12 of the Most Important LGBTQIA+ Movies in Cinematic History
LGBTQIA+ representation has always existed on film – whether overtly or covertly shown through queer actors, writers and directors. But it’s only been in the last two decades or so that these LGBTQIA+ movies are starting to get seen by a wider audience and regaled with some of the biggest awards in the film industry. The visibility of these fresh, powerful and divergent narratives can be empowering for the LGBTQIA+ community and can help foster a greater understanding and acceptance in society.
While there are hundreds of films that reflect the queer experience, here is a list of twelve LGBTQIA+ movies (in no particular order) that will be remembered for having a strong influence on cinematic history, not only for their powerful and relatable queer characters but also the conversations about the LGBTQIA+ community the films inspired.
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12. Paris is Burning (1990)
This documentary explores the ball culture of New York City in the 1980s and the lives of the queer people who bravely forged its culture. This film is an important record of a life and aesthetic not typically seen in documentaries and is the precursor to popular shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race. The film itself is a fierce act of resistance and rebellion as it boldly celebrates the Black and Latino drag queens and trans women who dared to be fabulous as they stared down the tragedy of the AIDS crisis and the dangers of homophobia.
11. My Own Private Idaho (1991)
Directed by Gus Van Sant, this movie stars River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves as two young street hustlers in Portland from very different backgrounds. Loosely inspired by Shakespeare’s Henry IV, the film is a mix of scripted drama that includes Mike’s (Phoenix) narcoleptic episodes that dissolve into flashbacks of an abusive childhood, Scott’s (Reeves) irreverent and self-destructive lifestyle on the eve of gaining a huge family inheritance, and interviews with actual male sex workers. The dreamy, sometimes experimental film is one of the first to bring mainstream actors into a movie with queer actors and themes.
Read More: Gus Van Sant and the Windows to Other Worlds
10. Happy Together (1997)
Directed by Wong Kar-wai, this romantic drama tells the story of two gay men (played by Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai) from Hong Kong who move to Argentina to start a new life together. Unfortunately, they struggle with jealousy and resentment that ultimately leads to violence. This “beloved gay downer” of a film shows a relationship between two people who love each other passionately but are too dysfunctional to make the relationship work – a theme not often seen in queer movies. Wong Kar-wai won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival.
9. A Fantastic Woman (2017)
This Chilean drama tells the story of Marina (Daniela Vega), a transgender woman who faces discrimination and violence after the death of her older lover Orlando (Francisco Reyes). The film explores the struggles faced by transgender people including the unfair judgment they receive from law enforcement and family members. The film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and brought trans rights into focus in Chile, even helping garner political support for the 2018 Gender Identity Law that allows “transgender people over the age of 14 to update their names on legal documents and guarantees their right to be officially addressed according to their true gender.”
8. Go Fish (1994)
This low-budget indie film was one of the first queer rom-coms written, directed and acted by queer women, including director Rose Troche and writer Guinevere Turner. Shot in black and white, the film has an experimental, neophyte vibe that could feel amateurish but instead feels fresh and electric due to the youthful, sexually-charged subject matter. Premiering at Sundance, it forged a path for many other independent gay and lesbian films. The movie sold to Samuel Goldwyn Films, helping to establish a viable market for LGBTQIA+ movies.
7. Philadelphia (1993)
Starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, Philadelphia was the first film from a major studio (TriStar) to confront the AIDS epidemic in a straightforward way. In the 1980s, many queer people in Hollywood (and America) suffered in silence as they became ill and often died from AIDS, including actors like Rock Hudson, who passed from the disease in 1985. This film brought awareness to the crisis and bravely depicted the gay community as important, resourceful and resilient. Tom Hanks also won the Oscar for Best Actor.
6. Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
Based on the true story of Brandon Teena, a trans man facing brutal discrimination, violence and ultimately his untimely death, the film is also a love story. This film is remarkable for its ability to eschew stereotypes and give dignity to transgendered people. But it’s Hilary Swank’s vulnerable yet brave performance as Brandon that makes the story so accessible and heart-wrenching. It’s no surprise that Swank got an Oscar for this role.
5. Boy Erased (2018)
Based on the memoir of the same name by Garrad Conley, Australian filmmaker Joel Edgerton wrote and directed this powerful film about a young man named Jared (Lucas Hedges) who is outed as gay to his father Marshall (Russell Crowe), a Baptist preacher, and his wife Nancy (Nicole Kidman). Unsure how to handle the situation, Jared’s parents agree to send him to gay conversion therapy.
What makes Boy Erased stand out is that it’s about how one individual being gay affects the entire family. Also, all the characters are presented without judgment, only as imperfect and complicated human beings that all have the potential to grow and change. While Nancy seems subservient to her domineering husband, it’s her maternal instincts that give her the courage to love her child for who he really is. Nancy is a role model for other parents who may be struggling to accept their own gay children.
4. Carol (2015)
Starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, and directed by Todd Haynes, Carol is based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt. The story is about two women who fall in love despite the challenges and complications their relationship adds to their lives, mirroring the lives of many lesbians who may not see typically see themselves reflected on screen. As difficult as it was for two lesbians to be together in the 1950s, the film is sadly very relatable today due to all the discrimination the LGBTQIA+ community is facing in today’s political climate. Ultimately, the film is a nuanced story of love and hope in a world that is often harsh and painfully difficult to navigate.
3. Call Me by Your Name (2017)
Adapted from the novel of the same name by Andre Aciman, Call Me by Your Name stars Timothee Chalamet as Elio, a seventeen-year-old student who falls for Oliver (Armie Hammer), the older man hired as Elio’s father's research assistant in 1980s Italy. The film did significantly well at the box office in 2014, and had the best opening for a gay romance film since Brokeback Mountain. Screenwriter James Ivory took home the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Call Me by Your Name gives a new paradigm for queer romance films in that it doesn’t define the love story by a tragedy or crisis. Instead, the romance flourishes in ways that feel authentic and wholesome, allowing the space for this love story to exist alongside other cinematic love stories where the lead characters aren’t queer.
2. Moonlight (2016)
Mahershala Ali stars in this film adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s semi-autobiographical play called In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Moonlight not only won the Oscar for Best Picture, but Ali also took home the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. The movie tells the story of Chiron, a young black man growing up in Miami and coming to terms with his sexuality. This film is important because of its nuanced portrayal of Black masculinity and for shedding light on the experiences of LGBTQIA+ people of color.
Director Barry Jenkins tells the story in three chapters, allowing the protagonist to discover the world in different phases and grow into a fully actualized man. In addition to sexual identity and race, the film deals with risky themes like class and socioeconomic status, drug abuse and violence.
1. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Directed by Ang Lee, this movie tells the story of a complex relationship between two cowboys, Ennis and Jack (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal). The film sparked widespread discussion and debate about LGBTQIA+ issues, both within and outside the film industry. It started many conversations about the representation of gay characters in mainstream media and the challenges faced by people who identify as LGBTQIA+.
Brokeback Mountain also broke new ground with its commercial success, allowing other LGBTQIA+ movies to be made because it proved there was a mainstream audience for these stories. The film won three Oscars: Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Musical Score.