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50 Essential LGBTQ Movies

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

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

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

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

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

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From Rolling Stone US

‘Nighthawks’ (1978)

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

‘Nitrate Kisses’ (1992)

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

‘The Normal Heart’ (2014)

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

‘O Fantasma’ (2000)

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

‘Pain and Glory’ (2019)

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

‘Pariah’ (2011)

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

‘Paris Is Burning’ (1990)

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

‘Parting Glances’ (1986)

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

‘Pink Flamingos’ (1972)

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

‘Poison’ (1991)

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

‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ (2019)

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

‘The Queen’ (1968)

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

‘Querelle’ (1982)

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

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

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

‘Strawberry and Chocolate’ (1993)

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

‘Tangerine’ (2015)

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

‘Taxi Zum Klo’ (1980)

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

‘The Times of Harvey Milk’ (1984)

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

‘Tongues Untied’ (1989)

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

‘The Watermelon Woman’ (1996)

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

‘Weekend’ (2011)

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

‘Word Is Out’ (1977)

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

‘Yossi & Jagger’ (2002)

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