10 great LGBTQ+ movies, from ‘The Boys in the Band’ to a ‘Lady on Fire’
Set in 1920s Denmark, in 1960s New York, in 1970s San Francisco and elsewhere, these absorbing stories make for perfect Pride Month viewing.
In recent years, we’ve seen more LGBTQ+ characters in movies and on streaming series and films and on broadcast TV than ever before and more actors and filmmakers who are open about their identity.
As a mirror of society, Hollywood is a long ways from perfect, and the conversations will be ongoing and the road to equality might never be 100% complete. But the progress is real, and that’s a wonderful thing.
To commemorate and celebrate Pride Month, here’s my list (in alphabetical order) of some of the best LGBTQ+ movies of all time.
‘The Boys in the Band’ (original and remake)
The great Chicago treasure William Friedkin (“The Exorcist,” “The Conversation”) directed the 1970 adaptation of Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking play about a group of gay men gathering for an unforgettable evening in an apartment on the Upper East Side. This was one of the first major films centering exclusively on gay characters. A half-century later, the remake starring openly gay actors Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto and Andrew Rannells, among others, worked as a reminder of a time when even in New York City in the times-are-changing 1960s, most gay men felt free to be themselves only behind closed doors and among their own ranks.
‘Brokeback Mountain’ (2005)
Heath Ledger posthumously won the best supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of the Joker in “The Dark Knight” and rightfully so, but his best performance came a few years earlier as the ranch hand Ennis Del Mar, who shares a long and complicated and hearbreaking love affair with Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist. “Brokeback Mountain” won Oscars for Ang Lee (director) and Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry (adapted screenplay), but somehow the best-directed and best-written film of the year lost best picture to “Crash,” a decision controversial to this day.
‘The Celluloid Closet’ (1996)
Hollywood holds a mirror to itself in this comprehensive, sly, funny and beautifully rendered documentary about the history of gay characters — identified or implied — in cinema. We see clips of gay characters in silent movies (Thomas Edison made a short depicting two men dancing in 1895), later eras when they were almost always portrayed as villains or weak-willed, and keen insights from actors and filmmakers. Setting up a clip from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” the brilliant writer Paul Rudnick (“In & Out,” “Jeffrey”) notes the dancers are “a gym full of body builders who have absolutely no interest in Jane Russell.”
‘The Danish Girl’ (2015)
Loosely inspired by the true story of one of the first recipients of sex reassignment surgery, Tom Hooper’s sensitive and quietly powerful period piece film set in the early 20th century stars Eddie Redmayne as Einar, who becomes Lili, and Alicia Vikander as Gerda, Einar/Lili’s supportive wife. Both performances were lovely and resonant and garnered Oscar nominations, with Vikander winning best supporting actress.
‘Love, Simon’ (2018)
The easy shorthand I’ve employed to describe Greg Berlanti’s irresistibly funny and sweet story is that it’s a John Hughes high school comedy/drama, only this time the main character is gay. Nick Robinson is a 21st century Matthew Broderick — handsome and self-deprecating and smart and likable — as the title character, who knows he’s gay and is trying to find the right moment to share that with the world. With Josh Duhamel and Jennifer Garner as the kind of parents every gay teenager deserves.
Sean Penn is magnificent as the legendary and groundbreaking Harvey Milk, the first openly gay individual elected to public office in the state of California, and James Franco delivers one of his most memorable performances as Milk’s partner, Scott Smith. Directed by the versatile and gifted Gus Van Sant (“My Own Private Idaho,” “Drugstore Cowboy”), “Milk” is a powerful slice of 1970s/1980s political history, and an empathetic biography.
Writer-director Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning adaptation of a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney is really three films in one, chronicling the life and times of Chiron, who is played by Alex Hibbert as a child, Ashton Sanders as a teen and Trevante Rhodes as an adult, as he endures a hardscrabble life and wrestles with his identity. It’s a gorgeous, tough, gritty, emotionally impactful film that will make your heart soar one moment and shatter the next. “Moonlight” is showing at several AMC and Regal theaters this week in observance of Juneteenth.
‘Personal Best’ (1982)
Writer-director Robert Towne celebrates the physicality of athleticism and sexuality in the story of an up-and-coming track-and-field athlete (Mariel Hemingway) who becomes romantically involved with an established star (real-life track and field competitor Patrice Donnelly). This is an underseen gem that deserves a new audience.
‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ (2019)
This exquisitely rendered, dreamlike, 18th century lesbian love story set on the western coast of France has Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant turning in simmering and great work as Heloise and Marianne, respectively, who become friends and eventually more. Their romance is a slow, sultry, intense build, and director Celine Sciamma paints each frame with the unmistakable signature of an original artist.
Shot entirely on iPhone 5s smartphones (relics!), director Sean Baker’s fast-paced, furiously funny, screwball indie comedy/drama stars transgender actresses Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor as Sin-Dee and Alexandra, respectively, sex workers who get involved in a series of madcap adventures on the streets of Los Angeles on Christmas Eve. A wild, raunchy, profane and farcical buddy comedy, with Rodriguez and Taylor making for an explosively hilarious and original duo.