Best Gay Cinema

Mainstream gay cinema can be as formulaic as Hollywood; it just uses gay characters in predictable ways. Typical "Gay-Lesbian-Transsexual" film festival offerings consist primarily of romantic comedies or dramas with closeted characters exploring their sexuality more openly and eventually realizing that they must “follow their heart.” Most are pretty generic, but the best ones reveal layers of character and go much deeper.

No attempts to be definitive and all inclusive here, so documentaries that deal directly with sexuality issues are excluded (like Paris is Burning and Trembling Before G_d), as are films that don't make its sexuality a major theme. Most come from the past twenty years, however, since references to "alternative" sexuality had to remain closeted to gain favor with cinema censors. For more suggestions, refer to the documentary The Celluloid Closet, which explores the images of gays and lesbians throughout film history.

Below are fictional pieces and historical dramas that contain openly gay/lesbian characters that make some kind of statement about the nature of living as a minority within the predominantly heterosexual world. While most of these films are non-mainstream films, they aren't so obscure that they will be impossible to find in video stores or with a little extra effort from online sources.

Top Ten Gay Films

1. Happy Together (1997)

Receiving more widespread recognition in the United States after the release of In the Mood for Love, Kar-wai Wong has a long resume of distinctive films. An earlier strong work, Happy Together follows two homosexual lovers, continually on an emotional roller coaster, who decide to take a vacation from Hong Kong and travel to Argentina to "start over.” A simple story that draws out its characters, it is greatly enhanced with fine performances by Tony Leung, Leslie Cheung, and Chen Chang.

2. Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Too many refer to Ang Lee's poignant love story as the "gay cowboy" movie while tearful viewers emerge from theaters to point out that this label is insufficient. Lee's sparse storytelling matches the prose of its source material and puts audiences into Ennis Del Mar's lonely western world--a place that all audiences can relate to, regardless of sexual orientation. This one feels like a true landmark film—one that bridges the fears and misconceptions of the ignorant and homophobic to paint a portrait of gay lovers (who "ain't no queers") as ordinary people.

3. Far From Heaven (2002)

Heavily stylized film that reworks Douglas Silk's 1955 film, All That Heaven Allows, Haynes demonstrates that the "Ozzie and Harriet" world of the fifties is a facade. Julianne Moore discovers that her happy marriage is a sham and that her circle of friends are likewise empty and shallow.

4. Gods and Monsters (1998)

Ian McKellen and Brendan Fraser make an unlikely dynamic acting duo, who bring the final days of legendary Hollywood director James Whale to the screen. In an era where homosexual flaunting would get directors and actors blackballed, a number resorted to closeted affairs.

5. Poison (1991)

Todd Haynes' landmark film should be seen for historical purposes if you can't find another reason. How many films have been used as rallying points for right wing religious reactionaries and by politicians to rail against the National Endowment for the Arts? Haynes (widely acknowledged as a leader of the "New Queer Cinema") received funding from the NEA, only to have Rev. Donald Wildmon campaign against its showing, claiming that taxpayer money had gone to support filming gay sexual perversions. Subsequently, politicians have since cut back on funding for the NEA.

6. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)

This Australian film is certainly a lot of fun, and the outback scene with aborigines joining the drag queens for a dance sequence of “I Will Survive” remains a favorite. But the acting by the three main characters and their non stereotypical portrayals of drag queens makes this film stand above the crowd. Chameleon actor Guy Pearce makes Felicia one of the most memorable flamboyant drag queens ever presented on film while Terrance Stamp portrays the definitive aging drag queen, giving Bernadette a healthy dose of humanity.

7. Boys Don't Cry (1999)

Nebraska is hardly a hotbed of open-mindedness, so what does a gay/lesbian /transgendered person do in such a redneck haven? Can such a person ever find the courage to be who they really are? That's one of the issues explored in this award winning film, but this powerful character study stands out for its acting. Hilary Swank amazingly transgenders herself in order to make out with women, but the film really takes off when she establishes a relationship with Chloë Sevigny's character. The intensity between these two feels amazingly real, and their scenes remain with you long afterwards.

8. Love and Death on Long Island Love and Death on Long Island (1997)

Fire up the Oscar nomination ballot for Judi Dench for her performance as a repressed lesbian "battle axe" who attempts to blackmail her way into a relationship with a young art teacher (Cate Blanchett) after witnessing a forbidden affair. A riveting drama that grants access inside dark regions that audiences tend to avoid.

9. Come Undone (2001)

The starkly honest portrayal of an introspective teen uncertain of his passions makes this "coming out" / "coming of age" film better than most. Non-linear structure signals that this is a narrative of the protagonist's emotional state and not a traditional story line.

10. Yossi & Jagger (2002)

The barbed wire border between Lebanon and Israel serves as the unlikely setting for the discrete romance budding between charismatic Israeli soldier Jagger and his commanding officer Yossi. A surprisingly sweet love story portrayed without too much sentiment.

Honorable Mention:

Wild Reeds, The (1994)

French coming of age story that centers on three friends. François and Serge experiment with male to male sex one night, and François comes to realize that he is gay. But what about Serge? He appears to have heterosexual feelings for François' best friend--an understanding “angel,” who has her own issues. The film treats its characters respectfully and develops them like real human beings with a very touching narrative.

History Boys, The (2006)

Highly intelligent drama drawn from the stage play refuses to dumb down its witty dialogue for movie audiences. The ensemble cast offers a provocative and entertaining glimpse into the darker regions of the British education system. While some will criticize this for being "too theatrical," it works best as a filmed play.

Bent (1997)

Imagine being openly gay during Nazi Germany when gays were rounded up with Jews for concentration camps. Under the impression that being labeled gay was a worse fate than being labeled Jewish, Max denies his sexuality and claims to be Jewish when sent to Dachau only to fall in love with Horst, who proudly displays his pink triangle. Another side of German brutality is explored in the film. Meanwhile the two men find ways to express their desires while denying themselves physically--a situation that the Nazis would terminate with finality.

Longtime Companion (1990)

A significant cross-over film that played well with mainstream audiences and put faces on the AIDS epidemic. The low budget film traces some of the historical backstory from the early 1980s when a mysterious “cancer” began to sweep through the gay community. The film succeeds by showing a number of characters that come across as real people first--caring people, who happen to be gay. Highlighting is the Oscar-nominated performance of Bruce Davison for his poignant portrayal of a man who eases his lifelong partner through the final stages of his sickness.

Swoon (1992)

A difficult film to locate, Swoon is based on a true story from the 1920s. Homosexual lovers Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold Jr. strive to create the perfect crime and end up kidnapping and killing a young boy in the Chicago area. Shades of Crime and Punishment echo here with Leopold's extreme guilt and remorse. The black and white cinematography and creative camerawork add to the intensity, especially during the trial when the prosecutors become even more repugnant than the defendants.

Notes on a Scandal (2006)

Judi Dench highlights this with her performance as a repressed lesbian "battle axe" who attempts to blackmail her way into a relationship with a young art teacher (Cate Blanchett) after witnessing a forbidden affair. A riveting drama that grants access inside dark regions that audiences tend to avoid.

Bound (2006)

Often cited on lists chronicling top lesbian movies, this erotic crime thriller stars Gina Gershon as an ex-con who forms a sexual liaison with neighbor Jennifer Tilly, and then helps her to dupe her gangster boyfriend. Complications ensue, as they ofen do when you cross the Mob.

Time to Leave (2006)

A successful gay fashion photographer finds that he has only months to live with cancer spreading throughout his system. Forgoing chemotherapy, Romain proceeds to part with friends and family his own unique way--basically to piss most of them off in order to isolate himself.

Brother to Brother (2004)

A young collegiate artist living on the edges of New York City's black community and gay community (after his father disowned him for his sexuality) desires a boyfriend. Closeted and lonely, his one trusted longtime friend is straight. Relationships aren't working out, but he befriends an elderly man he keeps running into, and discovers a kindred spirit that reaches back to the Harlem renaissance.

Law of Desire, The (1987)

Pedro Almodovar populates most of his films with flamboyant gay/lesbian/transsexual characters, so you can expect quality with virtually any of his films. This gem features a young and sizzling Antonio Banderas, who is obsessed with a middle aged writer. Passion is not always a good thing!

Chasing Amy (1997)

Kevin Smith is a master at writing dialogue that feels all too real, and such is the case in this uneven character study, starring Ben Affleck, Jason Lee, and Joey Lauren Adams. Many frank discussions about sexuality and lesbian issues occur throughout the film, even if some of the ending scenes are convoluted. Above all, Smith's intelligent dialogue sounds like something you might hear in the right urban environment.