40 Best LGBTQ Movies Everyone Should Watch
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Some are inspiring and thought-provoking, while others are romantic, funny, and just plain fun. But they all have one thing in common: You shouldn’t miss them.
The LGBTQ community has come a long way in the dark. For decades, when the lights went out in cinemas, movie screens were populated almost exclusively with heterosexual characters. When gay and lesbian characters showed up, it was usually in the form of broad stereotypes providing brief comic relief. There was no on-screen representation of those in the community as ordinary people or as people fighting desperately for equality, though that slowly started to change after the Stonewall Riots of 1969. But as the roles of LGBTQ characters expanded and they graduated from the sidelines into the mainframes, they often ended up being tortured or tragic, a trend that was heightened during the AIDS crisis of the ’80s and ’90s when, for many, to be a gay man meant being doomed to life in the shadows or under a cloud of death.
When Moonlight won the Best Picture Oscar in 2017, it signaled a new age for LGBTQ movies. In the aftermath of the surprise Oscar win, LGBTQ stories became more complex and representation more diverse. Now, gay characters pop up as leads in movies where their sexual orientation is a matter of fact, not plot, and Hollywood is adding to the conversation around LGBTQ’s meaning, with all its nuances. As refreshing as the advances of the past few years have been, some LGBTQ movies actually have been delivering the goods for at least a half-century. If you’re looking for a binge session during Pride Month or any time of year, these 40 flicks are a good place to start. And for more entertainment and inspiration, check out these LGBTQ books and LGBTQ quotes that will stay with you.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
This mid-’90s Australian road trip brought drag-queen culture into the mainstream 15 years before RuPaul’s Drag Race. The year after Priscilla became a sleeper hit, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar offered an American twist and a more diverse trio of drag queens (Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze, and John Leguizamo), but it was Priscilla that set the drag bar for years to come.
Working-class gay youths come together in South East London amid a backdrop of boozy, toxic masculinity. This sweet story about two high school boys falling in love for the first time gets extra credit for introducing a younger generation to the musical genius of Cass Elliott from The Mamas & The Papas, whose songs dominate the film’s soundtrack. Here are more movies with the best soundtracks.
Before Night Falls
This biopic about the late iconoclastic gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas made Spanish actor Javier Bardem a first-time Oscar nominee five years before Brokeback Mountain made LGBTQ movies safer for straight actors playing openly gay characters with sex lives. It may have contributed to what would become a controversial continuing trend (playing gay for pay and Oscar attention), but at the turn of the 21st century, it also amplified the struggles of a worthy, obscure literary talent.
The Sound of Music star Christopher Plummer won an Oscar for his performance in this moving drama about a widowed father who finds love again after coming out in his 70s. The inspirational story shows it’s never too late to live authentically and happily.
Gay is played for big laughs in this American remake of the 1978 French-Italian romp La Cage aux Folles that attracted massive stars (including Robin Williams and Gene Hackman) and made a killing at the box office. On the surface, it might appear to be loaded with gay stereotypes, but beneath the broad exterior beats a tender heart. It was directed by Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), so you know it delivers high quality.
Blue Is the Warmest Color
This critically beloved French-language film about young love blossoming between two lesbians received an unprecedented stamp of approval at the Cannes Film Festival the year it was released: It was the first entry to be awarded the Palm d’Or for both its director (Abdellatif Kechiche) and its lead actresses (Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos). The New York Observer called the three-hour romance “a major work of sexual awakening.”
The Boys in the Band
Skip Ryan Murphy’s 2020 remake for Netflix, and go straight to the original from 50 years earlier. The first film adaptation of Mart Crowley’s 1968 Off-Broadway play is notable for being one of the first American movies to revolve entirely around gay characters. It premiered in 1970 and was directed by William Friedkin, whose next two films would be The French Connection and The Exorcist and who would later direct 1980’s Cruising, a crime drama starring Al Pacino as an undercover cop hunting down a serial killer targeting gay men.
Boys Don’t Cry
The trauma of transgender abuse finally received suitable big-screen attention in this biographical film about Brandon Teena, a trans man living in Nebraska. Former Beverly Hills 90210 star Hillary Swank won an Oscar for her portrayal of Teena in this harrowing character study and social critique that the late film critic Roger Ebert called “Romeo and Juliet set in a Nebraska trailer park.”
Based on a 1997 short story by Annie Proulx, this Oscar-winning romance between two cowboys brought gay romantic love into the mainstream in a huge way. Among LGBTQ movies, it broke Hollywood barriers by casting two straight heartthrobs—Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal—as star-crossed gay lovers. Its iconic line, “I wish I knew how to quit you,” has since become one of the most famous movie quotes of all time.
It was praised by critics and received Oscar nominations for its leading ladies Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, so it’s not exactly underappreciated. Still, for all the plaudits, this lush, lovely period lesbian romance doesn’t get the credit it deserves for presenting such a dead-accurate depiction of the power balance in a queer relationship between two women at wildly different stages in life, a theme revisited by Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan in 2020’s Ammonite.
The Children’s Hour
Navigating lesbian themes was a tricky undertaking in the repressed environment of the early 1960s. But this revenge drama had the benefit of two of cinema’s all-time powerhouses, Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine, in the leading roles, as well as three-time Best Director Oscar winner William Wyler at the helm.
Call Me by Your Name
It doesn’t get more romantic than first love in picturesque Lombardo, Italy. Throw in an Oscar-nominated Timothée Chalamet as a gay teenager falling hard for Armie Hammer’s doctoral student, a dalliance with forbidden fruit, and, in a major supporting role, a peach, and you’ve got amore for the ages.
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The Danish Girl
The year Caitlyn Jenner came out as a trans woman, this Oscar-winning biopic about Einar Wegener, one of the first people to undergo gender-reassignment surgery, helped to further increase trans awareness and heighten visibility of the community. Despite criticism for its fictionalized account of Wegener’s story and the casting of cisgender actor Eddie Redmayne in the title role, the film was a crowd-pleaser that performed well at the box office.
In a 30th-anniversary reevaluation of the lesbian drama, Curve magazine perfectly summed up its significance: “Desert Hearts is possibly the first feature film with fully rounded female characters who are attracted to each other without that attraction being contested by a male.” According to Curve, it also “did for lesbians what Thelma & Louise did for feminists—without the car going off the cliff.” In other words, put the Kleenex away and just enjoy love as it blooms onscreen.
The Color Purple
One of the most beloved films of the ’80s, this Steven Spielberg drama has a lot going for it: a stellar cast, including Oscar nominees Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey, Pulitzer Prize-winning source material, and a timeless theme of love (in this case, between two women) as a haven from trauma. It was a huge box-office hit that earned 11 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Check out these other movies that were books first.
Dog Day Afternoon
Al Pacino portrays a neophyte crook who robs a bank in order to raise money for his lover’s gender-reassignment surgery. Based on a true story and nominated for six Oscars (including Best Actor for Pacino), it was one of the first major movies to feature a straight marquee star as an LGBTQ lead, back when it was still considered the kiss of career death.
Sexual politics propel this tale of two women vying for the attention of Queen Anne in 18th-century Britain. Aside from its critical acclaim and a surprise Oscar win for Olivia Colman as the temperamental royal, The Favourite is perhaps most significant for its matter-of-fact treatment of the sexual triangle at its center.
God’s Own Country
Before starring as Prince Charles in The Crown, future Golden Globe winner Josh O’Connor floored critics with his performance as a young gay sheep farmer in Yorkshire, England, who’s struggling with his sexuality and budding feelings for a new Romanian migrant laborer. The movie is a quiet meditation on the loneliness of being gay in a repressed, rural society that, though not as high-profile as Brokeback Mountain, is equally essential viewing.
Over the last several years, an ever-increasing number of high-profile LGBTQ movies, including Love, Simon and The Prom, have focused on the struggles of LGBTQ teens. This Irish drama, which explores friendship, repression, homophobia, acceptance, and team spirit among rugby players at an all-boys boarding school, might be the best of the bunch.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Written and directed by John Cameron Mitchell, who starred in it and based it on his own 1998 Off-Broadway musical, Hedwig brought a genderqueer main character to the big screen years before “genderqueer” became an LGBTQ buzzword. Despite its then-still-underground themes, the movie won a number of prestigious mainstream awards for Mitchell, including Best Directorial Debut from the National Board of Review and the New Generation Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. In 2014, the work finally graduated to the status of Broadway musical, eventually winning four Tonys, including Best Revival of a Musical.
Holding the Man
Unlike Philadelphia, the 1994 film that was primarily a showcase for Tom Hanks as a man dying of AIDS, this Australian drama isn’t just about one man’s burden. It focuses on the physical and psychological havoc AIDS wreaks on a couple in different stages of the illness. It’s based on the 1995 memoir by Timothy Conigrave, who died in 1994, two years after his partner and the year before his book was published.
The Kids Are All Right
Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play the moms of two teenagers whose happy home life is thrown off-balance when their long-ago anonymous sperm donor crashes the party. It’s a brutally honest look at the fluid and non-traditional families LGBTQ couples cultivate.
This 2002 drama explores the inner and outer lives of various LGBTQ characters dealing with repression, depression, and hopelessness across centuries. Most of the buzz focused on the prosthetic nose Oscar winner Nicole Kidman wore to play legendary author Virginia Woolf, but the film deserves extra credit for handling LGBTQ themes in such a poetic and mostly understated way.
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Four years before Tom Hanks delivered an Oscar-winning performance as a gay man dying of AIDS in Philadelphia, this relatively unsung drama laid bare the devastation the previous pandemic wreaked on the gay community. It was the first film dealing with the subject of AIDS to receive a wide theatrical release.
A married man falling in love with another man was considered scandalous and potentially career-decimating movie fare in the early ’80s. This unconventional (at the time) love triangle featuring Charlie’s Angels star Kate Jackson as the cheated-on spouse effectively derailed the big-screen careers of rising stars Michael Ontkean (Twin Peaks) and Harry Hamlin (L.A. Law), who played the secret lovers, but it still made history as the first studio movie to feature a passionate kiss between two men.
Before he made his mark as a floppy-haired rom-com superstar in the 1990s, newcomer and future Love Actually star Hugh Grant made his mark as a floppy-haired closeted gay man in this 1987 Merchant Ivory adaptation of the E.M. Forster novel. Its success proved that a literary gay romance set in repressed early 20th-century England was as worthy of a big-screen period piece as the entanglements of straight star-crossed aristocratic lovers.
It’s taken decades, but LGBTQ movies can finally feature gay leads whose sexual orientation isn’t central to the story. When an Anglo-Asian man (Crazy Rich Asian‘s Henry Golding) returns to Vietnam for the first time in decades and gets involved with a handsome American ex-pat, this 2019 film treats the romance as casually as if he’d fallen for the girl next door. That’s cinematic progress.
Like 2021’s Golden Globe-winning I Care a Lot, this 2001 neo-noir features a steamy lesbian relationship at its center, yet it’s about something else entirely. It made Naomi Watts a star, earned David Lynch his third Best Director Oscar nomination, and featured Jennifer Aniston’s future husband/ex-husband Justin Theroux in a main role. Oh, and blink and you won’t miss legendary dancer and actress Ann Miller in her final big-screen performance.
Sean Penn won his second Oscar for his portrayal of legendary gay San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk in this biopic directed by Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho). The flirtatious scene where he picks up his future boyfriend, played by James Franco, in a subway staircase perfectly captures the weak-in-the-knees blush of lust at first sight between two gay men. Milk is just one of the LGBTQ activists you’ll want to learn more about.
This critically beloved drama was groundbreaking not only for its depiction of gay Black love but for presenting complex, layered Black characters whose struggles don’t revolve around White people and racism. Against all conceivable odds, it triumphed over the conventional Hollywood romance La La Land to win the Best Picture Oscar in 2017.
My Beautiful Laundrette
In his third credited film, future three-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis played one-half of a cross-cultural romantic pair hoping to become London entrepreneurs. With its Pakistani-Britsh co-lead character (Omar, played by Gordon Warnecke, a British actor of Indo-Guyanese and German descent), Laundrette helped moved gay cinema away from being a strictly all-White affair. The British Film Institute ranked it at number 50 in its list of the Top 100 British films of the 20th century.
In one of his first major adult movie roles, former Third Rock from the Sun star Joseph Gordon-Levitt played a gay prostitute harboring a childhood secret. Directed by queer filmmaker Gregg Araki, whose gay-themed film The Living End was a 1992 Sundance hit, Mysterious Skin received an 85 percent rating on the film review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes.
My Own Private Idaho
What happens when two hustlers hit the road…and one of them suffers from narcolepsy, a sleep disorder that causes him to suddenly and randomly fall asleep? In this 1991 indie film, director Gus Van Sant and his stars River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves brilliantly negotiate the trials of wayward youth and a boy’s unrequited love for his straight soul mate.
This sweet tale of an unlikely bond between an ex-con and a gender-fluid young boy celebrates unconventional LGBTQ families and the ties that bind them. In his best movie performance since The Social Network, Justin Timberlake beautifully negotiates the bumpy terrain from disapproval to acceptance to love.
Paris Is Burning
Before there was Ryan Murphy’s Emmy-winning drama Pose, we had Paris. In addition to giving many viewers a first glimpse into urban queer culture, this landmark documentary about New York City’s underground ball scene pushed the Black and Latino gay community to the forefront for the first time.
Mariel Hemingway followed her Oscar-nominated turn in Woody Allen’s 1979 classic Manhattan by playing a track star in love with another woman in this drama directed by Robert Towne, the legendary screenwriter of landmark ’70s films like Chinatown and Shampoo. It wasn’t a huge hit, but it was one of the first major LGBTQ movies to dive into the intricacies of lesbian romance. It was also a precursor to 2017’s Battle of the Sexes, a drama starring Emma Stone as gay tennis legend Billie Jean King that, like Personal Best, goes all-in when portraying lesbian sexuality.
Unlike the previous year’s Oscar-winning Queen/Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, this fantastical take on Elton John’s story doesn’t straight-wash its subject’s sex life. Pair it with 1998’s Velvet Goldmine for a double-dip into the colorful history of queer rock and roll.
A Single Man
This gorgeous meditation on love and loss was directed by fashion designer Tom Ford and earned its star Colin Firth a Best Actor Oscar nomination. The 1960s set design gives Mad Men a run for its detailed retro accuracy, and as the title character’s best friend, Julianne Moore (the star of three movies on the list: The Hours, The Kids Are All Right, and this) has never looked lovelier. Prepare for a good cry.
A movie with transgender leads played by transgender actresses, this film set a new gold standard for casting LGBTQ movies with LGBTQ performers. According to Variety, Tangerine was the first time a studio and the producers behind a movie (Magnolia Pictures and Jay and Mark Duplass, respectively) launched an Oscar campaign for trans actresses—in this case, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, who played sex workers in the 2015 iPhone-shot comedy-drama.
The ever-quotable godfather of modern gays gets the big-screen treatment in this 1998 film, with Stephen Fry as iconic writer Oscar Wilde and Jude Law as the younger lover whose romance with Wilde ultimately brings about Wilde’s downfall. For a Wilde double bill, follow it with The Happy Prince, a 2018 biopic starring My Best Friend’s Wedding‘s Rupert Everett as Wilde that is something of an epilogue to the action in the older film. For some romantic musings from Wilde and many others, check out these love quotes that will make you weak in the knees.