1992 – Orlando
It was a star-making role for Tilda Swinton, and while this gloriously surreal movie plays with huge themes around gender, sex and sexuality, it is too often overlooked in conversations around LGBTI film.
An exquisite, sumptuous adaptation of the classic novel by Virginia Woolf (she’ll be coming up again later), Orlando tells the story of a 1600s nobleman who one day wakes up a woman. An essential watch for anybody who identifies as trans or gender-fluid in 2017.
1993 – Philadelphia
Tom Hanks is synonymous with many classic, larger-than-life 90s movie characters. (Forrest Gump, Toy Story’s Woody). But it was one of his more nuanced and understated performances, occurring earlier in the decade, that won him his first Oscar.
In Philadelphia, he exudes courage and conviction as HIV positive lawyer Andrew, fighting the injustice of being fired from his job because of fear around his condition. Denzel Washington – the homophobic lawyer who evolves and goes on to defend him – is equally impressive.
1994 – The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert
RuPaul’s Drag Race has been a cultural touchstone for almost a decade. But somewhat surprisingly, its influence has yet to impact on the world of mainstream film. When it comes to the small handful of classics of this sparkly sub-genre, you need to go way, way back.
One such example is Priscilla, about three colorful queens who embark on a working road trip across the Australian outback. Did we mention one of them has a secret infant son? Expect bitchy humor and dramatic heft in equal measures, as well as a compelling insight into the gritty, testing underside of an industry that’s not always as fabulous as it seems.
1996 – Beautiful Thing
Originally a play by one of the UK’s most celebrated gay writers Jonathan Harvey, Beautiful Thing is a hidden gem of British cinema. It holds a place in the heart of many a gay guy who came of age in the 90s. (Even though this writer didn’t see it until years later!).
A fairytale of gay teen love – albeit set in an unforgiving South East London council estate – the lovely relationship between curious teens Ste and Jamie would surely melt even the most homophobic of hearts.
1997 – Happy Together
While Beautiful Thing’s central relationship is depicted as, for want of a better word, beautiful, in Happy Together, the love under the magnifying glass is altogether darker and more damaging.
Written, directed and produced by Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-wai, Happy Together is an emotional uproar of a movie, with penniless protagonists Ho Po-wing and Lai Yiu-fai’s taking to Argentina to chase their wildest dreams. What transpires is nothing short of a nightmare, and a cautionary tale against loving someone who seeks to do you harm.
1999 – Boys Don’t Cry
That said, Happy Together is hardly the most depressing LGBTI movie ever made. There are ample contenders, but trans drama Boys Don’t Cry might just take the cake, continuing the strange, late 90s trend for inexplicably damned queer characters who can never catch a break.
Hilary Swank won her first Best Actress Oscar for her starring role as the angelic Brandon, and would later win a second for her Clint Eastwood’s sports drama Million Dollar Baby five years later. Chloe Sevigny was nominated for Best Supporting Actress.
2001 – Mulholland Drive
David Lynch has been basking in critical acclaim all year with the return of his seminal TV show Twin Peaks. With the same weird and wonderful tone, Mulholland Drive is an cousin of sorts: in fact, the project was originally going to be a Twin Peaks spinoff, showing the dizzy Audrey Horne headed for Hollywood.
Instead, Laura Haring and Naomi Watts star. Haring plays the sensuous, mysterious Rita, a car crash survivor suffering from amnesia who pieces together her identity with the help of perky aspiring actress Betty, whose house she wanders into after the accident. The two fall in love, but as their real identities come to the fore, there’s no happy ending. Possibly this writer’s favorite film of all time.
2002 – The Hours
Another film inspired by the late, great bisexual author Virginia Woolf, The Hours examines the lives of three different women in a single day. It’s based on the book by gay author Michael Cunningham, also inspired by the Woolf text in question: Mrs Dalloway. First there’s Woolf herself, played by Nicole Kidman in an Oscar-winning performance, as she begins to write her iconic novel.
Then there’s young mum Laura, played by a heartbreaking Julianne Moore. Laura, unfulfilled in her roles as wife and mother (and, it’s implied, struggling with her sexuality), turns to Mrs Dalloway to escape her torment. Finally there’s book editor Clarissa, a present day Mrs Dalloway played by Meryl Streep, stressed at the prospect of giving a party for her famous writer friend who’s dying of AIDs-related illnesses. It’s a saddening but beautiful watch and, along with Mulholland Drive, one of my favorite films of all time.
2003 – Monster
There was a lot of talk around Nicole Kidman’s fake nose in The Hours, but that was nothing compared to Charlize Theron’s transformation for the leading role in Monster, in which she played serial killer Aileen Wuornos.
The de-glammed star gained 30 pounds and wore prosthetic teeth for the part. It’s not just her appearance that sells the film: from her staggered speech to her jerky body language, Theron’s performance is bold and unforgettable. Charlize won the Best Actress Oscar for her role in the film, while Christina Ricci gives one of her most memorable adult performances playing Wall’s love interest Tyria Moore.
2005 – Brokeback Mountain
Probably the most famous gay-themed film of all time, and certainly one of the best, with an emotional suckerpunch of an ending. The late Heath Ledger starred as sheep herder Denis, opposite Jake Gyllenhaul’s sprightly rodeo king Jack, with whom he falls into a deep, decades-spanning love. Both are divine.
The movie was scandalously overlooked for the Best Picture Oscar to the middling Crash, leading to accusations of homophobia and heterosexism against the academy.
2005 – Transamerica
Felicity Huffman is best known as bedraggled mum-of-four Lynette on the fabulously soapy Desperate Housewives. But her best role – earning her an Oscar nomination – couldn’t be more different. Although, in Transamerica, she once again plays a mother whose love for her child wins the day.
Although for trans woman Bree, circumstances are uniquely challenging. Up until the moment burly teenager turns up on her doorstep asked for Stanley (her name before her transition), Bree thought she was childless.
2008 – Milk
A moving biopic of beloved US politician Harvey Milk, who was openly gay, this movie’s screenplay won an Oscar for its writer Dustin Lance Black, who is now married to Olympic diver Tom Daley.
Sean Penn won the Best Actor Oscar for his role as Milk, while James Franco gives one of his cutest performances as Scott, Milk’s lover. But credit must go to the wider ensemble cast, who conjure the exicting political and sexual landscapes of late 70s San Francisco with gusto.
2009 – A Single Man
Colin Firth earned an Oscar nomination for his delicate, profoundly moving performance as grieving lecturer George in this stylish adaptation of the Christopher Isherwood novel. Matthew Goode plays George’s dearly departed, while Nicholas Hoult plays the hot, young student who revives George’s sexual curiosity.
Julianne Moore puts in a fabulous supporting turn as George’s absurdly glamorous BFF Charlotte. Openly gay fashion guru Tom Ford waited six years before returning to directing, but it was worth the wait. Last year’s Nocturnal Animals was a knockout.
2010 – The Kid’s Are Alright
It’s Julianne Moore again! The star appeared opposite Annette Bening in this fascinating and funny family drama, with the latter earning a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her role as Nic, a lesbian mother-of-two whose life is turned upside down when her kids seek out their biological father
Speaking of Julianne, let us go on a quick tangent as we pay props to the star’s long and varied history portraying vivid queer women on screen, most recently in 2015’s Freeheld opposite Ellen Page.
2011 – Weekend
Another slow and subdued gay love story, with strong echoes of Beautiful Thing and a pinch of Brokeback Mountain, for my money this is the LGBTI film of the decade. The scene where Glen impersonates Russell’s father is the tenderest moment I’ve ever seen at the cinema; I can remember how my heart skipped a beat when I saw it.
It’s about two gay men who hook up and spend the weekend together, and not a whole lot more. But then, there’s so much more. The film marked the arrival of a major talent in the form of director Andrew Haigh. He went on to film episodes of the HBO show Looking and his 2015 film 45 Years won Charlotte Rampling a Best Actress Oscar nomination.
2012 – The Perks of Being a Wallflower
From My So-Called Life to Skins, TV shows about teen misfits often have luminous, LGBTI characters at their core. For many of them, sexuality is almost secondary. The Perks of Being a Wallflower adapts the template to the big screen and although we love it, we can’t help but wonder what an epic TV show it could have been!
Ezra Miller plays the lovable oddball Patrick, the hip, sexually ambiguous kid we all knew and fantasized about at school. His performance is dazzling on its own, but Ezra’s openness about his own sexuality imbues it with an authenticity often lacking when straight people tackle queer roles.
2013 – Blue Is the Warmest Colour
It won the Palme d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, and it’s not hard to see why. Blue, an often painfully intimate examination of young, lesbian love, shares the glacial pace of Weekend et al, not to mention the emotional torture of Happy Together, but comes up with something more than the sum of its parts.
The frantic sex scenes make for uncomfortable viewing, with many lesbians denouncing them as exaggerated and through a male lens. But as a whole, the film exudes a raw power and truth that will stay with you forever.
2014 – Pride
If you have any homophobic elderly relatives, show them this film. They will be powerless to its charms. In some ways it reminds me of Milk, but it’s as unabashedly, eccentrically British as Milk was stylishly, seriously American.
Pride was a watershed moment for LGBTI cinema in the UK: a feel-good comedy with a fantastic 80s soundtrack featuring some of Britain’s top home-grown talent (Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy). You almost don’t notice its fiercely queer, political subtext – about striking Welsh coal miners and London LGBTIs coming together to fight common enemies – until afterwards.
2014 The Imitation Game
Like cisgendered actors playing trans characters, similar criticism is often leveled at straight actors playing gay roles. But sometimes an excellent performance is enough to neutralize such complaints.
Benedict Cumberbatch is fast becoming one of the finest actors of his generation. And his leading role in biopic The Imitation Game, telling the heroic but tragic story of closeted WW2 codebreaker Alan Turing Game, will one day be remembered as one of his stepping stones to greatness, perhaps like Tom Hanks’ Andrew in Philadelphia.
2014 – Stranger By the Lake
In my view something of an unintentional companion piece to Blue Is the Warmest Colour, Stranger By the Lake is another piece of highly-charged French ertocia featuring daringly explicit sex scenes.
There may be similarities in palette to Blue and others, but in genre terms, Stranger is in a league of its own on this list. A nerve-shredding thriller verging on horror, in it two lovers meet at a remote, beautiful cruising ground. Their blissful affair turns deadly when one witnesses the other murdering his ex.
2015 – Carol
There aren’t many examples of lesbian love stories hitting the global mainstream, but Carol did just that. This, of course, was thanks in part to the glowing star power of Cate Blanchett, not to mention the rising star of Rooney Mara, previously best known for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
A sweeping, joyous romance, the movie rejects the pared-down look evident elsewhere, opting instead for a rich and luxurious aesthetic. The main conduit of this is Cate’s closeted 50s housewife, what with her insane wardrobe. As awe in her as the rest of us is sweet, unassuming department store girl Rooney. Cate landed a Best Actress Oscar nomination for the film, while Mara got one for Best Supporting.
2015 – Tangerine
A few years back, there was talk that the visceral power of Tangerine would lead to Oscar nominations for its excellent trans stars Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, which would’ve been a first.
But frustratingly, the academy dug its heels once again. Perhaps this story of violent, foul-mouthed trans hookers (with hearts of gold) strutting around the crime-ridden streets of Hollywood proved too edgy for them. Nevertheless, Tangerine is already an icon of trans cinema, eschewing the criticism leveled at the likes of Danish Girl and Dallas Buyers Club, which featured cisgendered actors in trans roles.
2016 – Moonlight
After Brokeback Mountain was robbed of Best Picture, and Carol failed to even get nominated, Moonlight knocked it out of the park, claiming Best Picture over La La Land (despite a on-stage mishap that made global news).
Director Barry Jenkins’s powerful portrait of a black boy growing up in poverty-stricken and drugs-riddled 80s Miami, while silently struggling with his sexualituy, is based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney.
2016 – The Handmaiden
The Moonlight hype meant a lot of the LGBTI-themed movies of late 2016/early 2017 didn’t get the attention they deserved. One exception is The Handmaiden, which received critical acclaim and grossed almost $40m worldwide.
A meandering, mysterious and cross-genre masterpiece, the film by South Korean director extraordinaire Park chan-Wook examines the shape-shifting relationship of a female con artist and the heiress she’s duping, posing as an unassuming servant. What transpires is one of the most passionate and (crucially) unpredictable love affairs you’ll ever see on screen.
2017 – God’s Own Country
The jury’s out on the top LGBTI-themed movie of this year. We’re expecting big things from Call Me By Your Name when it comes out. But so far one of the strongest contenders is British indie God’s Own Country.
This drama about two farmhands falling in love amid an unforgiving Yorkshire landscape is, once again, slow. Also, the dialogue isn’t engaging and the mood is gray and drab. But like Weekend and Blue Is the Warmest Colour, the effect is hauntingly realistic.