12 best LGBTQ movies of the 21st century, from ‘Moonlight’ to ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’

Over the past two decades, Oscar winners and nominees including “Brokeback Mountain,” “Milk,” “A Single Man” and “The Kids Are All Right” helped pave the way for queer representation on the big screen. Now, a stirring new romance is lighting up theaters just in time for Valentine’s Day: the Golden Globe-nominated French drama “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” which opens nationwide this weekend after a limited run in New York and Los Angeles last December. Here’s how it ranks with some of our favorite LGBTQ films: 

12. ‘The Handmaiden’ (2016)

A stylish thriller from South Korean director Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy”), about a young Korean grifter (Kim Min-hee) hired to scam a Japanese heiress (Kim Min-hee) out of her inheritance. The less you know going in, the better, but it’s a sexy, darkly funny movie with plenty of gasp-inducing twists that make it a welcome and empowering addition to the romance genre. 

11. ‘Princess Cyd’ (2017)

A movie where a queer character’s sexuality is treated completely matter of fact? It’s sadly still a rarity, which is part of what makes “Princess Cyd” so refreshing. Here, our precocious teen protagonist Cyd (Jessie Pinnick) is never bullied, ostracized or questioned for her sexual fluidity: hooking up with a handsome gardener (Matthew Quattrocki) in one moment, and romancing an androgynous barista (Malic White) the next. In fact, her novelist aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence) is completely supportive of both, creating a safe space for Cyd to explore her queer identity when she comes to visit for a few weeks in the summer. Stephen Cone’s eighth feature is a warm look at love in all its forms, but also a tribute to the people who help us live our lives without shame. 

10. ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ (2001)

John Cameron Mitchell’s fearless musical drama is about a German genderqueer singer forced to come to terms with their botched sex-change operation and fading spotlight. Hilarious, heart-wrenching and hard-rocking, it’s also one of the most inventive, seamless stage-to-screen adaptations in recent memory.  

9. ‘Carol’ (2015)

Todd Haynes’ sumptuous adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel “The Price of Salt” follows a suave but unhappy housewife named Carol (Cate Blanchett) who falls for ingenuous department-store clerk Therese (Rooney Mara). Once again exploring repressed sexuality after 2002’s “Far from Heaven,” starring Julianne Moore as the wife of a closeted gay man, Haynes infuses “Carol” with quietness and intense longing, as the characters’ stolen glances eventually spill over into a fleeting moment of heated passion. “Carol” is all about the slow build, which is part of what makes it so immensely satisfying. 

8. ‘Call Me By Your Name’ (2017)

If you haven’t stared tearfully into a fireplace listening to Sufjan Stevens, have you really had your heart broken? No other gay movie this century has inspired more memes than “Call Me By Your Name” (Armie Hammer dancing and not eating the peach, among them). But few films have also so palpably captured that dizzying, all-consuming feeling of first love, as the scoffing yet sensitive Elio (Timothee Chalamet) pines for his father’s strapping student assistant (Hammer) during an idyllic Italian summer. 

7. ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ (2018)

Marielle Heller’s part-crime drama, part-buddy comedy stars an Oscar-nominated Melissa McCarthy as the real-life Lee Israel, a down-on-her-luck lesbian author who turns to forging and selling embellished letters by famous writers in the early ’90s. The film achingly captures queer loneliness, as the curmudgeonly Lee struggles to let others in but finds a kindred spirit in fellow bar fly Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a gay man living with AIDS. Their quick rapport and melancholic wit make “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” unexpectedly moving, reminding us that not all great love stories have to be romantic.

6. ‘Weekend’ (2011)

The gay “Before Sunrise” we didn’t know we needed. Set entirely over the course of one erotic weekend, two men (Tom Cullen and Chris New) meet at a gay club and hook up, only to hit it off before one leaves the country. Andrew Haigh’s talky, tear-jerking drama will make you reminisce about all the relationships that could’ve been, but also help you appreciate intimate moments of human connection, however brief they may seem. 

5. ‘Tangerine’ (2015)

Before “The Florida Project,” writer/director Sean Baker gifted us this neon-lit, EDM-soundtracked assault on the senses, which he shot entirely on an iPhone. The pulsing indie dramedy follows a day in the life of Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), a trans sex worker who discovers her boyfriend and pimp (James Ransone) has been cheating on her while she was in prison. What begins as an outrageous, vengeful trek across L.A. to find her man’s new flame becomes a poignant look at gender identity and friendship, told with empathy and respect by Baker, and featuring a breakout turn from trans actress Mya Taylor as Sin-Dee’s straight-talking best friend Alexandra. 

4. ‘Moonlight’ (2016)

Masculinity and its pressures on gay men in particular have long been a theme in LGBTQ cinema, more recently explored in carnal British romance “God’s Own Country” and the dark, drug-addled “Beach Rats.” But none have captured coming of age as viscerally and beautifully as “Moonlight,” Barry Jenkins’ stunning Oscar-winning best picture about the diffident Chiron (played at different ages by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) coming to terms with his sexuality. 

3. ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’ (2013)

Abdellatif Kechiche’s three-hour, NC-17-rated epic has rightfully courted its share of controversy. It features a gratuitous seven-minute sex scene between its two young heroines (Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux), and both stars have since alleged abusive on-set behavior by Kechiche. (Another actress anonymously accused him of assault last year, which he denied.) But if you choose to watch, you’ll find there’s still much to appreciate in Exarchopoulos and Seydoux’s bracingly lived-in performances, with the kind of explosive, raw chemistry that’s impossible for a director to create. It’s to their credit that when the drama was awarded the prestigious Palme d’Or at France’s Cannes Film Festival, they became the first actors – male or female – to share the award with their director. 

2. ‘Pariah’ (2011)

The debut feature of writer/director Dee Rees (“Mudbound”), who tells a deeply personal story about a shy, thoughtful teen named Alike (Adepero Oduye) struggling to find her voice as both an aspiring poet and young gay woman. Like many closeted LGBTQ youth, Alike is in a constant push and pull with her two conflicting identities: Under her strictly religious mother’s (Kim Wayans) watchful eye, she is forced to wear blouses and skirts, and is discouraged from hanging with her lesbian best friend (Pernell Walker). But at school and her neighborhood’s local gay club, Alike dons baseball caps and baggy polo shirts, and bashfully tries to talk to girls. It’s a realistic, devastating but ultimately hopeful portrait of someone finding the courage to express their true self, anchored by a captivating lead performance from Oduye. 

1. ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ (2019)

One of the best love stories ever put on screen, period. A young artist (Noemie Merlant) is hired to paint a portrait of a reclusive noblewoman (Adele Haenel) who is soon to be wed. Strikingly shot, with mesmerizing performances from Merlant and Haenel, the film manages to be intensely erotic without ever being exploitative, as the two women discover mutual attraction in each others’ quirks and small details. It’s a film about creating art, but also an intoxicating romance about finding that someone who sees you as you really are. Impeccably directed by Celine Sciamma, it’s the kind of movie that will leave you in a puddle of tears, and like the best and worst kinds of loves, will haunt you long after. 

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