9 Essential LGBTQ Movies for the Curious Cinema Fan

Drew Dietsch

There are lots of LGBTQ movies out there. The world of film is getting better and better when it comes to presenting diverse options to audiences. But, if you’re just starting to explore the world of LGBTQ cinema, which films are must-sees? We’ve pulled together a list of movies that are excellent in quality and accessible to anyone just starting to check out this corner of film history.

Here are nine LQBTQ movies for the curious cinema fan.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Dog Day Afternoon is loosely based on an actual bank heist that took place in Brooklyn in 1972. While the film is fantastic on its own merits, it also has a groundbreaking plot element for the time of its release. It’s revealed that the lead bank robber, Sonny (Al Pacino), is robbing the bank in order to pay for his wife Leon’s (Chris Sarandon) sex reassignment surgery.

It’s a moment that was not considered safe or common during the film’s release. But, it ended up providing the most powerful scene in the film in which Sonny talks to Leon over the phone about why he’s doing what he’s doing. It’s a moving and human moment that helped a lot of audiences begin to normalize relationships involving transgender individuals. For that alone, it deserves a spot on this list.

Paris Is Burning (1990)

The drag community owes so much to this documentary about life in the African-American, Latino, gay, and transgender community in 1980s New York City. It examines the world of ball culture and just how much this celebration of extravagance is important to such an impoverished community. To see such an unfiltered and unapologetic look at a marginalized section of society was eye-opening for general audiences.

Paris Is Burning is also a huge inspiration for RuPaul’s Drag Race as tons of the lingo and references in the show come directly from this documentary. It’s an integral part of the culture and should be required viewing for anyone interested in the world of drag.

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

Inspired by Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry VMy Own Private Idaho follows Mike (River Phoenix) and Scott (Keanu Reeves) as they travel together in search of Mike’s birth mother. As the story progresses, we see what life is like for these two street hustlers and how aimless they both feel.

River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves give two of the best performances of their careers, and the scene where Mike reveals his love for Scott is one of the most honest portrayals of affection ever put to screen. This is an arty and mostly plotless movie that perfectly captures the emotions of its characters. It’s simplistic, sweet, and will stick with you long after the final scene ends.

The Birdcage (1996)

This updated version of the hysterical film La Cage aux Folles tells the story of an older gay couple, Armand (Robin Williams) and Albert (Nathan Lane), whose son Val announces that he’s going to get married to a young woman who happens to be the daughter of an ultraconservative senator. When both families get together, Armand and Albert decide to try and hide their lifestyle by pretending that Albert is Val’s uncle. Instead, Albert decides to dress up in drag and pretend to be Val’s mother.

It’s worth noting that The Birdcage is an over-the-top farce and there are definitely stereotypical portrayals that some might find to be misrepresentative. But, The Birdcage is a romp and a self-affirming one that has its heart in the right place. And it’s just plain funny. Definitely a good pick for anyone just starting to dive into LGBTQ movies.

Boys Don’t Cry (1999)

Boys Don’t Cry is an adaptation of the harrowing true story of Brandon Teena, a trans man looking for love in rural Nebraska. Brandon is portrayed by Hilary Swank in a bravura performance that is as powerful as it is heartbreaking. The movie doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of prejudice and the ending of Brandon’s story is a tragic reminder of just how hateful people can be when they don’t understand something and it makes them feel uncomfortable.

This isn’t an easy watch by any means, but Boys Don’t Cry is vital in realizing just how much negativity and abuse people in the LGBTQ community have to endure. We still have a lot of barriers to cross and this film is important proof that we have a long way to go.

But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)

When it comes to outrageous comedies, LGBTQ movies don’t have nearly as many standout entries as they should. But I’m a Cheerleader is easily one of the best. It centers around Megan (Natasha Lyonne), a high schooler who realizes that she’s actually attracted to women. Her parents send her to a conversion therapy camp in the hopes that she can be turned into a heterosexual. While there, she meets fellow lesbian Graham (Clea DuVall) and the two begin to fall in love.

But I’m a Cheerleader is a goofy comedy in the tradition of John Waters, but it also has an incredible amount of sincerity and positivity underneath its silly shenanigans. This is a riotously funny movie that works as a quirky teen comedy as well as an effective message about self-acceptance.

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

For many mainstream audiences, Brokeback Mountain was their first exposure to a film involving homosexual love. Adapted from the short story by Annie Proulx, the movie follows Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal), two sheepherders who become romantically involved. After their job is completed, they both go their separate ways and marry women. When they reconnect again later in life, they find that their love has not died and they must decide what to do next.

Brokeback Mountain is a phenomenal movie with stellar performances across the board and a tenderness to the romance that felt unheard of in a major Hollywood picture. It won numerous awards and helped pave the way for LGBTQ movies to be taken seriously as contenders in the prestige film market. Without Brokeback Mountain, we probably wouldn’t have films like Call Me by Your Name and Love, Simon.

Milk (2008)

Politician Harvey Milk is one of the most integral figures in the history of gay rights. He was the first openly gay person to be elected to political office in California, and his speeches often encouraged other homosexuals to be open about their sexuality. His attempts to help the gay community were monumental and his eventual assassination became a form of martyrdom that galvanized the gay rights movement.

Milk is an intimate and moving portrayal of Harvey Milk’s life, and Sean Penn’s portrayal of the historical figure is respectful and impacting. It’s necessary to understand the history of gay rights and Harvey Milk’s story is made incredibly accessible in this film. If you enjoy this, make sure to follow it up with the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk.

Carol (2015)

Carol revolves around two women, Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara), and their romantic entanglement during the morally constrictive era of 1950s America. The two meet at a Manhattan department store where Carol is searching for a Christmas present for her daughter. After Carol leaves her gloves on the department store counter, Therese mails them back to her and the two begin to strike up a friendship that eventually leads to a relationship.

Carol is an unflinching look at love and what it costs to follow your heart. The ending of the film is an ambiguous one but also gives a ray of hope that you can find the person you’re supposed to be with. It’s a touching story grounded by two lead actresses who are giving career-best performances.

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