Seeing our experiences reflected through popular art, particularly cinema, is something queer people have vigorously sought, long before Moonlight broke multiple barriers and clinched a Best Picture Oscar in front of a global audience. It’s why we’ve sniffed out subtext wherever we could, from Ben-Hur to bromances: because our stories have too rarely been told in the texts themselves. If we’ve latched onto implicitly queer films like we would wayward lovers, then we’ve held these titles, which tell our tales outright, square up against our hearts. Whether their comedy gave us permission to be wildly flamboyant or their tragedy gave us the courage to tackle pain we thought we couldn’t face, these movies have been windows into worlds we needed strength to step into ourselves. They haven’t just imitated life—they’ve prepared us for it.
Jean Genet (1950)
Set in a prison, and long banned for some full-frontal action witnessed by a voyeuristic guard, this 26-minute meditation on desire is Genet’s only film. It’s devoid of dialogue, but its bittersweet imagery is all you need, conveying the forbidden bond between two star-crossed, neighboring inmates, whose only consummation of lust comes in dreams and cigarette smoke shared through a straw.
Basil Dearden (1961)
Though known for being the first English-language movie to use the word “homosexual,” Victim, about a closeted British lawyer (Dirk Bogarde) whose gay flirtations threaten his marriage and his freedom, is most notable as a snapshot of gay acts that, at the time, were criminalized in England and Wales. The lawyer’s quest for conformity may seem regressive now, but his struggle against oppression remains very real.
James Bidgood (1971)
Once thought to have been made by Andy Warhol (before initially uncredited director Bidgood was unmasked), Narcissus has been draped in nearly as much mystery as it is in pink hues. Centering on an escort (Bobby Kendall) whose own fantasies are arrestingly visualized, the sexually liberating film has inspired countless queer artists, including photographers Pierre et Gilles.
John Waters (1972), 45th Anniversary
“It can still shock people—we were trying to shock,” says Mink Stole, co-star of Flamingos, Waters’s radical cult-crime shitshow featuring drag queen Divine as a filth-obsessed criminal and Stole as one of her ill-fated nemeses. Now 69, Stole says she’s always been comfortable with controversy, including that of the rape, sodomy, murder, and incest that have given Flamingos its infamous reputation. But, she says, “I don’t think John was preaching to anyone; he was just presenting an alternative vision. We were misfits. None of us felt more comfortable than in the world we created, and that people took inspiration from that is remarkable.” Stole was just fine being slathered in molasses—in winter—for her character’s execution scene, but she drew the line at her locks. “I wouldn’t set my hair on fire,” she says, “even though I originally agreed to it. I mean, this was a one-shot deal. There was a guy with a match and a guy with a water bucket. I could be bald today!”
Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1982)
A sordid and fearless yarn about brothers, lovers, sailors, and killers, Querelle marked the union of two great queer visionaries (Fassbinder and Genet, who wrote the source material). It also became Fassbinder’s swan song at the end of a staggeringly prolific run (the director died of an overdose just before the movie’s release). Its visuals alone, fetishizing men in naval uniform, have become the stuff of gay iconography.
Stephen Frears (1985)
Working from a densely topical script by Hanif Kureishi, Frears both blessed gay viewers and stuck it to England’s Thatcher era with this film, a quirky, blue-collar romance with the nerve to pair an entrepreneurial Pakistani (Gordon Warnecke) with a local skinhead (Daniel Day-Lewis, at the studly start of his career).
Marlon Riggs (1989)
Riggs used this film—part documentary, part autobiography—to give voice to the “DL” culture in which black gay men, himself included, have historically sealed themselves, shaken by pressures from inside and outside the black community. With footage capturing ridicule in media and the perils of the AIDS crisis, it highlights a subculture that only now is making cracks in a glass ceiling.
Jennie Livingston (1990)
Perhaps no movie has had more influence on popular queer culture and the modern queer vernacular than Livingston’s vital study of New York’s late-’80s ball culture. If the uninitiated think RuPaul’s Drag Race gave birth to the art of shade and werking a runway, they need to acquaint themselves with the Houses of Ninja, LaBeija, and Xtravaganza, which Livingston captures like lightning in a bottle, along with hard truths about race, class, and gender identity.
Gus Van Sant (1991)
The untimely death of its co-star River Phoenix has only made Idaho, Van Sant’s street-hustler masterpiece, more poignant through the years. And the narcolepsy of Phoenix’s character, who hopelessly pines for his best friend and kindred spirit (Keanu Reeves), only adds to the dreaminess with which Van Sant riffs on Shakespeare’s Henry IV and V. The yearning in this pivotal road movie still hits you like a falling house shattering on the highway.
Gregg Araki (1992), 25th Anniversary
Made guerrilla-style with inexperienced actors, The Living End is one of the definitive titles of the New Queer Cinema, a movement composed of unapologetic works that thrived outside the Hollywood system. According to director Araki, it was “pretty much impossible” to be a queer artist during that period and not deal with HIV/AIDS. “You thought about AIDS and dying every damn day,” Araki says. For him, making the bloody, hedonistic film was a form of therapy through which he could express his anger, anxiety, and confusion about the epidemic. Most HIV-positive film characters die by the closing credits, but here, Luke (Mike Dytri) and Jon (Craig Gilmore) use their diagnoses as free license to live dangerously, embarking on a road trip with wild abandon and falling in and out of love in the process. “I’m amazed at how the film was this pure, raw time capsule of an era that was so traumatic but also so transformative,” Araki says. “This crazy little art project that me and my friends made has survived as an artifact of a life-altering period in our history.” - Les Fabian Brathwaite
Neil Jordan (1992), 25th Anniversary
Recently, Stephen Rea, star of Jordan’s thriller about IRA member Fergus (Rea) and his love for trans hairdresser Dil (Jaye Davidson), was at a 25th-anniversary screening of the film, where familiar questions were posed. Davidson, for instance, was asked if he’s trans, to which he replied, “I’m a gay man.” Taking into account the famed scene in which Fergus goes home with Dil and discovers her penis, Rea says, “[Jaye played] a man who wanted to be a woman. It’s all evolved since then.” Indeed, if seen for the first time now, when trans women are on TV shows and magazine covers, The Crying Game may feel dated, or even exploitative. But, Rea says, “it has a belief in humanity. Art can’t have a direct political impact, but this had a profound impact—a subversive one on how we regard each other. Fergus starts with a fixed notion of identity: you’re Irish, you’re a Brit, you’re a man, you’re a woman. In the end, he could think differently.”
Hettie Macdonald (1996)
Carried along by a soundtrack rich with the tunes of Mama Cass, Macdonald’s beloved adaptation of Jonathan Harvey’s play is among the most tender screen depictions of gay boyhood crushes, which almost always come with very specific thrills and fears. Both products of troubling homes, London teens Jamie (Glen Berry) and Ste (Scott Neal) find refuge in each other, and the movie has the grace to leave their tale untarnished by tragedy.
Mike Nichols (1996)
One generation of gay men had La Cage aux Folles; another had this Nichols-directed update, the second remake of Jean Poiret’s play about a gay couple (one of them a drag queen) who work at a nightclub and have to fool conservative relatives into thinking they’re straight. The movie's lasting popularity is partly thanks to the chemistry between co-leads Nathan Lane and the late Robin Williams, but also to its timeless theme of bipartisan family acceptance.
James Ivory (1987), 30th Anniversary
Published posthumously, E.M. Forster’s novel of young romance between two men in prewar England was a rarity for its time: a story of same-sex love across class barriers—with a happy ending. The heroes, Maurice and Alec, fare better out of the closet than those who suppress their instincts. Made into a beautifully observed 1987 movie by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory—just 20 years after the decriminalization of homosexuality in the U.K.—its audaciousness still holds up today. What’s striking is the onscreen male nudity, as well as the intimacy between leads James Wilby, Rupert Graves, and Hugh Grant, all still fresh faces at the time. “Rupert and I went out for a curry the night before, ostensibly to discuss our [kissing] scene,” recalls Wilby, who plays Maurice. “We talked about everything else under the sun other than the scene. And then on the way back to the hotel, I said, ‘I think we should just go for it,’ and he went, ‘Yup, so do I,’ and that’s all we said. And the next day his tongue was halfway down my throat. So that was the end of that.” —Aaron Hicklin
David Lynch (2001)
Lynch’s trippy indictment of Hollywood’s grueling treatment of ingenues may feature a tapestry of dreamscapes, but it’s rooted in a lesbian desire that’s so intense, it drives a woman (Naomi Watts) to murder before driving her flat-out mad. The alternately gorgeous and grotesque mystery sees its director queering Nancy Drew, while taking to heart how love can make us do crazy things, for better or worse.
Eytan Fox (2002), 15th Anniversary
When Fox was growing up in Israel in the 1970s and ’80s, and when he was eventually drafted to the Israeli army, he was deeply closeted—surrounded, he says, by “a macho, homophobic society.” Yossi & Jagger, his military drama about two Israeli soldiers who fall in love while stationed in Lebanon, was the director’s way to process those demons, but it became much more than that. “On set, it was clear we were doing something new and very different in Israeli cinema and culture,” he says. He also remembers when the local army, first denying support of the film, eventually screened it on a base. “There were two officers who were high up in the army and in charge of a withdrawal of Israel from Gaza. There was fear of casualties on both sides, but there were none, and as they were looking across the border at Gaza when the film was over, one said, ‘We felt like Yossi and Jagger.’ They didn’t mean they felt gay, but that they felt close to each other. We turned the movie into an idiom that reflects the closeness between two Israeli soldiers.”
Pedro Almodóvar (2004)
For his finest film, Almodóvar looked to his roots as both a Spanish kid in a religious boarding school and a libidinous young cinephile, ultimately emerging with a nesting doll of a story involving films within films, sexual abuse by priests, and one of the hottest wet-underwear scenes ever. The director has always played with flashback, but never has it been so evocative of carnal wants, power struggles, and pain.
Ang Lee (2005)
Though revolutionary for its infiltration of mainstream (and Oscar) conversations, Brokeback wouldn’t have been so incendiary had it not upended that ultimate figure of American masculinity: the cowboy. “John Wayne is turning in his grave,” one Academy voter was rumored to have said. But the aching romance between Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) is one we’ll take to ours, along with the assurance that men can fall in love anywhere, from a rager to a ranch.
John Cameron Mitchell (2006)
Mitchell’s sex-positive opus is named after the school vehicle that picks up the “special kids,” and it’s also the name of the club where the film’s real, live New Yorkers have real, live sex—in a space that’s safe for them. This isn’t pornography; this is humanism at its finest and queerest. Its empathy is so rich that it even takes a moment to let a young gay man find compassion for an older one, who woefully recalls remaining silent through the AIDS crisis out of fear.
Andrew Haigh, 2011
A fleeting hookup is something most gay men can relate to, as is just about everything discussed by strangers-turned-lovers Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New) when they meet for one brief but meaningful weekend in Haigh’s breakout hit. If nothing else, Weekend is a heartfelt ode to conversation among male partners—something that, because of apps, egos, or both, remains in too-short supply.
David France (2012)
The AIDS crisis hit the gay community around the same time that the personal camcorder hit retail shelves. Thus, the real-life figures in France’s shattering documentary, about the formation of ACT UP, could record themselves amid a fight for their lives, some of them becoming their own scientists after the government denied them necessary drug treatment. These are the men and women who’ve made HIV something to live with rather than die from, and this is the pre-eminent cinematic chronicle of their heroism.
Jonathan Lisecki, 2012
There’s a deficit of truly shrewd, yet accessible, comedy in queer cinema. Enter Gayby, a hysterical romp about a gay man (Matt Wilkas) and his best girlfriend (Jenn Harris) who opt to make a baby the old-fashioned way. Here, Lisecki parlays his eye for classic slapstick, his ear for zeitgeisty but discerning lingo, and his respect for the special bond between gay men and straight women into a story of modern family that’s both biting and warm.
Todd Haynes (2015)
In Haynes’s swoon-worthy translation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, lesbianism and female agency are equally complex, with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara playing two lovers without a simple bone in their bodies. If men run the world, women who won’t even sleep with them fall low on the ladder. Carol brings us into a world where all of that is defied, and where the courage to do the right thing—be one’s self—might even yield a happy ending.
Sean Baker (2015)
Much was made of the way in which Baker’s breakthrough movie was filmed (it was shot entirely on iPhone 5S devices), but its endurance will rest on its willingness to tell a resonant story about trans sex workers of color, and to cast actual trans actresses in the roles—an ongoing rarity in Hollywood. These women are part of the most frequently murdered minority in America, and Tangerine’s triumph is in normalizing their existence.
Barry Jenkins (2016)
Queer people, black people, and especially queer black people all know what it feels like to sift through straight-cis-white apologist fare while waiting to see their actual truths on screen. Moonlight, the unfiltered, undiluted story of one gay black man’s life, is a model of what the world needs more of, and its influential path to Oscar gold suggests the world may get more indeed. It’s a hugely heartening example of baby steps leading to giant leaps.
Honorable Mentions (25 more gems from the colorful queer canon):
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Portrait of Jason (1967)
The Boys in the Band (1970)
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Law of Desire (1987)
Torch Song Trilogy (1988)
Longtime Companion (1989)
The Long Day Closes (1992)
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)
The Celluloid Closet (1995)
Happy Together (1997)
But I'm a Cheerleader (1999)
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
The Hours (2002)
Mysterious Skin (2004)
My Summer of Love (2004)
The Bubble (2006)
Laurence Anyways (2012)
Blue is the Warmest Color (2013)
Stranger by the Lake (2013)