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:
15. “Pariah” (Dee Rees, 2011)
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.
14. “D.E.B.S.” (Angela Robinson, 2004)
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.
13. “Heavenly Creatures” (Peter Jackson, 1994)
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.
12. “The Handmaiden” (Park Chan-wook, 2016)
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.
11. “Set It Off” (F. Gary Gray, 1996)
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: