The Top 175 Essential Films of All Time for LGBT Viewers
BY Advocate.com Editors
June 23 2014 7:33 AM ET
141. Death in Venice (1971): Gay love was still tragic for the most part in 1971 movies, but this film lifted up the usual sad gay love story to an exquisite level of pain and poetry. Luchino Visconti's filmic version of the Thomas Mann novel stars Dirk Bogarde as Gustav Aschenbach, a composer (based loosely on Gustav Mahler) who has journeyed to Venice to escape his work and his demons, but he finds no respite. Instead he finds the androgynous and beautiful Tadzio (Björn Andrésen) and becomes obsessed. Visconti used Mahler's music for the score and perfectly captures the decay of Venice and the onset of a plague. You might need to watch cat videos on YouTube after viewing. —C.H.
142. All About My Mother (1999): Viewed by many critics and cinephiles as Pedro Almodóvar's best film, All About My Mother is a meditation on the beauty and complexity of women and how some lucky men are endowed with that same mix of softness and grit. It is told through the experiences of Manuela (luminous Argentinian actress Cecilia Roth), who loses and gains children, lovers, and friends during an odyssey through Madrid and Barcelona. The protagonist also encounters AIDS and drugs, but the tale doesn't feel soapy, only heartfelt. All the characters face life with a passion and resolve that feels uniquely Spanish. With beautiful cinematography and near-perfect performances, out director Almodovar proved himself a global treasure with this film. —N.B.
143. Yentl (1983): It took more than a decade for Barbra Streisand’s opus to finally make it to the screen. Based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,” about a young Jewish girl who poses as a boy so that she may study the Talmud, the story made a stop on Broadway in 1975 before gay icon Streisand directed and starred in the movie that incorporated Michel Legrand’s original songs — including “Papa, Can You Hear Me” and “The Way He Makes Me Feel.” Streisand took on the titular role of the girl who dresses as a man and immerses herself in Talmudic studies after her father’s death. While all of that alone is worth the price of admission for Streisand devotees, the film also explores markedly fluid gender and desire dynamics as Amy Irving’s Hadass falls for Yentl and is hurt by Yentl’s rejecting her while Mandy Patinkin’s Avigdor is confused by his attraction to his intellectual sparring partner. —T.E.G.
144. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997): The city of Savannah is really the star of Clint Eastwood’s (that’s right, Eastwood directed this gay-themed Southern gothic) big-screen adaptation of John Berendt’s best-selling nonfiction book. The ever-watchable John Cusack plays a writer on assignment in Savannah who ends up covering a story about a Christmastime murder at the home of mustached gay antiques dealer and the toast of the town, Jim Williams (a charmingly smarmy Kevin Spacey foreshadowing his House of Cards character). The murder victim is the hot young male prostitute Billy Hansen (a young and beautiful Jude Law) who had serviced Spacey’s Williams frequently. Rife with mystery, flowing bourbon, Southern heat, voodoo sensibility, and a quirky cast of Savannah locals, including drag diva The Lady Chablis, Midnight is one hell of a fun movie. —T.E.G.
145. Howl (2010): It’s not every day that a poem can change the world. But “Howl,” one of gay poet Allen Ginsberg’s most impactful works, certainly came close with his frenetic, counterculture screed that began “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” The film of the same title, which stars James Franco as the famous Beat writer, manages to capture glimmers of Ginsberg’s greatness in this account of the obscenity trial that occurred after the controversial poem’s release, with live-action sequences intermingled with animated footage. As Roger Ebert wrote in his favorable review: “The bold, outspoken man of later days is seen here as still a middle-class youth, uncertain of his gayness, filled with the heady joy of early poetic success, learning how to be himself.” —D.R.
146. The Kids Are All Right (2010): This dramedy directed by lesbian filmmaker Lisa Cholodenko about a married same-sex couple and their children was an instant hit among critics upon its 2010 release. The ensemble cast of Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, and Mark Ruffalo, who portrayed the hitherto unknown sperm donor who fathered the couple’s children (Mia Wasikowaka and Josh Hutcherson), was praised for its heartfelt and realistic portrayal of a family faced with the crisis that occurs when a stranger comes to town and threatens the foundation of the family unit. The strong acting and story made the film a major contender during awards season, in which it garnered a Best Actress win for Bening at the Golden Globes and four nominations at the Oscars, including Best Picture. —D.R.
147. Wigstock (1995): RuPaul, Alexis Arquette, Joey Arias, and Lypsinka are among the headline acts in Wigstock, a 1995 documentary that captured the extravaganza of the annual drag festival. Although no longer active, Wigstock, which traditionally took place in the East Village on Labor Day, functioned as a mainstay of the gay New York social calendar since the 1980s, and the documentary lovingly captures the campy glamour of the performances as well as under-the-wig glances into the performers backstage. Wigstock also features an appearance by Lady Bunny, one of the festival’s founders and the mistress of ceremonies, who attempts to have the Statue of Liberty bewigged. —D.R.
148. De-Lovely (2004): Cole Porter is one of the most celebrated composers in the realm of 20th-century American theater. Musicals like Anything Goes, which feature catchy, homoerotic songs like “You’re the Top” and “I Get a Kick Out of You,” are still popular today, making household names of actresses like Sutton Foster, who headlined one of the more recent Broadway adaptations. De-Lovely is a musical film starring Kevin Kline as the gay songwriter looking back on his life. And much like a Porter musical, it does not have the strongest script. But De-Lovely is a joy to watch for its revisiting of Porter’s songbook and for its recognition of a gay American who made an indelible mark on The Great White Way. —D.R.
149. Dog Day Afternoon (1975): There are many reasons Dog Day Afternoon has never faded from the national consciousness: It was a tense, well-acted bank robbery film, it had audiences sympathizing with a thug —"Attica! Atttica!" — and a plotline involving a transgender woman. Though incompetent criminal Sonny (Al Pacino) is frightening and dangerous, he's also risking everything for the love of his life. The whole impetus for the robbery, based on a real-life event in Brooklyn, was to pay for the girlfriend's gender-reassignment surgery. While that could have been played for humor in 1975, the love story is tragic and human. —N.B.
150. Edward II (1991): Director Derek Jarman took Christopher Marlowe’s play and cranked the gay dial up to 11 in this adaptation. The film portrays King Edward II’s friend Piers Gaveston as his lover and shifts the focus of the kingdom’s ire from Gaveston as a person to gossip about their relationship. Queen Isabella (Tilda Swinton) is the excluded partner, jealous and sexually unfulfilled. The army is recast as gay rights protesters. The adaptation mixes classic and modern elements to craft a time-bending story of gay love and exile, making it an icon of queer cinema. —K.O.
151. Mildred Pierce (1945): Joan wins an Oscar! Crawford's career looked washed up and then, boom! She wins the gold guy. This is the first of the great mother-daughter movies (see Mommie Dearest). Long-suffering Mildred, wonderfully horrible daughter Veda (Ann Blyth), and campy-as-pink-tea Ida (Eve Arden) give us pathos, mendacity, and irony respectively. Basically the movie is about a lot of people making silly decisions, but how would you make movies if people didn’t? Charles Pierce, Carol Burnett, and many other comedians kept the camp alive through parodies. Restaurants actually sprung up in gay ghettos called Mildred's. "Aren't the pies enough?" —C.H.
152. Suddenly Last Summer (1959): “We procured for him!” Elizabeth Taylor’s Catherine screams in the climactic scene of the big-screen version of Tennessee Williams’s Southern gothic about Catherine’s mental breakdown following her cousin Sebastian Venable’s brutal murder at the hands of dozens of young boys while on holiday in Europe. Of course, the famous line is Catherine’s confession that she and his icy mother Violet (Katharine Hepburn), had, with their looks, helped lure young men so that Sebastian could seduce them. Gay actor — and Taylor’s dear friend — Montgomery Clift stars as the young doctor who tries to help the institutionalized Catherine in the film directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve) with a screenplay by Gore Vidal. Homosexuality is never overtly named, but as is pointed out in The Celluloid Closet, the film uses imagery straight out of Frankenstein to depict Sebastian’s murder, as the villagers chased the otherized Sebastian to the top of a mountain to eviscerate the monster. —T.E.G.
153. Southern Comfort (2001): One of the saddest trans documentaries is also one of the best as it follows the last year of Robert Eads's life, the complications that transition brings for FTMs and the ways in which all LGBT have made family. A transgender man, Eads was battling ovarian cancer and was turned down by almost two dozen doctors who were afraid that treating a trans man with cancer would harm their reputations. By the time a doctor would care for him, the cancer was too advanced for his life to be saved. Still, we see the man and his partner, trans woman Lola, and their chosen family fight fear, discrimination, and stigma to be who they are and live with dignity. Eads's last appearance was at the famed trans gathering Southern Comfort, as he died shortly after. —D.A.M.
154. The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love (1995): The L Word’s Laurel Holloman first won lesbian hearts as Randy, the adorable baby butch outcast who falls for Nicole Ari Parker’s Evie, a beautiful, smart, popular girl with a boyfriend. Even with typical high school Mean Girl-esque odds against her, Randy wins Evie’s heart and the pair fall madly into first real love. But they bump up against teen cliques, plus Randy’s lesbian aunt and caretaker who thinks she should keep things under wraps, and Evie’s mom, who catches them in the act! Maria Maggenti (Puccini for Beginners) directs the indie comedy that so accurately depicts the thrill of nascent love. When a stoned Randy gleefully reads aloud from the copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass that Evie gives her, their budding love affair becomes the stuff of lesbian film legend. —T.E.G.
155. Sordid Lives (2000): The funeral of a loved one sets the stage for the story of a family in a small Texas town and their sordid lives. Among the film’s colorful cast of characters is Ty Williamson (Kirk Geiger), who is struggling with revealing his homosexuality to his family as he makes his own way in West Hollywood. And then there's Earl "Brother Boy" Ingram, who was institutionalized 23 years ago by his parents because he is a gay man with an affinity for cross-dressing and an obsession with country singer Tammy Wynette. —J.P.
156. Hellbent (2004): Billed as the first gay slasher film, Hellbent follows the story of a serial killer who stalks West Hollywood on Halloween and the group of gay youngsters who foolishly decide to visit the site of his murders. The film serves campy goodness, dramatic deaths, and plenty of shirtless scenes in a worthy attempt to increase LGBT visibility in the horror genre. —J.P.
157. A Home at The End of The World (2004): Michael Cunningham, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of The Hours, wrote the screenplay based on his novel of the same name about a gay man, a straight woman, and Bobby (Colin Farrell), who defies labels and who they both love. Over the evolution of their relationship, a baby is born, though not how anyone planned it. The three are so interdependent they somehow manage to stick together despite their frustrating emotions for each other, only for AIDS to split them up in the end. —L.G.
158. Carrington (1995): Painter Dora Carrington and author Lytton Strachey found love that transcended the usual bounds of gender and orientation. Emma Thompson and Jonathan Pryce are wonderful as complex lovers forging new territory in freedom of love. Anyone interested in the domestic entanglements of the Bloomsbury set will love this story of a unique commitment that surpassed jealousy and desire. The sexual revolution of the 1960s was really sparked by this small group of men and women trying to resist the cookie-cutter moral expectations of upper-middle class England between the wars. —C.H.
159. Scorpio Rising (1964): Hollywood Babylon author Kenneth Anger created his own niche with this chaotic pastiche of Nazis, bikers, and leather clad S/M boys. Considered psychedelic at the time, it proved to be an early influencer of yet-to-be-invented music videos. The revolutionary soundtrack was dialogue-free and an illegal mash-up of surf music, Elvis Presley, and girl groups like the Shangri-Las. Tattoos, skulls, and random Catholic symbolism make this early underground film oddly fresh today. After a theater owner was arrested for showing the film, Anger won the case against it in the California Supreme Court, opening the doors for greater freedom of expression in film. —C.H.
160. Mulholland Drive (2001): Director David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks) has generated a cult following for his surrealist projects that often shine a spotlight on the unusual and bizarre — and Mulholland Drive may be his most celebrated thriller. Set in Los Angeles, the neo-noir film follows the mystery of a beautiful woman (Laura Harring) who, suffering from amnesia and being chased by unknown threatening forces, seeks to unravel the mystery of her identity with the aid of an aspiring actress and recent arrival to Hollywood (Naomi Watts). In the course of their investigation, the women develop a relationship that becomes intimate, and Lynch’s dark lens lets the viewer catch glimpses of the dangerous consequences that can come with obsession. —D.R.
161. Lonesome Cowboys (1968): Andy Warhol and Paul Morrisey felt their territory was being stepped on by John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy. Warhol had watched his coterie of superstars and hangers-on flock to be extras in the party scenes. So Warhol and Morrisey named their newly shot satire on Hollywood westerns Lonesome Cowboys, hoping folks would be confused. Then they took new talent Joe Dallesandro and made another film about male hustlers: Flesh. Campy, and strangely sweet, Lonesome Cowboys has a cast of hunky Warhol regulars: Tom Hompertz, Eric Emerson, and Louis Waldron. Viva, Taylor Mead, and Francis Francine bring home the camp. —C.H.
162. Love Is The Devil (1998): The beginning of painter Francis Bacon's and George Dyer's relationship — Bacon (Derek Jacobi) came upon Dyer burgling his home — was only the start of a roller-coaster affair between two men who lived at the outer edges of life. Bacon was intrigued by Dyer's anarchic innocence. Dyer dominates Bacon and is prone to psychotic depression — he ultimately committed suicide on the opening night of a show for Bacon. This is not the happy gay pastel love story your mother would like. Beautifully filmed with a reverence for Bacon and his work, and then there is the treat of Daniel Craig as the working-class, rough-hewn Dyer. Oh, and Tilda Swinton balances out the cast. —C.H.
163. The Killing of Sister George (1968): It might be good to note here that this list is made up of important LGBT films, not necessarily happy ones. Beryl Reid stars as June Buckridge, who plays Sister George in a hospital soap opera on the BBC, in this film about a middle-aged lesbian actress hitting the skids. Not upbeat, this film makes The Boys in the Band look like light comedy. The film contains one of the more frightening lesbian seduction scenes ever filmed between the BBC producer who fires Beryl Reid (bisexual actress Coral Browne) and Reid’s lover, the creepily immature Childie (Susannah York). X-rated when released in the United States for intense nipple plucking. —C.H.
164. Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982): Robert Altman transferred Ed Graczyk's play to the big screen as a filmed play. Retaining the original cast, he opened up the property by showing flashbacks of the women gathered for a reunion of a local 1950s James Dean fan club. Cher, Sandy Dennis, and Karen Black lead the cast as southern women with more quirks and tics than a Tennessee Williams play. Joe Qualley (Mark Patton) is the one male member of the club and a no-show. But then who is this strange woman Joanne (Karen Black) and why does she know so much about them all? —C.H.
165. ParaNorman (2012): This is an animated story of a bullied kid who takes on all kinds of paranormal figures to save his town from an old curse. It also happens to feature a gay kid, in the form of Mitch, a gigantic jock. Sure, featuring the first known gay character in a mainstream American animated film caused the ire of right-wingers everywhere who breathe the words "gay agenda," but to many, it was just a cool element to a fun movie. —M.G.
166. Mädchen in Uniform (1931): This German film is often credited with being the first feature film to unabashedly advance a pro-lesbian storyline. Aside from making artful use of then-nascent technology of sound in film, the screen adaptation of Christa Winsloe's play Yesterday and Today (Gestern und huete) was also noteworthy for its all-female cast. The story tenderly explores a 14-year-old student's fierce love for her teacher, with dire consequences when that affection is less than reciprocal, but never devolving into antigay hysteria. Even more incredible is that the film survived — more or less in whole — through the Nazi regime. And although its initial ending was edited to be more appealing to the Third Reich, the film was ultimately banned for its "decadence," and several of the Jewish actors fled Germany. But by the time Hitler's troops tried to destroy every copy of the film, it had already garnered international awards, and copies had been shipped far and wide, preserving this piece of lesbian cinematic history. —S.B.
167. Silkwood (1983): Mike Nichols's film about labor activist Karen Silkwood is a dramatic take on a passionate woman's life and the bizarre circumstances surrounding her death. That alone would make the film important, but Silkwood is even more laudable thanks to one of its supporting characters: Dolly Pelliker, Karen's lesbian roommate, played by Cher. Nichols and writers Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen's approach to Dolly's sexuality is remarkably matter-of-fact for an early-'80s film — never ignorant of it, but also happy to make it just one facet of Dolly's characterization. When her lover, Angela (Diana Scarwid), joins later in the film, we get to see a fleshed-out, genuine lesbian relationship. Silkwood holds up over 30 years later for good reason. The film garnered Cher a Golden Globe for the role as well as her first Oscar nomination. Streep also earned nominations for the Globe and Oscar. —K.O.
168. Show Me Love (1998): This girl-gets-girl coming-of-age film made a splash at Cannes and caused a stir with its original title, Fucking Åmål — referring to insular Swedish town where the main characters live — but when the dust settled over the title, it became critically acclaimed and internationally beloved for its heartfelt, often gritty, portrayal of young love. Elin (Alexandra Dahlström) is the popular girl while Agnes (Rebecka Liljeberg) is the outcast lesbian at school. They bond over their frustration with life in their tiny town and eventually fall in love. Elin struggles a bit with her feelings for Agnes, but she comes around, and there’s a happy ending for the young lovers in this debut film from esteemed director Lukas Moodysson (Together). It’s safe to say that Show Me Love’s unflinching portrayal of budding love paved the way for queer bildungsromans to come, including The Perks of Being a Wallflower and especially Blue Is the Warmest Color. —T.E.G.
169. The World According to Garp (1982): Based on the acclaimed novel by John Irving, The World According to Garp follows the unusual story of T.S. Garp (Robin Williams), a man conceived when his mother, a nurse played by Glenn Close, has sex with a solider on his deathbed in order to intentionally have a child without a living father. The film is notable for feminist themes and characters that run throughout. Garp grows to become a fiction writer who weds Jenny, the writer of a feminist manifesto and the founder of a home for troubled cis- and transgender women. One of these trans women, ex-football star Roberta Muldoon, becomes a friend and ally of Garp’s, and the moving portrayal of her character earned actor John Lithgow an Academy Award nomination. Queer in every sense, The World According to Garp remains a dramatic portrait of love, death, and desire decades after its release. —D.R.
170. I Shot Andy Warhol (1996): Lili Taylor is a revelation as the brilliant but unbalanced Valerie Solanas, a lesbian and writer who penned the S.C.U.M. (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto, but who gained notoriety for shooting Andy Warhol, the man — not so ironically — responsible for the phrase “15-minutes of fame.” Directed by Mary Harron (American Psycho) and produced by New Queer Cinema luminaries Christine Vachon and Tom Kalin (Swoon), the film not only captured the era of the heyday of Warhol’s factory but exemplified a certain kind of freedom and excitement in independent cinema at the time of its release. The excellent supporting cast includes Stephen Dorff as Candy Darling, Jared Harris as Warhol, Martha Plimpton, Michael Imperioli, and Jill Hennessy. —T.E.G.
171. Lianna (1983): An early film that explores love and desire among women. Indie golden boy from way back, John Sayles Sayles (8 Men Out, Matewan, Lone Star, Return of the Secaucus Seven) wrote and directed the deft story of Lianna (Linda Griffiths), a philandering college professor’s wife and a mom who takes a psychology course to save her from imminent suburban ennui but falls for her female professor instead. As the story goes, Lianna and professor Ruth (Jane Halleren) begin an affair that goes awry when Lianna comes across a little too strong out of the gate. Lianna goes on to leave her husband and to explore her sexual and emotional desire for other women. As early lesbian-themed movies go, the ending was not a particularly happy girl-gets-girl story, but Sayles presents the subject with such a gentle inquiry and so much pathos, it’s tough not to root for this little movie that could. —T.E.G.
172: Red Without Blue (2007): Directed by Benita Sills and Brooke Sebold, Red Without Blue tells the true story of Mark and Alex Farley, twins who grew up in a conservative area of Montana. The film, which won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the 2007 Slamdance Film Festival, recounts the childhood of the siblings as they navigated coming out, family, bullying, and pedophilia. It also trains a lens on their present-day search for identity, as Mark embarks on his first serious relationship with another man and Alex, who has adopted the name Claire, considers gender-reassignment surgery. By weaving together past and present, Red Without Blue creates a rich and complex portrait of an American family. —D.R.
173. Henry and June (1990): Based on Anaïs Nin’s diaries, this film explores the romantic triangle involving Nin, novelist Henry Miller, and his wife and muse, June, amid the bohemian life of 1930s Paris. Director Philip Kaufman wrote the screenplay with his wife, Rose; the resulting film is visually stunning but long and occasionally a bit of a slog. However, Maria de Medeiros as Nin and Uma Thurman as June are sexy and charismatic, and the movie is an important example of bisexual visibility, although it sometimes plays into stereotypes. —T.R.
174. The Fox (1967): By the late 1960s, mainstream filmmakers had gained the freedom to portray same-sex relationships, but attitudes hadn’t evolved enough for such portrayals to be positive. The Fox is a case in point: We won’t give details about the ending except to say that lesbian lovers Jill (Sandy Dennis) and Ellen (Anne Heywood) don’t live happily ever after. The women’s life on a chicken farm in rural Canada is disrupted by both a literal fox in the henhouse and a figurative one, the latter in the form of Keir Dullea as a sexy sailor home from the sea. Despite following the “no happy endings for lesbians” rule, the film has some admirable aspects; it’s atmospheric and haunting, and there’s plenty of heat in the love scenes between Dennis and Heywood as well as those between Heywood and Dullea. Based on a novella by D.H. Lawrence and directed by Mark Rydell, The Fox stands as a significant example of what had and hadn’t changed for LGBT portrayals in ’60s cinema. —T.R.
175. Claire of the Moon (1992): This early film by lesbian director Nicole Conn has endured, even if it hasn't aged particularly well (especially the earnestness and mom jeans). A supposedly straight writer discovers the joys of sapphic sex at a Pacific Northwest retreat, and there may be no going back (to men). The cinematography is pretty gorgeous and the sex scenes were certainly daring for the early '90s. —N.B.
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