Note: In making this list of gay movies, I considered what was important to me, rather than what was important to the culture at large, not least because there are inevitably estadounidense biases, and often European ones as well, built-in to lists like these.
As a corrective to that, and in an effort at honesty, I’ve made this list personal. Also, for obvious reasons, this is a work in progress, until 2020 anyway, not least of which is my ongoing struggle to define what constitutes a gay film. This is more a personal selection than it is an attempt to assess historical relevance.
Please make suggestions for further viewing in the comments, or let me know if I’ve forgotten or overlooked something. I’d also love to hear what anyone thinks of any particular film.
Looking over my GTM list on Letterboxd, I realize that the bulk of the films that resonate strongly in my mind and therefore received the highest star ratings or at least the most confident ones, were, in fact, released before 2000.
It’s not that there have been no good gay-themed movies released since 2000, it’s that greatness for me is a function of time and an accumulation of experiences, not just of seeing films, but of thinking, writing, and talking about them.
I’ve lived with those older films for much longer.
That’s one reason why I don’t put much stock in ranked year-end lists, and especially not in Oscar nominations, which are primarily about career politics in Hollywood.
(I don’t give a fuck.)
How can we know those films are great if we’ve only seen them once, or even twice, and if their memories are less than a year-old in our minds? Maybe others can figure things out that fast, but I can’t.
Still, making lists is a contribution to understanding what’s important to us, and the beginning of contextualizing and evaluating them, and so I think it’s worth doing.
The first block of films have had the most lasting impact on me, and the rest are listed in no particular order. I didn’t bother to set a numerical limit. I just chose until I was done, and I’m happy to entertain any addition to the canon. I’m ignorant of, just to name one area, of any experimental film work being done by or for gay men, so would love to fill in the blanks.
In the Family
Directed by Patrick Wang
I didn’t have to think hard before putting Wang’s rigorous, disciplined but also emotional masterpiece at the top of the list. This film’s power doesn’t come primarily from its topicality — not marriage equality per se, bur rather its absence — but in the attention paid to the ordinary details in the daily life of a gay man (estadounidense Southern, and of Asian descent) and the white son of his dead lover, and to the way political realities play out through those details, within families, between friends and lovers, between individuals and institutions.
There’s no clearer, recent heir to Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, although the odd and oblique framing tactics of Wang’s static shots are quite a bit different from Ackerman’s often planimetric ones, and Wang’s film manages a happy ending, of sorts, if a provisional one, a point that most seem to miss. It’s a freeze-frame for a reason.
So it’s baffling why In the Family was rejected by more than 15 different film festivals. Or maybe not so baffling if you understand something fundamental about the taste, vision, and sense of film history of our current cultural gatekeepers, and not just straight ones, who, while having put Ackerman’s film in the canon, never seem to have quite grasped its importance and implications.
In a cultural situation in which a modestly talented, juvenile filmmaker like Xavier Dolan shares the spotlight with Jean Luc Godard, I supposed we shouldn’t be surprised that few people are allowed the opportunity to see In the Family.
Directed by Rodrigo Guerrero
For some of the same reasons I admire In the Family, I also love this minimalist and materialist study of an online seduction that moves into meatspace for more reasons than just to show a hot threeway, although that’s a significant achievement as well. The film focuses on the mundane social minutiae and lived-life details of three gay men in Córdoba, Argentina — an older couple and a young student — and executes that study via the seduction’s sexual dynamics as mediated through contemporary technological and physical-world apparatus, rituals, and traditions —things like webcams, elevators, dinner parties, and where to go on holiday.
I didn’t make clear in my rather academic analysis of the film that this attentive process is an act of valuation of particular Latin American gay-male social and sexual activities — a weighted consideration — and therefore not tangential to issues of representation, and implicitly political. I’d say it’s also at least as important and significant as, just to name, off the top of my head, scenes from the decidedly non-realist heterosexist canon, 1) the conversation between Travis and Jane in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas; or 2) the relationship between Paul and Jeanne in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris. In the former, the obvious metaphorical device and psychobabble of Sam Shepard’s script left me bemused, skeptical and a bit bored. The scenario of the latter would have made more sense in a gay context. Good luck trying to convince, or even challenge, straight male cinephiles and critics of the implications of any of that. But this film is only as important if you judge gay life and sexuality to be as significant, as human, as straight life. But how many do.
For me, El Tercero stakes claim, not just to the normativity of gay-male sexual desire, but the ordinariness and necessity of objectification, as well as of male sexual vulgarity and experimentation, of cross-generational contact, of the importance of familial and national cultural contexts in negotiating domestic stability, of the range of strategies and tactics that gay men employ to find happiness. As such, underneath its quotidian calm (except for the sex scene!), it’s revolutionary.
If I were to judge by blog comments, the gay male movie-going public seems tired of movies about male prostitutes, despite the fact if there’s any group that has more or less normalized sex work, it’s gay men. That normalization is one of our great and ancient contributions to human liberation, not something to marginalize, dismiss or condescend to from the marriage-equality heights. I realize that’s a minority opinion and an occasion for establishment fags to cast aspersions; or for hypocritical, homophobic law enforcement institutions to cast a very wide net.
So, it’s not surprising that filmmakers continue making movies about hustlers. Of the group of films addressing the subject, I can only recommend a few, and none of them have focused on the Czech Republic, where I have my most direct experience and credible judgment. Bodies Without Soul and Mandragora? Rather useless, rent-boy kitsch.
One I can recommend, from another hemisphere, is Edgardo Cozarinsky’s Night Watch, not least because the narrative follows a taxi boy, the Argentine compound noun meaning male escort, prostitute or street hustler, rather than an outside observer or a john. Victor might not be flush or the best-dressed, but he’s no victim or martyr. (The English phrase is used, perhaps because the Spanish equivalent would be puto, and that’s no good) Although I have limited experience in that geo-specific milieu (but do remember vividly a masterful seeing-to by a cute, stoic, double-coming, Paraguayo jock named Emmanuel) but can vouch for the authenticity of the setting, starting out on the corner of Santa Fe and Pueyrredón, at what used to be the center of gay-male sex procurement in Buenos Aires. On a weekend night in 2010, there could be more than 50 young guys cruising for clients in the 4-block area near that corner, and even more inside the hustler/stripper/drag bar, km Zero. Like most things fun and decadent in the real world, that’s mostly gone now. So take a sort of magical realist tour of the streets of Buenos Aires with a taxi boy on the evening of All Saints Day, and into the dawn of All Souls Day, and prepare for your mind to be blown.
Directed by Santiago Otheguy
Here’s another beautiful film, with perfect shot after perfect shot, that the cinephile intelligentsia as well as the Queerty/Backlot amateurs of the world have somehow avoided talking much about or listing. It can’t be because it’s in Spanish and from Argentina, because Lucrecia Martel (La Ciénaga, La mujer sin cabeza) and Lisandro Alonso (Jauja,
which I haven’t seen yet; Los muertos and La libertad, which I have) have both received quite a bit of attention from the usual suspects. If I have any rivals in my admiration for Martel, I have yet to read them. I’m a bit cool to Alonso’s conceptions, however, as the ones I’ve seen seem more like the rubber-stamping of certain world art-film expectations than as unique contributions to contemplative cinema; and you can skip Fantasma completely, as it’s all concept. All of them seem (except for Jauja) rather thin to me, and the distanced anthropological eye of some parts of Los muertos and La libertad was more than a little off-putting.
So why the ignorance or misunderstanding of La León? Likely it has something to do with the politics of distribution which I have no knowledge of in this case, and of course, great films fall through the cracks all the time. Yet I suspect it’s just old-fashioned heterosexist bias on the part of many straight critics, and cultural glibness and superficiality on the part of gay ones
That IMDb commenter in the link is not the first gay male viewer who has professed to not understand what was going on in the film. Here in this post, I at least began to lay out what I thought was going on. But I’m baffled by anyone’s confusion about what seems to me a straightforward narrative. It’s not like we’re challenged by long shot-durations, as in both El Tercero and In the Family, or via odd, oblique camera angles, as in the latter.
Apparently, though, shooting in black and white is offensive or confusing to some yahoos, er, people. Maybe if lead character Alvaro had been prettier or not poor, it would have struck a chord with American gays. Maybe if the film included a serial killer. That always seems to help. I don’t know, maybe it’s just too sad. For me, La león, for its beautiful glimpse into an out-of-time Argentine riverine culture alone, belongs on the short list of great Latin American films of the last decade, and not just of GTMs.
English title: The Wound
Directed by John Trengove
88 mins, South Africa, 2017
Inxeba is as close to a masterpiece as any new film I’ve seen on Netflix and the service should be applauded for picking it up. It seems to have baffled and befuddled a few of the usual Letterboxd morons, however, despite its explicit subject of toxic masculinity and the film’s gruesome metaphors. Too woke for The Woke, I guess.
A lovely, easily repeatable experience which I wrote about here.
Directed by Alexandre Moratto
A startling, stunning, moving debut feature, similar formalistically and stylistically to the Dardennes‘ movies, like Rosetta (Wiki) and The Son, in which the handheld camera follows/pursues/examines/exposes a driven and somewhat inscrutable lead character through his or her daily life in crisis. In Sócrates, the camera focuses literally and mostly on the face of first-time amateur actor, Christian Malheiros, making the audience concentrate on his emotions and reactions to events beyond his control. As Rosenbaum wrote about Irma Vep:
[Irma Vep’s] true subject is not the cinema but the body of its star, its material is not the image but Cheung herself, and its “problem” is not representation but the power struggles that swirl around her.Life Intimidates Art by Jonathan Rosenbaum
Sócrates isn’t the wry, self-reflexive comedy that Assayas’ film is. It’s closer to social realism or materialism. Still, I suspect that the quality of attention you pay to the face of the character Sócrates will determine whether this film means much to you at all. Conceptions of power and privilege negotiate our responses right at the point where our eyes meet his.
120 battements par minute
Directed by Robin Campillo
143 min, France, 2017
BPM is not my favorite Robin Campillo movie — that would be the underseen Les revenants — but this is the only fiction film set during the ACT-UP-era AIDS crisis that even comes close to accurately, honestly, and respectfully dramatizing the dialectic that spontaneously formed among a group of people who had to become experts about their own and their friends’ imminent deaths and still fuck around, fight the power, and dance to the wee hours. This movie isn’t the last word on that time but it’s a good start to recovering it for modern short-term memories.
And Then We Danced
Directed by Levan Akin
Sweden | Georgia | France, 2019
Directed by Li Cheng
Guatemala | USA, 2018
El silencio es un cuerpo que cae
(Silence is a falling body)
Directed by Agustina Comedi
Director Comedi uncovers her father’s and her nation’s gay past in this freeform documentary/essay film from Córdoba, Argentina.
Directed by Barry Jenkins
I wrote a little something about Moonlight.
Call Me By Your Name
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Italy | France | Brazil | United States, 2017
Directed by Oliver Hermanus
South Africa, 2019
Eisenstein in Guanajuato
Directed by Peter Greenaway
Netherlands | Belgium | Finland | Mexico | France, 2015
Peter Greenaway‘s stylistically exuberant speculative biopic about Sergei Eisenstein’s attempt to make ¡Que viva México! in Guanajuato and his accidental affair with a local guide, fails at most things it sets out to do, related to history and film history, in particular. (But maybe it’s a big middle finger to the purists devoted to both?) Yet it never bored me, in fact I was thrilled most of the time, and I’ll take its conceits, as well as its forthrightness and fun, over the pretentious, hand-wringing moralism of a piece of silly garbage like Shame, or the anti-sex, art-fag pretentiousness of Stranger By the Lake. Despite its flaws, I’d still call Eisenstein in Guanajuato a must-see, for the during-anal-sex political and cultural discussions alone. (It’s the most fun I’ve had with a Greenaway movie since The Falls)
Penetration as liberation is something I can get behind.
Directed by Lorenzo Vigas
93 mins, Venezuela | México, 2015
This Venice Golden-Lion winner impressed me with its expressive formalism — widescreen framings (a Cinemascope ratio of 2.66:1) with strategic and suggestive selective focus and elliptical narrative tactics — and its impeccable authenticity in depicting a Caracas-set gay-for-pay relationship. I’ve said before that there aren’t many movies featuring rent boys in which the sexual power dynamics ring true for me but this is one of them. Robin Capillo’s estimable Eastern Boys is another. More than that film, however, From Afar felt more like an update and correction to Barbet Schroeder’s quasi-magically-realistic La virgen de los sicarios. Luis Silva wowed me as street kid Elder who moves from homophobic contempt to co-dependent, child-like loyalty in front of our eyes, timorous wonder flickering across his gaze at being awakened to live in a different kind of world, one in which he’s valued just for being a man.
Directed by Camille Vidal-Naquet
99 mins, France, 2018
I have an affinity for rent boys and their milieu. Because of my close involvement with a unique subculture in Prague c. 2003-2008, I’m sensitive to misleading or romanticized dramas about male prostitution. Although set in Strasbourg, France, Sauvage is one of those rare films about hustlers and hustling that rings true for me, depicting the life, the game from the perspective of a young gay man who sells his body daily for money and has to fight even harder not to sell his affections, his sensitivities, his self-worth for nothing.
Dolor y gloria
Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
I’ve never been a huge fan of Almodóvar, although I dutifully queued up for his art-house hits of the late 80s and early 90s and watched whatever else I could of his work because he was one of the few out gay filmmakers I knew about in my youth. But I actively disliked Talk To Her and stopped watching after that.
There was always something unfinished, unserious even, about the themes of his films but also the filmmaking. There always seemed to be something missing, something avoided.
Pain & Glory, on the other hand, presents a series of reckonings and almost-reconciliations and is exactly the sort of movie a 70-year-old, acclaimed gay European filmmaker should be making — mature, masterful, and moving. And honest. To my mind, this is Almodóvar’s first and only masterpiece.
Directed by Alvaro Delgado Aparicio
This one wrecked me. I had tears in my eyes during the first 15 minutes as 14-year-old Segundo beams with pride as his artisan-father Noé unveils his latest, stunning retablo, revealed through a slow dolly-back. Every heartbreak that follows proceeds from this small but deeply felt triumph.
Directed by Eyal Resh
Directed by Boudewijn Koole
The Netherlands, 2007
A bastard son goes to great lengths to get to know his gay father. Sparse but great jazz soundtrack.
Fifi az khoshhali zooze mikeshad
(Fifi Howls from Happiness)
Directed by Mitra Farahani
USA | Iran | France, 2013
The Mudge Boy
Directed by Michael Burke
I’m not sure Michael Burke’s odd and slightly off-kilter, anti-sentimental depiction of young, failed masculinity qualifies for most as a “gay movie,” but it sure got me thinking about Eve Sedgwick’s The Epistemology of the Closet.
Directed by Andrew Haigh
Directed by Marçal Forés
The Love of Siam
Directed by Chookiat Sakveerakul
Directed by Alexis Dos Santos
If Gus Van Sant had been born in Argentina, he might have made something like Glue, sometime between Mala Noche and My Own Private Idaho. Cinematographer Natasha Braier, who also shot The Rover, I just discovered, long after mentioning liking the photography of that Australian thriller/road movie from 2014, seems to improv right along with the young actors, whose sexual and social daring is reflected perfectly in the film’s luminous, metamorphosing style and form.
I might get some shit for not listing any of Marco Berger’s feature-length films, all of which I enjoyed to some degree (Hawaii deserves another watch) but none of which encapsulate so forcefully and fearlessly all of Berger’s sexual and visual obsessions than this short — the most important obsession being, the male bulge, which is presented here almost like a character of its own. Javier De Pietro, scruffy and grown up a bit since he played Berger’s horny, man-chasing, high-school nymph in Ausente (2011), lusts after his friend’s cousin, but is too scared to make a move, despite el primo offering himself and his basket up repeatedly in no uncertain terms. Hilarious, sexy, frustrating in the blue-balls sense, and kinda sad all the way through, the short’s final, cut-short shot is a brilliant, funny snap of a character afraid to take chances, even though what he wants has been right in front of his cute little face.
The Big House
Written and directed by Rachel Ward
This surprising and subtle short depicts the believably-scripted and nuanced love affair between a pair of cons in an Australian prison — one’s a lifer and one’s a young first-timer in for a petty crime. It’s funny, sweet but not cloying, and there’s barely any violence, which might help explain why it sank without a trace for so long. You can watch it on Vimeo, and yes it’s directed by that Rachel Ward.
Before Night Falls
Directed by Julian Schnabel
Directed by Håkon Liu
I wrote a few words about this tender, goofy short here.
Directed by Vincent Dieutre
Brother to Brother
Directed by Rodney Evans
The Nature of Nicholas
Directed by Jeff Erbach
Interior. Leather Bar.
Directed by James Franco and Travis Mathews
Directed by James Franco
Soy tan feliz
Directed by Vladimir Durán
Argentina | Colombia, 2011
Watch it here.
Directed by Marialy Rivas
Directed by Ha Yoo
Directed by Ang Lee
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Rabioso sol, rabioso cielo
(Raging Sun, Raging Sky)
Mil nubes de paz cercan el cielo, amor, jamás acabarás de ser amor
(A Thousand Clouds of Peace)
El cielo dividido
All directed by Julián Hernández
Directed by Jonah Markowitz
Directed by Jem Cohen
The Graffiti Artist
Directed by James Bolton
How to Survive A Plague
Directed by David France
We Were Here
Directed by David Weissman and Bill Weber
United in Anger: A History of ACT UP
Directed by Jim Hubbard
Directed by Sébastien Lifshitz
Perhaps because Araki worked off someone else’s material (Scott Heim’s eponymous novel) and therefore had at least a skeleton to hang his visual ideas and conceits on and around, putting his own adolescent ones on the backburner, this is the only Araki film after his funny, low-fi proto-slacker film, The Long Weekend (O’Despair), that I can get behind with any enthusiasm. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has never been better.
Chuck and Buck
Directed by Miguel Arteta
Directed by Lisa Marie Gamlem
Directed by Etienne Kallos
Praia do Futuro
Directed by Karim Aïnouz
Brazil | Germany, 2014
Eu Não Quero Voltar Sozinho
(I Don’t Want to Go Back Alone)
Directed by Daniel Ribeiro
Directed by Joseph Graham
(Eyes Wide Open)
Directed by Haim Tabakman
Israel | Germany | France, 2009
Avant que j’oublie
(Before I Forget)
Directed by Jacques Nolot
Directed by Eytan Fox
My review here.
Directed by Chucho E. Quintero
Directed by Omar Flores Sarabia
Protect Me From What I Want
Written and directed by Dominic Leclerc
Directed by J.C. Oliva
11 min, USA, 2008.
Directed by Christian Tafdrup
39 min, Denmark, 2008
Directed by Arnaud Dufeys
19 min, Belgium, 2012
Getting Go, the Go Doc Project
Directed by Cory Krueckeberg
91 min, USA, 2013
Jan Krüger and Oliver Schwabe
21 min, Germany, 20011
O Porteiro do Dia
Directed by Fábio Leal
25min, Brazil, 2016
En Malas Compañias
English title: Doors Cut Down
Directed by Antonio Hens
18 min, Spain, 2000
Writer/Director Hens’ hilarious short is honest enough to make his ultra-horny, toilet-cruising teenage character a bit of an asshole, if both charming and cute as hell. Rent it on Amazon using the link above, or cheaper on Vimeo.
Al otro lado
English title: The Other Side
Written and directed by Rodrigo Álvarez Flores
15 min, México, 2017
This rather lovely, sad, and erotic short from México is the first film instance I can remember in which crossing the border to the USA is used as metaphor for sexual…I won’t say awakening or discovery, but a word more liberating and provisional in its implied goals perhaps — independence.
The film progresses via one long, non-linear montage, with edits and cutaways achieved via physical metaphors for uncoverings, discoveries, and surprises. Dreams and wishes merge with reality so that we can’t always be sure what or when we’re watching.
Let me know your favorites in the comments.