The last few years have not only brought LGBTQ films and stories further into the mainstream, but queer movies have dominated awards seasons and found commercial success in unlikely places.
Lydia Tár — played by “Carol” star and esteemed lesbian (adjacent?) icon Cate Blanchett — dominated the 2022 Oscars race and became a well-worn touchstone in the year’s critical film and cancel culture conversations. The summer before that, Billy Eichner and Nicholas Stoller made history with Universal Pictures’ “Bros,” among the first ever gay rom-coms funded by a major studio: an important victory — even if that film did go, uh, soft at the box office.
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That’s just the tip of the iceberg on another banner year for queer film: at least one win in a hard-fought cultural movement, seemingly poised to face new challenges in the not-so-distant future.
New Queer Cinema was a major influence on the indie film boom of the ’90s, and set the bar high for the many LGBTQ films to follow. “Brokeback Mountain” turned Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger into cinema’s most famed gay cowboys, less than a year before John Cameron Mitchell shattered boundaries with the spectacularly provocative “Shortbus” in 2006. Across the near two decades since then, the “lesbian period romance” has become a vibrant (if easily and entertainingly mocked) subgenre, thanks to films like “The Handmaiden” and “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” And trans stars and creators have earned more recognition and opportunity than ever before — even if there’s a long, long way to go — with films like “Tangerine” earning widespread acclaim among indie film lovers.
No longer limited by minuscule budgets in every case as they once were, films with gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, and otherwise queer stories have flourished in the first two decades of the 21st century. (Heck, even the latest Best Picture winner “Everything Everywhere All at Once” has all that zany hot dog dykery.) But there is something about the scrappy DIY aesthetic that will always be essentially queer, and with the far right political agenda in America attempting to push LGBTQ artists back into closets, the revolutionary core of queer cinema rages on.
The films below reflect a notable shift in the ambition and scope of contemporary queer films. While there may not be a new wave of queer filmmakers on par with the ’90s boom, in their place we got stories as complicated, sensual, soul-searching, and hilarious as the queer experience itself.
To kickoff IndieWire’s 2023 Pride coverage, here are the 50 best LGBTQ films of the 21st century.
With editorial contributions by Siddhant Adlkha, David Ehrlich, Kate Erbland, Eric Kohn, Michael Nordine, Tambay Obenson, Chris O’Falt, and Jamie Righetti.
[Editor’s note: This list was published on August 25, 2017 and has been updated multiple times since.]
After 120 years, give or take, Hollywood finally has a mainstream queer rom-com answer to films like Nora Ephron’s “You’ve Got Mail” and “Sleepless in Seattle.” Hell, it’s taken just as long to make a mainstream LGBTQ movie that isn’t about pain and suffering or trauma or systemic homophobia. Enter screenwriter/star Billy Eichner and director Nicholas Stoller’s “Bros,” a snarky, fitfully raunchy meet-cute for the age of Grindr (or here, a dating app cheekily called Zellweger).
The actual breaking of ground is that the cast is top-to-toe gay, gay, gay… and that’s pretty much where it stops. The screenplay’s contours are broadly conventional, but that’s a good thing. When we talk about wanting to be seen, a lot of us really mean that what we want is a gay version of our ’90s rom-coms when the genre was at its best. “Bros” fits the bill. —RL
49. “The Intervention”
Beloved queer actor Clea Duvall knocked it out of the park with her directorial debut, a contemporary riff on “The Big Chill” that adds some disgruntled breeders and lesbian drama to the mix. The movie operates under a simple but fruitful premise: A group of old friends convene in a stately vacation home to stage an intervention in one couple’s unhappy marriage and urge them to get a divorce. Full of sardonic quips and believable longtime friendships, the ensemble comedy rallies many beloved character actors (and real-life friends and lovers) with a charming and natural chemistry. Casting her friends and starring in the film as well, The film reunites Duvall with many of “But I’m a Cheerleader” co-stars, including Natasha Lyonne and Melanie Lynskey. The fictional main couple may hate each other, but the actors are genuinely having a great time together, and it’s infectious to watch. —JD
Narratively daring in its native country and steeped in the visual language of coded desire, “Joyland” made waves for its depiction of queer life in modern-day Pakistan. Set in Lahore and told in Urdu and Punjab, the film follows a man who gets a job as a backup dancer at a popular underground erotic theater. As he dances for the beguiling transgender stage star, he becomes enthralled with her and how free she makes him feel, awakening something latent within him. The film uses his internal struggle as a lens on the culture’s social rigidities — namely, gender and sexuality — and the quiet, often painful ways in which they manifest. “Joyland” treads dangerous ground, but it doesn’t do so lightly. The film has no qualms about exploring how the tension between religious conservative norms and modern sexual freedom can often be awkward and absurd. Its story may be linear and simple, but it feels always on edge, always unpredictable, as if its most human moments could lead either to harrowing disaster or to unconstrained euphoria. —SA
47. “The Wound”
John Trengove’s bracing South African psychological drama from 2017 made the shortlist for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 90th Academy Awards. “The Wound” opens a rare window into Ulwaluko, an ancient initiation into manhood practiced throughout South Africa, that’s complicated by the closeted tensions between three men whose secret relationships turn explosive. Considered a milestone in the country’s cinema, “The Wound” traces how lust boils over in a taboo climate. Nakhane is terrific as the closeted factory worker quietly obsessed with Vija (Bongile Mantsai), with whom he uses the ceremony to get closer to in the mountains of Eastern Cape. But eventually, a younger man from Cape Town is introduced who sets off the balance and erupts the movie’s simmering psychosexual tensions. —RL
“Moffie” There is no more delicious agony than the one felt when you’re sitting millimeters from your crush, wondering who’s going to make the first move, or if someone will at all. That unbearable, painful erotic tension is more or less the sustained mood of Oliver Hermanus’ shimmering and sensual military drama “Moffie,” which is easily the best movie about gay male repression since “God’s Own Country.” Set in 1981 South Africa at the apex of the South African Border War, the film’s story of gay unrequited desire turns out to be a casing for something far more lethal in its marrow.
“Moffie” is Afrikaans slang for “faggot,” and the film, which is based on André Carl van der Merwe’s autobiographical novel of the same name, attempts a bold gesture in reclaiming epithet as an emblem of power. It’s 1981, South Africa, which means it’s not okay to be a “moffie”; effeminacy is a sign of weakness, and being gay is also illegal. It’s also a moment of compulsory military conscription that all (white) boys over the age of 16 must endure, and so that means, as the film begins, Nicholas Van de Swart (Kai Luke Brummer) is readying to ship off to defend colonized land. On its face, the war is between the white minority government and Angola, whose Communism the South African Defense Force wants to stop from spreading; but really, the atrocities as seen inflicted in this movie are governed by the power-seeking regime of Apartheid, and not any real threat. —RL
45. “Love Is Strange”
As one of our greatest living queer filmmakers who consistently makes queer films, Ira Sachs is certainly deserving of two films on this list. In this prickly ode to aging not-so-gracefully, John Lithgow and Alfred Molina play longtime partners who are suddenly thrust out of their comfortable routine when they can no longer afford their New York apartment. The indignities of having to couch surf in late middle age notwithstanding, they find themselves physically separated for the first time in 40 years. Forced to put the meaning of “chosen family” to the test, they eventually return to each other through the challenges. Equal parts funny and poignant, Sachs proves himself a master of the naturalistic drama, with an uncanny ability to lay bare the little and big moments that make life profound. Lithgow and Molina are excellent in these softer roles, and Marisa Tomei is hilarious as ever as their well-meaning niece. —JD
44. “The Favourite”
A bold vision set within the grotesquely aristocratic spectacle of early 18th-century English royalty, “The Favourite” is a dark yet comedic tale of three dominant women competing for love and power, with reckless abandon. Director Yorgos Lanthimos creates an incredibly lively, though insular, universe, toying with real events to serve as support and motivation for the interiority and conflicts of the film’s characters. Unfolding like a bedroom farce, mostly within the walls of a Royal Palace cut off from the realities of the era’s expansive history, it’s a world ruled by strategic maneuvers, seductions, even pineapple eating and the occasional duck race.
It is through the tangled ties of a frail Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) with two other scheming and ambitious women — her lover and advisor Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), and Sarah’s indigent cousin turned status-seeking chambermaid Abigail (Emma Stone) — that the story plunges into a maelstrom of unscrupulous behavior and unpredictability, that epitomizes the expression “palace intrigue,” as a nation’s fate lies within the relations among women who’ve succumbed to the complications of love. A period tragicomedy with an unexpectedly modern feel, Lanthimos’ take on the British costume drama, is something wonderfully unique. —TO
As (actually funny) comedies become more and more rare, “Booksmart” arrived guns blazing to kick off a strong 2019 summer movie season. Starring the charismatic duo of Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever as best friends who played it safe in high school, “Booksmart” is basically the movie version of that rule-following friend who gets blackout drunk after her first Appletini. Following the two goody-goods’ roundabout journey to their first (and last) high school party, “Booksmart” is an ode to female friendship that isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty. Dever’s Amy has been out since sophomore year, she just hasn’t ever kissed a girl. Her all-too-relatable arc involves the heartache of realizing her tomboy crush might not be gay giving way to a surprise bathroom hook-up with a brooding emo cutie. Directed by Olivia Wilde, (lesbians won’t soon forget her bisexual heartbreaker turn in “The OC”), “Booksmart” wears its queerness as naturally as a valedictorian pin. —JD
Sebastián Lelio’s burning-yet-elegant “Disobedience” is more than the familiar feminist rebellion you might think. In the exquisitely melancholic lesbian romance, Rachel Weisz plays Ronit, an excommunicated Jewish woman who unexpectedly returns home after the death of her father. She’s soon reunited with her old friend Dovid, a conflicted Alessandro Nivola, and Esti, David’s wife and Ronit’s secret childhood sweetheart played by a shapeshifting Rachel McAdams. The trio’s impromptu exploration of freedom, intimacy, and the conflicts inherent therein offers not just a compelling LGBTQ love story, but a powerful reflection on the rules we choose to follow and those we fight to defy. —AF
41. “The Duke of Burgundy”
Peter Strickland’s visually evocative tribute to ’70s European sexploitation films explores the sadomasochistic relationship between two lesbian entomologists. The film begins with a series of humiliating punishments that, due to a significant reveal early in the film, the viewer begins to see as being both lovingly tender as well as being hardcore kinky. The filmmaking itself is the key to unlocking the film’s eroticism. The lighting is sensuous, the camera charged, the upscale costuming titillating. Strickland understands the key to being sexy is mounting anticipation; with “Duke of Burgundy” he establishes himself as the Hitchcock of sexual tension. —CO
40. “I Killed My Mother”
Xavier Dolan’s “I Killed My Mother” marked the emergence of an exciting new filmmaking talent. The Montreal actor, a mere 20 years old, displays a startlingly mature perspective on human behavior in his triple threat position as writer-director-star. He plays Hubert, a gay teen constantly at odds with his uptight single mother (Ann Dorval). Although described as a coming-out story when it first made waves at Cannes and beyond, the movie isn’t exclusively focused on Hubert’s sexuality. The title itself becomes a narrative device, toying with viewer expectations and suggesting that it could transform into matricidal horror at any moment.
Fortunately, “Mother” has more legitimate concerns to focus on. Hubert’s heated conversations with his well-intentioned mom contrasts with the relative tranquility he brings to his relationships with other people, including his easy-going boyfriend, Antonin (Francois Arnaud), whose own mother’s progressive, nonchalant attitude about her son’s dating life drives Hubert to develop further disdain for his situation at home. The stuff that makes us laugh also gives us pause. One night, Hubert takes speed and confesses his personal turmoil to his sympathetic parent. In a later scene, she unloads on the principal of his private school with a vulgar rant that’s both hilarious and brutally honest. The movie is touching, intense and always completely credible. Dolan would later increase his stylistic ambition with “Laurence Anyways,” “Mommy” and several other audacious filmmaking experiments in his dizzyingly prolific (yet still young) career — but “I Killed My Mother” is the greatest distillation of his ability to explore the disillusionment of young adulthood in frank, unnerving terms that clearly stem from a personal place. —EK
39. “End of the Century”
Few films have captured the dual fleeting and enduring nature of intimate connection as poignantly as “End of the Century.” The film, an elegant three-hander that mostly revolves around two men who meet cute on a Barcelona balcony, leaves a lingering impression on the heart. Like a great poem, “End of the Century” gives voice to a seemingly indescribable feeling, one anyone who’s ever fallen in love will recognize from deep in their soul — as if bumping into an old friend you forgot how much you liked. Written and directed by Argentinian filmmaker Lucio Castro in his feature debut, “End of the Century” is the natural descendant of lush romances like “Weekend” and “Call Me By Your Name,” and will certainly endure as one of the most evocative gay films of the decade. —JD
38. “Fire Island”
Comedian Joel Kim Booster makes a splashy debut as both a formidable literary force and an appealing leading man in “Fire Island,” his first feature film as a screenwriter, and hopefully the first of many. Though the vision was all Booster’s, the love that went into “Fire Island” emanates from every player, which includes “Saturday Night Live” darling Bowen Yang in a wonderfully emotive performance and “Spa Night” filmmaker Andrew Ahn proving he can do more than evocative indie dramas.
A true ensemble piece, the movie is filled with the joy and camaraderie of that cheesiest of queer epithets — chosen family. But under the Day-Glo sheen of the car-less beach town filled with glistening shirtless queers, it all feels genuinely dreamy. (Or maybe it’s the Ketamine.) Arriving on Hulu to kick off Pride Month, “Fire Island” marries the promise of the queer comedy boom with the artistic arrival of Asian American cinema. Gorgeously intersectional, subtly political, and a damn good time — it’s a guaranteed instant classic. —JD
36. “Being 17”
When you see something like Céline Sciamma’s “Girlhood,” or André Téchiné’s “Wild Reeds” — French films, made 20 years apart, that both fearlessly confront the volatility of growing up — it becomes very difficult to go back to stories that have been told with the bumpers on. And when you see something like “Being 17,” which Sciamma and Téchiné co-wrote together (with the latter directing), it becomes virtually impossible. A slow, shaggy, hyper-naturalistic coming-of-age drama that constantly returns to the sheer violence of becoming a man, this is a movie that isn’t the least bit afraid to dwell on how hard it can be to become who you are. Or, in this case, how much harder it can be when you’re a boy who’s in love with his bully.
Not a gay story so much as a queer one (Sciamma’s extraordinary “Tomboy” illustrated her disinterest in strict definitions of sexuality), “Being 17” is shared between two teen boys growing up in the emotionally vivid mountains of the French Pyrenees. Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein) is white, reckless and vaguely punchable. Thomas (newcomer Corentin Fila) is bi-racial, reserved and reflexively violent. They don’t seem to like each other very much — Thomas trips Damien in the middle of class for no apparent reason — but their mutual animus is rooted in private self-doubts. —DE
35. “And Then We Danced”
In Swedish filmmaker Levan Akin’s intimate tour de force, a young man comes to terms with his sexuality amid the hyper-masculine world of traditional Georgian dance. Framing his gentle coming-of-age tale around such a traditional piece of Georgian culture, Akin has made an inherently political film, rendered in sensitive terms with a celebratory spirit. With distinctive features and a lithe physicality, lead actor Levan Gelbakhiani toggles effortlessly between child-like innocence, explosive anger, and wisdom beyond his years. His riveting performance is indisputably the heart and spine of the film. Because of the sensitive subject matter, Akin and his team had to use guerilla filmmaking tactics to shoot in the conservative country, giving the film a gorgeous cinema verite quality. The film has stoked protests in Tblisi, where it was shot, proving that queer filmmaking is still a political act. —JD
Making waves when it was initially banned in its home country, this tender queer romance pulses with bright colors and the electric butterflies of young love. “Rafiki” follows two teens, Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), who crush on each other despite their families’ political rivalry. When love blossoms between them, they must contend with small-town busybodies and the judgment of their conservative society. Boasting nuanced performances from the two charismatic newcomers, Wanuri Kahiu’s assured debut feature is an important reminder of the struggle many still face to live out and proud. The first Kenyan film to play Cannes, Kahiu won a landmark court case that earned the film an Oscar-qualifying theatrical run, chipping away at Kenyan anti-LGBT legislation in the process. “Rafiki” is political filmmaking at its most crucial. —JD
33. “Lingua Franca”
Isabel Sandoval’s masterful portrait of a trans Filipina immigrant is so intimately rendered it almost feels too close at times. Premiering at Venice Days, the film was entirely directed, written, produced, and edited by Sandoval, who also plays the film’s lead. Sandoval is the closest thing queer cinema has to a trans auteur working on such a level. The film follows an undocumented trans woman as she saves up for a green card marriage, which becomes complicated by newfound romance. Sharply edited and shot with austere beauty, “Lingua Franca” is a profound example of what happens when marginalized voices are given full creative control. —JD
32. “Saving Face”
Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2004, Alice Wu’s buoyantly charming romantic comedy became an instant queer classic, seamlessly balancing cinematic artistry with heartfelt comedy. A satisfying blend of heart-fluttering romance and familial woes, Wu’s film is loosely based on her own experiences coming out to her traditional Chinese family. Fourteen years before Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell,” Wu’s film was also populated almost exclusively by Chinese actors (many of whom spoke Mandarin in the film) and was deeply rooted in the immigrant experience. Featuring a performance from “Twin Peaks” icon Joan Chen, the film follows Wil (Michelle Krusiec), a surgeon who meets and falls for ballet dancer Vivian (Lynn Chen). Accustomed to prioritizing work and family over romantic bliss, she must learn not to let love pass her by. —JD
“TÁR” is so much more than the Great American Movie about “cancel culture” — a phrase that it humiliates with every movement — but this dense and difficult portrait of a [lesbian] conductor’s fall from grace also demands to be seen through that singular lens from its very first shot. Todd Field’s thrilling, deceptively austere third film exalts in grabbing the electrified fence of digital-age discourse with both hands and daring us to hold onto it for 158 minutes in the hopes that we might ultimately start to feel like we’re shocking ourselves. —DE
30. “A Single Man”
Tom Ford’s elegant and cinematically eloquent Christopher Isherwood adaptation “A Single Man” announced a singular filmmaking talent to match the one already well-heeled in the fashion world. Colin Firth is emotionally buttoned-up — until he unleashes — as posh middle-aged English professor George Falconer, living alone in Los Angeles not long after the death of his longtime lover (Matthew Goode). He’s a grieving widower drifting through life in impeccably tailored suits and sweaters, with no one to call on other than his best friend Charley, played by a chain-smoking, martini-guzzling, and fabulously styled Julianne Moore. But when dandyish student Kenny Potter (a still-twinky Nicholas Hoult) shows interest in George, Firth’s character starts to reconsider his death wish.
Ford employed the same production design team that worked on “Mad Men,” envisioning a sexy midcentury LA teeming with, yes, hot gays, but also an irrepressible air of sadness that must be what ennui looks like. Firth and Hoult also spark a lovely, low-key May December chemistry that makes for a wistful romance tucked into a film that’s more about grieving. —RL
Terence Davies’ riotously well-penned but deeply despairing film is a portrait of World War I-era English poet Siegfried Sassoon, who lived a comfortably gay shadow life on the fringes of the Bright Young Things, settled into marriage in middle age, and died a late-minted Catholic, bereft, in 1967. He outlived many of his peers, including the poet he loved named Wilfred Owen who died in the war, but not Stephen Tennant, the socialite flaneur he had a rocky on-and-off affair with for years. Sassoon is played by Jack Lowden, who elegantly embodies a disillusioned man’s artistic journey, and is given a one-take final shot that would make “Call Me By Your Name” jealous. He breaks up, breaks down, picks himself back up, only to fall down once more, again, again, as “Benediction” explores his many mercurial relationships with men.
In essence, it’s Davies’ gayest movie and certainly his most florid. Sassoon’s poetry is woven into the film subtly, but Davies doesn’t try to recreate the project of writing in cinematic terms. As usual, he closely identifies with Sassoon’s slouching path toward salvation, and the inherent egotism and insecurity of being an artist. Davies’ protagonists are almost always Davies stand-ins, and he’s not shy about that. But that doesn’t mean he’s necessarily working out his issues. As Sassoon says in the film, “The moment passes, but the hole remains.” —RL
28. “Summer of ’85”
“Call Me by Your” what now? François Ozon’s sexy, melancholic, gay coming-of-age romance “Summer of 85” sizzles with the hot heat of first love, set against the banks of a seaside resort in Normandy. It’s also got a killer soundtrack including The Cure and Bananarama, pop-colored cinematography, enough Breton shirts to outfit a French New Wave movie, and a cast of easy-on-the-eyes French cinema favorites.
“Summer of 85” channels the talky, beach-set films of Éric Rohmer but with a rebellious edge, hinging on the stolen-hours love affair between introverted teen Alex (Lefebvre) and the slightly older but hardly wiser David (Voisin), the square-jawed adonis who cuts a raffish figure on a motorcycle. The highs and lows of their summer fling collide in a sudden and mysterious tragedy foregrounded in the movie’s opening scenes, which makes the pair’s evolving connection, ignited by the actors’ volcanic chemistry, all the more suspenseful. Adapting Aidan Chambers’ 1982 novel “Dance on My Grave,” Ozon captures the intoxicating pull of first love and the loss of control that can make a formative erotic bond so dangerous and addictive. The evocative filmmaking is matched by the charms of its leads, who, in case you needed another selling point, enact one of the hottest guy-on-guy kisses ever thrown onscreen. —RL
27. “Keep the Lights On”
One mark of a great film is a scene so raw and unexpected that it stays with you for years, and Ira Sachs’ films are filled with them. For his heartbreaking mid-career feature, the New York-based filmmaker drew from personal experience to tell a story of a man left shattered by his partner’s debilitating drug addiction. Delivering one of the most excruciating tortured love scenes ever put to film, as Erik (Thure Lindgardt) holds Paul’s (Zachary Booth) hand as he is pounded from behind by a stranger. Addiction runs rampant in some gay communities, but Sachs is far too nuanced a filmmaker to ever make an obvious “issue” film. Like his equally stunning “Love Is Strange,” which Sachs made directly after, “Keep the Lights On” is about the pain of romantic love and its inevitable disappointments. It’s not a fun story, but it’s a profoundly brave one. —JD
Jonathan Caouette edited this astonishing, extensive chronicle of his bumpy life story on his Mac using iMovie for basically no money and went on to receive Sundance acclaim. However, the story of its production isn’t nearly as exciting as the emotionally exhausting final product. Threading together footage from his childhood and troubled teen years, when he contended with his mother’s mental illness and his own emerging sexuality, Caouette merges an intoxicating music video aesthetic with the undulating currents of his complex personal life. The result is a powerful window into his survival against impossible odds, with the ultimate victory emerging from the existence of the movie itself. Years later, it remains a radical experiment in film form, both ahead of its time and timeless in its vision of a personal cinema more ubiquitous than ever today. —EK
As a teenager encountering “Shortbus” for the first time, I felt a shimmering world of likeminded individuals suddenly open up in front of me. It was a bit like Dorothy entering Technicolor for the first time, only the Tin Man was a goth dominatrix and the Cowardly Lion was a pre-orgasmic sex therapist. Sure, movies had moved me before, but never in such a warm, communal way. Here was a group of artists, bohemians, and queer people who were funny, depressed, sexually liberated in some ways and stunted in others.
Like any queer, alternative, or outsider kid at the time, I knew and loved John Cameron Mitchell from “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” but “Shortbus” felt like something completely different. His films are always hilarious, provocative, and deeply felt, but in “Shortbus” he weaves multiple compelling narratives (not an easy feat) into a gorgeous revery of a bohemian New York that was already slipping away. Set in the early aughts, the film has a timeless nostalgia about it, like a time capsule of some bygone era of sexual freedom that maybe everyone feels they just barely missed out on.
Yes, “Shortbus” is unique because it features real sex — some of the most playful, acrobatic, and creative sex you’ll ever witness — but it’s also incredibly moving. Set during the blackout of 2003, the film follows a group of emotionally stunted characters navigating sex and desire in a post-9/11, Bush-addled New York. There’s a sex therapist who’s never had an orgasm; a gay man obsessively filming himself as an artful suicide note; and a disaffected dominatrix. —JD
Sean Penn disappears into the role of gay activist Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s 2008 Oscar winner, a full-force performance that ranks among his best and breathes deep, important respect into Milk’s complicated and remarkable life. While the film inevitably builds to Milk’s tragic assassination by Dan White (Josh Brolin), the stories and people that take us there play out with rich rewards. Milk’s big, wild life — and one that eventually delivered a huge impact, one of his consistent worries throughout the film, relatable to anyone — is given the vignette treatment, but Penn’s steady performance and a slew of strong supporting turns push it way above other biopic territories. James Franco is particularly moving as Harvey’s lover Scott Smith, while Diego Luna’s heartbreaking Jack Lira steals the screen in every scene. What’s most moving — and, admittedly, wrenching — is how timely the story of “Milk,” set mostly in the ’70s, still feels today. It’s an urgent call for action, both personal and political, and the message sticks long after the credits roll. —KE
23. “The Kids Are All Right”
Ever a tough audience, Lisa Cholodenko’s witty family drama was divisive amongst lesbians, who resented the message behind the movie’s central love triangle. But it’s hard to criticize any movie where Annette Bening and Julianne Moore are this good — and playing lesbian partners, no less. Like many marriages, their neuroses and charms co-mingle to create a killer cocktail of witty bitterness and festering resentment. When their precocious teenagers upend their lives in search of their sperm donor, it throws a wrench into their precariously contented lives. Mark Ruffalo is perfectly cast as the free-spirited consummate bachelor, whose charm and allure become a little too seductive. But the marriage, like the kids, turns out all right, and that pesky thing called dramatic conflict (necessary to any story) is resolved — lesbian identity intact. Funny, charming, and unafraid to dig into the 21st century’s particularly narcissistic brand of ennui and discontentment, “The Kids Are All Right” will always be queer canon — whether persnickety lesbians like it or not. —JD
Sean Baker’s audacious farce following a day in the life of two trans girls working the streets of downtown Los Angeles is infinitely re-watchable and required viewing if you somehow missed it in 2015. Baker earned major points for casting ACTUAL trans women in the lead, and it paid off. Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriquez saturate the film in such authentic flavor, it’s enough to make one swear off professional actors altogether. Shot entirely on iPhone (with the help of an anamorphic adapter), “Tangerine” made waves when it premiered at Sundance in 2015. It looks great — but it’s the raw intimacy Baker captured on camera that made “Tangerine” an instant queer classic. —JD
Dee Rees’ first feature is a gracefully rendered coming-of-age story that draws inspiration from her own. Humming with the electricity of repressed sexuality finally unbridled, “Pariah” follows teenage Alike (Adepero Oduye) on a journey towards queerness and masculine gender expression. We witness Alike quietly change out of her baseball hat and t-shirt on the train home to Brooklyn, donning a girly sweater in order to calm her parents’ suspicions (Kim Wayans and Charles Parnell). We melt alongside her as she lights up with the first tingles of love, seeing herself as desirable for the first time through the sparkling eyes of Bina (Aasha Davis). Cinematographer Bradford Young (“Arrival”) films Alike’s first nights out at the club in rich, saturated colors. The movie pulses with the rhythm of first love and the cost of self-discovery. “Pariah” was slightly ahead of its time, but as Rees’ star continues to rise, it has finally gotten its due. —JD
20. “Far From Heaven”
Todd Haynes was already one of America’s greatest queer filmmakers when he made this evocative riff on Douglas Sirk melodramas, with Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid as a suburban middle-class family in the ‘50s coming to grips with Quaid’s closeted sexuality and the way it bears down on the family’s future. Haynes had previously toyed with revitalizing classic film tropes in a queer context with “Poison,” but “Far From Heaven” marks a landmark shift for the director. The movie doesn’t just pay homage to classic melodramas — it uncovers their capacity to tap into the cracks in the American dream, revealing the grand tragedy of a repressive society lost in its fantasies until they’re forced to the surface by virtue of desires that refuse to stay down. It’s also a sign of things to come — with “Carol,” Haynes solidified his ability to bring a fresh perspective to gay identity in earlier periods of American history, but “Far From Heaven” was the first proof of his brilliant capacity to meditate on the past through a searing contemporary lens. —EK
19. “A Fantastic Woman”
Sebastián Lelio’s 2017 “A Fantastic Woman” brought the Chilean filmmaker international renown when it won the Academy Award for what was then known as Best Foreign Language Film. Starring Daniela Vega, it’s also a radical story about a transgender woman, named Marina, who bravely stands up to overbearing scrutiny from her recently dead partner’s surviving family members, who insist they don’t owe her anything. “A Fantastic Woman” proved instrumental in Chile in lifting entrenched discrimination against trans people, and has also made Vega one of the most influential trans women in the world. —RL
An inspired mix of genres allows this gripping animated documentary to transcend its wrenching story, offering intimate access to a story so personal and dangerous that its subject has never uttered a word of it before. The subject is Amin Nawabi, a Danish-Afghani man who arrived in Denmark 20 years ago as a child refugee. For the first time in his life, he tells his real story to his best friend, Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen, who listens openly from behind the camera. The film is seen mostly through rotoscope animation, a technique where animators trace over video footage, creating a simple but effective 2D appearance. The animation not only protects Amin’s identity, but easily transports the viewers through Amin’s harrowing journey from his childhood in Kabul to his family’s purgatory in Russia, and his eventual arrival in Copenhagen.
Rasmussen breaks up the story with Amin’s present-day struggles, showing how Amin’s past is affecting his relationship with his Danish fiancé Kasper. Kasper wants to buy a house and move to the country, while Amin chases professional opportunities abroad, hoping success will ease the guilt of the sacrifices his family made for him. It’s the kind of contemporary relationship issue that would be too subtle for a narrative film but makes perfect sense as a real-life conflict. In their highest form, documentaries can reveal humanity far more effectively than a written script ever could. “Flee” hits all those notes, and then some. —JD
In this Palme d’Or contender (France’s Oscar submission), Robin Campillo tells the story of ACT UP Paris with equal parts humor, joy, and reverence — just as he lived it. Campillo writes from his real-life experience, turning a painful history into a moving and often joyous work of art that bears witness to the past while offering the current generation a seat at the table.
The movie positions the viewer in the midst of a group of young activists running ACT UP Paris, the AIDS advocacy group originally started by Larry Kramer in New York City in 1987. The film exists mainly within the framework of ACT UP: chaotic meetings and heated debates about everything from Pride slogans to pharmaceutical companies, nerve-wracking direct actions involving fake blood balloons and free condoms, and a tender love story. Its two hours and 20 minutes fly by, as the film sweeps you up in the chaos and urgency of its world — one where its characters must constantly keep moving just to stay afloat. 2017 delivered a bevy of films that make poetry out of the complexity of the LGBTQ experience, but “BPM,” with its unadorned queerness and humanizing view of gay history’s most harrowing chapter, takes the cake. —JD
16. “Pain and Glory”
For their seventh film together, Antonio Banderas did more than reunite with Pedro Almodovar, whose films launched his career nearly four decades ago. This time, Banderas had to play a loosely fictionalized version of his beloved friend and collaborator — warts and all. Draped in a mouth-watering Almodovar wardrobe full of to-die-for color-blocked vintage shirts, Banderas plays the Spanish filmmaker with a gentle warmth, underpinned by the low hum of mortality anxiety.
In classic Pedro fashion, the film feels like a series of vignettes, each more poignant than the next, that are as indelibly linked as moments in a life. The film is romantic, such as when the director reunites with an old love, darkly funny; like when he answers audience questions over the phone while smoking heroin; and nostalgic, in the cozy scenes of his country childhood. It’s an expertly-crafted tone poem, a celebratory but honest accounting of a life well-lived, and the natural evolution of an artist whose singular vision has forever changed cinema. —JD
15. “Call Me By Your Name”
At 89, James Ivory delivered one of the best screenplays of his career, an adaptation of André Aciman’s novel directed by Luca Guadagnino with a startling degree of erotic intensity. The summer romance in rural Italy between teen Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and the strapping young scholar Oliver (Armie Hammer) takes place with an expressionistic quality worthy of ‘70s-era Bertolucci and takes a classy approach to the subversive kick that such a taboo relationship entails.
The movie never treats its characters’ desires as anything but an exciting rush of romantic possibilities (and one icky scene involving fruit) — at least until the summer comes to a close, and young Elio learns the hard way that he’s been living in a fantasy propelled by passion. Chalamet’s star-making performance is a risky maneuver that sets the stage for a promising career, and the character’s warmhearted father (Michael Stuhlberg) gives a closing monologue about the nature of love and yearning for the ages. This is an emotionally riveting coming-of-age story told with such remarkable honesty and lyricism that it exists out of time — it could have played to a rapt audience 40 years ago, and will almost certainly have the same effect 40 years hence. —EK
14. “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”
One of the most iconic queer stories ever told, John Cameron Mitchell adapted his star-making off-Broadway musical effortlessly to the screen, giving a whole new generation their very own “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” The movie launched a varied and impressive filmmaking career for the quadruple threat for good reason. He plays the titular character, a role he reprised in a 2014 Broadway revival. Hedwig is a force on stage and screen: Soulful, provocative, funny, yearning, and deeply philosophical. Her journey is as much about gender and cultural identity as it is about heartache and hormone-fueled lust. Mitchell’s language may not jive with current norms around trans identity, but Hedwig was ahead of her time. Drawing from Plato, her lessons are evergreen. We could all use a many-gendered oracle to teach us the origin of love. —JD
13. “Mysterious Skin”
Gregg Araki’s dreamy, achy “Mysterious Skin” from 2004 is about the ways we protect ourselves from our own trauma and ourselves — which in the case of this nostalgia-spiked adaptation of Scott Heim’s ‘80s-set novel, could mean disappearing into an alien abduction fantasy to escape from childhood abuse. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays raffish teen hustler Neil McCormick, who’s just coming to the surface of his sexuality, during one of those endless high-school summers. Neil was molested by his baseball coach in high school but still considers the man to somehow be his first love. It’s a tricky, and potentially icky balance, that Gordon-Levitt strikes deftly, opposite Brady Corbet as another one of the coach’s victims.
This movie was huge for anyone young and discovering they were queer in the early-mid-2000s, watching it in secret on a late-night cable network. Araki’s expertly curated soundtrack makes for a vibratory dreamscape, from Slowdive to Cocteau Twins, Ride, and, in a moment of volcanic emotional catharsis, Sigur Rós. —RL
12. “Mulholland Drive”
In love all great things must come to an end, but with David Lynch those ends are usually a lot darker and bloodier than usual. The plot of “Mulholland Drive” has been puzzled over since its release in 2001, with vignettes that recall “Pulp Fiction” interweaving with mysteries about identity and love, and blanketed by purposefully shaky timelines. While the steamy sex between Naomi Watts and Laura Harring might seem sudden, it is grounded in part by one of cinema’s most puzzling and gorgeous scenes, as Rebekah Del Rio sings until she literally drops, bringing both women to tears. “Mulholland Drive” might expose the seedy underbelly of Hollywood, but it also shows the escapism that love can provide, and the lengths we will go to keep that stability alive. —JR
11. “Bad Education”
The MPAA slapped the tantalizingly lurid spectacle “Bad Education” with an NC-17 in 2004, and it was probably the best thing that could’ve happened to Almodóvar in years, because this dazzling and horrifying masterpiece of a movie ended up earning more than $40 million globally, and $5 million in the U.S. It’s one of the highest-grossing NC-17 films of all time, right there behind “Showgirls,” “Henry & June,” and “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.”
“Bad Education” is a haunted hall of mirrors — explicit, deeply troubling, and unbearably sexy. (If you’re not chafing over Gael García Bernal in either of his dual roles, you don’t have a pulse.) Almodóvar never shies from playing with story structure, and here deploys the metanarrative technique to create a poison-darted valentine to the movies, and to desire itself. This is a film you want to drink, and devour, and it runs through the mind. While its key takeaways surrounding corruption in the Catholic church, molestation, trauma, and all manner of nasty business are deeply cynical, “Bad Education” is optimistic about the power of the movies. You walk out on a cloud. —RL
10. “The Handmaiden”
When South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook chose as source material the lesbian historical fiction novel “Fingersmith,” by Welsh author Sarah Waters, it seemed a little out of left field. But changing the setting from Victorian England to Japanese-occupied Korea was a brilliant move and one that infused this cold mystery about a con man and the two women he seduces into his plot with untold beauty. Chan-wook elevates the book’s tawdry elements to fetishistic extremes, churning out an erotic thriller every bit as gorgeous as it is sinister. Min-hee Kim is prim and alluring as Lady Hideko, never fully dropping the facade even as she falls for her spirited handmaiden, Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim), who is tasked with conning her out of her inheritance. As both women make do with the hand life has dealt them, they discover passion in the shared struggle. —JD
One of the few truly perfect films of the 21st Century, Céline Sciamma’s “Tomboy” is a succinct and unforgettable look at the purity and confusion of growing up. Crucially, it’s also one of the most forthright and empathetic movies we have about gender identity in the modern sense. Starring Zoé Héran as an androgynous-looking kid named Laure who’s given a blank slate on which to draw their own identity when their family moves to a new housing bloc, “Tomboy” needs only 82 minutes to offer a moving, organic, and remarkably humane narrative about the relationship between sex and gender, and also between gender and identity. Laure keeps their anatomy like a secret, but in doing so reveals volumes of truth regarding how little it matters. —DE
8. “Tropical Malady”
Like many of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films, “Tropical Malady” is split into two halves that don’t immediately quite resemble one another, until they do. In the first, Keng (Banlop Lomnoi) is a soldier, stationed in rural Thailand during a mysterious killing spree of cows, who meets and falls for Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee). They embark on a bucolic romance far removed from a society that prohibits their love affair. In the second, Keng’s character is reinvented as another soldier who loses his way in the woods, and becomes beguiled by the spirit of a tiger shaman, played by Kaewbuadee. The movie becomes two different ways of looking at the same relationship. It’s a maddening, luxuriously beautiful classic. —RL
7. “God’s Own Country”
There is no “I can’t quit you” moment in writer-director Francis Lee’s expertly crafted cinematic debut, only the bleak but beautiful landscape of the Yorkshire countryside. Gorgeously shot and engaging from beginning to end, “God’s Own Country” is the kind of gay film more people should be making. The documentary-style farm scenes elevate it far beyond traditional gay dramas, and it doesn’t make the mistake of confusing tragedy with quality. It’s the story of a young man named Johnny (Josh O’Connor), who is stuck (in many ways) managing his family’s livelihood in the wake of his father’s stroke. To help with lambing season, the family hires a Romanian migrant worker named Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu). While Johnny is well-versed in soliciting random sex at livestock auctions, he isn’t prepared for the intensity of real human connection—much less Gheorghe’s puppy dog brown eyes. When the two head up the mountain to birth the lambs, things get muddy.
The country setting and restrained storytelling have led to inevitable “Brokeback Mountain” comparisons, but “God’s Own Country” has the benefit of two fresh faces in the leads to fully inhabit the roles with no prior associations, as well as the freedom to buck Hollywood tropes (including that pesky one where every gay romance must end in tragedy). What might have tread familiar ground instead knits a verité pastiche out of the rigors of farm life, artfully binding Johnny’s quiet drama with the drama of the landscape that entraps him. —JD
Andrew Haigh’s breakout feature takes a tried-and-true romantic trope — the unexpected romance, writ over the course of a limited period of time — and turns it into one of the genre’s most stirring examples of the power of love in its most literally immediate forms. Centered on the shiftless Russell (Tom Cullen) and the alluring Glen (Chris New), what first functions as a spur-of-the-moment one-night stand soon blossoms into a full-blown love affair. Taking place over the course of that eponymous weekend, Haigh and his stars cram the full force of a life-changing romance into just a few short days, and “Weekend’ manages the near-impossible: charting a full relationship in the minimum of time.
But that doesn’t dilute the power of the relationship, and Haigh still finds time (after time after time) to pay attention to the small shifts, the so-called “little things” that add up to big emotion. Few on-screen couples have the kind of chemistry that Cullen and New display without any artifice, and the believability and naturalism of their bond pushes the film to an even higher level. While “Weekend” functions just beautifully as a love story, Haigh doesn’t shy away from exploring the elements that fuel a closer bond between the men, including their very different statuses when it comes to who is aware of their sexual identity (and how that may impact a future that may or may not be possible). —KE
5. “Stranger by the Lake”
In French director Alain Guiraudie’s perfect sensual thriller, a lakeside cruising beach becomes a site of untold pleasures and lurking danger. Expertly crafted around this single compelling setting, the film begins and ends with cars arriving in the parking lot. As Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) begins a friendship with an older man, he observes a younger one with a dark side, and the two stumble into strangers amongst the trees. Lazy summer days stretch untethered, as Guiraudie infuses the glorious boredom of laying in the sun with an indelible tension.
The film captures the erotic charge and potential danger of soliciting anonymous sex — an experience that, for the most part, is only available to gay men. The metaphor rankled some viewers for perpetuating the “gay sex equals death” trope, but “Stranger by the Lake” is far too good to deserve such criticism. If ever there were a case for ignoring the dos and don’ts of queer cinema, “Stranger by the Lake” is it. Giuraudie strikes a delicate balance as he breathes a languorous summer vibe into his concise erotic thriller. The movie gives the viewer that alluring feeling of witnessing something you’re not supposed to see. By drawing his audience into the dreamy European cruising scene, in all its sun-soaked gritty glory, Giuraudie makes the base voyeurism of all movie-watching into a divine narrative device. —JD
4. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”
Celine Sciamma’s luscious tour-de-force has only four characters, all women: A painter, her elusive subject, her mother, and their maid. The setting is a damp and nearly empty manor house on an island in Brittany, the part of France that bears the closest resemblance to England.
A British austerity permeates the film’s first act, all cold shoulders and sidelong glances between the women, but Sciamma delivers the French passion by the film’s fiery conclusion — and then some. While the romance is undoubtedly the heart of “Portrait,” Sciamma also seamlessly infuses the film with evidence of women’s limited options, or rather, the endlessly creative ways they learned to skirt the rules. Shut out by a home country that stubbornly refuses to honor its great women filmmakers, the film itself stands ablaze in defiance of — and in glaring contradiction to — the dominance of men. Burn it all down. —JD
3. “Brokeback Mountain
Years later and we still haven’t quit “Brokeback Mountain.” And while Heath Ledger’s untimely passing has made watching Ang Lee’s adaptation of the short story by Annie Proulx especially tragic, the movie is plenty sad on its own. “Brokeback Mountain” helped cement not only Ledger but also Jake Gyllenhaal (who likewise received an Oscar nod), Michelle Williams, and Anne Hathaway as dramatic actors in their own right, and we’ll continue reaping the benefits for a long time to come. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, so too does the knowledge that you aren’t allowed to have that which you most desire and that pursuing it could be the end of you — there’s a reason that so many of the best romances have unhappy endings. —MN
Whenever Todd Haynes’ unspeakably beautiful Patricia Highsmith adaptation comes to mind, it brings some of the novel’s last words along with it: “It would be Carol, in a thousand cities, a thousand houses, in foreign lands where they would go together, in heaven and hell.” In that light, a spot on a list of the decade’s best films hardly seems like much of a reach.
Brought to life by the careful genius of Phyllis Nagy’s script, the supple glow of Ed Lachmann’s 16mm cinematography, and two of the most extraordinary performances ever committed to celluloid (which isn’t to sweep old Harge under the rug where he belongs), Haynes’ Carol is more than just a bone-deep melodrama about a mutual infatuation during a repressive time. It’s more than a vessel for Carter Burwell’s swooning career-best score, or Sandy Powell’s seductive costumes, or the rare queer romance that gave its characters a happy ending — an ending that resonates through Cate Blanchett’s coy smile with the blunt force of every impossible dream Carol Aird has ever had for herself. It’s more than just an immaculate response to decades of “if only” dramas like David Lean’s “Brief Encounter,” or a heartstopping series of small gestures that build into the single most cathartic last shot of the 21st century. It’s all of those things (and more!), but most of all it’s an indivisibly pure distillation of what it feels like to fall in love alone and land somewhere together. —DE
It’s impossible to overstate the significance of “Moonlight” — as a cinematic masterpiece, as inspiration to independent filmmakers like Barry Jenkins, but primarily for black gay men — who deserve so many more examples of profound art that mirrors their experience. (For now, the best queer film of the 21st century will have to do). “Moonlight” was about so much more than representation, but it landed like a shot of adrenaline into the awards season release schedule because there are far too many stories we’ve heard a million times and far too many left woefully unexplored. Adapted from a short play by Tarrell Alvin McRaney, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” Jenkins’ triptych film explores a young black boy’s identity at three crucial stages.
Jenkins has said he wasn’t interested in making a film about his Miami childhood, but McCraney’s play allowed him to tell the story at an emotional distance through the lens of queerness. “Moonlight” is emotionally wrought, finely tuned, and beautifully executed. Perhaps its biggest triumph is the extent to which Jenkins was able to poignantly render a queer story by placing himself inside another’s experience. With any luck, more filmmakers of all stripes can emulate this success story, and “Moonlight” portends good things for the future of queer cinema. —JD
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