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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

‘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.