To mark the 30th anniversary of BFI Flare: London LGBTQ+ Film Festival, we are delighted to announce the Top 30 LGBTQ+ Films of All Time in the first major critical survey of LGBTQ+ films.
Over 100 film experts including critics, writers and programmers such as Joanna Hogg, Mark Cousins, Peter Strickland, Richard Dyer, Nick James and Laura Mulvey, as well as past and present BFI Flare programmers, have voted the Top 30 LGBTQ+ Films of All Time. The poll’s results represent 84 years of cinema and 12 countries, from countries including Thailand, Japan, Sweden and Spain, as well as films that showed at BFI Flare such as Orlando (1992), Beautiful Thing (1996), Weekend (2011) and Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013).
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The winner is Todd Haynes’ award-winning Carol, closely followed by Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, and Hong Kong romantic drama Happy Together, directed by Wong Kar-wai, in third place. While Carol is a surprisingly recent film to top the poll, it’s a feature that has moved, delighted and enthralled audiences, and looks set to be a modern classic.
Todd Haynes said:
“The Festival has long supported my work, from Poison and Dottie Gets Spanked in the early 1990s through to Carol which is screening on 35mm later this week in BFI Flare’s Best of Year programme. I’m so proud to have Carol voted as the top LGBTQ+ film of all time in this poll launched for the Fest’s 30th edition. Carol is in illustrious company with so many films I love, from Brokeback Mountain and Un Chant d’ Amour to Happy Together and My Own Private Idaho.”
Tricia Tuttle, Deputy Director of Festivals at the British Film Institute said:
“The BFI Flare team are delighted with the results. Here are 30 films we love and so many we have screened in the Festival. Carol’s win excites us because it’s great to see a film about two women in love enjoy such prominence, particularly given cinema’s relative lack of lesbian content, and it’s such an extraordinarily fine film which has had near universal praise from critics and curators. To see Carol enshrined in this way so soon after release is a testament to how beloved it is and how esteemed Todd Haynes is as a filmmaker. We also love to see British cinema so heavily celebrated, from Andrew Haigh’s Weekend at number 2 to My Beautiful Laundrette, Orlando, Looking for Langston, Victim and Beautiful Things, all making the Top 20.”
The top 30
1. Carol (2015)
Director: Todd Haynes
Literally the lesbian film everyone has been waiting for. Translated to the screen, Carol is everything I loved about the book and then a million times more. It is spectacular, breathtaking cinema. I fell in love with it at first sight.
Beautiful, moving, with fine performances from Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett. Clearly, but sadly not surprisingly, under-recognised through the awards season, indicating there’s a still a way to go for LGBTQ+ films in the mainstream.
For those who feel Todd Haynes is our greatest director it was either going to be this or Far from Heaven, but this just has the edge on the strength of its screenplay (beautifully adapting a book I’ve loved deeply for 20 years) and its entirely perfect final shot.
What I love about Carol is the way we’re held outside the central relationship. How audacious. How challenging. We are left to our own voyeurism, the seduction of the image. Genius.
Perfect book. Perfect film. Todd Haynes. Todd Haynes. Todd Haynes.
2. Weekend (2011)
Director: Andrew Haigh
Real people. Real situations. No gay ‘issues’. A wonderful antidote to the clichés of LGBTQ+ cinema. This is the very best kind of relationship drama – gay or otherwise.
Something miraculous: a touching brief encounter between men which manages to avoid imposing straight models and respects the specificity of gay ordinariness.
3. Happy Together (1997)
Director: Wong Kar-wai
I’d seen a lot of amazing LGBTQ+ films before I saw Happy Together, but none that had made being gay look so cool. The last shot, set to a deliriously happy cover version of the title song, is unforgettable.
This film is not simply a crystallisation of excellent directing, cinematography, and acting, but also a testimony of the political effect of Hong Kong during the time of its handover from Great Britain to China, mapped onto the painful codependent relationship between the two characters.
4. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Director: Ang Lee
When I first saw this at the 2005 Toronto Film Festival, I was upset for about a week. Simple thoughts about it would bring me to tears. Profoundly sad, with beautiful, complex, sympathetic performances across the board.
It was groundbreaking to see a mainstream film with big name stars approach a gay romance in such an authentic, sensitive manner, and Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger are both exceptional. Michelle Williams is also superb as the wife left reeling after the discovery of her husband’s true sexuality.
If the number of tears that I shed while watching this are any measure of its greatness, well, this is a bona fide masterpiece.
5. Paris Is Burning (1990)
Director: Jennie Livingston
What really is not to love about this epic gay ballroom film?
Glamour, music, bitches and tragedy; and it’s all real. A special film with a legendary pedigree in class of its own. Like a limited edition Gaultier Bra. A story that says more about life and living life to the full than a thousand hollow promises the heterosexual world could offer.
6. Tropical Malady (2004)
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Utterly bizarre. Utterly beautiful. The weirdest and most wonderful gay love story ever told. The final encounter between the hero, searching for his lost lover, and the tiger, is completely hypnotic.
7. My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)
Director: Stephen Frears
Homosexuality, racism and Thatcherism – a potent mix deftly handled in Frears’ evocative and bold comedy-drama.
One of the best films about the Thatcher era – what it meant, how it shaped contemporary life and how its values might be challenged or reworked.
8. All about My Mother (1999)
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
My favourite of Almodóvar’s films, and one of the most sensitive works about transsexual and transgender living ever made.
The ultimate Almodóvar film, fusing a narrative situation that could have come straight out of a Douglas Sirk melodrama with far more turn-of-the-millennium concerns about transvestism, transsexualism, AIDS, prostitution and out-of-the-blue bereavement.
9. Un chant d’amour (1950)
Director: Jean Genet
Jean Genet’s unbelievably sexy film, set in a prison, has one of the all-time top homoerotic moments in cinema when the two inmates share a cigarette through a small hole by blowing the smoke into the mouth of the other. A stunning exploration of sex, power & violence.
Extraordinary and very beautiful.
—Catharine Des Forges
10. My Own Private Idaho (1991)
Director: Gus Van Sant
Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix give bravura performances as two gay street hustlers in Van Sant’s blistering early 90s exploration of the unforgiving American gay scene.
11=. Tangerine (2015)
Director: Sean S. Baker
A breath of fresh air and one that weirdly served to remind me of some of the best of ‘old’ queer cinema, following a working girl on a mission to find her man. LA never looked lovelier; I never smiled so wide.
Tangerine is full of drama, donuts and pathos but is also the best LA Christmas film since Die Hard.
11=. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972)
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
I could easily have included several Fassbinder films in this list (sorry Fox and Elvira), but I’ll allow myself only one. Everything you need to know about the cruelty of love in two hours. So savage. So perfect.
As with many of my favourite gay films, the specifics of sexuality are never an issue in Petra von Kant, leaving room for a universal exploration of how capricious love can be.
11=. Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013)
Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Although problematic in its apparent male gaze and unrealistic gay lovemaking, this features performances by Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos that are charged with snap-crackling chemistry. The tender eroticism actually lies more in the subtle acts of the mundane – Adèle’s eating ravenously, or simply strolling across the road.
One of the great films about love, and the destructive aftermath of its failure.
14=. Mädchen in Uniform (1931)
Director: Leontine Sagan
What would queer cinema look like now if the Nazis hadn’t stopped its first nascent flowering? This film is spot on about the intoxicating love that teenage girls feel, but I also admire how it handles Fräulein von Bernburg’s love for Manuela too. She is not immune to Manuela’s affections and has a hard time managing her own feelings.
Revolutionary spirit borne of intense erotic lesbian attachment and female solidarity.
14=. Show Me Love (1998)
Director: Lukas Moodysson
Beautiful Thing has peppermint foot lotion. Show Me Love has chocolate milk. Moodysson’s debut is a truly sublime and touching story of star-crossed teen-girl lovers, a relationship clearly destined to go nowhere together but oblivious in their delight at discovering each other.
14=. Orlando (1992)
Director: Sally Potter
I remember this having a profound effect on me when I first saw it. The queering of gender seemed an impossible dream at the time, only something in movies! I’ve come back to it time and time again since and each time found something new that resonates.
17. Victim (1961)
Director: Basil Dearden
Dirk Bogarde’s extremely brave performance as a closeted barrister drawn into a gay blackmail case directly influenced public opinion, and played a part in changing the law in Britain when the Sexual Offences Act was finally passed in 1967.
18. Je, tu, il, elle (1974)
Director: Chantal Akerman
Every frame is breathtakingly beautiful. Possibly the earliest lesbian sex scene in cinema.
Quite simply the best film touching on human sexual life of any kind. Not only did Chantal Akerman conceive and direct this radical and eloquent work, she commandingly, exquisitely occupies every single moment of the film’s 90 minutes.
19. Looking for Langston (1989)
Director: Isaac Julien
The original and best. A film that fuses art cinema with historical narrative. Langston revels in its underground credentials while also reminding us that Black is Beautiful. A witness to how we were once outlaws and warriors of desire.
20=. Beau Travail (1999)
Director: Claire Denis
Military men with muscles in the desert would, in real life, be my idea of hell (honest), but Denis’ phenomenal image-making and her absorption of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd achieve a magnificence all her own.
20=. Beautiful Thing (1996)
Director: Hettie MacDonald
Adorable and tender love story portraying a rare optimism about gay relationships which was long-awaited, and something of a game-changer.
22=. Stranger by the Lake (2013)
Director: Alain Guiraudie
Stranger by the Lake isn’t a film that you watch, it’s a place that you go to. A sexy parallel universe populated by naked male bodies and ruled by erotic abandon. Whilst its limits are tested, and its dangers are exposed, it is never judged. Rather, it is a meticulously crafted yet surprisingly tender exploration of queer desire, love, affection and community.
22=. Theorem (1968)
Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Queerness as a crowbar, to force open the cracks in polite society. Funny, too.
Like an ancestor of Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin (with more omnivorous tastes), Terence Stamp’s stranger arrives as if from – or actually from? – outer space to seduce every member of an Italian family. Intoxicatingly strange, this is Pasolini at his most visionary, Stamp at his most magnetic.
22=. The Watermelon Woman (1996)
Director: Cheryl Dunye
“Girlfriend got it goin’ on!” Cheryl’s appraisal of 1930s African American performer Fae ‘The Watermelon Woman’ Richards applies equally to the film and its director. Dunye played Dunye, and Richards was her note-perfect invention. “Sometimes you have to create your own history” ends the film: The Watermelon Woman made history.
22=. Pariah (2011)
Director: Dee Rees
If ever there was a queer film that tells it like it is when it comes to finding out our ways to be real; this is it. Simple distilled emotion gets full on treatment in this taught family drama. It shows how much we all want to be free.
22=. Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Director: David Lynch
Riffing on identity-merge classics Vertigo and Persona, David Lynch recasts the eponymous highway as a Möbius strip in which Camilla/Rita/Laura Harring is probably always crashing in the same car, always grappling through her confusion to the care of ingénue Betty/Diane/Naomi Watts, before their lives do a switcheroo after a heady night at the Club Silencio.
27=. Portrait of Jason (1967)
Director: Shirley Clarke
Fraught, tense, wonderful. Jason Holliday vs Shirley Clarke one night in the Chelsea Hotel.
27=. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Director: Sidney Lumet
Brilliant on so many levels and one of the high points of US cinema’s greatest era. Pacino’s confessional phone call with Chris Sarandon is one of the great pieces of screen acting.
27=. Death in Venice (1971)
Director: Luchino Visconti
Visconti may have melted Dirk Bogarde’s face with toxic theatrical make-up, but this is the most beautiful film about love and death ever made.
27=. Pink Narcissus (1971)
Director: James Bidgood
A joyously sexy, almost psychedelic collection of stories featuring the fabulous beauty of Bobby Kendall in this hugely influential self-produced film by James Bidgood. A miracle of low-budget filmmaking and artistry.
27=. Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)
Director: John Schlesinger
With intelligence, sensitivity and honesty, Sunday, Bloody Sunday explores an emotional, bisexual triangle, involving three people in a painful search for love and happiness. Peter Finch’s tour-de-force as the middle-aged gay doctor is unforgettable.
27=. Tomboy (2011)
Director: Céline Sciamma
Beautifully understated and ambiguous, this quiet, gentle film about a 10-year-old grappling with uncertainties of gender identity is pitch-perfect and deeply affecting.
27=. Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)
Director: Toshio Matsumoto
Toshio Matsumoto’s psychedelic trans-Oedipal bloodbath is entirely insane, in the best possible way.
The following films received five votes or more.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)
Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
Desert Hearts (1985)
Edward II (1991)
Go Fish (1994)
Fox and His Friends (1975)
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
The Kids Are All Right (2010)
Law of Desire (1987)
Scorpio Rising (1964)
A Single Man (2009)
The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
Young Soul Rebels (1991)
Born in Flames (1983)
But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)
The Crying Game (1992)
Heavenly Creatures (1994)
I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006)
Mysterious Skin (2004)
Tongues Untied (1989)
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