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50 Essential LGBT Films

Since June is historically LGBT Pride Month, it’s worth taking a look at the ways in which cinema has depicted queers and trans people on screen in comedies, dramas, and documentaries. While this is no definitive list of the best films to feature LGBT characters, themes, or icons, it is a collection of titles worth seeing before marching outside with beads and a plastic cup in your hand to wave at the politicians, celebrities, and corporate reps who have taken to parading down the street with slogans and rainbows in tow. After the jump, take a look at a sampling of 50 essential films, and add your own favorites in the comments!

adventures of priscilla

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

Two drag queens and a trans woman romp through the Outback in this delightful film about drag culture down under. It’s both flamboyant and subtly introspective, and Terrance Stamp, Hugo Weaving, and Guy Pearce deliver nuanced performances as the film’s three queens.

all about my mother

All About My Mother

Pedro Almodovar’s Oscar-winning film follows Manuela, who tracks down the father of her recently deceased son, a man who is now living as a woman named Lola. Along the way she encounters a young nun (played by Penelope Cruz), who is pregnant with Lola’s child, and Agrado, a transgender prostitute. With Almodovar’s trademark use of melodrama, comedy, and pathos, All About My Mother is a touching and charming story of love, loss, and regret.

angels in america

Angels in America

Tony Kushner’s two-part epic play got the HBO movie treatment (complete with HBO Films regular Al Pacino as the menacing Roy Cohn). Mike Nichols assembled an impressive cast, including Emma Thompson, Meryl Streep, Mary Louise-Parker, Patrick Wilson, Justin Kirk, and Jeffrey Wright, playing an assembled party of Americans dealing with the AIDS crisis and the shared notion that the country is on the brink of political and emotional upheaval.

another country

Another Country

Rupert Everett and Colin Firth star in this historical drama about the repressive boarding-school culture and class system in 1930s England and the nature of how the personal and political intersect.

before night falls

Before Night Falls

Javier Bardem stars in this biopic about Reinaldo Arenas, an openly gay poet and novelist living in Havana, who searches for himself amid the political repression of the Cuban government.

birdcage

The Birdcage

Based on the classic French farce La Cage Aux Folles, Robin Williams and Nathan Lane star as the parents of a young man who brings home his fiancée — who happens to be the daughter of a conservative politician. To complicate matters, Lane stars as the leading lady of Williams’ drag revue, but decides to play housewife in order to keep his family together.

bound

Bound

The Wachowskis made their directorial debut with this erotic modern noir film starring Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon, known for its unabashed lesbian sex scenes choreographed by sex therapist and queer cinema critic Susie Bright.

boys don't cry

Boys Don’t Cry

Hilary Swank won an Oscar for her portrayal of Brandon Teena, a trans man who was raped, beaten, and murdered by his male friends when they discovered he was born female. Chloe Sevigney also got an Oscar nomination for her role as Teena’s girlfriend.

boys in the band

The Boys in the Band

William Friedkin’s groundbreaking adaptation of Mart Crowley’s off-Broadway play pits nine New York men against each other in a Greenwich Village apartment as they dance, fight, fall in and out of love, and examine who they are within a larger gay community on the cusp of a revolution.

brokeback mountain

Brokeback Mountain

Ang Lee’s romantic drama is probably the most successful film about gay men in Hollywood history. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal give top-notch performances as ranch hands who fall in love and carry on a secret decades-long relationship despite the unforgiving, bigoted world in which they live.

cat on a hot tin roof

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play saw a somewhat watered-down film adaptation, one that removed the overt references to homosexuality. But the subtext is still there: Paul Newman’s Brick is consumed with guilt and is distraught over the death of his best friend, Skipper, and he resents his fiery, sexy wife Maggie as a result.

The Celluloid Closet

This documentary, based on Vito Russo’s book of the same title, takes a look at the ways gays and lesbians have been depicted in motion pictures. Although somewhat out of date (the film was released in 1995, and the most recent film included is Philadelphia), it’s still relevant today when few Hollywood movies truly get the gay experience right on film.

children's hour

The Children’s Hour

This film adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s play stars Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine as two school teachers who are falsely accused of having a lesbian affair. The accusation not only destroys their careers and relationships — it also forces the pair to come to terms with the nature of their friendship.

chuck and buck

Chuck and Buck

This bizarre little movie written by Mike White follows man-child Buck (White) who tracks down his long-lost childhood buddy, Chuck (Chris Weitz), with whom Buck has been no-so-secretly in love. Now that Chuck has moved on and grown up, Buck must drop his obsession with his old friend and become an adult himself.

color purple

The Color Purple

Steven Spielberg directed this gorgeous adaptation of Alice Walker’s prize-winning novel. Not only does it depict a lesbian relationship, but the film defies traditional gender roles and paternalism.

cruising

Cruising

William Friedkin’s controversial film follows a policeman who goes undercover and immerses himself into the gay leather bar scene to catch a serial killer who is preying on gay men. It’s a film that’s both reviled and heralded as a classic, and it’s worth viewing as an example of Hollywood’s questionable treatment of the gay experience.

dog day afternoon

Dog Day Afternoon

Al Pacino got an Oscar nomination for his role as Sonny Wortzik, a man driven to bank robbery to pay for his partner’s gender reassignment surgery.

far from heaven

Far From Heaven

Todd Haynes’ melodrama follows the tradition of Douglas Sirk’s classic films, but with a twist: the couple at its center (played by Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid) are falling apart because of the husband’s secret gay experiences.

gayby

Gayby

Jonathan Lisecki’s charming comedy concerns Jenn and Matt, a pair of best friends who decide to put their lives into motion by reexamining their goals and conceiving a child.

grey gardens

Grey Gardens

The classic documentary directed by the Maysles followed the exploits of the reclusive Beales — Big Edie and Little Edie — former socialites and relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The film introduced the world to Little Edie, whose charm and vulnerability made her a gay icons for decades.

heavenly creatures

Heavenly Creatures

Before venturing into Middle Earth, director Peter Jackson directed the pitch-perfect pair of Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey as two teenage girls whose intense connection with each other (and their imagined fantasy world) culminates in the murder of Winslet’s character’s mother.

high art

High Art

Radha Mitchell plays Syd, a young assistant at a photography magazine who discovers her upstairs neighbor, Lucy (Ally Sheedy), is a famous photographer whose renowned career has stalled because of her heroin addiction and her tumultuous relationship with her German girlfriend, Greta (Patricia Clarkson). Syd persuades Lucy to work again, and their connection evolves into a sexual relationship.

how to survive a plague

How to Survive a Plague

David France’s award-winning documentary turns its lens on the early days of the AIDS epidemic and the efforts of radical activist group ACT UP as its members push for a formal response from the government and medical community.

the hunger

The Hunger

Susan Sarandon plays a sleep therapist who encounters a centuries-old vampire (the perpetually gorgeous Catherine Deneuve). Naturally, the two begin a deeply dramatic — and ultimately destructive — relationship. Also: David Bowie.

jeffrey

Jeffrey

Steven Weber and Patrick Stewart star in this comedy about a gay man treading water in the New York dating pool in the years following the AIDS epidemic. The film features hilarious cameos by a handful of actors, particularly Sigourney Weaver in a scene-stealing role.

keep the lights on

Keep the Lights On

Ira Sachs’ autobiographical film follows a documentary filmmaker named Erik who meets Paul, a successful lawyer, through a random encounter. The two fall in love, but their rocky relationship spins out of control as Paul deals with a hurtful drug and sex addiction.

lianna

Lianna

John Sayles’ 1983 drama centers around the title character, a bored New Jersey housewife who becomes infatuated with a female college professor and begins a sexual relationship with her. When the intensity of her feelings are not met, Lianna goes out on her own, and the film examines the fresh identity she embraces.

longtime companion

Longtime Companion

This ensemble film follows a group of friends dealing with the dangers and consequences of the AIDS epidemic in New York during the 1980s. Released in 1989, it was the first film about the disease to receive a wide release.

maurice

Maurice

This Merchant-Ivory production of E.M. Forster’s posthumous, autobiographical novel is a straightforward love story between men as they age from adolescence to adulthood.

my beautiful laundrette

My Beautiful Laundrette

Stephen Frears’ comedic drama is centered around the relationship between the Omar, a Pakistani living in London, and his street-punk lover Johnny amid the policial and economic turmoil of Margaret Thatcher’s administration.

my own private idaho

My Own Private Idaho

Gus Van Sant’s breakthrough film is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V, and stars River Phoenix as a young gay hustler and Keanu Reeves as his best friend and unrequited love.

opposite-of-sex

The Opposite of Sex

Don Roos’ biting and politically incorrect comedy stars Christina Ricci as a runaway pregnant teenager who finds refuge with her older half-brother — that is, before she seduces his boyfriend.

pariah

Pariah

Dee Rees’ Sundance hit stars Adepero Oduye as an African-American teenager who embraces her identity as a lesbian despite her restrictive household and domineering, intolerant mother.

paris is burning

Paris Is Burning

This landmark documentary about African-American and Latino drag culture has inspired mainstream popular culture in the two decades since its release, from Madonna’s “Vogue” to RuPaul’s Drag Race.

parting glances

Parting Glances

Bill Sherwood’s 1986 comedic drama centers around a group of gay men living in New York at the height of the Reagan era and the AIDS crisis. It was one of the first films to depict the growing epidemic affecting the urban gay population.

MSDPEBE EC011

Personal Best

Following a group of female athletes as they attempt to qualify for the 1980 Olympic games, Personal Best examines the relationship between a lesbian (real-life track star Patrice Donnelly) and her bisexual teammate (Mariel Hemingway).

philadelphia

Philadelphia

Perhaps the most important mainstream gay film of the ’90s, the Oscar-winning performance from Tom Hanks made its audience confront the damages of the AIDS crisis by putting a much-beloved and respected actor at its center.

rebel without a cause

Rebel Without a Cause

The subtext is pretty clear to modern audiences: Sal Mineo’s Plato is incredibly fond of and devoted to James Dean’s Jim Stark. Mineo (one of the first Hollywood actors to come out publicly as gay) even commented that he played the first gay teenager on film.

rope

Rope

The homoeroticism on display in Alfred Hitchcock’s fictionalized account of the Leopold and Loeb murders is prettttty thick, with actors John Dall and Farley Granger practically on top of each other while they host a dinner party with an unassuming dead body hidden under the table.

rules of attraction

The Rules of Attraction

Bret Easton Ellis’ novel of the madcap debauchery on display at a New England liberal arts college gets the big-screen treatment, featuring a handful of late ’90s / early ’00s teen icons. Ian Somerhalder gives the best performance of the bunch as the gay Paul, who falls unrequitedly for drug dealer / general scum bag Sean Bateman.

shortbus

Shortbus

John Cameron Mitchell’s follow-up to the film adaptation of his musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a thoughtful explorations of relationships and sex in omnisexual 21st-century New York. Sure, the sex is real, but presumably so are the emotions.

single man

A Single Man

Tom Ford’s stylish period drama follows a single day in the life of George Falconer (Colin Firth), who grieves the death of his long-time partner .

Small Town Gay Bar

Malcolm Ingram’s excellent documentary examines the places where gays and lesbians find each other in the bigoted rural areas of the American South, proving that nightlife is as important to those in small towns as it is in more progressive urban environments.

strangers on a train

Strangers on a Train

Hitchcock explored similar themes of homoeroticism and murder in this film, released two years after Rope. Based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel, Strangers follows Guy Haines, a famous tennis player, and Bruno Anthony, an obsessive sociopath who offers to murder Guy’s unfaithful wife. After the murder, Haines capitalizes on the secret “arrangement” to assert himself deeper and deeper into Guy’s life.

sunday bloody sunday

Sunday Bloody Sunday

John Schlesinger’s tale of the free-spirited bisexual artist Bob (Murray Head) and his affairs with both a homosexual doctor (Peter Finch) and a young woman (Glenda Jackson) nabbed four Oscar nominations, including acting nods for Find and Jackson.

talented mr ripley

The Talented Mr. Ripley

Another Patricia Highsmith tale of suspense and homoerotic obsession is given the cinematic treatment, this time in a lush adaptation by Anthony Minghella. Matt Damon stars as the listless title character, who becomes obsessed with the wealthy Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), whom he murders and whose identity Ripley ultimately assumes.

times of harvey milk

The Times of Harvey Milk

While Gus Van Sant’s biopic brought much acclaim to its star, Sean Penn, this documentary is an indelible (and ultimately more honest) portrayal of the gay activist who became the first openly gay person ever to be elected to a public office.

tongues untied

Tongues Untied

Part documentary, part narrative, Tongues Untied examines the lives of African-American men at the height of the AIDS epidemic and takes a look at the prejudices against blacks within the gay rights movement.

watermelon woman

The Watermelon Woman

Cheryl Dunye directs and stars in this film, in which a documentary filmmaker researches a 1940s African-American actress known only as “the Watermelon Woman” for her role in exploitative minstrel films. Meanwhile, she begins a relationship with a white woman that allows her to examine the ways in which sexuality and race intersect.

weekend

Weekend

This crowd-pleasing British drama follows two men who spend a weekend together after meeting each other at a bar. The two find themselves growing close, slowly revealing pieces of their personality to each other that they have kept from others.

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