There has been an explosion of queer content in the past decade or so. Although much of this burst has been seen on the television landscape, movies have also made great strides toward telling stories about the LGBTQ community. Many have received mainstream attention during awards season. Notably, 2016's Moonlight became the first gay film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. A Fantastic Woman, a Chilean production centering on a transgender woman and released the following year, won Best Foreign Film at the Oscars.
Not every fantastic LGBTQ movie garnered Oscar gold. Films like Tangerine, Weekend, and Rafiki moved the needle for greater representation of marginalized groups nationally and internationally. Some changed the world politically, and others changed how LGBTQ people saw themselves reflected in the culture. Below, see The Advocate's editors' picks of LGBTQ fiction films that defined the decade.
The first feature from out writer, director, and actress Desiree Akhavan, Appropriate Behavior was a breakout at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014 and went on to earn an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best First Screenplay. In the self-reflexive comedy, Akhavan’s Shirin navigates life after being dumped by the first woman with whom she’d had a significant relationship. With self-deprecating humor, the film explores the intersections of Shirin’s bisexual and Persian identities as she copes with coming out to her parents and life in the aftermath of the breakup.
Akhavan went on to direct the conversion therapy drama The Miseducation of Cameron Post and to create the critical fave The Bisexual.
This thoughtful story of a father who, after his wife dies, comes out to their son (Ewan McGregor) was inspired by the real-life experiences of filmmaker Mike Mills. Christopher Plummer, who won an Oscar for the role, plays the senior who is relieved to finally embrace his identity and who is trying to keep up with a new (and much younger) boyfriend while learning what it means to be gay at age 75, just five years before he would die of cancer. All of a sudden Dad is writing political letters and even tries out a gay club. Why not?
Lisa Cholodenko's comedy The Kids Are All Right — about a lesbian couple (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) who have their peaceful domesticity challenged when their children (Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson) seek out their sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo) — was one of the first mainstream films to showcase a rainbow family. In addition to achieving box-office success, it also received critical acclaim, garnering Oscar nods for its two leads. It was also nominated for Best Picture at the 83rd Academy Awards — one of the few lesbian films to achieve this distinction.
Beyond trouncing proud male chauvinist Bobby Riggs in the legendary 1973 Battle of the Sexes tennis match, Billie Jean King was a proponent for equal pay early in the game. The film from Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, the directing team behind Little Miss Sunshine, recounts the story of how that famous battle came to pass at the same time it tracks King’s love affair with hairstylist Marilyn Barnett. Both Emma Stone, who stars as King, and Steve Carell, who plays Riggs, received Golden Globe nominations for their performances. Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, and Natalie Morales costar.
Spa Night was declared the winner of the U.S. Grand Jury Prize at the Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival — and with good reason. The drama is a thoughtful and nuanced portrait of a closeted teen in L.A.’s Koreatown, a terrain that has never been given its due screen time. But it’s about far more than the closet. Directed by Andrew Ahn, the film follows David (Joe Seo), an 18-year-old on an exploration of identity after he takes a job at a men’s spa in order to help his parents. It's a sexy and substantive look at one gay Korean-American life, for which Seo won the Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Performance at Sundance.
A stylistic tour de force, Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is not your mother’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’s lesbian-themed novel Fingersmith (no offense to the excellent BBC adaptation). It turns out that Waters novel about a love story between women circa 1862 was the perfect material for the director of cult faves Oldboy and Snowpiercer, who moved the setting from England to Japanese-occupied Korea where a plot to defraud an heiress of her inheritance unfolds and then folds back in on itself with delicious twists and turns. Wrapped in the psychological thriller is a love affair between Lady/Izumi Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) that culminates with ultimate devotion in which the women in the film outsmart the men who seek to dominate them.
More than your classic story of forbidden love, Maryam Keshavarz’s film dares to imagine a love affair between young women played out in Tehran. The film, released after great political turmoil in Iran with the elections of 2009, delves into a youth counterculture there in which schoolmates and lovers-to-be Atafeh (The Bold Type’s Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) join a gay male friend in clubs and in helping to secretly dub the gay-themed film Milk into Persian. Class struggle plays a part in their story as Shireen, whose parents are dead and who is decidedly from a more impoverished class than the more well-off Atafeh, concedes to marrying Atafeh’s troubled brother to be closer to her love. While the young women don’t get the happy ending some viewers may have pulled for, the mere act of having consummated their relationship is revolutionary.
Based on the best-selling book by Becky Albertalli, Love, Simon follows Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) as he navigates closeted life in high school, battling blackmail and searching for love in the process. Directed by Greg Berlanti, the film was groundbreaking because it was the first movie about a gay teen to be backed by a major studio, 20th Century Fox. It also became a commercial as well as a critical hit, garnering over $60 million at the box office worldwide. The film did receive some blowback for centering its story on a white, heteronormative teen. However, it is enriched by the out actors who make up its ensemble cast, among them Keiynan Lonsdale and Clark Moore. Both of their characters deserve sequels.
Move over, Brokeback Mountain. There's a new gay shepherd film in town. The acclaimed God's Own Country, a British drama about a sheep farmer's (Josh O'Connor) relationship with a Romanian migrant worker (Alec Secareanu), was a hit at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the directing award in world cinema for first-time filmmaker Francis Lee. It's easy to see why. The film is a beautiful, visceral, and at times violent depiction of how self-hate, societal stigma, and prejudice can complicate queer love. Its themes resonate profoundly in a world where fear is threatening to close borders and reject outsiders. Perhaps it provides, if not an antidote, then a salve.
The South African submission for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards for 2017 was The Wound, a coming-of-age drama about ukwaluka, the Xhosa initiation into manhood. In this ritual, adolescents are circumcised and then spend time healing in the wilderness alongside male adult mentors. The film, directed by John Trengove, shows closeted characters on both sides of the generational divide who grapple with the meaning of masculinity in history and modern times.
Colette, about the trailblazing writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who engaged in relationships with men, women, and trans-masculine-identifying people circa the Belle Époque, is queer to its core. In the film directed by Wash Westmoreland, who is gay, Keira Knightley embodies the pansexual bohemian feminist who stepped out of her husband’s shadow to become the most famous female French author in the world.
The film chronicles Colette’s rise to fame as she leaves behind her country upbringing to become the toast of Paris along with her husband, Willy (Dominic West), who spurs her to chronicle her life for his literary factory where only his moniker appears on everything that’s published.
Bracing in its frank depiction of sexual freedom, the film shows Colette and Willy beginning an open relationship in which they end up bedding the same American socialite before Colette falls for the trans-masculine Missy (Denise Gough). If Colette’s unapologetic queerness weren’t enough, transgender actors Rebecca Root and Jake Graf play a cisgender couple who flirt with her in a parlor scene.
Colette’s “was a voice that I wanted to hear. It was a voice that I wanted to speak,” Knightley told The Advocate about being drawn to the role. “I particularly want women, but I want men as well to kind of go, 'Yes, I have a right to be myself, to explore my identity and my gender and to do it without shame and unapologetically.'"
Based on the beloved queer novel by Justin Torres, We the Animals is a moving coming-of-age story directed by Jeremiah Zagar. It centers on Jonah, who turns 10 at the film's onset, and his tumultuous journey coming to terms with his sexuality and masculinity in a mixed white and Puerto Rican household in upstate New York. It is loosely inspired by events experienced by Torres and his family. In an interview with The Advocate, Torres discussed how the film, released seven years after his book, has gained renewed relevance in an era when the president of the United States refers to marginalized people as "animals." However, "I wasn't surprised either because I did grow up in this," he said. "It's all there. Those resentments and that racism, that was all nascent where I grew up. It's not like everybody was a monster where I grew up, but there were enough." Both fantastical and all too real, We the Animals is a must-see film.
As divisive as the elongated, acrobatic sex scenes punctuated with slapping and slurping sounds are in Blue Is the Warmest Color, there’s no denying that the film from Abdelatiff Kechiche set tongues wagging with frank discussions about first love and the epic sex that can accompany it. In the film, the winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, stars Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos were so inextricable from the material that they were awarded the Palme alongside their director, making them the second and third women to win the prestigious honor in the festival’s history.
For all of the scissoring under industrial lighting the film offers, the movie also kick-started an international discussion about the dangers of the “male gaze,” even if the term in the vernacular became divorced from Laura Mulvey’s original essay in which she spelled out the tenets of the “gaze.”
Despite the sex scenes that had audiences squirming with either schadenfreude or delight, Blue Is the Warmest Color is a heartfelt coming-of-age and love story about young French women that boasts stellar performances from its leads. But the heartrending ending may leave viewers reaching for a bottle of red in which to drown their sorrows.
A thriller that features a gay serial killer stalking a cruising area may not seem terribly groundbreaking. After all, when William Friedkin did it with the 1980 Al Pacino starrer Cruising, it was met with great outcry. But French filmmaker Alain Guiraudie delivers a taut, pristinely shot thriller in Stranger by the Lake, which follows the denizens of a lakeside cruising area where a serial killer walks among them. Pierre Deladonchamps plays Franck, a regular at the lake who becomes sexually involved with the sexy newcomer Michel (Christophe Paou). The sex in Stranger by the Lake is passionate, raw, and graphic, and it doesn’t shy away from full male nudity and erections. The scenes of Franck and Michel fucking, juxtaposed with the natural landscape, make for timeless tableaus that comment on the beauty of not only the male form but of desire between men.
Tangerine, a 2015 dramedy directed by Sean Baker (The Florida Project) was shot on an iPhone 5s camera with a budget of $100,000. This innovative approach to filmmaking, which sparked many headlines for its thriftiness, is all the more remarkable considering the historic nature of its subject matter. Tangerine is the first film in awards contention to star two trans women of color (Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) portraying trans lives. Although the film ultimately did not receive Oscar nominations for its leads — notably, The Danish Girl, a more traditional "Oscars bait" film starring Eddie Redmayne as a trans pioneer Lili Elbe and Alicia Vikander, was recognized that year — it moved the needle for representation by showing the power and importance of authentic transgender representation. Taylor and Rodriguez portrayed Los Angeles sex workers — a profession they themselves had engaged in. And the film not only spoke to the hardships trans women can face in this work, but the joy and humor found in the friendship between these women. Tangerine is also a commentary on Hollywood; it depicts the marginalized people who walk and ride the bus along the streets where some of the world's biggest movies are made, but who so rarely receive representation.
Pedro Almodóvar directed Pain and Glory, a film starring Antonio Banderas as a gay Spanish filmmaker, Salvador Mallo, reflecting on his life and career. Almodóvar, 70, himself is a living auteur whose productions — many of them starring Banderas — have moved the needle internationally for LGBTQ visibility. As a result, Pain and Glory is the director's most personal work yet, a reflection of a lifetime's worth of love, heartbreak, and the power of cinema to address personal and political crises — not to mention the complicated and necessary relationship between a director and an actor, and an artist and his muse. The film is also notable for being one of Banderas's finest performances to date, one that may win him his first Oscar for Best Actor come awards season.
A Fantastic Woman director Sebastián Lelio helmed this sensual, thoughtful project that intersects female desire with Orthodox Judaism and grief that one of its stars, Rachel Weisz, shepherded to the big screen. Based on Naomi Alderman's 2006 novel, the film tells the story of Weisz’s Ronit, who's escaped the cloistered environment of her youth to return to the north London neighborhood where she grew up upon learning of the death of her father, the rabbi. There she rekindles a romance with her first love, Esti (Rachel McAdams), a lesbian who denied her true desire for her faith and married her and Ronit's childhood friend Dovid (Alesandro Nivola).
Much ado has been made about the culminating “liberating” sex scene between Weisz and McAdams that unfolds partway through the film. And while it’s quite something to behold, Disobedience is really a meditation on freedom, choice, and remaining true to one’s self.
“It was very important to me and to Sebastián that [desire] was at the center of the story,” Weisz told The Advocate. “After you’ve watched however many minutes of this quite repressed society where you can’t express your sexuality if you’re gay, when these women finally are alone together — it [the sex scene] is incredibly important.”
“[The scene] where Esti comes — probably for the first time — that orgasm, to me, is her liberation. It’s her kind of freedom. It doesn’t just mean sex. It means so much about her agency and her self-determination,” Weisz added.
For every generation, there's a teen comedy that defines it. Booksmart — about female best friends who discover on the eve of high school graduation that while they were busy studying, their party-happy classmates were racking up life experiences while also being accepted to Ivy League colleges — is an era-defining comedy for Gen Z.
Like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, Clueless, and Mean Girls, films renowned for capturing the essence of high school in the decade in which they were made, Booksmart, from first-time director Olivia Wilde, features a central love story that is very of-the-moment. And it's not between the prom queen and the rebel but between female best friends Beanie Feldstein’s Molly and Kaitlyn Dever’s Amy (who is gay). And its depiction of a gay teen in a leading role in a mainstream teen comedy — where being gay isn’t the point — is an absolute first.
Also very timely and refreshing is the film's refusal to easily label its characters. Gone are the familiar cliques that have often included mean girls, jocks, nerds, and burnouts.
“The more leading characters we have that are queer, queer in different ways, and queer in their own way, is genuinely important,” Feldstein, who is queer, told The Advocate earlier this year. "More representation is nothing but a beautiful thing on this earth, and the more people can relate to something, maybe the more that they can find themselves in it.”
Directed by Matthew Warchus and written by Stephen Beresford, Pride (2014) tells the amazing, true story of how gays and lesbians in London joined forces with miners to enact political change. This period drama, set during the Margaret Thatcher era, shows how support from the group Lesbians and Gays Support Miners helped change a government decision to close mines across the United Kingdom. It also led to miners becoming allies of the LGBTQ movement for years to come. In addition to its historical importance, Pride, through emotional performances and storytelling, tells the timeless lesson of how marginalized groups are stronger together, and how hearts and minds can be changed through a common cause.
The plot of Weekend, Andrew Haigh’s game-changing 2011 film, is simple: Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New) meet in a club, hook up, and then spend one weekend together. The British production is filled with passionate sex scenes. But even more revelatory are the conversations the men have with one another as Glen prepares to leave the country — conversations that speak to life, love, and what it means to be a gay man in the 21st century. Weekend has found a passionate fan base for being at once specific to the story of its characters and universal in its telling of how one encounter with a stranger can change a life.
Beyond the fact that it's a tender, gorgeously rendered coming-of-age story about two young women in love, Rafiki, directed by a Kenyan woman, Wanuri Kahiu, has forever changed the landscape for LGBTQ cinema there.
A modern-day Romeo and Juliet (but with a less tragic ending), Rafiki tells the story of Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), young women who fall in love despite their fathers being rival politicians.
While the storytelling alone is groundbreaking for Kenya, the events that ensued once the film was released were just as impactful.
Originally banned by the homophobic head of Kenya’s Film Classification Board, Ezekiel Mutua, because he alleged it would “promote lesbianism,” the film enjoyed massive audiences when the ban was lifted for a brief time in order to make it eligible for the foreign-language Academy Award. But the lift of the ban came only because of Kahiu’s fierce determination in the face of discrimination. She took the Film Classification Board to court and won a seven-day reprieve from the ban. The board chose to submit a different film for Oscar consideration, but Rafiki, with its sold-out audiences, still won in its own way.
"For many Kenyans, viewing Rafiki may be the first step toward building more empathy and acceptance of LGBT people. That will ultimately benefit all Kenyans — apart from those who seek to instrumentalize homophobia to gain political relevance," Neela Ghoshal, a senior LGBTQ rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, wrote in The Advocate.
Out director Robin Campillo’s moving chronicle of ACT UP in Paris circa 1990, BPM won six César Awards and the Grand Prix award at Cannes. The film offers up an intense, important look into the politics of ACT UP and the radical activism that was necessary to force government and industry into taking action on the AIDS epidemic. Nahuel Pérez Biscayart plays Sean, a radical activist with AIDS who begins a relationship with HIV-negative newcomer Nathan (Arnaud Valois). After decades of thoughtful films about HIV, including Parting Glances, Longtime Companion, Philadephia, and The Witnesses, BPM was revolutionary in its portrayal of men with AIDS as vital beings. The sex depicted between Sean and Nathan is honest and heartrending in its refusal to suddenly render the gay men who endured the epidemic as sexless. The film’s willingness to humanize its subjects as they fight for their lives is as radical as its characters.
Pariah, from director Dee Rees, a queer woman of color, began as a short in the late aughts. In 2011, Rees (Bessie, Mudbound) ushered her film about teen Alike coming into her queer identity while clashing with her mother’s religion and homophobia to the big screen, and it became a film festival hit. Occasionally difficult to watch as Alike (the excellent Adepero Oduye) struggles for acceptance in her own home, Pariah is a heartfelt and lyrical coming-of-age story that excavated the intersections of gender expression and sexual identity well before they became a part of daily discourse. Kim Wayans and Charles Parnell play Alike's parents while Aasha Davis (South of Nowhere) plays Bina, the young woman she falls for.
Directed by Sebastián Lelio, A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica) is a fantastic Chilean film that follows a transgender woman, Marina (Daniela Vega), in the wake of her partner's death. In addition to loss, Marina endures many hardships and indignities, facing eviction, suspicion, and rejection from the family of her loved one. International audiences have embraced Marina's story, and it even won Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards.
Call Me by Your Name, a dream of a film directed by Luca Guadagnino, has enchanted both audiences and critics with its postcard-perfect depiction of northern Italy and its central romance between 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and his father's 24-year-old graduate student, Oliver (Armie Hammer). These actors shine in their portrayal of first love and heartbreak. But it's a capstone speech from Elio's father (A Serious Man's Michael Stuhlbarg) to his son that will linger in your mind for days, if not live on in film history.
Based on the memoir of the same name by the late Lee Israel, Can You Ever Forgive Me? details how Israel, a notable biographer of figures like Katharine Hepburn and Tallulah Bankhead who published books throughout the 1970s and ’80s, had fallen on hard times during the ’90s. Opportunities had dried up, and she turned to forgeries as well as the stealing of archival materials from libraries as a means of generating income. The film is a fascinating portrait of New York City in this time period; one of its primary settings is Julius', a historic gay bar where Israel planned her infamous schemes. But Can You Ever Forgive Me? also features stellar performances from Melissa McCarthy as Israel and Richard E. Grant as Jack, who show the world what is so rarely seen in media: a friendship between a gay man and a lesbian.
“Do all lovers feel like they’re inventing something?” the betrothed Heloise whispers to Marianne, the young woman hired by her mother to surreptitiously paint her portrait as a promise of her marriage to a Milanese nobleman in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Marianne (Noemie Merlant) drinks in details of her soon-to-be-lover Heloise (who rejects her marriage and refuses to pose) in order to reconstruct the betrothed's visage on the canvas. Before long, Heloise (out actress Adèle Haenel) returns the gaze full-stop.
The result is a palpable depiction of out director Céline Sciamma’s (Water Lilies, Tomboy, Girlhood) idea of the “eroticism of consent,” in which she defines the cinematic language of the long-debated female gaze while simultaneously re-mystifying the dizzying experience of falling in love. And Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a work of cinematic art as fine as the art, poetry, and orchestral music to which the film pays homage, is destined to be revered, adored, and deconstructed for decades to come. But for all there is to be gleaned from the film’s theoretical acumen, it’s also deeply romantic and sexy.
The latest — and most accessible — film from Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) is a wild, queer romp through the 18th-century court of the sickly, often childlike Queen Anne of England. And it landed several Golden Globe nominations as well as critics' prizes, and it was the first film about queer female love that got some attention in the Oscars' Best Picture category (Carol was snubbed in that category in 2015). The Favourite lost the Best Picture prize, but Olivia Colman took home the Best Actress Oscar.
The film reunites Lanthimos's Lobster stars Colman (Broadchurch, next up on The Crown) and Rachel Weisz (Disobedience) as Queen Anne and her confidante or “favourite,” Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough. Anne and Sarah happily engage in wicked role-playing that borders on sadomasochism until Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) — a lady who's fallen from grace and will stop at nothing to regain her position — arrives at court. Soon the rivalry between Sarah and Abigail is in full bloom and the women play at politics, sexual and otherwise, to garner the queen’s attention in what has gone down as one of the queerest films about women of its year, 2018.
The Favourite is ultimately a love story between Anne and Sarah. But even the men — in their wigs and ruffled sleeves, with their powdered faces adorned with moles as they stomp around in chunky heels arguing over issues of state while the women barely notice them — lend an overall air of camp to the delicious satire that often employs a fish-eye type of lens to signal the audience that despite the costumes (by Carol’s Sandy Powell), The Favourite is not your mother’s period piece.
More than half a century after Patricia Highsmith’s groundbreaking 1952 novel The Price of Salt/Carol was released, Todd Haynes’s big-screen adaptation Carol (2015) became revolutionary in its own way. The film, starring Cate Blanchett as the titular Carol, a soon-to-be-divorced New Jersey socialite and a mother who falls for Rooney Mara’s Therese, the shopgirl who is, as Carol notes, “flung out of space,” earned six Oscar nominations, even if it was snubbed in the Best Picture category. Still, it was the first Oscar-worthy love story about a female couple in which a man does not steal focus and that doesn’t end in disaster or death for the women. In fact, the novel and the film’s hopeful ending offers a possible happily-ever-after for Carol and Therese.
Beyond that, its artistry is undeniable, with a team that includes New Queer Cinema darling Haynes at the helm, screenwriter Phyllis Nagy (who is a lesbian and who was friends with Highsmith), costumer Sandy Powell (who also costumed The Favourite), composer Carter Burwell, and cinematographer Ed Lachmann (Far From Heaven). If that weren't enough, out Emmy winner Sarah Paulson plays Carol's best friend and former lover Abby.
Since it was released, Carol, which begins during the days before Christmas and includes Carol and Therese consummating their desire during a road trip on New Year’s Eve, has become a bit of a holiday tradition, especially among queer women.
Moonlight was one of the decade's best films, LGBTQ or otherwise. The story follows a gay black man, Chiron, through three stages of his early life, along with his struggles with self-acceptance, bullying, and his mother's addiction to crack cocaine. Black gay men rarely get this kind of screen portrayal — the kind that shows them with haunting and joyful complexity and receives glowing reviews from top critics and an Academy Award for Best Picture. In a time when so many of the topics addressed by the film — poverty, the school-to-prison pipeline, homophobia — remain real issues in vulnerable communities and in America, it is indeed a privilege to have a film like Moonlight.