20. “Far From Heaven”
Todd Haynes was already one of America’s greatest queer filmmakers when he made this evocative riff on Douglas Sirk melodramas, with Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid as suburban middle-class family in the ‘50s coming to grips with Quaid’s closeted sexuality and the way it bears down on the family’s future. Haynes had previously toyed with revitalizing classic film tropes in a queer context with “Poison,” but “Far From Heaven” marks a landmark shift for the director. The movie doesn’t just pay homage to classic melodramas — it uncovers their capacity to tap into the cracks in the American dream, revealing the grand tragedy of a repressive society lost in its fantasies until they’re forced to the surface by virtue of desires that refuse to stay down. It’s also a sign of things to come — with “Carol,” Haynes solidified his ability to bring a fresh perspective to gay identity in earlier periods of American history, but “Far From Heaven” was the first proof of his brilliant capacity to meditate on the past through a searing contemporary lens.
19. “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.
Director Dee Rees is poised to break out when “Mudbound” hits Netflix this fall, but it’s a wonder 2011’s “Pariah” didn’t get her here sooner. The lesbian director’s first feature is a gracefully rendered coming-of-age story that draws inspiration from her own. Humming with the electricity of repressed sexuality finally unbridled, “Pariah” follows teenage Alike (Adepero Oduye) on a journey towards queerness and masculine gender expression. We witness Alike quietly change out of her baseball hat and t-shirt on the train home to Brooklyn, donning a girly sweater in order to calm her parents’ suspicions (Kim Wayans and Charles Parnell). We melt alongside her as she lights up with the first tingles of love, seeing herself as desirable for the first time through the sparkling eyes of Bina (Aasha Davis). Cinematographer Bradford Young (“Arrival”) films Alike’s first nights out at the club in rich, saturated colors. The movie pulses with the rhythm of first love and the cost of self-discovery. “Pariah” was slightly ahead of its time, but as Rees’ star continues to rise, it may finally get its due.
17. “Keep the Lights On”
One mark of a great film is a scene so raw and unexpected that it stays with you for years, and Ira Sachs’ films are filled with them. For his heartbreaking mid-career feature, the New York-based filmmaker drew from personal experience to tell a story of a man left shattered by his partner’s debilitating drug addiction. Delivering one of the most excruciating tortured love scenes ever put to film, as Erik (Thure Lindgardt) holds Paul’s (Zachary Booth) hand as he is pounded from behind by a stranger. Addiction runs rampant in some gay communities, but Sachs is far too nuanced a filmmaker to ever make an obvious “issue” film. Like his equally stunning “Love Is Strange,” which Sachs made directly after, “Keep the Lights On” is about the pain of romantic love and its inevitable disappointments. It’s not a fun story, but it’s a profoundly brave one.
Jonathan Caouette edited this astonishing, extensive chronicle of his bumpy life story on his Mac using iMovie for basically no money and went on to receive Sundance acclaim. However, the story of its production isn’t nearly as exciting as the emotionally exhausting final product. Threading together footage from his childhood and troubled teen years, when he contended with his mother’s mental illness and his own emerging sexuality, Caouette merges an intoxicating music video aesthetic with the undulating currents of his complex personal life. The result is a powerful window into his survival against impossible odds, with the ultimate victory emerging from the existence of the movie itself. Years later, it remains a radical experiment in film form, both ahead of its time and timeless in its vision of a personal cinema more ubiquitous than ever today.
Sean Penn disappears into the role of gay activist Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s 2008 Oscar winner, a full-force performance that ranks among his best and breathes deep, important respect into Milk’s complicated and remarkable life. While the film inevitably builds to Milk’s tragic assassination by Dan White (Josh Brolin), the stories and people that take us there play out with rich rewards. Milk’s big, wild life — and one that eventually delivered a huge impact, one of his consistent worries throughout the film, relatable to anyone — is given the vignette treatment, but Penn’s steady performance and a slew of strong supporting turns push it way above other biopic territory. James Franco is particularly moving as Harvey’s lover Scott Smith, while Diego Luna’s heartbreaking Jack Lira steals the screen in every scene. What’s most moving — and, admittedly, wrenching — is how timely the story of “Milk,” set mostly in the ’70s, still feels today. It’s an urgent call for action, both personal and political, and the message sticks long after the credits roll.
14. “I Killed My Mother”
13. “Blue Is the Warmest Color”
Abdellatif Kechiche’s rigorously erotic three-hour romance initially spawned Cannes walkouts before picking up the Palme d’Or, split three ways between Kechiche and his stars Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux, proof of the level of dedication all three of them poured into a wild (read: maybe even nightmarish) shoot. While “Blue” earned big buzz because of the obvious — its long-form sex scenes, alternately hot and totally exhausting — that only obscures the finer points that Kechiche and his ladies put on the ill-fated romance between Adele and Emma.
Hormonally speaking, it’s essential that the film opens when Exarchopoulos’ Adele is still slogging through high school, all burning desires and deep boredom, the perfect time for her to meet and fall obsessively in love with the slightly older Emma. There’s no love quite like the first (or one as confusing), and while Adele’s awakening isn’t just about sex, but also her sexuality, that her most formative of experiences comes at the hands of another woman is simply one facet of a highly relatable love story. Sure, audiences may still flock to the film for its unbridled sex sequences, but there’s no scene more telling than Adele, stuffing her sauce-stained face full of spaghetti, bursting with new desires that have to be redirected somewhere.
12. The Kids Are All Right
Ever a tough audience, Lisa Cholodenko’s witty family drama was divisive amongst lesbians, who resented the message behind the movie’s central love triangle. But it’s hard to criticize any movie where Annette Bening and Julianne Moore are this good — and playing lesbian partners, no less. Like many marriages, their neuroses and charms co-mingle to create a killer cocktail of witty bitterness and festering resentment. When their precocious teenagers upend their lives in search of their sperm donor, it throws a wrench into their precariously contented lives. Mark Ruffalo is perfectly cast as the free-spirited consummate bachelor, whose charm and allure become a little too seductive. But the marriage, like the kids, turns out all right, and that pesky thing called dramatic conflict (necessary to any story) is resolved — lesbian identity in tact. Funny, charming, and unafraid to dig into 21st century’s particularly narcissistic brand of ennui and discontentment, “The Kids Are All Right” will always be queer canon — whether persnickety lesbians like it or not.
11. “Call Me By Your Name”
At 89, James Ivory has delivered one of the best screenplays of his career, an adaptation of Andé Caiman’s novel directed by Luca Guadagnino with a startlingly degree of erotic intensity. The summer romance in rural Italy between teen Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and the strapping young scholar Oliver (Armie Hammer) takes place with an expressionistic quality worthy of ‘70s-era Bertolucci, and takes a classy approach to the subversive kick that such a taboo relationship entails. The movie never treats its characters’ desires as anything but an exciting rush of romantic possibilities (and one icky scene involving fruit) — at least until the summer comes to a close, and young Elio learns the hard way that he’s been living in a fantasy propelled by passion. Chalamet’s star-making performance is a risky maneuver that sets the stage for a promising career, and the character’s warmhearted father (Michael Stuhlberg) gives a closing monologue about the nature of love and yearning for the ages. This is a emotionally riveting coming-of-age story told with such remarkable honesty and lyricism that it exists out of time — it could have played to a rapt audience 40 years ago, and will almost certainly have the same effect 40 years hence.
10. “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”
One of the most iconic queer stories ever told, John Cameron Mitchell adapted his star-making off-Broadway musical effortlessly to the screen, giving a whole new generation their very own “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” The movie launched a varied and impressive filmmaking career for the quadruple threat for good reason. He plays the titular character, a role he reprised in a recent Broadway revival. Hedwig is a force onstage and screen: Soulful, provocative, funny, yearning, and deeply philosophical. Her journey is as much about gender and cultural identity as it is about heartache and hormone-fueled lust. Mitchell’s language may not jive with current norms around trans identity, but Hedwig was ahead of her time. Drawing from Plato, her lessons are evergreen. We could all use a many gendered oracle to teach us the origin of love.
9. “Mulholland Drive”
In love all great things must come to an end, but with David Lynch those ends are usually a lot darker and bloodier than usual. The plot of “Mulholland Drive” has been puzzled over since its release in 2001, with vignettes that recall “Pulp Fiction” interweaving with mysteries about identity and love, and blanketed by purposefully shaky timelines. While the steamy sex between Naomi Watts and Laura Harring might seem sudden, it is grounded in part by one of cinema’s most puzzling and gorgeous scenes, as Rebekah Del Rio sings until she literally drops, bringing both women to tears. “Mulholland Drive” might expose the seedy underbelly of Hollywood, but it also shows the escapism that love can provide, and the lengths we will go to keep that stability alive.
8. “The Handmaiden”
When South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook chose as source material the lesbian historical fiction novel “Fingersmith,” by Welsh author Sarah Waters, it seemed a little out of left field. But changing the setting from Victorian England to Japanese-occupied Korea was a brilliant move, and one that infused this cold mystery about a con man and the two women he seduces into his plot with untold beauty. Chan-wook elevates the book’s tawdry elements to fetishistic extremes, churning out an erotic thriller every bit as gorgeous as it is sinister. Min-hee Kim is prim and alluring as Lady Hideko, never fully dropping the facade even as she falls for her spirited handmaiden, Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim), who is tasked with conning her out of her inheritance. As both women make do with the hand life has dealt them, they discover passion in the shared struggle.
Sean Baker’s audacious farce following a day in the life of two trans girls working the streets of downtown Los Angeles is infinitely re-watchable, and required viewing if you somehow missed it in 2015. Baker earned major points for casting ACTUAL trans women in the lead, and it paid off. Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriquez saturate the film in such authentic flavor, it’s enough to make one swear off professional actors altogether. Shot entirely on iPhone (with the help of an anamorphic adapter), “Tangerine” made waves when it premiered at Sundance in 2015. It looks great — but it’s the raw intimacy Baker captured on camera that made “Tangerine” an instant queer classic.
Andrew Haigh’s breakout feature takes a tried-and-true romantic trope — the unexpected romance, writ over the course of a limited period of time — and turns it into one of the genre’s most stirring examples of the power of love in its most literally immediate forms. Centered on the shiftless Russell (Tom Cullen) and the alluring Glen (Chris New), what first functions as a spur-of-the-moment one-night stand soon blossoms into a full-blown love affair. Taking place over the course of that eponymous weekend, Haigh and his stars cram the full force of a life-changing romance into just a few short days, and “Weekend’ manages the near-impossible: charting a full relationship in the minimum of time. But that doesn’t dilute the power of the relationship, and Haigh still finds time (after time after time) to pay attention to the small shifts, the so-called “little things” that add up to big emotion. Few on-screen couples have the kind of chemistry that Cullen and New display without any artifice, and the believability and naturalism of their bond pushes the film to an even higher level. While “Weekend” functions just beautifully as a love story, Haigh doesn’t shy away from exploring the elements that fuel a closer bond between the men, including their very different statuses when it comes to who is aware of their sexual identity (and how that may impact a future that may or may not be possible).
5. “Stranger by the Lake”
In French director Alain Guiraudie’s perfect sensual thriller, a lakeside cruising beach becomes a site of untold pleasures and lurking danger. Expertly crafted around this single compelling setting, the film begins and ends with cars arriving in the parking lot. As Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) begins a friendship with an older man, he observes a younger one with a dark side, and the two stumble into strangers amongst the trees. Lazy summer days stretch untethered, as Guiraudie infuses the glorious boredom of laying in the sun with an indelible tension.
The film captures the erotic charge and potential danger of soliciting anonymous sex — an experience that, for the most part, is only available to gay men. The metaphor rankled some viewers for perpetuating the “gay sex equals death” trope, but “Stranger by the Lake” is far too good to deserve such criticism. If ever there were a case for ignoring the dos and don’ts of queer cinema, “Stranger by the Lake” is it. Giuraudie strikes a delicate balance as he breathes a languorous summer vibe into his concise erotic thriller. The movie gives the viewer that alluring feeling of witnessing something you’re not supposed to see. By drawing his audience into the dreamy European cruising scene, in all its sun-soaked gritty glory, Giuraudie makes the base voyeurism of all movie-watching into a divine narrative device.
One of the few truly perfect films of the 21st Century, Céline Sciamma’s “Tomboy” is a succinct and unforgettable look at the purity and confusion of growing up. Crucially, it’s also one of the most forthright and empathetic movies we have about gender identity in the modern sense. Starring Zoé Héran as an androgynous-looking kid named Laure who’s given a blank slate on which to draw their own identity when their family moves to a new housing bloc, “Tomboy” needs only 82 minutes to offer a moving, organic, and remarkably humane narrative about the relationship between sex and gender, and also between gender and identity. Laure keeps their anatomy like a secret, but in doing so reveals volumes of truth regarding how little it matters.
You’d have to be a stone not to be wonderstruck by Todd Haynes’ deeply felt romance. Built on brief glances and stolen kisses, the forbidden love that develops between Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara) characters is far ahead of its time — at least as far as ’50s America is concerned — even as the film itself has a timeless quality. The push-pull between what we desire and what is possible has rarely been explored with more nuance and sensitivity, even if the idea of creamed spinach and poached eggs is less appetizing than the movie as a whole. Pair it with two dry martinis and have yourself a good cry.
2. “Brokeback Mountain
Twelve years later, we still haven’t quit “Brokeback Mountain.” And while Heath Ledger’s untimely passing has made watching Ang Lee’s adaptation of the short story by Annie Proulx especially tragic, the movie is plenty sad on its own. “Brokeback Mountain” helped cement not only Ledger but also Jake Gyllenhaal (who likewise received an Oscar nod), Michelle Williams, and Anne Hathaway as dramatic actors in their own right, and we’ll continue reaping the benefits for a long time to come. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, so too does the knowledge that you aren’t allowed to have that which you most desire and that pursuing it could be the end of you — there’s a reason that so many of the best romances have unhappy endings.
It’s impossible to overstate the significance of “Moonlight” — as a cinematic masterpiece, as inspiration to independent filmmakers like Barry Jenkins, but primarily for black gay men — who deserve so many more examples of profound art that mirrors their experience. (For now, the best queer film of the 21st century will have to do). “Moonlight” was about so much more than representation, but it landed like a shot of adrenaline into the awards season release schedule because there are far too many stories we’ve heard a million times and far too many left woefully unexplored. Adapted from a short play by Tarrell Alvin McRaney, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” Jenkins’ triptych film explores a young black boy’s identity at three crucial stages.
Jenkins has said he wasn’t interested in making a film about his Miami childhood, but McCraney’s play allowed him to tell the story at an emotional distance through the lens of queerness. “Moonlight” is emotionally wrought, finely tuned, and beautifully executed. Perhaps its biggest triumph is the extent to which Jenkins was able to poignantly render a queer story by placing himself inside another’s experience. With any luck, more filmmakers of all stripes can emulate this success story, and “Moonlight” portends good things for the future of queer cinema.