You undoubtedly know about and have probably seen Call Me by Your Name, Brokeback Mountain, Moonlight, Go Fish, Desert Hearts, and other acclaimed LGBTQ+ films, but there are plenty of others that have been unjustly forgotten while remaining well worth a viewing on a steamy day in the later summer — or any time, really. On the following pages are our recommendations of less well-known movies for your consideration, including releases from the 1950s to the 2010s.
Based on Dorothy Bussy’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, director Jacqueline Audry’s Olivia is set in a young women’s finishing school that is also a hotbed of desire. The film was still shockingly ahead of its time when it was restored and released in theaters in late 2019. While Olivia was originally released in 1951, it was set in the 19th century in a world nearly devoid of men and brimming with desire and jealousy among its young characters — particularly Olivia’s infatuation with her superior, Mademoiselle Cara.
In 1961, Victim, directed by Basil Dearden, was a rare sympathetic treatment of homosexuality. Dirk Bogarde, who was a closeted gay man in real life, stars as a closeted gay lawyer, Melville Farr, who stands up to blackmailers. This British release takes a stand against the criminalization of homosexuality, pointing out that it enables blackmail. It is rather patronizing in its treatment of gay men as poor souls who just can’t help the way they are, but it does call out for tolerance. It also set Bogarde on a new career path, away from unquestionably straight roles and toward characters who were either obviously gay or implied to be, with movies such as Death in Venice (1971).
To be clear, Claude Chabrol’s sexual potboiler Les Biches, set in exotic St. Tropez, is rife with queer tropes. Still, the film from the French New Wave director is loosely based on Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, which earns queer points alone! The film stars Stéphane Audran as Frédérique, a wealthy woman who picks up the wayward Why (Jacqueline Sassard) in town and takes her to her home for a tryst and parties with her gay male friends.
Director James Bidgood's classic Pink Narcissus quickly became a hit on the underground circuit when it was released in 1971. Bidgood shot the film over the course of seven years, mostly in his small Manhattan apartment; he was also its writer and cinematographer. It depicts the fantasies of a young gay sex worker, played by Bobby Kendall, Bidgood’s roommate. Due to differences with a producer, Bidgood had his name taken off the picture, and it wasn't until many years later that he received the credit he was due. Pink Narcissus was restored and re-released by Strand Releasing in 1999, and Bidgood began to receive recognition.
Gay director John Schlesinger's acclaimed 1971 release involves a love triangle made up of a gay man, a straight woman, and the young male artist who is a lover to both. Peter Finch stars as Daniel Hirsh, a doctor who's comfortable with his gayness but not out to his family; Glenda Jackson as employment counselor Alex Greville; and Murray Head as Bob Elkin, the artist. Schlesinger and Penelope Gilliatt wrote the screenplay, which brought them an Oscar nomination; Schlesinger was also nominated for Best Director, and Finch and Jackson in the lead acting categories.
The early ’80s new wave scene gets the full spiked hair, queer, neon treatment in Liquid Sky, a cult classic from Slava Tsukerman. Actor and author Anne Carlisle stars in dual roles as Margaret, a coke-addicted bisexual model, and as Margaret’s nemesis, Jimmy. Paula E. Sheppard plays Margaret’s girlfriend, Adrian. Toss in a UFO and aliens who feed off of Margaret’s sexual partners’ orgasms, and well, that’s the ’80s.
Writer-director John Sayles shows a straight man can craft a lesbian love story with sensititivity. Linda Griffiths stars as the title character, who is unhappily married to a man and finds new possibilities in life when she takes a night-school class and falls in love with her teacher, Ruth (Jane Hallaren). The film is both tender and comedic, portraying Lianna's joy in coming into her new identity.
A narrative film shot as if it were a documentary, Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames is a queer and feminist classic that deserves more attention. Adele Bertei plays Isabel, the lesbian who spearheads the pirate radio collective Radio Ragazza, while Honey plays Honey, who heads an alternative, Phoenix Radio. Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow costars in the film that features an energetic punk soundtrack.
Adapted from Julian Mitchell’s play Another Country, Marek Kanievska’s film set in the 1930s stars Rupert Everett (My Best Friend’s Wedding) as Guy, a gay man ostracized at a school akin to Eton who falls for a beautiful classmate played by The Princess Bride’s Cary Elwes. Colin Firth plays Guy’s best friend, Tommy, who’s on the outside at school because of his Marxist beliefs.
The inimitable Vanessa Redgrave was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Olive Chancellor in The Bostonians, a suffragette who becomes romantically entangled with Verena (Madeleine Potter), a rising star and speaker in the turn-of-the-century feminist movement. Based on the novel by Henry James and directed by James Ivory, the film begins in 1886. A triangle is at the center of the love story as Christopher Reeves’s charming Basil also vies for Verena’s attention. Jessica Tandy, Nancy Marchand, and Linda Hunt costar.
The Hotel New Hampshire, based on John Irving’s novel, is a tough one to pin down plot-wise outside of the happenings to the Berry family at the lodgings they run. Beau Bridges stars as the quirky patriarch and Lisa Banes plays the matriarch, while Jodie Foster, Rob Lowe, Paul McCrane, and a very young Seth Green play the Berry siblings. The family moves to Vienna, and eventually, Foster’s Franny begins a fling with a woman in a bear suit played by Nastassja Kinski. It's a bizarre film with tough sequences, and it should be noted that there are also scenes of incest and rape.
A tender indie from director Bill Sherwood, Parting Glances was one of the first films to address the pain and loss of the AIDS epidemic. The film stars Steve Buscemi (Reservoir Dogs, Fargo) as Nick, a man living with AIDS. Richard Ganoung plays Nick’s ex Michael, who looks after Nick and provides companionship for him.
This film tells the story of one of the most famous lesbian literary couples of all time. Linda Hunt stars as Alice B. Toklas, and Linda Bassett plays Gertrude Stein in Waiting for the Moon, by acclaimed director Jill Godmilow. In the film, set in the ’30s, Stein and Toklas rub elbows in their salon with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and Guillaume Apollinaire.
Philip Kaufman's Henry & June is also set among real-life literati in Paris in the 1930s, with diarist Anaïs Nin (Maria de Medeiros) entering the lives of novelist Henry Miller (Fred Ward) and his wife, June (Uma Thurman). Nin is interested in Henry for his art but is drawn to June sexually. Kaufman and his wife, Rose, based their screenplay on Nin's diaries.
Derek Jarman's reimagining of Christopher Marlowe's 16th-century play about the ill-fated British monarch turns it into a commentary on the oppression of queer people throughout history. Steven Waddington stars as Edward II and Andrew Tiernan as his lover, Piers Gaveston. Tilda Swinton has a scene-stealing turn as Edward's queen, Isabella, while Annie Lennox appears to sing the Cole Porter tune "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye." A typically strange and wonderful Jarman work.
Uma Thurman stars as Sissy Hankshaw, a woman born with enormous thumbs who hitchhikes and more in Gus Van Sant’s adaptation of Tom Robbins’s novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. A wanderer by nature, Sissy sets down at the Rubberose Ranch for a spell, where one of the cowgirls who lives at the ranch, Bonanza Jellybean (Rain Phoenix), wins her heart. A trippy and star-studded extravaganza, Cowgirls costars Lorraine Bracco, Keanu Reeves, John Hurt, Pat Morita, Roseanne Barr, Angie Dickinson, Sean Young, Carole Kane, Heather Graham, and others. The film gets bonus points for the soundtrack by k.d. lang.
Farewell My Concubine tells the story of two opera stars across five decades of tumultuous Chinese history. Two orphaned boys undergo rigorous training and become leading lights of the Peking Opera; Cheng Dieyi (Leslie Cheung) is a gay man who is assigned female roles, including a famous one as a concubine, and Duan Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi), takes more traditional male ones. Dieyi loves Xiaolou, who does not reciprocate and marries a woman, Juxian (Gong Li), who becomes a friend to Dieyi as the three face occupation by Japan, Mao's Cultural Revolution, and more. Directed by Kaige Chen, the movie was Oscar-nominated as Best Foreign Language Film.
Years before Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee directed another gay love story, this one with more comedy and less angst. Wai-Tung (Winston Chao) and Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein) are a couple living comfortably in Manhattan, but Wai-Tung's parents back in Taiwan don't know he's gay and are pressuring him to marry. Wei-Wei (May Chin), an artist who lives in a building Wai-Tung owns, needs a green card, and Simon comes up with the idea for Wai-Tung to marry her so she can stay in the U.S. and he can placate his parents. When the parents arrive for the elaborate wedding, hilarity ensues and so does tenderness, as secrets are revealed.
The true story of the infamous incestuous, murderous Papin sisters gets another retelling in this film from director Nancy Meckler (Jean Genet’s play The Maids is the most famous interpretation of the crime). Joely Richardson (Hollow Reed, Nip/Tuck, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) and Jodhi May (Tipping the Velvet, Gentleman Jack) play the sisters who engage in a forbidden affair while confined primarily to their quarters by their abusive employer, played by Julie Walters, who they murder in a fit of passion.
Jeffrey, which Paul Rudnick adapted from his popular play, tells the story of gay men navigating love and sex at the height of the AIDS epidemic. The titular character, played by Steven Weber, has decided dating isn't worth the risk — until he meets the man of his dreams, Steve (Michael T. Weiss), who is living with HIV. The film, directed by Christopher Ashley, mixed Rudnick's trademark humor with some serious moments. Able support comes from Nathan Lane, Patrick Stewart, and Bryan Batt; the latter, playing a musical theater dancer named Darius, reminds us that while AIDS may be the unwelcome guest, it's still our party.
The lore behind Foxfire is just as queer as the film itself. In the movie, based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates, Angelina Jolie makes a splash as Legs Sadovsky, the new bad girl in town who convinces a couple of friends to turn in the teacher who’s been sexually harassing them. Booze, tattoos, petty crimes, and sapphic encounters ensue. The film costars Hedy Buress, singer Jenny Lewis, and model Jenny Shimizu. Jolie and Shimizu, who met while shooting the film, eventually engaged in a relationship.
Tilda Swinton is sensational as hyper-ambitious lawyer Eve Stephens, who takes both male and female lovers as she attempts to climb the ladders of power and resolve her conflicts with society's expectations of women. Her anxieties manifest in terrifying dreams as she is considered for a judgeship. She's also got a kleptomaniac sister, Madelyn, played by Amy Madigan. Directed by Susan Streitfeld and written by Streitfeld with Julie Hebert.
Kiss Me, Guido is a mistaken-identity comedy in which a straight Sicilian-American guy from the Bronx — a "Guido" in the film's parlance — moves in with a gay man in Greenwich Village. It seems the straight man, Frankie (Nick Scotti) thought "GWM" in the gay man's ad meant "guy with money." But Frankie and his new roommate, Warren (Anthony Barrile), become friends, and Frankie, who wants to be an actor, ends up replacing the injured Warren in a play. The humor comes mostly from misunderstandings among all concerned; some of it hasn't dated well, but some stands up. Written and directed by Anthony Vitale.
The debut feature from director and co-writer Nisha Ganatra is a culture-clash comedy in which Ganatra stars as Indian-American lesbian Reena, who agrees to carry a baby for her married but infertile older sister, Sarita (Sakina Jaffrey). Reena thinks that will make everyone in her world happy, but her girlfriend, Lisa (Jill Hennessy), isn't thrilled with her decision, while Reena's highly traditional mother, Meenu (Madhur Jaffrey), has never accepted her daughter's lesbianism and keeps introducing her to prospective husbands.
Shamim Sarif's romantic comedy-drama stars Lisa Ray as Tala, an affluent Londoner dealing with her love for a woman on the eve of her marriage to a man. about to be married to a man. Leyla (Sheetal Sheth) is Tala's beloved, and same-sex attraction is also new to her. Mix in their cultural differences — Tala is from a Christian family of Palestinian descent, while Leyla's family is Indian and Muslim — and it's a compelling brew.
More than your classic story of forbidden love, Maryam Keshavarz’s Circumstance dares to imagine a love affair between young women played out in Tehran. The film, released after great political turmoil in Iran with the election of 2009, delves into a counter-youth culture 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.
Writer-director Jay Dockendorf's debut feature stars Kerwin Johnson Jr. and Curtiss Cook Jr. as the titular Naz and Maalik, African-American Muslim teens living in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. As far as their families know, they're best friends, but actually they're lovers and fearful of being outed to their relatives. At the same time, they're being surveilled by an FBI agent who suspects them of being terrorists. Dockendorf drew on interviews with Muslims post-9/11 for that aspect of his script.
Ulysses, a lonely, effeminate, and bullied gay teenager, finds love and acceptance in New York City's ballroom scene in Saturday Church. Luka Kain stars as Ulysses, Regina Taylor plays his homophobic aunt, and Mj Rodriguez, Indya Moore, Alexia Garcia, Marquis Rodriguez, and Kate Bornstein portray some of the LGBTQ+ folks who offer him a chosen family. Written and directed by Damon Cardasis.