The 50 Best LGBT Movies Ever Made
Movies teach us how to be. We learn morals, ethical lessons, how to interact with others, how to fall in and out of love. And we learn from movies how to view others—and how to view ourselves.
This has been truly evident in how film has depicted queer characters from its earliest days as visual medium. We have seen people like us reduced to stereotypes—sometimes based in truth, sometimes played by queer performers eager to find work and express their own identities in front of a camera, for better or for worse. Film has also depicted queer people as villains, victims, heroes, and outcasts. More often than not, films about the LGBT community are made not for those of us within it, but rather viewers who consider themselves a part of the straight world. Film teaches us about empathy, about understanding difference. Many films featuring queer characters have succeeded at that mission, while many others have failed.
As with any other marginalized group, it's tricky to make a movie about the queer community—even if the filmmakers responsible are members of the tribe. There's a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't nature to the audience's response. Are these characters trying to assimilate into the straight world? Are they too queer? Do they represent the vastly intricate inner lives that make up the LGBT community? Most likely they don't—just as any other straight character in film cannot possibly stand as an Everyman or Everywoman, representing the entire human experience.
Here, in honor of LGBT Pride Month, we rank the 50 best feature films about queer people. These are films that took major risks and attempted to depict the queer experience in a variety of ways. This is a collection of movies that, at the very least, express to its viewers that—no matter what end of sexual or gender spectrum in which they feel most comfortable—they are not alone
50| THE HUNGER (1983)
Directed by: Tony Scott
Catherine Deneuve plays a vampire who grows tired of her companion, played by David Bowie, when he slowly begins to age and die. Ditching Bowie seems like an unlikely scenario—that is until you realize that her replacement for him is the equally sexy Susan Sarandon.
49| CRUISING (1990)
Directed by: William Friedkin
Al Pacino goes undercover into the dark underbelly of New York's gay S&M scene to track a serial killer preying on gay men. It's problematic for sure, but it's become a cult classic for its unapologetic depiction of gay sexuality before the AIDS epidemic.
48| THE OPPOSITE OF SEX (1998)
Directed by: Don Roos
Roos's biting comedy skewered all notions of late-'90s political correctness, with Christina Ricci playing a foul-mouthed pregnant runaway who seeks refuge with her older half-brother—only to run off with his boyfriend. A cross-country chase ensues, with an acerbic and bitter Lisa Kudrow along for the ride.
47| VIVA (2015)
Directed by: Paddy Breathnach
The life of Cuba's "transformistas" is captured beautifully in this father-son story about a boy who wants to perform drag and his father, newly released from prison and unable to accept who his son is. Shot beautifully, with great music and a close look at Havana in all its run-down and colorful glory.
46| DESERT HEARTS (1985)
Directed by: Donna Deitch
The quintessential '80s lesbian romantic drama, Desert Hearts follows an English professor and a young sculptor as they fall in love at a Nevada ranch in the 1950s. Unique for its time, it sets its romance in a warm, affirming environment and lets its leads enjoy their relationship without angst or fear of death.
45| GBF (2013)
Directed by: Darren Stein
Everyone deserves a silly teen comedy—even gay teens! Darren Stein's charming comedy follows a high school boy who becomes the most popular kid in school once he's outed, with the queen bees all scrambling to claim him as their Gay Best Friend.
44| WEEKEND (2011)
Directed by: Andrew Haigh
An honest, unglamorous depiction of queer courtship. Russell and Glen hook up for a one-night stand that stretches through the weekend. Weekend captures the uneasy thrill of learning to trust someone new in a cold world, and the challenge of living an authentic life.
43| HAPPY TOGETHER (1997)
Directed by: Wong Kar-wai
Wong Kar-wai won Best Director at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival for this film about two Hong Kong men who emigrate to Buenos Aires, after the handover of Hong Kong to China put LGBT lives in jeopardy.
42| KEEP THE LIGHTS ON (2012)
Directed by: Ira Sachs
Ira Sachs's autobiographical drama packs a hard punch as it follows a filmmaker, Erick, throughout his relationship with a young lawyer, Paul, which begins as a random sexual encounter and implodes following Paul's drug and sex addiction.
41| THE WATERMELON WOMAN (1996)
Directed by: Cheryl Dunye
Dunye directs and stars in this microbudget indie about an African-American lesbian searching for an uncredited black actress from a 1930s film. Along the way, she falls in and out of love, and meets the real Camille Paglia.
40| THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT (2010)
Directed by: Lisa Cholodenko
Julianne Moore and Annette Bening play lesbian mothers to two teenagers whose blissful modern family is rocked when their kids seek out their sperm-donor father played by Mark Ruffalo. The family unit falls into crisis when his sudden appearance into their lives causes a rift between the two women as well as their kids.
39| THE CHILDREN'S HOUR (1961)
Directed by: William Wyler
Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine play headmistresses at a school for girls who are accused by a student of being in a lesbian relationship. While the accusation is false, it nearly ruins the women's standing in their community and threatens their friendship—and forces one of them to reevaluate her own identity.
38| PERSONAL BEST (1982)
Directed by: Robert Towne
Starring Mariel Hemingway and a raft of real-life track and field stars, Personal Best follows a young bisexual pentathlete vying for a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team and exploring a relationship with her lesbian coach—played by Olympic hurdler Patrice Donnelly.
37| MA VIE EN ROSE (1997)
Directed by: Alain Berliner
This Belgian film about a seven-year-old trans girl and her bewildered family was rated R by the MPAA in 1997, though it contains little in the way of language, sex, or violence. What it does bring is a rare, tender look at trans issues from the perspective of a child.
36| MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO (1991)
Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Gus Van Sant's loose Shakespearean adaptation brought the New Queer Cinema movement into the mainstream, with River Phoenix as a young, narcoleptic hustler and Keanu Reeves as his best friend and unrequited love interest.
35| MAURICE (1987)
Directed by: James Ivory
"Don't you know I would have gone through life half-awake if you'd had the decency to leave me alone?" All the lushness of a Merchant Ivory production, with gay men at its center. Even if this weren't a beautiful, affecting film, Hugh Grant's hair alone would earn it a spot on this list.
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Peter Jackson was journeying through fantasy worlds long before Lord of the RIngs—albeit one conjured up by two very real New Zealand school girls (played by then-newcomers Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey) who escape their own realities through their imaginations. But their connection turns intense and dangerous when they conspire to commit murder in one of the most notorious true crime stories of all time.
33| GO FISH (1994)
Directed by: Rose Troche
An antidote to the "soft-focus" lesbian movies of yore, Go Fish is urban, black-and-white, and shot on a shoestring budget. Starring co-writer Guinevere Turner and directed by Rose Troche, Go Fish was the lesbian film of the '90s indie-movie boom.
32| MAKING LOVE (1982)
Directed by: Arthur Hiller
The first wide-release studio film with a homosexual relationship at its center (and for decades, the last). Making Love follows Michael Ontkean's Zack, who is married to Claire (Kate Jackson) but exploring his homosexuality with Harry Hamlin's Bart. It's not a perfect film, but it took a giant risk, and gives us a rare snapshot of Los Angeles' gay life in the moment just before AIDS.
31| THE WEDDING BANQUET (1993)
Directed by: Ang Lee
Long before his groundbreaking Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee directed this sweet, comic tale about a Taiwanese immigrant living in New York with his partner. When he offers to marry a Chinese woman so she can obtain a green card, the marriage of convenience spirals out of control when his parents find out and throw a lavish wedding party.
30| THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY (1999)
Directed by: Anthony Minghella
Matt Damon's antihero falls in love with Jude Law's irresistible, unattainable Dickie Greenleaf, then takes over his identity, in 1950s Italy. Ripley is a monster, but the film is so seductive we want him to succeed—never more than when he takes a marble bust to Philip Seymour Hoffman's Freddie.
29| CHASING AMY (1997)
Directed by: Kevin Smith
After perfecting the gross-out comedy genre with his first two movies, Kevin Smith tackled the romantic comedy—but with a mid-'90s twist, which sees Ben Affleck's comic book writer falling for a fellow comic artist played by Joey Lauren Adams, who'd be a perfect match if she weren't more attracted to other women.
28| BEGINNERS (2010)
Directed by: Mike Mills
Mike Mills's sweet 2010 film concerns a Los Angeles artist, played by Ewan MacGregor, building a relationship with his newly out father (Christopher Plummer) in the last year of the older man's life. Beginners earned Plummer an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and features a talking Jack Russell terrier. In short, it's pretty much perfect.
27| BOUND (1996)
Directed by: Lana Wachowski & Lilly Wachowski
Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon ignite the screen in this super sexy heist film, in which Gershon's ex-con Corky seduces Tilly's mob moll Violet and convinces her to steal $2 million from her money-launderer boyfriend. The debut film from the Wachowski siblings, it shows what the future Matrix directors had in them when it came to boundary-pushing, mind-blowing moviemaking.
26| BUT I'M A CHEERLEADER (1999)
Directed by: Jamie Babbit
When Megan (Natasha Lyonne) shows more interest in being a vegetarian and female-fronted folk rock, her parents send her away to have her presumed homosexuality cured. Conversion therapy is no joke, but Jamie Babbit's satire perfectly skewers puritanical homophobia on its head—and it has a joyful, happy ending. (Plus, RuPaul!)
25| PARIAH (2011)
Directed by: Dee Rees
Dee Rees's gorgeous directorial debut stars Adepero Oduye as Alike, a Brooklyn teenager who comes to terms with her own sexuality and puts the comforts of friends and family at risk as she discovers how to express her identity.
24| MYSTERIOUS SKIN (2005)
Directed by: Gregg Araki
Gregg Araki at the top of his form. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet play boys who deal with having been abused by their Little League coach in markedly different ways. Mysterious Skin is at once difficult to watch and strangely heartwarming.
23| DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975)
Directed by: Sidney Lumet
On a scorching August day, Al Pacino's Sonny attempts to rob a bank in Brooklyn, and…things do not go well. The instant, intense media fame Sonny earns feels more relevant than ever, and things turn surprisingly tender when we learn he plans to use the stolen money for his lover's gender reassignment surgery.
22| MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE (1985)
Directed by: Stephen Frears
A Pakistani Brit and his former lover, who has become a fascist street punk, reunite and run a family laundromat. The characters deal with the materialism and anti-immigrant furor of Thatcher's England—elements that feel just a little bit too relevant at the moment.
21| BEFORE NIGHT FALLS (2000)
Directed by: Julian Schnabel
Based on the autobiography of gay Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas, Julian Schnabel's film brought Javier Bardem to the world's attention and highlighted the cruelty and homophobia of Castro's Cuba and Reagan's America.
20| HIGH ART (1998)
Directed by: Lisa Cholodenko
Lisa Cholodenko's chic directorial debut features a revelatory performance from Ally Sheedy as a prematurely-retired photographer, and Radha Mitchell as the young woman who can revitalize her career.
19| ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER (1999)
Directed by: Pedro Almodóvar
Pedro Almodóvar's comic melodramas are filled to the brim with delightfully absurd characters, and his Oscar-winning All About My Mother offers some of the best. After the death of her son, Manuela seeks out to find his father—who now goes by the name of Lola. Along for the journey is a young nun (played by Penelope Cruz) who is newly pregnant with Lola's baby.
18| A SINGLE MAN (2009)
Directed by: Tom Ford
Tom Ford's directorial debut adapts Christopher Isherwood's novel about an English professor in returning to life a year after the death of his lover. As you would expect from Ford, it is a relentlessly stylish affair, with indelible performances by Colin Firth and Julianne Moore.
17| HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH (2001)
Directed by: John Cameron Mitchell
John Cameron Mitchell brings his cult musical about "internationally ignored" transgender rock star Hedwig to the screen. In this version, Mitchell shows us the backstory he was only able to tell on stage, and introduces us to Michael Pitt's Tommy Gnosis. The rare rock musical that actually rocks.
16| PRIDE (2014)
Directed by: Matthew Warchus
A group of London LGBT activists form a coalition with striking Welsh miners in Thatcher's U.K. Stephen Beresford's Golden Globe-nominated screenplay underscores the need, as urgent as ever, for oppressed groups to join forces. There is power in a union!
15| JEFFREY (1995)
Directed by: Christopher Ashley
Some might find this adaptation of Paul Rudnick's off-Broadway play to be a little dated with its treatment of the dating scene in early to mid-'90s New York City. But Jeffrey's strength is found in its comic and playful look at a search for love amid the AIDS crisis, offering the kind of unabashed joy most of its contemporaries were unable to match.
14| LONGTIME COMPANION (1989)
Directed by: Norman René
Norman Rene's film follows a group of gay men through the early years of the AIDS crisis, one day per year, starting on the day the New York Times first covered the story of the "gay cancer." A deep meditation on grief, gallows humor, and the families we make with our friends.
13| SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY (1971)
Directed by: John Schlesinger
What do a recently divorced woman and a middle-aged gay man have in common? They're both having an affair with a charming and stylish artist—and they're aware that the lover they share in common isn't exclusive to them. John Schlesinger's acclaimed drama depicts two people who seek surprising ways to break free of their dull lives and reclaim their untamed youth.
12| THE COLOR PURPLE (1985)
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Spielberg followed up Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with this adaptation of Alice Walker's novel. In her film debut, Whoopi Goldberg plays Celie, an African-American woman in the early 20th century, who fights her way through oppression and abuse and finds an unexpected love along the way.
11| TANGERINE (2015)
Directed by: Sean Baker
Shot on iPhones along Santa Monica Boulevard's unofficial red light district, Tangerine follows two transgender sex workers and one lovesick cab driver through a particularly eventful Christmas Eve. Director Sean Baker found his leads—two first-time film actors—at the actual donut shop where much of the movie's action takes place.
10| PARTING GLANCES (1986)
Directed by: Bill Sherwood
This slice of gay life in mid-'80s Manhattan gave Steve Buscemi his first major film role, and tackled the AIDS crisis in a frank, non-sensational, even humorous manner. Along the way, glimpses of a long-forgotten bohemian New York, Reagan-era Fire Island, and a pre-Drew Carey Show Kathy Kinney.
9| THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT (1994)
Directed by: Stephan Elliott
Two drag queens (Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce) and a transgender woman (Terence Stamp) travel across the barren Australian Outback in a giant pink bus named Priscilla en route to a cabaret gig in Alice Springs. Hilarity ensues as their travels involve misadventure after misadventure, but the trio come together as a family unit as they learn more about each other and their personal lives.
8| BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR (2013)
Directed by: Abdellatif Kechiche
This film kept its NC-17 rating for some explicit, passionate sex scenes between leads Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, but it is at its heart a movie about youth, art, heartbreak, and the thrill of exploring one's identity.
7| BOYS DON'T CRY (1999)
Directed by: Kimberly Peirce
If any film can be credited with kicking off our cultural conversation on gender, this is it. Hilary Swank's breakthrough performance anchors Kimberly Peirce's film about the murder of Nesbraskan trans man Brandon Teena. Boys Don't Cry was originally given an NC-17 for even addressing trans issues, but was later downgraded to an R.
6| THE BIRDCAGE (1996)
Directed by: Mike Nichols
Mike Nichols's American remake of La Cage aux Folles features Robin Williams as a gay nightclub owner whose son announces his engagement to the daughter of an ultra-conservative politician. In typical farce style, his partner (Nathan Lane)—the star of his club's drag show—poses as his dowdy wife in order to convince his son's future in-laws that they're a wholesome American family.
5| BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005)
Directed by: Ang Lee
The greatest, most achingly beautiful gay male romance movie. Heath Ledger's shy Ennis del Mar falls in what he cannot articulate as love with Jake Gyllenhaal's Jack Twist over a long, lonely winter, and their lives bounce off each other's for years afterward. Ang Lee and screenwriter Larry McMurtry expand Annie Proulx's short story into a film without one false moment.
4| CAROL (2015)
Directed by: Todd Haynes
Todd Haynes brings Patricia Highsmith's cult novel to the big screen in this lush and seductive film following a young shopgirl named Therese (Rooney Mara) who finds herself charmed by an alluring older woman named Carol (Cate Blanchett). The two set out on a road trip on which they consummatean unspoken passion for each other—one that ultimately brings ruin to Carol's marriage and awakens dark desires within Therese.
3| MOONLIGHT (2016)
Directed by: Barry Jenkins
The only film on this list to earn an Oscar for Best Picture—and deservedly so. Barry Jenkins explores masculinity and repression in his study of Chiron, a young man coming of age in Miami (and played by three different actors at various stages of his life) who grapples with his sexual identity amid his troubled relationship with his crack-addicted mother. Chiron longs to break free of the predetermined path set out for himself by his environment, a journey set into motion by encounter with one of his male peers.
2| PHILADELPHIA (1993)
Directed by: Jonathan Demme
Tom Hanks won his first Oscar for his performance as Andrew Beckett, a successful lawyer who is fired from his firm once the senior partners discover he has AIDS. Jonathan Demme's searing drama was the first mainstream film to tackle the AIDS crisis, and it gave a familiar face and voice to a marginalized community often ignored by their neighbors and left to suffer because of an intolerant society.
1| THE BOYS IN THE BAND (1970)
Directed by: William Friedkin
Based on the play by Mart Crawley, and released less than a year after the Stonewall riots, The Boys in the Band perfectly depicts the complex experience of being a gay man—at times joyful, often times confusing and painful. This comedy still manages to balance the bite and the tenderness for its collection of characters, with its group of young gay men in New York City falling in and out of love and friendship and unknowingly on the brink of a cultural revolution.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.