved gay movies of all time, Bill Sherwood’s 1986 indie portrait of three gay men in New York City brought to the screen an authentic and simple story of gay life in the mid-eighties and introduced Steve Buscemi as the inspiring and groundbreaking character of Nick—who is depicted as a brave, sensitive, funny, non-stereotypical gay man living with AIDS. Amidst the subgenre of HIV/AIDS movies, this is one of the best—other notable early examples include Arthur Bressan’s Buddies (truly the first feature film about HIV/AIDS), the made-for-TV drama An Early Frost, the Academy Award winner Philadelphia and aforementioned The Living End). More recently, LGBT filmmakers have looked back at the early days of the epidemic. These insightful and moving explorations include three documentaries: David Weissman and Bill Weber’s We Were Here, David France’s Academy Award-nominated How To Survive a Plague and Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman’s United in Anger: A History of ACT UP; as well as Chris Mason Johnson’s highly acclaimed drama, Test (full disclosure: I served as an executive producer on Test).
Legendarily known as one of the keystone films of the New Queer Cinema, Todd Haynes’s super edgy triptych feature (with three sections entitled: “Hero,” “Horror” and “Homo”) is a must-see for its avant-garde aesthetic and creative approach to HIV/AIDS metaphor, and especially for its evocative Genet inspired “Homo” sequence. Poison is also notable as the feature debut of Haynes’s longtime producer Christine Vachon who has gone on to produce or executive produce many of the most seminal LGBTQ films of all time including: Swoon, Go Fish, Postcards from America, Stonewall, I Shot Andy Warhol, Kiss Me Guido, Boys Don’t Cry, The Safety of Objects, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Camp, Infamous, Kill Your Darlings and many more. Other Todd Haynes films for the must-watch list include his unreleased cult hit Barbie-doll short, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story and the features: Far From Heaven, Velvet Goldmine and the soon to be released Carol.
The Times of Harvey Milk
Winner of the 1985 Oscar for Best Documentary, director Rob Epstein’s powerful account of the assassination of San Francisco’s first openly gay elected official remains one of the most riveting gay documentaries ever made as it tells the story of San Francisco’s gay community and the fight for gay rights in the late seventies. The Times of Harvey Milk is also one of the very few gay-themed films to be listed in the Library of Congress National Film Registry (the other LGBTQ titles on the registry are Midnight Cowboy, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Kenneth Anger’s experimental short Eaux d’Artifice). A few other notable LGBTQ history documentaries include Stonewall Uprising, Before Stonewall, Forbidden Love and Brother Outsider.
A groundbreaking example of personal documentary which innovatively explores black gay identity, Tongues Untied won numerous film festival awards in 1990 before it was scheduled for national public-television broadcast in July 1991 (on the independent documentary series P.O.V.). The impending broadcast elicited virulent attacks from the conservative right, which condemned the film as pornographic and attacked both PBS and the NEA for having funded it. While the Atlanta Constitution described Tongues Untied as “without a doubt the most explicit, profane program ever broadcast by a television network,” Vito Russo, writing in The Advocate, celebrated the film as “a brilliant, innovative work of art that delivers a knock-out political punch.” In many ways, Marlon Riggs later said, the national media attention surrounding the broadcast fulfilled his greater goal of challenging “society’s most deeply entrenched myths about what it means to be black, gay, a man, and above all, human.” Riggs, who died of AIDS in 1994, was a pioneer in the vibrant and innovative movement of queer film and videomakers of color, which burgeoned in the 1990s. Tongues Untied is an unparalleled example of personal, experimental documentary filmmaking and is as inspiring today as it was then.
The Watermelon Woman
This wonderfully innovative debut feature from African American writer-director-actor Cheryl Dunye was the first African American lesbian feature to be theatrically released in the U.S. The film’s clever tale features Dunye as a contemporary documentary filmmaker working on a profile of a (fictional) African American 1930s Hollywood actress (known as “the watermelon woman”). The film interweaves faux-documentary sequences with a fictional narrative about lesbian life and love in contemporary Philadelphia. Like Tongues Untied, the film had the distinction of being debated in Congress when right-wing conservatives objected to the fact that it had received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. See also Dunye’s terrific lesbian prison drama, Stranger Inside.
Word is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives
Reviewing Word is Out in The Advocate in 1978, Vito Russo proclaimed, “The silence of gay people on the screen has been broken.” Released in art-house theaters and then broadcast nationwide on PBS in 1978, Word is Out broke ground as the first widely released documentary about gay life and remains groundbreaking for its straightforward talking-heads approach—twenty-six out and proud gay men and lesbians tell their stories directly to the camera. Collectively produced by the San Francisco-based Mariposa Film Group (which included such talented documentarians as Rob Epstein, Veronica Selver, Lucy Massie-Phoenix, and the late Peter Adair), Word Is Out stands the test of time and takes on even greater value as time goes by, now bringing to life a very different time in gay American history. On its thirtieth anniversary back in 2008, the film was the very first preservation project undertaken by the Outfest/UCLA Legacy Project for LGBT Film Preservation.
Jenni Olson is a curator, filmmaker and author who co-founded Planetout.com, co-directed Frameline’s San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival and currently works with Wolfe Releasing.