Narrowing down the 15 best movies in any genre is tough, but for lesbian films you have to begin with a reductive question: What is a lesbian film? What, in fact, is a lesbian? (But that’s a different piece). Must the film focus primarily on a gay storyline, or can it feature strong lesbian characters doing something entirely different than just being lesbians? Is subtext enough? How much cinephile wrath will rain down on us for the absence of a certain recent Oscar nominee?
Ultimately, the best lesbian films honor the traditions of queer cinema in all of its glory: Strong women, high entertainment value, and bold visuals reign supreme. Too often, lesbian characters are either unattractive man-haters or used for titillation. These movies reclaim all of that; they’re the movies you will see played on a loop in the club, or at an underground rooftop movie night. Some won awards; others reached cult status long after their releases. It’s a list as colorful and varied as the queer community itself.
Without further ado, here are the 15 best lesbian films ever made:
Every filmmaker gets her crack at a coming-of-age story that mirrors their own, and those stories take on increasing significance when coming from rarely seen perspectives. Humming with the electricity of repressed sexuality finally breaking free, “Pariah” follows teenage Alike (Adepero Oduye) as she embraces her queerness and masculine gender expression. The camera practically aches as Alike changes out of her baseball hat and t-shirt on the train home to Brooklyn, donning a girly sweater in order to calm her parents’ suspicions (Kim Wayans and Charles Parnell). We melt alongside Alike as she lights up with the first tingles of love, seeing herself for the first time through the desiring eyes of Bina (Aasha Davis). Cinematographer Bradford Young (“Arrival”) films Alike’s first nights out at the club in rich, saturated colors. The movie pulses with the rhythm of first love and the cost of self-discovery.
A clever action parody that was much smarter than its mainstream marketing campaign understood, “D.E.B.S.” is like a queer “Charlie’s Angels” set at the school from “But I’m a Cheerleader,” with broader commercial appeal. A forbidden love story between a teen spy and an evil but hot international diamond thief, the movie features early performances by Jimmi Simpson (“Westworld”) and Jordana Brewster (“The Fast and the Furious”). Set at an underground government academy for teen super spies, the D.E.B.S. are chosen by their answers questions hidden in an SAT-like test. It’s stupidly fun, sweetly romantic, and a lot more subversive than it gets credit for.
For the gift of Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet together we must thank Peter Jackson, even if they don’t ride off into the sunset. Based on a true story of a notorious 1950s New Zealand murder case, Jackson understood something only previously known to lesbians: The juicy narrative potential of teen lesbian obsession gone horribly awry. In her debut, Lynskey is delightfully unhinged as Pauline Parker, an outcast who develops an intense friendship with the lovely and wealthy Juliet Hulme, an equally impressive young Kate Winslet. Fantasy — that necessity of queer adolescence that often lingers in adulthood — becomes increasingly real for the two friends, who retreat further into their shared delusions. Like all crazy lesbian relationships, it ends in tragedy.
When South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook chose as source material the lesbian historical fiction novel “Fingersmith,” by Welsh author Sarah Waters, it seemed a little out of left field. But changing the setting from Victorian England to Japanese-occupied Korea was a brilliant move, and one that infused this cold mystery about a con man and the two women he embroils in his plot with untold beauty. Chan-wook elevates the book’s tawdry elements to fetishistic extremes, turning out an erotic thriller every bit as gorgeous as it is sinister. Min-hee Kim is prim and alluring as Lady Hideko, never fully dropping the facade even as she falls for her spirited handmaiden, Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim), who is tasked with conning her out of her inheritance. As both women make do with the hand life has dealt them, they discover passion in the shared struggle.
In the great tradition of “9 to 5” or “Thelma & Louise,” but with three of the most popular black actresses of the time, “Set It Off” remains unrivaled today. Starring Vivica A. Fox, Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, and Kimberly Elise as four friends who become bank robbers, each for their own reasons. While lesbians claimed “Thelma & Louise” as their own from subtext alone, “Set It Off” gave audiences the Queen Latifah of their dreams. Cleo was a cocky, loud, swaggering butch. And she gets laid. Finally, a story about badass women fighting the system that kept them down, and no one could say anyone was reading too much into it by calling it queer. “Set It Off” killed at the box office, grossing $41 million on a budget of $9 million. As the success of “Hidden Figures” showed, audiences are clamoring for black female stories. This is one remake no one would question.
Click through for nos. five through 10, including the one that’s celebrating its 30th anniversary:
Courtesy of Berlinale
It’s about time for the father of queercore to realize lesbians are sexy, too. As yet unreleased, queers of all stripes are bound to squirm over “The Misandrists,” which played the Berlin Film Festival last year. When Isolde (Kita Updike), a young girl living on a lesbian separatist commune, comes across an injured dissident, she hides him in the basement, even though Big Mother (Susanne Schasse) and her militant cadre of feminist teachers have a strict policy of no boys allowed. Everything is a feast for the eyes: The girls actually look queer in a deliciously European way, dripping with sex appeal in their schoolgirl uniforms, and the teachers don outrageous nuns’ habits as disguises. Even as LaBruce glorifies this feminist utopia, as Isolde’s secrets are revealed, the film becomes a complex critique on essentialist views of gender. Anyone who has ever dreamed of joining a lesbian separatist cult is forced to accept “The Misandrists” as LaBruce’s personal gift, courtesy of the goddess of cinema.
Recently celebrating its 30th anniversary with a gorgeous 35mm screenings at the Museum of Modern Art, this groundbreaking classic was the first time lesbians got to sit in a movie theater, with popcorn, and see a little piece of themselves on the silver screen. Set in the 1950’s and in Reno, Nevada, it follows English professor Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) as she awaits a divorce and starts a new life. Buttoned up and fragile, Vivian is immediately drawn to firecracker Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau), a young sculptor who is not afraid to go after what she wants. “Desert Hearts” was the first lesbian movie that didn’t involve a love triangle with a man, or end in tragedy. With sweeping visuals and multiple complex female characters, the staying power of this historic film cannot be denied.
In 1996, there were only so many images of black women onscreen, not to mention black lesbians. Which is exactly why when Cheryl Dunye cast herself as a documentarian in her feature debut, this clever meta-theatrical device added another layer to what still would have been a charming micro-budget love story. Cheryl is a young, black lesbian living in Philadelphia who becomes obsessed with learning about a black actress from the 1930s, whom she dubs The Watermelon Woman. Based on Dunye’s experience hitting wall after wall while researching black actresses, she invented the character as a fantasy and reclamation. The oh-so-90s-it-hurts aesthetic extends to Cheryl’s plum job as a video store clerk, where she picks up Diana (Guinevere Turner) and takes dating advice from her hilarious butch buddy, Tamara (Valarie Walker). With cameos from Camille Paglia, Toshi Reagon, and Sarah Schulman, this movie has lesbian icons coming out of its… wherever.
The debut effort from “The Kids Are All Right” director traced a less controversial love story (no switching teams here), and still sparkles with that first-feature charm. Syd (Radha Mitchell) is a young art critic assigned to a big profile on notorious photographer Lucy Berliner (Ally Sheedy). Difficult and mysterious, Lucy is Syd’s window into her glamorous world of eccentric bohemian artists. That includes Lucy’s heroin-addicted German girlfriend, Greta (Patricia Clarkson, who steals every scene she’s in). Syd and Lucy find themselves equal to each other, and a dangerous affair begins. Using photography as both flirtation and cinematic device, “High Art” sometimes feels like a contemporary “Carol.” Of course, it was filmed nearly two decades before.
Before she was known as Jon Hamm’s partner, Jennifer Westfeldt was the plucky writer and star of this indie romantic comedy about a neurotic Jew who, like a bisexual Woody Allen, just can’t make up her mind. Westfeldt plays the titular, Jessica, who comes across a pre-Craigslist personal ad so perfectly written it leaves her speechless (a rarity for her). When the person on the other end turns out to be a woman named Helen, played by co-writer Heather Jeurgenson, Jessica embarks on the slowest-moving lesbian affair in history. It’s the kind of New York romance that rarely gets made anymore: There’s charming montages to Ella Fitzgerald’s version of “Manhattan,” a “where did she come from?” hilarious best friend (Jackie Hoffman), and a lovably overbearing Jewish mother (Tovah Feldshuh). Without spoiling the ending (if you haven’t seen it, you really should), there are valid reasons to wish “Kissing Jessica Stein” were a little bit gayer. But the film is a lot like its protagonist; so damn lovely, it’s no wonder everyone wants to kiss it.
Up next: The film that made number one!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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