The Top 175 Essential Films of All Time for LGBT Viewers

What is the most essential movie ever for LGBT viewers? There can be only one. We've made our pick, and now you can vote on Facebook and Twitter in a "Clash of the Classics!"

BY Advocate.com Editors

June 23 2014 6:33 AM ET

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41. Love! Valour! Compassion! (1997): The film version of Terrence McNally’s 1995 Tony-winning play, Love! Valour! Compassion! follows a group of gay New Yorkers over three summer weekends at a country house. They flirt, joke, quote Broadway shows, and experience some anger and jealousy alongside the love, valor, and compassion. And, given their times, they can’t escape the shadow of AIDS. Adapted by McNally for the screen and directed by its Broadway helmer, Joe Mantello, this captivating comedy-drama is well acted by an ensemble that includes all the Broadway players but one (Nathan Lane is replaced here by Jason Alexander). But Alexander is fine as the queeny, funny Buzz, proving he’s more than simply Seinfeld’s George Costanza. Everyone else in the cast is terrific too, but John Glover is a standout, re-creating his Tony-winning dual role as sweet and sour twins. You’ll laugh and you’ll cry — the latter especially at one scene toward the end. —T.R.

42. The Hours (2002): Boasting nine Oscar nominations, The Hours is a powerhouse of acting that boasts the talents of Ed Harris, Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, and Nicole Kidman, who won Best Actress for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf. Based on the novel by gay author Michael Cunningham and directed by Stephen Daldry, The Hours depicts characters across the span of the 20th century who are all drawn to members of the same sex. And like Ed Harris’s character, a gay poet dying of an AIDS-related illness, each is drawn toward the precipice of suicide. But what easily could have been a flat tale of woe taps into a deeper font. Masterful storytelling and performances stress the combined human powers of love, obligation, and regret in maintaining one’s grasp on life and all the hours therein. —D.R.

43. Pink Flamingos (1972): Booed by critics and banned by many theaters upon its release, Pink Flamingos is perhaps one of the most impactful works by gay director John Waters, being a campy ode to “the other.” The film features a cast of vile characters vying to become “the filthiest person alive,” including a couple who kidnaps women, impregnates them, and sells their babies on the black market. But the filthiest and most memorable presence is the drag queen Divine, whose shit-eating finale bestowed upon her an instant celebrity that continues to endure. While Pink Flamingos most likely would not win a GLAAD Media Award if it were released today, its celebration of queerness made a mark in 1970s America that has guaranteed its status as a cult classic. —D.R.

44. Thelma & Louise (1991): A movie about two gal pals on a road trip that turned into a movie about two badass, gun-toting broads on the run from the law? Sign me up. Interestingly, when the movie came out in 1991, it was the subject of so many jokes from late-night hosts and comedians, especially for its full-throttle ending. Looking back, it's undoubtedly the right ending to such an amazing tale of feminism. I guess the boys of late night couldn't handle the thought of two women who could be the courageous heroes of their own respective stories. —M.G.

45. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 (1985): This film had already gained a reputation for being one of the gayest horror films of all time before screenwriter David Chaskin admitted in a 2010 documentary on the Elm Street franchise, Never Sleep Again, that he had intentionally written the film as a gay allegory. Starring out actor Mark Patton as Jesse Walsh and Robert Englund as the iconic Freddy Krueger, Nightmare 2 includes enough subtext to earn a distinguished position in the history of LGBT cinema. From Jesse’s trip to a gay leather bar where he is discovered by his P.E. teacher and the following death scene in which the teacher is stripped naked and murdered in the showers of Springwood High’s gym to lines such as, “He’s inside me and he wants to take me again!” there’s plenty here to keep this horror classic at the top of LGBT Halloween favorites for years to come. —J.P.

46. High Art (1998): In lesbian director Lisa Cholodenko’s disarming look at addiction, ambition, love and lust, and all that comes with it starts with Radha Mitchell as Syd, a (currently) straight 20-something magazine editor. When she meets her upstairs neighbor, lesbian junkie photographer Lucy, played pitch-perfectly by Ally Sheedy, the lives of both begin to change. Lucy and her girlfriend, Greta (a fading star who is even more hooked on heroin), inhabit an exotic, alluring, and strangely elusive world that draws Syd in until she and Lucy wind up in bed (one of the best lesbian sex scenes on film) and in business, and the worlds collide in unexpected ways. —D.A.M.

47. Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013): The Cannes Film Festival made an unprecedented move in 2013 by awarding the Palme d'Or to not only the director of Blue Is the Warmest Color, a romantic drama based on the acclaimed graphic novel by Julie Maroh, but also to its leading actresses: Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos. Queer women in audiences around the world relate to the story of a French teenager and her sexual awakening, which is sparked by the arrival of a blue-haired artist who helps lead her on a journey of self-discovery. But thanks to the talents of Exarchopoulos and Seydoux, this tale becomes universal, a love story that is remarkable because it shows two people braving the beautiful and brutal vicissitudes of l’amour. —D.R.

48. Shortbus (2006): Prepare to clutch your pearls and make sure you’ve sent the kids to bed before turning on Shortbus, out director John Cameron Mitchell’s funny, earnest send-up of the ins, outs, ups, and downs of the modern queer dating experience. Complete with a musical threesome that involves out singer-songwriter Jay Brannan singing into another man’s asshole, the film has a documentary feel that’s brought home when viewers inevitably see pieces of their own relationship drama in the myriad couplings at the center of the story. At turns emotional, honest, awkward, and humorous, Shortbus is one of the best, raunchiest LGBT films you’ve probably never seen. —S.B.

49. The Birdcage (1996): This movie is wackadoo-silly, but it holds a place in my heart for some reason. Elaine May wrote this very '90s, very American adaptation of the Franco-Italian play and film La Cage aux Folles, while her old comedy partner Mike Nichols directed a pretty damn great cast — Nathan Lane, Robin Williams, Gene Hackman, and Dianne Wiest, with Christine Baranski, Hank Azaria, and Calista Flockhart. While it might be too campy, too silly, and too much for audiences today, The Birdcage is a movie with a heart and a soul, which probably helped to change a couple of hearts and minds belonging to parents as conservative as the senator Gene Hackman plays. —M.G.

50. A Single Man (2009): Director Tom Ford (yes, that Tom Ford) took his sweet, elegant time crafting this interpretation of Christopher Isherwood’s novel. The main character, George Falconer (a multiple award-winning performance by Colin Firth), is contemplating and planning his suicide. Isherwood structured the story on a fantasy of what he would do if he lost his lifelong partner, Don Bachardy. Julianne Moore plays the daft, married neighbor friend, Charley, who still carries a torch for Falconer despite his orientation. Firth as Falconer bravely takes on long soliloquies staring directly at the camera and holding us in his thrall. —C.H.

51. Prick Up Your Ears (1987): Based on the book by John Lahr, Stephen Frears's (Philomena, Dangerous Liaisons) film tells the story of the 1960s bad boy of British theater Joe Orton, from his working class beginnings to becoming the toast of the West End with his hit plays including What the Butler Saw and Loot, and up to his murder at the hands of his longtime lover, Kenneth Halliwell. On the heels of art-house fame with Sid and Nancy, Gary Oldman took on the role of the brilliant lothario and wordsmith Orton while Alfred Molina played the underappreciated Halliwell. The always-welcome Vanessa Redgrave, Julie Walters, and Wallace Shawn costarred. The film, released at the height of the AIDS epidemic, was a revelation in terms of its unabashed portrayal of and embrace of gay sex, with several scenes depicting Orton’s penchant for sex in public spaces or with young men in Morocco. Frears’s direction never shied away from overt male desire, even if a despondent Halliwell would end up killing his wandering lover in a murder-suicide. —T.E.G.

52. Ma Vie en Rose (1997): This tender French film stars an impressive young Georges Du Fresne as Ludovic, a transgender child who can’t wait to grow up to become a beautiful woman. Much to the dismay of Ludovic’s parents, the 7-year-old proudly twirls in frilly dresses, and is convinced that the future holds a happy marriage to a neighborhood boy. Distraught by their own confusion and local disapproval of Ludovic’s nonconformity, the family sends their child to see a psychiatrist, hoping to turn the child into the son they believe he should be. But in an important shift, the psychiatrist affirms Ludovic’s identity as a “girlboy” and helps the parents come to terms with how best to support their child, demonstrating an affirmative position that was decades before its time. —S.B.

53. Mysterious Skin (2004): A departure from the typical flash of New Queer filmmaker Gregg Araki, Mysterious Skin takes a terrifying look at child sexual abuse and its effect on two young men molested by their baseball coach. One of the abused, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is gay and develops an unhealthy relationship with men that spirals into prostitution. The other adolescent, played by Brady Corbet, becomes withdrawn and forgets his past through disassociation. The conclusion is heartbreaking, but carries a modicum of hope. —N.B.

54. Cruising (1980): Although it was once derided as being in the “murderous gay” genre, a new viewing of Cruising, in which Al Pacino starred as an undercover cop investigating a murder in New York's gay leather scene, shows it’s actually one of the most transgressive early films, depicting gay male sexuality in a way filmmakers even today rarely do. (It wasn’t unheard of in New York’s theaters to find leathermen doing shout-outs, as real gay leathermen were extras on the film.) Adding to the classic status: The director was forced by the MPAA to cut 40 minutes of sexually explicit material in order to avoid an X rating, and it has been long rumored (who knows if it’s true) that those scenes included graphic gay sex scenes, including one in which Pacino himself was at least a watcher, if not a doer. —D.A.M.

55. Fried Green Tomatoes (1991): To be honest, Fried Green Tomatoes probably would have been higher on this list had the film version stayed true to the novel by Fannie Flagg. Nonetheless, the spirit of the closeness that two women can share is still pretty palpable in this film. Jessica Tandy plays an old woman in a nursing home who tells Kathy Bates the story of two women — the spunky Idgie, played by Mary Stuart Masterson, and Mary Louise Parker's Ruth — who create incredible bonds in an environment of gender inequality and segregation in 1920s Alabama. Later, Masterson admitted that she and Parker played their characters as lesbians, despite that relationship being watered down in the film. Even those with an untrained eye can tell and appreciate their performances. —M.G.

56. Valley of the Dolls (1967): This much anticipated film version of Jacqueline Susann's scandalous best-seller about booze, dope, and showbiz was a spectacular mess. Barbara Parkins, Patty Duke, Sharon Tate, and Susan Hayward ate the scenery. Never mind the men; they were all overshadowed by the deep camp of Duke and Hayward. Despite the open fag-bashing in the script, it was a film much quoted, parodied, and reenacted by a generation of gay men before there were many films with gay content. Uping the gay voltage are the recordings and costume tests for Judy Garland before she was axed from the film. Lucille Ball was next considered, and then the role landed happily in the iron fists of Susan Hayward. —C.H.

57. C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005): This French-Canadian film about Zac, a young gay guy growing up in the '70s in a homophobic environment, is a coming-of-age story on its surface but a father-son story at its core. Gervais, Zac’s father, struggles with accepting his son’s homosexuality, and Zac aims to make his father proud (often failing), transforming this into a story that transcends time period or setting. C.R.A.Z.Y. was the breakout film for Dallas Buyers Club director Jean-Marc Vallee and remains one of his biggest hits, both critically and commercially. —Kevin O'Keeffe

58. Hairspray (1988): While the 2007 musical remake starring Queen Latifah was a solid effort, nothing compares to the sheer fabulousness and absurdity that abounds in John Waters’s original iteration of Hairspray. As if legendary drag queen Divine’s inclusion as the iconic Edna Turnblad wasn’t enough to get you on board with this classic, keep in mind that you’ll also be treated to Debbie Harry as Velma Von Tussle, Sonny Bono as Franklin Von Tussle, Ricki Lake as Tracy Turnblad, and Jerry Stiller as Wilbur Turnblad. Add in some poignant discussion of segregation and discrimination, topped with Waters’s trademark camp, and there’s no question this belongs on the must-see list of LGBT films. —S.B.

59. When Night Is Falling (1996): An erotic and quietly beautiful film, about a professor at a Christian college (gorgeous Pascale Bussières) who discovers a a few things about herself when she falls in love with a circus performer (the also-gorgeous Rachael Crawford). Both women are excellent in their roles, as is hunky Henry Czerny as the fellow faculty member spurned by Bussieres's character. From gifted writer-director Patricia Rozema, who is both a lesbian and a Christian college alum, the story is true-to-life and dreamlike at the same time. —T.R.

60. The Last of Sheila (1973): When it comes to the horror-camp genre, few films can match The Last of Sheila’s almost-too-ridiculous-for-its-own-good style and groove. And that’s a satisfying thing that seems well earned; at least according to Bruce Vilanch, who has called it one of his all-time favorites. Written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins — who had once been lovers — and costumed by Joel Schumacher (need we say more, mmm-kay?), the film follows movie producer Clinton Greene and six of his industry friends on a week-long Mediterranean cruise aboard his yacht, named after his dead wife Sheila, who was killed in a hit-and-run on the affluent streets of Bel Air. It turns out that each guest also happened to be present at Clinton’s home one year ago, the night Sheila died. Once they set sail, with a hunky Italian crew in tow, Clinton decides to play a game he calls “The Sheila Greene Memorial Gossip Game,” which requires everyone to write down a “pretend piece of gossip” or secret on an index card. The first card reads, “You are a shoplifter.” The second card reads, “You are a homosexual.” And the third card reads, “You are a hit-and-run killer.” Of course, the opposite of the desired effect emerges in warped increments after Clinton turns up dead. Who did what? And more important, who did gay things to whom? Starring James Coburn, James Mason, Raquel Welch, Dyan Cannon, and Ian McShane. —Christopher Donaldson

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