Queering Hollywood: 17 Must-Watch Feature Films About LGBTQ+ Characters Made by Queer Filmmakers
When it comes to positive (and varied) mainstream depictions of queer characters and storylines, Hollywood still has a long way to go. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t incredible queer classics — in fact, this list is just a sliver of the myriad tales LGBTQ+ storytellers have put forth on the big screen. From campy cult classics and happy-ending rom-coms to period pieces and sci-fi hits, queer stories are limitless. Tune into these must-watch films this Pride Month — and all year long — to see how queer filmmakers are moving the dial just by telling stories that are influenced by their own lived experiences.
17. All Over Me (1997)
All Over Me has been heralded as the 1990s’ ultimate must-watch coming-of-age lesbian love story. The film centers on teenagers Ellen (Tara Subkoff) and Claude (Alison Folland), who live on opposite ends of a park in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. When Ellen meets Mark, it seems the gal pals might drift apart — especially because Claude is dealing with an unrequited, deep-seated crush on Ellen.
16. Pink Flamingos (1972)
As is the case with many of John Waters’ films, Pink Flamingos stars countercultural drag queen Divine as a criminal living under the alias Babs Johnson, the "filthiest person alive." While living in a trailer with her mother, son and partner, Divine finds herself confronted by the Marbles (David Lochary and frequent Waters collaborator Mink Stole), criminals who hope to outdo Divine’s filthiness.
15. Appropriate Behavior (2014)
Appropriate Behavior marks writer and director Desiree Akhavan’s feature directorial debut — and it’s just one of two of her films that nabbed a spot on our must-watch list. The film centers on Shirin (Akhavan), a bisexual Persian-American Brooklynite who’s struggling to get her footing post-breakup.
14. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
Based on John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s 1998 musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Mitchell adapted, directed and starred in this beloved film version. The story centers on Hedwig Robinson, a genderqueer East German rock singer who develops a relationship with Tommy, a musical collaborator and mentor. Tommy ends up stealing Hedwig’s music — and becomes a bonafide rockstar, while Hedwig, and backing band the Angry Inch, shadow Tommy’s tour.
13. Carol (2015)
Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt (one of the first lesbian novels to have a seemingly happy ending), Carol had been in the works since 1997 and, thanks to the tireless efforts of screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, it finally came to fruition in 2015. Against the backdrop of Christmas, the story centers on aspiring photographer Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), who, while working at a department store in Manhattan, meets an entrancing woman named Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett).
12. Dirty Computer (2018)
Dubbed an "emotion picture" by Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer is a companion piece to the musician and artist’s album of the same name. In this sci-fi masterpiece, Monáe plays Jane 57821, a woman on the run from a totalitarian, near-future society that has dubbed humans "computers." If you don’t conform to the bleak dystopia, you’re dubbed a "dirty computer" in need of cleansing — a.k.a. getting the total Eternal Sunshine treatment.
11. Tangerine (2015)
Sean Baker’s 2015 film Tangerine follows protagonist Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), a transgender sex worker, who meets up with her friend, Alexandra (Mya Taylor), at a donut shop in Hollywood on Christmas. Alexandra reveals that while Sin-Dee Rella was serving a 28-day stint in prison, Chester, her boyfriend and pimp, has been cheating on her, which motivates Sin-Dee Rella to search the neighborhood for her ex.
10. The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)
Based on Emily M. Danforth’s YA coming-of-age novel of the same name, The Miseducation of Cameron Post was written and directed by Appropriate Behavior’s Desiree Akhavan. Set in 1993, the film follows Cameron Post (Chloe Grace-Moretz), who is involved in a secret same-sex relationship with her best friend Coley Taylor. Cameron is outed when her beard boyfriend discovers her hooking up with Coley at the homecoming dance, which causes Cameron’s very religious aunt to send her to God’s Promise, a gay conversion therapy center.
9. The Matrix (1999)
Written and directed by the Wachowski sisters, The Matrix depicts a dystopian future in which humanity is unknowingly trapped within a simulation while intelligent machines use their bodies as an energy source. When computer programmer and hacker Neo (Keanu Reeves) uncovers the truth, he finds himself drawn into, and then leading, an uprising.
8. Desert Hearts (1985)
Adapted from Jane Rule’s 1964 lesbian novel Desert of the Heart, Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts is set in Reno, Nevada, in 1959 and follows Columbia University professor Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver), who heads to the desert in the wake of a divorce. While there, she meets the younger, but infinitely more confident, Cay Rivers (Patricia Charbonneau), and the two fall in love.
7. The Watermelon Woman (1996)
Romantic comedy-drama The Watermelon Woman was written, directed and edited by its star, Cheryl Dunye. The film centers on Cheryl, a young Black lesbian who navigates her video store day job while trying to make a documentary about Black actresses during the 1930s, who were relegated to stereotypical and racist roles.
6. A Fantastic Woman (2017) | Original Title: Una Mujer Fantástica
Directed by Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio, A Fantastic Woman follows Marina (Daniela Vega), a young transgender woman living in Santiago, Chile, who works as a singer and waitress. Soon after moving in with her boyfriend, an older man named Orlando, things take a sad turn: Orlando wakes in a daze during the middle of the night and stumbles down a flight of stairs. Marina drives him to the hospital, but Orlando dies of a brain aneurysm. Upset, Marina leaves the hospital in a rush, drawing the suspicion of detectives.
5. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) | Original Title: Portrait de la jeune fille en feu
Portrait of a Lady on Fire tells the story of Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a young woman commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of reluctant bride-to-be, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). Directed by Céline Sciamma, Portrait won the Queer Palm at Cannes, becoming the first film directed by a woman to do so.
4. Saving Face (2004)
Saving Face marked Alice Wu’s directorial debut and, honestly, a filmmaker couldn’t ask for a better first outing. The rom-com focuses on Dr. Wilhelmina "Wil" Pang (Michelle Krusiec), a successful (but closeted) surgeon. Wil’s mom (Joan Chen) tries to set her up on dates with men, all the while navigating her own (frowned upon) out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Meanwhile, Wil finds herself drawn to Vivian (Lynn Chen), a woman who’s looking to embark upon a career in dance.
3. Moonlight (2016)
Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, the coming-of-age drama Moonlight is based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unpublished play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Taking from its stage roots, Jenkins’ film is told in three parts, each representing a different stage in the main character Chiron’s (Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders and Alex Hibbert) life and explores his struggles with sexuality, identity and past abuse.
2. But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)
Although it may seem like it's all camp and games, Jamie Babbit’s satirical rom-com But I’m a Cheerleader also has a lot of heart. Natasha Lyonne stars as Megan Bloomfield, a high school cheerleader whose parents send her to True Directions, a residential inpatient conversion therapy camp, to "cure" her lesbianism. While there, Megan struggles to adapt to gender roles and norms — and falls in love with the effortlessly cool Graham (Clea DuVall).
1. Pariah (2011)
Executive-produced by Spike Lee, Pariah marks acclaimed director Dee Rees’ debut feature-length film and was adapted from her award-winning 2007 short of the same name. The film stars Adepero Oduye as Alike, a 17 year old from Brooklyn who’s eager for her first sexual experience — and discovering what it means as a lesbian.