This list was updated on June 7, 2022 in celebration of this year’s Pride month. It was first published on August 25, 2017.
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 in unlikely places. This has been more than 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 minuscule 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 40 best LGBTQ films of the 21st century.
David Ehrlich, Kate Erbland, Eric Kohn, Michael Nordine, Tambay Obenson, Chris O’Falt, and Jamie Righetti contributed to this list.
40. “The Favourite”
A bold vision set within the grotesquely aristocratic spectacle of early 18th-century English royalty, “The Favourite” is a dark yet comedic tale of three dominant women competing for love and power, with reckless abandon. Director Yorgos Lanthimos creates an incredibly lively, though insular, universe, toying with real events to serve as support and motivation for the interiority and conflicts of the film’s characters. Unfolding like a bedroom farce, mostly within the walls of a Royal Palace cut off from the realities of the era’s expansive history, it’s a world ruled by strategic maneuvers, seductions, even pineapple eating and the occasional duck race.
It is through the tangled ties of a frail Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) with two other scheming and ambitious women — her lover and advisor Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), and Sarah’s indigent cousin turned status-seeking chambermaid Abigail (Emma Stone) — that the story plunges into a maelstrom of unscrupulous behavior and unpredictability, that epitomizes the expression “palace intrigue,” as a nation’s fate lies within the relations among women who’ve succumbed to the complications of love. A period tragicomedy with an unexpectedly modern feel, Lanthimos’ take on the British costume drama, is something wonderfully unique. —TO
As (actually funny) comedies become more and more rare, “Booksmart” arrived guns blazing to kick off a strong 2019 summer movie season. Starring the charismatic duo of Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever as best friends who played it safe in high school, “Booksmart” is basically the movie version of that rule-following friend who gets blackout drunk after her first Appletini. Following the two goody-goods’ roundabout journey to their first (and last) high school party, “Booksmart” is an ode to female friendship that isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty. Dever’s Amy has been out since sophomore year, she just hasn’t ever kissed a girl. Her all-too-relatable arc involves the heartache of realizing her tomboy crush might not be gay giving way to a surprise bathroom hook-up with a brooding emo cutie. Directed by Olivia Wilde, (lesbians won’t soon forget her bisexual heartbreaker turn in “The OC”), “Booksmart” wears its queerness as naturally as a valedictorian pin. —JD
38. “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. —CO
37. “Circus of Books”
It’s hard to think of a better premise for a documentary than a gay porn shop run by a straight Jewish couple, but throw into the mix that their daughter is the filmmaker and you have one of the most surprising films of the year. Filmmaker Rachel Mason follows in the footsteps of hybrid documentarian Kirsten Johnson, but throws in a heaping dose of Borscht belt humor, Jewish tradition, and gay history. Her loving account of her parents Barry and Karen Mason, and how they came to run one of LA’s most popular gay cruising spots, is the perfect blend of personal excavation and engaging storytelling. Karen emerges as the film’s comic lead and quintessential Jewish mother, haggling at the sex expo and questioning her daughter’s artistic choices in the same breath. It’s the unexpected confluence of these eclectic elements that make it such a singularly delightful film. —JD
36. “I Killed My Mother”
Xavier Dolan’s “I Killed My Mother” marked the emergence of an exciting new filmmaking talent. The Montreal actor, a mere 20 years old, displays a startlingly mature perspective on human behavior in his triple threat position as writer-director-star. He plays Hubert, a gay teen constantly at odds with his uptight single mother (Ann Dorval). Although described as a coming-out story when it first made waves at Cannes and beyond, the movie isn’t exclusively focused on Hubert’s sexuality. The title itself becomes a narrative device, toying with viewer expectations and suggesting that it could transform into matricidal horror at any moment.
Fortunately, “Mother” has more legitimate concerns to focus on. Hubert’s heated conversations with his well-intentioned mom contrasts with the relative tranquility he brings to his relationships with other people, including his easy-going boyfriend, Antonin (Francois Arnaud), whose own mother’s progressive, nonchalant attitude about her son’s dating life drives Hubert to develop further disdain for his situation at home. The stuff that makes us laugh also gives us pause. One night, Hubert takes speed and confesses his personal turmoil to his sympathetic parent. In a later scene, she unloads on the principal of his private school with a vulgar rant that’s both hilarious and brutally honest. The movie is touching, intense and always completely credible. Dolan would later increase his stylistic ambition with “Laurence Anyways,” “Mommy” and several other audacious filmmaking experiments in his dizzyingly prolific (yet still young) career — but “I Killed My Mother” is the greatest distillation of his ability to explore the disillusionment of young adulthood in frank, unnerving terms that clearly stem from a personal place. —EK