Best Of: Female-Led LGBTQ+ Films

June is now nearly over, which means it's about time for the concluding installment of my Pride celebration: a listing of my favorite queer films with female leads. This list was a bit tougher to compile than the last one, because I just haven't seen as many female-led films in this genre; in fact, a couple ladies on this list are supporting characters rather than the leads. In spite of this, all of the cinematic women on this list really are wonderful and deserving of the spotlight during this important month. So here we go!

11. Chasing Amy (1997)
 Like In & Out on my last list, this is definitely my most controversial pick. A lot of people hate this film and its depiction of sexuality, and for pretty good reason; there's a lot to find fault with in this film, particularly if you aren't a fan of Kevin Smith's rambling writing style. But I am, and there's something about this film in particular that really resonated with me, perhaps because it's one of the first films I ever saw that explored female bisexuality (this is where its biggest problem stems from: the film unfortunately hammers home the lesbian angle so hard and so long that a lot of viewers miss the fact that Alyssa is actually bi, criticizing it for being an offensive depiction of a lesbian when it's actually a pretty accurate depiction of a bi woman who is either unaware of or uncomfortable with the bisexual label). This film and its original perspective on sexuality was actually a turning point in my journey to recognizing and accepting my own sexuality, and for that reason it will always have a special place in my heart.

10. Election (1999)
Election was one of the first films that popped into my head when I was assembling this list, but I had to stop and really think about why; after all, Tammy is just a supporting character, and the scenes actually addressing LGBT content take up just a couple minutes of the film's run-time. What I came up with is that even with just 5-or so minutes, this film manages to break down a lot of the barriers that keeps compelling, authentic queer stories out of mainstream films. Most notably, this film is a satire, and while it never makes a joke of Tammy's sexuality, it does poke fun at her first relationship in a way few coming-of-age queer films do--there's always the sense that if things go sour, the characters may legitimately not be able to find another compatible partner. Here, Tammy's agony over losing her first girlfriend is treated with a sense of humor--and later on, just like a straight girl would, she finds out she really did overreact and there's lots of other fish in the sea. In fact, she's just about the only character in the whole film who gets a happy ending--now that's certainly a great change of pace!

9. Laurence Anyways (2012)
Laurence Anyways is a fascinating film, one that explores several issues surrounding gender and sexuality in a surprisingly unique way. The film follows a very happy straight couple who are suddenly thrown into turbulence when Laurence comes out as a trans woman; the rest of the film follows both her journey as she transitions, as well as the journey of her female lover, "Fred", who is confronted with a lot of questions about her own sexuality, as well as whether she's willing to give up the comfort and privilege of being in a heterosexual relationship. There's a particularly poignant scene in a cafe where a nosy waitress makes comments about Laurence, who has begun presenting as female in public but doesn't yet "pass" as a woman: Fred starts an argument with the waitress, and it quickly becomes clear that, despite her best intentions, she's not actually defending her partner and rather her anger stems from her personal discomfort with the situation. It's of the classic "tragic lesbian" tradition, about a doomed love that deserves to flourish but personal and societal prejudices ultimately get in the way--still, though, it explores this topic in a beautifully mature and nuanced way, and is well worth a look.

8. Mulholland Drive (2001)
Mulholland Drive has become quite famous, topping many best-of lists in recent times for the way it pits classic Hollywood genres against David Lynch's brand of nightmarish surrealism, resulting in a film that truly has something for everyone who loves cinema. What doesn't get mentioned so often, though, is that the grounding force amidst all of the chaos and confusion is the romance between the characters played by Naomi Watts and Laura Harring. Their relationship is organically developed as the two struggle together to make sense of their strange new reality, and eventually it becomes the only thing in the whole messed up world of Mulholland Drive that truly feels real and worth holding onto. A unique love story for a truly unique film, this is a pairing that is assured to live on in the minds of cinephiles everywhere for a long time to come.

7. The Hunger (1983)
Catherine Deneuve in a bisexual love triangle with Susan Sarandon and David Bowie. How is this film not more popular? Granted, there's a lot more going on here than sexual exploits--including a pretty heavy dose of death and aging that will probably leave you depressed for a few days over your own mortality--but when any combination of these three are on-screen, it serves as a pretty epic bisexual power fantasy, as centuries old vampire Deneuve floats around grooming beautiful young men and women to be her lovers and keep her from ever having to be alone. And unlike other mainstream films with bisexual characters, the sex scenes are completely 50-50 here--in fact, Denueve's passion for Sarandon may actually be more vividly expressed than her love for Bowie. May, mind you--really, how could anyone actually choose between the two?

6. But I'm a Cheerleader (1999)
A John Waters-style satire about religious "de-gaying" camps, But I'm a Cheerleader makes a mockery of the horrors we've all heard about these places, exploring the inherent ridiculousness in such things as splitting up the girls from the boys--because co-ed boarding is just going too far, even when the kids are all gay--and making everyone partake in "gender appropriate" activities. This is a film that could have gone horribly wrong, but it strikes just the right balance between comedy and legitimately acknowledging the harm that such places and beliefs have on young people. A particularly amusing aspect of the plot is that the main character is in complete denial of her lesbianism, and it's only because of her family and friends stereotyping her as gay and shipping her off to one of these camps that she begins to explore this side of herself. Essentially, the homophobic paranoia is what actually creates the "problem"--but good thing, too, because Natasha Lyonne and Clea DuVall make up one of the cutest lesbian couples ever put to film. This is definitely the sweetest film on this list, and is one of my most highly recommended--this is a film that deserves to be much more popular than it is.

5. Bound (1996)
Bound is the criminally under-seen debut film by the Wachowskis, their simplest film and also one of their very best. It's a classic 90s neo-noir, but this time the tough-talking neighbor with a secret criminal past is a woman, and she still gets the girl. It's an incredibly effective little thriller that incorporates all of the best facets from the crime/gangster/noir genres, but abandons all of the sexism, keeping its female leads strong and in control every step of the way. And their romance is really sexy to boot--Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon have incredible chemistry, and their love is just as fiery and intense as that between all those rugged detectives and spitfire femme fatales of old, although this time, love wins out and the ladies get a happy ending.

4. Carol (2015)

A gorgeous, evocative film both in its craft and in its subject matter. Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett are two of the finest actresses working today, and they make for a beautiful screen pairing, their hesitant yet burning chemistry a true joy to watch unfold. It's a very grand, very queer perspective on an unforgettable love story, and it's one definitely worth being remembered and enjoyed for years to come. Bonus points for being a Christmas-set queer film: there aren't too many of those around! It's definitely a good choice if you're caught in one of these summer heatwaves and want to be reminded of a chillier time, although be warmed, the sparks flying between these two ladies might just heat you right back up.

3. Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)
This is probably the most obscure pick on this list, which is a real shame because it really is fantastic. The primary reason for its being forgotten is, I assume, the fact that it's technically not a queer film--it's based on an explicitly queer book, but the central relationship was changed to the gal pal variety for the film in order to improve its box-office. However, the two actresses knew the truth about their characters and chose to play them as lesbians, leading to a film that isn't technically queer--but it's still pretty great. Mary-Louise Parker and Mary Stuart Masterson make for a wonderful couple, and many of their scenes together rank as some of my favorite lesbian scenes of all time. There's an incredibly sweet, chick-flick quality to their love that's absent from so many of the other films on this list, and it makes them particularly special despite the film's limitations.

2. Blue is the Warmest Color (2013)
I know I'll raise some eyebrows with my high ranking for this film. I'm no stranger to the controversy--I even refused to watch this for a number of years, so appalled I was by the allegations of the director's poor treatment of his actresses. But when I finally gave in and gave it a shot, I couldn't even believe what I'd been missing out on. This is not just a fantastic queer film, but also one of the very best coming-of-age films I've ever seen--Adele's journey into adulthood is so painstakingly and lovingly presented, one of the most fully-realized portraits of a cinematic character I've ever seen. Her bisexuality and relationship with Emma are just the icing on top of the cake. The scene pictured above is a particular favorite of mine: Adele's shyness and awkwardness as she quite literally steps into a whole new world is so adorably relatable, it had me grinning from ear to ear for the whole length of the scene.

1. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)
With a main cast consisting of a gay man, a bi man, and a hetero trans woman, I had trouble deciding whether this film belonged on the male-led list or this one. Ultimately, I decided Bernadette stood out as the lead of this film, with the most well-developed personality and character arc. This is not just one of my favorite queer films, but one of my very favorite films of all time: it's the kind of film that feels intensely personal, as though the filmmakers had met you and chose to make a film just for you, containing everything that makes you happy. More than that, this is a queer film in every sense of the word, literally reaching a hand out to its LGBTQ+ audience and saying, this is for you: this is the unabashedly flamboyant, happy, authentic queer film you've always wanted but been denied by producers worried about box office receipts. Perhaps the greatest thing about this film is that it's not a pure comedy, and actually delves pretty deeply into the discrimination these characters face--it offers an uplifting message of love, solidarity, and being true to yourself while still being honest about the dangers that can befall those whose true selves don't align with what's "normal" and "accepted". Oh, and even with all that, it still manages to be really, really funny. If you watch just one film on this list, definitely make it Priscilla--there's never been any other film quite like it, and I can't imagine there ever will be another.

So there you have it, a complete run-down of my 22 favorite LGBTQ+ films. Pride month may be just about over, but its never the wrong month to celebrate diversity and being true to yourself--so stay proud, and keep watching and supporting all the great queer films out there for every month to come.


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