Which are the best queer movies?
In the early days of cinema, there was plenty of queer subtext in movies, but very few overtly LGBTQ characters. Reflecting the changing nature of society, we now have movies that portray the full range of LGBTQ people and the lives that we lead.
There’s something special about watching a movie that somehow reflects your experience or your aspirations — to see characters embarking on a journey that mirrors some aspect of your life, or to watch a love story that you can emotionally connect with.
It’s this personal connection with the stories portrayed in queer movies that means that some people may respond really powerfully to movies that others find a bit unwatchable.
Not all queer movies are great movies, but in their own way they’ve all contributed to the way that the world sees us and, more importantly, the way that we see ourselves.
This isn’t a definitive list, but here’s an alphabetical summary of the best queer movies that I’ve seen.
An assured directorial debut from Tom Ford, this is a beautifully stylish movie depicting the decline and redemption of a grieving English professor. Based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood, the story is set in the early 1960s. With a cast that includes Colin Firth and Julianne Moore, this is a polished movie in every respect.
Written and directed by Craig Johnson, this was released on Netflix and didn’t seem to get the attention that it deserved. An intelligent, contemporary look at the confusions encountered when you’re navigating your sexuality.
Written and directed by Jonathan Harvey, this is a sweet and touching story about growing up gay in London. Great music and great performances underscore that figuring out who you are can be fairly confusing wherever you come from.
Adapted from a short story by Annie Proulx, Ang Lee’s movie stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal and tells the story of an intense but tragic relationship between two American cowboys. It was a beautiful, heart-wrenching short story, and the movie more than does it justice.
Set in the heady of days of the 1930s in Berlin, this musical directed by Bob Fosse helped establish Liza Minnelli as a star. The decadent glamour, the bohemian lifestyle, and the sexual ambiguity makes this a fascinating and exciting movie.
Adapted from the stage musical of the same name, John Cameron Mitchell’s story follows the trials and tribulations of a singer who survives a botched vaginoplasty, escapes East Germany, and tries to find love, fame, and fortune.
Almodovar’s first explicitly gay movie, this is the story of an intense love triangle between three men — charged with obsession, jealousy, and dark secrets.
This was the first major movie to deal with the impact of HIV and AIDS, chronicling the first years of the AIDS epidemic through the stories of a group of friends in New York City in the early 1980s.
Greg Berlanti directs this adaptation of a popular Young Adult novel. While it’s tempting to dismiss this as a fairy-tale that doesn’t reflect the reality of life for most young LGBTQ people, it’s important because it was the first time that a major Hollywood studio financed a film that focused on a gay teenage romance. It’s okay for young LGBTQ kids to watch fairy-tales with happy-ever-after endings.
Adapted from the novel of E.M. Forster, director James Ivory presents a beautiful period piece starring Hugh Grant and Rupert Graves, telling the story of gay love in Edwardian England.
Barry Jenkins won the Academy Award for Best Picture with this understated but compelling study of growing up in a tough suburb in Miami.
Stephen Frears took on a complex and clever screenplay by Hanif Kureishi to create a compelling commentary on issues of sexuality, race, culture, and the socio-political context of the UK in the early 1980s. This was one of Daniel Day-Lewis’s early roles and helped establish his reputation as an actor willing to take risks with difficult characters.
Gus Van Sant’s screenplay drew its inspiration from the Henry IV plays of Shakespeare. This was an important movie because it cast two prominent Hollywood actors — Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix — as gay hustlers. Despite its relatively edgy subject matter, the movie was a mainstream critical and commercial success.
Gregg Araki directs a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a carefully constructed movie that explores the impact of sexual abuse. Strong performances and a well-told story.
Documenting the ball culture in New York in the 1980s, Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris Is Burning is a revealing observation of race, class, gender, and sexuality in the United States at that time. The documentary has become a significant cultural touch-point for the LGBTQ community around the world, particularly the world of drag, with RuPaul’s Drag Race elevating much of the language and pageantry to become part of everyday queer life.
Pink Narcissus is an arthouse movie that brings to life the erotic fantasies of a gay hustler. Released in 1971, it was written and directed by James Bidgood, and stars Don Brooks, Bobby Kendall, and Charles Ludlum. Shot on 8mm film, over-exposed with bright lighting and intense colours, the movie was mostly filmed in a Manhattan loft. The scenes were filmed over an extended period of time, 1963–1970, and it was reportedly released without Bidgood’s consent so it was credited to Anonymous. In many way it mirrors the style of the films of Peter de Rome, who was also creating arthouse gay films in New York around that time.
Following the traditional formula of the classic road movies, writer/director Stephan Elliott’s twist is that he is following the adventures of two drag queens and a trans woman. Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, and Terence Stamp are bedecked in some spectacular costumes as they stomp through the choreography and Australian outback.
Playwright Mart Crowley adapted his off-broadway production for this movie directed by William Friedkin. Set in New York City in the late 1960s, the film was seen as groundbreaking because it was pretty much the first major movie that revolved around gay characters.
Written and directed by Greg Berlanti, this is an ensemble piece telling the story of a group of gay friends in West Hollywood. This is seen as an important movie as it was one of the first to show a group of normal gay guys living pretty normal lives.
Written by Larry Kramer and directed by Ryan Murphy, this tells the story of the HIV-AIDS crisis in New York City in the early 1980s. With a stellar cast that includes Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Taylor Kitsch, Jim Parsons, Alfred Molina, Jonathan Groff, and Julia Roberts, this is an incredibly moving story with heart-breaking performances.
To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar is more than just an unusually long movie title. Released in 1995, this was really the first Hollywood movie since 1959’s Some Like It Hot that had its stars cross-dressing. While Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon jumped into women’s clothes out of necessity, the stars of To Wong Foo were depicting something else completely. Directed by Beeban Kidron, stars Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, and John Leguizamo took a risk with these roles but they embraced their characters and committed to the performances. This is a movie that is in many ways inspired by the absurdist comedy tradition of American cinema, which sometimes feels a little out of step with how we expect film-makers to tell stories today. Regardless, To Wong Foo is still watchable, still enjoyable, and is definitely one of the movies that helped mainstream Hollywood understand that its audiences would respond positively to queer characters.
Harvey Fierstein adapted his play, telling the story of gay relationships and family in New York City in the 1970s. The movie stars Anne Bancroft and Matthew Broderick.
An English movie exploring what can happen with a one-night-stand, this is notable as it was written and directed by Andrew Haigh who has gone on to create the successful Looking television series for HBO.
A romantic fantasy loosely structured around a boy’s school production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. As the story unfolds, fantasy and reality begin to blur and while this at first feels a little disjointed, as the film gains momentum it really starts to gel. There’s some fantastic songs in this almost-musical, and some really emotional moments that had me in tears. Seriously, I cried a lot.
A touching and tragic love story between two Israeli soldiers. Director Eytan Fox keeps the melodrama to a minimum, using subtle storytelling and moments of intimacy to convey the connection between the two men.