Best Of: Male-Led LGBTQ+ Films

June is Pride Month, and it didn't feel right to let the month go by without some kind of acknowledgement on this blog. Pride, the LGBTQ+ community, and everything that goes with these things has had such an important impact on my life, and in the realm of film, discovering the amazing depths of queer film has been an amazing experience over the past few years. Like any other genre, it has its ups and downs, but in its "ups" it has produced some truly amazing films, with many of them ranking among my favorites of all time. I figure the best way I can celebrate these films and this community is by shining a spotlight on some of my favorites.

I admit that dividing my lists based on gender is a bit ironic, considering that such a big part of the LGBT movement is about moving beyond gender roles--however, I've noticed that male-led queer films often get more mainstream attention than their female-led counterparts, so I thought it was fair to combat this inequality by making separate lists. So, to start, here is my loosely ranked list of favorite male-led queer films.

11. In & Out (1997)
What better way to start this list than with a guilty pleasure, one of the hallmarks of being a queer film fan? After all, the genre has produced plenty of so-bad-its-good films; and while I wouldn't quite put In & Out in that category, it is indeed a very silly, surface-level film that's about as authentically queer as you would expect from a mainstream, late 90's comedy. That is to say: not really at all. However, there's something about this film that never ceases to put a smile on my face. Kevin Kline's character may be a very stereotypical effeminate gay man, not exactly a groundbreaking portrayal, but the film actually avoids most of the other mainstream queer tropes that drive me nuts: nobody dies, the gay characters actually kiss, the town rallies around the main character and supports him for who he is. And best of all, the whole thing is just really, really fun and funny. I think this might be the only pure comedy I've included across both of these lists, and just based on that--being one of the few truly lighthearted, funny films focusing on LGBT issues--this film is a winner in my book.

10. Tomboy (2011)
Tomboy is the kind of film I never knew I wanted to see, but once I did, I wasn't sure how I'd ever lived without it. Following a "tomboy" who is actually a transboy, this film explores gender through the eyes of children in a way that is so lovely, and raises a lot of questions for its audience about gender and why we hold on so tightly to gender roles, even forcing them onto children who really have no need of them. It's exactly the kind of quiet and contemplative character study that I love, and combined with its unusual protagonist--particularly in regard to his young age, and the remarkable performance the actress turns in--this is a film I will never stop being fascinated by.

9. Lilting (2014)
2014 was an amazing year for film; so amazing, in fact, that several of its best entries actually fell through the cracks. At the top of that list is Lilting, a stunningly intimate little film about a gay man, played by Ben Whishaw, who tries to befriend his recently deceased partner's lonely mother, who not only hates him, but also has no idea that her late son was gay. It's one of the best films I've seen that deals with grief, and is also one of the more unique and complex interpretations of the basic "coming out of the closet" premise: throughout the film, Whishaw struggles between his own desire to reveal his lover's secret to the mom--especially in a heartbreaking sequence where she demands her son's ashes and he refuses her, but then can't come up with a convincing reason why--and his duty to honor his partner's wish to "protect" the mother from the truth. All of this is compounded by a language barrier, with Whishaw eventually hiring a translator to help him and his "mother-in-law" communicate more efficiently. This is a quietly unique and interesting little film, and one I highly recommend to everyone who missed out on it.

8. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Going into my first viewing, I knew Dog Day Afternoon had some kind of queer element, but I had no idea that it would be such a large and important part of the film. Not only is Dog Day Afternoon one of the most finely-crafted films of all time, but it's also one of the most mature and sensitive portrayals of queer characters in mainstream Hollywood. Al Pacino's Sonny is a fascinating character, one completely devoid of any of the stereotypical traits that would usually accompany a bi character, and his lover, a trans woman, is an equally sympathetic and complex figure. Their relationship is portrayed as unhealthy and even abusive, but the "gay" nature of their union is never treated as a joke or implied to be the source of their problems, with Sonny having an even worse track record with his cis female ex-wife. Both the characters and the love they share for each other are always handled with the utmost of respect, making this landmark of New Hollywood a turning point for mainstream queer film as well.

7. My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)
Racism and homosexuality are both big topics, and many stories are content to focus on one or the other. My Beautiful Laundrette is a wonderful exception. While its primary focus is on the Pakistani population in Thatcher-era England, it also has a subplot dealing with the relationshup between its young Pakistani lead and a white skinhead, played by a notably young and adorable Daniel-Day Lewis. When the protagonist gets the opportunity to open his own laundrette, Lewis abandons his racist buddies and comes to work for him, resulting in a number of scenes along the lines of the one pictured above as the two rekindle what must have been a teenage love affair. While this relationship is only one of several romantic subplots populating this rather convoluted film, their strange bond really does become the heart of the picture, a portrait of love blossoming from the unlikeliest of pairings.

6. The Skeleton Twins (2014)
The Skeleton Twins is another of my underrated favorites from 2014. Here, Bill Hader gives a career-best performance as Milo, a depressed gay man who goes to live with his estranged twin sister after he attempts suicide. Most of the films on this list are about couples, but Milo is such a great character and he's performed so well by Bill Hader that the lack of a healthy gay relationship in this film is no hindrance. There is, however, a rather unhealthy one--I won't go into detail about it is as the true nature of it is a bit of a spoiler, but needless to say, the film does explore a really disturbing and heartbreaking issue in a very unique way, and I applaud the film for having the guts to "go there" the way that it did. 

5. Milk (2008)
Admittedly, I have not seen The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, the documentary this biopic is sourced from and which most say is superior. If it truly is, I really can't wait to see it, because man do I love Milk. Normally I dislike biopics, and this one certainly doesn't stray from a lot of the cliches that riddle this genre, but there's something about it that I just can't get enough of. I can probably thank Gus Van Sant for this; I love his style of filmmaking, and I love how it can't be reigned in even on a big prestige picture like this. For instance, note the first "real" scene of the film, after the archival footage and the narration device: it's Sean Penn meeting and flirting with James Franco, and then immediately taking him home. This scene could easily fit into one of Van Sant's earlier indie films--there's that same sense of authenticity and rawness to it--but nope, he managed to squeeze it into a critically acclaimed, best picture nominated Hollywood biopic. And things never go downhill from there--the film always stays true to its queer protagonists, valuing genuine depictions of them above potential discomfort of the audience. I will always love Milk because of this.

4. Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Midnight Cowboy is not a film I appreciated upon first viewing. The sheer cynicism and bleakness of this film threw me for a loop; it just wasn't what I was expecting. On a second viewing, however, I figured out what all the fuss was about. Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman give amazing performances as two men who may or may not be more than friends, but don't have much time to think the matter over as they try desperately to stay alive in a cold, unforgiving NYC that couldn't care less if they live or die. This film is a lot more about homelessness and the degradation of the American dream than homosexuality--which is really not much more than subtext, given the 1969 release date--but I would say the film is improved by viewing it through a queer lens, as it adds a lot more depth to the two leads: a heartbreaking portrait of two men who are terrified to appear weak in this environment that's ready to swallow them up. Midnight Cowboy is a pretty widely recognized essential of American cinema, but it certainly deserves a place on the list of essential queer films as well.

3. Swiss Army Man (2016)
Swiss Army Man is one of the strangest movies I've ever seen, but also one of the most heartfelt. In its strange, absurd way, it offers so many powerful messages about society and how exhausting it is to try and conform to its standards. I've seen people interpret the relationship between Dano and Radcliffe differently--many just see it as a friendship--but personally, I can't be convinced that this isn't a gay love story. There's one montage in particular where Dano seeks to show Radcliffe what love feels like, and it is, quite simply, a perfect cinematic moment: the colors, the visuals, the music, the emotions on the actors' faces, everything comes together to create a moment that is simple cinematic bliss, and more than that, a perfect on-screen representation of falling in love.

2. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Brokeback Mountain feels like a staple inclusion, a cliche; after all, what "best of" list relating to queer film doesn't mention this one? But sometimes things are cliche for a reason: they're just that good. While the conversations it incited may be long in the past now, the film itself hasn't aged or worsened a bit--it remains a tender, honest portrayal of the love between two men who live in a time and place that never allows them the happiness they deserve. Ledger and Gyllenhaal, two of the finest actors of this generation, truly make this a romance for the ages, and it deserves to go down in history as such, jokes and cliches be damned.

1. My Own Private Idaho (1991)
Finally, we get to my #1, My Own Private Idaho. It's difficult to describe what this film means to me. I love every film on this list, but this one is extra special, a film that I could watch every day for the rest of my life and still find new things to love about it. It's funny, because I don't consider this a perfect film--not even close. I don't think I'll ever be able to take Keanu's Shakespeare recitations seriously. And yet, somehow, it all comes together to create a viewing experience that I find deeply personal, as though this film was somehow made just for me. It comes highly recommended to anyone who hasn't seen it--love it or hate it, it's a film you will never forget.

So, that's the end of my first list. The accompanying female-led list will follow in the coming weeks, and until then, keep having a great Pride Month!


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