34 essential LGBTQ films to stream this Pride Month
Mashable is celebrating Pride Month by exploring the modern LGBTQ world, from the people who make up the community to the spaces where they congregate, both online and off.
With theaters reopening just in time for Pride 2021, films made by and about LGBTQ people have never felt so essential.
For decades, cinematic stories relating marginalized communities to the masses have made a difference in how our society and its systems tangibly treat those real people. In this way, filmmakers play a role in not only in entertaining us, but also charting a better future for humankind. After all, where would our world be without all of its Hedwigs, Elios, and Tangerines?
From educational documentaries to charming rom-coms, these are the 34 LGBTQ movies that make our Prides complete, listed in no particular order. Happy streaming!
1. Before Stonewall (1984)
Filmmakers Greta Schiller and Robert Rosenberg did a public service in their creation of seminal documentary Before Stonewall. An educational yet humorous work that provides essential context to the LGBTQ community’s long-fought campaign for civil rights, this is a great starting place for anyone eager to better appreciate just how far acceptance has come and how far it still has to go.
Director Barry Jenkins’ Academy Award-winning Best Picture may use some of the formulaic components seen in other coming-of-age stories, but it imbues them with such immense inventiveness and originality that to compare Moonlight to anything else feels like an insult. This film has rightly been called some of the most impactful filmmaking in history, a perennial meditation on abuse, regret, pain, and acceptance.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is always best enjoyed on the stage. But when a visit to the theater isn’t an option, director and star John Cameron Mitchell’s screen adaptation more than does the trick. In this musical dramedy, Stephen Trask’s spectacular songs once again come to life as the titular and iconic East German rock singer explores revenge, betrayal, and acceptance.
Director Cheryl Dunye’s cinematic debut brings utter fearlessness to righting wrongs. In this romantic comedy, Dunye plays a pseudo-autobiographical version of herself intent on giving credit to the Black actors and filmmakers that came before her but were too often left unnamed in their works. Widely regarded as the first feature-length film directed by an openly lesbian Black woman, The Watermelon Woman remains a triumph 24 years later.
In this charming, sexy, and silly comedy from Stephen Frears, Gordon Warnecke and Daniel Day-Lewis play childhood friends-turned-lovers struggling to make the most of their meager means. When the pair take over a laundromat together, they must face the normal pitfalls of operating a business as well as battle the political climate surrounding immigrants in ’80s Great Britain.
Folks looking for a heartwarming, sweet, and goofy romp to accompany the perfect at-home Pride celebration can stop their search. Love, Simon, starring the always charming Nick Robinson, broke ground as the first major studio film to focus on a gay teen romance. Delightful as it is important, this movie combines the best of rom-coms and coming out stories to check every box on a movie lover’s list.
Tom Cullen and Chris New redefine the chance encounter in director Andrew Haigh’s Weekend. Told over the course of a 48-hour period, this stirring, passionate romance considers the impacts strangers can have on one another — even when their time together is cut all too short.
Based on Patricia Highsmith’s groundbreaking 1952 novel, Todd Haynes’ Carol brings the lives of Carol Aird and Therese Belivet to the screen through actors Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. This masterful rendition of a Christmas-set romance will pull at your heartstrings in all of the right ways, permanently nestling into a corner of your soul.
Artist Marlon Riggs’ experimental film Tongues Untied addresses the onslaught of racist and homophobic prejudices Black gay men have been forced to endure and navigate for decades. Combining documentary footage with scripted personal accounts, this 55-minute film remains an impactful and relevant point of reference in intersectional LGBTQ activism.
Directed by Wong Kar-wai, this nail-biting romantic saga depicts a tumultuous relationship on the brink of collapse. The film’s leads Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai explore passion and its limitations as Happy Together provides a unique, if not jarring, glimpse into affairs of the heart.
Natasha Lyonne stars as a cheerleader forced to attend a conversion therapy camp in what may very well be the greatest lesbian fairytale of all time. Directed by Jamie Babbit, But I’m a Cheerleader was met with lukewarm reviews in 2000, but has since garnered a well-deserved cult following. Come for the promise of RuPaul trying to pretend he’s straight; stay for a first kiss scene featuring Clea DuVall that will knock your pom poms off.
One of the most iconic events of New York City Pride, Wigstock has taken many forms over the years. Watch as director Chris Moukarbel follows present-day queens as they attempt to revitalize the festival made popular by legends, like Lady Bunny, in 2018.
It’s the film you knew had to be on this list. Director Jennie Livingston’s unparalleled documentary Paris Is Burning captures the New York City drag ball culture of the late ’80s with style, grace, and intelligence. It’s a powerful reflection on wealth disparity, race discrimination, and stigma surrounding the LGBTQ community — a must-see if there’s ever been one.
Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger shepherd a nuanced narrative of passion, fear, romance, and shame in director Ang Lee’s tale of star-crossed lovers in rural Wyoming and Texas. A timeless reflection on what it takes to unite who you are expected to be with who you really are, Brokeback Mountain can be a little sappy — but its faultless message always lands.
Reporter David France looks back on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in this riveting, comprehensive documentary. Weaving hundreds of hours of archival footage into a cohesive narrative on the LGBTQ community’s fight against biased healthcare practices, How to Survive a Plague bottles what it means to make societal change happen before it’s too late.
Writer-director Céline Sciamma will blow you away with this historical French drama. Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel lead as a painter and her unwilling subject whose intimate time together begins a secret romance that threatens to unravel them both. Painful and poetic, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the under-appreciated watch you need to make time for.
17. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)
Few things are an unspeakably fun as The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Terence Stamp, Hugo Weaving, and Guy Pearce star as drag performers traveling the Australian outback in this heartfelt comedy packed with iconic one-liners and costume changes. (It should be noted that this film contains some outdated, racist portrayals of nonwhite characters. Many argue the film remains a historic text for the changes it brought about in mainstream acceptance of LGBTQ art.)
Documentarian Robert L. Camina remembers the catastrophic fire that took the lives of 32 people at New Orleans gay bar UpStairs Lounge on June 24, 1973. Witnesses to the tragedy reflect on the lives lost, the expected arsonist behind the attack, and the city’s lacking response to community devastation. This is a heartbreaking but essential chapter in any LGBTQ history book.
Adepero Oduye devastates in this coming-of-age story. A cinematic journey that leaps from the screen straight to your soul, Pariah follows a 17-year-old Black girl as she fights to accept her lesbian identity and reconcile her sexual orientation with her family’s vision of the future.
Another installment from writer-director Céline Sciamma. Tomboy paints a staggering portrait of a gender non-conforming child grappling with societal expectations in a new environment. Full of hope but grounded in its true-to-life performances, this film exists as a testament to becoming who you really are at any age. Then-10-year-old Zoé Héran positively dazzles with her lead role.
There has never been a better time to revisit Sara Jordenö’s breathtaking Kiki. Centered on the drag and ballroom scene of New York City and those communities’ roles in rebuffing systemic intersectional bias, this documentary is an inspiring reminder that joy and love can bring about lasting change — but not without profound struggle.
The third film from Academy Award-nominated documentarian David France, Welcome to Chechnya takes viewers on a guerilla-style investigation into the anti-gay purges that still plague the constituent republic of Russia.
Not only does the explosive project detail the abhorrent policies created by Vladimir Putin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov to criminalize homosexuality, it also delves into the insidious culture the government has instilled in its citizens to encourage hate crimes. It’s a painful watch that demands attention from viewers, focusing in large part on the courageous efforts of underground networks working to help LGBTQ people escape the region. *
Only star Olivia Colman walked away with an Oscar for her work on The Favourite, but the 2018 historical black comedy more than earned its fair share of praise. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, this Best Picture nominee tells the story of two courtiers, played by Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, vying for the favor of Queen Anne (Colman). An excellent argument against aristocracies — and owning too many rabbits — this darkly hilarious and queer romp is well worth a watch.
Director David Weissman’s documentary We Were Here transports viewers back to the San Francisco LGBTQ scene of the ’80s and ’90s as interview subjects relive their struggle to contend with the unfathomable HIV/AIDS crisis. A testament to the strength of the human spirit and the power of community, this is a history lesson worth paying attention to.
Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, and Bella Heathcote star as polyamorous lovers in this biopic about the life of William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman. Though Marston’s surviving family members have largely denounced the depiction of their late relative, director Angela Robinson’s drama remains a widely beloved instance of representation for non-monogamous people.
Timothée Chalamet leads in director Luca Guadagnino’s stunning coming-of-age romance. Winner of Best Adapted Screenplay at the 90th Academy Awards, Call Me By Your Name approaches its starring couple with tenderness, understanding, and unshakable warmth. This is the perfect pick for a cozy-yet-ethereal night in.
Winner of Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards, director Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman is a tragedy and triumph for the ages. Daniela Vega plays a woman who loses her partner unexpectedly. Amidst her grief, she must contend with her late partner’s family and their transphobia. This film offers exquisite cognizance of the pain prejudice can add to existing loss.
Keanu Reeves and the late River Phoenix star in this 20th century retelling of Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V. Director Gus Van Sant guides his leads through a tense, melancholy exploration of intimacy, power, and uncertainty that never fails to deliver poignant reflection despite its adventure-fueled storyline. Oh, and the pair’s chemistry is…searing.
Since arriving on Netflix last year, The Half Of It has quietly built a following of young queer people enchanted by its presentation of coming out. Starring Leah Lewis as Ellie Chiu, an introverted Chinese-American high schooler, this romantic comedy is yet another retelling of the 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac, but with an intense honesty to its subject that makes it stand out.
Director Angela Tucker’s debut documentary offers a thorough, albeit imperfect, examination of what it means to be asexual in our often sex- and romance-obsessed culture. A(sexual) offers profound insight into what it means for asexual people to fight for their right to not partake in normalized relationship rituals and define their own spaces within the LGBTQ community.
Director Sean Baker’s low-budget tour de force follows transgender sex worker Sin-Dee Rella, played by the effervescent Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, as she seeks to enact revenge on the man who cheated on her and the cisgender woman he cheated with. Bittersweet and hysterical, Tangerine is a one-of-a-kind viewing experience you’ll cherish forever.
In director Gus Van Sant’s astounding biopic, Sean Penn stars as activist and politician Harvey Milk. The first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California, Milk progressed the rights of LGBTQ Americans by unprecedented leaps and bounds. Milk honors that legacy with its heartfelt imagining of an icon. Penn won Best Actor for his portrayal of Milk at the 81st Academy Awards.
In the wake of an unexpected wedding, The Birdcage chronicles the chaotic blending of two very different families. Along the way, Nathan Lane dons full drag, Robin Williams dances his pleated pants off, and Gene Hackman brings remarkable depth to his straight-man role. This is the perfect pick if you want something light and fun to watch with your chosen family.
Starring Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva as burgeoning lovers, Rafiki was banned in Kenya “due to its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law.” As a result, of course, much of the rest of the queer world embraced it as a symbol against censorship. Director Wanuri Kahiu treats those viewers to a positively enchanting romance, one that only emphasizes the need for LGBTQ equality everywhere.
UPDATE: June 3, 2021, 1:37 p.m. PDT We celebrate every Pride by watching the all-time greats of LGBTQ film, but we’ve gone ahead and updated this to add a few titles, make sure you’ve got the right streaming links, and comb out all those social distancing jokes from 2020. Enjoy!
Asterisks (*) indicate the write up comes from a previous Mashable list.