Happy (early) Pride Month (in two days of course)! Though we’ll all already be plenty busy dodging our exes at parades and scrubbing glitter out of our clothes, this June offers LGBTQ people everywhere a chance to reflect on how far we’ve come. This year is an especially important one, as it marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, when an uprising at a gay club in New York City galvanized gay and transgender people across the country. What better time, then, for those introverts among us to take our Aperol spritzes indoors and consume ungodly portions of the ever-expanding gay cinematic canon?
LGBTQ people have been in cinema for decades, from the two dancing men in “The Dickson Experimental Sound Film” of 1894/1895 to Shirley MacLaine’s tortured Martha Dobie in landmark 1961 film “The Children’s Hour.” The most robust era of LGBTQ filmmaking came during the AIDS crisis of the ‘80s and ‘90s, when fear of gay and trans extinction compelled all manner of LGBTQ filmmakers to immortalize our history on celluloid. This movement, known as New Queer Cinema, produced such seminal works as “The Watermelon Woman,” “But I’m a Cheerleader,” “The Celluloid Closet,” “Boys Don’t Cry,” and “Paris Is Burning.”
But I thought I’d challenge myself to dig up the best gay and trans films of the 21st century, therefore nixing any of the above classics. LGBTQ cinema has changed drastically since the New Queer Cinema heyday. Still, as high-quality gay and trans stories become slightly more mainstream, the most robust LGBTQ filmmaking remains firmly on the festival circuit, with modern art films celebrating everything from lesbian telepathy to trans women swapping wigs. (The genre is not without its blind spots, though — I was hard-pressed to find a single film centering on trans men.)
These films are equal parts witty, dour, flamboyant, and subdued. Like their New Queer Cinema ancestors, some are controversial and messy, while others are more accessible. There’s camp, there’s suffering; there is, of course, peach-fucking.
Without further ado, here are the best LGBTQ films of the 21st century – so far. Update: And by the way, if you’re reading this today, whenver that may be, you’ll see perhaps the glaring omission of “Portrait of A Lady On Fire,” and that’s because this list was written in 2019 and Céline Sciamma‘s movie came out in 2020 and had not yet ascened to queer classic status. Regardless, let’s mention right up top as definitely one of the best LGBTQ films of this century. Read on.
“A Single Man”
Director: Tom Ford
Cast: Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Matthew Goode, Nicholas Hoult
Synopsis: Depressed college professor George wakes with the intent to kill himself that evening, in large part due to the untimely death of his life partner, Jim.
What You Need to Know: Tom Ford’s “A Single Man” is the kind of movie you’ll never forget, even if you’ve seen it just once. From its warm, orange embrace of Los Angeles (thanks to Eduard Grau‘s stunning cinematography) to its iconic 1960’s style, “A Single Man” literally teaches viewers to, as protagonist George says, “feel, rather than think.” Though the film somehow only scored a single Academy Award nomination (not even a Best Actress nod for Julianne Moore’s wayward eyeliner?!), it’s made an indelible mark on cinematic and gay history alike, offering a rare portrayal of gay life pre-Stonewall. You’ll sigh, you’ll cry, you’ll fall madly in love with Matthew Goode. If you’ve still never seen “A Single Man,” get hip to it now. But beware – this 2009 stunner came up in the golden age of gay sadness. Side effects may include a newfound love of mod aesthetics and soul-crushing ennui.
“A Fantastic Woman”
Director: Sebastián Lelio
Cast: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes
Synopsis: Marina, a transgender woman living in Santiago, Chile, must deal with the fallout from her older boyfriend’s untimely death.
What You Need to Know: Critics and fans alike breathed an enormous sigh of relief upon seeing this film, which finally tells a transgender woman’s narrative responsibly – not only is Marina’s story nuanced and moving, Marina is played by transgender actress Daniela Vega. After years of misrepresentation on screen, “A Fantastic Woman” represents something monumental to trans cinephiles, and it’s a gorgeous movie besides. As our own Jessica Kiang said in her review, “director Lelio returns in a different, semi-Hitchockian register, to give us another stunning, deeply involving portrait of a woman with the borderline superhuman capacity not to hate herself for who she is, no matter who else does.” The film calls into question viewers’ perceptions of transgender people and gives a transgender woman agency and narrative power in an extraordinary way. Marina’s story is sad, but she is not unduly traumatized or beaten down – she remains empathetic through and through. It’s no wonder this 2018 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner also took home prizes at the Berlin Film Festival and the Spirit Awards. Truly a landmark of modern LGBT cinema, “A Fantastic Woman” sets a precedent for all future transgender characters in cinema.
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Fele Martinez, Daniel Giménez Cacho
Synopsis: Two childhood friends still reeling from an incident with a Catholic priest at their boarding school are reunited, but all is not as it seems.
What You Need To Know: Already one of Almodóvar’s more underrated films, “Bad Education” features a plethora of melodramatic twists and turns that only the Spanish auteur could somehow keep emotionally grounded. Bernal is absolutely superb as a gay man masquerading as a transsexual drag queen (sort of) and Almodóvar’s choice to give the film a morally ambiguous ending is a masterstroke. It should be noted Almodóvar has said it took him a decade to fine-tune this intricate script to his liking. – Gregory Ellwood
Director: Eliza Hittman
Cast: Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein, Kate Hodge
Synopsis: During a sweltering Coney Island summer, macho stoner Frankie postures for his friends despite his private gay identity. When Frankie’s online trysts with other men and his real life collide, he’s forced to confront the confining nature of masculinity.
What You Need to Know: This assured sophomore feature from “It Felt Like Love” director Eliza Hittman is a tender and breathtaking account of young gay life. Though at times unfairly, unfavorably compared to “Moonlight,” “Beach Rats” uses a similarly deft hand to grapple with toxic masculinity and closeted existence. Sparkling visuals and multifaceted performances elevate this dour narrative from trite, woe-is-me homophobia to a work of open-hearted honesty. Though “Beach Rats” hardly swept the public away with its 2017 debut, taking home a very modest box office gross and a few festival awards (including Sundance’s Directing Award for Hittman), it makes an irreplaceable contribution to modern gay cinema. (That said, if someone wanted to throw Harris Dickinson a retroactive award for his jaw-dropping performance, I wouldn’t exactly be mad!) Both emulative and entirely unique, “Beach Rats” represents what empathetic, complex gay characters can be.
“Blue Is the Warmest Color”
Director: Abdellatif Kechiche [though I wish I could just redact his name]
Cast: Léa Seydoux, Adèle Exarchopoulos
Synopsis: This coming-of-age love story based on the eponymous graphic novel by Julie Maroh follows Adèle as she falls in love with Emma, discovering her sexuality and nascent selfhood in the process.
What You Need to Know: Perhaps the diciest addition to this list, “Blue Is the Warmest Color” is either the most beautiful or most bombastic lesbian film ever created, depending on who you ask. The 2013 Cannes jurors certainly belonged to the former camp, as they awarded ‘Blue’ with the festival’s coveted Palme d’Or, giving additional prizes to lead actresses Seydoux and Exarchopoulos in an unprecedented festival first. Though the film has drawn intense criticism because of its graphic, nigh unrealistic sex scenes and allegedly abusive production environment, it remains an important lesbian love story. In her Cannes review, our own Jessica Kiang wrote, “This is absolute cinema, absolute characterization, absolute storytelling, controlled and compassionate, and bursting with empathy and life.” She goes on: “Its theater-unfriendly length, along with the relative obscurity of the director, its language, explicit sex scenes and unavoidable ‘lesbian’ descriptor mean this is unlikely to get the exposure some of our other festival favorites are guaranteed.” For better or worse, she was wrong – the significance of ‘Blue’ reverberated throughout 2013 and 2014 and continues even today.
“BPM (Beats per Minute)”
Director: Robin Campillo
Cast: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois, Adèle Haenel, Antoine Reinartz
Synopsis: Set in the early 1990s, “BPM” chronicles the lives of various ACT UP Paris members as they take political action against the government and pharmaceutical companies during the AIDS crisis.
What You Need to Know: This epic 2017 drama frames a touching gay love story against the chaotic world of French AIDS activism, offering international viewers an invaluable window into the crisis. A competitor at Cannes and Toronto, “BPM” has heralded rave reviews, and even went on to become the highest-rated film of 2017 on French aggregator AlloCiné. It scored the Grand Prix at Cannes and a slew of César awards, including Best Original Screenplay and Best Film. “BPM” also scored high honors on many “Best of 2017” lists, including the coveted #21 spot here at The Playlist. In his review for The Playlist, Nikola Grozdanovic says, “The way [director Campillo] films the association of activists – whether inside furiously debating their strategy, at Gay Pride staging their defiance to stay silent, or dancing their hearts away in the club – a very strong and familial sense of togetherness transcends the screen.” Campillo’s own history with ACT UP Paris and gay identity are the true secret ingredients to this modern masterpiece, a film whose contribution to our current understanding of the AIDS crisis cannot be overstated.
Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Michelle Williams
Synopsis: Cowboys Jack and Ennis fall in love on a shared job, leaving them to cope with their suppressed desires and uncertain futures afterward.
What You Need to Know: If one gay movie from this list changed the entire course of 21st-century gay cinema, it is Ang Lee’s 2005 masterwork “Brokeback Mountain.” The unlikely 1963-1989 tale of two cowboys in love burst into American consciousness thanks to an unprecedented wide release from Focus Features and a public starving for thoughtful gay stories. The film’s eventual gross of $178.1 million dollars proves just how significant it was to viewers all over the world – but its American significance is particularly notable. A uniquely Western tale, ‘Brokeback’ created space for gay narratives in the first year of George W. Bush’s reelection, when gay marriage and “don’t ask, don’t tell” were particularly salient policy issues. With phenomenal and heartfelt performances from leads Gyllenhaal and Ledger, ‘Brokeback’ brought explicitly gay grief and romance to the forefront of American popular culture for the first time. If, like me, you were an unempathetic pea-brain-slash-adolescent during ‘Brokeback’s’ premiere, you might just know it by its memes (I wish I knew how to quit them!). Make no mistake, “Brokeback Mountain” is worth a serious watch – just don’t forget the tissues.