Since the turn of the century, LGBT filmmaking has slowly grown in cultural impact, eventually culminating in Moonlight’s Oscar win for Best Picture last year. Each year we can now expect LGBT filmmaking not only to be represented, but to actually contain some of the most cutting-edge movies around.
Although you could say that queer representation has been around since Mädchen In Uniform (1931), the relative paucity of gay films in comparison to the monolith of straight filmmaking means that there is still so much left to be explored. As the standard romantic-comedy seems to be running its course, you could easily say queer filmmaking has consistently provided the best romantic stories over the past few years.
Our list of the best LGBT movies of the 21st century below has strived to be inclusive, and therefore there is at least one film that technically satisfies each letter of the LGBT spectrum. In addition, there are not only romance pictures, but movies across the suspense and mystery genres, as well as period dramas and the western. We have also picked movies from a variety of countries to show how the rise in queer cinema can be seen as a universal phenomenon. Please sound off in the comments if you think we have missed anything!
15. The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook, 2016)
Knottingly-plotted in that uniquely South Korean-way, Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is a deliciously thrilling film from beginning to end. Based on the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Walters, Chan-wook moves the British Victorian setting to Korea under Japanese rule. From there he creates a psychodrama which knits together the complicated relationship between colonial rule and sexual subjugation. It features a woman who becomes a Japanese heiress’ mistress in order to convince her to marry a conman. Things get more complicated however, when the two women develop a sexual relationship of their own.
Told in three parts and from three different perspectives, it isn’t a particularly easy film to follow, but if you do keep with it, it becomes immensely satisfying. With an ending that you can’t see coming, it shows the enduring and unique strength of Park Chan-wook’s cinema. It also shows the broad crossover appeal of Kim Min-hee — usually one of Hong Sang-soo’s key actresses, she shows that she can thrill in genre cinema too.
14. Weekend (Andrew Haigh, 2011)
Functioning as a British version of Before Sunrise, Weekend tells of two days in the life of two men who hook up after a night in a gay club in Nottingham, before finding they have unusually intense feelings for one another. The only problem; one of them is leaving the country very soon. Like with his next film, 45 Years, Andrew Haigh teases out a world of emotion through a simple premise taken over just a short period of time.
Not many notable events happen in the movie; Haigh is more interested in the nuances of desire that can manifest themselves in such a short space of time. Additionally, he is unscathing when he looks at the different levels of being in or out of the closet, showing that no two men’s experience of homosexuality is the same. The result is a hopeful film that points a way forward for both men despite the challenges that both of them may face.
13. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)
David Lynch’s masterpiece, Mulholland Drive is a mishmash of TV procedurals, film noir, surrealism, and an ode to the mystery-making of Hollywood itself. It is also a very affecting lesbian love story, with the strange relationship between Betty (Naomi Watts) and Rita (Laura Harring) being what anchors it to an emotional reality.
Bounded by constraints of economy, a plot synopsis is very hard to achieve when describing the complexities and confusions that abound in Mulholland Drive. What we we can say is that it works like the best noir, with hidden identities, submerged pasts, and the merging of fantasy and reality easily creating one of the best films of the 00s.
Its meaning still being debated to this day, much of the strength of the movie rests upon the central relationship between the two women. Without it, the film could have threatened to go into a rather pretentious zone. Instead Lynch uses the lesbian relationship as a means to give the film a brilliant emotional heart.
12. The Duke Of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, 2014)
The Duke Of Burgundy is one of those unique films that comes along feeling like nothing before it. Shot in a baroque style, it is a film that upon surface description sounds quite different from the affect it actually achieves. It is set in a world where seemingly only the female gender exists. It tells of two woman who like to play BDSM games in order to strengthen their romantic relationship. But soon we find out that the master-slave dynamic we are treated to in the beginning is actually more complex than initially thought.
It is a strange world in this film, where the only other hobbies the women have are riding bicycles and attending lectures on lepidopterology (the study of butterflies). What director Peter Strickland achieves by using this setting is telling the story of how all relationships consist of compromise and bargaining. There is no doubt that these women love each other. Its how they navigate this love that makes the film such a classic.
11. God’s Own Country (Francis Lee, 2017)
As well as being a great argument against Brexit, God’s Own Country, set in the beautiful Yorkshire dales, is a wonderful love story in its own right. Although sharing some similarities with Brokeback Mountain — both characters work in farming, are rugged exemplars of masculinity and live in a gay-averse society — the film creates its own language through its Northern dialogue and the Brönte-esque setting.
The film’s main character is an emotionally repressed Northerner who believes that the most important thing in life is just getting on with it. It takes the arrival of a Romanian migrant to his farm to finally allow him to open up, and accept himself for who he is.
Touching on masculinity, the relationship between fathers and sons, and a land seemingly left behind, God’s Own Country is a rough, no-holds barred, love story that ends up being extremely tender. Easily the best British film of 2017, and the one with the biggest impact.
10. Being 17 (André Téchiné, 2016)
Written in collaboration with emerging queer filmmaker Céline Sciamma, Being 17 is yet another coming-of-age story on this list. As it stands, it is another example of how the bildungsroman, a genre that has been around for centuries, has been reinvigorated in cinema by the incorporation of queer themes.
Set in the astoundingly gorgeous Hautes-Pyrénées, the story tells of two boys who initially really hate one another. Damien is a seventeen year-old boy who lives a fairly affluent life, one that is turned upside down by the introduction of the poorer Thomas, who lives 90 minutes away from school. The two boys constantly try to beat each other up. This is made even more complicated when Thomas is encouraged by Damien’s mother to stay at their house.
The tale is told slowly, and with infinite care. The physical hatred both boys feel for each other slowly grows into mutual appreciation, which then morphs into something far purer and real. When they do eventually get together, after much scene setting by the director, the journey feels extremely hard-earned, making this one of the most satisfying stories in recent memory.
9. A Fantastic Woman (Sebastián Lelio, 2017)
With A Fantastic Woman, the transgender community seem to have its rallying cry, depicting the tale of a trans woman who refuses to stand down against prejudice. Unlike Lawrence Anyways, it has an actual transgender woman, Daniela Vega, in the main role. This is remarkably her first ever starring performance, and she gives it all she has got. She plays a woman who, upon the death of her lover, who is a cis male married to another woman, has to fight for the simple dignity of being able to say goodbye to his dead body.
A South American tale that also makes full use of that continent’s magic realist tradition, A Fantastic Woman blends scenes of intense surrealism with harrowing verité that is undeniably affecting. The central performance is so superlative, it would be a shame if it wasn’t Oscar nominated. As it stands, the movie is still in the shortlist for Best Foreign Language film. If there is any justice in the world, it should easily win.