Top Essential Gay Films

Out Magazine compiled a list of the top 50 Essential Gay Films by asking directors, actors, and entertainers which movies deserved a bigger audience. Here’s a sample from the list they came up with including an iconic movie poster, five gay teen flicks for chicks, British classics, and the top five drag films. Many of these titles are obscure, and some were filmed as early as the 1940’s, which was a big deal back then for something that dealt with gay issues.

One of the seven chosen iconic movie posters belongs to

Rocky Horror (1975, dir. Jim Sharman)


Rope Poster  Rope (1948, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)  

Director Christopher Landon had this to say:
Two “best friends” commit a murder then host a dinner party where guests unknowingly dine over the victim’s corpse. This is Hitchcock at his most diabolical. Rope is best known for its illusion of one seamless shot. But the thing that had critics and viewers buzzing was the film’s homoerotic undertones—ballsy stuff for 1948. What isn’t well known is that several key people behind the film, including the screenwriter, composer, and one of the male leads (Farley Granger), were gay. It’s a brilliant, heady mixture of dark humor and suspense and easily among my favorite Hitchcock movies.

X, Y and Zee PosterX, Y & Zee (1972, dir. Brian G. Hutton)

Simon Doonan, Creative Ambassador – Barney’s New York had this to say:
Imagine Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? set in early ’70s swinging London—caftans, butterflies, boozing, shrieking, rich-hippie decor, and no shortage of bitchy queens. Then add Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Caine, and Susannah York. The opening credits—Liz hurling her busty self into a vigorous game of Ping-Pong in slo-mo—are orgasmic.

Shaft PosterShaft (1971, dir. Gordon Parks)

Lee Daniels, Director, had this to say:
As if the title weren’t self-explanatory. I was 12 years old when my grandfather took me to see it. I will never forget Richard Roundtree’s slow build to almost full erection through a diffused lens. It was sexploitation at its best—and the coming out of Lee Daniels.

Midnight Cowboy PosterMidnight Cowboy (1969, dir. John Schlesinger)

Michael Sucsy, Director/Producer, had this to say:
Midnight Cowboy — an oddball love story between two male street hustlers—depicts sexuality as both fluid and complex. Schlesinger, who was only recently out when he made it, handles the complicated and quirky Of Mice and Men–type relationship between prostitute Joe Buck (Jon Voight) and crippled conman Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) with the deft hand of a true outsider. Sadly, the MPAA originally rated the film X, apparently on the advice of a psychiatrist who felt the movie’s neutral handling of homosexuality was promoting “mental illness.”  The theme song, “Everybody’s Talkin,’ ” remains one of my favorites. Each time I hear it, I am transported to the tragically touching ending of this heartbreaking film.

The Hotel New Hampshire PosterThe Hotel New Hampshire (1984, dir. Tony Richardson)

Amanda Palmer, Musician, had this to say:
The Hotel New Hampshire was one of those brilliant films that managed to do justice to the even more brilliant novel (by John Irving ). I saw the movie when I was about 13, and the love scene between Jodie Foster and Nastassja Kinski thoroughly confirmed two things in my life: 1) I wanted to have female lovers and 2) if possible, one of those lovers should be Jodie Foster.

Neil Bartlett, Novelist/Playwright, had this to say:
All of Derek’s films now seem to me like letters mailed from a vanished country. How could we have ever been so hated, so hungry—not to mention so creative—amid the wastelands of 1980s materialism and homophobia? Perhaps this is the one that now haunts me most. Nothing could be simpler or cheaper—this is, among other things, real guerilla filmmaking, a poetic hit-and-run straight from the heart. Grainy, almost illegible home movie shots of a lover wandering amid the romantic ruins and gardens of an older, richer England stutter and fade while Judi Dench reads some of the greatest love poems ever written by one man to another—Shakespeare’s sonnets. It’s like the proverbial candle flame, shining like a good deed in a naughty world: guttering, fragile, but capable of lighting a profound blaze of inspiration. I miss him and all the films he never got to make.

 Torch Song Trilogy Poster Torch Song Trilogy (1988, dir. Paul Bogart)  

Our Lady J, Musician, had this to say:
This adaptation of Harvey Fierstein’s successful Broadway play is a must-see for every ’mo with a nagging mother. Besides a beautiful plot, cast, show tunes, and all, it was ahead of its time in the way it shed light on everything from gay-bashing (poor Matthew Broderick) to coming out to your family (love Anne Bancroft!).

Happy Together PosterHappy Together (1997, dir. Wong Kar-wai)

Tony Kushner, Playwright, had this to say:
As I remember the story, the script Cheun Gwong Tsa Sit (called Happy Together, after the Turtles’ song, when it was released in the U.S.) was written by Wong Kar-wai in a Buenos Aires hotel room in just a few days, after the film he’d come to Argentina to make fell apart due to a labor dispute. With equipment, film stock, and the services of two of the actors he’d brought with him, Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Leslie Cheung, Wong’s eminently practical solution was to remain in Argentina, and in collaboration with his magnificent cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, create a romantic masterpiece featuring two lovers who happen to be gay men. The film is feverish, dark, mordant, melodramatic, hallucinatory, and starkly realistic. It’s a thing of fits and starts; it thrashes about, as if in the throes of the passion it’s describing. It seems to be searching, as it unfolds, for the means to capture the experience of love, to account for a bond between two people who are never happy together, who are incompatible and yet must be together. Wong finds metaphors for love in the loneliness, disorienting alienation, and magical strangeness of foreign travel; in the improvisatory open-endedness, discoveries dreamed of and actually made, and bone-deep road weariness that are its concomitants; in late-night Buenos Aires tango bars, shot in elegant, noirish black-and-white; along stretches of empty highway; and in kitchens and SRO hotel rooms shot in warts-and-all urban 1970s bleached greenish color. A recurrent image of the mighty Iguazu waterfall, on the Argentine-Bolivian border, the ostensible ultimate destination of the couple’s trip, is filmed from crazy angles in deep, heartbreaking blue monochrome. It becomes the image of love itself: chaotic, terrifyingly dangerous, utterly irresistible, boundaryless, infinite, unbearably beautiful.

The lovers, Ho Po-wing (Cheung) and Lai Yiu-fai (Leung Chiu Wai), are complicated men, their complexity rendered with stunning dramatic economy. They lose their way—geographically, emotionally, spiritually, internally, and with each other. The actors are both brilliant, funny, and terrifically moving, irritating and endearing; they bicker, battle, and make love with complete abandon, and—well, why not say it?—they’re the sexiest gay couple ever filmed.

Though it got great reviews and won Best Director for Wong Kar-wai at Cannes, it isn’t as widely known as it deserves to be. The matter-of-fact manner in which the characters’ homosexuality is treated in the film was startling in 1997. (Contemporary audiences watch Cheung’s performance as Ho Po-wing with an added grief; the actor, who was gay and tormented about it, committed suicide in 2003.) If the film’s assumptions of the universality of love, of humanity’s shared attachments, predicaments, sorrows, and joys, is perhaps less startling today, it’s no less appealing and moving.

It’s gorgeous. It’s essential. You’ll love it. You have to see it.

 Another Country (1984, dir. Marek Kanievska)

Tim Gunn, TV Host, had this to say:
I’m an Anglophile at heart, so give me an English period piece and, by definition, I’m all aswoon. Set in an English public school (think Eton or Harrow) in the 1930s, Another Country stars Rupert Everett as Guy Burgess, a gay teen coming to terms with his sexuality. The object of his affection is Cary Elwes, whose initial oblivion and subtle wandering eye drive Burgess to distraction. And there is a profound and relevant correlation to today’s tumultuous times: We see two other classmates engaged in a passionate kiss and stumbled upon by a professor. For one of the two young men, humiliation and fear of retribution drive him to suicide by hanging. Burgess, too, suffers: In a formal ceremony, he’s flogged by his peers for his homosexual dalliances. The societal perception of homosexuality is one of two parallel themes in the film, the other being Burgess’s eventual betrayal of his country as a spy for the U.S.S.R. This evolution in his character is at least in part propelled by his friendship with a Marxist classmate played by Colin Firth, but also fueled by his rejection by the elite class with whom he wants so desperately to belong.

 The Ballad of Little Jo Poster  The Ballad of Little Jo (1993, dir. Maggie Greenwald)

Kate Bornstein, Writer, had this to say:  
as soon as I heard the story line, I got myself over to the one theater in the city that was screening The Ballad of Little Jo. It was 1993. I was living in San Francisco, but I was in New York City for a show. It was an obscure picture back then, as it is now, so there were only a few dozen people in the audience—me and a bunch of students.
OK, so the movie starts. Awesome cinematography of the Wild West. A young woman on the run from high society back East falls in with one bad man after another. Hucksters, cowboys, pimps, and drunkards—all of whom see her as prey. Fuck that, says Josephine. And she cuts off her hair and becomes Jo, a guy who looked like a young boy, and gets hired at some kind of manly job and holds his own. He saves up enough money to get his own ranch. There’s a wonderful on-the-edge-of-romantic subplot of his lone ranch-hand, Tinman Wong, a Chinese man who Jo rescued from a lynch mob.

It’s a beautiful story that spans four or five decades. Jo remains closeted to everyone — except Tinman Wong—for his entire life. After he dies, the townspeople find out he “really was a woman.” They do a terrible, terrible thing to his body. This terrible thing fills the screen. I burst out crying. Simultaneously, the college guys behind me burst into laughter and cheers. That moment is a sucker punch to my heart to this day. Great film. Just don’t see it with transphobic assholes.

Parting Glances Poster   Parting Glances (1986, dir. Bill Sherwood)

Dale Peck, Novelist, had this to say:
A quiet but unsettling story of a Manhattan gay couple at a crossroads in their relationship. Janet Maslin at The New York Times, as perceptive then as she is today, dismissed the film as “a parade of homosexual stereotypes,” but gay viewers knew better, seeing not stereotypes but human beings who have fallen into social roles not always comfortable, let alone ennobling, that best suit their personalities. Domesticity weighs differently on the two men: Michael, slight and bookish, spends much of his time caring for his ex-lover Nick (Steve Buscemi in his first feature turn). Sloe-eyed Robert, by contrast, has maneuvered a two-year transfer to Africa, to escape both his relationship jitters as well as the epidemic. The irony of running to Africa to get away from AIDS is one that history has made only more pointed.

The movie takes place on Robert’s last day in the city: a morning run, a morning fuck; a visit to Nick by Michael; a goodbye dinner with Robert’s boss; an evening fuck; a going-away party thrown by Michael’s friend Joan; a visit to a nightclub that lasts until the wee hours of the morning. As the movie progresses, its world and, as a consequence, its themes expand with startling rapidly. Michael is pursued by an adorable Columbia freshman; Robert’s boss turns out to be closeted and something of a pedophile; a German performance artist speaks to Nick of the profound aesthetic possibilities of AIDS. There are bodies, lisps, beats, operatic hallucinations, covert coupling (heterosexual as it turns out), and drugs (but only of the recreational variety: this was 1986, after all). Through it all there is New York: glamorous and dirty, erudite and slutty, in sickness and in health.

Velvet Goldmine Poster Velvet Goldmine (1998, dir. Todd Haynes)

Margaret Cho, Comedian
An amazingly beautiful film all about the ’70s versus the ’80s, glam versus new wave, Bowie versus Iggy, gay versus straight versus in between, loving your rock idols and then sleeping with them. It has incredible fashion, a killer soundtrack, romantic love scenes between Christian Bale, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and Ewan McGregor, and the legendary and gorgeous Toni Colette fag-hagging it up as a faux Angela Bowie. Truly one of the finest films ever made.


Five Gay Teen Flicks For Chicks

Just One of the Guys PosterJust One of the Guys (1985, dir. Lisa Gottlieb)

When Terry, a wannabe teenage journalist, suspects her womanhood is holding her back from winning a coveted internship, she swaps sexes and goes undercover to prove she’s more than just a pretty face.

Teen Witch PosterTeen Witch (1989, dir. Dorian Walker)

It’s the oldest story in the book: girl is a loser, girl learns she’s a witch, girl secures the love and adoration of her high school—including a hunky football player—with a few well-chosen and well-chanted spells. And everyone lives happily ever after.

Clueless PosterClueless (1995, dir. Amy Heckerling)

Offering as many life lessons as fashion tips, Clueless belies its initially vapid, Noxzema commercial–like exterior to reveal a squishy, altruistic center where good deeds beget good deeds and unavailable crushes become gay BFFs.

Saved! PosterSaved! (2004, dir. Brian Dannelly)

Sure, there’s a prototypical bad girl pretending to speak in tongues (but actually moaning about her hoo-ha) to get the best of her pious classmates, but it’s Mandy Moore’s heavenly turn as a vindictive goody two-shoes that’s the film’s real star.

Mean Girls PosterMean Girls (2004, dir. Mark Waters)

Before she landed in jail, rehab, or the arms of Samantha Ronson, Lindsay Lohan (along with writer and costar Tina Fey) gave the world the catty, screwy gift of Mean Girls. Our DVD players have been “too gay to function” ever since.


Charles Busch’s Top Five Drag Films

Some Like It Hot PosterSome Like It Hot (1959, dir. Billy Wilder)

Wilder’s hysterical comedy has a remarkably live-and-let-live attitude toward the infinite variety of sexual behavior and is more sophisticated than any Hollywood comedy made today.

Female Trouble PosterFemale Trouble (1974, dir. John Waters)

Divine is fantastic as a rotten-to-the-core high school girl who ends up a mass murderer. Although fearless in his vulgarity, Divine brought a sweetness and humanity to every role he played.

Outrageous! PosterOutrageous! (1977, dir. Richard Benner)

A wonderfully funny, touching, and somewhat forgotten film, Outrageous! stars the late great Craig Russell as a struggling performer who finds success as a female impersonator.

Tootsie PosterTootsie (1982, dir. Sydney Pollack)

Dustin Hoffman is brilliant as an actor who disguises himself to get cast on a soap opera, and the film isn’t afraid to explore the more subtly comic possibilities of a man living as a woman.

Paris Is Burning PosterParis Is Burning (1990, dir. Jennie Livingston)

This extraordinary film lifts the curtain on the world of voguing and Harlem drag families, transcending its subject and raising questions everyone can identify with.


British Classics

Maurice Poster Maurice (1987, dir. James Ivory)
Hugh Grant is floppy and adorable in the arms of James Wilby’s Maurice in this adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1914 novel about undergrads falling in love. Rupert Graves is the gardener from the wrong side of the class divide whom Wilby lusts after.
Beautiful Thing Poster Beautiful Thing (1996, dir. Hettie Macdonald)
Jamie and Ste, teenagers in a housing project, explore their burgeoning homosexuality amid the blight of East London. The movie has a brilliant cast, but the real star is Mama Cass, as channeled by sassy Leah (Tameka Empson).


To see the complete list of films check out the magazine’s website:  


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