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The 15 Greatest Lesbian Movies of All Time, Ranked

From little indies to ...bigger indies, from Jamie Babbit to the siblings Wachowski, these are the best lesbian films ever made.

best lesbian movies of all time

Clockwise from top left: “Bound,” “But I’m a Cheerleader,” “The Watermelon Woman,” and “Set It Off.”

5. “Go Fish” (Rose Troche, 1994)

GO FISH, T. Wendy McMillan, Guinevere Turner, 1994, (c0 Samuel Goldwyn
Inspired by the success of Todd Haynes’ “Poison” and frustrated by lesbian films that looked nothing like their actual lesbian lives, Rose Troche and Guinevere Turner decided to take matters into their own hands by shooting a tiny little indie called “Go Fish” in 1994. Filmed in black and white in Chicago for an estimated $15,000, “Go Fish” went on to make roughly $2.4 million, proving indies could make a profit. Turner played Max, a headstrong writer who begins dating the older, quieter Ely (V.S. Brodie), despite initial reservations. Max’s friends, a jovial lesbian peanut gallery, offer unsolicited advice and plenty of laughs. No one dies, and no one comes out; a novelty for gay films at the time. “Go Fish” not only changed the game for queer cinema, but for indie film of all kinds.

4. “All Over Me” (Alex Sichel, 1997)

ALL OVER ME, Leisha Hailey, Alison Folland, 1997

Angst-ridden teenagers come in all shapes and predilections, a fact this prettily gritty coming-of-age film celebrates. Two years after Larry Clark’s controversial “Kids” came out, “All Over Me” properly queered up New York’s counterculture as seen through the eyes of Claude (Allison Folland), a gentle loner who follows her wild best friend, Ellen (Tara Subkoff), around like a sad puppy. She has a chance at breaking free when she meets pink-haired cutie Lucy (Leisha Hailey), but gets pulled back in when Ellen’s boyfriend drama becomes dire. By Hollywood standards, Claude’s extra baby fat made her an unconventional lead, which only adds to the film’s rebellious charm. Like “Desperately Seeking Susan” with kissing, or “Kids” without homophobia, “All Over Me” borrowed from the greats, and remains wholly original.

3. “Tomboy” (Céline Sciamma, 2007)

tomboy lesbian film

The great AIDS activist and playwright Larry Kramer often says gay people are smarter than other people. If that entirely subjective and thoroughly provocative statement has any merit, the reason would be childhood. Gay people become self-reflective early; you become acutely aware of the world around you by observing your place outside of it. There is not a single film that captures a more universal queer childhood experience than Céline Sciamma’s “Tomboy,” a quietly gorgeous portrait of a 10-year-old named Laure who moves to a new town and introduces herself as Mikael. It’s the kind of movie that’ll have you waiting on your ex’s doorstep just to talk about it. (True story, but not my own). “Tomboy” strikes the perfect balance between lighthearted and heartbreaking, between the joy of a fantasy realized and the harsh sting of reality. Though the film came out in 2011, it feels utterly timeless; the golden days of Laure’s summer could — and do — belong to anyone who recognizes themselves.

2. “Bound” (The Wachowskis, 1996)

bound

Before The Wachowskis became a worldwide sensation with “The Matrix,” and long before either came out as transgender, the directing duo showed early signs of queerness with “Bound.” A noir thriller starring Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly as ex-con Corky and femme fatale Violet, “Bound” gave the world the most sumptuous partners in crime that queer cinema has ever seen. Fresh out of the joint and set up with a gig as a handyman, Corky catches Violet’s eye while plugging a leak in her boyfriend’s apartment, a crooked mobster by the name of Caesar (the always excellent Joe Pantoliano). Violet soon learns Corky is great with all kinds of plumbing, and they begin a secret love affair. Desperate to run off together, they hatch a plan to steal millions from Caesar’s bosses and pin the blame on him.

Tilly uses her signature husky voice to hide her cleverness behind a ditzy persona, and Gershon proves her acting mettle by rocking that motorcycle jacket as well as any true leather dyke. Wearing its noir influences proudly on its sleeve, “Bound” is not only a classic lesbian film, but it’s also the only Wachowski-directed project firmly outside the sci-fi genre. That makes it a rare window into this iconic directing duo, and one that LGBT viewers have proudly embraced into the fold.

1. “But I’m a Cheerleader” (Jamie Babbit, 1999)

For the concept, the chemistry, and the camp, Jamie Babbit’s “But I’m a Cheerleader” takes the cake. Unapologetically queer in all senses of the word, (this is the kind of movie for which terms like “offbeat” and “quirky” were invented), this film makes low budget look cool. When it came out in 1999, it was the final gasp of the New Queer Cinema, a bridge between the indies that brought the first wave of gay stories to the screen and the post-Ellen era that paved the way for more commercial fare like “The L Word.” At its heart was a love story as sweet and sexy as an audience might hope for.

Set in the present day with a bold retro aesthetic, the movie stars a young Natasha Lyonne as Megan, an innocent cheerleader sent to a rehab for gay and lesbian teens. The patients wear pink and blue uniforms while learning about gender roles and preparing for straight-sex simulations. Of course, putting a bunch of gay kids in a house together is bound to create some sexual tension, and Megan‘s gay little heart stands no chance against the dark and brooding Graham (Clea Duvall). Babbit delivers the best of both worlds with a genuine and touching romance that blossoms amidst the wildly entertaining satire. Featuring an all-star cast that includes RuPaul, Melanie Lynskey, Michelle Williams, Cathy Moriarty (“Patti Cake$”), Eddie Cibrian, and brief appearances by Julie Delpy and Ione Skye, “But I’m a Cheerleader” has everything.

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