What is the most essential movie ever for LGBT viewers? There can be only one. We’ve made our pick, and now you can vote on Facebook and Twitter in a “Clash of the Classics!”
Everyone agrees a set of movies exists that are must-sees for any LGBT viewer. We just don’t agree on which ones.
Dare ask a gay man for his list, and he’s likely to rattle off a few that come to mind quickly and then make amendments to it for the rest of your adult lives. Women don’t start with the same list. Some movies are incredibly impactful on depictions of trans people or those living with HIV, or mark major firsts in film. Some are too campy to ignore (at least not if you want to keep up at brunch). The bottom line is there are legions of reasons why a movie could be considered “essential” to the LGBT community.
We’ve ventured into the tricky territory of ranking which are most essential. To accomplish this feat, everyone on staff was asked for a top 10, then we asked readers for theirs, and finally began the arguing — always politely. Television movies aren’t included (sorry, The Laramie Project, An Early Frost, and Gia). Television series aren’t included either (apologies to Tales of the City, AbFab, and Angels in America). The result is potentially a guide for anyone who wants to examine our roots through film.
Oh, and we reserve the right to amend it for the rest of our lives. — The Editors
1. Brokeback Mountain (2005): This Oscar-winning feature film is arguably one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking gay love stories ever told on the silver screen. The chemistry between the late Heath Ledger’s restrained, tortured Ennis Del Mar and Jake Gyllenhaal’s sensitive and tender Jack Twist takes viewers high into Wyoming’s Grand Teton mountains in an intimate portrait of two men brutally confined by the hypermasculine culture in which they exist. After watching the film with its emotional gut-punch of a conclusion, you’ll understand Jack’s lament and agony in telling Ennis “I can’t quit you.” The only thing that compares with the powerful performances turned in by Ledger and Gyllenhaal is director Ang Lee’s stunning visuals — which earned him an Academy Award for best director. —Sunnivie Brydum
2. Milk (2008): This film about the life and death of pioneering gay politician Harvey Milk won two richly deserved Oscars, for Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay and Sean Penn’s performance in the title role. It does not make Milk a plaster saint, but portrays him as fully and fallibly human as well as a formidable crusader for the rights of all. Directed by Gus Van Sant, it’s a film that moves and inspires, while assuring that a new generation will know an important figure in our history. —Trudy Ring
3. Paris Is Burning (1990): This documentary shone a bright light on the African-American, Latino, and LGBT communities involved in the New York City ball culture of the mid-to-late 1980s. Directed by Jennie Livingston, Paris Is Burning brought an underground aspect of LGBT culture to the mainstream. From the use of slang (“serving realness”) to unforgettable quotes (“reading is fundamental”), the film has had a lasting impact on both LGBT and mainstream pop culture. —Jase Peeples
4. Cabaret (1972): There’s no doubt that Berlin’s Kit Kat Klub is just the most fantastically awesome place this side of World War I. Right at the beginning, the Emcee, played by the tireless Joel Grey, bids the audience a hearty “willkommen” to this world of seedy glamour. Our heroine Sally Bowles — portrayed by an exquisite Liza Minnelli — pops off the screen in a story that follows her trapped in love with two men, while the Nazi regime rises to power. The film is epic, gripping, and entertaining. You will be singing at least one of the songs from this musical for days. Weeks. OK, in my case, years — it’s “Two Ladies,” “Money, Money,” and the title tune. —Michelle Garcia
5. The Boys in the Band (1970): Mart Crowley’s hit play became the first famous gay film ever. Vito Russo said of the movie, “The internalized guilt of eight gay men at a Manhattan birthday party formed the best and most potent argument for gay liberation ever offered in a popular art form.” No, it wasn’t representative of what gay life was like‚ but it was representative of what gay life was like for those alcoholic men, in that city, at that time. Crowley’s quotable script was shocking, real, and hysterically funny. With Cliff Gorman, Leonard Frey, Kenneth Nelson, and Frederick Combs, and directed by William Friedkin (of Cruising fame.) —Christopher Harrity
6. Philadelphia (1993): Philadelphia encapsulates so many things that signify excellent filmmaking, but one of them is showing something that is simply true to life: When we get to know people who are different from ourselves, we become better people. Tom Hanks’s unparalleled performance as Andrew Beckett, a man who is fighting for his dignity and his life, convinces small-time (and homophobic) lawyer Joe Miller, played by Denzel Washington, to represent him in a wrongful-termination suit. The film came out before there were revolutionary drugs that helped save the lives of many with HIV and AIDS. Meanwhile, it followed the initial shock of the epidemic, which led to heightened paranoia on one side, and on the other, a better understanding of the virus itself. Philadelphia is undoubtedly a groundbreaking time capsule. —M.G.
7. Bound (1996): This neo-noir thriller marked the directorial debut of the Wachowski siblings, and though it was long before Lana Wachowski was an out trans woman, we can’t help but think it helped influence this superb bisexual/lesbian classic in which Violet (femme and alluring Jennifer Tilly), a moll owned by her Mafia boyfriend (Joe Pantoliano) but looking for escape, has an affair with butch neighbor Corky (Gina Gershon in the hottest lesbian film role ever). The two women hatch a scheme to steal millions from the mob, and the usual noir tropes (just who is betraying who?) work to great success, albeit with a hefty dose of violence (this is a rare film where there are empowered women and violence and the latter isn’t directed at the former). The reason queer girls loved it? The sex was genuine and hot, thanks in large part to Susie Bright, who served as the resident lesbian sexpert to help the auteurs get it right. (She has a cameo too.) —Diane Anderson-Minshall
8. Desert Hearts (1985): Donna Deitch’s directorial debut is the first “real” lesbian film (an out lesbian, nobody dies, two women have sex). Based on lesbian author Jane Rule’s novel, Desert of the Heart follows Vivian (Helen Shaver), a repressed divorcee waiting out the legal finalities in a ranch guesthouse in 1950s Nevada. Vivian is all class and repression, and the ranch owner warns her to stay away from her irrepressible lesbian daughter Cay (Patricia Charbonneau, wearing jean shorts and cowboy boots and a whole lot of lesbian lust). Turns out, that’s who she’s drawn to, and soon Cay is unrepressing Viv in the first real lesbian sex scene in a film. Their growing relationship played against the rocky red soil and rolling landscape doesn’t necessarily have a future, but it’s the sight of Vivian’s slow but seismic sexual awakening that makes this film Deitch’s valentine to the rest of us. —D.A.M.
9. Boys Don’t Cry (1999): It’s easy to dismiss this as an “important” film, but Boys Don’t Cry, based on the true story of the murder of Brandon Teena, a young trans man killed in Nebraska, is actually an incredibly good one as well. For a film that ends in such an atrocity, it has a breezy romanticism as we meet the flirty Brandon (played by Hilary Swank, in a role that won her an Oscar and made her career) and weary Lana, the girl he falls in love with. Brandon knows little of other trans people, of hormones or gender identity or even the kind of (sadly still limited, but at least talked about) rights trans people have today. But he’s young and in love and troubled, because of having no social safety net, living in an impoverished community, and hiding his birth-gender assignment (and in the film, the lack of medical hormones is the linchpin that eventually leads to his death). Watch it with a big box of Kleenex and a sense of injustice. —D.A.M.
10. Parting Glances (1986): Writer and director Bill Sherwood would never make another film — he succumbed to an AIDS-related disease in 1990 — but his only cinematic work, Parting Glances, will keep his legacy alive for decades to come. The well-acted and brilliantly written film centers on Robert and Michael, a couple preparing for a two-year separation as Michael heads to Africa for work. Over the course of 24 hours, Robert, Michael, and their friends and lovers all collide to hilarious and heart-wrenching effect. Robert’s ex-boyfriend Nick (Steve Buscemi — perhaps best known today for his star turns in Boardwalk Empire, 30 Rock, and Fargo— in his first major role) is a rock star dying of AIDS. But Nick is never a pitiable character, instead a strong and defiant survivor, a rarity for cinematic portrayals of people with AIDS, in the ’90s and beyond. —Neal Broverman