The Top 175 Essential Films of All Time for LGBT Viewers
BY Advocate.com Editors
June 23 2014 7:33 AM ET
Everyone agrees a set of movies exists that are must-sees for any LGBT viewer. We just don't agree on which ones.
Dare ask a gay man for his list, and he's likely to rattle off a few that come to mind quickly and then make amendments to it for the rest of your adult lives. Women don't start with the same list. Some movies are incredibly impactful on depictions of trans people or those living with HIV, or mark major firsts in film. Some are too campy to ignore (at least not if you want to keep up at brunch). The bottom line is there are legions of reasons why a movie could be considered "essential" to the LGBT community.
We've ventured into the tricky territory of ranking which are most essential. To accomplish this feat, everyone on staff was asked for a top 10, then we asked readers for theirs, and finally began the arguing — always politely. Television movies aren't included (sorry, The Laramie Project, An Early Frost, and Gia). Television series aren't included either (apologies to Tales of the City, AbFab, and Angels in America). The result is potentially a guide for anyone who wants to examine our roots through film.
Oh, and we reserve the right to amend it for the rest of our lives. — The Editors
1. Brokeback Mountain (2005): This Oscar-winning feature film is arguably one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking gay love stories ever told on the silver screen. The chemistry between the late Heath Ledger’s restrained, tortured Ennis Del Mar and Jake Gyllenhaal’s sensitive and tender Jack Twist takes viewers high into Wyoming’s Grand Teton mountains in an intimate portrait of two men brutally confined by the hypermasculine culture in which they exist. After watching the film with its emotional gut-punch of a conclusion, you’ll understand Jack’s lament and agony in telling Ennis “I can’t quit you.” The only thing that compares with the powerful performances turned in by Ledger and Gyllenhaal is director Ang Lee’s stunning visuals — which earned him an Academy Award for best director. —Sunnivie Brydum
2. Milk (2008): This film about the life and death of pioneering gay politician Harvey Milk won two richly deserved Oscars, for Dustin Lance Black's screenplay and Sean Penn's performance in the title role. It does not make Milk a plaster saint, but portrays him as fully and fallibly human as well as a formidable crusader for the rights of all. Directed by Gus Van Sant, it's a film that moves and inspires, while assuring that a new generation will know an important figure in our history. —Trudy Ring
3. Paris Is Burning (1990): This documentary shone a bright light on the African-American, Latino, and LGBT communities involved in the New York City ball culture of the mid-to-late 1980s. Directed by Jennie Livingston, Paris Is Burning brought an underground aspect of LGBT culture to the mainstream. From the use of slang (“serving realness”) to unforgettable quotes (“reading is fundamental”), the film has had a lasting impact on both LGBT and mainstream pop culture. —Jase Peeples
4. Cabaret (1972): There's no doubt that Berlin's Kit Kat Klub is just the most fantastically awesome place this side of World War I. Right at the beginning, the Emcee, played by the tireless Joel Grey, bids the audience a hearty "willkommen" to this world of seedy glamour. Our heroine Sally Bowles — portrayed by an exquisite Liza Minnelli — pops off the screen in a story that follows her trapped in love with two men, while the Nazi regime rises to power. The film is epic, gripping, and entertaining. You will be singing at least one of the songs from this musical for days. Weeks. OK, in my case, years — it's "Two Ladies," "Money, Money," and the title tune. —Michelle Garcia
5. The Boys in the Band (1970): Mart Crowley's hit play became the first famous gay film ever. Vito Russo said of the movie, "The internalized guilt of eight gay men at a Manhattan birthday party formed the best and most potent argument for gay liberation ever offered in a popular art form." No, it wasn't representative of what gay life was like‚ but it was representative of what gay life was like for those alcoholic men, in that city, at that time. Crowley's quotable script was shocking, real, and hysterically funny. With Cliff Gorman, Leonard Frey, Kenneth Nelson, and Frederick Combs, and directed by William Friedkin (of Cruising fame.) —Christopher Harrity
6. Philadelphia (1993): Philadelphia encapsulates so many things that signify excellent filmmaking, but one of them is showing something that is simply true to life: When we get to know people who are different from ourselves, we become better people. Tom Hanks's unparalleled performance as Andrew Beckett, a man who is fighting for his dignity and his life, convinces small-time (and homophobic) lawyer Joe Miller, played by Denzel Washington, to represent him in a wrongful-termination suit. The film came out before there were revolutionary drugs that helped save the lives of many with HIV and AIDS. Meanwhile, it followed the initial shock of the epidemic, which led to heightened paranoia on one side, and on the other, a better understanding of the virus itself. Philadelphia is undoubtedly a groundbreaking time capsule. —M.G.
7. Bound (1996): This neo-noir thriller marked the directorial debut of the Wachowski siblings, and though it was long before Lana Wachowski was an out trans woman, we can’t help but think it helped influence this superb bisexual/lesbian classic in which Violet (femme and alluring Jennifer Tilly), a moll owned by her Mafia boyfriend (Joe Pantoliano) but looking for escape, has an affair with butch neighbor Corky (Gina Gershon in the hottest lesbian film role ever). The two women hatch a scheme to steal millions from the mob, and the usual noir tropes (just who is betraying who?) work to great success, albeit with a hefty dose of violence (this is a rare film where there are empowered women and violence and the latter isn’t directed at the former). The reason queer girls loved it? The sex was genuine and hot, thanks in large part to Susie Bright, who served as the resident lesbian sexpert to help the auteurs get it right. (She has a cameo too.) —Diane Anderson-Minshall
8. Desert Hearts (1985): Donna Deitch's directorial debut is the first "real" lesbian film (an out lesbian, nobody dies, two women have sex). Based on lesbian author Jane Rule’s novel, Desert of the Heart follows Vivian (Helen Shaver), a repressed divorcee waiting out the legal finalities in a ranch guesthouse in 1950s Nevada. Vivian is all class and repression, and the ranch owner warns her to stay away from her irrepressible lesbian daughter Cay (Patricia Charbonneau, wearing jean shorts and cowboy boots and a whole lot of lesbian lust). Turns out, that’s who she’s drawn to, and soon Cay is unrepressing Viv in the first real lesbian sex scene in a film. Their growing relationship played against the rocky red soil and rolling landscape doesn’t necessarily have a future, but it’s the sight of Vivian’s slow but seismic sexual awakening that makes this film Deitch’s valentine to the rest of us. —D.A.M.
9. Boys Don't Cry (1999): It’s easy to dismiss this as an “important” film, but Boys Don’t Cry, based on the true story of the murder of Brandon Teena, a young trans man killed in Nebraska, is actually an incredibly good one as well. For a film that ends in such an atrocity, it has a breezy romanticism as we meet the flirty Brandon (played by Hilary Swank, in a role that won her an Oscar and made her career) and weary Lana, the girl he falls in love with. Brandon knows little of other trans people, of hormones or gender identity or even the kind of (sadly still limited, but at least talked about) rights trans people have today. But he’s young and in love and troubled, because of having no social safety net, living in an impoverished community, and hiding his birth-gender assignment (and in the film, the lack of medical hormones is the linchpin that eventually leads to his death). Watch it with a big box of Kleenex and a sense of injustice. —D.A.M.
10. Parting Glances (1986): Writer and director Bill Sherwood would never make another film — he succumbed to an AIDS-related disease in 1990 — but his only cinematic work, Parting Glances, will keep his legacy alive for decades to come. The well-acted and brilliantly written film centers on Robert and Michael, a couple preparing for a two-year separation as Michael heads to Africa for work. Over the course of 24 hours, Robert, Michael, and their friends and lovers all collide to hilarious and heart-wrenching effect. Robert's ex-boyfriend Nick (Steve Buscemi — perhaps best known today for his star turns in Boardwalk Empire, 30 Rock, and Fargo — in his first major role) is a rock star dying of AIDS. But Nick is never a pitiable character, instead a strong and defiant survivor, a rarity for cinematic portrayals of people with AIDS, in the ’90s and beyond. —Neal Broverman
11. Making Love (1982): The plot of this 1982 film — a supposedly straight, married L.A. doctor falls in love with another man — sounds like a Lifetime movie now, but at the time it was groundbreaking. Making Love was also well-acted, with stellar performances from Michael Ontkean as the latently gay protagonist, Kate Jackson as the confused wife, and especially Harry Hamlin as the sexy, hedonistic novelist who Ontkean's character falls for. Hamlin, a huge star at the time, would later say the movie damaged his career but that he remains proud of it. —N.B.
12. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994): Director Stephan Elliott’s Australian film about the adventures of two drag queens and a trans woman who travel across the desert in a rickety old bus to perform a drag show found box office success around the world and a place in the hearts of many LGBT viewers as well. Starring Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, and Terence Stamp, the film garnered many awards, including an Oscar for Best Costume Design. Today, the film is considered by many to be an LGBT kitsch comedy classic, loved as much for its over-the-top characters as its unflinching look at life through a queer lens. —J.P.
13. But I'm A Cheerleader (1999): This comedy manages to both make fun of the absurdity of efforts to “de-gay” people by sending them to organizations that claim to rid patients of homosexual desires, and make a poignant statement about the dangers of so-called sexual orientation change efforts. Lesbian director Jamie Babbit brings a poignant queer woman’s perspective to the feature, which also stars lesbian fan favorites Natasha Lyonne and Clea Duvall. Ultimately, the most powerful component of this lighthearted film is the nuanced exploration of female sexuality, which has helped more than a few now out and proud ladies — this writer included — come to terms with being a feminine woman who isn’t straight. —S.B.
14. Maurice (1987): Based on E.M. Forster's long-suppressed novel of gay love, the film stars James Wilby, Rupert Graves, and Hugh Grant all at their most adorable. Forster's novel, written in 1914, was published in 1971, after his death, as Forster knew there was controversy in giving the lovers a happy ending. The novel allowed a new openness in literature and biography. The film was the satisfying second shoe to drop. Gay people who had never seen dreamy romantic images of same-sex couples on the big screen swooned over the beautifully art-directed affair between the well-born Maurice and the laborer Scudder. They also swooned at Rupert Graves's callipygian assets. —C.H.
15. Gods and Monsters (1998): One of our greatest gay actors, Sir Ian McKellen, plays James Whale, the gay movie director who brought Frankenstein and The Invisible Man to the screen in 1930s Hollywood (and demonstrated his versatility by helming the first film version of Show Boat). While Whale is a real-life figure, Gods and Monsters is a fantasia on his last days, showing him largely forgotten by the film industry and drawn to a young, straight gardener, played by Brendan Fraser. McKellen's performance as this gifted, tragic man is extraordinary and heartbreaking. Bill Condon won an Oscar for his screenplay, adapted from Christopher Bram's novel Father of Frankenstein; McKellen was nominated, but he was robbed. —T.R.
16. Beautiful Thing (1996): The British coming-of-age film perfectly captured the sweetness of young gay love at a time when stereotypes and fear of the AIDS epidemic dominated LGBT representations in cinema. Grounded in the reality of a London suburb in 1996, the love story of Jamie and Ste stands out for its honest and positive portrayal of gay teens who embrace their true nature and experience the beauty of first love. —J.P.
17. Longtime Companion (1990): One of the first AIDS-themed films aimed at a wide audience is set in New York City and traces the effect of the disease, beginning with its emergence in 1981, on a group of (mostly) gay friends. It has been criticized for its focus on affluent white men, with the black and Latino characters being either marginal or examples of bad behavior, but it has merit as an early effort to put a human face on AIDS for moviegoers who thought of the illness as someone else’s problem. Written by Craig Lucas and directed by Norman Rene, it features several moving moments, including a goose bump–inducing final scene, and excellent performances from a cast that includes Oscar nominee and Golden Globe winner Bruce Davison, along with Campbell Scott and Mary-Louise Parker. —T.R.
18. All About Eve (1950): "Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night." So says Bette Davis, playing Broadway star Margo Channing, in the film's most famous line, but it's only one of many wonderful witticisms in a movie that practically defines gay sensibility, at least a certain type of it, even though it was written and directed by a straight man, Joe Mankiewicz. There is also the intimation that scheming Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), who wants to supplant Margo as first lady of the American stage, may well be a lesbian, but the greatest pleasure in a film with many is the incomparable and perfectly cast George Sanders as the ultimate bitchy queen, that "venomous fishwife" of a drama critic, Addison DeWitt. Sanders won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor, Mankiewicz took home directing and screenplay honors, and the film was named Best Picture of the year. —T.R.
19. The Celluloid Closet (1995): This film provides an in-depth look at the history of LGBT people in North American cinema and the attitudes behind these portrayals. One of the most talked-about revelations from the documentary was that Gore Vidal had infused a gay subtext into the screeplay for the epic 1959 film Ben-Hur — a notion that had Vidal and star Charlton Heston in a notoriously public war of words. Based on the book by Vito Russo, the documentary enhanced the foundation of queer film theory and has become a staple in the curriculum of LGBT studies courses at universities around the world. —J.P.
20. Weekend (2011): This beautifully restrained film tells the story of two young gay British men who meet at a club, hook up, and fall in love over the course of an eventful weekend. One of the guys is introverted and half-closeted, while the other is brash, gregarious, and wears his sexuality on his sleeve; their worldviews complement each other and their chemistry is explosive. Through passionate conversations, many drug-fueled, they alternately challenge, confuse, and confound each other. It's a grown-up, no-holds-barred exploration of modern love between men, and even the sex is honest. Directed by Andrew Haigh, who's moved on to executive-produce HBO's Looking, the film well deserved its status as a critical darling. —N.B.
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