[Editor’s note, June 13: Enjoy this article from the Keyframe archive, but look for a brand new list of Essential LGBTQ titles to be published in the coming weeks.]
Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar is, among many other things, a sweet (and discreet) gay love story with one genuinely subversive moment: a macho fight scene between two men that spontaneously turns into a makeout scene. A political iconoclast, Eastwood puts the liberal bona fides of such scenes to conservative ends, as a way to humanize the monstrously anti-leftist J. Edgar Hoover through his love for longtime partner Clyde Tolson. Such contradictions may sum up the perverse ways of presenting gay sexuality in 2011 to a mainstream audience. However, compared to the days when gay or bisexual filmmakers as great as Sergei Eisenstein, F.W. Murnau and Vincente Minnelli were blocked from explicitly expressing their sexuality onscreen, Eastwood’s effort does show that we’ve come a long way.
If my list of the ten best LGBTQ-themed films leans towards the present, it’s because there were very few films with LGBTQ protagonists made before the late sixties; even coded ones, like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, were rare exceptions. And though there was a lifting of taboos against representing explicit sexuality in the sixties, there was also a lifting of taboos against showing overt homophobia, manifested most notoriously in William Friedkin’s Cruising. Still, a queer cinema renaissance has emerged in the last thirty years, with masterpieces from LGBTQ directors like Chantal Akerman, Derek Jarman and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. As LGBTQ people become more accepted in much of the world, one hopes the best is yet to come.
10. Milk (dir. Gus Van Sant)
A director capable both of experimental, poetic films and mainstream dreck, Van Sant found a workable middle ground for his Harvey Milk biopic, transcending the usual perils of the genre in large part due to Sean Penn’s excellent performance. It’s an essential gay history lesson that reached a much wider audience than an earlier, equally worthwhile documentary about Milk.
9. Tropical Malady (dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Apichatpong’s films tend to be surreal visions inflected with a Thai Buddhist flavor, and Tropical Malady, which features a subtitled talking baboon, is no exception. However, this one turns into a film about how love stories get told: a seemingly simple narrative about two men in love gets remade as a complex, anxiety-riddled tale of a man stalking a wild tiger. Without compromise, it’s one of Weerasethakul’s most accessible films.
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8. Happy Together (dir. Wong Kar-wai)
Happy Together tracks the wayward relationship of a gay couple of Hong Kong expats in Buenos Aires. The only film on this list by a heterosexual director, it’s noteworthy for its distance from politics, sexual or otherwise, even if it was filmed as Hong Kong was handed back to China, and its beautiful, stylized cinematography. Wong brings an outsider’s respectful perspective to gay life, a position someone like William Friedkin could never adopt.
7. Paris is Burning (dir. Jennie Livingston)
Focusing on New York drag balls, Livingston created a piece of urban anthropology that’s as fun to watch as it must have been to make. Her documentary depicted an evanescent subculture that would also succumb to AIDS and poverty, making it an essential record of a now-vanished time.
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6. Parting Glances (dir. Bill Sherwood)
Parting Glances offers a glimpse into a gay community just beginning to deal with its decimation by AIDS, as well as a strong performance by a very young Steve Buscemi. Sadly, Sherwood’s promising career would be cut short itself by the disease.
5. Desert Hearts (dir. Donna Deitch)
Deitch did something very radical with Desert Hearts. Behaving as though Hollywood melodramas about lesbians existed in the fifties and sixties, she went ahead and made one in the style of this apocryphal genre.
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4. Caravaggio (dir. Derek Jarman)
No Masterpiece Theatre period piece, Caravaggio shows off its director’s radical politics and knowledge of art history equally well. His sensibility, a literate queer punk revision of Ken Russell’s more outré moments, died with him, and the cinema is lesser for it.
3. In a Year with 13 Moons (dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
Fassbinder gives full voice to his depressive tendencies, inspired by the suicide of a lover, in this depiction of a transgender woman’s death spiral. It’s one of his most powerful films and the most satisfying of the handful of films the prolific bisexual director made about LGBT characters.
2. Les Rendezvous d’Anna (dir. Chantal Akerman)
Akerman’s autobiographical travelogue follows a bisexual filmmaker around Europe as she encounters a level of alienation and boredom that makes Antonioni’s L’Avventura look like a frat party. Without speaking directly about politics, Akerman makes the hangover felt after the liberation movements of the ’60s and early ’70s had begun to fade quite clear, even if her own career as a director would have been impossible without them.
1. Flaming Creatures (dir. Jack Smith)
Smith’s avant-garde short, subject to censorship in the ‘60s, expresses a pansexual sensibility before there were even words to adequately describe it. Drag queens, pop music and Smith’s unique appropriations from B-movies starring Maria Montez all play a role here, aided by the expressiveness of blown-out film stock.
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Steve Erickson is a freelance critic who lives in New York. He writes for Gay City News, The Nashville Scene, the Tribeca Film Festival’s website, ArtForum, Film Comment and other publications.