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!
Pariah, Dee Rees (2011)
If you want a sucker-punch of a realistic, emotional coming out drama, look no further than Pariah, Dee Rees’ gorgeous, perfectly acted indie flick. The film follows Alike (Adepero Oduye), a high schooler in New York City exploring her masculine-presenting, lesbian identity while keeping her strict, conservative parents out of the loop. She faces some of the more typical tropes of the genre, including her first heartbreak—which hits harder and deeper thanks to Oduye’s remarkable, natural performance—and a subplot involving her remarkable poetic abilities, but the true heart of the film is Alike’s anxious home life and keenly expressed sense of place in a non-gentrified area of Brooklyn. Shot beautifully by Selma cinematographer Bradford Young, the movie is a whirl of neon pinks and purples, and muddy, shadowy interiors, sensory depictions of Alike’s simultaneous freedom of expression and imprisonment.
You won’t feel good at the end of Pariah, but you will feel happy for Alike. And thankful that a film like this exists to fill a massive gap in queer cinema: not only the representation of budding lesbian self-awareness, but also one expression of the African-American experience through a particular, queer lens.
The Way He Looks, Daniel Ribeiro (2014)
I caught this delightful film at Newfest, Lincoln Center’s annual LGBT Film Festival, where it won the audience award. That honor came as no surprise: there was a palpable air of excitement and satisfaction following the screening, and it’s no wonder. The Way He Looks, Brazil’s foreign language Oscar entry this year, is the story of a blind teenager, Leo (Ghilherme Lobo), his best friend Giovana (Tess Amorim), and the new kid on the block, Gabriel (Fabio Audi). The threesome become close, particularly Leo and Gabriel; jealousy arises in Giovana, Leo becomes more outgoing and frustrates/frightens his over-protective parents in the process, and Gabriel attracts more amorous attention than he bargained for.
In what amounts to a pseudo-coming out film, keenly attuned to the minds of its teenage protagonists rather than the adults around them, The Way He Looks shines bright as a unique and gentle exploration of sexual identity. It handles the experience of budding erotic interests in a wholly relatable way, as in a shower scene where Gabriel seems to feel guilty about his ability to objectify Leo despite his friend’s blindness. The film toys with Leo’s sensory experience many times, and though he is bullied at school, the good-natured quality of the three leads—and their unique bond—never allows for a pity party. Instead, the film stands as an empowering testament to the natural progressions of our desires.
Boys Don’t Cry, Kimberly Pierce (1999)
Remember how I said Pariah was the sucker-punch emotional drama for you? Well, in very different, far more visceral ways, Boys Don’t Cry occupies that same thematic space. Telling the mostly-true story of Brandon Teena (Hilary Swank, in her career-defining, Oscar-winning turn), a gender queer (possibly transgender) person who presents as a boy, this film loosely adapts the last few months of Teena’s life before being murdered by two men in small town Nebraska. Brandon is a difficult guy to pin down: charming but insecure, sweet-natured but a rule-breaker, his dichotomous nature largely growing out of hyped-up masculinity which surrounds him, he nonetheless catches the attention of Lana (a fabulous, heart-rending Chloe Sevigny). They strike up a relationship, much to the chagrin of Lana’s much older ex John Lotter (Peter Sarsgaard) and his best friend, Brendan Sexton (Tom Nissen), Brandon’s eventual murderers.
Director Kimberly Pierce imbues this low-budget indie with a resoundingly depressed sense of place; when Lana and Brandon’s idea of a romantic date is to sit on the hill overlooking the town’s manufacturing plant, you know there’s little hope for their relationship. They find love and happiness, but not before John begins to suspect that Brandon may be biologically female. The final third of the film is tense and difficult to watch, with a violent rape scene, an exquisitely and painfully acted police interrogation scene where a traumatized Brandon is given the third degree, and finally, the murder. Even knowing this, though, the film is a triumph of acting prowess, big, bold emotions, and realistic tragedy.
Edge of Seventeen, David Moreton (1998)
If you’re yearning for a 1980’s period gay teen romantic drama, look no further than Edge of Seventeen, a perfect morsel of feel-good, feel-bad cinema that strives for authenticity—even if it verges toward melodrama. The film follows Eric (Chris Stafford) as he attempts to get through high school in once piece while delving into the murky waters of his sexual orientation. With best friend Maggie (Tina Holmes) by his side, Eric works at an amusement park for the summer, befriending and eventually falling for his hunky bleach-blonde coworker Rod. Though they share a passionate night together, Rod soon falls off the radar, leaving Eric confused and depressed, confined within his newfound attraction to men and unable to let anyone know.
Luckily, a group of effeminate men—friends of Eric’s work boss, Angie (Lea Delaria, more recently seen as Boo on Orange is the New Black)—take Eric under their proverbial wing, introducing him to their small town’s gay nightlife scene. It doesn’t take long before Eric is having a great time meeting men, and his family begins to worry. The film’s climax leaves his future with several parties unresolved, a realistic and sad conclusion to an all-too-relatable story. Thankfully there are more than enough 80’s period touches, including a fabulous soundtrack, and heartfelt, humorous moments to make this a beautiful, satisfying story.
*Note: The trailer below has sound that is a second or so out of synch, but you get the idea.
Torch Song Trilogy, Paul Bogart (1988)
A trilogy of one-act plays transformed into a singular cinematic journey, Harvey Fierstein’s masterpiece is funny, sad, and heartfelt. The gravel-voiced dame stars as Arnold Beckoff, a drag queen who dreams of singing torch songs made famous by the world’s greatest divas. His three-part, chronological passage from the early 70’s to the early 80’s tells of his experience falling in and out of love multiple times with the same two men—including a very youthful Matthew Broderick in a sexy, sentimental role—and contending with his overbearing, not-quite-accepting Jewish mother, played to the hilt by Anne Bancroft. While the romantic drama feels realistic, and the film really does exist as a pre-AIDS testament to resilient, sexualized, and meaningful queer relationships, it is the fiery feuds between mother and son which make the movie most memorable. If it pushes you toward the edge of frustration and annoyance, Fierstein and Bancroft’s emotionally on-point dialogue is doing its job.
Honorable Mentions/Films That Have Been or Could Be On This List:
Lilting, Hong Khaou (2014)
Blue is the Warmest Color, Abdellatif Kechiche (2013)
XXY, Lucía Puenzo (2007)
A Single Man, Tom Ford (2009)
Bent, Sean Mathias (1997)
Another Gay Movie, Todd Stephens (2006)
Gods and Monsters, Bill Condon (1998)
What am I missing? Let me know in the comments below!