It's 2019, and LGBTQ individuals are finding success on both sides of the camera. During the New Queer Cinema movement of the '90s, gay directors like Todd Haynes, Jennie Livingston, and Gregg Araki rose to fame. Haynes continues his success with films like “Carol,” which tells a lesbian love story from the '50s. Araki, who made films like “Mysterious Skin” and “Kaboom,” now has a queer-themed show on Starz called “Now Apocalypse.”
Other LGBTQ pioneers include the Wachowskis, a directing duo composed of two transgender sisters, who cast transgender actress Jamie Clayton on their Netflix show “Sense8.” (Clayton's character is also transgender.) Director Justin Simien, who is gay and black, explored race and sexual identity in his 2014 film “Dear White People.” A TV adaptation of the film debuted on Netflix in 2017, and a third season is already in the works.
While more members of the LGBTQ community appear on screen, representation is far from the norm. In 2017, GLAAD found LGBTQ inclusivity to be at about 12.8% in mainstream films. Hollywood also taps big stars who don't identify as LGBTQ to play queer, gay, or lesbian characters. In 2005, "Brokeback Mountain" was deemed groundbreaking for depicting a love story between two men, but straight actors Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal played the roles. In the 2010 film “The Kids are Alright,” straight actresses Annette Bening and Julianne Moore portrayed a middle-aged lesbian couple. In 2018, Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone played bisexual and lesbian characters in “The Favourite.” Many people believe that casting straight actors to play queer roles undermines the very nature of queer cinema.
Some films deserve recognition for their importance to the LGBTQ community, even though they weren't directed by someone who shares that identity. In 1986, writer-director Wong Kar-wai presented the love story of two men, Lai (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and Ho (Leslie Cheung), in “Happy Together.” Cheung, who died from suicide in 2003, came out shortly before the movie's release—when it was still illegal for men in Hong Kong to have sex with each other. In 2015, Sean Baker's film “Tangerine” focused on the black and Latino transgender community. It stars transgender actresses Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor. Many felt the two actresses should have gotten Oscar nominations.
To spotlight films with LGBTQ directors, cast, and characters, Stacker used data from Indiewire, BFI, and film reviews to compile a list of 20 noteworthy films. Click through to see which movies to check out.
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The groundbreaking 1996 romantic-comedy “The Watermelon Woman” tells the story of a black lesbian filmmaker in search of a black actress from the 1930s. It was reportedly the first feature film ever directed by a black lesbian. Cheryl Dunye wrote, directed, and starred in the film alongside lesbian actress Guinevere Turner. While some in Congress criticized the National Endowment of the Arts funding for the film—which accounted for about 10% of the budget—the Chicago Tribune said it was “gutsy” and “quite smart, remarkably sophisticated filmmaking.” When asked about the film 20 years after its debut, Dunye said it remains relevant because “people still don't know what a black queer person looks like, unless it's a farcical, drag queeny, commercial way. That's not all that we are. We're a varied, beautiful 'rainbow' of identities."
Kitsch fan and cult icon John Waters, who is gay, wrote and directed “Hairspray.” The 1988 campy film—now a Tony-winning Broadway musical—tells the story of a plus-sized teenager (Ricki Lake) who lands a spot on a TV dance show in the ‘60s. Drag legend Divine, who died the same year of the film's release, stars as Lake's mother but toyed with gender roles by also appearing as a male character. Critics at the time said the film worked because Waters, “reveals the most exquisite taste imaginable as he uses humor to attack racism and presents a hefty heroine in such a way that you laugh with her and not at her.”
Lesbian director Jamie Babbit takes a comedic look at conversion camps in the cult classic “But I'm A Cheerleader.” Released in 1999, Natasha Lyonne stars as a cheerleader whose religious parents send her to a fictional conversion camp to try to change her sexual identity. Though Lyonne is unsure about her sexuality at first, she realizes she is a lesbian when she meets fellow camper Graham, played by Clea Duvall. The film resonated with LGBTQ audiences at the time—and is now considered a cult classic—but it wasn't a mainstream hit when it came out. Duvall has played a variety of lesbian characters throughout her career, but recently directed a film (“The Intervention”) where she plays a queer character “in a way that is the gay that I feel like I am.”
Canadian director Patricia Rozema, who is a lesbian, tells the story of two sisters trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world in “Into the Forest." The 2015 film stars Evan Rachel Wood and Ellen Page—who critics say don't really look like sisters—as Nell and Eva, who struggle to stay safe in a remote town with no power. While the film doesn't take on LGBTQ subject matter, it does feature an LGBTQ cast. Page is married to dancer Emma Porter, and Wood identifies as bisexual.
In 1970, John Waters released his dark comedy “Multiple Maniacs” with the Dreamlanders, the cast that appears in many of his movies. His second feature film was a “demented comic opera of rage” in which a traveling troupe murders their audience after shows. Their leader, Lady Divine, goes on a revenge-seeking rampage after she finds out her lover is cheating on her. The black-and-white movie features cannibalism and ends with an infamous sex scene involving a lobster. Critics thought it was disgusting, but funny. Waters described it as a “punk rock film” that appealed to an audience of “angry hippies with a sense of humor.”
“Go Fish,” a film written and directed by lesbian director Rose Troche, stars "Watermelon Woman" actress Guinevere Turner. The comedy shows the love lives of young lesbians living in Chicago. Rolling Stone said the film was revolutionary because it showed the normalness of people in the LGBTQ community: “Most gay films deal with the trauma of coming out. The characters in this lesbian dating game are happily adjusted, if sometimes mismatched.”
Lesbian director Kimberly Peirce tells the heartbreaking true story of Brandon Teena, a transgender man who was raped and murdered in 1993. The intimate and tragic film follows Brandon (Hilary Swank) as he binds his breasts, dons a cowboy hat, and sets out to live a more authentic life in a small town in Nebraska. Chloe Sevigny, who is bisexual in real life, plays the love interest. Fans and critics applauded the 1999 film, which earned a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Film.
Writer-director Andrew Haigh's 2011 romantic-drama “Weekend” chronicles the relationship of Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New). The two men think their encounter is just a one-night stand, but it turns into something much more meaningful. Critics said the movie showed the “paradoxes and puzzlements of gay identity in a post-identity-politics era” as well as “the enduring mystery of sexual attraction and its consequences.” Haigh, who is gay, said that although Cullen is straight, he tried to hire as many LGBTQ actors and crew as he could for the film. “Working on LGBT material with LGBT people feels liberating. But it's also about finding the right actor for a role. The sexuality of a character is not their defining characteristic. Identities are complex,” Haigh told The Guardian.
When “Pink Flamingos” came out in 1972, Variety called it "one of the most vile, stupid and repulsive films ever made." The NC-17 dark-comedy tells the story of on-the-run criminal Babs Johnson (Divine) as she battles an evil couple—who kidnap women and force them to give their babies to lesbian couples—for the title of “Filthiest Person Alive.” While some critics found it repulsive (it does feature sexual violence, bestiality, and murder), "Pink Flamingos" helped launch New Line Cinema as an independent film distributor and catapulted Divine into cult icon status.
Gay screenwriter Paul Rudnick originally wrote the romantic comedy “Jeffrey” for the Off-Broadway stage in the early '90s. The 1995 film version follows the same story: Richard Jeffrey (Steven Weber) decides to become celibate because navigating safe sex during the AIDS crisis has become too difficult. Then he meets an HIV-positive man and falls in love. The film explores his conflicting feelings; he wants a relationship, but fears losing someone to AIDS. The LGBTQ-friendly cast includes Bryan Batt and Nathan Lane. While it wasn't exactly a box office hit, Roger Ebert did give the film credit for confronting a somber topic with “humor and self-analysis.”
Writer-director Justin Simien released “Dear White People” as a feature film in 2014. It was later adapted into a series for Netflix, on which Simien is an executive producer. In the movie, Tessa Thompson (who came out as bisexual in 2018 ) plays Samantha White, a podcast host who shines a light on the racism at her fictional university. The Netflix series delves deeper into the life of Lionel Higgins (DeRon Horton), a queer black student who experiences life similarly to the real-life Simien. Critics welcomed the expansion of this character, which gave him room to “grow into the complicated, authentic person he is: He's gay, he's Black, and he's proud.”
Gay writer-director John Cameron Mitchell adapted his book and popular '90s Off-Broadway musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” for theatrical release in 2001. The cult classic follows the fictional Hedwig Robinson (John Cameron Mitchell), a transgender German singer whose sex reassignment surgery doesn't go well. Critics said the very existence of the film showed the acceptance of shifting gender norms, with characters who are “brave individualists mapping out an emerging frontier where boys can be girls and girls can be boys, and everyone has the freedom to couple however he or she chooses.” In 2014, when he returned to play Hedwig on Broadway, Mitchell said the play “has a different meaning. It feels deeper. It feels harder won.”
Writer-director Gregg Araki rose to fame during the New Queer Cinema movement of the '90s. With “Kaboom,” Araki shares his most autobiographical film. It explores the sexual adventures of Smith, who is played by gay actor Thomas Dekker. Smith is an 18-year-old “ambisexual” who has bizarre dreams and a lot of sex before he is captured by a cult. In 2010, the film won the first Queer Palm award, a prize given to LGBTQ films entered at the Cannes Film Festival.
In the 1986 film “Caravaggio,” gay director Derek Jarman portrays the life and times of the 17th-century painter Michelangelo Amerighi da Caravaggio. Actress Tilda Swinton, who considers himself gender-fluid, plays one of his love interests. At the time, a New York Times review described the sex scenes—which include men and women—as “elaborate and overextended.” In 2018, the same publication applauded Swinton's performance and said the film “depicts the painter celebrated and patronized by the straight world, but only to a certain extent.”
Lana and Lilly Wachowski are the transgender sisters behind the 2012 epic film “Cloud Atlas.” The film alternates between six different storylines, one of which explores the romance between two men in the 1930s. Actor Ben Whishaw, who is gay in real life, plays bisexual composer Robert Frobisher, who fears having his sexual identity exposed during a time of intolerance. Critics said the film—which received mixed reviews—represented the battle against the “hateful nature of heteronormative patriarchal society” and "the struggle for freedom, for the development of progress and indeed, for love.” Lana Wachowski wrote a telling line for the film: “If I had remained invisible, the truth would have remained hidden. I could not allow that.”
In her 2010 film “The Owls,” Cheryl Dunye tells the story of two lesbian couples trying to cover up a murder. Dunye returns to the screen in this LGBTQ-friendly film, which also stars Guinevere Turner and Skyler Cooper, a transgender actor and filmmaker. Variety said the film was “a hoot,” but that it probably wouldn't break into the mainstream.
Writer-director Todd Haynes pays tribute to the gender-bending men of '70s glam rock with his 1998 film “Velvet Goldmine.” Actors Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Ewan McGregor play musicians similar to David Bowie and Iggy Pop. The film also features Eddie Izzard, an actor who describes himself as “essentially transgender.” Haynes said glam rock became important to LGBTQ kids at the time because "all of the sudden these teenage kids—who are in a constant state of instability, uncertainty—have this image of a bisexual space alien up onstage.” Critics said the movie was filled with great costumes, but it “looks better than it plays.”
In the 1950s period drama “Carol,” director Todd Haynes tells the love story between a young woman working in a department store (Rooney Mara) and a rich housewife (Cate Blanchett). The movie shows how hard it was to have a same-sex relationship during a time of “deep sexual repression.” Some described the lesbian love story as “cold,” while others said it accurately portrayed a “guarded conversation where both are scared to speak their true feelings.” It was a success with fans and critics and received multiple Oscar nominations.
"All About My Mother" follows Manuela (Cecilia Roth) as she searches for her son's transgender father, after her son dies. Over the course of her journey, Manuela meets up with her friend Agrado, who is played by transgender actress Antonia San Juan. Roger Ebert described the Spanish film—from gay director Pedro Almodovar—as “sincere and heartfelt" and ultimately centered on “family values.”
In “Tropical Malady,” queer experimental filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul tells the story of Keng (Banlop Lomnoi), a Thai soldier who falls in love with a man named Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee). Critics said “Keng and Tong's gentle, shy love affair is allowed to flower almost in real time in scenes which play themselves out with the most unhurried naturalism.” The Thai film, which one critic called “unabashedly strange,” won the Jury Prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival.