17 Essential LGBTQ Movies You Should Watch Right Now

Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix star in Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (1991).
Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix star in Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (1991). / The Criterion Collection

It’s one very weird Pride Month we’re living through in 2020. While marching in a muscle tank is out, as with many things during the coronavirus pandemic, there are slivers of opportunity. To that end, what better way to celebrate all that is queer than with a headfirst dive into the incredibly rich history of LGBTQ movies from the comfort of your couch?

Queer cinema—or as it was endearingly branded in the ‘90s, New Queer Cinema (the ‘90s were extremely gay for independent film)—has afforded directors of all sexual identities and orientations all over the world an opportunity to showcase distinctive, nuanced, personal stories of what it means to be a member of the LGBTQ community. Fortunately, in recent years, we’ve also seen more of this work from Black American filmmakers like Dee Rees (Bessie, Mudbound) coming to public view.

These movies aren’t necessarily the definitive queer movies, nor are they the most popular. But they represent an idiosyncratic, undeniably off-kilter, sometimes fabulous, and always fully realized vision of what it means to feel slightly apart from the straights. (Though the straights are most definitely welcome to the party.)

1. Far from Heaven (2002)

This whole list could easily be dedicated solely to Todd Haynes—the towering director behind queer movies from the ‘90s on. But with all apologies to the great Carol (2015) and Safe (1995), we need to keep things concise. Haynes's best film, Far from Heaven, may not appear queer at first, but the slick update of mid-century melodramas then known as "women’s pictures" masterfully queers up its source material. Cathy (Julianne Moore) is a love-deprived housewife flirting with her Black gardener (Dennis Haysbert), while her husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) is a suit with a closeted affection for men. But everyone here is painfully inching their way to a full expression of their sexual and romantic selves—something any LGBTQ person knows well.

Watch it: Amazon, iTunes, Starz, YouTube

2. Nowhere (1997)

Director Gregg Araki (Mysterious Skin) has sadly never received the mainstream attention he deserves, but Nowhere remains a singular insight into his so-called Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy (which also includes 1993's Totally F***ed Up and 1995's The Doom Generation). The film, which follows an assorted mix of adrift LA youth of different colors and orientations who are connected by their disaffection, is by turns funny, surreal, and tragic—often in the same scene.

Watch it: DVD

3. Laurence Anyways (2012)

In more recent years, we’ve gotten fresh cinematic portraits of trans life. Laurence Anyways from French-Canadian indie darling Xavier Dolan is on the florid side, as with all of Dolan's films, but it’s oh so pretty. He films the blossoming of a trans woman in a difficult relationship like a glossy music video simmering with heartbreak.

Watch it: Amazon Prime

4. Happy Together (1997)

If you haven’t dabbled in Chinese cinema, here’s a gorgeous place to start. Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai—who won a BAFTA for 2000's In the Mood for Love—trains his eye on two men feeling the heady push and pull of mutual lust and dissatisfaction. The photography alone, from noisy urban Hong Kong streets to the swirling waterfalls of Buenos Aires, is swoon-worthy.

Watch it: The Criterion Channel

5. Bad Education (2004)

After a three-year break from directing, Oscar-winning Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar came back into the spotlight in 2019 with his semi-autobiographical Pain and Glory. But his criminally underrated Bad Education touches on gay youth and abuse in fascinating, brutally straightforward fashion. It might be the best performance of Gael García Bernal’s career.

Watch it: Amazon, iTunes, YouTube

6. In a Year with 13 Moons (1978)

Lilo Pempeit in In a Year with 13 Moons (1978).
Lilo Pempeit in In a Year with 13 Moons (1978). / Fantoma

Watch this movie only if you’re up for a profoundly disturbing (but beautifully rendered!) experience. German filmmaking legend Rainer Werner Fassbinder is at his most stark here, unraveling the tale of a trans woman taking account of lost love and her current identity. Hard as it is to watch, it’s a vital window into the still all-too-real problems and violence the trans community faces.

Watch it: Amazon Prime, The Criterion Channel

7. My Own Private Idaho (1991)

Gus Van Sant is in some ways the most accessible LGBTQ filmmaker. But long before the overlong and overrated Harvey Milk biopic Milk, he delivered a rollicking punch in My Own Private Idaho. Though the film is structurally fractured and utilizes pretty much every filmic tool in the toolbox—including a bonkers Shakespearean interlude, documentary-style interviews, and yes, Flea—it somehow all hangs together thanks to the poignant performances of River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves as hustlers who are desperate to find something like home.

Watch it: The Criterion Channel

8. Trash (1970)

Did you know Andy Warhol made movies? Shaggy and frequently ridiculous, they’re also sometimes stunning. Case in point: This very low-budget, all-the-way-in-your-face take (directed by Paul Morrissey) on a heroin addict and his trans girlfriend (a hilariously shrieking Holly Woodlawn) who will do anything to get by in a rough, anything-goes New York City.

Watch it: DVD

9. Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013)

It’s perhaps less than an authentic portrayal of first lesbian love, but Cannes winner Blue Is the Warmest Color works so well because the beats of a fluttering romance turned hurtful are universal.

Watch it: Netflix

10. Paris Is Burning (1990)

At the time it came out, Paris Is Burning was a surprising commercial success and a curiosity. Director Jennie Livingston spent careful time observing the world of Harlem-based voguing balls (which inspired Madonna’s hit “Vogue”) and the wildly talented, frequently catty, fabulous but downtrodden dancers who inhabited them. That many of those performers have died from HIV/AIDS complications makes it that much more essential a document.

Watch it: DVD or Blu-ray

11. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)

It’s no surprise that Hedwig and the Angry Inch has become a Broadway hit. What began as an Obie Award-winning Off-Broadway musical in 1998 spawned this indie phenom movie—directed by John Cameron Mitchell, who also stars—then made its way back to the stage via Broadway, where it won four Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical. In all its incarnations, Hedwig has a killer soundtrack surrounding the unapologetically messy trans woman at its center (and yes, she has an angry inch). She tears down borders like a broken Berlin Wall.

Watch it: HBO Max

12. Bound (1996)

The Matrix-famous Wachowskis were way ahead of their time with this tight, noirish crime thriller in which Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon can’t resist each other in a mob-filled Art Deco apartment building. This cannot be overstated: It’s very hot.

Watch it: HBO Max

13. Moonlight (2016)

Barry Jenkins's Moonlight, which won the 2017 Oscar for Best Picture, doesn’t need more of the standard praise, so I’ll say this: I grew up in a more affluent Miami neighborhood, but the depiction of two Black boys in the city’s impoverished Liberty City fumbling their way to understanding their sexuality as they’re marginalized by the outside world felt so real when I first watched it in theaters. The beach scene is magical. When the two reconnect as men over a homemade Cuban meal—my hometown’s sign of love—I was flooded with tears. More importantly, those tears were earned.

Watch it: Netflix

14. Pariah (2011)

By the very title, you know that the protagonist of Dee Rees’s (Mudbound) delicately told portrait focuses on an outsider. Alike (Adepero Oduye) is a teenage girl struggling with her lesbian desires and the expectations and conflict in her family, yet she is no standard coming-of-age heroine. Oduye is so self-possessed in her portrayal, it’s impossible to look away.

Watch it: Amazon, iTunes, YouTube

15. Tangerine (2015)

This low-tech black comedy from Sean Baker (The Florida Project) doesn’t look like it was shot on an iPhone, but it was. Tangerine is a bleary, saturated fever dream that touches on corners of trans prostitution in L.A., but it also illuminates the deep abiding hope of people who just want to be recognized as the humans they are.

Watch it: Hulu

16. The Crying Game (1992)

If you lived through the ‘90s, you probably know the shot: the mid-film reveal. But while too many of us focused on the sexual dynamics of The Crying Game, Neil Jordan’s masterwork sensitively weaves a queer romance into a tapestry covering fascinating corners of Irish life.

Watch it: Netflix, Showtime

17. The Birdcage (1996)

I have to get personal: The Birdcage was the first LGBTQ movie I saw in theaters as a kid. I was floored. It’s hilarious. Robin Williams and Nathan Lane make an idiosyncratic but believable gay South Beach couple who also happen to own a drag club. And who have to convince a conservative couple that they are, in fact, a straight couple. The movie might seem dated now, but it was massively empowering in its time. When my dad took me and my brother out of the theater, he was clear: “That was funny, but there’s nothing funny about being gay. Gay people are just like everyone else.” The conversation reverberated as I came out years later.

Watch it: Showtime