For psychically toxic reasons, the history of queer women’s cinema is periodically undercut. Over the past few years especially, mainstream critical conversations around lesbian themes paint a generalized, dreary canon devoid of competent, queer-eyed directors within reach of even a lesbian pulp adaptation—up until a certain blonde in a fur coat circa 2015. And when focusing on more recent offerings, there’s a general malaise over the prominence of a certain white, outmoded genre. If you believed all the Oscar season thinkpieces, you would imagine that Carol, Ammonite, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, World to Come, The Favourite, Wild Nights with Emily, Vita and Virginia and Colette are all we have. With each list of the same five to ten films papering over our history, I feel like I’m living in a barren timeline utterly divorced from the world of weird and wonderful lesbian film that already exists.
In this alternate reality, “Where are my lesbians?!” is an appropriately anguished battle cry. Lend me a labrys and the spirit of (Alex Kingston as) Boudica, and off I would go to…I don’t know, threaten a Netflix executive? Have a chat with Madeleine Olnek because Wild Nights was deceptively earnest and I wanted Emily Dickinson to live forever? But this fantasy relies on the empathy of major studios and distributors, who are never going to solve The Problem with Lesbian Cinema when they don’t even properly market what they do make. And while we can think of a million better uses for monopolistic streamers’ data-mined money, they do not care about improving eyeroll-worthy plots, casting and kisses as long as nobody cancels their subscription (to this, I have to note the ability of audiences to cancel subscriptions and join the queer account-sharing mafia).
Ultimately, there’s only so much complaining one grumpy film buff can do about the decades of cinema featuring queer women dissolving under a collective industry-supported amnesia. And yet, there’s too much neglected lesbian cinema for me to simply die mad about it! Instead, I decided to challenge even my own preconceptions about lesbian film history, and create an utterly imperfect list spanning the last fifty years. The goal was not to define the best lesbian films, but simply to find one title per year that demonstrates some of the breadth, variance and especially the longevity that queer women have had on the big screen—while acknowledging that there’s always room for improvement. Thanks to queer movie list cross-checking (thank you especially to the thorough round-ups done by Drew Gregory and Sarah Williams) and dedicated Dailymotion diving, I found more than I could feasibly watch.
This way lies horror, romance, documentary, narrative and experimental; contemporary and period (yes, period); chaste, perverted, sensitive and exploitative; shorts and TV movies, microscopically independent and luxuriously garnished studio films—all about queer women, challenging the idea of a perpetually present monolith of lesbian storytelling. It is by no means a complete list (and is woefully under-representative of non-European international titles), which is perhaps my most exciting point: There is so much out there, and much of it does not have adequate distribution or preservation. But it’s more accessible through hard drives, libraries, garage sales and corners of the internet than you might think. And if you take a chance on directly supporting queer film festivals, independent makers and small distributors, I promise you’ll find something you never thought existed.
As a final digression, I have to clarify that my disappointment is not with younger viewers who are only beginning to seek out the media that makers hid behind age-restricted lock and key. Younger viewer, I was, and in many ways still am, you—only now I’m not as embarrassed about being a horndog. I wish you that same lack of shame on your journey, as well as an ever-expanding imagination and desire to fuck with genres, synopses and identities you’ve never previously accepted as filling out a lesbian or queer women’s film canon. I hope you find a film you’ve never seen. I hope you suggest one for me, as well.
Enjoy an imperfect and personal look at 50 years of queer women’s cinema:
Director: Jesús Franco
One cannot talk about the history of lesbian film without invoking the most dangerously beautiful and enterprising of supernatural queer icons: The lesbian vampire. The centuries-long trope engages with everything a respectable viewer of lesbian cinema should eschew: Exploitative imagery, murderous and predatory queer women and untimely mass burials. However, when compared with more narratively dramatic, sexless and often tragic portrayals of queer women, the monstrous femme’s power and eroticism makes for a seductively good time. Add in some good old-fashioned psychedelic scoring, and you get Jesús Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos, a cult Euro Horror hit. Building off The Vampire Lovers and Dracula’s Daughter before it, Franco’s dip into Elizabeth Báthory’s legend is an incredibly sexy, sensual and bloody dessert of a movie.
Daughters of Darkness
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Alternately despised and applauded by feminist lesbian audiences when it first premiered—and a major influence on contemporary lesbian films Clouds of Sils Maria and The Duke of Burgundy—Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s adaptation of his play of the same name is a chamber drama that traps narcissistic fashion designer Petra (Margit Carstensen) in a frothy, overblown melodrama of her own making. Fassbinder plays with sapphic sadomasochism in a kaleidoscope of forms, subjecting Petra to advances and rejections by enterprising women from which she ultimately, some might say accidentally, severs herself.
Director: Domenico Paolella
While one specific French lesbian sister film may be on the minds of many film buffs at this particular moment, cries of lesbianism have long echoed in the halls of the nunsploitation genre. Supposedly based on the “true story” of L’Abbesse de Castro, Domenico Paolella’s torture and sex-filled fetish fest follows the conniving Sister Julia (Anne Heywood) as she makes a delusional power grab for control of the abbey. Corruption of both church and state abounds as the nuns run amok, and Sister Julia’s unholy comeuppance lies in wait.
Director: Chantal Akerman
Have you ever been left so devastatingly empty from a break up that you voluntarily lock yourself in a room, get rid of everything but your mattress and exist on a diet of sugar straight from the bag? A staple of avant-garde cinema, Je Tu Il Elle is a realist traipse through Julie’s (Chantal Akerman) season-spanning depression and desire that also happens to include one of the longest lesbian sex scenes in cinema history. Belgian director and star Akerman’s entire repertoire is baffling, hypnotic and singular, and this expectant, at times surprisingly earnest picture is one of her best at resisting any collapsing of one person into any one identifying genre.
Dyketactics, Home Movie
Director: David Cronenberg
The selections for 1975 are few and far between, and while the German made-for-television drama Anna und Edith looks like a political, explicitly lesbian version of 9 to 5 (and who wouldn’t want that!?), it’s so difficult to find that I couldn’t justify giving it a full blurb. But in the very same year, a more accessible low-budget Canadian horror takes up the mantle: David Cronenberg’s Shivers follows its lesbian horror predecessors by infecting screen siren Barbara Steele (Black Sunday, 8 ½) and Susan Petrie with a parasite that seeks to connect humans with their lost innermost desires and primal instinct. In a gruesome show of latex and corn syrup, Steele and Petrie join forces romantically and paranormally—but in a departure from their vamp siblings, the lesbians make it out evil, alive and thriving.
A Comedy in Six Unnatural Acts, Anna und Edith
Director: Paul Bogart
Does a ‘70s PBS telefilm about a woman whose deep-seated depression from her soldier husband’s absence is only cured by the reserved but daring female photographer whom she meets by chance in a tea parlor fall under the category of “tender wlw movie” so desired by slightly too-online lesbians? As arbiter of too-online lesbians, I say yes! The main couple don’t get more physical than a few touches, but The War Widow is certainly is a sweet, subtle and purposeful piece of lesbian theater made accessible to any demographic by public broadcast. Playwright Harvey Perr and director Paul Bogart (Torch Song Trilogy) create a sumptuously designed, carefully staged period piece of quiet despair being met by determination, in which upper-class, depressed and harried Amy (Pamela Bellwood) is brought back to her senses by bold portraitist Jenny (Frances Lee McCain). The film is notable for its positive depiction of its main couple, a happy ending and the actors’ barely contained chemistry, which boils over in intense gazes, fervent compliments and even a desperately held and caressed hand.
Superdyke Meets Madame X
Director: Peter Adair, Nancy Adair, Andrew Brown, Rob Epstein, Lucy Massie Phenix, Veronica Selver
When Word Is Out first premiered, The Celluloid Closet writer Vito Russo declared it the first film to finally shatter the silence of gay and lesbian people onscreen. It’s a familiar adage by now, especially to anyone accustomed to wading through PR emails, but it actually rings true for the gay and lesbian non-professional filmmaker-helmed documentary, which interviews gay and lesbian subjects from wildly varying backgrounds and stages of their lives. It’s a gargantuan, successful undertaking whose sincerity, determination and good humor stands out against today’s countless campaigns which seek to monetize, rather than honestly connect, gay and lesbian communities.
Director: Jerry Thorpe
In another case of made-for-TV movie history hiding countless treasures, the Golden Globe-nominated legal family drama A Question of Love stars Gena Rowlands and Jane Alexander as a forcibly outed, working-class lesbian couple fighting for custody of divorcée Linda Ray’s (Rowlands) youngest son. The film moves beyond an after school special in large part due to the unbelievable caliber of its performers, but it’s also sensitive, realistic and largely optimistic about the care Linda Ray and Barbara (Alexander) sustain for one another during their fraught public trial against Linda’s ex-husband. While the language and attitudes of their families, colleagues and neighbors is expectedly blunt, the film is a compelling and genuine love story.
Director: Nouchka van Brakel
The Dutch entry for the Academy Awards, and a domestic commercial success that was not distributed in the U.S., A Woman Like Eve takes the same subject matter as A Question of Love, and dives into explicit drama and sexuality. Where its predecessor approaches lesbian identity through respectability and even some maternal piousness, feminist director Nouchka van Brakel’s film concerns itself with a more heightened scenario. A fed-up housewife (Monique van de Ven) who simply can’t stand her dull, thankless domestic duties leaves her chauvinist husband to fall into the arms of a younger woman, Liliane (Maria Schneider). A sensual, far more exciting relationship develops between the two, but predictably, Eve must face the consequences of an extramarital affair and her husband’s challenges to her fitness as a mother.
Twice a Woman
Director: Marie-Claude Treilhou
Marie-Claude Treilhou’s debut narrative feature is much like its leather pants-outfitted, observant, pragmatic and short-tempered porno house usher Simone (Ingrid Bourgoin). The French night-in-the-life drama is witty, stylish and cutting as it paints a dozen tiny character studies against the backdrops of a loudly orgasmic porno house lobby, an underground lesbian club and the empty streets of the city at night. Plot is both nonexistent and nonessential, as Simone allows her customers, girlfriend and lonely strangers slices of straight-shooting advice in an upholstery-brown and yellow jewel box of a film.
Director: Barbara Hammer
“I hope to see some films about women who are like me, hopefully.” This is one of the interviews with which lesbian film pioneer Barbara Hammer, who could have a film entry for almost every year on this list, opens her short documentary. In the 30-minute span of Audience, Hammer flirts her way through audiences in San Francisco, London, Toronto and Montreal, interviewing sometimes unsuspecting attendees to her retrospective on what they want from lesbian film—and from her, specifically. The self-reflexive documentary is both charming and informative, as Hammer seeks feedback and new footage that will turn her next film into a tactile, immersive experience that dispels the myth that women can’t get turned on by eroticism on film.
Director: Robert Towne
One of the only pieces of queer media popular enough to reference as a coming out joke in the ‘90s (see: Ross complaining about his ex-wife’s powers of lesbian recruitment on Friends), Personal Best is a sweaty, charged look at one young Olympic hopeful’s determination to go gold, no matter the personal sacrifice. The best of Personal Best is in its cinematography and principal players Chris (Mariel Hemingway) and Tory’s (Patrice Donnelly) burgeoning romance, and it would certainly be an interesting media study in light of current sexist and racist attitudes across professional sports that seek to dictate what it means to be a woman.
Director: Lizzie Borden
Welcome to the aftermath of the Social Democratic War of Revolution; we hope you enjoy your stay. Born in Flames is a guerrilla-shot, negative budget, spectacularly angry mockumentary of governmental ineptitude and lesbian-led revolution which pits incipient, evil FBI surveillance against the women dissatisfied with the transfer of power from one abusive administration to another. It has to be seen to be truly experienced, but in short, its mayhem, afro-futurist dreaming, lesbian vigilantism and biting satire rock my world. Director Lizzie Borden’s film, which includes a bonus of a tiny first time acting role for Kathryn Bigelow and a screaming soundtrack, is a perpetually relevant, incisive manifesto which proves that any day is a good day to watch lesbians blow shit up.
Director: Jacques Doillon
I know I’m using my meager public platform for personal gain here, but if anyone knows where I can find a copy of Sotto… Sotto, Lina Wertmüller’s outrageous cuckold comedy about a woman who falls for her recently divorced best friend (who hasn’t been there), I will change this entry right away. Until then, however, we have The Pirate, Jacques Doillon’s difficult but fascinating drama about Alma (Jane Birkin), a married woman who willingly lets her lesbian lover kidnap and have it out with her. The plot is purposefully confusing and much of the action is over-the-top to the point of revulsion, but it’s a magnetic watch.
Sotto… Sotto, Hell Behind the Bars
Director: Donna Deitch
Donna Deitch’s classic cowboy love story is in no way an obfuscated part of queer film history, and yet, it bears repeating that Desert Hearts holds up today as a lush, atmospheric and sweeping romance. Every rewatch of buttoned-up professor Cay (Patricia Charbonneau) and reckless ranch hand Vivian’s (Helen Shaver) honest, clumsy meet-cute in dusty 1950s Reno yields a new detail to admire—from the lilt of its score, to the embroidered flourishes of its extensive period wardrobe. Though billed as the first major motion picture to portray lesbians in a positive light, it’s clear from Deitch’s need to do her own publicity (and the lukewarm critical reception that nearly buried it) that it’s still up to us to rediscover its legacy.
The Color Purple
Director: Juliet Bashore
Queer cinema history is milquetoast at best, and blatantly false at worst, without the inclusion of pornography. Juliet Bashore’s Kamikaze Hearts is a punk narrative that imbues a feature-length narrative with porn itself to tell a singular, meta story of adrenaline and addiction. Veteran performer Mitch (Sharon Mitchell) and her newbie partner Tigr (Tigr) push each other to the breaking point just as the audience is pushed to the edge of their own reality, unable to separate the fiction from fact in a hyper stylized “love affair” with drugs, romance and film.
Director: Patricia Rozema
“Quirky” may be an overused adjective, but it’s a solid descriptor for the blustery, klutzy protagonist of the offbeat, moving Canadian dramedy I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing. Polly Vandersma (a charming Sheila McCarthy) is a totally disorganized serial temp worker, whose first real job places her at the feet of the urbane, gorgeous yet insecure gallery owner Gabrielle (Paule Baillargeon). As Polly stumbles through the world, imagination first, Gabrielle’s world is opened up to her through the appearance of her lover Mary (Ann-Marie MacDonald) and subsequent personal maladies.
Waiting for the Moon
Director: Monika Treut
This zany German-American co-production from neo-expressionist “destroyer of cinema” Monika Treut follows German émigré Dorothee (Ina Blum) as she chases her dream of creative expression, and her erstwhile mother, to the gay wonderland of San Francisco. As she naïvely explores the Tenderloin and its inhabitants, Dorothee’s mind and limited sexual identity start their exponential growth. Through voyeurism, skewed philosophy, burlesque and sex work, Treut’s thoroughly entertaining maze of pleasure presents Dorothee with a good-humored transformation that’s likely to make a lasting impression.
Director: Greta Schiller, Andrea Weiss
Ernestine “Tiny” Davis, known as the greatest female trumpet player of the 1930s, and multi-instrumentalist Ruby Lucas, were the definition of a power couple. In this documentary, Tiny and Ruby narrate their legendary professional and personal partnership, and demonstrate the enormous impact they left on Chicago’s lesbian scene. Through archival recordings, new interviews, and rare photographs and footage, they establish an easygoing, conversational rapport that belies their incredible talents and the scale of their enduring romance—and they even leave a little room for impromptu performance.
Diana’s Hair Ego
Director: Yvonne Rainer
Yvonne Rainer is a fascinating artist whose background as a modernist choreographer is infused throughout her cinematic work. However, that background still can’t fully explain Privilege, an incisive, axis-tilting, thorny experimental conversation between the artist’s fictional persona and, ostensibly, every audience member who’s ever seen her work. As the fictional documentarian Yvonne (Novella Nelson) interviews various women about their experiences with menopause, the real Yvonne structures a filmic conversation about sexual identity, racism, housing inequality and medical malpractice, interrogating her own white lesbian identity in the process. It’s a doozy of a self-assignment that’s well worth watching.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
Director: Jan Oxenberg
Jan Oxenberg’s funny, touching and hugely creative rumination on loss isn’t as possessed by as explicit need to deconstruct lesbian identity as her earlier work (especially the fabulously fun A Comedy in Six Unnatural Acts), but by god if it isn’t more of a queer feminist work than the straight-washed studio film of the year, Fried Green Tomatoes. In Thank You and Good Night, Oxenberg deconstructs her and her family’s memories through a series of voiceovers, home movies and cardboard cutouts that allow her to take a bird’s eye view of her own recollections. It’s a moving portrait of how grief and discomfort can bury into the fabric of a family and change it forever—sometimes, unthinkably, for the better.
She Don’t Fade
Director: Lynne Fernie, Aerlyn Weissman
This excellent Canadian documentary is a fascinating, thoroughly entertaining examination of how Canadian lesbians see themselves represented in public life—the good, the bad and the idealistic. Using the mode of lesbian pulp novels, the film asks its expansive roster of interviewees to take an audience through the Golden Age of lesbian writing and publishing, and how it formed their own cultural geography. Butch/femme identities, gay bars, class, race and true stories of hookups of the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s are all fair game, and the interviews are structured by a dramatic adaptation of a pulp novel itself.
Nitrate Kisses, Claire of the Moon
Director: Janet Baus, Su Friedrich
A real-life parallel to Lizzie Borden’s imaginings (though perhaps with fewer explosives), Su Friedrich and Janet Baus’ documentary is an intimate look into the activism of the New York-based Lesbian Avengers. Beginning with L.A.’s first real demonstrations, the documentary charts the teamwork, compassion, and frustration involved in cultivating an organization dedicated to celebrating and protecting lesbians. The documentarians are clearly invested in showcasing as many members’ voices and as much good spirit as possible, creating a full and investigative picture of a group whose image has been warped by outsider ideas time and again.
Director: Rose Troche
While the film that launched a thousand gay Kate Winslet fascinations, Heavenly Creatures, made its debut in 1994, the year belongs to the deft wits behind New Queer Cinema classic Go Fish. In director Rose Troche and co-writer/star Guinevere Turner’s slight, charming black-and-white collage of a group of lesbian friends rallying around the love-starved Max West (Turner) to get her a girl, dialogue is lifted straight from any dyke party and elevated to cheeky perfection. Max’s surprisingly sweet and romantic imaginings of her future girlfriend go up against the realities of lesbian dating, including her own pickiness and naïveté, in a shoestring budget depiction of the “Dyke-O-Rama” of queer dating that inspires both nostalgia for and embarrassment from your last messy Never Have I Ever. Combined with pointed reflections on lesbian sexual identity, a delightfully brazen seduction centering nail clippers and the particular authenticity of character that can only emerge from non-professional friends begrudgingly taking roles based on their true selves, Go Fish is an entirely enjoyable, clever and low-stakes jaunt.
Director: Michelle Handelman
When was the last time you saw a trans dyke crack a 30-foot whip on the ass of an eager volunteer? If the answer is “yesterday,” I envy you. If the answer is “never, but I would like to immediately,” then, boy, have I got the rip-roaring, politically searing, blood-and-sweat spattering documentary for you. Michelle Handelman’s BloodSisters: Leather, Dykes and Sadomasochism is a lust-fueled exploration of San Francisco and beyond’s leatherdyke scene, comprising revealing interviews, demonstrations, political actions and general mischief. Not only a fascinating documentary, BloodSisters became one of the many targets of the American Family Association in its quest to defund the National Endowment for the Arts, and if that isn’t an incentive to see a film live on, I don’t know what is.
Showgirls, Muriel’s Parents Are Desperate
Director: Cheryl Dunye
It feels impossible to choose what to to highlight between some of the heavy hitters that made 1996 their year, but for this list, superseding the Wachowskis’ sensual noir Bound and the flawless Queen Latifah in F. Gary Gray’s high-stakes heist Set It Off, is Cheryl Dunye’s hilarious and sincere seminal work The Watermelon Woman. As Cheryl, a twenty-something video store employee with big dreams to open her own production company with her friend and coworker Tamara (Valarie Walker), Dunye ends up literally creating her own lineage. In order to produce her investigative mockumentary slash romantic dramedy about the uncovering of actress Fae Richards/Faith Richardson, Dunye and artist Zoe Leonard created a series of 78 prints detailing the actress’ life. Dunye drew on the reality of archives to create her mockumentary’s authenticity—and to raise money for the shoestring-budget film. In not only drawing from historical artifacts, but creating an entirely new artifact to re-insert into Hollywood’s history, The Watermelon Woman expands the possibilities of recorded history and creates a classic of New Queer Cinema in the process.
Bound, Set It Off, Badass Supermama
Director: Deepa Mehta
While technically premiering at TIFF in 1996, the firestorm surrounding Deepa Mehta’s erotic drama delayed its release in India, and ushered in a nationwide conversation about morality, pornography and the dangers of lesbian perversion. Considered the first Bollywood film to explicitly feature a lesbian relationship, the plot follows the unexpected romantic bond between sisters-in-law Radha (Shabana Azmi) and Sita (Nandita Das) in light of their thin relationships with neglectful husbands. Widely contested for a variety of the usual reasons (goes too far, doesn’t go far enough!), Fire stands on its own as a blooming, passionate romance against all odds.
Director: Lukas Moodysson
In a year otherwise populated by tales of drug addiction and exploitation (Gia, High Art), Show Me Love is a sweet, genuine Swedish romance between high schoolers who just can’t wait to get out of their staid hometown. Agnes (Rebecka Liljeberg) is a closeted teen whose lovesickness over the more popular Elin (Alexandra Dahlström) slowly turns into a real connection as the two plan to make their escape to Stockholm. Funny, warm and well-acted, the film’s casual embrace of sexuality and realistic portrayal of the absolute horrorshow of first crushes more than stands the test of time.
Gia, High Art
Director: Nisha Ganatra
1999 was, in the best way, an absolutely chaotic year for queer women on film. Aimée & Jaguar, Girl, Interrupted and Better Than Chocolate all vie for attention, and Jamie Babbit’s gorgeously designed, candy-colored, biting satire But I’m A Cheerleader still stands out as the most lasting, and far funnier, film about conversion camp this side of Boy Erased. Though it’s not nearly as well-funded or executed, Nisha Ganatra’s directorial debut Chutney Popcorn emerges as one of the most interesting semi-forgotten queer flicks from the turn of the millennium. An ambitious dramedy about family expectations and compulsory heterosexuality in a South Asian American household, it takes pride in its complications, including a protagonist who is realistically selfish and needs a serious kickstart to wake up to the needs of those around her.
Aimée & Jaguar, But I’m A Cheerleader, Better Than Chocolate
Director: Jorge Manzano
Independent Canadian drama Johnny Greyeyes is not a smooth film. It is, however, an anomaly: A complex, layered story of a young Indigenous woman whose codependent relationship with her brother and a history of juvenile incarceration once again lands her in prison, where she falls for another Indigenous woman. Originally conceptualized as a documentary about Indigenous women incarcerated by Canada, the script morphed into a narrative based on recorded interviews with inmates in the ‘80s. Actors Gail Maurice and Columpa Bobb inhabit a tentative, sweet but fraught relationship with equal parts sensitivity and roiling anger, lending depth and gentleness to a largely unexplored narrative.
Director: Jamie Babbit
Keep lesbian cinema short! And weird! And hilarious! Though Mulholland Drive certainly takes the cake this year for weirdness of queer pseudo-romances, Jamie Babbit’s short Stuck carries on the tradition of queer filmmakers putting their all into shortform lesbian representation. In the absurdist melodrama, an elderly couple makes their way to a bridge game in the middle of the desert, sniping all the way. It’s only in the middle of nowhere that they finally find the means to end a relationship that has clearly been wearing them thin for decades. The short was the first production from POWERUP, a lesbian film production company that also had a hand in D.E.B.S. and The Itty Bitty Titty Committee before self-destructing in a show of utter dyke drama.
Stranger Inside, Kissing Jessica Stein
Director: Yee Chih-yen
This gorgeously shot, lightly scored Taiwanese teen comedy about mixed romantic messaging and secretive, bubbling discoveries of attraction feels like a direct predecessor to Alice Wu’s charming 2020 escapade The Half of It. Lin Yuezhen (Yolin Liang) and Meng Kerou (Gwei Lun-Mei) are best friends who spend their days crushing and cruising around the city on their bikes, but when they both develop feelings for the same boy, their friendship cycles toward an evolution that neither of them expected. Breezy and mellow, Blue Gate Crossing nonetheless captures some of the surprise effervescence and sorrow that comes with finally stepping into your own.
Director: Catherine Hardwicke
In the name of equal opportunity, let lesbians be frightening. Let them exist as unraveling middle schoolers who manipulate their families and kick and scream and ride a downward spiral until they’re stumbling drunkenly out the other side, one teeter totter away from falling back toward oblivion. While not typically considered a lesbian film, Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen, co-written with 14-year-old star Nikki Reed, is viscerally reminiscent of the too-close best friendships that cluttered middle school hallways, and always had to be broken up by teachers for too loudly conspiring. Considered shocking for all except the demographic it was portraying, the film fairly vibrates with the energy of a thousand repressed crushes that turn to obsessive, destructive jealousy when stifled in favor of compulsory heterosexuality. That Evan Rachel Wood and Nikki Reed have talked about crushing on each other while filming only adds to its emotional whirlwind.
Director: Alice Wu
In screenwriter and director Alice Wu’s charming, personal, and at times steamy picture of Chinese American life in New York City, surgeon-on-the-rise Wilhelmina “Wil” (Michelle Krusiec) is forced to take care of her mother Gao (the legendary Joan Chen) after Gao becomes pregnant at 48, but refuses to disclose the identity of the father. As Gao struggles to adjust to life without the approval of her own parents or her community, Wil attempts to keep her mother from discovering her blossoming romance with ballet dancer Vivian (Lynn Chen) even as mother and daughter’s lives become increasingly intertwined. Aside from being a rare rom-com that explores a remarkably positive relationship between mothers and gay daughters, Wu’s directorial debut is skillful, specific and endlessly cute.
Director: Jenni Olson
Director, writer and archivist Jenni Olson, whose name can be found in the “special thanks” credits of quite a few films on this list, is concerned with life, love and the brief but shining pursuit of both. In experimental, essayistic hybrid documentary The Joy of Life, Olson employs the voice of San Francisco queer scene stalwart Harry Dodge (By Hook or By Crook) to braid together a toast to life—as difficult and fleeting as it may be. Over gorgeous, placid landscape shots of San Francisco at all hours of the day, Dodge’s narrator travels through lost, stunted and unbelievably hot dyke lust. Somehow, despite all the missteps, reservations and internal identity struggles the narrator runs up against, they believe in the swooping sensation of falling in love. Inducing a meditative, almost mesmerized state, the film encourages the audience to continue falling, too.
Imagine Me & You
Director: Katherine Brooks
Director Katherine Brooks’ loose adaptation of the much stronger Mädchen in Uniform is a paragon of what straight people fear about “predatory” lesbians. They’ll corrupt your monotheistic children into Buddhists, they’ll defile the image of the Virgin Mary as they pull from a bottle of Jack Daniels and regale each other with stories of sweet sapphic lovemaking, and they’ll turn a beloved Catholic schoolteacher into a horny sinner who daydreams about getting fingered by her students in the chapel! It’s a quintessential “bad” lesbian movie, but it’s also an indulgent, sensual watch that fully leans in to all of its era’s conventions and turns the dial to 11.
Love My Life
Director: Céline Sciamma
Céline Sciamma’s portrait of a girl underwater is an unembarrassed look at obsession and heartbreak at the baby stages of coming out. 15-year-old Marie (Pauline Acquart) is wildly attracted to synchronized swimming captain Floriane (Adèle Haenel), who carelessly manipulates the font of any attention she receives. Through Crystel Fournier’s careful camera, and absorbed, raw performances from its leads, Water Lilies dips into the murky age of unanalyzed and impulsive desire.
The Itty Bitty Titty Committee, Tick Tock Lullaby
Director: Shamim Sarif
The autobiographical story upon which writer/director Shamim Sarif’s soapy, delightful British-Jordanian 2008 romance is based is reason enough to cement I Can’t Think Straight as a classic of lesbian cinema. Bring in two actors with as much undiluted chemistry as Lisa Ray and Sheetal Sheth, who also co-starred in Sarif’s The World Unseen, and you get a memorable, cheesy but seductively enjoyable watch. The plot follows Tala (Ray) straying from her latest family-arranged fiancé to pursue the intellectual but repressed Leyla (Sheth) in a jaunt that turns from a casual interest to a “is it possible for these two to play tennis without fucking on the court” connection. Thankfully for us, the answer won’t surprise you.
Director: Karyn Kusama
“I thought you only murdered boys?” “I go both ways.” Another egregious example of a queer film being ahead of its time and sailing over the heads of its initial marketers and audiences alike, Jennifer’s Body is a bloody, gloriously sharp-eyed and sharper-tongued rape-revenge horror-comedy that has only now been getting its due. While some of the most emphatically queer aspects of the film were lost to the whims of the studio, what remains is an insatiably devoted bond between possessed cheerleader Jennifer (Megan Fox) and anxious, neglected Needy (Amanda Seyfried)—and lots and lots of remains.
Director: Cheryl Dunye
Well, we couldn’t just have one Dunyementary on the list! In this Sarah Schulman-penned hybrid fiction, the OWLS (Older Wiser Lesbians) are a group of disillusioned middle-aged couples who accidentally replicate one of many possible “Who Killed Jenny?” situations, and become embroiled in a takedown by the lover of their victim. Made for a paltry $22K, and starring a cast of faces intimately familiar with the indie lesbian film scene (Guinevere Turner, V.S. Brodie, Lisa Gornick and Deak Evgenikos among them), the film is a micro-study in queer culture struggling to move past its own imagery.
The Final Girl
Director: Madeleine Olnek
If you or someone you know experiences an uncontrollable repulsion toward somber lesbian films set in the past, why not try out an off-the-wall romance set simultaneously in the present and lightyears away? Madeleine Olnek’s low-budget, ultimately sincere sci-fi parody Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same is a weird, shining light in the darkness of self-serious sci-fi. Incorporating loving, shoestring tributes to Ed Wood and wit reminiscent of ‘90s sketch comedy, the film poses the question: Is space really the final frontier, or is it just the loneliest?
Pariah, The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye
Director: Campbell Ex
In Campbell Ex’s endearing portrait of queer, Black East London, JJ (T’Nia Miller) is a charming, proud stud who spends her days running a wedding photography business with her best friend, white “pretty boy” Seb (Kyle Treslove). When JJ and Seb find romantic and sexual partners who challenge their ideals, their own friendship strains, and their rock-solid images of who they are strains with it. Pulling inspiration from prior queer cinema greats, Stud Life is its own unique, ideologically provocative conversation that isn’t afraid to make a bit of a mess.
Margarita, Mosquita y Mari
Director: Stacie Passon
Stacie Passon’s intelligent character study of a bored wife and mother who suddenly awakens to the dullness of her life could be a deadpan answer to requests for a film in which the validity of lesbian identity is no longer a central conflict. They cheat just like anybody else. Instead of battling the usual homophobia, Abby (an outstandingly versatile Robin Weigert) decides to secretly pursue sex work as a way of creating an entirely separate life from her wife and children. While the work, and a convenient vocation as an apartment flipper, brings her a sense of independence, her worlds quickly meld, and she’s forced to consider that even if she’s found enlightenment, those around her would prefer she stay just the same.
Reaching for the Moon
Director: Desiree Akhavan
There’s no denying that writer, director and actor Desiree Akhavan has a cuttingly distinct, brilliant sense of humor—even if that humor is swathed in the most stomach-churning, difficult to watch, self-deprecating cringe. In Appropriate Behavior, Akhavan stars as Shirin, a very funny and very lost Iranian American Brooklynite who splits her identity between her expectant ex-girlfriend, and her very present and willfully oblivious family. It’s a painful but honest mode of storytelling that shuffles Shirin between worlds in which she doesn’t quite fit, because nobody quite knows how to make room for her particular shape.
The Duke of Burgundy, Kate Bornstein is a Queer and Pleasant Danger
Director: Dee Rees
I’m going to put it out there that I love Carol. We all do. Laughing about Therese and Rindy’s identical haircuts is a part of my therapist-prescribed relaxation. But in 2015, another gorgeously-performed and designed period piece—a biopic of legendary blues singer Bessie Smith—was produced for HBO. Bessie, Dee Rees’ follow up to her incredible, poetic 2011 debut Pariah, stars an incandescent Queen Latifah as the determined, temperamental, outrageously talented singer, who pursues men and women alike. Through abuse, affairs, skyrocketing success and destitution, Queen Latifah’s embodiment of The Empress of Blues is a magnetic force that grounds the film in deeply felt, emotional humanity.
Carol, Clouds of Sils Maria, The Royal Road
Director: Carly Usdin
Writer/star Brittani Nichols and director Carly Usdin’s micro-budget, hellishly dark comedy is an evil romp that won’t stop until it exposes every character’s most embarrassing neurosis. And when it’s two dyke couples jabbing each other across a dinner table, that’s a lot of neurosis to wade through before you get to dessert. Add in a mystery suicide note, and you get a tangled web of half-truths, passive aggression and spirals in the sun-washed, picture-perfect kitchen of a California home. Nichols and cast carry off their charming script and improvisations with aplomb, making Suicide Kale a delightful and worrying way to spend an afternoon.
The Handmaiden, Her Story
Director: Angela Robinson
In yet another gloriously packed year, prolific lesbian director Angela Robinson’s true story of the creation of the comic book character of Wonder Woman is a stimulating, elegant and truly sexy treat. Through the formation of a polyamorous triad, professor William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston (Rebecca Hall) and William’s student Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) discover the indulgences that lead to Wonder Woman’s most recognizable characteristics. The proto-BDSM theory of human behavior that lies at the crux of their story, as well as their successful, overwhelmingly loving relationship, elevates Professor Marston from a visual marvel to a multi-faceted, historically significant highlight of recent queer cinema.
Princess Cyd, Signature Move, Thelma, Chavela, Disobedience
Director: Leilah Weinraub
Shakedown is a holy space in Los Angeles; a sanctified strip club under the guidance of butch emcee Ronnie Ron, where Black lesbians generously spend money to see other Black lesbians in various spectacular states of undress. Through interviews, print materials and performance footage, the slightly experimental, always observant documentary outlines the grueling work of maintaining such a fantasy, even as the space itself shimmies under frenetic club lights. Director Leilah Weinraub’s incredible access to the performers, promoters and roughest nights at the club emphasize the necessity of its survival, and the perverse tragedy of its shutdown by the LAPD in 2004.
Rafiki, Wild Nights with Emily, Knife + Heart, House of Hummingbird
Director: Brad Michael Elmore
Coming full circle, 2019’s updated neon pulp stars Nicole Maines as Laurel, a trans teen who, upon moving to Los Angeles, quickly falls into a crowd of misandrist lesbian vampires. Bit is a good bit of garish midnight fun, and while it certainly doesn’t stand up to the caliber of filmmaking from some of the other favorites of this year, its casual, purposeful inclusion of a trans lesbian with cis queer women is close to nonexistent elsewhere in fiction filmmaking, save for the ever more progressive media of web (Her Story) and television (Euphoria) series. In any case, Bit is a tool with which Maines continues to cut her already impressive teeth.
Holy Trinity, Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Director: Patricia Vidal Delgado
In effective black-and-white photography, Patricia Vidal Delgado weaves a political coming-of-age for an Ecuador-born baby anarchist (Monica Betancourt), and the Mexican American girl-next-door (Kailei Lopez) who falls for her under the helicopter searchlights of East Los Angeles. La Leyenda Negra is successful because it traces the real and incomprehensible experience of existing as a young adult under societal failure. With raw expression, Monica Betancourt’s Aleteia wheels from blood-boiling rage and despair to an overwhelming lightness of infatuation with a pretty and kind crush, all within the span of a day. Luckily for her, Rosarito (Lopez) is more than willing to follow her to the root of her pain, suggesting a promising future for both the characters, and the remarkable film team.
Kajillionaire, The Half of It
The year is far from over, and with that space of possibility comes the hope that some of the excellent queer films making the festival rounds will find accessible homes. From a life-altering, darkly funny burial in Tahara, to a new romance between old souls, bodies and skybound mysteries in Forgotten Roads, to an athlete pushing herself past the brink of survival in The Novice, to a woman deciding to leave behind everything she’s ever known or had the chance to love in Welcome to the USA, it will hopefully be more difficult than ever to pin down a film of the year.
Shayna Maci Warner is a Brooklyn-based film programmer, preservationist and GLAAD-awarded critical queer. Their words on queer feelings and films appear in Autostraddle, The Film Stage and Film Cred, among others, and they write a horny newsletter about the girls and gays that make movies worth watching. You can summon her by yodeling “Desert Hearts was robbed!” into the sunset.