Anyone who knows me, or has read this blog thoroughly, is aware of my affinity and special interest in queer cinema. As a gay man, the representation of LGBTQIAA, etc…individuals is important to me; as a cinephile, the way those representations are depicted onscreen is equally important. The film industry should continually strive for engaging and rounded portraits of individuals with a variety of sexual and gender identities, and thankfully we are moving toward such representation.
You likely already know of my love for Brokeback Mountain, and I’ve also mentioned my particular affinity for the British indie flick Weekend. For those reasons I have refrained from placing them on this ever-evolving list of my ten favorite queer films. I’ve also strived to showcase a variety of identities, genres, and international cinemas here, without sacrificing my personal tastes.
Unintentionally, and in keeping with the woeful under-representation of certain identities, the list is heavy on gay male narratives. Even more specifically, it is a list composed almost entirely of white narratives. The lack of diversity should be read less as a personal bias—though I’ve written about just how invigorating it can be to see “someone like me” onscreen, all the more reason there needs to be more variety on our screens—and more as an indication of the biases which persist in not only the filmmaking community, but also the queer community on the whole.
The list is not ranked in any particular order, and I hope that it will serve as a guide for those less initiated into this subset of films, or as a map toward new films for those who are already fans of queer cinema. As always, I encourage discussion about them, the subject, and your own favorites—feel free to comment and pass this list onto fellow film-lovers!
Mysterious Skin, Gregg Araki (2004)
Gregg Araki is known for pushing sexual boundaries in movies like The Living End and Kaboom!, but the results have been varied. If any film really gets it right it’s his instant classic, Mysterious Skin. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as ambiguously queer teenage prostitute Neil, the film focuses on the increasingly strange connection between him and another boy, Brian (played by Brady Corbet), whose suffered from blackouts and nose bleeds from a young age. The film is, in part, a mystery, as Brian attempts to resolve his strange behavior with its cause, what he believes was an alien abduction. More interesting is the thoughtful mirror Araki holds up to pedophilia and its varied impact on children of differing personalities, orientations, and natures. Though the themes are heavy, and the sexual content may be disturbing to some, the film’s conclusion offers hope for healing. The communion of these two boys, no matter how different they are, suggests that their shared experience could be the key to unlocking healthier, happier lives.
I Killed My Mother, Xavier Dolan (2009)
My first exposure to French-Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan—who has directed five films in as many years, and is currently 25 years-old—was his second effort, Heartbeats. While I appreciated the film stylistically, it felt stifled emotionally. So I looked back at his first film and realized he may have simply undergone enough on-screen therapy for a lifetime. His highly semi-autobiographical I Killed My Mother is a masterpiece of argument, thriving on the vicious love-hate relationship between Hubert (Dolan) and his mother, Chantale (the fabulous Anne Dorval). She raises him on her own in a cramped Quebec townhouse and he resists her every move with a string of targeted, vitriolic anger that feels all-too-real. Hubert also has a boyfriend, Antonin (Francois Arnaud), whose own liberal-minded mother outs Hubert to Chantale midway through the film, only one of the many reasons for their heated confrontations.
While the sometimes monotonous quality of their relationship dominates the beauty and simplicity of other aspects of the film, I Killed My Mother is impossible to ignore as a stunning debut from an audacious actor-director-writer. Dolan’s films are dream-like, heady, whirling messes of emotion, and they are wonderful.
Milk, Gus Van Sant (2008)
Though Gus Van Sant’s Milk is likely the most mainstream film on this list—it picked up very well-deserved Oscars for actor Sean Penn and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black—it wears its progressive gay heart on its sleeve. Powered by stellar acting, a witty and tragic script, and in-the-heart-of-it San Francisco cinematography, this biopic of one of America’s first openly gay politicians paints a humanist portrait of nearly every party involved in Harvey Milk’s ascent and consequent demise. You’ll be hard-pressed to deny Milk’s recruitment strategies as he tries and tries again to join the city council, aided by a motley crew of rag-tag advisers, strategists, and boyfriends. The familial vibe of their relationships—sexual and not—evokes a bygone era of queer politics and community engagement that’ll have you revved up and chanting. And though the end can be seen a mile away, even Milk’s killer, fellow councilman Dan White (played with equal parts cold-blood and warm heart by Josh Brolin) is given great material to work with. Milk will go down in history as one of the best biopics of all time because of its verve, Penn’s thrilling, spot-on portrayal, and the important accomplishments of its subject. A must-see.
Stranger by the Lake, Alain Guiraudie (2013)
This erotic thriller is stark in its naked examination of male-male sexuality and the complicated relationship between pleasure and danger. Taking place over a series of days at a lakeside cruising ground in an arid region of France, the film’s protagonist, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) grows keenly interested in Michel (Christophe Paou), a hunky, mustachioed swimmer. Michel is taken with another man—a pseudo boyfriend, if you will. However, only a couple days after he’s spotted him, Franck looks on as Michel, playfully and then aggressively, drowns the other man at dusk before swimming to shore. Unable to shake his lust for Michel, Franck continues to pursue him and they develop their own bond.
It’s a twisty film with relatively little dialogue, exquisitely photographed imagery, and some very intense, unsimulated gay sex. But the real draw is the subtle, on-going navigation of tricky, dangerous relationships: those between Franck and Michel, Franck and a fat, heterosexual man, Henri, who looks on from the shore all day long, and eventually a detective who has come to investigate the murder. Guiraudie passes no moral judgement on these men for engaging in unprotected sex, nor does he strive to make explicit sense of their risky behavior. Instead we are faced with the realistic, tangled up realities of the divide between infatuation, love, and mislaid trust.
*Note: This trailer contains brief images of nudity and sexual content.
Were the World Mine, Tom Gustafson (2008)
The most unabashedly silly film on this list, Were the World Mine is a joyous ode to Shakespeare’s comedy of lovers, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, through a very queer lens. Timothy (Tanner Cohen) attends an all-boys boarding school in a nondescript New England town. His two best friends know he is gay, but almost no one else—including his overbearing, eternally cash-strapped mom—realizes that he struggles with it everyday, particularly given the grief he receives from the jocks at school. When the kooky drama teacher decides that the boys will be performing the Bard’s dreamy masterpiece (with many of them taking on female roles), she casts Timothy as the mischievous Puck. He proceeds to create the play’s famous love potion which will make the receiver fall for whoever they see first. You can imagine what happens from there: Timothy goes on a potion-spree, spraying people all over town, and the boys in his cast (including the object of his desire) until almost everyone has “gone gay.”
Did I mention that the movie’s a musical? It’s got a somewhat repetitive, dream-like score and some poorly machinated Shakespearean lyrics, but it’s a musical all the same. The result, then, is a pop-rock moral fable about acceptance and self-realization, and, in my opinion, one of the best modern-day Shakespeare adaptations.
I will post my other five favorite queer films soon—for now, let me know your favorites in the comments below!