5. “Stranger by the Lake”
In French director Alain Guiraudie’s perfect sensual thriller, a lakeside cruising beach becomes a site of untold pleasures and lurking danger. Expertly crafted around this single compelling setting, the film begins and ends with cars arriving in the parking lot. As Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) begins a friendship with an older man, he observes a younger one with a dark side, and the two stumble into strangers amongst the trees. Lazy summer days stretch untethered, as Guiraudie infuses the glorious boredom of laying in the sun with an indelible tension.
The film captures the erotic charge and potential danger of soliciting anonymous sex — an experience that, for the most part, is only available to gay men. The metaphor rankled some viewers for perpetuating the “gay sex equals death” trope, but “Stranger by the Lake” is far too good to deserve such criticism. If ever there were a case for ignoring the dos and don’ts of queer cinema, “Stranger by the Lake” is it. Giuraudie strikes a delicate balance as he breathes a languorous summer vibe into his concise erotic thriller. The movie gives the viewer that alluring feeling of witnessing something you’re not supposed to see. By drawing his audience into the dreamy European cruising scene, in all its sun-soaked gritty glory, Giuraudie makes the base voyeurism of all movie-watching into a divine narrative device. —JD
One of the few truly perfect films of the 21st Century, Céline Sciamma’s “Tomboy” is a succinct and unforgettable look at the purity and confusion of growing up. Crucially, it’s also one of the most forthright and empathetic movies we have about gender identity in the modern sense. Starring Zoé Héran as an androgynous-looking kid named Laure who’s given a blank slate on which to draw their own identity when their family moves to a new housing bloc, “Tomboy” needs only 82 minutes to offer a moving, organic, and remarkably humane narrative about the relationship between sex and gender, and also between gender and identity. Laure keeps their anatomy like a secret, but in doing so reveals volumes of truth regarding how little it matters. — DE
You’d have to be a stone not to be wonderstruck by Todd Haynes’ deeply felt romance. Built on brief glances and stolen kisses, the forbidden love that develops between Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara) characters is far ahead of its time — at least as far as ’50s America is concerned — even as the film itself has a timeless quality. The push-pull between what we desire and what is possible has rarely been explored with more nuance and sensitivity, even if the idea of creamed spinach and poached eggs is less appetizing than the movie as a whole. Pair it with two dry martinis and have yourself a good cry. —Michael Nordine
2. “Brokeback Mountain
Twelve years later, we still haven’t quit “Brokeback Mountain.” And while Heath Ledger’s untimely passing has made watching Ang Lee’s adaptation of the short story by Annie Proulx especially tragic, the movie is plenty sad on its own. “Brokeback Mountain” helped cement not only Ledger but also Jake Gyllenhaal (who likewise received an Oscar nod), Michelle Williams, and Anne Hathaway as dramatic actors in their own right, and we’ll continue reaping the benefits for a long time to come. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, so too does the knowledge that you aren’t allowed to have that which you most desire and that pursuing it could be the end of you — there’s a reason that so many of the best romances have unhappy endings. —MN
It’s impossible to overstate the significance of “Moonlight” — as a cinematic masterpiece, as inspiration to independent filmmakers like Barry Jenkins, but primarily for black gay men — who deserve so many more examples of profound art that mirrors their experience. (For now, the best queer film of the 21st century will have to do). “Moonlight” was about so much more than representation, but it landed like a shot of adrenaline into the awards season release schedule because there are far too many stories we’ve heard a million times and far too many left woefully unexplored. Adapted from a short play by Tarrell Alvin McRaney, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” Jenkins’ triptych film explores a young black boy’s identity at three crucial stages.
Jenkins has said he wasn’t interested in making a film about his Miami childhood, but McCraney’s play allowed him to tell the story at an emotional distance through the lens of queerness. “Moonlight” is emotionally wrought, finely tuned, and beautifully executed. Perhaps its biggest triumph is the extent to which Jenkins was able to poignantly render a queer story by placing himself inside another’s experience. With any luck, more filmmakers of all stripes can emulate this success story, and “Moonlight” portends good things for the future of queer cinema. —JD
Honorable mentions: “How to Survive a Plague,” “Love Is Strange,” “A Single Man,” “Beginners,” “Mysterious Skin,” and “The Foxy Merkins.”