Before Billy Eichner’s Bros hit screens, another gay rom-com made some waves after being greenlit by a major Hollywood studio. The wide release of Love, Simon (2018) — the film adaptation of Becky Albertalli’s bestselling young adult (YA) novel — was a landmark moment. Although the film depicts a fairly sanitized (and white and privileged) coming out story, it is a gay rom-com (with a healthy dash of drama), and the first to be released in theaters by a major studio.
Now, Eichner, who created the always-spot-on-yet-full-of-nuanced-comedy Billy on the Street, is the lead in Bros, a film he also co-wrote. And Bros is history-making, too; it’s being touted as the first adult gay major studio rom-com to get a wide theatrical release.
The canon of LGBTQIA+ films made by — and for — queer and trans people is certainly growing. And although it’s frustrating that mainstream, and immensely lucrative, Hollywood studios have taken so long to take even the smallest step forward, there are numerous must-watch films by queer creatives — all of them infused with the nuance that only lived experience can bring — that have laid the groundwork for future stories to be told.
The best way to provide uncompromising representation for the myriad queer people and their varied experiences is to broaden the scope, to keep telling more stories, and these 18 movies are a great place to start.
While making waves as the first adult gay rom-com made by a major studio (Universal Pictures) is already achievment enough, Bros also stars two out gay actors. Aside from Billy Eichner’s script — and starring performance — the movie also boasts a producer credit for Judd Apatow (Bridesmaids, This Is 40), while Luke Macfarlane (Single All the Way) stars opposite Eichner’s Bobby as love interest Aaron.
Touted as a “boy meets bro love story,” Bros centers on Bobby, a tell-it-like-it-is, bitingly cynical gay man who hosts a podcast, wins a GLAAD-like organization’s Gay Cis White Man of the year award and, for most of the movie, is spearheading the effort to open the first national LGBTQ+ history museum.
At a launch party for the new dating app Zellweger — like Grindr, but for gay men who just want to talk effusively about actresses — Bobby meets Aaron, the “bro” of this rom-com. Bobby’s friend (Guy Branam) describes Aaron as “boring” — he’s a cross-fit loyalist who helps people write their wills. But, once Bobby and Aaron get to flirting, they realize they have a mutual dislike for shallow, not-too-bright people.
The only problem? Despite being smitten, neither of them “do relationships”; plus, Bobby fears he isn’t Aaron’s type (that is, not a ripped bro), while Aaron struggles to be proud about being gay. It’s not that Aaron is closeted — he just doesn’t want to stand out. For Bobby, though, owning who he is and being loud about it has helped him weather the highs and lows, especially after years of being told to “tone it down” — the code for “be less gay and be more palatable for straight people.” Aaron admires Bobby’s confidence and wishes he’d chased his own dreams; it’s an incredibly sweet dynamic.
But, aside from its dial-moving representation, Bros is also a really fun time. And legitimately funny. If, like me, you still have a Difficult People-shaped hole in your life, you’ll be thrilled to reacquaint yourself with Eichner’s particular brand of humor. It’s self-deprecating, cynical, dark and incredibly sharp. Whether he’s observing something in a nuanced way or making a biting pop cultural reference, Eichner proves his uncanny knack for making jokes that just feel so wildly and absurdly accurate.
Case and point? Kristin Chenoweth presenting an honor at the GLAAD-adjacent LGBTQ+ award show, all while wearing an enormous rainbow dress and a hat that portrays the Stonewall riots. This one hilarious moment is the perfect encapsulation of so many things; it’s both delightfully unhinged and exceedingly believable.
Not to mention, Bros pays homage to two of the best rom-coms of all time: You’ve Got Mail (1998) and When Harry Met Sally… (1989). Seriously — what’s not to love?
Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki’s (Sheila Munyiva) budding romance is at the heart of Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki. The drama is set in Kenya — where being openly queer is dangerous and, in some instances, criminal. And there’s something special about this movie in that, despite the backdrop, these two queer characters are full of joy and able to fall in love.
Ask contributing writer Dani Rollins spotlighted Rafiki and, in particular, Kena in a love letter to Black queer film characters earlier this year. Rollins points out how Kena, a more masculine-of-center character, must learn to navigate male-dominated spaces as well as her relationships, and that the film handles it with such nuance. “Seeing Black queer people in films like Rafiki is crucial,” Rollins writes. “These stories are a balm for people aching to see their realities reflected back to them on screen.”
Fire Island (2022)
One of the best movies Hulu has to offer, Fire Island is also one of the year’s best films so far. (Not to mention, a redemption for the streamer, which backed the controversial, queer — and alleged — rom-com Happiest Season in 2020.)
Star Joel Kim Booster (Big Mouth) wrote Fire Island, which is directed by Driveways filmmaker Andrew Ahn. Set on the titular New York island (and long-standing gay vacation destination), the movie is a modern-day, queer retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.
Written with a lived-in authenticity, Fire Island is an illustration of what it’s like to be queer, to be Asian — what it’s like to not be chiseled, white and overtly masculine (in that binary sense). A lot of that prejudice — almost like a gay class system, a la an Austen novel — comes from other gay men, so seeing that dissected in a sharp, insightful way is powerful.
Booster’s Noah, the film’s Elizabeth Bennet, is joined by SNL’s Bowen Yang, who plays Noah’s best friend and hopeless romantic Howie; Conrad Ricamora (How to Get Away With Murder) as the perfect Darcy stand-in, Will; and stand-up legend Margaret Cho (The Flight Attendant), who plays the Mrs. Bennet of the film.
Long before the Wachowskis gifted us Sense8, there was Bound, their 1996 directorial debut. Generally, The Matrix (1999) overshadows all else on the directors/writers’ combined roster. And for understandable reasons: The Matrix is one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time, and it’s also been lauded as an incredibly deft trans allegory, a reading Lilly Wachowski appreciated in that it’s “an excellent reminder that art is never static.”
The thing about Bound, though, is that the film wasn’t an allegory — it was very openly queer. You certainly need both kinds of stories — the metaphorical and the ones that eschew all subtext and plainly reflect people. But let’s give the much-deserved space to the Wachowskis’ 1996 offering.
In this neo-noir crime thriller, Violet (Jennifer Tilly) is dating Caesar (Joe Pantoliano), a Mafia lackey. Eager to escape her relationship, Violet has an affair with ex-con Corky (Gina Gershon), and they plot to steal millions from the Mafia — and drive off together. The Wachowskis brought in sex educator Susie Bright to coordinate the sex scenes; even beyond these intimate moments, Bound is one of the best early examples of queer women at the center of a mainstream film.
Am I Ok? (2022)
Standup and writer Tig Notaro and actor, writer and comedian Stephanie Allyne — who are spouses — first teamed up on screen in One Mississippi, a dark, offbeat comedy-drama series that’s somewhat autobiographical for Notaro. This year, Am I Ok? marks another professional team-up for Notaro and Allyne; the two co-directed the film, which was written by Lauren Pomerantz (SNL).
Starring Dakota Johnson (The Lost Daughter; that Ellen clip) and Sonoya Mizuno (Devs), Am I Ok? debuted at Sundance Film Festival in January of 2022, but it hasn’t hit theaters or streaming — yet. HBO holds the distribution rights, so it’s set to premiere on HBO Max on an undetermined date in (hopefully) 2022.
Johnson’s Lucy, a 30-something Los Angeleno, realizes that her dating history with men is so abysmal for one definitive reason: she’s a lesbian. This truth about herself is something she didn’t quite know — though she did kind of know — and couldn’t quite face. Luckily, Lucy’s lifelong friend Jane (Mizuno) is around to help her navigate coming out “later” in life.
Happy Together (1997)
Starring the late Leslie Cheung (Farewell My Concubine), a singer and Hong Kong cinema actor, and the legendary Tony Leung (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings), Happy Together is a quintessential part of the New Queer Cinema movement. Not to mention, it’s directed by Hong Kong cinema icon Wong Kar-wai; Leung actually won Best Actor at Cannes for starring in the director’s In the Mood for Love (2000), one of the greatest films of all time.
But back to Happy Together, which came out a few years before. In the film, Ho Po-Wing (Cheung) and Lai Yiu-Fai (Leung) are a gay couple with a tumultuous relationship. Although they fight and separate often, something always draws them back together. When they visit Argentina and break up after getting lost on a tourist excursion, the couple realize they can’t afford airfare back to Hong Kong.
While Fai works as a doorman at a tango bar, Po-Wing hooks up with several other men, until he’s found stealing from one of them. Although Po-Wing seeks refuge in Fai’s apartment, it’s clear that the couple can’t just go back to how things once were.
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.
Backed by the album’s incredible electro-pop sound, Dirty Computer threads together the album’s seemingly disparate music videos, punctuating them with a queer Black feminist retelling of the dystopian genre and, at the same time, crafting a sharp commentary about present-day America and what it means to be othered. And, as seen in the music videos for “Pynk” and “Make Me Feel,” much of the emotional heft of the emotion picture hinges on the wonderfully queer relationship between Jane and Zen (Tessa Thompson).
Plus, if you want to know more about the world of Dirty Computer, you can check out Monáe’s The Memory Librarian, which she wrote alongside some of the genre’s best authors.
Appropriate Behavior (2014)
Appropriate Behavior marks writer and director Desiree Akhavan’s (The Bisexual) 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.
As Ryan Gilbey of The New Statesman points out, Akhavan’s writing is so stellar that she crafts “characters whose life seems to extend beyond their brief screen time.” There’s a whole lot more to like about this irreverent take on the classic rom-com, too. Mainly, unlike other flippant stabs at the genre mold, Appropriate Behavior is filled with incredibly poignant moments — and a protagonist you’re wholly rooting for.
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).
Carol leaves her gloves behind on Therese’s counter, Therese sends them back and the two meet for lunch. Carol reveals that she’s gearing up for a divorce (and custody battle) — so she and Therese gear up for the queer-roadtrip-meets-slow-burn-romance we didn’t know would become our favorite Christmas movie.
Directed by the acclaimed Todd Haynes, the film looks like an oil painting in motion. So out-of-this-world good it must be “flung out of space.”
Another queer Christmas film — technically. 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.
Tangerine was shot on three iPhone 5S smartphones, which gives the film a very in-the-moment, thrilling feel. Additionally, Baker cast transgender actresses, Rodriguez and Taylor, to play transgender characters — something that’s still a frustrating rarity in Hollywood. Rotten Tomatoes’ aggregate review summary perhaps puts it best, noting that Tangerine is “an old-fashioned comedy at heart — and a pretty wonderful one at that.”
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 (Chloë 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.
Despite the heavy material, Cameron Post isn’t without some real biting humor and warm moments, much of which can be attributed to the queer pals Cam meets at God’s Promise, Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane) and Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck). The trio make it through because they have each other, underscoring the importance — and power — of chosen family.
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.
Considered a landmark in New Queer Cinema, The Watermelon Woman is essential viewing for innumerable reasons, including Dunye’s drive to make the film. “Cheryl Dunye’s first feature is so important to me,” Drew Gregory writes for an article on Autostraddle. “When Dunye didn’t see her story, she made it herself. But The Watermelon Woman isn’t just her story on screen — it’s also the searching, the wanting, the necessity of that story.”
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) (2019)
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.
This beautifully shot, slow-burn romance is also about the act — and art — of looking, and the painting becomes an act of collaboration and love. Quelle Movies notes that the film’s leads, Merlant and Haenel, “bring an intensity that is simply awe inspiring” to this already “mesmerizing” film. Also, besides a few indulgent moments of musical performance, the film doesn’t have a traditional soundtrack, which certainly adds to its rawness.
Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also shout-out Sciamma’s Water Lilies (2007), a queer coming-of-age story that stars a young Haenel.
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.
At the time, Saving Face was the first mainstream Hollywood movie centered on Chinese Americans since The Joy Luck Club (1993). Joan Chen (Twin Peaks) noted that, before Saving Face, “I was always this tragic woman, and Alice gave me this opportunity to play in a comedy… Saving Face came along and gave me the opportunity to get the authenticity that I was craving for.” The positive and diverse representation didn’t stop there: Saving Face is also one of the few lesbian romances with a happy ending.
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.
Often, Moonlight is heralded as one of the best films of the 21st century. The film won top prizes at both the Golden Globes and the Oscars and nabbed additional Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali, who plays Chiron’s father figure. By exploring the intersections of masculinity, queerness and Blackness, Moonlight, as the Los Angeles Times‘ Justin Chang puts it, is both “achingly romantic and uncommonly wise.”
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).
Although some critics have called its depictions of queerness “stereotypical,” that’s also kind of the point. The film is made by and for queer folks, so when Megan’s parents decide she’s gay in large part because of her recent vegetarianism — and when a True Directions counselor played by RuPaul comes to take Megan away — it all feels like a big in joke.
Like the John Waters films that inspired it, But I’m a Cheerleader has also become a cult classic. “I was very closeted when we made this film,” co-star Clea DuVall tweeted in June 2020. “Countless people over the years have told me how this movie made them feel seen and helped them come out. I want them to know their words and strength did the same for me. Thank you.”
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 (Five Days at Memorial) as Alike, a 17 year old from Brooklyn who’s eager for her first sexual experience — and to discover what it means to be her whole queer self.
Alike’s parents (played by Charles Parnell and Kim Wayans) love their daughter deeply, but mistrust — and fail to really understand — her in the wake of her self-discovery. This raw, tender film captures the difficulty of code-switching — Alike pivots between rising to her church-going parents’ expectations and frequenting gay nightclubs. A coming-of-age film anchored by a moving, remarkable performance from Oduye, Pariah is, undoubtedly, one of the best queer films on offer.
The Handmaiden (2016)
Based on Sarah Waters’ lauded 2002 novel Fingersmith, this psychological thriller trades Victorian-era Britain for Korea under Japanese colonial rule. Split into three acts, the first third of the film sees a man nicknamed Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) devising a plan to marry Japanese heiress Lady Izumi Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and steal her fortune. To do so, he hires Nam Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) to be Hideko’s maid — a position that’ll allow her to convince Hideko to marry the Count.
There’s a lot of double-crossing and twists and turns on display here; director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) knows how to keep you hooked and on the edge of your seat. More likely than not, you’ve probably heard some rumblings about the film’s sex scenes, which are very explicit and filmed at length. While they certainly lean into tropes that stem from the male gaze and lesbians as they’re depicted for men in pornography, we’re constantly reminded that the film is all about control.
In fact, that struggle for control — and the betrayals and reveals that punctuate what’s ultimately a slow-burn con — is what makes The Handmaiden so good.