50 Essential LGBTQ Movies - Rolling Stone
Home Movies Movie Lists

50 Essential LGBTQ Movies

From coming-out dramas to cult comedies, documentaries to blockbusters — our list of films that reflected and represented queer culture onscreen

'Pariah,' 'How to Survive a Plague,' and 'Carol' — all selections from our 50 Essential LGBTQ Movies list.

'Pariah,' 'How to Survive a Plague,' and 'Carol' — all selections from our 50 Essential LGBTQ Movies list.

Chicken And Egg/Mbk/Northstar/Kobal/Shutterstock, Public Square/Ninety Thousand Words/Kobal/Shutterstock, Wilson Webb/Killer/The Weinstein Company/Kobal/Shutterstock

It’s grainy, faded, and, given the clip is now 125 years old, more than a little worse for wear. But this brief footage is not so ancient that you can’t clearly make out two men, waltzing together, as a third man plays a violin in the background. It was an experimental short made by William Dickson, designed to test syncing up moving pictures to prerecorded sound, a system that he and Thomas Edison were developing known as the Kinetophone. It’s known as “The Dickson Experimental Sound Film,” and dates back to 1895, the same year movies were born. While there’s nothing to outright suggest that these men were romantically involved or attracted to each other during the roughly 20-second length of their pas de deux, there is nothing that contradicts that notion either. It’s considered by many to be one of the first examples of gay imagery in film, and a reminder that homosexual representation has been with the medium from the very beginning.

That clip appears in The Celluloid Closet, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s documentary based on Vito Russo’s study of homosexuality in the movies, along with countless examples of how gay characters showed up, per narrator Lily Tomlin, as “something to laugh at, or something to pity, or even something to fear.” The history of representation is long, and extremely storied, often shaping how the public viewed “the love that dare not speak its name” for better or worse. But since those two men first danced, there have also been scores of stories, characters, and filmmakers that have presented the varied, multitudinous aspects of LGBTQ experiences 24 frames per second that have gone past those stereotypes, or flipped them on their heads. Some have been documents of a moment or era of gay history, some have been used as correctives to decades of negative clichés, and others have simply celebrated the fact that the movies can be queer, they’re here, get used to it.

In honor of LGBTQ Pride Month, we’re singling out 50 essential LGBTQ films — from comedies to dramas, documentaries to cult classics, underground experimental work to studio blockbusters. It is nowhere near a comprehensive rundown of every great movie to feature out-and-proud heroes and villains, or a queer sensibility, or even just visible (and/or risible) examples of gay life in cinema; we could have easily made this list twice as long. Rather, consider this a primer that helps illustrate the relationship between queer culture and the silver screen.

Watch these films with a 30-day free trial to Amazon Prime or a free trial to Hulu here

Angels In America - 2003

Hbo/Kobal/Shutterstock

‘Angels in America’ (2003)

A modern-American epic set amid the mounting AIDS crisis of the Reagan era, Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play was translated to the screen in a multipart, six-hour event for HBO by director Mike Nichols. The performances are staggering: Al Pacino as the ignominious Roy Cohn; Jeffrey Wright is the sharp-witted gay nurse who tends to him; Mary-Louise Parker as a pill-popping housewife wed to a closeted Mormon; Emma Thompson as an imperious (and sometimes sassy) angel; and Meryl Streep in four roles, including the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. The work takes us back to a time when AIDS was stigmatized as a “gay plague.” Yet its messages — about corruption in politics, the scourge of bigotry, the comforts and limitations of faith, the human capacity for both love and betrayal — resound in any age. —M.F.
Bound - 1996

Moviestore/Shutterstock

‘Bound’ (1996)

Before the Wachowskis had the financial pull to film big-budget dreamscapes like The Matrix trilogy, there was their 1996 directorial debut — shot on only a $6 million budget after the filmmakers refused to bow to studio pressure and erase the lesbian romance at the film’s center. The result is a witty, bloody neo-noir following a mobster’s girlfriend (Jennifer Tilly) and her ex-con lover (Gina Gershon) as they conspire to steal a small fortune from the Mafia. Bound walks the line of exploitation without crossing it, partially thanks to the directors bringing on feminist writer Susie Bright as a consultant on the movie’s sex scenes. You could not ask for a more distinctively queer perspective on a traditionally straight, male genre. —J.S.

Boys Don’t Cry - 1999

Getty Images

‘Boys Don’t Cry’ (1999)

Long before the world at large awakened to what transgender means, director Kimberly Pierce showed us with this wrenching dramatization of the real-life story of Brandon Teena, a trans man who was raped and murdered in small-town Nebraska after locals discovered his biological gender. While conversation around the film has evolved to question the casting of a cisgender actress in the role, Hilary Swank’s deeply sensitive portrayal (for which she won her first Oscar) helped open a wider audience’s eyes to the trans experience. “Why don’t you admit you’re a dyke?” one of Brandon’s friends shouts at him in frustration early in the film. “I’m not,” Brandon responds, genuine confusion shadowing his face. “I’m a boy.” —M.F.

The Boys In The Band - 1970

Cinema Center/Leo/Kobal/Shutterstock

‘The Boys in the Band’ (1970)

William Friedkin’s take on Mart Crowley’s popular 1968 off-Broadway play already felt a little dated when it came out a year after the Stonewall riots (the casual racism and focus on self-loathing didn’t help). Yet the film remains one of the first frank big-studio treatments of uncloseted gay and bisexual men, as it follows eight friends (and one hustler) who’ve gathered in a New York City apartment to celebrate a birthday party. What follows is a lot of camping it up, some dancing, and a good deal of tearing each other to pieces. Lines like “show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse” will still make you cringe, but the film remains a time capsule of a moment when men were conflicted with how they “got” to be gay. It works best as a signpost and a throwback — just ask the all-gay cast who starred in the a major Broadway revival, or Ryan Murphy, who’s adapting the cinematic remake as a savage, comic period piece for a new generation. —J.P.

"BPM (Beats Per Minute)" - 2017

Les Films De Pierre/Kobal/Shutterstock

‘BPM (Beats Per Minute)’ (2017)

Writer-director Robin Campillo and his co-writer Philippe Mangeot based this film on their own experiences in the ACT UP movement in the 1990s — and their commitment to realism shows in this achingly raw drama, set during the depths of the AIDS crisis in Mitterrand-era Paris. It’s an ensemble piece dedicated to portraying a chorus of voices within the organization, which gives you a sense of the disparity of a community united behind a common cause. But it also wisely knows when to put the relationship between members Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and Nathan (Arnaud Valois) front and center, as the couple start to grapple with the real-time toll of the disease and the theoretical becomes painfully personal. The film took the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2017, and no wonder — it’s a stunningly frank portrayal of a moment in activist history when LGBTQ people were quite literally fighting to live another day. —J.S.

Brokeback Mountain - 2005

Focus/Kobal/Shutterstock

‘Brokeback Mountain’ (2005)

Two cowboys — the stoic Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and the slightly more social Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) — are hired to tend to a rancher’s flock of sheep in Wyoming circa 1963. The men end up finding intimacy on the plains and, despite both of them marrying, carry on a clandestine relationship for decades. That they can’t simply be together, however, eventually drives a rift between them and leads to tragedy. It was still considered a bad career move for a movie star to play a gay role in 2005, and Hollywood’s track record was less than stellar when it came to treating homosexual romances with the same depth as heterosexual ones (if it deemed it fit to tackle such stories at all). Which only makes Ang Lee’s adaptation of Annie Proulx’s short story that much more impressive, as he and the actors turned the tender tale of two stifled soulmates into a mainstream, Oscar-nominated hit. “I wish I knew how to quit you,” Gyllenhaal says, and the movie makes you feel the agony and ecstasy these men feel, together and apart. It’s a love story for the ages. —D.F.

"Call Me By Your Name" - 2017

Frenesy Film Co/Sony/Kobal/Shutterstock

‘Call Me by Your Name’ (2017)

Mainstream movie audiences have never had an easy time with love scenes between two men — until Luca Guadinigno’s sumptuous adaptation of André Aciman’s novel. Set in the verdant hills and tastefully cluttered halls of a villa in Northern Italy in 1983, the film charts the sexual awakening of 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet), who becomes captivated by twentysomething Oliver (Armie Hammer), the Greek-god-like grad student assisting the teen’s professor father for the summer. Their flirtations are teasing and playful, their eventual union joyous. Audiences and critics were swept up by the romance — making the film an awards-season juggernaut and anointing Chalamet, whose performance is full of precocious charm and gutting emotion, a bona fide star. Where so many gay love stories are tinged with violence and sorrow (see: Brokeback Mountain), this one is pure exhilaration. —M.F.

Carol - 2015

Wilson Webb/Killer/The Weinstein Company/Kobal/Shutterstock

‘Carol’ (2015)

Director Todd Haynes’ adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel centers around two women — unhappily married socialite Carol (Cate Blanchett) and the department-store salesgirl she pursues an affair with, Therese (Rooney Mara) — so hemmed in by 1950s convention you can practically see the boxes that surround them. That also means you can feel the bravery in their electric moments of veiled flirtation: a look that lasts a second too long, a grin that fights its way across their faces. A spur-of-the-moment road trip gives them the freedom to explore their desire, playing house in the privacy of hotel rooms, until a vicious custody battle forces Carol back into the closet. That should be tragic end of the story, but Carol zigs where you expect it to zag: In an era where lesbian love is not just shunned but is actively punished, she and Therese have no reason to rekindle their romance but for the joy they find in each other’s company. The lingering last shot proves how good a reason that can be. —M.F.

The Celluloid Closet

Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection(

‘The Celluloid Closet’ (1995)

A page-to-screen take on Vito Russo’s seminal book regarding LGBTQ representation (and misrepresentation) in the movies, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s documentary presents the perfect show-and-tell complement to the late scholar’s work — you can literally see the evolution of cinematic homosexuality as it progresses from punchline to social punditry, sidekick-and-stock-villain fodder to queers becoming the heroes of their own stories. Filmmakers, actors, and screenwriters weigh in on the joy of seeing gay characters visible, if sometimes veiled, on film, as well as the way Hollywood aided in perpetrating negative stereotypes. And clips of everything from silent two-reelers to Oscar-winning blockbusters demonstrate how the movies have reflected, refracted, and eventually come to broaden public attitudes about gay life. It’s an invaluable addition not just to film studies, but to the larger cultural conversation about art and queer identity — a history lesson and a correction, 24 frames per second. —D.F.

Cruising - 1980

Lorimar/Kobal/Shutterstock

‘Cruising’ (1980)

To say that William Friedkin’s thriller about a serial killer targeting gay men in New York was controversial would be putting it mildly: Village Voice columnist Arthur Bell (whose coverage of murders in the West Village bar scene was a partial inspiration) called the script “the worst possible nightmare of the most uptight straight”; establishments that had agreed to cooperate suddenly withdrew their support; activists disrupted filming at every turn; theaters were picketed; and one massive protest led to a traffic-stopping sit-in and arrests. It remains a highly divisive film. (There was a debate as to whether it should have been included on this list.) But 40 years after Al Pacino’s undercover cop first stepped into the Mineshaft, this lurid exploitation movie has been reclaimed by gay film critics such as Nathan Lee and Melissa Anderson, noticeably for the way it presents the late ’70s leather-bar scene with an almost vérité-like sense of observation. Add in the fact that many regulars of places like the Ramrod and the Anvil were extras in the film, and it’s now possible to view Cruising as a documentation of a LGBTQ subculture — and a snapshot of a bygone era. —D.F.

Desert Hearts - 1985

Desert Heart Prods/Kobal/Shutterstock

‘Desert Hearts’ (1985)

For decades, cinematic lesbian stories tended to end in tragedy — a not-so-subtle reminder of where Hollywood stood when it came to depictions of same-sex relationships. But then along came Donna Deitch’s story of an English professor (Helen Shaver) who goes to Reno to qualify for a quickie divorce and ends up falling for the younger woman (Patricia Charbonneau) who blows into her life like a hot Nevada wind. Intimate and subtly realized, Deitch’s film is a moody, romantic masterpiece that broke major barriers while hardly seeming to break a sweat. —J.S.

Edward II - 1991

Moviestore/Shutterstock

‘Edward II’ (1991)

The movies of Derek Jarman, a major British filmmaker, ran the gamut from punk provocations (Jubilee, Sebastiane) to period-piece biopics (Caravaggio, Wittgenstein) to the avant-garde (Blue, which replicated the director’s gradual loss of eyesight as he was dying from an AIDS-related ailment). If we had to pick one film to serve as an introduction to this visionary’s body of work, however, we’d choose this radical retelling of Christopher Marlowe’s play about King Edward II (Steve Waddington) and his love for his confidant Piers Galveston (Andrew Tiernan). Mixing heritage-drama aspects with outré postmodern flourishes and a heightened sense of homoeroticism, the movie presents the relationship between the two men as a political act as much as a romantic one; Edward’s army is refashioned as ACT UP-style activists, and the behind-the-scene machinations of Edward’s wife, Isabella (longtime Jarman collaborator Tilda Swinton), double as a critique of Britain’s oppressive, historically strict anti-homosexual laws. Just when you think it could not get more anti-Masterpiece Theater delirious, Annie Lennox shows up to sing a Cole Porter song. —D.F.

A Fantastic Woman

Participant Media/Kobal/Shutterstock

‘A Fantastic Woman’ (2017)

Marina is a Santiago, Chile-based waitress by day and club singer by night; she and her significant other, Orlando, are planning a nice, long vacation. Then her lover dies, and suddenly, Marina finds herself having to battle Orlando’s family — and Chile’s less-than-friendly attitude toward trans women — for the chance to grieve and properly say goodbye. Anchored by an absolutely stunning performance from transgender actor Daniela Vega, Sebastian Lelio’s Oscar-winning melodrama subjects its heroine to a number of microaggressions and social humiliations; everyone from the cops to her boyfriend’s ex-wife dead-names her, denigrates her, and questions her right to exist at all. Yet it’s as much a portrait of a survivor who will not be swayed from her purpose as it is an intolerant society, and Lelio and Vega’s insistence on giving this character a sense of pride while still honoring her struggle turns this tragedy into a tale of triumph. She is a fantastic woman, indeed. —D.F.

Go Fish - 1994

©Samuel Goldwyn Films/Courtesy Everett Collection

‘Go Fish’ (1994)

Directed by Rose Troche (and co-written by Troche and star Guinevere Turner), this low-budget, black-and-white film became a Sundance breakout and a minor indie hit; in the days before The L Word, their portrait of the lives and loves of modern lesbians felt downright revolutionary. “I was a dyke when you were still in diapers, kiddo,” Kia (T. Wendy McMillan), a mature professor, tells Max (Turner), a young woman who is on the prowl. She gets set up with Ely (V.S. Brodie) and the sparks began to fly. Despite the characters’ bravado and bluster, there’s an inescapable sweetness to it all — at one point the women lay around discussing euphemistic terms for female anatomy (“honeypot,” “love mound,” and “girl patch” are all offered but ultimately rejected) — which has helped the movie retain its charm after all these years. —J.P.

Gods Own Country - 2017

Agatha A. Nitecka

‘God’s Own Country’ (2017)

Set on the muddy, windswept moors of Yorkshire, Francis Lee’s debut feature follows Johnny (Josh O’Connor), a young gay man leading a dead-end existence on his family farm, and Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a Romanian migrant worker who comes to help out during lamb-birthing season. As the two men’s mutual lust grows into something deeper, the movie gradually breaks down the walls that Brexit-era, alpha-male culture has built around Johnny’s heart. Partially inspired by Lee’s own experience growing up, the film was praised as England’s answer to Brokeback Mountain when it first hit theaters. But repressed boys herding sheep aside, God’s Own Country is very much its own film — one that dares to imagine a real future for its central couple. —J.S.

Happy Together - 1997

Moviestore/Shutterstock

‘Happy Together’ (1997)

The signature shot of Wong Kar-Wai’s woozy, intoxicating love story — Leslie Cheung’s head resting on his boyfriend Tony Leung’s shoulder, as the latter looks at his lover with a combination of worry and wariness — immediately gives you a sense of this couple’s dynamic. They can’t live with each other, they can’t live without each other, and neither of them can sustain what’s threatening to become toxic. So these two men decide to travel from Hong Kong to Buenos Aires to give their relationship one last shot in the arm, and soon realize that not even a change of scenery can save their curdling bond. Filled with the filmmaker’s trademark dreamlike style, the movie gives their love story the same romantic, pop-narcotic rush of his other films’ couplings; even though Hong Kong censors wanted to remove the sex scene that opens the film, they ended up letting his vision of bliss before the inevitable breakup remain intact. It’s a singular, bittersweet look at amour fou, and that title track from the Turtles could not be more ironic. —D.F.

Hedwig and The Angry Inch - 2001

Sophie Giraud/New Line/Kobal/Shutterstock

‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ (2001)

Most modern movie musicals have a canned quality — a slick, artificial sheen that sucks all the air out of the stage shows they adapt. And then there is John Cameron Mitchell’s adaptation of his cult off-Broadway musical, which traces the ups and downs in the life of a genderqueer East Berliner who, following a botched sex change operation, moves to America and becomes a glam-rock diva. Mitchell’s movie, his directorial debut, retains the raw, punk-inflected vibe of the live show, bursting with bangers like the iconic “Wig in a Box.” It also maintains a fierce wit and intelligence, exploring the outer limits of gender identity and self-love in a world that gives nothing back. —J.S.

High Art

Moviestore/Shutterstock

‘High Art’ (1998)

Drenched in heroin chic and featuring Ally Sheedy at her Ally Sheediest, writer-director Lisa Cholodenko’s feature debut put forth not just a romance between two women — Sheedy’s lapsed, louche photographer Lucy and earnest aspiring editor Syd (a baby-faced Rhada Mitchell) — but a bohemian world where sexuality was fluid, drugs were a constant, and people talked unironically about Fassbinder films. Syd’s disorientation in the face of Lucy’s charisma and sexual confidence is finely rendered; so, too, is a quintessentially Nineties atmosphere where queerness was positioned as not just the norm, but the height of cool. Twelve years later, Cholodenko would garner a heap of Oscar nominations for The Kids Are Alright, her portrait of a lesbian couple worn down by time and parenthood. But High Art remains a better time capsule of a moment when queer culture hadn’t fully entered the mainstream — and still makes the more indelible mark. —M.F.

How To Survive A Plague - 2012

ublic Square/Ninety Thousand Words/Kobal/Shutterstock

‘How to Survive a Plague’ (2012)

The HIV virus hit the gay community around the same time that the personal camcorder hit retail shelves — which is one reason David France’s Oscar-nominated film about the formation of activist organization groups ACT UP and TAG (Treat Action Group) has such a shattering impact. There is so much in-the-moment footage from which to construct his narrative, and the movement’s real-life figures — among them Mark Harrington, Peter Staley, Spencer Cox, Ann Northrop — are recorded taking to the streets and fighting for their lives. Not only do we see pivotal actions such as the “Stop the Church” demonstration at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the stunt that involved covering Sen. Jesse Helms’ house with a giant condom, we also witness the ashes of lost loved ones being scattered on the lawn of the White House — it’s a history of battling an epidemic, recounted with the intimacy of a home movie. An essential look back of the men and women who’ve made HIV something to live with rather than die from. —J.P.

Keep The Lights On - 2012

Alarum/Kobal/Shutterstock

‘Keep the Lights On’ (2012)

Addiction and commitment are the intertwining themes of director Ira Sachs’ semiautobiographical portrait of a couple whose intense bond keeps threatening to shatter. Zachary Booth plays Paul, an attorney with a drug problem who falls for Erik (Thure Lindhardt), an artist and filmmaker. Told in bits and pieces over 10 years — and charting how Paul and Erik intersect and fall apart and intersect again over time — this romantic drama is startlingly clear-eyed about the struggles of its gay characters to accept themselves as well as their partners. It’s a tender film about a love that wasn’t meant to last, but it’s told with such beauty and compassion that you’ll wish that somehow it could. —T.G.

Looking For Langston - 1988

Bfi/Sankofa Film/Kobal/Shutterstock

‘Looking for Langston’ (1989)

British filmmaker Isaac Julien’s freeform tribute-cum-“meditation” on Langston Hughes seeks to reframe the Harlem Renaissance poet from the perspective of being not just a black artist, but a black queer artist. Blending readings of his work with sequences of gorgeous men in tuxedos dancing and cruising each other (or posing naked), the movie specifically places Hughes’ verse in a homoerotic context; the work of fellow gay writers James Baldwin, Essex Hemphill, and Robert Bruce Nugent also accompany black-and-white scenes of gay clubs, gay celebrities (keep an eye out for Bronski Beat singer Jimmy Sommerville as an angel), gay iconography, and gay love. It’s an indictment of how these men were marginalized because of their sexuality — and thanks to Julien’s own exquisite sensibility, an extraordinary Afro-pomo celebration of how they filtered their desire through their art. —D.F.

Love! Valour! Compassion! - 1996

Attila Dory/Fine Line Features/Lider/Kobal/Shutterstock

‘Love! Valor! Compassion!’ (1997)

There’s Gregory (Stephen Bogardus), a successful Broadway choreographer, and his young blind boyfriend, Bobby (Justin Kirk). There’s Perry (Stephen Spinella) and Arthur (John Benjamin Hickey), a couple who are celebrating their 14th anniversary. There’s the HIV-positive Buzz Hauser (Jason Alexander), described as “the love child of Judy Garland and Liberace” (if you’ve ever wanted to see Seinfeld’s George Costanza frolicking about in nothing but a floral apron, red heels, and a Panama hat, this is the movie for you). These longtime friends plan on spending their summer together. Then acerbic British composer John (John Glover) brings his hunky new playmate, Ramon (Randy Becker), to the gang’s Hudson Valley getaway, and the dynamic immediately changes. Terence McNally, who died in March from complications related to COVID-19, adapted his own Tony-winning play for director Joe Mantello, and the film is the perfect reminder that McNally was one of the great chroniclers of gay love, gay relationships, and what it meant to find a chosen family who would support you through good times and bad. The exclamation points are well-earned. —J.P.

Madchen in Uniform - 1931

Moviestore/Shutterstock

‘Madchen in Uniform’ (1931)

This German drama about a new student (Hertha Thiele) who is smitten with everyone’s favorite professor (Dorothea Wieck) at an all-girls boarding school didn’t just put a love that dare not speak its name front and center — it presented such a relationship with empathy, kindness, and genuine respect, even as the powers that be at the educational institution threaten to ostracize both women. And even though director Leontine Sagan and the film’s co-writer Christa Winsloe toned down some of the more-erotic overtones from Winsloe’s play, it was still explicitly a story about homosexuality that honored the characters’ mutual attraction. The movie turned its two stars into popular fan favorites all over Europe, and no less than Eleanor Roosevelt helped it get a run in the United States; later, German authorities attempted to label it as “decadent” and destroy every copy (the fact that the stern headmistress was viewed as slightly reminiscent of a real-life authoritarian figure in power didn’t help). Luckily, several prints survived, and it’s now rightfully seen as a landmark of early (and vital) LGBTQ cinematic representation. —D.F.

'Moonlight' Film - 2016

David Bornfriend/Kobal/Shutterstock

‘Moonlight’ (2016)

A heartbreakingly gentle portrait of a young man’s very rough life growing up gay in Miami’s impoverished Liberty City neighborhood, Barry Jenkins’ lyrical second film, presented in three acts, juxtaposes moments of incredible tenderness between men with bursts of casual cruelty. Throughout his school years, Chiron is bullied mercilessly, finding comfort only in the occasional company of a local drug dealer (Mahershala Ali, who won his first Oscar for the role) who offers fatherly guidance, and, as a teenager, in a single intimate encounter with a childhood acquaintance. In the third act, an adult Chiron has wrested control of his life by becoming a musclebound drug dealer like the one who showed him kindness as a child; but his inner world is locked away. Beauty alone could have won this film its Best Picture Oscar; but in centering the kind of life so often overlooked, one where the hurdles to living openly as a gay man are as high as they can get, it became culture-shifting. —M.F.

My Beautiful Laundrette

©Orion Pictures Corp/Courtesy Everett Collection

‘My Beautiful Launderette’ (1985)

The powder keg of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain is the setting for this unlikely U.K. gay love story, which tackles issues ranging from homophobia to colonialism. A Pakistani-British twentysomething (Gordon Warnecke) tries to jump-start a failing South London laundromat with the help of his ex-skinhead boyfriend (Daniel Day-Lewis). The subversive indie film would prove to be a launchpad for three up-and-comers: director Stephen Frears, writer Hanif Kureishi, and, of course, actor Day-Lewis, who’s absolutely magnetic in this early role. But more importantly, it didn’t attempt to exoticize or present the relationship between the two men as mere titillation. Loving each other comes as natural to this duo as opening a business together or thumbing their noses at the posh upper crust. —J.S.

My Own Private Idaho

Moviestore/Shutterstock

‘My Own Private Idaho’ (1991)

“Gay-hustler indie” may now seem like a Sundance cliché, but until Gus Van Sant’s third feature dropped audiences into the insular world of Portland’s street culture, no one had made a movie that addressed the subject with such a mix of poetry and blunt honesty. River Phoenix is Mike Waters, a narcoleptic young man selling his body but not his soul; Keanu Reeves is Scott Favor, the slumming soon-to-be-rich kid who’s the object of Mike’s desire. The script is partly an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV — the actors even break into verse — and after he was rejected by studios, Van Sant cast the straight heartthrobs as leads because he wanted his avant-garde indie movie to appeal to the mainstream. He didn’t shy from packing it full of arty closeups and unusual freeze frames (those sex scenes with Udo Kier after he dances and sings a German pop song will leave an imprint). Yet it’s the tender, heartbreaking moments around all that sound and fury that truly matter. Stranded on the road in Idaho beside a campfire, Scott tells Mike, “Two men can’t love each other.” Mike replies, “Yes, they can.” —J.P.

Mysterious Skin - 2004

Desperate/Kobal/Shutterstock

‘Mysterious Skin’ (2004)

Writer-director Gregg Araki (The Living End) was already known for working with low budgets to make provocative, powerful LGBTQ films about young adulthood, sexuality, and alienation. With Mysterious Skin, though, he ventured into slightly more mainstream terrain — only slightly, however — with this tale of two men forever impacted by their intense relationship with their Little League coach. A tale of UFOs and sexual abuse, lost innocence and suburban angst, this spiky coming-of-age film helped kick-start the movie careers of former sitcom kid Joseph Gordon-Levitt and burgeoning indie auteur Brady Corbet. As for Araki, this dreamy, color-coded example of shoegaze cinema allowed him the opportunity to not just provoke but also break the heart. It remains his most soulful work of art to date. —T.G.

Nighthawks - 1978

Osprey/Kobal/Shutterstock

‘Nighthawks’ (1978)

Ron Peck’s tale of a teacher (Ken Robertson) who haunts London’s gay clubs at night has earned a cult following for its rare depiction of homosexuality in the U.K. as something that existed within a subculture, and not simply as a crime. There’s an almost documentary-like quality to our hero’s after-hour journeys, with a gritty, you-are-there sense of what the city’s bar scene circa the late Seventies was like; it feels very much like an artifact of a lost moment in time. But it’s also sympathetic to its character’s endless cruising in search of a connection without being sentimental or overly salacious about it, full-frontal nudity or not. And the sequence in which Robertson’s educator is confronted by his students about his sexuality — and he simply answers their questions as honestly as possible — has been justly celebrated for transforming what could have been an example of an “outing” filled with shame into a testament of pride. —D.F.

Nitrate Kisses

Barbara Hammer

‘Nitrate Kisses’ (1992)

An experimental doc from the legendary filmmaker Barbara Hammer, this collage of personal testimonies, gay and lesbian ephemera, and a profilette of author Willa Cather is a roundabout mediation on, per its creator, “a repressed and marginalized history” of queer life in the 20th century. And in a little over an hour, she accomplishes all that and more — scenes of intimacy among elderly and biracial same-sex couples will suddenly give way to explorations of homosexual persecution in Nazi Germany, or one woman’s oral history of trying to mask her sexual preferences during her time in the army during World War II. —D.F.

The Normal Heart - 2014

Plan B/Kobal/Shutterstock

‘The Normal Heart’ (2014)

For those who aren’t familiar with Larry Kramer’s landmark 1985 AIDS play, Ryan Murphy’s HBO movie (with a screenplay adapted by Kramer) may seem like little more than a star-studded true-to-life drama. It was designed as an urgent political statement, delivered just as AIDS had begun decimating the gay community — those strident speeches and preachy monologues carried extra weight as well as doubling as an ASAP call to action. A screen adaptation had been in the works for years, and it took big Hollywood names like Murphy and Julia Roberts (who portrays Dr. Emma Brookner, a paraplegic physician who treats several of the earliest victims of the disease) to finally make that dream a reality. The cast does justice to what is now considered one of the definitive statements of the AIDS era, though it’s Matt Bomer’s heart-wrenching portrayal of Felix Turner, a closeted New York Times writer who begins a relationship with Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), that reminds you why this cri de coeur remains an enduring testament to survival. —J.P.

O Fantasma

Courtesy Everett Collection

‘O Fantasma’ (2000)

Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues pulls exactly zero punches in his feature debut, in which a Lisbon-based trash collector (Ricardo Menses) gently rebuffs the attention of a female co-worker while lusting after a mysterious motorcyclist. When he’s not on the job, however, he’s on the prowl — and his preference for rough trade, autoerotic asphyxiation, fetish garb, and 50 shades of kink may not be for the faint of heart. Yet it’s Rodrigues’ curious fascination with this cipher that makes you unable to look away, especially given the filmmaker’s talent for combining the perverse and the profound — one critic described the film as “XXX meets existentialism,” which sums the movie up to a tee. It’s a rare dispatch from a regional gay cinema, and one hell of an introduction to one hell of a singular talent. —D.F.

'Pain and Glory' Film - 2019

Canal+/Sony/GEM/Kobal/Shutterstock

‘Pain and Glory’ (2019)

Pedro Almodóvar’s filmography is filled with gay characters, gay love, gay sex, and gay sensibilities — you can see it in his punkish late-Seventies shorts, his campy farces (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), his Hitchcockian thrillers (Matador, Law of Desire), and his melodramas (Bad Education, All About My Mother). The Spanish filmmaker’s latest work, however, doesn’t just revolve around an aging, gay movie director (Antonio Banderas) reflecting on his life — it’s a highly autobiographical look at its creator’s own relationship with cinema, desire, and his identity as a queer artist. The tender way Banderas plays this suffering lion in winter, and his ability to make him sympathetic without sanding off the rough edges, is what gives this meta-memory piece its heart. But it’s the way that Almodóvar presents the character’s first stirrings of lust via flashback, and the rekindled embers of passion when an old lover shows up, that gives the movie its heat. The maestro has always been out in regards to his sexuality; he’s just never been quite this emotionally open about it. The result is what very well may be his masterpiece. —D.F.

Pariah - 2011

Chicken And Egg/Mbk/Northstar/Kobal/Shutterstock

‘Pariah’ (2011)

Writer/director Dee Rees’ film opens at a Brooklyn nightclub where A.G.s (“Aggressive Lesbians”), “soft studs,” and queer black women of all shapes and sizes are having a good time. Immediately, we are given intimate access to a subculture marginalized within the black community — but rather than make the audience feel like interlopers, we’re invited into the raucous, sex-positive celebration, and that makes all the difference. And we have the privilege of being introduced to 17-year-old Alike (Adepero Oduye), who’s in the process of coming out of the closet and dealing with a religious, intolerant mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans). Although there are no shortage of coming-of-age stories, rarely have we witnessed a tough-love mother-daughter dynamic as distinctive as this, not to mention a perspective that’s too rarely seen onscreen. —J.P.

Paris Is Burning - 1990

Off White Prod/Kobal/Shutterstock

‘Paris Is Burning’ (1990)

Jennie Livingston’s doc about the 1980s New York ball scene is a portrait of a moment in LGBTQ history that flamed impossibly bright — and burned out all too fast. Over the seven years of the film’s creation, Livingston captured the creativity, vibrancy, and drama of Harlem’s drag balls, as well as bringing a whole aesthetic and lexicon (“shade,” “vogueing,” “realness”) to the greater public. It not only documented for posterity the communal thrill of the subculture’s live performances, but also the people behind the balls’ various “houses” — most of them black or Latinx — whose lives were all too often cut tragically short. —J.S.

Parting Glances - 1985

Rondo/Kobal/Shutterstock

‘Parting Glances’ (1986)

One of the first American films to directly address the specter of AIDS, writer-director Bill Sherwood’s indie drama initially focuses on Robert (John Bolger), whose New York job has just transferred him to Africa for a few years, and his boyfriend, Michael (Richard Ganoung), who isn’t coming with him. As the couple negotiate a farewell party, we begin to find out why Michael is staying put: His old flame, Nick (Steve Buscemi), is dying of the disease. The tone slowly but substantially shifts, and you find yourself already mourning Nick before he’s even gone — a testament to both Buscemi, in one of his earliest roles, and Sherwood’s determination to present the emotional trauma suffered by the gay community as the pandemic raged around them. The filmmaker himself would die of an AIDS-related illness in 1990. This was the only film he’d live to make. —D.F.

Pink Flamingos - 1972

Dreamland Prods/Kobal/Shutterstock

‘Pink Flamingos’ (1972)

John Waters’ best-known movie pits Babs Johnson — played, of course, by his plus-size muse, Divine — against a depraved couple (David Lochary and Mink Stole) for the title of “the filthiest person in the world.” No spoilers, but let’s just say the duo do not stand a chance in hell from wrestling that honor from Babs. A staple on the midnight-movie circuit for decades, this exercise in extreme bad taste set the bar for future shock artists, even if there is an odd sense of innocent fun present in Waters and his repertory company’s indulgence in graphic sex scenes, violence, and the sampling of some very questionable cuisine. Yet it’s also part of an underground-cinema tradition that used taboo-tweaking, gay-subculture imagery, razor-sharp irony, and a refined sense of camp. You can see Pink Flamingos‘ lineage in the screen tests/tongue-in-cheek exercises of Andy Warhol and his Factory cohorts, Kenneth Anger’s pioneering short Scorpio Rising, and the free-form celluloid terrorism of Jack Smith (whose Flaming Creatures is also an essential movie). Long live the Pope of Trash! —D.F.

Poison - 1991

Bronze Eye/Kobal/Shutterstock

‘Poison’ (1991)

The key movie of what would become known as the “New Queer Cinema” (see also Tom Kalin’s Swoon and Gregg Araki’s The Living End), Todd Haynes’ triptych gives us the story of a child who murders an abuser and mysteriously disappears (“Hero”), a Fifties-style monster movie about a scientist who turns into a hideous creature after drinking a “sexuality” potion (“Horror”), and a bold adaptation of Jean Genet’s love-among-convicts tale The Miracle of the Rose (“Homo”). The longer the young filmmaker intercuts between these three sections, the more you can see the common thematic ground: sickness, social outcasts, the search for love, and a longing for escape. And like his fellow gay filmmakers who’d artistically come of age in a world of AIDS-related affliction and activism, Haynes’ style of storytelling was confrontational, somewhat confessional, and unabashedly queer, whether he was flirting with genre parodies, borrowing TV tabloid sensationalism, or pushing the envelope regarding depictions of same-sex eroticism. (The Genet segment generated more than its share of controversy.) It was a brilliant introduction to both a movement and a major moviemaker. —D.F.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Lilies Films/NEON

‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ (2019)

How much passion can be conveyed in a single glance? It’s a question French writer-director Céline Sciamma’s sublime fourth feature asks again and again, chronicling a burning though discreet love affair between a young painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), and her subject, the soon-to-be-married Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). The latter does not wish to be rendered on the canvas in the name of being married off; it’s the former’s job to coax her into sitting for a portrait. An initial friction turns to an unquenchable desire, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire uses its evocative setting — a storm-swept remote island in the 18th century — to conjure up a swoonworthy atmosphere of forbidden ardor. And like so many great love stories, what makes Sciamma’s addition to the genre so intoxicating is that it cannot have a happy ending, leading to one of the most shattering finales in recent movies. Naturally, it all hinges on one more longing look. —T.G.

The Queen - 1968

©Kino International/Courtesy Everett Collection

‘The Queen’ (1968)

Meet Flawless Sabrina, or simply “the Queen,” who’s primping and planning for the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest that will take place at New York City’s Town Hall. As for the other drag queens who will be her competition, you can watch them rehearsing their numbers in bathing suits, or eavesdrop on other seminude contestants bragging about how they managed to dodge the Vietnam draft or teasing each other about boyfriends. Frank Simon’s once-obscure, recently restored documentary captures a moment when cross-dressing was a felony in most of America and people who operated in these fringes were considered “deviants.” Yet it also serves as a testament that yes, Virginia, underground gay culture was alive and well and incredibly fabulous long before Stonewall served as a flashpoint for liberation, and a wonderful introduction to the pre-RuPaul, pre-TV-hit-show art of drag. “Because you’re beautiful and you’re young,” says Crystal LaBeija, uttering what will become the film’s iconic quote, “you deserve to have the best in life.” —J.P.

Querelle - 1982

Planet-Film/Albatross/Gaumont/Kobal/Shutterstock

‘Querelle’ (1982)

You could include any number of prolific German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s movies on this list, from the fear-and-self-loathing portraiture of Fox and His Friends to his Sirkian transgender melodrama In the Year of 13 Moons. But it’s his last film, a loose adaptation of Jean Genet’s 1947 novel, that’s arguably his most unabashedly queer work in terms of both storytelling and aesthetic. Following a Belgian sailor named Querelle (Brad Davis) who’s pulled into port and drifts into drug dealing, murder, and a number of sexual liasons, the movie presents its story in a style that might be best described as gay expressionism — a heightened mixture of blatantly phallic architecture, Pierre et Gilles’ color-saturated portraiture, and Tom of Finland’s he-man roleplaying fetishism. (Should you want a primer on the latter’s huge influence on leather-bar culture and gay erotica, we highly recommend the 1991 doc Daddy and the Muscle Academy). Jean-Paul Gaultier admitted that the film’s look was a big influence on some of his couture collections; the whole thing plays like a libidinous fever dream. —D.F.

Silverlake Life: The View From Here

Film at Lincoln Center

‘Silverlake Life: The View From Here’ (1993)

Tom Joslin knew he was dying of AIDS. So was his partner of two decades, Mark Massi. So Joslin enlisted a friend and former student of his named Peter Friedman to help them capture their final months. It starts as a portrait of a couple, enjoying their time together and testifying to the endurance of their relationship, as well as the quotidian details of dealing with an illness. It turns into the single most unflinching look at what that disease does to the human body, and did to an entire community at large. A vital, moving and absolutely devastating documentary, Silverlake Life serves as both a love letter from one man to another and a heart-wrenching memento mori for both of them (Joslin would pass away on screen; Massi died while Friedman was editing the footage). AIDS was not something you simply saw in a newspaper headline. There was a story behind every casualty of the epidemic. This movie presented two of them, and underlined the fact that too many of these stories ended far too soon. —D.F.

Strawberry and Chocolate

Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection

‘Strawberry and Chocolate’ (1993)

When does your choice in ice cream become subversive? Diego (Jorge Perugorría) is a cultured, Cuban gay man who treats a devouring spoonful of strawberry ice cream like a sexual experience; David (Vladimir Cruz) is rigid, chocolate-preferring Communist. The former invites the young, straight political-science student to his apartment, tucked inside a grand decaying building in Old Havana. The latter decides to spy on this “rebel” for the Party. Soon, Diego is seducing David with ideas — an act that’s almost dangerous as loving who you want to love. A massive, Oscar-nominated crossover hit, Tomas Gutierrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío’s film presented a softer, more tolerant treatment of homosexuality by the Cuban government (Diego and David share a platonic hug at the end) that was seen as progress by some and a savvy public-relations move by others. Yet the fact that the film did come from such a repressive country did suggest hope, and what starts as a stereotypical treatment of homosexuality turns into something more complicated, intriguing, and sympathetic. —J.P.

Tangerine - 2015

Augustas Quirk/Magnolia/Duplass Brothers Prods/Kobal/Shutterstock

‘Tangerine’ (2015)

Bathed in the buttery light of West Hollywood in wintertime (and shot entirely on iPhones), Sean Baker’s microbudget film tracks a day in the lives of transgender sex workers Sin-Dee and Alexandra (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, both trans actresses of color) as they search for the former’s two-timing boyfriend. In between tramping up and down the sidewalks of Santa Monica Boulevard, the two hang out in bars and donut shops, sharing their fears, hopes, and dreams. It’s an affectionate, unflinching look into the lives of a community that rarely gets screen time, and its critical success represented a big step forward in the movement to cast trans actors in trans roles. —J.S.

Taxi Zum Klo - 1981

Filmwelt/Kobal/Shutterstock

‘Taxi Zum Klo’ (1980)

German writer-director Frank Ripploh semiautobiographical movie remains a landmark because it refused to present the “positive gay image” so many advocated for to achieve acceptance by straight people — instead, it celebrates the art of being a sexual outlaw. His fictional counterpart, a cheerful 30-year-old grade-school teacher in West Berlin named Frank, wobbles between his daytime responsibilities and some frenetic evenings of diverse pleasures. After he meets a porn-theater manager (played by Bernd Broaderup, Ripploh’s real-life boyfriend), he takes him home and they become a couple. Frank, however, doesn’t want to be tied down. It’s a no-holds-barred film, featuring sequences involving graphic sex, glory holes, golden showers, and BDSM back rooms — though its most shocking scene may be when we witness a doctor give Frank a exam. Rarely has a filmmaker depicted a gay man’s body in a more vulnerable state. —J.P.

The Times of The Times of Harvey Milk

Everett Collection

‘The Times of Harvey Milk’ (1984)

San Francisco activist Harvey Milk became a groundbreaker when he joined the city’s board of supervisors and became the first out homosexual politician in California’s history. He would later become a martyr when he was gunned down in his office at City Hall. Long before Gus Van Sant’s biopic would share Milk’s story with the general public, there was Rob Epstein’s Oscar-winning documentary on the man who became known as the Mayor of Castro Street, which retraces Milk’s story as he moved from New York to the Bay Area, became involved in neighborhood politics and the gay-rights movement, and eventually found himself in a position to affect policymaking on a grander scale. It details the tragedy that occurred on November 27th, 1978 — but just as importantly, it remembers and celebrates Harvey as a fallible human being, a hero, an activist, and a galvanizing force for change. It’s a great testament to a great man. —D.F.

Tongues Untied

Signifyin' Works

‘Tongues Untied’ (1989)

If Marlon Riggs’ cine-essay on growing up as a gay African American man — and how he learned to celebrate that fact — was simply an incredible work of autobiography, it would still belong on this list. It is, naturally, a lot more than just one person’s story. Riggs keeps things personal but purposefully widens his lens on the subject as well, bringing in other queer black voices, highlighting gay dancers and poets of color, submitting evidence that pop culture has traditionally emasculated black men, and opening up about homophobia among the larger African American community. Made for PBS, the film became the center of controversy after its first airing; numerous regional public-broadcasting channels refused to show it, and Sen. Jesse Helms name-checked it in his fight to defund federal grants for so-called “offensive” art. Yet it remains a peerless work of self-liberation: “I was mute, tongue-tied, burdened by shadows and silence,” Riggs says to the camera. “Now I speak.” The filmmaker passed away due to complications from AIDS in 1994. Tongues Untied remains a key part of his legacy. —D.F.

The Watermelon Woman - 1997

Dancing Girl/Kobal/Shutterstock

‘The Watermelon Woman’ (1996)

Cheryl Dunye’s feature debut follows a video-store employee/aspiring filmmaker (played by the writer-director herself) trying to chase down the story of Fae Richards, a forgotten African American performer from the 1930s known only as “the Watermelon Woman.” It is, in many ways, a serious attempt at reclaiming the legacy of an entire generation of marginalized and neglected black actors, not to mention female auteurs and closeted movie stars (Richards’ primary collaborator was a Dorothy Arzner-like director who was also her lover). But it’s also a bawdy, boisterous romantic indie about the relationship between Dunye’s character and a customer (Go Fish‘s Guinevere Turner), as well as a portrait of Philadelphia’s community of “sapphic sisters” — like Valarie Walker’s snarky, porn-loving best friend — and the women who love them. Almost a quarter of a century later, the movie still feels like a scrappy, cheeky, sui generis story about lesbians of color, courtesy of singular voice. —D.F.

Weekend - 2011

Em Media/Kobal/Shutterstock

‘Weekend’ (2011)

Russell (Tom Cullen) sees Glen (Chris New) from across a crowded London bar. He takes the handsome guy back to his place and, per one-night-stand etiquette, fixes him coffee the next morning before bidding him adieu. Except these guys aren’t quite done with each other yet, and they end up hanging out some more that afternoon. Glen mentions that he’s leaving for Portland, Oregon, for a few months the next day — but that doesn’t mean they can’t make the most of the rest of the weekend. Writer-director Andrew Haigh’s intimate drama has been called “the gay Before Sunrise,” a comparison that’s both a compliment — like Linklater’s movie, it revolves around the power of conversation and enjoying the extended pleasure of someone’s company — and an oversight that doesn’t quite do justice to the movie’s strengths. It’s a universal tale of meeting the right person at the wrong time, one that’s unabashedly romantic and told in a beautifully unfussy, observational style. But it’s also very specifically a gay love story, with the two men sharing stories of past trysts, coming-out fears, social pressures, insecurities, and insights that speak directly to a 21st-century queer experience. If you can maintain a dry eye before the credits roll, you’re a stronger viewer than we are. —D.F.

Word Is Out - 1977

Ronald Grant Archive/Mary Evans/Everett Collection

‘Word Is Out’ (1977)

Documentarians Nancy Adair, Andrew Brown, and Rob Epstein’s oral history of gay life gives close to two dozen men and women a chance to tell their stories — and lets the participants share their personal perspectives on everything from coming of age to coming out, from love to heartbreak, from co-parenting with their partners to forging their own paths. It’s a wonderful, all-inclusive mosaic that underlines both the similarities and unique experiences of growing up gay during the 1930s through the 1960s. And seen today, it doubles as a time capsule for a community in the throes of post-Stonewall liberation before a plague would change everything. (It’s also a great unofficial companion piece to the equally invaluable 1984 history lesson Before Stonewall.) —D.F.

Yossi and Jagger - 2002

Icp/Lama Prod/Kobal/Shutterstock

‘Yossi & Jagger’ (2002)

Unlike so many films that focus on wartime action, Israeli filmmaker Eytan Fox’s story of a doomed romance showed the quotidian drudgery of the men and women conscripted into the army after high school — and how love can blossom amid the desert desolation. Soldiers Yossi (Ohad Knoller) and Jagger (Yehuda Levi) sneak off on a bogus mission for a playful hookup in the snow; they also continue to battle their own internalized homophobia and rigid ideas about masculinity. The compact, 71-minute military drama was meant to be a shock to the nation’s system of macho, homophobic society. It achieved even more than Fox had thought feasible: The film now screens during military basic training, and gay Israeli soldiers are openly embraced. —J.P.

Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.