Noteworthy films about lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans experiences don’t necessarily represent watershed moments for the community. Often, themes of sexuality roll in tandem with the fullness of life’s other experiences: the joy, heartache, and messiness that accompany moments of romance, grief, or change. Here, 19 culturally significant LGBT movies, ranging from subtle and quite to political and groundbreaking.
1.“My Beautiful Laundrette” (1985)
Homosexuality is only one element of Stephen Frear’s potent social comedy. The film, which centers around business-minded Pakistani man Omar, also tackles racism and socioeconomic disparity in Thatcher-era London. But all that takes a temporary backseat when Omar rekindles a romance with Johnny (a young Daniel Day-Lewis, still four years away from the first of three Oscar wins). The film handles their relationships delicately but casually, offering it up as a choice. In My Beautiful Laundrette, you can live within the confines of class or sexuality – or you can open your life to other possibilities.
2. “My Own Private Idaho” (1991)
My Own Private Idaho stands as one of Gus Van Sant’s most conceptual films: it has an unconventional narrative structure, not to mention a central character who suffers from narcolepsy, which lends additional surrealism to the film’s disjointed architecture. But River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves anchor the films as Mike and Scott, two rent boys bonded by their estrangement from society. For a film with sex at its center, My Own Private Idaho is less concerned with sexuality than with love and comfort – something made especially clear in its famous campfire. It’s a masterclass in acting – a radical statement in a film already full of them.
3. “The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert” (1994)
In a post-RuPaul’s Drag Race world, it’s easy to forget how subversive Stephan Elliot’s film was for its time. But the sequined gaudiness and over-the-top production of The Adventures of Priscilla represented something of watershed moment when it first came out. This scrappy only reached cult status, it eventually opened cinema up to more positive and mainstream representations of the LGBT community.
4. “Beautiful Thing” (1996)
As far as gay coming-of-age stories go, Beautiful Thing is rather straightforward. An adaption of the Jonathan Harvey play of the same name, the film follows two teenage boys as they gradually discover their homosexuality – and mutual feelings for each other – in London council estate. Theirs is a relatively uncomplicated love story, nearly eclipsed by the messiness of the other characters in their orbit. But that’s part of the fantasy – sometimes, falling in love really is as simple as that.
5. “Happy Together” (1997)
Wong Kar-wai’s metaphor for Hong Kong’s handover to China finds a couple adrift in Argentina, caught in the same abusive cycle that prevents either half from letting go. As much a story of codependence as it is a study of rootless and shifting identities, Happy Together both touches upon and sidelines its themes of homosexuality – groundbreaking for Chinese cinema in 1997 – and focuses instead on the loss and regret of relationship that can’t be saved. It’s a snapshot of a moment in time and the restlessness and melancholy that invariably afflicts youth.
6. “All About My Mother” (1999)
Pedro Almodovar’s Oscar-winning love letter to the LGBT community uses a mother’s grief as the jumping-off point for this colorful film. On paper, the plot reads as surreal and potentially melodramatic: after an accident, Manuela dives headfirst into Barcelona’s queer scene in search of the cross-dressing man who unknowingly fathered her late son. But, as is to be expected of Almodovar, All About My Mother is a thoroughly sensitive work, one that retains its absurdist sense of humor as it celebrates sexuality and otherness.
7. “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999)
Much has been about the casting of Hilary Swank, a cisgender actress, in this compassionate biopic of Brandon Teena, a trans man murdered in Nebraska for being himself. But the film itself helped introduce ideas of queerness and female masculinity to mainstream audiences, offering a frank portrayal of trans identity unabashed in its honesty and sensuality. And for better or worse, Boys Don’t Cry effectiveness hinges on Swank’s performance, one still considered among the best of all time.
8. “The Hours” (2002)
Themes of depression and mortality seep into the three parts of Stephen Daldry’s existential drama, which seamlessly interweaves the lives of Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman), a 1950s housewife (Julianne Moore), and a modern-day Mrs. Dalloway (Meryl Streep) into a single narrative. Beneath all that is a subtle through line of queerness that connects each of the women, one that quickly examines sexuality at odds with their respective heteronormative societies. Kidman (in an Oscar-winning role) is particularly effective as the tormented Woolf, giving depth to the unspoken force that kept the author-and the other women – from feeling totally at peace.
9. “Brokeback Mountain” (2005)
Looking back, it’s something of miracle that Ang Lee’s tender adaption of Annie Proulx’s short story earned eight Oscar nomination in 2005, a full decade before same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide in the U.S Sure, Brokeback Mountain can be something of a punchline in today’s marginally more progressive film landscape – that “I wish I knew how to quit you” line is as meme-worthy as it is iconic – but the misty-eyed love story and delicate performance from Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Health Ledger keep it near the top of so many all-times lists.
10. “Milk” (2008)
Gus Van Sant’s biopic about America’s first openly-elected official leans into its genre – 1972 San Francisco is recreated to a T and Sean Penn’s performance is both pitch-perfect and Oscar-winning – while also transcending it, using Milk’s mission as a larger statement about nation’s capacity for change. Unfortunately, the film is as resonant today as it was in 2008, when California voted to uphold a ban on gay marriage. In 2017, there’s hard work to be done in the way of basic human rights, and Milk captures the best parts of the American spirit when that world realize.
11. “A Single Man” (2009)
Some gay love stories focus on the before, lingering on the push and pull of falling in love (cưa cẩm qua lại) before finally tripping. A Single Man asks: what happens after? The answer, at least from fashion designer-turned-director Tom Ford, unfurls in this gorgeously realized drama about an English professor who falls into a suicidal depression after the death of his long-time partner. As the titular character, Colin Firth has only a handful of scenes, all flashbacks, with his lover. But the specter of their romance hangs over everything, and Firth’s shattering performance ultimately elevates this rumination of love lost.
12. “Weekend” (2011)
Before HBO’s Looking, Andrew Haigh had his breakthrough with this intimate debut, one that still serves as a quintessential depiction of modern gay dating. From the main character’s meet cute at a club to the revealing but realistic conversations that unfold over the next 48 hours, the film’s strength is in its keenly-observed details, painting a naturalistic portrait of what it’s like to fall in love today- gay or not. That authenticity is what makes watching Weekend feel so invasive yet intensely relatable all at once, especially as it crescendos to its achingly bittersweet finale.