Sashaying the cinematic rainbow
From the days of creatively skirting Hollywood’s production code to winning Best Picture at the Oscars, LGBT films have long been a (not always visible) thread in the fabric of the film industry. But, thanks to visionaries like Jennie Livingston, Dee Rees, Todd Haynes, Pedro Almodóvar, and more, queer characters have flourished, reaching more audiences than ever before in recent years. Whether their LGBT characters have taken center stage (A Fantastic Woman, Paris Is Burning) or have crept up in unexpected places (Rope, The Crying Game), read on for a list of some of the most essential queer-focused and/or queer-produced films of all time.
Paris Is Burning (1991, dir. Jennie Livingston)
Reading is fundamental — and so is Jennie Livingston’s groundbreaking 1991 documentary about the Harlem ballroom scene, which became one of the first defining chronicles of queer life to make a lasting impression on mainstream culture. This film’s careful presentation of the queer beauty (and struggle) of the black and Latinx experience in 1980s New York laid the foundation for projects like RuPaul’s Drag Race and Pose to succeed decades later. A restored version of the film is now playing in New York City, with nationwide rollout to follow.
Pariah (2011, dir. Dee Rees)
Dee Rees’ semi-autobiographical story about a 17-year-old lesbian (Adepero Oduye) coming out to her conservative family established the queer filmmaker as a cinematic force, six years before she received her first Oscar nomination for writing the 2017 historical drama Mudbound.
A Fantastic Woman (2017, dir. Sebastián Lelio)
Chilean actress-singer Daniela Vega commanded worldwide attention with her breakout performance in Sebastián Lelio’s masterfully wrought, intimate drama about a transgender woman grappling with societal ostracization and familial prejudice as she copes with the death of her longtime lover (and his bigoted family).
Call Me by Your Name (2017, dir. Luca Guadagnino)
Peaches — and the way you look at love — will never be the same after watching Luca Guadagnino’s lyrical emotional roller coaster of a relationship drama about a young boy (Timothée Chalamet) who falls for his academic professor’s live-in assistant (Armie Hammer) across one steamy, sun-kissed summer in the Italian countryside.
Philadelphia (1993, dir. Jonathan Demme)
Though other filmmakers and artists had captured the plight of queer people suffering through the AIDS crisis on smaller scales, Jonathan Demme’s 1993 portrait of an HIV-positive man (Tom Hanks) unjustly ousted from his law firm becuase of his condition hoisted LGBTQ inequality into the spotlight on an international stage, with the film grossing $206 million at the global box office before winning two Academy Awards.
Boys Don't Cry (1999, dir. Kimberly Peirce)
Hilary Swank won an Oscar for her work in this biographical film about a transgender man, Brandon Teena, who was killed in a vicious hate crime in rural Nebraska.
Carol (2015, dir. Todd Haynes)
Adapted by Todd Haynes from Patricia Highsmith’s beloved novel The Price of Salt, Carol — starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as two closeted women who form a passionate bond in 1952 New York — earned six Academy Award nominations, one of the highest tallies ever for a lesbian-focused film.
Disobedience (2018, dir. Sebastián Lelio)
In Sebastián Lelio’s challenging drama, Rachel Weisz plays an ex-Orthodox Jew revisiting her hometown in the wake of her rabbi father’s death, only to form a sexual bond with the wife (Rachel McAdams) of her childhood friend (Alessandro Nivola).
The Crying Game (1992, dir. Neil Jordan)
Though it has faced criticism over the years for its treatment of Jaye Davidson’s transgender character, Dil (presumably a biological woman for the first half of the film, until a surprise full-frontal genital shot communicates otherwise), The Crying Game introduced many casual audiences to a dynamic, complicated story of attraction that unfolds between a heterosexual man and his newfound romantic interest.
Brokeback Mountain (2005, dir. Ang Lee)
Brokeback Mountain remains one of the most celebrated queer movies of the contemporary era, as director Ang Lee paints an emotional portrait of two closeted cowboys (Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal) who, in rural 1963 America, develop an intense bond against the backdrop of the Wyoming wilderness while balancing marriage and fatherhood. The film went on to receive eight Oscar nods, including one for Best Picture — an award it shockingly lost to Crash in one of the most stunning upsets in the category’s history.
Moonlight (2016, dir. Barry Jenkins)
Barry Jenkins’ visionary depiction of a young black man’s developing sexuality — based on the stage play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, by Tarell Alvin McCraney — became the first film featuring an all-black cast (as well as the first LGBT-focused film) to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Wig (2019, dir. Chris Moukarbel)
HBO’s pseudo follow-up to Barry Shils’ 1995 documentary Wigstock: The Movie follows iconic performer Lady Bunny as she mounts a huge comeback for the film’s titular drag festival while navigating the medium’s rapidly diversifying landscape in the wake of the rise of RuPaul and Drag Race.
Mysterious Skin (2004, dir. Gregg Araki)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a gay hustler who bonds with a peculiar, UFO-obsessed teen (Brady Corbet) over a grim secret: They were both abused by their baseball coach as adolescents.
Happy Together (1997, dir. Wong Kar Wai)
Instead of focusing on the coming-out of it all, Wong Kar Wai’s haunting relationship drama instead delves into the dynamic of a singular pairing, as a Chinese couple (Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu-wai) travel to Argentina in an attempt to mend their fractured union.
Weekend (2011, dir. Andrew Haigh)
En route to creating his queer HBO series Looking, Andrew Haigh set this gorgeous romance against the backdrop of a single weekend in Nottingham, England, across which a one-night stand becomes a life-altering meeting of bodies and minds.
Kissing Jessica Stein (2001, dir. Charles Herman-Wurmfeld)
Stars Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen also wrote the snappy screenplay for this romantic comedy about a young Manhattan copy editor who, bored with her search for a male partner, answers a woman’s personal ad seeking companionship.
The Wedding Banquet (1993, dir. Ang Lee)
Before Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee lent his creative vision to another queer story about an interracial couple, Wai-Tung Gao (Winston Chao) and Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein), jumping through elaborate hoops to hide their love from the former’s traditional Chinese parents.
Saving Face (2004, dir. Alice Wu)
In writing the screenplay for Saving Face, which follows a young lesbian (Michelle Krusiec) who hides her sexuality from her traditional mother (Joan Chen), director Alice Wu was inspired by her own coming-out experience as a Taiwanese-American woman juggling cultural expecatations with her true identity.
Bound (1996, dir. Lana and Lilly Wachowski)
Steamy, sultry, and a hell of a lot of fun, Bound thrusts Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershion into a world of rough sex and complex scehmes as a maverick couple attempting to steal millions in mob money.
“My agents didn’t want me to do it. Literally, I was told, ‘You are ruining your career doing this movie. We will not let you do this movie,’” Gershon recently told EW of playing the part. “I never get to play the hero and to get the chick. I mean, it’s the typical part that I’ve watched my whole life, and it’s never been a woman. I left my agents over it.”
Rope (1948, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
While there are no overt references to the lead characters’ sexuality, many have dissected Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 psychological drama as a film with queer subtext, with scholars and critics speculating that characters played by John Dall and Farley Granger were in a gay relationship when they strangled their former classmate to death (and hosted a lavish dinner party while his body hid in a trunk that was later decorated for the event).
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001, dir. John Cameron Mitchell)
John Cameron Mitchell wrote, directed, and starred in an adaptation of the stage musical of the same name, about a transgender rock star who travels the country in search of performative highs and the ex-lover who pilfered her lyrics.
A Single Man (2009, dir. Tom Ford)
Fashion designer Tom Ford made a monumental debut as a film director with this haunting, somber period piece about a prestigious English professor (Colin Firth, who scored an Oscar nod for his performance) whose life is upended by the death of his boyfriend (Matthew Goode) in 1960s Los Angeles.
High Art (1998, dir. Lisa Cholodenko)
A young Radha Mitchell made her international breakout as a magazine intern who, seeking an opportunity to advance her career, engages in a relationship with a drug-addicted photographer (Ally Sheedy). The web of complexity between them grows more tangled throughout the film, as both women must confront their personal ambitions and their unexpectedly deepening affections for one another.
All About My Mother (1999, dir. Pedro Almodóvar)
Celebrated Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar charts a story about a grieving mother who, after the death of her young son, seeks out her ex, who’s now living as a transgender woman named Lola in Barcelona.
Tangerine (2015, dir. Sean Baker)
Transgender actresses Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor stormed through Sean Baker’s kinetic, iPhone-shot dramedy with the fierce charisma of superstars in the making.
Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013, dir. Abdellatif Kechiche)
Outside of director Abdellatif Kechiche’s allegedly volatile treatment of actresses Léa Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos on the set of the 2013 Cannes Palme d’Or winner, Blue Is the Warmest Color tells a tender, captivating love story between two young women who help each other evolve from teenage abandon to emotional maturity.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994, dir. Stephan Elliott)
This Australian comedy stars Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, and Terence Stamp as drag performers who tour their art across the desert while riding in a giant bus they’ve nicknamed Priscilla.
To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995, dir. Beeban Kidron)
Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, and John Leguizamo play three drag queens traveling across the country in this offbeat comedy, which also features an iconic performance from drag superstar RuPaul.
The Birdcage (1996, dir. Mike Nichols)
Adapted from Édouard Molinaro’s 1978 film La Cage aux Folles, Mike Nichols’ 1996 dramedy tackled casual American conservatism head-on as it followed a gay cabaret owner (Robin Williams) and his performance artist partner (Nathan Lane) as they attempt to mask their real lives from their son’s fiancée’s right-wing parents.
BPM (Beats per Minute) (2017, dir. Robin Campillo)
Years after Hollywood overplayed the doom and gloom of the AIDS crisis on the big screen, director Robin Campillo found a fresh way into covering the epidemic by chronicling the lives of various Parisian activists who, in 1990s France, worked to raise HIV awareness as part of the influential grassroots organization ACT UP.