The LGBTQ community’s existence has long been subject to erasure by the conformist, hetero-normative society. Queer cinema across the globe has used cinema as a tool to narrate the complexities of the LGBTQ experience. Such radical works can’t simply be categorized as social issue dramas that channel anger or despair. In fact, queer cinema predominantly tells tales of love, self-discovery, solidarity, and humanity. It took decades of struggle for the queer cinema movement to evolve and portray these characters in a realistic light. So, here’s a look at the most significant films centred around LGBTQ themes. These are some of the best LGBTQ films of all time, that have resonated with viewers widely and are essential viewing:
30. Michael (1924)
Carl Theoder Dryer was best known for his silent masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc. But before that he made an interesting love triangle drama titled Michael, which implied gay romance. The romance between the opulent master painter and his beautiful model is said to be merely implied. In fact, it got through the censors of Weimar Germany and the critics didn’t pay much attention. The relationship was even interpreted as paternal. Now Dreyer’s implications look so plain. Though it’s a bit underwhelming as a character drama, Michael marks an important chapter in gay cinema.
29. The Watermelon Woman (1996)
Writer/director Cheryl Dunye plays herself in this magnificent portrait of a black queer woman. Staged as a mockumentary, its principal story-arc examines the life of a 30s black actress, type casted to play maid roles. Despite being a talented performer, she never made it to the top-tier of Hollywood. However, the investigation brings out her long-time affair with a white female director. A hybrid of autobiography and fiction, The Watermelon Woman is a landmark work in both black and queer cinema.
28. Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)
Experimental filmmaker Toshio Matsumoto’s feature-film debut is loosely based on the Greek play Oedipus Rex. Set in the bustling Shinjuku district of Tokyo, the narrative revolves around a young drag queen named Eddie. It is an honest and a bit disturbing exploration of the lives of transvestites. But what makes it an enthralling experience is Matsumoto’s audacious storytelling method. He structures the narrative like a puzzle and employs plenty of stylistic devices.
27. Madchen in Uniform (1931)
Leontine Sagan’s film is set in the all-female boarding school and emphasizes on sensual undercurrents in a teacher/student relationship. Made during the final days of German expressionist cinema, Sagan’s film was groundbreaking, not just within the context of queer cinema history. Sagan, one of the few European female filmmakers of the era, fashioned a unique mise-en-scène that was much ahead of its time. Madchen in Uniform also gained reputation for its anti-authoritarian stance. Interestingly, it was made before Hitler’s rise to power in 1933.
26. Victim (1961)
Basil Dearden’s gripping drama tells the tale of a renowned barrister who fears a blackmailing scheme. Played by Dirk Borgade, the closeted lawyer believes his secret relationship with a young man might go public. The movie was made at a time in England when being gay was a crime. The narrative highlights the inhumanity of the law to persecute homosexuality. In fact, it not only empathized with the gay protagonist, but also remained as a catalyst for change. Dearden utilized the guise of a mystery/thriller to strongly deliver his message of societal ill-treatment.
25. Death in Venice (1971)
Luchino Visconti’s portrait of obsession is both controversial as well as enchanting. The narrative revolves around a composer named Gustav (Dirk Borgade). His ailing health forces him to take a trip to Venice and also to seek some artistic inspiration. At the hotel where he is staying, Gustav comes across as a stunningly beautiful adolescent boy. The composer, of course, suppresses and refuses to act on his feelings. Based on Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella, Death in Venice is full of complex characters and made with extreme restraint.
24. Orlando (1992)
Sally Potter’s unique drama on gender politics is based on Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novella. Spearheaded by the phenomenal screen presence of Tilda Swinton, Orlando tells the tale of an androgynous British nobleman’s fantastical exploits. The narrative unfolds over centuries with the titular character barely ageing. Potter’s profound depiction of gender fluidity makes it a significant work in the queer cinema canon.
23. Stranger by the Lake (2013)
Alain Guiarudie’s erotic thriller revolves around a young gay man named Franck. On one of his frequent visits to a local popular cruising spot, where Franck indulges in deep conversations with his boyfriend Henri, Franck finds himself attracted to Michel. Meanwhile, Franck has also observed Michel commit a terrifying act at the cruising spot. Guiarudie’s masterful writing and mise-en-scène explores the burden of carnal desires. And it withholds suspense that’s akin to Hitchcock’s work.
22. Tangerine (2015)
Sean Baker’s visually captivating film is made entirely on iPhone. The narrative is set in Los Angeles on the backdrop of Christmas Eve. It follows Sin-Dee Rella and her best friend Alexandra, two transgender sex workers. Sin-Dee is just out of prison after a brief stint. She hears a rumor that her pimp boyfriend is cheating on her. The two travel across town to teach him a lesson. Tangerine boasts raw performances and radiates a feverish energy. A bittersweet tale of friendship set in the mean streets, Tangerine finds humanity and humor in the darkest corners of the society.
21. Aligarh (2015)
Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh is a landmark Indian queer cinema, highlighting intolerance towards homosexuality in contemporary Indian society. The film is based on the true story of Professor S.R. Siras. The respected man loses his job because of his sexual orientation. Featuring a solid performance from Manoj Bajpai, Aligarh offers a dignified, heart-wrenching portrait of the professor’s plight. The narrative evokes anger and helplessness simultaneously, showcasing how prejudices can ruin lives.
Watch Aligarh on Amazon Prime
20. Call Me By Your Name (2017)
Based on Andre Aciman’s novel, Luca Guadagnino’s introspective, heart-breaking drama tells the story of 17-year old Elio. Set in the summer of 1983 near a village in northern Italy, Elio is smitten with Oliver, a graduate student who comes to work with his professor father. Guadagnino intimately depicts the longing, excitement, agony, and doubt brought upon by love. Intentions are confessed, and a love affair is sparked. However, the relationship soon spirals off course.
Where to Watch: Netflix
19. Beau Travail (1999)
Claire Denis’ extremely affecting portrayal of bored soldiers is loosely based on Melville’s unfinished novella Billy Budd. The film is often described as homoerotic for the passionate physicality with which Claire frames the male bodies. The narrative is largely set in an outpost of French Legionnaires, near the East African nation of Djibouti. The men are engaged in repetitive and meaningless existence, which is part of the military’s masculine codes. Amidst this harsh atmosphere, Claire subtly depicts the repressed homosexual feelings of a sergeant-major.
18. Pariah (2011)
Dee Rees’ refreshing drama revolves around a tender young girl named Alike (Adepero Oduye). Alike yearns for her family’s acceptance over her sexual orientation. Her parents, however, are old-fashioned for whom sexuality is a moot point. Amplified by the nuanced performance of Oduye, Pariah is devoid of formulaic tropes or melodrama. Besides, it’s perfectly rooted in the reality of modern youth culture.
17. My Beautiful Laundrette (1984)
Stephen Frears’ compelling drama on Thatcherism and racism revolves around a young gay British Pakistani named Omar (Gordon Warnecke). He manages a Laundromat and gets acquainted with an old schoolmate named Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis). Naturally, Omar and Johnny keep their affair secret. Besides, Johnny aids Omar in his business. It’s a tender love story which never shies away from the cold realities.
16. My Own Private Idaho (1991)
Gus Van Sant’s poetic tale revolves around a couple of hustlers from Portland. It was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, but transplanted to the contemporary era. Keanu Reeves plays Scott, who is turning tricks to go against the familial expectations. Scott’s best friend is Mikey (River Phoenix) who doesn’t share Scott’s privileged background. Mikey is also secretly in love with Scott. Though it’s a simple tale about the lives of street kids, the rich imagery and performances make it an unforgettable experience.
15. Moonlight (2016)
Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is a moving tale of self-discovery chronicles three time periods in the life of Chiron — a 9-year old, a teenager, and finally early adulthood. Alongside this journey with our protagonist, we witness the complex emotions at play, including his struggles with sexual identity. Overall, it’s a unique coming-of-age film and a character study with bewitching performances.
14. Je Tu Il Elle (1974)
Je Tu Il Elle is Chantal Akerman’s first feature-length movie. It revolves around a lonely young woman named Julie (played by Akerman) embarking on an unconventional journey of self-discovery. The narrative is distinctly divided into three parts. The first act powerfully depicts the depression and loneliness of Julie. In the second act, she is on the road and meets a truck driver. In the third, she meets a former lover. Shot in grainy 16mm black-and-white, Akerman’s approach is very minimalist. Overall, it bucks cinematic conventions to explore a woman’s desire, yearning, and isolation.
13. The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972)
The astoundingly prolific Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1972 film is an adaptation of his own play. The Bitter Tears tell the tale of a bourgeois fashion designer Petra, who is obsessed with a young model named Karin. Despite a simple plot, the narrative is intriguingly structured and filled with dialogue-intensive sequences. The on-screen relationship between Petra and Karin is said to be inspired by the filmmaker’s relationship with an actor.
12. Show Me Love (1998)
Lukas Moodyson’s low-key coming-of-age drama tells the bittersweet story of two young girls falling in love with each other. Elin is the most popular girl in school, but unsatisfied with life. Agnes is shy, not-so-popular and secretly loves Elin. Show Me Love is an extremely rewarding film because it shows the everyday frustrations of adolescent life without any overwrought drama. It casually and refreshingly tackles the themes of homosexuality, alienation, and young love.
11. Tomboy (2011)
Celine Sciamma’s bittersweet film tells the story of a 10-year old girl, Laure (Zoe Heran). She moves to a new neighborhood with her parents and younger sister. Unlike girls her age, Laure prefers a boyish look. She likes vests and wears her hair short. The local kids mistake Laure for a boy. She goes along with it, and passes herself as Mikael. Laure enjoys playing football and gets picked up in the team. Tomboy is a very ambiguous film that isn’t just about sexual identity. It’s a story of acceptance that can be interpreted in myriad ways.
10. Tropical Malady (2004)
Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady comprises two distinct narratives. One tells the conflict-less yet beautiful tale of love between two men. The other one tells the tale of an ancient spirit of a shape shifting shaman. There’s great tenderness in Apichatpong’s portrayal of romantic courtship between the men. The second- half that unfolds in a jungle — suspended from time and modernity — comes across as a parable. Maybe a parable for love itself – an emotion that defies words.
9. All About My Mother (1999)
Celebrated Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar’s works are known for its representations of queer sexuality. All About My Mother, however, is his most stand-out feature, particularly for its representation of transgender characters. His tale of women finding solidarity with other women includes transvestites and transsexuals. Moreover, Almodóvar directs his compassionate gaze at these outcasts living in the fringes of society. Though the narrative carries great dramatic weight, it’s highly entertaining and full of laughs.
8. Blue is the Warmest Color (2013)
Loosely based on Julie Maroh’s graphic novel, Abdellatif Kechiche’s sensational movie is a bold exploration of a young girl’s love and passion. It revolves around 17-year old Adele, who wonders about her sexual identity. She comes across an art student, several years her senior. The attraction is mutual. What follows is an unflinching examination of their relationship. Shot in a raw, naturalistic manner, Kechiche very intimately studies one’s desires and yearning. He makes us question how we build our relationships and the emotional maturity with which we handle it.
7. The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
Rob Epstein’s seminal documentary tells the powerful and tragic story of Harvey Milk, a self-made gay politician. He championed grass roots politics and became San Francisco’s first openly gay city supervisor. Milk’s ascent and his eventual assassination is an important chapter in the history of LGBTQ rights movement. Moreover, he can’t be simply pigeonholed as a gay-rights activist. Milk, determinedly, fought for social, racial, and economic justice. The documentary also broadly captures the cultural conflicts in 1970s San Francisco with the emergence of well-organized gay-rights movement.
6. Happy Together (1997)
Happy Together is one of Wong Kar-Wai’s best works, which tells the story of a tumultuous romantic relationship between two young men. Played by Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung, the pair travels from Hong Kong to Buenos Aires. They want to visit the Iguazu Falls, but the journey is rife with troubles and frustration. Wong explores the dissonance between the reality of relationships and one’s image of idealized romance. Stylistically, it’s more refined and meticulously crafted compared to his other acclaimed works.
5. Weekend (2011)
Andrew Haigh’s Weekend couldn’t be reductively described as a drama tackling the subject of sex and gay romance. It’s rather an unbelievably understated and realistic take on the growing emotional bond between two individuals. The narrative revolves around Russell and Glen. After a one-night stand, the two decide to stay together for the weekend. Mostly set inside Russell’s apartment, Haigh employs organic writing and interesting compositions to present this refreshing character study. It’s rare to witness such honest exploration of a relationship onscreen.
4. Paris Is Burning (1990)
Jennie Livingston’s landmark documentary offers a memorable portrayal of queer and transgender people of color. It is largely set around the drag ball culture of New York City, introducing us to its multiple contestants. Paris Is Burning is an endearing look at the trans community; their lives, passion, and creative aspirations. Full of charming personalities, the documentary respectfully observes the community’s culture and hardships.
3. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
Celine Sciamma’s delicate and vivid portrait of love and longing is set in 18th century France. The narrative unfolds on an isolated island in Brittany. Young and talented painter Marianne (Noeme Merlant) gets a job to paint Heloise (Adele Haenel), a young noblewoman. Heloise is to marry a wealthy suitor abroad and the groom demands the portrait. Sciamma gradually sketches the growing attraction between the painter and her subject. Apart from the painterly compositions, the sparkling chemistry between Noeme and Adele lends the film a mesmerizing quality.
2. Carol (2015)
Todd Haynes 1950’s New York set romantic drama is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt. The film revolves around the elegant Carol (Cate Blanchett) and a young shop assistant, Therese (Rooney Mara). Carol lives in the suburbs, but is going through a messy custody battle and divorce. Therese has a boyfriend who wants to get married and settle down. But she’s not so sure. Haynes doesn’t pigeonhole his characters on the nature of their sexuality. He subtly showcases the growing affection between them. Understated performances and elegant framing make Carol one of the most unforgettable narratives on same-sex love.
Watch Carol on Amazon Prime
1. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Ang Lee’s masterpiece narrates the unlikely friendship and passionate love between two cowboys. Brokeback Mountain depicts the agony of repressed love and passion with unbelievable nuance. Both Heath Ledger and Gyllenhaal express the simplest of emotions in an effective and potent manner. Succumbing to societal expectations, they keep their relationship a secret. Everything from the direction, performances to the writing and editing perfectly comes together to offer a moving film experience.
LGBTQ characters, for a long time, haven’t been represented appropriately onscreen. Certain character traits associated with homosexuals and transgenders were exploitative and vilifying. Queer cinema nowadays, though, is more dynamic, diverse, and compassionate. A record-high percentage of LGBTQ-inclusive films are being made around the globe. Sadly, the violence and persecution against the community continues in many parts of the world. I hope and await a future where queer cinema is embraced and celebrated and the characters become part of mainstream culture.
An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’