In honor of Pride Month, The Filmsmiths present a list of some essential films that focus on the lives and loves of LGBTQ characters. This is far from a complete list, but it’s a good starting point if you’re interested in watching some great films that are also important in the history of queer representations on film.
In the early days of film, and even the not-so-early-days, depictions of homosexuality were strictly forbidden under The Production Code. In later years, the MPAA ratings tended to rate films revolving around the lives of gay and lesbian characters with restrictive ratings, often branding such content as “aberrant.”
The 1990s saw the rise of the New Queer Cinema movement, which gave voice to marginalized groups that had been left out of cinematic history. The films saw an intersection of representations of sexual orientations and race and ethnicity. These indie films defied cinematic conventions, often rejecting linear storylines and the happy endings Hollywood embraces.
Today we are seeing a more inclusive set of characters in terms of sexual orientation, representing sexuality and gender identity as a spectrum, rather than fixed binaries. However, LGBTQ characters remain underrepresented in Hollywood, and when included in mainstream films, those representations are often stereotypical. The following list of films is a starting point to explore some innovative and entertaining films reject heteronormativity and represent some aspect of LGBTQ characters.
Moonlight (2016) Dir: Barry Watkins
Winner of the Best Picture Oscar this past year, Moonlight is an indie tour de force featuring outstanding performances and a compelling story. The movie chronicles the life of Chiron (nicknamed Little) from adolescence through early adulthood, as he struggles growing up gay in a poverty-stricken area of Miami with a drug-addict mother. This emotionally-charged tale not only tackles Chiron’s journey growing up gay and black, but also provides strong commentary on the role poverty and institutionalized racism play on the cycle of addiction and crime. Writer/director Barry Jenkins helmed this beautifully shot film that is told in three parts, with each part depicting a different timeframe in Chiron’s life. Moonlight is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Tangerine (2015) Dir: Sean Baker
Tangerine received a lot of attention for the fact Sean Baker shot the film with iPhones on a budget of less than $100,000. But unlike some films that are touted for their innovative production techniques, the story and acting in the film hold up to the hype. The film can best be described as a transgender screwball comedy. Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) are two working girls roaming Santa Monica Boulevard on Christmas Eve. Sin-Dee is trying to track down her boyfriend after hearing rumors he stepped out on her while she was in jail. The film packs an unexpected emotional punch as the story unfolds. The performances by Rodriguez and Taylor are first rate, and both avoid becoming caricatures. Tangerine may become your new favorite Christmas movies…but it’s not suitable for family viewing. Tangerine is currently streaming on Netflix.
The Kids Are All Right (2010) Dir: Lisa Cholodenko
The Kids Are All Right innovates through its refutation of the “gay martyr” film, which director Lisa Cholodenko has long derided in interviews. Cholodenko believes there are more interesting ways to depict LGBTQ characters, and the four Oscar nominations for her 2010 film support her claims. The film depicts an ordinary, happy, well-adjusted lesbian couple with two kids, whose relationship hits a rough patch. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play Nic and Jules, whose marriage is messy and flawed and complicated. In other words, the same as any straight married-couple on film. Fine supporting performances by Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson help keep the plot moving forward.
My Own Private Idaho (1991): Dir: Gus Van Sant
Inspired by kids Van Sant observed on Hollywood Boulevard and the book City of Night by John Rechy, My Own Private Idaho is an unusual combination of Shakespearean adaptation and street hustler self-discovery tale. Van Sant establishes some of his recurring themes in this film, including the depiction of alienated adolescents, loners and outcasts who create alternative families beyond biological roots. The film blends realism with fantasy, but at its heart, My Own Private Idaho is a road film. The late River Phoenix perfectly captures the vulnerability of narcoleptic hustler Mike Waters, while Keanu Reeves plays Scott Favor, the privileged kid who runs away from home to find adventure. The developing relationship between Mike and Scott is fascinating to watch, and Van Sant’s creative choices keep the film interesting both visually and in terms of its narrative structure.
Boys Don’t Cry (1999) Dir: Kimberley Pierce
While working on her film degree at Columbia University, director Kimberley Pierce heard the story of Brandon Teena while interviewing lesbian and transgender individuals for a documentary. She was drawn to Brandon’s courage and generosity, and decided to shift her focus to a short film depicting Brandon’s life. Pierce attended the murder trial, read transcripts, interviewed people close to Brandon, and completed her short in 1995. Three years later, Pierce got a distribution deal from Fox Searchlight and was able to start production on Boys Don’t Cry as a feature film. Hilary Swank was cast in the lead role as Teena. Swank was more or less an unknown at the time and agreed to take on the challenging role for a small salary (reportedly only $3000). To prep for the role, Swank lived as a man for one month. What she sacrificed in terms of a paycheck was returned to the actress in the form of critical acclaim. Swank picked up the Best Actress in a Leading Role Oscar in 2000, as well as the Golden Globe. The film deconstructs ideas of masculinity and femininity and challenges binary sexual identity. It also explores the way transgender individuals such as Brandon are often portrayed by others as deceitful or sexually deviant, a phenomenon that has sadly not changed in the 18 years since the film was released (one need only watch the latest season of the reality TV series Survivor for evidence of this).
But I’m a Cheerleader (1999) Dir: Jamie Babbit
This campy satire is a clever send up of “pray the gay away” conversion therapy programs and LGBTQ stereotypes. Natasha Lyonne plays Megan, the all-American girl next door. She is a cheerleader, she’s popular, and she has a macho, football-player boyfriend. But her family and friends suspect Megan has a deep, dark secret…she’s actually a lesbian. The film takes a comical swipe at what’s a pretty vile institution in real life. Bright pinks and blues give the film a retro feel, and the cast of characters gives the film depth, despite the surface-level campiness. In fact, Babbit seems inspired by the aesthetics of John Waters. Clea DuVall is fantastic as Graham, while Melanie Lynsky, RuPaul, Eddie Cibrian and Cathy Moriarity play key supporting roles.
This list could include dozens of films, but instead of writing a never-ending “essentials,” here’s a list of some other movies you should check out:
Paris Is Burning (1990) Jennie Livingston directed this documentary on New York’s drag scene. One of the films that was the impetus for the New Queer Cinema movement. This film is currently streaming on Netflix.
Pariah (2011). Written and directed by Dee Rees, this film is currently streaming on Netflix. Also look for Rees’ new film Mudbound which debuted earlier this year at Sundance and was immediately picked up by Netflix for distribution.
Milk (2008). Another Gus Van Sant film, this biopic chronicles the life and death of Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay elected official. Sean Penn stars. Currently streaming on Netflix.
Blue is the Warmest Color (2013). This French film is a powerful and honest love story. It won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. Currently streaming on Netflix.
Brokeback Mountain (2005). Ang Lee’s film based on a short story by Annie Proulx, starring the late Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. You probably know the story of the two gay, closeted cowboys by now, but the film stands up for repeated viewing.
Finally, pick a film by Todd Haynes. He has consistently directed films that address issues of sexuality, gender, and their intersection with social norms and peer pressure. I’m a particular fan of Far From Heaven (2002) starring Julianne Moore, Dennis Haysbert and Dennis Quaid. It’s a nod to the work of Douglas Sirk. Another stand out is Velvet Goldmine (1998), which relives the gender-bending, glam rock scene of the 1970s by telling the story of fictional star Brian Slade. The film stars Ewan McGregor, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Christian Bale and Toni Collette.
The Watermelon Woman (1996). Cheryl Dunye wrote, directed and starred in this queer cinema classic. It’s a low-budget, independently produced film, so it’s not as polished as some of the other selections listed here, but it’s story of an African-American lesbian aspiring director was ground-breaking. It looks at what happens when groups of people are left out of the history books (due to their race, gender, and./or sexuality), and how that leads one to create his or her own history.