When we here at AfterElton.com originally conceived the idea to present our first annual poll of the best gay male movies of all time, we wondered how many gay movies could possibly be considered “great.” Fifty seemed like a nice solid number, but we weren’t quite sure. We opened the polls anyway, and you voted.
For a grand total of 570 different movies.
At AfterElton.com, gay movies are much of what we do. All day long, we watch them, think about them, and write about them. But even we were surprised by the quality and diversity of the films selected in this poll: big budget dramas, quirky indie darlings, romantic comedies, musicals, and even a certain gay teen sex comedy.
In short, there are a lot of gay movies that are damn good!
Here are some interesting statistics. Except for two films, The Boys in the Band (1970) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), every movie on this list was produced in the 1980s or later. What’s this? Don’t gay people like classic films? A more likely explanation, of course, is that gay-related content rarely existed on film until the 1980s — and if it did, it was almost invariably offensive.
Films from outside the U.S. including England, Spain, Australia, Canada and others occupied nearly 1/3 of the top 50 slots. More dramas made the list (33) than comedies (17). So do gay people prefer drama, or is it that most gay movies to date have tended to be more serious?
What is a “gay movie” anyway? That was for you to decide, but in every case, it was a film with at least one leading gay or bisexual character.
And what makes a movie “great”? That’s ultimately a subjective call, but we think it’s worth noting that almost every movie on this list was new or different in some important way from all the gay films before it. This seems to us to prove a lesson that Hollywood never seems to learn: audiences like that which is fresh and original, not tired retreads of what was popular in the years before.
While the list is very diverse when it comes to subject matter, it’s a different story when discussing racial diversity. Of the top twenty films, only Big Eden (2000) and My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) include substantive roles for men of color – Eric Schweig plays the Native American character Pike in Big Eden while Gordon Warnecke is Omar in Laundrette.
Since this will be an annual poll, it should be fascinating to watch older movies fall off of the list and new ones climb on to it. No doubt some movies that received a great deal of press this year, and subsequently placed high on this list, will fade somewhat over time while new movies — the soon-to-be released Milk comes to mind — will no doubt make a big splash on next year’s list. Hopefully there will be a great deal of movement as gay cinema continues to grow and thrive.
Without further ado, we present AfterElton.com’s Fifty Greatest Gay Movies!
1. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Ferragamos or Birkenstocks? Mojitos or good ol’ beer? Gay men don’t seem to agree on much. But by a wide margin of nearly two-to-one, you chose Brokeback Mountain as the greatest gay movie of all time. And how could it be otherwise? “It’s not ‘gay,’” said some, trying to broaden the film’s appeal, “it’s a ‘universal love story’!”
But is it really? Plenty of heterosexuals have had the experience of hiding a love affair, but how many of them know what it’s like to be forced by society to deny themselves the very possibility of love? This is the daring and fundamentally “gay” question at the heart of Ang Lee’s 2005 masterpiece: can two men simply allow themselves to love each other? And though the movie is set in the past, it is, ultimately, the very choice that every gay man still must make.
Jake Gyllenhaal is flawless as Jack Twist in arguably the movie’s most difficult role. But Heath Ledger’s heartbreaking portrayal of Ennis Del Mar, a walking cautionary tale of homophobia’s logical end result, is a revelation — a total acting transformation made all the more tragic by Ledger’s death earlier this year. But the indignities and injustices that Jack and Ennis faced did not end at Brokeback Mountain’s closing credits. Upon the film’s release, the movie’s makers and fans were subjected to a six-month orgy of tasteless jokes from clueless comedians and bile-filed commentary from right-wing pundits. All of this negativity culminated when the movie, long considered the Oscar front-runner, lost Best Picture to a fine but unremarkable movie called Crash, perhaps the most egregious upset in Oscar history and almost certainly the result of lingering homophobia in Hollywood’s old guard.
But that fusillade of ridicule and outrage is already fading into the gloom of a bigoted past while the movie’s artistry and quiet power shines brighter than ever. Let’s face it: this isn’t just the greatest gay movie of all time, it’s one of the greatest movies ever.
2. Beautiful Thing (1996)
What is it about this little U.K. charmer that has turned it into such a gay classic? The answer may be its subject matter: gay teens. This 1996 film was the first in a virtual tidal wave of movies and books in which the sensitive teen misfit with a best female friend falls for the jock who turns out to be gay. But hey, haven’t most of us been there, on one side or other of the misfit/jock divide? This movie, based on a stage play by Jonathan Harvey (who also wrote the film’s screenplay), was originally intended for television, but it was so successful that the producers decided to give it a theatrical release. And let’s not forget the inspired soundtrack of Mama Cass songs — an example of a perfect fit between music and movie subject matter. Make your own kind of music, indeed.
3. Shelter (2007)
There are “sleeper” films, and then there is Shelter. This small indie film received a very limited theatrical release in the spring of 2007 with a television debut on the subscription-only here! network only a month later. And suddenly, it was all anyone could talk about. Plenty of folks deemed it “the gay surfer movie,” but it’s ultimately as much about surfing as Brokeback Mountain is about animal husbandry. Instead, Shelter is a riveting family drama and a story of first gay love set in a working class world. Starring Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss’s Brad Rowe in a career-reviving performance and newcomer Trevor Wright, there are no gay bars in Shelter, no drugs, no drag queens, no circuit anthems, no gay-bashings, no AIDS scares, and no screaming parents to speak of. And we gay folks loved it anyway. Or maybe, because it was so fresh and different, that’s why we loved it.
4. Latter Days (2003)
Talk about opposites attracting! A gay party animal falls in love with … a Mormon missionary? This plotline, previously consigned solely to porno movies, could have easily descended into sitcom-level sentiment or Old Couple-like cliché. But the makers of this movie knew better, starting with the fact that both party-boy Christian (Wes Ramsey) and missionary Aaron (Steve Sandvoss, in a role he was born to play) are never stereotypes. That plot kicks off when Christian’s friends bet him $50 that he can’t bed one of the Mormon missionaries in the apartment across from him.
It turns out he can, but at what cost? This wonderful movie shows love at its complicated, messy best. It also dared to take on the Mormon Church’s bigoted and often hypocritical stand on homosexuality, making the film enormously controversial upon its 2003 release.
5. Maurice (1987)
Author E. M. Forster knew the novel he began in 1913 about a British aristocrat and his love affair with a male gardener would be very controversial if it had been published in his lifetime, especially given that he insisted on giving it a happy ending. The novel was finally published posthumously in 1971, but the subject matter was still a hard sell when producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory, real-life same-sex partners, decided to turn the book into one of their trademark lavish period films. Marshaling the clout they’d earned from 1985’s Oscar-winning A Room With a View, they produced this 1987 masterpiece, the world’s first big budget gay period film. Hugh Grant is wonderful in stuffed-shirt mode, but the movie really belongs to James Wilby, who is superb as Maurice, and Rupert Graves as Alec, the World’s Hottest Stable Boy. For most gay viewers, that amazing nude bedroom scene is still fused directly onto our corneas.
6. Trick (1999)
How hard can it be to find a place to have sex? For hapless Gabriel and his gorgeous one-night stand Mark, it’s pretty hard. But this movie isn’t really about having sex; the real “trick” is to somehow find love. Is Trick the best gay romantic comedy ever made?
AfterElton.com readers and staff members think so. There’s so much to praise about this movie, whether it’s Tori Spelling’s utterly fearless performance as a clueless, no-talent wannabe, Steve Hayes delightful turn as the wonderful and wise Perry, or Coco Peru’s delightfully surreal cameo in the men’s restroom. But ultimately, the night belongs to that freshest of all fresh faces, Christian Campbell as the aptly named Gabriel, and smoldering John Paul Pitoc as Mark. The evening may not end in sex, but when Gabriel emerges into the sunlight of a new morning, he finally figures out the missing lyric to his song and the whole city seems to sing. We do too.
7. Get Real (1998)
“School’s out,” reads the tagline to the 1998 film Get Real. “So is Steven Carter.” Many observers noted this movie’s similarities with Beautiful Thing, which bowed a few years before it; like Beautiful Thing, Get Real is a U.K. movie, based on a play, about a bookish teenager in love with a closeted jock while being given advice from a best female friend. But in keeping with its title, Get Real goes places that Beautiful Thing definitely does not.
When Steven is caught by the police in a park where gay men are known to cruise, his father warns him that “perverts” hang out there. “Well, where else are we supposed to go?” Steven says angrily. The climax of the movie, when Steven gets a standing ovation after reading his essay, is as rousing and satisfying as movie endings get. And here’s to a movie that dares to end its love story on a complicated, bittersweet note.
8. Big Eden (2000)
What if Frank Capra were gay? He might have made 2000’s Big Eden, a charming crowd-pleaser about Henry, a big city artist, who returns to Big Eden, his Montana hometown, to care for a sick family member. Before long, he’s dealing with feelings of unrequited love for his best friend from high school while missing a potential new love, a Native American man named Pike, that’s right in front of his face. Would the members of a small Montana town really be so free from homophobia, even conspiring to get Henry and Pike to fall in love? Big Eden says they would, and it’s a testament to this movie’s particular magic that we never doubt for a minute that it is true. And a special shout-out to filmmakers who understand that gay people come in every color that humans do.
9. The Broken Hearts Club: A Romantic Comedy (2000)
Greg Berlanti is now one of Hollywood’s top movers-and-shakers, boldly producing gay-inclusive shows like Brothers & Sisters and Dirty Sexy Money. But in 2000, he wrote and directed a feel-good romantic comedy called The Broken Hearts Club, based, in part, on Berlanti’s own motley group of West Hollywood friends. With a killer cast that includes a pre-Scrubs Zach Braff, as well as Dean Cain, Justin Theroux, and John Mahoney, Berlanti made a movie in exactly the style that has since become his hallmark: a little broad, more than a tad sentimental, and thoroughly entertaining.
10. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)
Coming on the heels of a decade of devastation from AIDS, it’s almost impossible to overstate the impact of 1994’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a gay “road trip” movie from Australia that proved that drag is anything but a drag. Everything about this movie says “classic,” from those oh-so-memorable costumes and dance numbers to the utterly astounding performances by Terence Stamp and Guy Pearce (and a less flashy, more grounded performance by Hugo Weaving that was the heart of the whole movie). Not many movies can say they reignited a whole phenomenon, but that’s exactly what Priscilla did with the music of ABBA. Mostly, though, this movie made it fun to be gay again — which, at the time, was exactly what we so desperately needed.
11. Longtime Companion (1990)
By the late 1980s, Hollywood, like the American political establishment, had still barely acknowledged the tragedy of AIDS. So playwright Craig Lucas and his directing partner the late Norman René took matters into their own hands (with help from PBS’ American Playhouse), moving heaven and earth to cast and finance this movie chronicling the impact of AIDS on a group of gay New York men throughout the 80s.
If the film was going to have any impact at all, it had a very fine needle to thread — telling a story that would be accessible to a broad audience about a topic that was still extremely controversial. But all doubts were immediately erased by this tender, sensitive story that finally put a human face on AIDS. Bruce Davison’s incredible performance as a man caring for his dying partner was Oscar-nominated. And the film’s ending on the beach, as three surviving characters imagine a world where AIDS has ended and all the main characters have been brought back to life, is still one of the most heart-rending in all of filmdom.
12. Torch Song Trilogy (1988)
In 1988, Harvey Fierstein adapted for the movies his landmark Tony-award winning play about gay life in the 70s. Matthew Broderick, who had originated the role of Fierstein’s adopted son David, was cast as Fierstein’s partner Alan. Meanwhile, Anne Bancroft at her scene-chewing best replaced Estelle Getty, who had played Fierstein’s mother in the Off-Broadway and Broadway productions. The result isn’t just a surprisingly successful (and amazingly faithful) adaptation of the play; it’s a slice of gay history preserved forever on celluloid. “A thing of beauty is a joy till sunrise,” Arnold says wryly, but this movie has been a beauty a lot longer than that. 13. My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)
Some movies are released; others explode into the world, crackling with creativity and audaciousness. My Beautiful Laundrette was just such a movie, highlighting the bold new talents of director Stephen Frears, actor Daniel Day-Lewis, and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi. Of all the movies on this list, this might be the least overtly “gay.” Instead, it’s more a movie about racism and Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies in the U.K.
The gay element, even its gay sensuality, is presented in a remarkably matter-of-fact way, which is part of why the film seemed so bold and refreshing at the time. Like Beautiful Thing, My Beautiful Laundrette was originally a television movie, but there was just no containing this cinematic wonder on the small screen. And how often had we seen gay people of color on film before this movie?
14. Parting Glances (1986)
How’s this for cinema verite? In 1986, when almost every other feature filmmaker was staying far away from AIDS, and when television was talking about AIDS only as it relates to straight people, writer-director Bill Sherwood released this intimate, low-budget film about the disease’s impact on gay men. Made for a mere $310,000 back when the cost of basic filmmaking was much higher, Parting Glances tells the story of a group of gay men over a single 24-hour period; one of the men, a rock star dying of AIDS, is played by Steve Buscemi in his much-heralded film debut. Sherwood wrote other screenplays, but none were ever produced, and he died of AIDS in 1990. Still, by daring to go where other filmmakers would not, Sherwood earned a pivotal place in the history of gay cinema; Parting Glances was recently named one of the first two films to be restored by the Outfest Legacy Project for the LGBT Film Preservation Partnership
15. Just a Question of Love (2000)
This thoughtful 2000 family drama first aired on French TV. In it, Laurent is gay, but he doesn’t dare tell his parents; after all, he loves them deeply, and when his cousin came out only the year before, they completely rejected him. What difference does coming out make anyway? Laurent’s not in love with anyone, and he’s got his female friend Carole who acts as his cover. But then Laurent meets hunky Cedric, who comes from a family where everyone thinks it’s healthy to be honest and open. Suddenly everyone wants Laurent to come out, and he’s not sure he can handle the pressure. What is more important — duty to one’s parents or love for one’s partner? The answer might be complicated, but it’s ultimately still just a question of love.
16. Mysterious Skin (2004)
Gregg Araki split gay filmgoers with earlier experimental movies like The Living End (1992) and The Doom Generation (1995). But virtually everyone agreed that his 2004 film Mysterious Skin, based on the novel by Scott Heim, was something special. After decades of books and movies chronicling the travails of sexual abuse, the topic had almost become a cliché. Mysterious Skin proved that, in talented hands, there’s always more to say about any rich topic.
The film is explicit and sometimes difficult to watch, but it is never exploitative. The unsettling imagery comes fast and furious, building to a shocking, yet oddly cathartic ending. Many of us knew Joseph Gordon-Levitt only from Third Rock From the Sun, but his breakout performance in this movie was widely applauded — kudos that the actor richly deserved. And let’s face it: actors who convincingly play child molesters almost never get praised, since unlike many villains, their characters are so difficult to “like” on any level. But Bill Sage’s performance as the creepy yet charismatic coach was utterly convincing and absolutely fearless.
17. Sommersturm (Summer Storm) (2004)
Young love is confusing, tempestuous, and unpredictable — just like, well, a summer storm. In this 2004 German coming-of-age film, teenage rowers from all over the country gather for a regatta at a quiet country lake. But the last minute addition of an all-gay crew, the Queerstrokes, forces closeted Tobi to finally come to terms with his feelings for his best friend and teammate Achim, who is in his own complicated relationship with his girlfriend Sandra. Summer Storm brims with youthful energy and passion and features terrific, naturalistic performances by all the young leads. Better still, it helped reclaim the genre of the sports film for us gay folks.
18. Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
This isn’t a movie — it’s a rite of passage! Decades before Hollywood deigned to present even the most tepid, sanitized versions of homosexuality, somehow this deliriously subversive — and wantonly, openly gay — shock-fest found its way into theaters. And it’s stayed in those theaters; it’s currently the longest running theatrical release in film history, still playing in theaters (usually at midnight shows) more than thirty years after its original 1975 release.
How to explain the lasting appeal of this oh-so-weird film that was named the most groundbreaking gay film of all time? Well, Tim Curry’s stunning, jaw-droppingly audacious performance as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, the self-proclaimed “sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania,” doesn’t hurt. But this gender-bending wonder has moved beyond being a mere “movie” and into the realm of “phenomenon.” Naturally, a remake is reportedly in the works starring Marilyn Manson, but what are the odds lightning will strike the same place twice? In the meantime, don your fishnets, memorize those lines so you can talk back to the screen, and let’s…do…the…time-warp…again!
19. The Birdcage (1996)
Some gay filmgoers found the over-the-top characterizations in 1996’s The Birdcage, an Americanized, Mike Nichols-directed version of the French farce La Cage aux Folles, to flirt dangerously close to offensiveness. And it is hard to imagine a more stereotypical portrayal of a gay man than Nathan Lane’s Albert. Or is the film somehow sending up and/or reclaiming those stereotypes?
No matter your take, the film clearly celebrates differences and ultimately finds the heart in its characters — all while viciously mocking moralistic right-wing Republicans. It’s also hard to overstate the impact of a beloved comedian like Robin Williams, then at the very height of his popularity, taking on the role of a gay man openly in love with another man.
20. Sordid Lives (2000)
In this popular cult movie, all the characters are either in prison or mental institutions — or they should be! Sordid Lives presents a cast of colorful Southerners, based, in part, on creator Del Shore’s own childhood. Gay viewers know camp when they see it, and it doesn’t hurt that this 2000 movie has a cast to die for, including Olivia Newton-John, Beau Bridges, Bonnie Bedelia, Leslie Jordan, and Delta Burke. The movie even inspired a new “prequel” TV series,.
21. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
22. Shortbus (2006)
23. All Over The Guy (2001)
24. Another Gay Movie (2006)
25. Boys in the Band (1970)
26. Philadelphia (1993)
27. To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995)
28. Boy Culture (2006)
29. The Wedding Banquet (1993)
30. C.R.A.Z.Y (2005)
31. My Own Private Idaho (1991)
32. Jeffrey 1995)
33. The Trip (2002)
34. Edge of Seventeen (1998)
35. Priest (1994)
36. In & Out (1997)
37. Eating Out (2004)
38. Velvet Goldmine (1998)
39. Angels in America (2003)
40. Love! Valour! Compassion! (1997)
41. The Sum of Us (1994)
42. Burnt Money (2000)
43. Transamerica (2005)
44. Victor Victoria (1982)
45. Bent (1997)
46. Yossi and Jagger (2002)
47. Bad Education (2004)
48. Gods and Monsters (1998)
49. Making Love (1992)
50. Rent (2005)