10 Essential LGBT Films Worth Celebrating

10 Essential LGBT Films Worth Celebrating
10 Essential LGBT Films Worth Celebrating

Still nursing a hangover from one of the most jubilant Pride weekends ever? With millions around the country, indeed around the world, rejoicing after Friday’s Supreme Court decision that the Constitution guarantees the right to same-sex marriage in all 50 states, it feels like we’re rolling into July 4th week with our hearts high, even if our heads are in some cases a little the worse for wear. So, what to watch that will capture the mood?

Well, here you go–our short, curated selection of 10 of our favorite, essential LGBT films. At some point in the future, we hope to go deep on tracing the history of Queer cinema, and on issuing a more definitive list of landmark LGBT movies, many of which have played a pivotal role in the Gay Rights movement. But honestly that feels like a job for another time (for something more in that realm check out the Reader’s Poll of the 25 Most Important LGBT Films Since Stonewall on our sister blog /bent) and right now we want to stick with the spirit of celebration, expansion and inclusivity. And so from extreme arthouse to auteur darling to mainstream crowdpleaser, here are ten films with LGBT themes that should swell your heart with Pride, no matter where on the sexuality spectrum you fall.

“Blue” (1993) 
One of the boldest, most experimental and most experimental filmmakers of the 1970s and 1980s of any kind, Derek Jarman was also relatively rare for the time in dealing openly with his sexuality in his work, and rarer still in addressing his health, after he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986. Much of Jarman’s output is a little too nihilistic to be called ‘celebratory’ as such, but though it’s a film suffused with sadness, his final picture, “Blue,” is also his most human, despite featuring no human beings, or really anything, on screen. The most avant-garde work of a career that was rarely concerned with accessibility, “Blue” was made near the end of Jarman’s life (and actually released four months after he passed), with his eyesight failing from AIDS-related complications. As such, the film consists of only one image, a single tone of blue, over which unfolds a heady, complex soundscape, with music overlapping with voices including Nigel Terry and regular Jarman collaborator Tilda Swinton. But the main force here is Jarman himself, his dry, uncompromising, darkly funny tones relating his illness, and pouring scorn on the fools he feels deserves it. Keeping the image the same (and watching “Blue” is a very different experience on film, the print’s imperfections giving new life) puts you in the filmmaker’s shoes, and the voice puts you in his head, Jarman delivering a last eulogy that’s never indulgent or sentimental, but all the more poignant for it. An extraordinary, and truly cinematic, experience. 

“Blue is the Warmest Color” (2013)
They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity but was ever a film less usefully served by controversy than Abdellatif Kechiche‘s Cannes winner? But the various accusations that swirled after it picked up its unprecedented three Palmes d’Or–such as the purported male gaze-iness of its sex scenes (which admittedly were not our favorite moments), and alleged on-set cruelty–could not eclipse the glimmering loveliness of this remarkable achievement overall. As a performance piece, it’s difficult to remember a single role more instantly pantheon than Adele Exarchopoulos‘ Adele, youthfully, tremulously in love with Lea Seydoux‘s also-wonderful Emma, and as an immersive, enveloping evocation of the agony and ecstasy of first love it has few parallels. But most of all, and what most puts the lie on those pre-release controversies, ‘Blue’ is an act of extraordinary empathy, that reminds us all over again of cinema’s profound power to allow us to hear, see and feel through someone else. The vital, vibrant and complete level of identification we are invited into is a rare and cherishable thing, and it makes the film, which runs at over three hours long, race along at the speed of a pounding heart. Just as the categorization of Adele’s sexuality is less the issue than a wholly relatable and believable account of its emergence, so the film is less about lesbianism than about love. And youth, and food, and that exquisite, precarious moment when you first fall for someone and you, quite rightly, believe that no one has ever felt this way before. 

READ MORE: Watch: The First International Trailer For Cannes Palme d’Or Winner ‘Blue Is The Warmest Color’

“Hedwig And The Angry Inch” (2001)
Though it’s now selling out Broadway and winning Tonys in its revived form, thanks in part to a revolving door of stars including Neil Patrick Harris, Andrew Rannells and Taye Diggs, John Cameron Mitchell’s musical (with songs by Stephen Trask) always felt like a misfit, and an unlikely candidate for big-screen translation, given that it’s about a transsexual East German rock star (a botched sex change operation leading to the ‘angry inch’ of the title) that leans heavily on Platonic philosophy. But the current mainstream success feels entirely deserved, given that the earlier film version is such a joyous, entertaining and moving tale. Written and directed by Mitchell, who also reprises the title role, it follows Hedwig from her youth as an East German gay man named Hansel, her romance and eventual operation after following in love with an American soldier, and her glam-rock career taking in a tempestuous romance with teen Michael Pitt, who she molds into a star only to be left behind. The polymath creator is unusually effective at opening up his work from the stage, with an anarchic, inventive and restless style at play, equal parts punk and cabaret: it’s rough around the edges, but proved an early hint of what a terrific filmmaker he was going to become, as well as immortalizing his astonishing performance for the ages. And though Mitchell’s playing to the back row with something big and broad, it’s as deeply moving as often it’s raucously funny. 

Love is Strange” (2014)
Filmmaker Ira Sachs had already returned to the LGBT-focus of his debut feature, “The Delta” with 2012’s terrific “Keep the Lights On,”  a mysterious, raw-nerve drama about an intense, painful gay relationship, in which one of the participants is closeted. His follow-up, “Love is Strange,” is almost that film’s mirror image: instead of the jagged passions and discontents of two young men in the early stages of a relationship, here he focuses on a comfortable, companionable love, smoothed by decades of togetherness to an almost unconscious, gentle compatibility. But in a way this makes the film even more unusual and remarkable, and boasting gloriously warm performances from John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as the couple who, after forty-odd years together decide to tie the knot and subsequently experience the unforeseen consequences of that decision, it’s a film that feels especially relevant after this sort of story, of late-life same-sex marriage has been dominating the news. Touching on the pitfalls of longtime commitment, and how difficult it can be to see where comfort crosses the line into complacency, the film is at its most moving when evoking the anguish of physical separation after so long together. But as painful as that separation is it results in a reaffirmation of the depth of their mutual feeling–making this a genuinely hopeful, heartswelling story for anyone who’s ever been in a long-term relationship. Wryly humorous, distinctly real and entirely understated, it’s a film in which you don’t just love the protagonists, you love their love.

READ MORE: Watch: ‘Love Is Strange’ John Lithgow & Alfred Molina In Trailer For Ira Sachs Drama

“My Beautiful Laundrette” (1985)
Long before Daniel Day-Lewis was the record-breaking three-time Best Actor Oscar-winning titan we know today, he played the ex-Fascist punk Johnny, who falls in love with Omar, a young British/Pakistani man, in Stephen Frears‘ “My Beautiful Laundrette”, scripted by Hanif Kureishi. Made in the mid-80s, with Thatcherism at its height, the film is heady blend of hot-potato controversies, tackling homophobia, racism, classism and economic disparity: a kind of social issues jackpot. So it’s impressive that in addition to negotiating this potential quagmire with grace, wit and just the right amount of fury (a lot down to Kureishi’s great screenplay), Frears, aided by Day-Lewis and Gordon Warnecke as Omar, really makes “Laundrette” primarily a love story in which the divides between Romeo and Romeo are manifold, and run much deeper than some silly old family quarrel. In fact the love that grows between Omar and his old school friend Johnny is a powerfully, upliftingly redemptive force even though acknowledging it jeopardizes everything else: their standing in their communities, their familial relationships, even their sense of themselves. The focus on the fine grain of the relationship means that as heated and as up-front as the film’s social concerns are, it never becomes a polemic, indeed the shading of the characters demands we engage with them as people and not as the skin color, social class or sexuality they represent. Thirty years on, the film feels both of its time, and timeless in its moving faith that love is not just worth fighting for, it’s worth not fighting for too.

“Paris Is Burning” (1990) 
An unlikely crossover hit at the time, one of the movies that helped to put Miramax on the map (to his credit, Harvey Weinstein was a big pioneer of bringing queer cinema to wider audiences) and one of the most important LGBT documentaries ever made, “Paris Is Burning,” directed by Jennie Livingston, peeks behind the curtain of “ball culture,” walk-offs between drag artists who belonged to a system of ‘houses’. Hitting just as Madonna‘s “Vogue” was helping to bring the world into the mainstream, it takes an expansive and in-depth look at the scene, deftly introducing wider audiences to a culture that must have been rather alien to many at the time. The performance scenes are vivid and energetic, capturing the buzz and appeal of the balls, but just as memorable is the way it draws the politics of the scenes (the rivalry between the different houses), and the personality of its figures, permanent outsiders who’ve found a scene where they finally fit in. One wishes that Livingston had made a follow-up, given some of the fascinating stories that took place after filming was completed (one prominent figure in the film, Dorian Corey, died in 1993, at which point a mummified body, dead for over 15 years, was found in her apartment), but it’s still a beautiful snapshot of a time, a place, and the people who lived there, and it remains a hugely interesting, entertaining and influential documentary (one that rightly picked up prizes from Sundance, Berlin and the New York Film Critics Circle). 

“Pride” (2014) 
Fitting into the tradition of underdog-British-dramedy that stretches from Ealing comedies to “The Full Monty” and “Brassed Off,” Matthew Warchus’ “Pride” was an unashamed crowd-pleaser, but a crowdpleaser where the term couldn’t be dismissed as a kind of backhanded compliment. Based, as a film like this often is, on a true story, it focuses on the Lesbians And Gays Support The Miners group, who formed in London in the 1980s after founder Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer) saw the parallels between the government’s oppression of his own kind and those of the striking miners. An unlikely alliance was struck, between the ragtag metropolitans gays and lesbians, and a group of Welsh miners and their families in Onllwyn, who initially treat their new ‘friends’ with suspicion, but soon grow to value their similarities more than their differences. Stephen Beresford’s script is terrific, neatly fitting almost unbelievable events into a brisk two hours, full of warmth and humor without trivializing the issues at hand (indeed, there’s a specter of HIV haunting the film). Warchus’s direction isn’t particularly interesting, but he moves the story along effectively, and more importantly gives his terrific ensemble cast—Dominic West, Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton are the biggest names, while Andrew Scott, Paddy Considine and Jess Gunning are the particular standouts. But what stands out most in the end is the message: nodding to Ken Loach in its unabashed socialism, the film shows that if we stand together rather than apart, there’s nothing we can’t do, and it’s almost unbearingly moving by the film’s soaring climax. 

READ MORE: Watch: Trailer And 3 Clips From ‘Pride’ Making Its North American Premier At TIFF

“Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” (1994)
With its reputation somewhat grown over with the moss of mainstream, or at least straight, acceptance, it’s easy to forget what a genuine treat ‘Priscilla’ is — silly, funny and surprisingly poignant. While hardly the first comedy to feature men cross-dressing, it was among the first to laugh with them, rather than at them, and so while the spectacular costumes, fish-out-of-water potential and the cattiness of the central trio (Guy Pearce‘s Adam/Felicia especially) is thoroughly mined for often campy one-liners, that never happens at the expense of the characters (in fact, they almost always “win”), and it never undermines their choices or their sexualities. Instead, especially in the person of Bernadette, played by Terence Stamp in perhaps one the greatest feats of totally counter-intuitive casting ever, the jaunty road movie is a journey of comic, tragic and bittersweet self discovery. Sure, it feels rose-tinted in its portrayal of drag as an irresistible force for unity and of even isolated communities as fundamentally decent, inclusive and accepting (aside from the occasional aberration), but if thinking too well of the world is the worst of its sins, then it’s a highly forgivable one. In fact, ‘Priscilla”s sunniness, tempered by the melancholy and conflict of Bernadette (Stamp) and Hugo Weaving as Tick/Mitzi, is maybe even part of its subversion: it’s a feelgood, lighthearted, garishly eyeshadowed comedy in which the familiar rhythms of the uplifting friendship-in-adversity, triumph-of-the-spirit story are co-opted for a gently progressive agenda. And the musical numbers are ace, “cock in a frock on a rock” and all.

“Velvet Goldmine” (1998) 
Perhaps the best-known and most widely acclaimed director to emerge from the New Queer Cinema movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s (although he’s never sat easily by being categorized exclusively as a gay filmmaker), Todd Haynes’s most vibrant and purely enjoyable look at LGBT culture came with “Velvet Goldmine,” his lavish look at the glam rock scene of the 1970s. Told mostly through flashback, with “Citizen Kane”-ish structure as gay journalist Christian Bale investigates the disappearance of rock star Brian Slade (a decidedly Bowie-esque figure, played by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), delving into his legend, his work and his relationships, including those with wife Toni Collette, and fellow rock star Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor, channeling Iggy Pop and Lou Reed). As with Haynes’ later, straighter Bob Dylan movie “I’m Not There,” the dizzying ‘Goldmine’ proves to be far more interesting than your average rock star movie by departing from reality: the film’s packed to the brim with ideas, opening with a scene of Oscar Wilde’s childhood, taking in an alternative-history version of New York in the 80s, and generally coming across as a wild fever dream that’s more a portrait of a time and place than of the people. As you might expect from a filmmaker who would have been in his teens when the scene was at its height, Haynes is also particularly incisive on the way that the fluidity of sexuality presented by the likes of Bowie, Pop and Marc Bolan could have an impact on a young man who worshiped those glam gods. 

Weekend” (2011)
A film of perfect sensitivity and insight that manages the astonishing trick of feeling utterly universal yet pinpoint-accurate to the very specific issues and histories of its two gay lead characters (brilliantly embodied by Tom Cullen and Chris New), Andrew Haigh‘s lovely “Weekend” is in many ways the poster child for a “gay movie” that should not be limited to a gay audience. The deeply moving story of what should be a straightforward one-night-stand that morphs into a tenderly life-changing weekend, its protagonists both face problems and challenges that relate to their sexuality–homophobia, self-censorship, intimacy issues. But its more overarching concern is how two strangers can affect one another indelibly, and how in the midst of the bustle and noise of life, all unexpectedly, love can happen. It may not be a lasting, forever-type love, perhaps it’s simply a moment of sudden, stunning connection, but that is not really Haigh’s concern. He seems more powerfully interested in the inner revolutions that an encounter of such mutual resonance can spark: revelations of the most profoundly personal kind. Formally too, “Weekend” is fascinating, with the grittily naturalistic photography, the improvised feel to the dialogue and the choppy editing all contributing to an intense intimacy. Here, as in this year’s sublime45 Years” Haigh shows himself an extraordinarily compassionate observer of relationships, summoning the massive, seismic undertow of emotion that the surface banalities of everyday life can conceal. A beautiful, peculiarly complete film.

Honorary Mentions: The above ten films only give a small taste of the richness and variety of LGBT cinema, and mostly lean, as we said, in a more celebratory direction, given we just had Pride weekend and the historic Supreme Court decision. but others we considered included Ang Lee’s seminal (but deeply heartbreaking) “Brokeback Mountain,” plus his earlier “The Wedding Banquet,”   early silent “Pandora’s Box,” Lisa Cholodenko’s Oscar-nominated “The Kids Are All Right,” 1989 AIDS drama “Longtime Companion” and Gus Van Sant’s moving biopic “Milk.” 

Some directors we featured had multiple contenders, like John Cameron Mitchell’s “Shortbus” and Ira Sachs’ “Keep The Lights On.” We also thought of Wong Kar-Wai’s “Happy Together,” Fassbinder’s “The Bitter Tears Of Petra Van Kant,” Arthur Hiller’s 1982 love-triangle drama “Making Love,” Harvey Fierstein’s adaptation of his acclaimed “Torch Song Trilogy” and Shirley Clarke’s outstanding documentary “Portrait Of Jason.” This is only the tip of the iceberg, though: let us know any others you think deserve a mention. 

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