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!"



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81. Tongues United (1989): This powerful film, part documentary, part spoken-word poetry, and all about black men loving men, should be required viewing for any intro to queer film studies class. Filmmaker Marlon Riggs enlisted the assistance of black gay men living through the peak of the AIDS epidemic, giving a moving, rhythmic voice to a community that was swept under the political rug for multiple identities considered unpalatable in late-1980s America. Archival footage documenting the revolutionary act of black men loving one another and standing up for equality is poignantly cut with equally moving poetry recited by Essex Hemphill to create an important snapshot of the resilience, wit, and undeniably dynamic nature of this essential part of our community. —S.B.

82. Philomena (2013): Judi Dench stars in the title role as Philomena Lee, a woman determined to recover a son she was forced to give up for adoption to an American family in the 1950s, when she bore the child out of wedlock within a conservative Irish Catholic community. With the assistance of a journalist (Steve Coogan), Lee embarks on a quest for reunion and redemption to discover the remarkable story of her son, a gay man who had risen to become a high-ranking official in the Reagan administration before succumbing to AIDS during his own search for his family. Based on a true story and nominated for four Academy Awards, the film has garnered almost universally positive reviews from critics, who particularly hail Dench’s Oscar-nominated performance as the mother who would not give up on her child. —D.R.

83. Mommie Dearest (1981): The queen mother of the camp genre. Faye Dunaway claims playing Joan Crawford ruined her career. What was she supposed to do? Play it subtle? Have you ever seen a Joan Crawford film? Every scene and every line is deliciously quotable and laughable. Child abuse has never been funnier. Diana Scarwid played Christina in a vacuum and came out of the disaster less damaged. Parodies still abound, and Rutanya Alda, who played Carol Ann, Joan Crawford's aide-de-camp, is currently pushing her own book on the filmmaking experience, with terrifying tales of Dunaway antics. Look for Rutanya on YouTube. —C.H.

84. X-Men 2 (2003): This Marvel popcorn flick certainly contextualized the hysteria and panic that "otherness" creates, especially back in the early 2000s when people were voting on the constitutional rights of a minority group. Of course, instead of gay people, it's mutants who face mainstream discrimination and have to come out to family members, sometimes hiding their powers or flocking to places where their mutant status was accepted (in this case, Professor X's School for Gifted Youngsters). This and the first X-Men movie were directed by Bryan Singer, who is gay, and starred Ian McKellen as the uncanny Magneto and bisexual actress Anna Paquin as the captivating Rogue. —M.G.

85. Six Degrees of Separation (1993): A young man (Will Smith) insinutates his way into the lives of several wealthy New Yorkers by claiming to be Sidney Poitier's son. He wreaks some havoc and causes one socialite (Stockard Channing, in a stunning performance) to reevaluate her worldview and consider how we're all connected, and his scheme is all rooted in a gay youth's desire for acceptance by his family. John Guare adapted his Broadway hit for the screen, with Fred Schepisi directing; besides the fine work of Smith and Channing, there are excellent perormances by Donald Sutherland, Ian McKellen, Heather Graham, and more. —T.R.

86. Edge of Seventeen (1998): Hailed by L.A. Weekly as a wise and thoughtful depiction of queer youth, director David Moreton’s Edge of Seventeen is a frank and authentic representation of growing up gay in middle America in the MTV generation. Featuring a talented cast including Chris Stafford and Lea DeLaria, this coming-out story is a rite of passage for any LGBT film aficionado. —J.P.



87. Go Fish (1994): One of the most important lesbian films of all time, the indie romantic drama Go Fish was lauded when it came out in the early 1990s as the first film about being a lesbian — not coming out in Desert Hearts or struggling with desires as in The Children's Hour, etc. — and it tackled a number of important themes with believable scenes and actors who looked, sounded, and felt authentic. It launched the careers of director Rose Troche (producer of Concussion) and her then-girlfriend, screenwriter Guinevere Turner (of American Psycho fame), and helped mirror conversations happening in the real world about butch-femme dichotomies, familial pressures for queers of color, owning lesbian history, and why lesbians who sleep with men get lambasted. —D.A.M.

88. Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss (1998): Starring Brad Rowe and a pre-Will & Grace Sean Hayes, Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss is a tale of gay unrequited love with a twist. Now considered a staple of '90s queer cinema, the film was a welcome slice of realistic gay life at a time when LGBT characters who survived a film’s end were a rare find. —J.P.



89. Party Monster (2003): Based on the memoir Disco Bloodbath by James St. James, Party Monster details James’s relationship with New York party promoter Michael Alig. The story documents Alig’s rise from small-town outcast to “King of the Club Kids” and his eventual drug-fueled downward spiral that led to his involvement in the murder of his roommate, fellow Club Kid Andre “Angel” Melendez. The film’s star-studded cast includes Seth Green as James and Macaulay Culkin as Alig. There are notable cameos by Richard J. Eichhorn (Richie Rich) and Amanda Lepore, who were both real-life members of Alig’s gang of New York City personalities, the Club Kids. —J.P.

90. Heathers (1989): A cult classic, Heathers is a cutting satire of the American high school experience as seen through the eyes of Veronica (Winona Ryder). As both outsider and invitee into the “Heathers” clique, a group of three popular girls named Heather, Veronica is the ideal lens through which to view the brutal social dynamic of young Americans, which turns lethal when the death of one of the Heathers leads to a media-driven rash of teen suicides. In one memorable scene, two bully jocks are murdered by Veroncia’s love interest, J.D. (Christian Slater), who plants props and a note that leads the public to believe they were closeted gay lovers. Faux martyrs for homophobia aside, Heathers remains an important film for generations of LGBT viewers for its wit and prescient message that the social pressures of youth, left unmitigated, can have perilous consequences. —D.R.

91. It's My Party (1996): In It’s My Party, a man (Eric Robertson) who discovers that he will soon die of an AIDS-related illness decides to throw a party, inviting his closest family and friends for one last hurrah before a planned suicide. The guests, played by a cast including Margaret Cho, Olivia Newton-John, George Segal, Marlee Matlin, Roddy McDowall, and Dennis Christopher, are not sure how to take the news, with many vacillating between a celebration of his life to the pain that comes of knowing a loved one is about to die. Released in 1996 just after the height of the HIV and AIDS crisis in the United States, It’s My Party is a powerful film that captures how one man handled what for many in that era was their greatest fear: testing positive for HIV and being deserted by a partner. —D.R.

92. Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971): John Schlesinger’s Oscar-nominated film examines the psychologically nuanced love triangle between three Londoners: A straight 30-something woman, a gay 40-something man, and their much younger bisexual lover. Award-winning actress Glenda Jackson plays the role of Alex Greville, a recent divorcee who works in an employment office and happens to share the man she loves with Daniel Hirsch (Peter Finch), a Jewish doctor withstanding the solitude of middle age and the treadmill of daily life. Over the course of several days, both of them calmly analyze their mutual but crumbling romances with Bob Elkin (Murray Head), a young free-spirited sculptor who would rather move to New York City for his art than embrace what he sees as the tiresome rhythms of committed relationships.  Sunday Bloody Sunday’s willingness to refuse to stereotype its gay characters as desperate, neurotic loners sets it far apart from Schlesinger’s previous work Midnight Cowboy. Still, as Roger Ebert wrote in 1971, “This is not a movie about the loss of love, but about its absence.” —C.D.

93. Lilies (1996): A bishop’s visit to a prison to listen to the confession of a boyhood friend jailed for murder 40 years earlier unfolds into a haunting tale of lost love. The inmates act out the story of the confessor and his doomed romance with the beautiful closeted Vallier. The play within the film tells of a gay awakening, but even the female roles are acted by men because it all takes place in prison.  —J.P.


94. Heavenly Creatures (1994): Gorgeous and captivating, Heavenly Creatures is a study in the psychosit and overwhelming qualities of teenage love, but unlike other cinematic forays with lesbian killers (think Basic Instinct), this one is real and resonant with a crime based on true life that never feels exploitive. Directed by Peter Jackson (long before Lord of the Rings fame), the New Zealand drama features Kate Winslet (pre-Titanic) and Melanie Lynskey (making her film debut at 16, long before Two and a Half Men made her famous) as two teenagers falling in love and creating their own colorful world — it’s so iconic it was parodied on The Simpsons in 2009 — who are then pushed to murder (the real-life case it’s based on is the notorious Parker-Hulme murder in 1954 New Zealand). —D.A.M.

95. Sunset Boulevard (1950): Billy Wilder's film about fame and obscurity triggers the inner diva. An iconic film for gay folks before there were films for gay folks, it won three Oscars (and former silent screen star Gloria Swanson was robbed of an Oscar for Best Actress by Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday). Hunky William Holden becomes a stand-in for every reluctant gigolo, and Erich von Stroheim is Swanson ex-husband-now-butler in heel-clicking sycophancy. Swanson's Norma Desmond is still the most delusional and imperious Medusa projection of all time, but also see Carol Burnett's “Nora Desmond” take-off. —C.H.

96. Victim (1961): A British suspense film once banned in the U.S., Victim is a blackmail-centric story about then-illegal gay sex that featured the first English-language utterance of the word “homosexual” on film. Featuring gay actors such as Dennis Price, Hilton Edwards, and (possibly) star Dirk Bogarde, the film was massively controversial upon its first release in the U.K. Victim led to the softening of views on homosexuality in the nation, even potentially influencing British law toward the passing of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, making gay sex legal in England and Wales. —K.O.

97. How To Survive a Plague (2012): Nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards, How to Survive a Plague is a widely acclaimed film that traces the genesis of the activist organization ACT UP through the early days of the AIDS crisis. Directed by David France, the film pieced together more than 700 hours of archival footage that includes a mass die-in in St. Patrick’s Cathedral as well as interviews with Larry Kramer, Ed Koch, Mathilde Krim, and more. It is an essential time capsule that chronicles the efforts of a group of brave individuals who fought to make history and save the lives of gay people and others affected by HIV and AIDS. —D.R.

98. The Color Purple (1985): Based on the acclaimed novel by Alice Walker, The Color Purple solidified both Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey as formidable actors. In this film set in the early 20th century in the deep south. Goldberg plays Celie, who is abused endlessly at the hands of her father. She's forced to marry a widower, known as Mister (Danny Glover). An old flame of his, Shug (Margaret Avery) comes to stay with him, and unbeknownst to Mister, Shug and Celie begin an intimate relationship, which is, of course, way more apparent in the book than the film. Meanwhile, Celie finds inspiration through Winfrey's character, Sofia. This movie is all about strength, confidence, and perseverance. It's a reminder, especially for LGBT people, women, and people of color, that our ancestors had to sacrifice so much — even the simple act of being themselves — so we could live better lives a century later. —M.G.

99. Best in Show (2000): In what is most likely the queerest mock documentary, or “mockumentary,” by director Christopher Guest, various couples prepare their prize pooches for the coveted title of “Best in Show.” It's tough competition, but the gay couple, played by John Michael Higgins and Michael McKean, steals the show (or scenes, at the very least) with the primping of their shih tzu, Miss Agnes. Over a decade before she would attain television stardom with Glee, Jane Lynch radiates both comedic talent and sex appeal, which tempts Jennifer Coolidge away her elderly husband. The film, which won critical acclaim and a wide audience, should be applauded for showing straight audiences that gays are just as crazily normal as the rest. —D.R.

100. Mean Girls (2004): Why this hasn't won every award known to humankind for the art of filmmaking, we could not tell you. Lindsay Lohan, at the top of her game, stars as Cady Heron, an astute teenager being introduced — after living with her family in Africa for several years — to one of the most wild and dangerous environments around: an American public high school. As a stunt, she gets involved with the Plastics, the alpha squad of queen bees who rule this school. Tina Fey masterfully updates the world of Heathers with an anthropological spin. And most important, Mean Girls brought us the terms "Too gay to function," "Boo, you whore," "Stop trying to make 'fetch' happen," and "You can't sit with us." This is definitely a film to be passed down to the generations of mean girls and the girls who loathe them. —M.G.

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