The 20 Best LGBTQ+ Films of the 2010s
While we might not see it now, the 2010s have defined the trajectory of LGBTQ+ cinema for decades to come. After a century of being kept in the closet, outed, dehumanized, and othered onscreen and in the industry as a whole, LGBTQ+ filmmakers & actors are finally being given the opportunities to tell their own stories with the authenticity, tenderness, and depth they deserve. Given the critical and commercial successes of Carol, Moonlight, and more, it’s clear that there’s a hungry market for well-told queer narratives that prioritize emotion and innovation over sheer spectacle.
However, there’s a whole world of extraordinary queer and trans films that have gone largely ignored by gay, straight, cis, and trans viewers alike. Some of these films are harder to find (in theaters, to rent, or on streaming sites) than others, but they're all deserving of your attention. As we leave the 2010s, let’s look back on the queer and trans films that have defined this past decade and pushed society forward for the better.
20. Concussion (2013)
Robin Weigert might be most well-known for supporting roles in Deadwood, Big Little Lies and Bombshell, but she took on one of her only lead roles in 2013 as Abby Ableman in Stacie Passon’s directorial debut Concussion. As a lesbian wife, mother, and sex worker, Weigert shines in this story of passion, compulsion, and selfishness. Passon’s writing is notably compassionate; she refuses to pass judgment on her characters and, rather, clearly tries to understand each of their dissatisfactions and desires.
As a queer woman herself, Passon lends the film a great deal of honesty and insight, not only in terms of its focus on sex and sexuality but queer culture and power as well. She keeps all of her characters from being shallow stereotypes, but there are bits and pieces of dialogue or costuming that are clearly for queer viewers to chew on. It’s movies like Concussion that demonstrate the vast differences between queer films written by queer writers and those helmed by cisgender, straight people. While one doesn’t have to identity as queer or trans in order to tell thoughtful, inclusive stories about the LGBTQ+ community, being a member of the community that you’re representing onscreen allows for further accuracy, authenticity, and in-group jokes or political commentary.
Each person in Passon’s screenplay—from Abby’s wife (Julie Fain Lawrence), to her best friend (Janel Moloney), to her procurer (Emily Kinney), to her crush (Maggie Siff)— is fully realized. Passon’s team of actors aid tremendously in this, adding subtle details that further root this story in reality. Weigert, in particular, is a star. Her range as a dramatic actress is so under-appreciated and seeing Concussion will hopefully clarify that for any non-believers. Stacie Passon has found more success on television than in film, but, with her third feature Strange Things Started Happening in development, that should even out soon.
19. The Ornithologist (2016)
Easily the oddest film on this list, The Ornithologist is an intentionally ambiguous narrative that moves from surreal to sexual to religious to ordinary. It's a modern, queer take on the life of Saint Anthony of Padua—which João Pedro Rodriguez, the film’s director and co-writer, described as “a purposefully transgressive and blasphemous re-appropriation of the saint’s life” in his director’s statement. Taking attributes, experiences, and legends about the Saint and applying a queer lens through which to view them will certainly be seen by some as utterly contemptible and sacrilegious, but I found it surprisingly tasteful even at its most outlandish, gay, and sexually explicit moments.
Paul Hamy stars as Fernando, a birdwatcher whose kayak suddenly capsizes and finds himself on an Odyssean journey toward self-discovery and safety. Along the way, he encounters numerous figures who play mysterious roles in Fernando’s quest; are they friends, foes, or something altogether different? Death, rebirth, fantasy, and kink all make appearances in The Ornithologist, but Rodriguez works them into his film cleverly, not trying to shock but rather recontextualize religiosity and challenge classic narrative storytelling. It’s a monumental film, attempting something so bold, brash, and specific that you have no choice but to gasp in awe.
The Ornithologist might not make any sense to you, and yet, it’s highly possible that you’ll still enjoy the experience of watching Rodriguez’s film. It’s a weird, wonderful two-hours, and certainly unlike anything else you’ll see this year, next year, or for a long, long time. Rui Poças’ cinematography is just gorgeous. For a film this out-there, it is incredibly immersive, using diegetic sound, natural lighting and a wide aspect ratio to maximize the beauty of the film’s setting and transport us into this dreamlike world of rope-tying missionaries, a deaf-mute Jesus, and some beautiful, meditative birdwatching before everything turns to utter chaos.
18. We the Animals (2018)
An ode to queer adolescence and the formative experiences that define our relationships to ourselves, our sexualities, and our families, We the Animals is an extraordinarily underrated breakout for both director Jeremiah Zagar and star Evan Rosado. Based on Justin Torres’ novel of the same name, Zagar’s narrative directorial debut evokes the atmospheric spirit of Beasts of the Southern Wild while retaining its own distinct identity. Following a precocious young boy named Jonah as he tries to hide his emerging sexuality in an emotionally volatile household, Zagar carefully addresses the highly gendered and scrutinized nature of boyhood. At the center of that are Ma (Sheila Vand) and Paps (Raúl Castillo), whose unstable love and near-constant feuding inform their children’s understanding of healthy relationships and home.
While it’s dealing with sensitive subject matter, Zagar applies a rather playful approach to the visual life. Combining gritty 16mm film with crayon animation, Zagar toys with the visual language of children and how to use it to best facilitate empathy toward Jonah. It’s not a hard task as Rosado does much of this work on his own. Every look, every laugh, every line of voiceover contains a whole universe of meaning that informs the unspoken norms within this family. It’s a heart-wrenching film, made all the more so by Zagar and co-writer Dan Kitrosser’s words.
Sheila Vand, Raúl Castillo, and Rosado are positively extraordinary in their roles, but We the Animals is Jeremiah Zagar’s calling card more so than anyone else's. His inventiveness and creativity with structure and form help him and this film stand out from an increasingly monotonous and predictable field of family dramas. Bold filmmaking should be celebrated, and those creative risks deserve to be rewarded. Although there’s no news about a sophomore feature in development from Zagar yet, we should have some patience as whatever comes our way will certainly be worth the wait.
17. Thelma (2017)
Thelma’s opening scene sets expectations ridiculously high, and Joachim Trier manages to exceed them. Eili Harboe stars as the titular Thelma, a teenage transplant from rural Sweden to urban Oslo, who is harboring both a repressed secret and unknown powers. As she gets closer to her college classmate Anja (Kaya Wilkins), they start emerging in unpredictable ways. It’s a unique parable for self-acceptance amidst religious bigotry and doubt. It could’ve easily slipped into over-sentimentality, but Trier and his collaborators don’t allow that to happen. Instead, what they accomplished is an incontrovertibly singular vision of internalized homophobia, religion, and anxiety.
Harboe, in particular, shines with sympathetic subtleties and a magnetic onscreen presence that somehow manage to make this distant, conservative character immediately relatable and likable. Kaya Wilkins makes for an incredibly charismatic romantic interest, and her chemistry with Harboe is clear from their first scene together. Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Petersen who play Thelma’s parents are also riveting characters, fluctuating between villainous and sympathetic in the film and in Thelma’s life as a whole.
One of the most ambitious queer genre films of the decade, Trier and his cinematographer, Jakob Ihre, take an inventive yet distinctly grounded approach to the sci-fi elements of Thelma. It always feels real but twisted to nightmarish extremes, somewhere between a hallucination, drug trip, and a dream. Trier sets his sights on the topic of religion, considering how to best outwardly manifest the internal sufferings of repressed childhood, guilt, and trauma, and he succeeds in a mind-blowing manner. It’s a visually sumptuous film, but its emotional and socio-political implications are also deserving of acclaim. Style certainly does not outweigh substance here, and Trier makes an incredibly compelling case for more philosophical and tender takes in the superhero genre, the sci-fi realm, and queer cinema.
16. Lingua Franca (2019)
The extremely rare case of a trans woman of color directing herself in a narrative feature film based on a screenplay she wrote; it is absurd that more people aren’t talking about Lingua Franca. Isabel Sandoval’s third feature premiered at the 2019 Venice Film Festival, went on to screen at the London Film Festival and AFI Fest, and yet it still hasn’t found a distributor.
The film follows Olivia (Sandoval), an undocumented Filipino caregiver to Olga (Lynn Cohen) in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, as she tries to acquire a green card and evade the seemingly omnipresent threat of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Sandoval’s film treats the multitude of threats Olivia faces with the seriousness they deserve, yet they don’t limit her narrative. She’s allowed to be messy, flirty, awkward, and indifferent. Sandoval takes a graceful approach to her story while prioritizing realism over easy endings. It’s a gorgeous film—shot brilliantly by Isaac Banks in his first narrative feature as a cinematographer—that fits Sandoval’s vision like a glove. It’s modest, but enrapturing and focused. Sandoval clearly has a myriad of messages in mind, yet she approaches them with such delicacy and truth where you simply allow them to wash over you. It’s perhaps the most effective kind of political filmmaking, where your preconceived or implicit biases take a backseat to the immediate, empathetic story in front of you.
Eamon Farren, who plays her primary romantic interest, is quite a reliable actor, but the film is singlehandedly carried by Sandoval. It’s one of the most realistic portrayal of anxiety that I’ve seen onscreen, beautifully realized by Sandoval as both an actress and filmmaker. There are moments of toxic masculinity, xenophobia, and transphobia, but Lingua Franca is about so much more than that. Sandoval punctuates her film with an open-ended conclusion, leaving room for further unpredictability but also hope. It’s a love letter to herself in many senses, and its final seconds only underscore that further.
15. Stranger by the Lake (2013)
Probably the most explicitly horny movie on this list and a crucial inclusion in this lineup, Stranger by the Lake is not so much a murder mystery but rather an exploration of obsession and recklessness. The attraction between Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) and Michel (Christophe Paou) is palpable, but the actions of the two men force the viewer to question both men’s intents with the other. It’s a stunning film, aided by the natural beauty of its environment and the instincts of its cinematographer, the extraordinary Claire Mathon.
Set at a nude beach that has become a popular gay cruising spot, director Alain Guiraudie invites the viewer into this private, niche haven for exhibitionism, skin-to-skin contact, and no tan lines. As a filmmaker, Guiraudie takes explicit, queer, sexual acts and puts them into the public sphere of the movie theater, mirroring his characters proclivities and the insider-outsider dynamics of his story; when a body is discovered in the lake, a straight investigator arrives and begins interviewing the men about what they saw the night of the presumed drowning. Guiraudie zeroes in on the distrust and alienation between queer and straight men as well as the lengths we go for lust in order to propel the story in unexpected directions. It’s sharp, thoughtful, sexy, and shameless in its queerness.
What elevates the film from just ‘good’ to ‘great’ is its ability to reflect on and critique cisgender gay men and the exclusionary nature of their spaces in a subtle, meaningful way. Henri (Patrick d'Assumçao) is an extremely refreshing presence to see in a film like this. A bi-curious, out of shape, middle-aged man who comes to the beach for solace after a breakup, he gives the film an important sense of perspective as he bonds with Franck over the course of many days. His character offers both explicit and implicit commentary on body image and hyper-masculinity that work perfectly to further the film’s arguments on unhealthy romantic and sexual dynamics in the gay community.
14. The Ground Beneath My Feet (2019)
A queer thriller that doesn’t hinge upon its protagonist’s sexuality for shock value, The Ground Beneath My Feet manages to subvert the conventions of its many genres while keeping audiences at the edge of their seats. Marie Kreutzer’s film follows Lola, a young business consultant who approaches her whole life with the utmost professionalism and meticulousness. Some see her as ruthless, to others she’s an admirable negotiator. However, her sister sees her some way altogether different and her heavily compartmentalized life is about to cave in on itself.
Mental illness has been thoroughly sensationalized in countless genre films, but Kreutzer takes care to prevent that from happening here. Hallucinations, nightmarish fantasies, and suicidal ideation all feature prominently, but those moments are presented thoughtfully and underscore the humanity, ambitiousness, and deep-seated fears of these characters. Pia Hierzegger, who plays Lola’s sister Conny, is beyond magnificent in a performance that easily rivals those of Angelina Jolie, Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Foy, and anyone else who has ever acted as patient in a mental hospital before her.
Kreutzer honors Lola’s sexuality and showcases it unabashedly, but this story isn’t about her gayness. More so than anything else, it’s about familial trauma and mental illness. Kreutzer peppers her script with critiques of sexism, career-obsessiveness, and our reliance on technology, but it never feels preachy or contrived. Valerie Pachner, Hierzegger and Mavie Hörbiger all do wonderfully as the film’s central trifecta, but Pachner anchors the film with the palpable urgency it demands of Lola. It’s a harrowing performance and—along with her other 2019 starring role, Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life—deserves to be acknowledged for being as masterful as it is. Hopefully interest in The Ground Beneath My Feet will not fade but rather be renewed as Pachner’s profile continues to rise in the years to come.
13. The Heiresses (2018)
Proof that simplicity is often best when you have a strong story and well-written characters. Marcelo Martinessi’s feature directorial debut is a subtle and bittersweet ode to liberation and self-love, made all the richer by the performance of its lead, first-time actress Ana Brun. Martinessi’s movie explores the complicated relationship between Chela (Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irun), secret lovers for over thirty years in conservative Paraguay, as they navigate debilitating debt and potential jail-time for fraud.
An anti-capitalist queer fable that centers older women and honors their sexual agency, The Heiresses defies expectations organically, unfolding just as unpredictably as real-life does. Martinessi interweaves political critiques toward the homophobia & lack of protections afforded to LGBTQ+ people in his home country in this tale, and he does so with tremendous tact and sensitivity. As finances get increasingly stressful for Chela, she begins working as a driver for her wealthy neighbors. As we eavesdrop on their conversations about politics, art, culture, and propriety, we get brief glimpses into the explicit and implicit dangers and biases from which Chela and Chiquita have tried to protect themselves.
There are countless gay coming-of-age and coming-out stories out there but far fewer narratives focusing on older queer relationships. Other films from the 2010s like Love Is Strange, Cloudburst, and Beginners have delved into similar subject matter, but Martinessi has achieved something wholly unique, genuinely surprising, and absolutely heart-wrenching here. There’s much more to The Heiresses than it seems initially, and the same could be said about Martinessi. This might be his first feature, but he’s not playing it safe. It’s clear that he has a lot on his mind, and the technical wherewithal to pull it off effectively. I’m incredibly eager to see what he does next, and hopefully it’s just as ambitious, astute, and gay as his debut.
12. Retablo (2017)
Retablo first premiered in 2017 at the Festival de Cine de Lima and subsequently screened at the 2018 Berlin Film Festival and other film festivals that year before finally being given a theatrical release in 2019. This timeline is sadly common for queer films; the festival circuit can be a fantastic place to find an audience, but major distributors rarely invest in independent or international queer films, seeing them as financial risks regardless of how favorable reviews are.
I’m just thankful that a meditative queer film about religion and social ostracization like Retablo could ever be selected as Peru’s entry for the Best International Feature Film Oscar or nominated at awards shows like the BAFTAs and the Indie Spirit Awards. That recognition alone is tremendous—not just for Retablo or Alvaro Delgado Aparicio, the film’s director, but for queer filmmakers around the world telling pressing, modest stories.
Aparicio’s film follows a young boy named Segundo (Junior Bejar) who works alongside his alcoholic father Noé (Amiel Cayo) building retablos—devotional folk art—as a secret begins spreading through their small village. It’s slow to start but needs to be, given the ending that awaits. The last twenty minutes or so are pure, heart-racing, tear-jerking cinema, but it never feels exploitative. It’s a story of allyship and how to best support your loved ones, first and foremost.
Although it’s an emotionally demanding film, it’s rewarding. The journey that Segundo goes on is that of a Bildungsroman; he begins the film as a somewhat naïve child, and, by the end, he’s had to take on monumental responsibility and make life-changing decisions for himself. His character development is not the only memorable one; Noé is an incredible character and Amiel Cayo is given ample opportunities to leave a lingering impact.
It’s immaculate from a technical standpoint. Mario Bassino’s cinematography and Harry Escott’s music fit so perfectly into Retablo’s world. The performances are top-notch, especially that of Magaly Solier who plays Segundo’s mother. Of the three main actors, she has the most experience and is given the showiest part, but Cayo and Bejar—in their fifth and first acting roles, respectively—manage to overshadow her at moments. All around, Retablo is exceptional filmmaking with tremendous heart that we could use much more of today.
11. A Fantastic Woman (2018)
Daniela Vega’s lead performance as Marina in A Fantastic Woman earned her effusive praise from critics, headlines in global publications, and the opportunity to deliver a powerful speech on the stage of the Dolby Theatre. She’s an effortlessly magnetic and commanding presence onscreen, on-stage, or on top of a car. The film follows Marina, a singer and waitress who becomes the target of suspicion and harassment after her older boyfriend dies. It’s a challenging story, but the film’s screenplay and Vega’s performance keep it incredibly poignant and hopeful.
Directed by Sebastián Lelio from a script he co-wrote with Gonzalo Maza, A Fantastic Woman centers transgender experiences in a surprising and, ultimately, invigorating manner. There are moments of extreme disrespect and transphobic violence directed toward her from strangers and acquaintances alike, but it doesn’t come across as contrived or for the sole purpose of educating cisgender viewers about what trans women go through. So many transgender narratives feel like they aren’t created with transgender viewers in mind; authenticity and hope are often abandoned in favor of spectacle and violence. A Fantastic Woman, however, is entirely anchored in Marina’s subjectivity, informed by Vega’s lived experiences, and allows for us to see her fantasies, dreams, pains, and yearnings as a fully three-dimensional character.
The ending offers a refreshing change of pace, one where we see a trans protagonist assert her voice and her power, vowing not be walked over any longer. The film’s final seconds, as Marina is singing to a crowd of listeners, reminds us that there’s so much more to her story (and any of ours) than loss, violence, trauma, or identity. All of one’s experiences and identities inform how they move through the world, but that doesn’t necessarily limit them. Trans narratives have not historically reflected that, instead opting for tragic or humiliating endings which tell trans viewers that this too will be their fate. So, while there’s discomfort and bigotry in A Fantastic Woman that certainly may trigger or upset audiences, hopefully they will also soak up the positive impact of seeing trans women thrive onscreen for once.
10. Pariah (2011)
Based on her graduate school thesis short film of the same name, Dee Rees’ Pariah was an under-the-radar critical darling that still managed to launch the careers of its director and cinematographer into the stratosphere. As their careers have risen, Adepero Oduye, the film’s lead actress, has largely been relegated to minor or supporting roles in big-budget Hollywood films. While Dee Rees and cinematographer Bradford Young are tremendously deserving of their successes, it’s about time for Adepero to join them.
The story of Alike is so grounded, so sweet, so heart-wrenchingly real where, for 86-minutes, you feel you’re with her as a friend. You’re experiencing her nights out on the town, her flirtations with friends, and her frustrations with family. You see her come into her own as a queer woman, despite the homophobic attitudes of those close to her. Kim Wayans is blisteringly powerful as Alike’s mother, showcasing her dramatic range as her character becomes an increasingly dominant and antagonistic force in the film. It’s a relatively modest story, adorned with little more than string lights, but that’s largely why it’s as compelling as it is. Rees knows that she doesn’t need any bells or whistles to tell this particular story, because it’s hers and it’s extraordinarily special as it is.
As the tomboyish teenager Alike, Adepero Oduye provided one of the most memorable breakthrough performances of not only the 2010s but of all time. Her delivery of Rees' dialogue is so honest, her emotional moments so raw. It’s hard to imagine how a young actress whose performance was singled out and praised by Meryl Streep on the Golden Globes stage could then get ignored for years, but with an upcoming role in Marvel’s new Disney+ show, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” 2020 will hopefully be a new beginning for her.
9. Carol (2015)
Todd Haynes’ 50s romantic melodrama practically flung out of space in 2015, striking audiences with a taboo flirtation-turned-love-affair that was equally spellbinding and alienating, unknowable but familiar. Rooney Mara won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival and was an early front-runner for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, but it’s Cate Blanchett whose character’s cold stoicism masks her near-constant fear in an undeniably mesmerizing manner.
Carter Burwell’s score, Edward Lachman’s cinematography, and Sandy Powell’s costuming deepen the film’s sense of nostalgia and precision, thrusting the audience head-first into the diegetic world of sexism in the city. Lesbian icons Sarah Paulson, Carrie Brownstein, and Kyle Chandler round out the cast nicely, but it all boils down to the chemistry between Mara and Blanchett, and, luckily for us, it’s there in spades.
There has been a great deal of recent conversation surrounding the age differences in queer romances with Carol, Call Me By Your Name, and Francis Lee's upcoming Ammonite initiating much of that discourse. While I completely understand any discomfort that the frequency of this phenomenon in LGBTQ stories might elicit, I also think it’s realistic, especially in time periods where queer love was hidden and criminalized. Even in contemporary life, platonic, romantic and sexual relationships between LGBTQ youth and elders exist and deserve to be seen onscreen.
What Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy accomplish here is a story of agency that entirely hinges upon Therese’s wants and desires. Power functions based on numerous axes of identity—age being one of them—but to critique Carol for sanitizing an unhealthy relationship would be disingenuous. The tensions in their lives are almost all born from outside circumstances, and their love crumbles as a result of the homophobic and vindictive people around them. The film’s structure helps clarify that intent by beginning and ending this story with a melancholic reunion full of unspoken aches. It’s the scene that most embodies Carol’s essence, a two-hander that is just as much about memory as it is about secrecy, sexuality, and self-discovery.
8. A Dog Barking at the Moon (2019)
Lisa Zi Xiang’s directorial debut A Dog Barking at the Moon premiered in the Panorama section of the 2019 Berlin Film Festival, winning a Special Jury Prize from the Teddy Award independent jury. It went on to screen at LGBTQ+ film festivals around the world, earning praise at fests including Frameline, Inside Out, OutFest, NewFest, the Shanghai Queer Film Festival, and the Torino International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, but it still lacks distribution.
While queer film is becoming increasingly mainstream and included in more and more major film festivals, these movies don’t often get the recognition they deserve there. And A Dog Barking at the Moon is a pretty perfect example of that. While straight and/or cisgender critics might’ve passed over its unconventional story, LGBTQ+ critics took notice of its visually lush and surprisingly empathetic tale of social taboo in China. An elliptical, time-jumping, autobiographical family drama about closeted queerness, Buddhist cults, and the nature of longing, Xiang’s film combines the confidence of a veteran filmmaker with the boldness and innovation of a young disruptor.
The film begins by showing formative, adolescent memories of both Jiumei (Naren Hua) and her daughter, Xiaoyu (Nan Ji). It isn’t entirely clear how these experiences will influence the film’s larger narrative or themes, but they will. We jump forward in time as Xiaoyu, now in her mid-to-late 20s, returns to her tumultuous childhood home with her foreign husband, Benjamin, in tow. Religious conversation therapy dramas have become increasingly prominent in recent years, but none have approached the material with as much sensitivity, nuance, or understanding as Lisa Zi Xiang does.
Given that the story is based on her own life and relationships with her parents, it might seem obvious that this would be the case. However, she plays heavily with surrealism, opting for risky cinematography and editing when she could rather play it safe. It’s a poetic and unabashedly honest film, but one which prioritizes precision over all else. It unfolds with meticulous polish and incredible imagination, but Xiang just doesn’t want to lose you in some immersive world. She wants to shatter it, and she does so beautifully.
7. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
While the languid pace of Portrait of a Lady on Fire won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, Céline Sciamma, Claire Mathon, Adèle Haenel, and Noémie Merlant’s work here shouldn’t be forgotten anytime soon. It might be one of the slower slow-burns out there, but it’s still a remarkably steamy rendering of eighteenth-century queerness that feels more modern than most contemporary-set films.
Sent to a small island on the West coast of France, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) has been commissioned to paint a young aristocratic woman named Héloïse in secret. The titular lady on fire has refused to pose for past portraits as she does not wish to be married off. Marianne accompanies her on cliffside walks, growing more enchanted by the young women with each passing day. The tension between desire, need, and expectation is pulled so taught for the entire film, to the point where a deep exhale is required as the credits roll.
The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice informs the story (and the film’s last shot) but it doesn’t feel heavy-handed in the slightest. Sciamma’s screenplay is beautifully detailed and unexpected, eliciting genuine shock and surprise through delicate, dramatic moments of yearning and wonder. Singing in the woods and paintings of books will never be seen the same way again.
While prospective viewers will be fully aware of and anticipating the central romance between Héloïse and Marianne, one of the most impactful characters in the film is Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), Héloïse's maid who is treated as an equal and a friend by the two women. While she’s a supporting character, she is given more than sufficient time for audiences to empathize, relate, and invest in her, allowing the film to interrogate class just as seamlessly as it does sexuality and tradition. There’s much more to Portrait of a Lady on Fire than meets the eye—although what meets the eye is certainly jaw-dropping courtesy of cinematographer Claire Mathon, production designer Thomas Grézaud, and costume designer Dorothée Guiraud.
6. Tangerine (2015)
Every article about Sean Baker’s 2015 film Tangerine talked about the revolutionary impact it had of being the first feature film to be shot on an iPhone. While that may have inspired Steven Soderbergh’s approach to Unsane and High Flying Bird, the far more lasting impact of Baker’s movie on the film industry and culture as a whole will be casting Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in lead roles. The two breakout actresses are absolute powerhouses as Alexandra and Sin-Dee, respectively, exhibiting extraordinary charm and onscreen magnetism while offering subtle glimpses at their characters’ deep vulnerabilities.
Their day-long journey is genuinely funny, gut-wrenching, thoughtful, and honest. Amidst their chaotic search for money, success and Sin-Dee’s cheating boyfriend in Los Angeles, the two women encounter an Armenian cab driver named Razmik who becomes just as central to Baker’s story. While including this straight, cisgender man might seem to dilute the film’s commentary on modern trans experiences or societal transphobia, it does not.
Razmik’s arc offers another relevant entry-point to this story of trans life. The men who love, are attracted to, and/or fetishize trans women are rarely explored on-screen despite being a near-constant presence in the lives of actual trans women. The only transamorous men we see in media are in news reports about them murdering trans women or killing themselves. We are currently living through an epidemic of violence against trans women of color, particularly poor Black trans women, and it’s necessary that we use media to try to change that reality.
If Sean Baker—a cisgender, straight, white man—can step up to be an ally like this, so can any other filmmaker. There is no excuse for casting cisgender actors in trans roles anymore, especially when women like Taylor and Rodriguez are available. While implicit and explicit transphobia play a role in Tangerine, Alexandra and Sin-Dee’s story is so much more about friendship, togetherness, solidarity, and joy. It’s an important reminder that a more optimistic trans cinema is possible, and all we have to do is access that potential, support those stories, and provide opportunities to the right people.
5. BPM (Beats per Minute) (2017)
HIV/AIDS narratives have been prominent in queer cinema since the virus’ outbreak in the early 1980s, but BPM (Beats per Minute) approached it from a different angle, that of the activist organization ACT UP Paris as they protest political and scientific inaction in France. Featuring an ensemble cast of talented young actors, Robin Campillo’s film takes multiple entry points into the topic, allowing for a variety of opinions, perspectives, and actions to be explored in relation to queer activism.
While the film’s subject matter is all too painfully real, Campillo takes a more experimental approach to its visual life, using stylish transitions, saturated color, and aerial-view camera angles to set his film apart from others that came before it. These moments make for an awe-inducing watch, but it does not lose sight of the life-or-death reality behind its characters' activism. The protest scenes are incredibly powerful, but what’s even more touching are moments when the characters open up about their pasts and why they chose to get involved with the organization.
Sure, it’s an upsetting movie. It’s about the deaths of those you love and the fear that you may join them some day. It’s a stinging reminder of how little any country’s government worked to help queer and trans people suffering from HIV and AIDS in the 80s and 90s. But it can also be an incredibly inspiring reminder of our power as a community, of our ability to come together and demand actionable change.
The film was based on Campillo’s own time working with ACT UP in the 1990s, and its authenticity is palpable. From its meeting scenes to its protest scenes to those of bedtime sensuality and deathbed depression, it all rings true. BPM (Beats per Minute) is a heartening indication of what can happen when LGBTQ+ filmmakers are trusted with larger budgets and more creative freedoms than we’ve been given so far, and, given its critical success, we’ll be hopefully seeing more like it very soon.
4. The Favourite (2018)
Queer period pieces are in growing in popularity, evidenced by this list alone, but The Favourite is one of few so far to enter mainstream discourse. Nominated for ten Oscars and winning one for Best Actress, Yorgos Lanthimos’ darkly comedic love-triangle applied modern sensibilities and style to a relatively straightforward story of deception, obsession, and power. It goes without saying that Olivia Colman is a treasure. Known initially for her comedic roles on British television, the actress has increasingly moved toward dramatic offerings with Tyrannosaur, The Crown, and Them That Follow, but The Favourite was a unique opportunity that showcased the breadth of her talents with a surprisingly delicate touch.
As a somewhat fictionalized Queen Anne, Colman takes the sharp words of screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara and deepens them with ample laughs and much-needed heartache. She’s a powerhouse actress whose extraordinary talents are finally being recognized, but she didn’t make the film what it is on her own. It’s her magnetic chemistry with co-stars Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz, pouring off the screen into interviews and speeches, that compels, delights, and inspires empathy. Every character in The Favourite is dubious, but clear-cut heroes and villains are not to be found here. There are things to sympathize with and be alienated by about everyone, but that’s the beauty of this candle-lit rollercoaster.
Robbie Ryan’s cinematography, Fiona Crombie’s production design, Johnnie Burn’s sound design, and Sandy Powell’s costume design elevate Lanthimos’ ambition with such technical precision that you immediately forget about its constructedness. It’s exceptionally immersive, throwing you into the story (literally) alongside Abigail (Emma Stone) as she navigates the overwhelming social politics of the Queen’s court. Given the ridiculousness of many scenes and the overall stylization of the film’s dialogue, this is an especially impressive feat by the entirety of the crew. Davis and McNamara know audiences love an anti-hero or two. Imperfection and authenticity sell, especially in a media landscape that prioritizes relatability over perfection. By presenting the queen, her suitors, and her political rivals as more human, more self-conscious, and probably hornier than ever seen before, The Favourite challenges all future period pieces and biopics to look outside the box and venture into more unexpected territory.
3. Rafiki (2018)
Wanuri Kahiu’s sophomore narrative feature Rafiki is a gorgeously rendered, Romeo and Juliet-esque love affair with less suicide and more homosexuality. The film follows Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) who fall in love at first sight, but they have two major problems: their fathers’ competing campaigns for a local political office and the criminalization of homosexuality in Kenya.
Kahiu and co-writer Jenna Cato Bass’ screenplay addresses pertinent socio-political subject matter, but the film’s power primarily lies in their ability to do so subtly through a well-developed romantic relationship. The story flows naturally, but Kahiu and her editor, Isabelle Dedieu, smartly juxtapose the film’s immersiveness with stylized moments of unsynchronized sound, slow-motion, and fantasy. It’s a sign of a confident filmmaker who is poised for even greater excellence with more resources in the future.
Discussion of Rafiki in the news has primarily focused on its banning by the Kenya Film Classification Board and Kahiu’s successful lawsuit against them, but that bit of context shouldn’t obscure the film’s merits, of which there are so, so many.
Its casting and the performances by Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva are absolutely astounding. This was Mugatsia’s first acting job and she enmeshes herself beautifully in the role of the self-conscious and tomboyish Kena. Munyiva is extraordinary in her scene-stealing and thoroughly charming supporting part. She's such a dynaming presence on-screen, captivating the attention of both the film’s audience and its other characters with tremendous ease and believability.
Rafiki’s ending recalls Desert Hearts and the few other optimistic queer narratives out there, but it doesn’t skirt the reality of homophobia in Kenya or how that intersects with sexism and misogyny. Kahiu was told by the Kenya Film Classification Board that if she changed the film’s ending, they would lift the ban on her film. Her refusal to acquiesce is nothing short of revolutionary, and it’s what elevates this simple narrative into a life-changing rallying cry.
2. Moonlight (2016)
You knew it was coming. The only queer film of the decade to win Best Picture, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight was a cultural phenomenon from its very first trailer. Following a Black gay man over three periods in his life—in chapters labelled “Little,” “Chiron,” and “Black,” respectively—Moonlight was a structural and aesthetic masterpiece that redefined queer cinema altogether for the 21st century.
Tenderly written by Jenkins and Tarrell Alvin McCraney based on the McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Moonlight addresses queer masculinity, drug addiction, and personal growth with a rare and refreshing candor. The film flows with both poeticism and realism, making space for the imagination, hopes, and comforts of a young, queer Black boy without disregarding the brutality of poverty, abuse, homophobia, or the American prison system. It’s an almost impossible high-wire act that Jenkins and McCraney accomplish together in perfect rhythm.
It has certainly been a star-making movie for Trevante Rhodes, Jharrel Jerome and Ashton Sanders, but it also reaffirmed familiar faces Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe, and André Holland as adaptable, unpredictable talents who are capable of much more than Hollywood had assumed of them prior. It’s an extraordinary ensemble piece, which allows every actor to stand out in brilliant and unique ways. While a few of his actors—like Harris as Paula—explode like fireworks, Jenkins’ generally takes a gentler approach to directing his actors, favoring soft-spoken, introspective subtlety to brasher displays of emotion.
The film’s score, cinematography, & editing—courtesy of Oscar nominees Nicholas Britell, James Laxton, and Nat Sanders & Joi McMillon, respectively—complement Jenkins and McCraney’s screenplay like butter on bread. In lesser hands, the film’s style and substance could muddle each other, but Jenkins foregrounds his care for these nuanced characters, allowing Moonlight to be the beautiful, challenging love letter to family, oneself, and Miami that he and McCraney wanted it to be.
1. Pain and Glory (2019)
2019 was truly a blessed year for queer film, and, yet, it still feels like a far-off dream for queer and trans filmmakers to be adequately recognized by mainstream institutions for their most personal projects. The only queer feature to be nominated by the Oscars in a year rife with fantastic options, it is a tremendous shame that others did not join Pain and Glory. But—if their quota is one LGBTQ+ film per year, as it seems to be—I’m glad they picked this one.
Pedro Almodóvar has spent the last thirty years paving the way for younger queer artists, and Pain and Glory feels like the culmination of all he’s learned, explored, and thought about over his illustrious career. A rumination on childhood, lost loves, fame, art, and queer desire, Almodóvar’s most recent creation is a restrained masterpiece. It might not seem like the most enrapturing movie, especially when competing against studio films with seemingly unlimited budgets, but it will grip you with such tenderness and, through that, illuminate so much, so effortlessly about queer adolescence, family, and the deep pains of loneliness.
Pain and Glory has some of the most gorgeous cinematography I’ve seen—not just in 2019 or the 2010s, but of all time. The white cave, the underwater opening, and, of course, the final shot are all images that will forever be seared into my mind. DP José Luis Alcaine, production designer Antxón Gómez, editor Teresa Font, and composer Alberto Iglesias all accompanied Almodóvar’s highly personal vision beautifully and deserve enormous credit alongside their fearless leader for this breathtaking final product.
To spoil the film’s final scene would be nothing short of cruel, but what he manages to accomplish in just one shot is absolutely astonishing. It is the cherry on top of an already immaculate magnum opus. After years of celebrating cisgender, straight people for writing, directing, acting, producing, shooting, and editing our stories, it’s time for us to assert ourselves and take control back. Ultimately, Pain and Glory is all about queer filmmakers reflecting their lived-experiences onscreen and the inherent power of that act.