“Moonlight.” “The Handmaiden.” “Carol.” The last few years have not only brought LGBTQ films and stories further into the mainstream, but queer films have dominated awards seasons and found commercial success. This has been a long time coming: The New Queer Cinema was a major influence on the indie film boom of the ’90s, and set the bar high for the many queer films to follow.
No longer limited by low budgets, films with gay and lesbian stories have flourished in the first two decades of the 21st century. There is something about the scrappy DIY aesthetic that will always be essentially queer — and the films below reflect a notable shift in the ambition and scope of contemporary queer films. While there may not be a new wave of queer filmmakers on par with the ’90s boom, in their place we got stories as complicated, sensual, soul-searching, and hilarious as the queer experience itself.
Here are the 20 best LGBT films of the 21st century.
20. “Far From Heaven”
Todd Haynes was already one of America’s greatest queer filmmakers when he made this evocative riff on Douglas Sirk melodramas, with Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid as suburban middle-class family in the ‘50s coming to grips with Quaid’s closeted sexuality and the way it bears down on the family’s future. Haynes had previously toyed with revitalizing classic film tropes in a queer context with “Poison,” but “Far From Heaven” marks a landmark shift for the director. The movie doesn’t just pay homage to classic melodramas — it uncovers their capacity to tap into the cracks in the American dream, revealing the grand tragedy of a repressive society lost in its fantasies until they’re forced to the surface by virtue of desires that refuse to stay down. It’s also a sign of things to come — with “Carol,” Haynes solidified his ability to bring a fresh perspective to gay identity in earlier periods of American history, but “Far From Heaven” was the first proof of his brilliant capacity to meditate on the past through a searing contemporary lens. —Eric Kohn
19. “The Duke of Burgundy”
Peter Strickland’s visually evocative tribute to ’70s European sexploitation films explores the sadomasochistic relationship between two lesbian entomologists. The film begins with a series of humiliating punishments that, due to a significant reveal early in the film, the viewer begins to see as being both lovingly tender as well as being hardcore kinky. The filmmaking itself is the key to unlocking the film’s eroticism. The lighting is sensuous, the camera charged, the upscale costuming titillating. Strickland understands the key to being sexy is mounting anticipation; with “Duke of Burgundy” he establishes himself as the Hitchcock of sexual tension. —Chris O’Falt
Director Dee Rees is poised to break out when “Mudbound” hits Netflix this fall, but it’s a wonder 2011’s “Pariah” didn’t get her here sooner. The lesbian director’s first feature is a gracefully rendered coming-of-age story that draws inspiration from her own. Humming with the electricity of repressed sexuality finally unbridled, “Pariah” follows teenage Alike (Adepero Oduye) on a journey towards queerness and masculine gender expression. We witness Alike quietly change 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 her as she lights up with the first tingles of love, seeing herself as desirable for the first time through the sparkling 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. “Pariah” was slightly ahead of its time, but as Rees’ star continues to rise, it may finally get its due. —Jude Dry
17. “Keep the Lights On”
One mark of a great film is a scene so raw and unexpected that it stays with you for years, and Ira Sachs’ films are filled with them. For his heartbreaking mid-career feature, the New York-based filmmaker drew from personal experience to tell a story of a man left shattered by his partner’s debilitating drug addiction. Delivering one of the most excruciating tortured love scenes ever put to film, as Erik (Thure Lindgardt) holds Paul’s (Zachary Booth) hand as he is pounded from behind by a stranger. Addiction runs rampant in some gay communities, but Sachs is far too nuanced a filmmaker to ever make an obvious “issue” film. Like his equally stunning “Love Is Strange,” which Sachs made directly after, “Keep the Lights On” is about the pain of romantic love and its inevitable disappointments. It’s not a fun story, but it’s a profoundly brave one. —JD
Jonathan Caouette edited this astonishing, extensive chronicle of his bumpy life story on his Mac using iMovie for basically no money and went on to receive Sundance acclaim. However, the story of its production isn’t nearly as exciting as the emotionally exhausting final product. Threading together footage from his childhood and troubled teen years, when he contended with his mother’s mental illness and his own emerging sexuality, Caouette merges an intoxicating music video aesthetic with the undulating currents of his complex personal life. The result is a powerful window into his survival against impossible odds, with the ultimate victory emerging from the existence of the movie itself. Years later, it remains a radical experiment in film form, both ahead of its time and timeless in its vision of a personal cinema more ubiquitous than ever today. —EK
On the next page: Classics from the great queer auteurs, a controversial stunner, and next year’s biggest gay film.