30 of the Best Queer Movies of the Last CenturyReading Time: 11 minutes
These ain’t your grandma’s queer movies. Except for the ones that are.
Thirty days hath Pride month, and even in a year that’s been particularly fraught from the perspective of LGBTQ+ rights, that means you should have plenty of time to watch a few movies when you’re not tossing bricks, getting harassed at a Target, or disassociating to the new Kylie Minogue single.
Though queer onscreen representation has definitely increased in recent years, the movies remind us that queer people (and queer films) didn’t just arrive on the scene—they’ve been here since the beginning. Below, I’ve highlighted 30 standouts from the past century, not so much to prove that every one of them broke new ground upon release (though many did), but to illustrate that queer talent has been on display in front of and behind the camera since the medium’s earliest days.
Rather than list every great movie with LGBTQ+ themes and characters, I’ve opted to defer to some lesser-appreciated movies that are every bit as good (or better) than more well-known favorites.
Carl Theodor Dreyer, best known for his 1928 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, brought a similar visual inventiveness to his earlier Michael, the story of a love triangle between a sculptor, his model (the title’s Michael), and the sculptor’s long-suffering friend. It’s a doomed romance, but not because of any moralizing about the M4M love. It’s a story of not being able to see what’s right in front of you.
Rent digitally: Kino Now
The story of troubled schoolgirl Manuela (Hertha Thiele) who quickly gets hot for teacher at her all-girls school, Mädchen in Uniform arrived at a pivotal moment in German history: Paragraph 175, outlawing homosexuality, had been repealed a couple of years earlier, and what would later be seen as the ‘decadent’ Weimar era was in full swing. With queer women behind the camera and plenty of lesbian longing, and snogging, onscreen, the movie was a hit in much of Europe, while lobbying by no less than Eleanor Roosevelt ensured that American audiences got to see the film (a detail I adore). It’s a beautifully realized film about romantic longing that never devolves into melodrama; it also invites us to imagine the kinds of female-centric movies we might have had if there had been more women behind the camera during the golden age of Hollywood.
However we choose to define Greta Garbo’s real-life gender and sexuality—some say bisexual is closest to the mark, others say lesbian; she referred to herself as male most of the time and signed letters as ‘Harry,’ so there are layers—there’s no question her gender-fluid screen persona, in roles that were at least bisexual-coded, made her a huge box office draw in a very different era. Her, she plays the unconventional, bisexual Swedish Queen involved in not only affairs of state, but also romances with co-stars John Gilbert and Elizabeth Young. All that aside, it’s a beautiful historic romance about a powerful, complicated woman with a killer (and often referenced) final shot.
Where to stream: Subscribe to Max
This relatively early George Cukor film isn’t overwhelmingly queer, though its satirical story of a woman who sets out for a life of sexual freedom once she discovers her husband has no interest in keeping to their marriage vows is certainly pre-Code. It’s fun, and frothy, but stands apart for scene-stealing side character Ernest (Tyrell Davis). He’s a traditional comic-relief pansy in every way, except that he’s also the sharpest character in the film, the one who everyone else onscreen is obsessed with. When the two female leads make up in the last act, he even puts a button on the plot with a comment about how much he enjoys watching society ladies kiss.
Where to stream: The Internet Archive
While I’m trying to avoid queer coding in favor of movies with aboveboard queer characters and content, doing that gets harder during Hollywood’s so-called golden age, when the rules explicitly forbade any such thing. With Bride of Frankenstein, though, there’s too much gay going on to ignore. The plot revolves around gloriously flamboyant Dr. Septimus Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), an mentor of Victor Frankenstein’s from his school days who sweeps in on the eve of Victor’s wedding night to drag him away (with only mild convincing required) so that the two can conduct some experiments to determine if they can make life together. With that plot, and the queer rep in front of and behind the camera, this one’s very much a gay fever dream.
Though Hitchcock’s adaptation of the play of the same name scrubs overt references to its lead characters’ sexuality (which wouldn’t have been allowed at the time), the director was never afraid to push homosexual subtext to the very edge, and a viewer would have to be fairly sheltered to see prissy, fastidious murderers Brandon and Phillip (John Dall and Farley Granger) as mere roommates. The limited setting and experimental filming style didn’t entirely please Hitchcock, but the claustrophobic atmosphere and sharp dialogue rachet up the suspense nicely.
Two prisoners are tormented by a voyeuristic prison guard in Jean Genet’s short film, full of homoerotic imagery that might be less shocking in 2023, but no less effective. The two never touch, except in a fantasy sequence, but seeing the two men share a bit of smoke from a single cigarette remains one of cinema’s hottest images. You might also find the movie under the title Song of Love.
Where to stream: Subscribe to Mubi
Unavailable for decades, Olivia is almost shockingly forthright: the nutshell premise involves an all-girls school divided into cliques whose loyalty is fought over by the lesbian couple who run things. The student-teacher angle is troubling to modern eyes, but this isn’t a lascivious movie exactly, despite the setup. It’s the title character’s coming-of-age story, smart in telling a story about how we have to choose the person we want to be, even as we’re constantly being pulled in different directions.
Rent digitally: Apple TV+
Dealing with the same questions of masculinity inherent in other movies of the era (think Rebel Without a Cause), Tea & Sympathy represents an awkward, fascinating look at 1950s ideas of queerness. Tom Robinson Lee (John Kerr) is the new kid at an all-boys prep school bursting with gay subtext (consider the ways the other boys love to roughhouse and worship their coach—it’s so straight that it circles around to being very, very gay. Tom is a shy and fey reader, gay bashed by his more overtly butch classmates, who strikes up a friendship with the headmaster’s wife that turns romantic. It’s all fascinating, even if it doesn’t stand up to strict analysis, and director Vincente Minelli certainly knows how to make a compelling movie.
This whackadoo Southern Gothic Mystery (from a Tennessee Williams play) involves a young man, the son of Katherine Hepburn’s memorably named Violet Venable, who dies under mysterious circumstances on a holiday in Spain. Though Violet had been happy to be his wingwoman in helping him meet other men for sexual encounters, she’s less keen on the world finding out precisely how he died. She’s perfectly happy to lobotomize one of her son’s good friends just to make sure; it’s a wild time, right up to the memorably off the wall finale.
When 17-year-old Jo (Rita Tushingham) becomes pregnant by a sailor (he’s long gone by the time she realizes), she can’t turn to her needy, alcoholic mother for comfort. Instead, she falls into the arms of Geof (the great Murray Melvin), a gay textile student and the most wholesome character in the entire movie. It was shocking at the time, not only for including a gay character but for its gritty realism, making it a brilliant taste of what was to come.
Not only does Dirk Bogarde (closeted at the time) play one of cinema’s first bisexual characters, he’s the hero of the story, and entirely sympathetic (if a victim, as the title suggests). Bogarde a successful London lawyer (sorry: barrister) who is being blackmailed for his occasional sexual encounters with a male friend. It’s a landmark in its treatment of queer characters but, as importantly, it’s a taut and compelling neo-noir, briskly directed by veteran Basil Dearden.
At the peak of Japan’s New Wave, writer/director Toshio Matsumoto created this classic that blends ultra-realism with hauntingly beautiful, occasionally psychedelic imagery. The plot takes inspiration from, and flips, the story of Oedipus Rex, seamlessly blending the mythic with the mundane in following Eddie (Shinnosuke Ikehata) and other transgender women in the swinging Tokyo of the 1960s.
Where to stream: Subscribe to Night Flight Plus
William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist) directs the film adaptation of the controversial off-Broadway play—controversial for the fact that every character is gay or bisexual, and controversial among queer audiences for frequently portraying its characters as self-hating and self-pitying. It’s not exactly an uplifting portrait of being a gay man in America, but it reflects something real, if not always pretty. The performances are nearly uniformly great, and if it plays as a pre-liberation period piece, there are plenty of other aspects that still feel sadly relevant. (The play is still staged, and Netflix did a new version just a couple of years ago).
At the center of John Waters’ so-called Trash Trilogy came Female Trouble, starring Divine as juvenile delinquent Dawn Davenport, whose quest for cha-cha heels leads her down a path of filth and misery more than worthy of (and very much inspired by) Hollywood’s great melodramas. Pink Flamingoes might get name-checked more often, but nothing in John Waters oeuvre can beat Dawn’s Christmas morning freak-out. Female Trouble is the best and most cohesive film from the director’s early, perverse era.
Al Pacino and the late, great John Cazale (who was never in a bad movie) play Sonny and Sal, first-time bank robbers based on two real-life men. Sonny is desperate for money to pay for his trans wife’s gender-reassignment surgery, so he plans the heist with friend Sal, the result being a violent debacle. With an eye on queer liberation, the movie tackles the failures of the counterculture while gleefully thumbing its nose at the cops. It’s a fabulous heist movie—one of the best movies of its era, period—and doesn’t look down on its lead character’s bisexuality, nor his marriage to a trans woman.
Even if much of the cast is straight, Rocky Horror went from being a cult classic to a rite of passage for your queers, full of gleefully over-the-top characters who either start out as sex-and-gender fluid, or who get there by the end. It’s survived because it’s so much fun (even if, or maybe because, the plot makes almost no sense), and because it somehow also caught on with straight audiences who want to walk on the wild side for a few hours, with Brad and Janet serving as their able guides. If they can let their hair down and party with Dr. Frank-N-Furter and the gang, maybe there’s hope for this world.
Following the comparatively more progressive 1970s, the 1980s were an era when queer movies were either justifiably HIV/AIDS focused, or all about gay/bisexual serial killers (Dressed to Kill, Cruising, etc.) Desert Hearts bucks both of those trends in the best ways. Vivian (Helen Shaver ), an English professor in the middle of a divorce, meets Cay (Patricia Charbonneau), an uninhibited sculptor, at a ranch in Reno. Though Vivian struggles a bit with the unexpected lesbian attraction, the romantic drama steers clear of tragedy entirely.
An early triumph of intersectionality, this adaptation of the Hanif Kaueishi novel introduces Omar (Gordon Warnecke), the new owner of a run-down laundromat who winds up back in a relationship with his one-time Nazi punk boyfriend Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis). It’s a great film about class and racism that provides a vivid portrait of life in the Thatcher/Reagan-era 1980s. It’s also a romance that suggests there’s hope for moving forward from the mistakes of the past while reminding us forgiveness is never guaranteed.
Ball culture is still very much with us, both in its purest form in major American cities, and by having expanded into the mainstream (more or less) thanks to RuPaul’s Drag Race. Paris is Burning captures the joys and heartbreaks of a particular moment (New York City in the late 1980s) when black and latino gay, trans, and genderqueer performers were burning up the stages in something like a golden age of drag, even while racism, poverty, anti-trans violence, and HIV/AIDS were destroying their lives. In some ways, it’s a glorious document of a bygone era; in others ways, good and bad, it feels entirely relevant to our present era. When you’re done here, catch 2016’s Kiki, a more recent documentary that updates the story of ball culture (what’s changed, and what hasn’t).
New Queer Cinema pioneer Gregg Araki’s best-known film is likely Mysterious Skin, but his angry, freewheeling early work The Living End is the purest expression of his talents as a filmmaker. Having survived a decade during which queer people were demonized (more than usual even) and then ignored when faced with a plague, Araki responded with a primal scream in which a couple of HIV positive drifters kill a homophobic cop and take off on a ‘fuck everything’-themed road trip.
Though its synopsis has more to do with finding love and overcoming the fear of dying (HIV/AIDS is very much front and center), there’s a joyful, frothy quality to Jeffrey that’s understandably lacking in most of the many other movies in which AIDS is a primary topic. This one’s a charming (and sex-positive) rom-com with cute lead performances from Steven Weber and Michael T. Weiss, and a scene-stealing cameo by Patrick Stewart.
Cheryl Dunye’s low-budget rom-com deserved to have as significant a cultural impact as the era’s other independent hit set in a video store—Clerks—but instead had to settle for cult status. Dunye plays herself, sort of, as an aspiring filmmaker and a young, Black lesbian exploring the life of a fictional film mammy from Hollywood’s golden age, the title’s Watermelon Woman. Aside from being genuinely funny and unpretentious, the movie has a lot of smart things to say, and smart questions to ask, about the lives and experiences of queer Black people.
Where to stream: Subscribe to Paramount+ with Showtime
The elliptical narrative and deliberate pacing might have turned off some viewers, but Wong Kar-wai’s frank story of a gay couple (played by Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai) who travel from Hong Kong to Argentina to escape an extremely troubled, and even abusive relationship, it a poetic triumph. Don’t let the title fool you: these two aren’t really shouldn’t be together, but the performances are transfixing, and Wong’s style is as beautiful as it is memorable.
Where to stream: Subscribe to Max
Thanks to the New Queer Cinema movement, the ’90s were an absolute golden age for films with LGBTQ+ themes, often with righteous anger at the repressive, near-genocidal ’80s as their driving force. Pedro Almodóvar’s films, on the other hand, do something different: they’re colorful and joyous, even as they speak to unpleasant truths. Here, grieving mother Manuela goes on something like a road trip to find her son’s father, Lola, a trans woman who doesn’t even know she has a son. Along the way, she meets up with her old friend Agrado, herself a trans sex worker who, among the film’s many eclectic characters, serves as the Manuela’s rock and the film’s most fully realized human being.
In lieu of describing this movie about a genderqueer German rock singer whose botched gender reassignment surgery left them with the titular angry inch, I’ll just sing the entire soundtrack beginning to end. Such is the hold the movie has on me, and an awful lot of other people.
Andrew Haigh’s romantic drama, about two strangers who spend the titular weekend together, is so naturalistic it almost feels like a documentary. It captures the feel of modern relationships (even the short-term ones) that still feels fresh, even more than a decade later.
Dee Rees brings a confident, assured style to Pariah, not to mention a stunningly beautiful visual style that ensures it doesn’t look like any other movie. It’s a vibrant and deeply personal coming-of-age/coming out story that never feels like a lesbian message movie, signaling a new era of more complex narratives centered on queer characters.
This is probably the most fun you’ll ever have watching a girlfriend/buddy/revenge comedy movie about two trans sex workers on the hunt for the man who did one of them wrong. As heartfelt as it is madcap, it puts us more firmly in a cinematic era in which more and more complex queerdos are making their ways to the screen. Shot on a couple of iPhones, director Sean Baker and company make a virtue of the intimacy and immediacy that modern technology can bring.
Fowl deeds are afoot on the set of a French gay erotic film shoot during this ultra-stylish, colorful, psychedelic tribute to not only Italian gialli of yore, but also to the golden age of 1970s porn.
The best streaming services for watching movies:
- Subscribe to Max (formerly HBO Max)
- Subscribe to Prime Video
- Subscribe to Paramount+ with Showtime
- Subscribe to The Criterion Channel
MediaDownloader.net -> Free Online Video Downloader, Download Any Video From YouTube, VK, Vimeo, Twitter, Twitch, Tumblr, Tiktok, Telegram, TED, Streamable, Soundcloud, Snapchat, Share, Rumble, Reddit, PuhuTV, Pinterest, Periscope, Ok.ru, MxTakatak, Mixcloud, Mashable, LinkedIn, Likee, Kwai, Izlesene, Instagram, Imgur, IMDB, Ifunny, Gaana, Flickr, Febspot, Facebook, ESPN, Douyin, Dailymotion, Buzzfeed, BluTV, Blogger, Bitchute, Bilibili, Bandcamp, Akıllı, 9GAG