Queer films are reaching wider audiences than ever.
After years of being pushed into the shadows, queer films are finally being allowed to step into the sun. Until recently, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and other non-straight stories were relegated to arthouses, premium television and home video. But now, thanks to a wider array of streaming offerings as well as producers, distributors and theater chains finally entering the 21st century, queer films are reaching wider audiences than ever. And those audiences are appreciating them, giving us queer blockbusters, queer Best Picture winners and an even wider array of queer independent and experimental work. As these new films enter the spotlight, it is vital to look back on the films and filmmakers who paved the way for this new age. Our list of the Best 25 Queer Films includes mainstream films, indies, foreign language films, TV movies and miniseries and documentaries. The variety in this work shows the ingenuity of decades of filmmakers who pursued every possible channel in order to let their distinctive voices be heard, and as such we have looked beyond mainstream cinema releases in compiling this list. – Mike McClelland
25. A Single Man (Dir. Tom Ford, 2009)
On the surface, A Single Man appeared to be little more than awards bait that used its queer themes like an unsympathetic cudgel. It looked to mine optimum emotion porn from a gay man (Colin Firth) dealing with the death of his lover (Matthew Goode), while masking as much homosexual content from the marketing materials as possible. Hollywood, no matter how liberal, has long had issues depicting queerness without a bushel of caveats, something the industry still struggles with today. But the directorial debut from fashion icon Tom Ford is more than the sum of its Weinstein-led Oscar campaign. It remains a touching, ornately photographed portrait of grief, love and renewal.
Based on the Christopher Isherwood novel of the same name, A Single Man provides one of the most understated roles in Firth’s CV in George Falconer, a college professor in the early ‘60s struggling with depression and suicidal ideation in the aftermath of his longtime partner Jim’s death in a car accident. He’s suffering in silence in a way no husband would have to mask missing his wife. What makes the pathos within George’s lament so palpable isn’t simple, melodramatic histrionics, but rather the way Ford switches between the austere loneliness of George’s present with the nourishing radiance of his past with Jim. Edward Grau’s cinematography coupled with the easy chemistry between Firth and Goode goes a long way to make you feel the bliss the two men shared, so that its absence feels absolutely untenable. – Dominic Griffin
24. The Birdcage (Dir. Mike Nichols, 1996)
“This drag comedy is aimed squarely at middle America, where these cuddly queens should play very well,” said a writer for TV Guide about The Birdcage before adding a caveat: “Just so long as nobody remembers that gay people don’t just sing show tunes and cook delightful meals; they also have sex.”
Indeed, Armand (Robin Williams) and Albert (Nathan Lane) are distractingly sexless. Their apartment is filled with overtly homoerotic art, which they have to hide because Armand’s son is visiting with his conservative, future in-laws. And yet, judging from the gay couple’s words and actions, they never seem the least bit attracted to the male form. For a movie so filled with cartoonish stereotypes, any semblance of same-sex flirtation—let alone interest—is noticeably absent.
Given our modern sensibilities, The Birdcage comes off as more than neutered. It appears to exist in an alternate universe. The reason for this is in part thanks to director Mike Nichols and the softball he lobbed at “middle America.” In a way, by heightening the flamboyance of its queer characters, particularly Albert’s, the film dared homophobes to reject its irresistible premise.
We rightfully credit Ellen DeGeneres, Brokeback Mountain and “Will and Grace” for the mainstreaming of gayness, if not gay culture (Madonna’s “Vogue” was also an early salvo in that regard). But The Birdcage, however clumsily, merged the two and presented queerness as safe and, yes, cuddly. – Peter Tabakis
23. Stranger by the Lake (Dir. Alain Guiraudie, 2013)
Putting the cock in Hitchcockian, director Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake is a sexually explicit murder mystery that follows Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a lonely French bachelor, as he lurks around at a gay beach and obsesses over Michel (Tom Selleck lookalike Christophe Paou), who may or may not have murdered his boyfriend during a night swim. His film a canny mix of slow-burn suspense and sexual curiosity, Guiraudie is especially successful at painting the potentially murderous Michel as a metaphor for AIDS. Yet, while this all sounds rather grim, Stranger by the Lake is notable for its frank sense of humor and its compassionate heart.
Franck strikes up a friendship with the lonely, overweight Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), who provides an abundance of funny one-liners as he watches a variety of men screw around in the lakeside bushes, but who also gives a glimpse of what queer life can be like for those who are not young or thin. Stranger by the Lake is, in a way, the very essence of queer filmmaking in that it pulls absolutely no punches. It can’t. Queer life, for many, is an incomprehensible mixture of sex and danger, and Guiraudie captures that with uncommon cinematic bravery. – Mike McClelland
22. Pariah (Dir. Dee Rees, 2011)
Based on her short film of the same name, Dee Rees’ Pariah begins with the following quote by Audre Lorde: “Wherever the bird with no feet flew, she found trees with no limbs.” We’re then introduced to the bird and her search for feet. Alike, played in a tremendous performance by Adepero Oduye, is a 17-year-old girl slowly embracing her identity as a lesbian woman—much to the chagrin of her suspicious mother and refuting father. The film is a miraculous recreation of one’s sexual awakening, yet its most powerful attribute is how it so effectively digs into not only Alike’s story but also everyone else around her.
Everybody’s “pariah” classification is rigorously defined, yet Alike’s arc finds the most inspiration in its journey of self-discovery. She experiences a broken heart from her first sexual experience, a friend who was just experimenting and tells Alike she isn’t “gay-gay.” She experiences the horrors of coming out to parents who may not forgive her. From confusion to clarity, Alike’s reemerges from her excursion into the unknown with scars, but like she says in her searing poem that concludes the film, “I am not running. I am choosing. I am not broken. I am free.” – Greg Vellante
21. Pink Flamingos (Dir. John Waters, 1972)
As a rule, when it comes to controversial art, what was once seen as shocking becomes prosaic as time wears on. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is available on virtually every music streaming service, in multiple incarnations. Take a listen. You’d be hard-pressed to understand the uproar it famously incited over a century ago.
Pink Flamingos is something else. It’s still fucking shocking (see, for example, the infamous birthday party sequence, which features a winking male sphincter). Its fucking is still shocking (the chicken coitus; Divine giving her son a blow job). Time will never soften John Waters’ trash classic. I, for one, don’t want to live in a world where this shit—and its shit eating—seems tame.
This isn’t Waters’ best film—that’s a title for either Female Trouble or Polyester, depending on one’s mood—but it’s by far his most important work. Pink Flamingos joyfully celebrates the worst suspicions straight America had of queer culture, way back in the early ‘70s. We’re degenerates? You people have no idea. We’re even worse than you could possibly imagine.
Do I need to mention that none of this filth represented reality, which was Waters’ basic point? Pink Flamingos, a low work of high camp, was meant to court controversy, to incite outrage. It offered a nightmare scenario, one that a cuddlier queer film could be contrasted against in a positive light. That it’s also an uproarious live experience? Well, that’s the topic for another discussion. – Peter Tabakis
20. Gods and Monsters (Dir. Bill Condon, 1998)
Gods and Monsters, openly gay writer-director Bill Condon’s semi-fictional telling of the last days of Frankenstein director James Whale (Ian McKellen), is bold both for the fact that it features a gay character played by a gay leading man and for its commitment to exploring the gay male gaze. Since the beginning of cinema, the straight male gaze has been utilized, championed and even weaponized. It has always been the norm. So, for a gay director to make a film about a gay character, and to base the film’s plot around the way that gay character watches, lusts after and draws another man was groundbreaking in 1998 and still resonates today.
In this way, Condon uses Gods and Monsters to reclaim a bit of cinematic space for the queers. Bolstered by a devastating performance by McKellen, the film explores Whale’s infatuation with gardener Clayton Boone (a peak-hunkiness Brendan Fraser) yet also doesn’t shy away from the depression that plagues many queer people, particularly later in life. While this is more than enough on which to base a plot, Condon juxtaposes Whale’s struggles against the plots of Whale’s most famous films, particularly Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. Suddenly, these tales of misunderstood “monsters” are almost too sad to bear. – Mike McClelland
19. Weekend (Dir. Andrew Haigh, 2011)
Weekend probably felt edgy when it was made, but in 2018 it reads as more a wistful reflection on a chance weekend tryst than as overtly “queer cinema.” It’s a point I made two years ago upon re-watching the film. It is a lovingly composed narrative of a loving encounter. The fact that the two romantically-involved protagonists—Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New)—are both men seems incidental.
This is not surprising, given director Andrew Haigh’s cinematic output since Weekend. Haigh has become one of the best screen chroniclers of the ineffable qualities of romantic relationships. His 45 Years was a shocking rumination on marriage, commitment and loss. Weekend is similar, but also so very different. There is no hope of commitment between Russell and Glen; they both know that they have only the one weekend. That does not keep the film from becoming an emotional gut-punch as it delivers on their mutual sense of loss at what could have been.
Haigh’s film is also effective at evoking a sense of place. Nottingham and the English Midlands more broadly come across as real places, full of genuine people. Perhaps this is the film’s true claim to being queer: it shows that there are perfectly unremarkable, lonely people living in perfectly ordinary places who just happen to be queer. – Ryne Clos
18. Mysterious Skin (Dir. Gregg Araki, 2004)
The evangelical right wing tends to blur the line between pedophilia and homosexuality in bad faith, pretending the two are somehow the same, but Mysterious Skin deals in similar territory for much different reasons. It’s a film that explores the difficult effect past trauma and abuse has on present life, of which sexuality is merely one impacted aspect. It’s a far cry from most Gregg Araki movies, toned down and stripped of his usual party-monster aesthetic. It’s a haunting and difficult watch made easier to consume by a pair of career best performances from leads Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet.
Adapted from Scott Heim’s novel of the same name, Mysterious Skin follows two young men, Neil (Gordon-Levitt) and Brian (Corbet), both abused by their little league coach when they were eight years old. But where Neil misconstrued what befell them as a form of love, discovering his own homosexuality in the process, Brian has repressed the incident, instead thinking he was abducted by aliens during the missing time in his memory. Now older, the two cross paths again, Neil a sex worker and Brian a man desperately trying to find the truth about what happened. It’s a heartbreaking film, easily Araki’s best, but it’s the otherworldly bent of Brian’s hallucinations that hit the hardest, knowing the real pain these sci-fi machinations are trying so hard to hide. – Dominic Griffin
17. My Own Private Idaho (Dir. Gus Van Sant, 1991)
Capitalizing on the newfound indie cachet of his breakout success, Drugstore Cowboy, Gus Van Sant’s next feature had certain hallmarks of a commercially safe entertainment: hot young leads in Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix starring in a kind of coming-of-age take fueled by Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 and 2. What made My Own Private Idaho—its name taken from the camp culture of the B-52s—a cultural breakthrough was the daring milieu on which Van Sant layered this seemingly conventional framework: the world of gay hustlers. The movie even begins as a typical American road movie, a young drifter (Phoenix) facing the promise and adventure of wide-open pavement. But after a narcoleptic episode and fever dream of Mother and Homestead, his destination is an exchange of money from a middle-aged trick happy to get a piece of young Midwest teen.
Nearly 30 years ago, it was startling to see such rising stars as Phoenix (who would be dead of a drug overdose in two years) and Reeves in gay roles. Van Sant still had a fierce independent spirit—evident even from plain title cards that suggested a production by indie pioneers New Yorker Films—that has since seemed to elude him. Yet the commercial success of My Own Private Idaho made it a modest landmark of its kind. — Pat Padua
16. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Dir. Stephan Elliott, 1994)
The plot of Stephen Elliot’s 1994 cult classic is deceptively simple. Three friends travel in a bus through the Outback, from Sydney to Alice Springs in Australia’s Northern Territory. In many ways it’s your standard road movie. Our trio of urbanites pass through small, seemingly backwater towns and get into scrapes along the way.
The key difference to this fish-out-of-water tale is our protagonists. Two are gloriously proud drag queens (Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce, both fully game). The third is a middle-aged transgender woman (Terence Stamp, the film’s heart and soul), still in mourning after the death of her young lover.
If you remember Priscilla merely as camp, however delicious, I’d recommend a revisit. Its visual and emotional heft is striking. Gorgeous wide shots of the titular, lavender bus gliding through the Outback—especially when Pearce is atop its roof, sporting a train of glittery, wind-beaten fabric—are iconic and arresting.
And yet, such triumph rests on the bedrock of zero fear or shame. Our trio sashays through hostile environments, dressed in Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner’s over-the-top, Oscar-winning costumes.(My favorite is a smock constructed entirely of rubber sandals.) There are no scenes where the characters deliberate about “passing” unnoticed by bigoted locals. They behave as they would at home, no matter the consequence. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better dramatization of pride. – Peter Tabakis
15. Brokeback Mountain (Dir. Ang Lee, 2005)
Perhaps the best-known queer film (at least in terms of modern, non-queer audiences), Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain is diminishingly known as “that gay cowboy movie.” But while the gayness and the cowboys are intrinsic to the story, the film more than that. It’s a Western, and its credentials on that front are considerably bolstered by its screenplay, an expansion on Annie Proulx’s lauded short story by Western screenwriters Larry McMurtry (TV’s “Lonesome Dove”) and Diana Ossana (TV’s “Streets of Laredo”). It’s a family saga, following two families built on false foundations. And it’s a love story—a gay one between cowboys at that. Lee wisely capitalizes on the palpable chemistry between leads Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, and as a result their Ennis and Jack make one of cinema’s great couples. Like many queer love stories, theirs ends tragically, and Lee’s (and McMurtry’s and Ossana’s) decision to flesh out Jack’s demise in a way eerily similar to Matthew Shepard’s is a bold and poignant choice. If the final scene—in which Ennis opens his closet to reveal Jack’s shirt tucked inside his own next to a picture of the titular mountain—doesn’t break your heart, then you don’t have one. – Mike McClelland
14. Bound (Dir. The Wachowskis, 1996)
Before The Matrix made them pop-art wunderkinds, the Wachowskis burst onto the scene with Bound, a hyperstylized neo-noir with a pair of sapphic lovers at its center. The film focuses on Violet (Jennifer Tilly), a femme fatale, who spirits away from her gangster boyfriend Caesar (Joe Pantoliano) for an affair with Corky (Gina Gershon), a tough ex-con. Being their debut some 20 years before either sibling came out to the world as trans women, there was some concern that this was merely an exploitation movie in the vein of Joe Eszterhas, another in a long line of ‘90s crime thrillers with threadbare plots long on gratuitous eroticism.
But Bound was an outlier of the genre. The Wachowskis’ flair for visual excess and a pulp writer’s gift for finding substance within the puerile helped to make this a unique exercise in crime-fiction storytelling at a time when people were still not ready to admit that aping Quentin Tarantino wasn’t going to work long-term. Though a well-executed noir piece, it’s not the form that carries the film through, but rather the fun the filmmakers have toying with sexual identity and gender stereotypes. By situating a pair of archetypes who would usually be on the periphery of a caper flick as its scheming protagonists, the film itself becomes the heist with the unsuspecting audience being conned by their own incorrect assumptions. – Dominic Griffin
13. Tropical Malady (Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004)
Tropical Malady is a film that tempts one-word descriptions; it is “primordial,” “primitive,” “inscrutable,” “surrealist” and other such dreamy, abstract terms. It is difficult, surely, and directly challenges viewers. It is also certainly Lynchian, as it represents Weerasethakul’s response to Mulholland Drive. Both pictures, as accomplished film writer Michael Koresky has recognized, deal with queerness through myth.
Tropical Malady has two halves. In the first, Thai soldier Keng (Banlop Lomnoi), stationed in a remote village, falls slowly but completely in love with Tong, (Sakda Kaewbuadee), a local ice-factory worker in the village. The other villagers, refreshingly, seem not to pay much attention to the budding homosexual romance. Weerasethakul’s films are always political, but never in an in-your-face sort of way. He is not interested in making a film about two men fighting society for acceptance of their love for one another; that is too obvious for him. Instead, Weerasethakul plunges viewers into a mythological tale of emotions, ecology and the fundamental nature of human connection in Tropical Malady’s second half, which features a shaman, a tiger and several long takes of the jungle at night, insects buzzing about.
Weerasethakul does not return to Keng and Tong—at least not directly—and he also resists explaining the metaphors of the fable. What Tropical Malady is ultimately about is probably not the point—the same goes for Mulholland Drive—but it is definitely a celebration of queerness as another way for people to be genuinely emotionally true to themselves and their feelings. Its politics is right there in every frame, as “primordial” and “inscrutable” as the rest of Tropical Malady. – Ryne Clos
12. Call Me by Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, 2017)
Do you remember the first time you fell in love? Like, really in love? Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name will make you remember with a newly-sparked fire. Guadagnino and screenwriter James Ivory’s adaptation of André Aciman’s 2007 novel of the same name was not only one of last year’s best films, it also entered the pantheon of queer cinema greats in an instant. It perfectly immerses its viewers in the summery affair of Elio (Timothee Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer), with love scenes that drip with sensuality and stares of attraction that can pierce your soul in just the right spot. Aside from the romance, the film’s greatest achievement lies in a single scene, where Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg) delivers one of the best film monologues of the twenty-first century. Stuhlbarg’s words emit not only kindness, but also immense understanding and longing for an unrivaled, passionate desire that most people only achieve once, maybe twice, during a lifetime. Call Me by Your Name captures this desire through Elio and Oliver’s relationship, and it also flawlessly zeroes in on Elio’s hunger for this desire once it disappears, where all he is left with is an aching hunger in his heart as he stares into the fire and cries. And, odds are, you’ll find yourself doing the same. – Greg Vellante
11. Carol (Dir: Todd Haynes, 2015)
Todd Haynes is a master of period melancholy, one that’s filtered through a queer prism. His Douglas Sirk-inspired melodrama Far from Heaven portrayed a ‘50s family ripped apart by closeted male gayness and an affluent community’s homophobic and racist attitudes. Carol, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, turns the tables and, instead, focuses Haynes’ attention on a lesbian couple.
This pristine tableau, one of bygone, suburban opulence (think of Mad Men, but when the ad execs went home) covers up a boiling undercurrent of sexual frustration. Carol (played by the living and breathing marble statue, Cate Blanchett) meets Therese (the doe-eyed Rooney Mara), a shopgirl working in a department store’s toy section.
Carol and Therese fall in love and hit the road for a winter holiday jaunt. Their journey ends with woe and heartbreak. But the trip, at first, leads to overwhelming sensuality, a physical breakthrough in their simmering relationship. I’m talking hot sex between two women, and I say this as a gay man. Things fall apart. Carol, a mother legally separated from her daughter, is forced into psychotherapy. Therese is left adrift and alone. The two meet again during the film’s remarkable final scene. Carol ends with the look of love, one that contains multitudes as the couple reunites, back together thanks to a single—devastating and erotic—scarlet smirk. – Peter Tabakis