In many ways, movies are the heart and soul of America, our most widely shared cultural moments played out on the silver screen. We're a nation where everyone can recite the plot of Star Wars, recognize the theme from Jaws, marvel at the twist-ending of The Sixth Sense.
While gay characters and stories took a long time to join that national consciousness of flickering images, our community boasts a cinematic soul of sorts -- stories and characters who have given us a shared experience that helped shape us and support us.
Milk is this year's latest gay Oscar bait, but while you await the roll out of the red carpet, here's a list of GLBT films that everyone should see. Or, in the case of movie maniacs - yes, like us - revisit often (thank heaven for Netflix). From uplifting to tragic, comedic to dramatic, these 25 films reflect the heart and history of a community.
AIMÉE & JAGUAR (1999)
Unthinkable to miss, yet heartbreaking to watch, Aimée & Jaguar takes all the desperation of being Jewish in Nazi Germany, then adds to that the added danger of indulging in a lesbian affair. The movie leaves you feeling helpless as you empathize with the lovers' romantic abandonment, yet know that doom is surely around the next corner. That it's based on the true story of the wartime affair between Lily Wust, the good Berlin housewife and mother whose husband is off fighting for the fatherland, and Felice Schragenheim, the Jewish journalist who flaunts herself in front of her would-be executioners as she passes herself off as a gentile, makes it all the more painful. Thanks to gorgeous cinematography and elegant acting, Aimée & Jaguar is one for the GLBT cinematic hall of fame.
Few gay films are as richly affirming or powerfully uplifting as this coming-of-age, coming-to-terms romance between two London boys. Based on a play by Johnathan Harvey and directed with sensitivity and supple grace by Hettie Mcdonald, Beautiful Thing ultimately pumps your heart full of joy. But getting to that joy is a bumpy road for the quiet, shy Jamie and his schoolmate Ste, an abused, wounded pup who finds safe haven in Jamie's home, and eventually responds to the tenderness shown to him by his new friend. The ancillary characters -- Jamie's tough-as-nails mother (Linda Henry) and a troubled, Mama Cass-infatuated neighbor (Tameka Empson) -- are every bit as integral to the film's narrative fabric. Yet at the center lies the simple, glorious tale of two emerging gay youths who find their heart's desire: each other.
BOYS DON'T CRY (1999)
It's the film that introduced the world to the talent known as Hilary Swank. More importantly, it's the film that dramatized -- brilliantly, searingly, brutally -- the life of Brandon Teena, a transgendered teen viciously murdered after the crowd he ran with discovered him to be a biological female. Kimberly Peirce's direction is volatile and uncompromising, but it's Swank's remarkable, gripping, Oscar-winning performance that propels Boys Don't Cry to absolute magnificence. Side note: Peirce, who is gay, has only made one film since -- 2008's critically-acclaimed box office flop Stop-Loss.
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005)
Is there anything more to say about the phenomenon that is Brokeback Mountain? Perhaps this: Despite unleashing a torrent of ''I wish I could quit you'' gay-cowboy jokes on a tittering nation, Ang Lee's adaptation of Annie Proulx's short story hasn't lost one iota of its emotional power, has never succumbed to the subversion of cultural irony. All the jokes in the world were unable to lessen the impact of the final images of lost love and loneliness. That's in no small part due to the performances of Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger. But while many of Brokeback's gay boosters thought the film a first-ever big-screen romance, the film was far darker -- remember Ennis' wife, Alma (Michelle Williams), finally blurting the truth about her husband's fishing trips? As much as Brokeback Mountain was about the love of two men, it was about the destruction that the closet wreaks on everyone it touches -- gay and straight.
DESERT HEARTS (1985)
With a scenario that seems absurd by contemporary mores -- a Columbia professor cooling her heels in 1959 Reno so that she can simply meet a Nevada residency requirement to get a divorce -- the romance sparked between that professor, played with appropriate restraint by Helen Shaver, and rough-and-tumble Cay (Patricia Charbonneau) is beautiful contrast to the desolation of the desert and the oppression of society. Dust gives way to glorious vistas set to a vintage rock-and-roll beat, and the sky opens uncharacteristically to drench these lovers as they enjoy one of Hollywood's best kisses.
LA CAGE AUX FOLLES (1978)
This uproarious French farce, set amid the nightlife of St. Tropez, spawned two fairly decent sequels, a catchy, elaborate Broadway musical, and a bland, watered-down American imitation. But it is the original -- with precise comedic performances by Ugo Tognazzi as the owner of a drag nightclub and the scene-stealing Michel Serrault as his prone-to-hysterics partner Albin -- that demands our full admiration, not to mention constant giddy fits of laughter. As the two middle-aged gay men struggle to appease their exasperated son (yes, this was a movie way ahead of its time), who has brought his fiancé's conservative family home for dinner, La Cage reaches unsurpassed comic heights. It's not just a funny gay film -- it's one of the funniest films in the history of all cinema.
LONGTIME COMPANION (1990)
An imperfect yet earnest film can capture a permanent place in our collective hearts, which explains the lasting impression of Longtime Companion. Both lauded and lambasted at its 1990 release as an attempt to humanize the face of gay men with AIDS for a nervous nation, the film, written by playwright Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss), focuses on the lives of mostly white Manhattanites as they journey through the unfolding horrors of the epidemic. Despite its flaws, Longtime Companion delivers a powerful emotional experience, including the scene that earned Bruce Davison an Academy Award nomination, an unabashedly tearful moment of telling a loved one that it's okay to let go -- all the while knowing that much of the world at large is indifferent to, or even glad of, his suffering. It's a telling reminder of where we've been.
MA VIE EN ROSE (1997)
The constant crush of convention becomes obvious when watching good people betray that goodness for fear of crossing social boundaries. With Ma Vie en Rose, the point is made as we watch a young girl, née Ludovic after being born into the body of a boy, struggle to own her identity, as her otherwise loving parents continually fend off embarrassment by pushing her back into her prescribed box. Director-writer Alain Berliner's touches of fantasy help to illustrate the degree to which constraint kills personal liberty, how the sad circumstance of being born in a body that doesn't match one's gender identity is needlessly worsened by social demands that extinguish self-expression. It's the rare combination of sugary tableaux concealing a remarkable nutritional value.
Sometimes the present can be clearer by looking at the past. Maybe that explains the power of the British costume drama Maurice, a tale of upper-class homosexual tendencies crossed with lower-class sexual desire. In this Merchant-Ivory adaptation of E.M. Forster's slim novel, two English schoolboys have a special relationship while at Cambridge -- but once out of school, Maurice (James Wilby) feels drawn to continue it, while Clive (a young Hugh Grant) wants to put it behind him in order to fulfill the hetero expectations of his society. Forster wanted a happy ending for his novel because such things at the time were impossible. In 1987, happy endings often seemed just as far away as ever, so Maurice's final discovery of love and joy rang as true (if historically iffy) as ever.
THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK (1984)
The high-profile Oscar candidate Milk hasn't generated the same comedic outpouring as did Brokeback Mountain -- it does, after all, end with a recreation of a brutal assassination. But, despite the true tragedy of the ending, it's the vibrant and buoyant joy for life contained in Harvey Milk that makes this biopic so compelling. That, and the fact that Sean Penn gives a performance that's simply stunning in its accuracy and humanity. Penn may be a bit of a whack-job in real life, but for Milk he left an indelible mark on the screen. Still, for those whose curiosity about Milk and his early-gay-rights milieu has been piqued, the definitive story of his life remains the Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. Taken together, they're a fitting tribute to a man whose legacy has had achieved the far-reaching change you know he hoped for.
MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE (1985)
My Beautiful Laundrette
Long before he was the toast of cinematic circles, Daniel Day-Lewis played Johnny, a working-class London thug who would join in Thatcher-era race rallies. But he's redeemed through hard work for his Pakistani boss, Omar, who is also his lover. In the mid 1980s, My Beautiful Laundrette was groundbreaking for not making gay the point of conflict. While all the friction hinges on race and class, the love between two young men is offered as the one thing that's simple and good amid all the mess. The movie shouts, gaily, that all the world should be lovers rather than fighters. Johnny's ''Come On Eileen'' styled wardrobe also deserves special mention.
MYSTERIOUS SKIN (2004)
An unfortunate reality of film is that one film's success sometimes comes at the expense of another's. All the (well-deserved) passion for Brokeback Mountain had the unfortunate side-effect of muting attention for Mysterious Skin -- a film that couldn't have been more different in its approach, but was every bit its equal in terms of emotional power and quality. Gregg Araki, long known for his subversive queer sensibility in The Living End and The Doom Generation, turned in a work that cements his reputation as a director with both attitude and talent to spare. At the center of Mysterious Skin's story of the psychological aftermath of sexual abuse on vulnerable gay youth is a fascinating and fearless performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt -- not fearless for playing gay, but fearless for playing so emotionally naked. By turns funny, sexy and deeply disturbing, Mysterious Skin deserves to live on as an example of how powerful gay cinema can be.
PARAGRAPH 175 (2000)
In no way entertaining, but powerfully educational, directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman follow historian Klaus Müller as he attempts to locate the handful of gay men who survived persecution under Paragraph 175, the legal tool employed during the Third Reich to eradicate gays. Including a lesbian who escaped to England, these interviews reveal a range of experiences and resolutions, with some interviewees holding steadfast to anger, some to misery, some even to humor -- all to their humanity. For the chapter your high-school history class forgot, Paragraph 175 is a must. Strong use of archival footage and photos helps to make real a history that is almost impossible to believe.
PARIS IS BURNING (1990)
''You can be and do anything,'' says one of the competitors when asked about the lure of the ''drag balls.'' With Paris Is Burning, documentary director Jennie Livingston captures that sense of liberation, scratched from lives lived on the street in many cases. With the creativity that marks gay culture, the stars of this film are those at-risk youths -- and some older veterans -- who annexed a corner of harsh reality and collectively transformed it into something so fabulous that even Madonna had to copy it. Paris Is Burning is a documentary mélange of Rent meets Les Misérables meets Dynasty. And it's beautiful.
PARTING GLANCES (1986)
If life were fair, Bill Sherwood would have lived to create an entire body of gay and lesbian cinema. Life, of course, is not fair, and we're left with just one shining moment of Sherwood's vision, 1986's Parting Glances, a serio-comic tale of New York gay life in the age of AIDS. Anchored by a kinetic and moving performance by then-unknown Steve Buscemi, the film captures a community at a crux -- leaving behind the sexual carnival of the 1970s, yet unsure how to survive into the 1990s. That Sherwood died shortly after the film was completed was not only a loss for movies, but for the community as a whole.
In 1991, director Jonathan Demme won an Oscar for Silence of the Lambs, which featured a malicious serial killer with warped transgender inclinations. In 1993, Demme atoned for that perceived sin with this groundbreaking drama about a closeted gay lawyer (Tom Hanks) who's fired from his conservative law firm after being diagnosed with AIDS. He retaliates by taking the firm to court -- all the while coping with his deteriorating health. By this point, AIDS dramas had become almost commonplace in the lexicon of GLBT cinema, but Philadelphia was the first to usher the disease in grand Hollywood fashion before a mainstream audience. It boasts an all-star cast that included Hanks (who nabbed an Oscar for his efforts), Denzel Washington, Jason Robards, Joanne Woodward, Mary Steenburgen and a rising Spanish actor named Antonio Banderas. Though frequently heavy-handed, there's no denying Philadelphia's dramatic intensity and cultural importance. It's as unsettling as it is uplifting -- in that grand Hollywood fashion, of course.
THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT (1994)
Few films delight more than the fun, frisky and poignant tale of three drag queens on a road trip across Australia's rough-and-tumble outback. Terence Stamp, the film's only well-known star at the time, gives a master-class performance as the den mother with a cool, bitchy streak that would make Bette Davis blush and Joan Crawford wet her panties. Priscilla would launch the American careers of the bass-mouthed Hugo Weaving, who would later find fame as Agent Smith in The Matrix, and the dreamy Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential, Memento). The trio are all sass and frocks, yet their performances are ablaze with honesty and conviction. The costumes are lavish and flamboyant (ostriches, anyone?) and the drag numbers off-the-charts over-the-top. And that scene with the pingpong balls? It remains one of the most unforgettable moments in any film, straight or gay. It's all wrapped up in tenderness and friendship, proving that when gays stick together, the bond generated is as strong as any blood-related clan's.
THE BOYS IN THE BAND (1970)
Boys in The Band
Love 'em or hate 'em, you can't deny the historical impact of this pair of era-defining bookends from director William Friedkin (The Exorcist). Boys in the Band was filmed as a faithful recreation of Mort Crowley's stage play -- even including members of the original off-Broadway cast, notably Leonard Frey, whose bitter, self-loathing Harold serves up a beggar's banquet of caustic tongue lashings to his pals. Boys is awash in self-hating stereotypes, and yet Crowley's work captures, if not the reality, then at least the perceived notion of how gay men treated one another in the late '60s. It wasn't about support and brotherhood, but about ripping one another to emotional shreds, until all that's left is bloody pulp. Much more problematic, but no less fascinating, is Cruising, which suffers from a sensationalistic, crudely-wrought, serial-killer storyline, and an undercurrent of homophobia. And yet, Cruising is a must-see for several reasons, not the least of which is its depiction of Lower Manhattan's S&M leather scene, just before AIDS brought everything to a screeching, tragic halt. The movie is as close as we have to a visual historical document, as Friedkin takes us directly into the heart of what was then an underground, disquieting subculture of the gay movement (but what is now a vital and celebrated part of the gay mainstream). Cruising also suffers at the hand of star Al Pacino, who, despite his swarthy, smolder-and-steam handsomeness, feels miscast in the role of an undercover cop forever changed by his S&M experiences. Who can forget the brain-searing image of Pacino, hog-tied and ready for action at the hands of a pickup, all in the name of duty?
THE CRYING GAME (1992)
For quite a few months in 1992, the buzz around The Crying Game was the loudest sound in popular culture. What's the secret? The Crying Game was hiding something and everyone wanted to know what it was. Amid a tale of Irish terrorists and intrigue, Jaye Davidson as Dil stole the show by hiding his candy. For those few who didn't know the secret when they entered the theater, Davidson's portrayal of a sexy, transgender seductress brought gender issues to the fore as few movies have before or since.
THE INCREDIBLY TRUE ADVENTURE OF TWO GIRLS IN LOVE (1995)
Maybe you know Nicole Ari Parker from Soul Food, or Laurel Holloman from The L Word. But back in 1995, they played high school students Evie and Randy. Such perfect and lucky casting, considering they were newcomers, is what gives Two Girls in Love the sort of infectious charm that makes you want to hug your girlfriend, boyfriend, dog, cat, yourself - whatever you can get your arms around. It's not too heavy, it's not too meaningful, it's not too artistic. It's just an endearingly sweet movie about adolescent romance that leaves everyone - at least through the closing credits - wishing he was a 17-year-old lesbian.
TONGUES UNTIED (1990)
Directed by Marlon Riggs, Tongues Untied moves as an epic poem, with help from poet Essex Hemphill. With both men having died of AIDS-related complications in the 1990s, this beautiful, unconventional film would be considered a time capsule, were it not so timeless. Not plot-driven, not a documentary, Tongues Untied conveys feelings and images of black and gay experience. As the movie itself defies easy categorization, so too does it strive to show how compartmentalizing identity - black or gay or any other - is futile, that we are organic combinations of identities that grow and change and won't be ignored. And it made the point with a signature snap, thanks to the film's guide to ''snapthology.''
TORCH SONG TRILOGY (1988)
If the gay world didn't have Harvey Fierstein, we would have had to invent him. That voice, that attitude, that persona -- he's a bundle of stereotypes that transcends the label. Torch Song Trilogy, adapted from his Tony Award-winning play, brought Fierstein to the masses -- just the thing for all the gay kids living between the coasts (or even on them) who still lacked for images of the lives they could possibly live. And Trilogy presented a lot of images -- from Fierstein's over-the-top Arnold Beckoff to Matthew Broderick's brave (yet lamentably doomed) Alan Simon. Torch Song Trilogy goes for laughs and tears in equal measure -- and earns them both honestly. It deserves its position as one of our community's cultural touchstones.
As Bree, a pre-op male-to-female transgender, Desperate Housewives' Felicity Huffman brings depth, warmth and deep-seated soul -- not to mention a piquant comic sensibility -- to a role that a lesser actress might have turned into a surface caricature. The spry, casual narrative follows Bree's relationship with her teenage son (Kevin Zegers, just cast as Clyde Barrows in the controversial remake of Bonnie and Clyde) -- and his acceptance of the man who would be his mother. Written and directed with intelligence, veracity and wit by Duncan Tucker, Transamerica is a triumphant mainstream nod to transgenders everywhere.
WALK ON WATER (2004)
U.S. gay audiences got their first experience with director Eytan Fox in Yossi and Jagger, a bittersweet love story of two Israeli soldiers set against the backdrop of the never-ending Palestinian conflict. Fox showed he could juggle moments of sweetness and light right alongside weightier issues and conflicts, without losing site of the humanity at his story's core. But if 2002's Yossi and Jagger was a taste of Fox's filmmaking abilities, 2004's Walk on Water proved his potential. The story of an Israeli Mossad agent assigned to assassinate a Nazi war criminal, it's a fascinating meditation on the persistence of the past and the nature of revenge, on the intersections of masculinity and sexual orientation, on the idea that our own hatreds must be confronted if we want to end the hatred of others. Though Fox is gay, Walk on Water isn't a traditionally gay film -- but it's an affirmation that being gay is an essential part of the tapestry of the world.
THE WEDDING BANQUET (1993)
It was only his second film, but you could already tell director Ang Lee was destined for greatness -- a greatness that would lead him to one day direct Brokeback Mountain. This light tale of a gay Taiwanese man who agrees, at the behest of his American lover, to enter into a marriage of convenience with a young woman in need of a green card is a frothy, whimsical cross-cultural romp. There's a buoyancy to The Wedding Banquet -- a lightness that Lee would never again revisit -- and, as with many of the films that made it to this list, it is marked by a profound affirming quality, as a gay character finds liberation in bursting free of his closet. Brokeback may leave you in tears, but The Wedding Banquet leaves you in the mood for celebrating.
Have a gay film you think is missing from the list? Let us know about it!