The world has changed a lot since 1968, the year of the Stonewall Riots and the birth of the gay rights movement. LGBTQ consciousness permeates all aspects of life, from religion to entertainment. While certain films have served as powerful statements for this community—such as Larry Kramer’s controversial AIDS drama, The Normal Heart (1985)—many other films were made by gay filmmakers, or explored gay themes in some way.
The films on this list reveal how much cinema has evolved over time: from early classics like The Queen Christina (1933) and All About Eve (1950 to queer-themed films such as Chantal Ackerman’s 1975 punk classic Je Tu Il Elle and Gus Van Sant’s 1991 unrequited love story My Own Private Idaho with River Phoenix staring alongside Keifer Sutherland (with whom he later fell in love off-screen).
We have rounded up five essential LGBTQ films that showcase some of the most prominent cultural points in the journey of queer people. This is not a definitive list, but rather a guide to highlight some of our favourite queer movies over the years.
Films On Same-sex Love
Angels In America
Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Angels in America is a modern-day American epic that builds upon a foundation of magical realism. It was adapted into a film by Kushner in 2003; starring Al Pacino, Emma Thompson and Meryl Streep, it tells the story of Roy Cohn (Pacino), an infamous homophobic lawyer during the Reagan/Bush years. As Cohn dies he wonders if God will forgive him for all his sins.
The answer comes in the form of two prophets (Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane) who assure him that he has already been forgiven and must only “tell the truth” in order to be admitted into heaven.
Meanwhile in Utah, Louis Ironson (Wright) struggles with his identity as a gay Mormon trying to live up to both his religious ideals and a long-held affair with Belize (Justin Kirk). Parker plays Harper Pitt, who having been abandoned by her husband Joe (Patrick Wilson), finds comfort in her work at the AIDS Coalition Against Viral Diseases but also finds herself attracted to a man who may be responsible for infecting thousands with HIV through his corrupt business practices.
Suggested Reading: Today I learnt: Sexual Orientation And Gender Identity Are Not The Same
Boys Don’t Cry
Director Kimberly Peirce helmed a biographical film on Brandon Teena, a trans man whose tragic story of being raped and murdered in small-town Nebraska. The film starred Hilary Swank as Brandon and she also won an Oscar for her performance in the film. This is despite the backlash Peirce faced for casting a cis-gender woman as a trans person. The film, however, has had a huge impact on the viewers since it was released in 1999 and will continue to do so.
A tale of forbidden love set in rural Wyoming in the 1960s, Brokeback Mountain is an unforgettable story about passion, identity and hedonism. Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist are two cowboys who decide to take a job herding sheep on a mountain ranch for the summer. But it’s not long before the two men begin a passionate affair which lasts for 20 years unbroken.
Despite their love being challenged by prejudice and circumstance, they remain devoted to each other until tragedy finally tears them apart. The story of two cowboys who fall in love when they’re hired to tend sheep in Wyoming is brought to life by an Oscar-winning director and a top-notch cast which included Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger, Anne Hathaway and others.
A Fantastic Woman
A trans woman struggles to overcome microaggressions and social humiliations after her boyfriend dies. Anchored by an absolutely stunning performance from transgender actor Daniela Vega, Sebastian Lelio’s Oscar-winning melodrama subjects its heroine to a number of microaggressions and social humiliations; everyone from the cops to her boyfriend’s ex-wife dead-names her, denigrates her, and questions her right to exist at all.
Yet it’s as much a portrait of a survivor who will not be swayed from her purpose as it is an intolerant society, and Lelio and Vega’s insistence on giving this character a sense of pride while still honouring her struggle turns this tragedy into a tale of triumph.
In this penetrating examination of the nature of communication, master director Ingmar Bergman examines the fragile mental state of a renowned actress (Liv Ullmann). While under medical care for intense anxiety and stress, Elisabeth Vogler finds herself going mute. Her psychiatrist (Max von Sydow) advises her to stay at a seaside cottage where she finds company in Anna (Bibi Andersson), her assigned nurse.
As Anna attempts to reach Elisabeth through physical contact and words, the two women find themselves unexpectedly drawn into each other’s worlds. A compelling story about love, disappointment and loss set against a breathtaking backdrop by the sea, Persona is one of Bergman’s most influential films for its exploration of themes about identity that continue to resonate today.