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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.”

10. “The Misandrists” (Bruce LaBruce, 2017)

the misandrists bruce labruce

“The Misandrists”

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.

9. “Desert Hearts” (Donna Deitch, 1986)

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.

8. “The Watermelon Woman” (Cheryl Dunye, 1996)

the watermelon woman cheryl dunye

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.

7. “High Art” (Lisa Cholodenko, 1998)

High art lesbian film cholodenko

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.

6. “Kissing Jessica Stein” (Dir: Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, written by Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Jeurgensen, 2001)

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!

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