As queer people, some of the most pivotal moments of our lives occur in spaces where music fills every corner: Moving as one in a heated club with your chosen family, singing along with your local drag queen, pressed against a throng of bodies at a life-giving concert—when it comes to expressing ourselves, music’s rapturous delights have always offered a clear path toward escape and ecstasy.
Queer cinema, an elastic catch-all for movies that focus on any mode of non-heterosexual desire, has often identified this truth with cunning inventiveness. While the very first queer films stretch back more than 100 years, it wasn’t until the advent of popular music in the mid-20th century that they became more explicitly about music. In depicting those invigorating moments on film (and creating their own), these movies showcase the diverse ways music finds its way into our lives: From Marlon Riggs’ electrifying video art merging dance music and poetry to Derek Jarman’s crushing combo of abstract sound and image, there is no limit to the ways queer film intertwines music and visuals into one enlivened work of art.
In an effort to capture that eclectic scope, Pitchfork has compiled 30 stellar examples of the form, beginning in 1965. Presented chronologically, this list includes both short and full-length films, ranging from campy musicals and cult movies with a gender-bending edge, to gay fever dreams of fandom and the contemporary lesbian classics of the Criterion Channel. This collection does not exclusively feature queer-identifying directors; instead, we focused on a mix of work from across the globe that has made a mark on filmmaking and music, merging the two to highlight a queer point of view. Think of this as your official starter pack for a deep dive into the oceans of queer cinema, with impeccable soundtracks, unforgettable performers, and electrifying dance sequences to keep you moving.
Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965)
In 1965, the queer avant-garde pioneer Kenneth Anger directed a three-minute homoerotic deconstruction of hetero American male fantasies that doubles as an urtext for the music video as we know it. Anger was given $10,000 by the Ford Foundation to make a quick film about their cars; the American manufacturer was finding its footing amid a push of factory-built models, churning out shapely, chrome-plated beauties that quickly became a fetish object of post-war masculinity. The director, meanwhile, was working on what would become his ceremonial Magick Lantern Cycle, a sequence of hallucinatory 16mm short films that included 1963’s Scorpio Rising, featuring a Nazi biker gang getting their comeuppance via a homoerotic occult group.
That essential document of early queer cinema, peppered with blasts of pop and rock’n’roll music, gave way to Kustom Kar Kommandos, Anger’s transgressive use of all that Ford money—most of which, legend has it, went to his own living expenses. Set to the dulcet girl-group tones of the Paris Sisters’ “Dream Lover,” the short with a KKK-alluding title imagines a pastel pink daydream in which a blond-haired boy buffs and cares for his hearse-like car with intense romantic longing and overt gay imagery. There are plenty of close-ups of the vehicle’s most erotic protrusions, plus long pans of the boy’s ass clad in tight blue jeans. “I want a dream lover,” the Paris Sisters sing yearningly as Anger’s protagonist toys with a phallic gear stick. “I want a boy to call my own.” –Eric Torres
Watch it on YouTube
Cabaret is unusual among film adaptations of Broadway musicals for its attention to cinematic style, foregrounding Bob Fosse’s directorial vision without losing its roots in the theater. Fosse, who was an accomplished dancer, choreographer, and stage director before he broke into filmmaking, was uniquely well-positioned to adapt the acclaimed show, itself inspired by Christopher Isherwood’s memoirs of Weimar-era Berlin. His sense of internal rhythm is unparalleled, both in his vivid staging of numbers like “Maybe This Time” and the visceral cuts of his editing. Liza Minnelli’s defiantly charismatic turn as Sally Bowles, perhaps more than any of her other roles, made her a beloved diva and queer icon. Unlike many other classic movie musicals, Cabaret endures not because of its camp or spectacle, but its bracing realness: Its story of self-discovery, set against the rise of fascism, remains tragically relevant today. –Nadine Smith
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Is there any image in queer cinema as indelible as Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s entrance in The Rocky Horror Picture Show? Watch in delight as Tim Curry, face fully beat, tosses off his cloak to reveal a bustier, fishnet-clad legs, skyscraper heels, and a wicked smile, sending whitebread couple Janet and Brad into a straight panic. One of the earliest on-screen expressions of camp excess, the glam-rock comedy-cum-midnight-singalong revolves around Curry’s high-wire performance; he leads his cabal of sexually liberated weirdos with real emotion lurking under his vaudeville villainy.
For as popular (and at times cringey) as Rocky Horror has become, it’s easy to forget just how bold it was for the time: the unambiguous depiction of polyamory, the stylized glimpse into drag, plus Rocky himself, the Speedo-wearing himbo prototype. The film’s tragic climax of self-expression, “Fanfare / Don’t Dream It,” shows Rocky Horror’s subversive heart. “Give yourself over to absolute pleasure/Swim the warm waters of sins of the flesh,” Frank-N-Furter sings, sporting a fur and strutting down a staircase drenched in fog, “Erotic nightmares beyond any measure and sensual daydreams to treasure forever.” He smiles and stretches his arms wide at the thought: “Can’t you just see it?” –Eric Torres
Times Square (1980)
Outstanding performances, suggestive petal eating, a beautiful soundtrack, horrible editing—why, it can only be a Lesbian Film™! Allan Moyle’s Times Square is in glorious shambles—not bad, just camp. The film begins with the two teenage-girl leads being thrown into a psych ward for being a little bit silly with it—one of them plays guitar, the other really wants to see One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There’s a clear sapphic subtext—Nicky, the Joan Jett-coded one, stares at Pamela, the doe-eyed one, like she’s going to devour her—but everyone in this film, it seems, is having sex except for the lesbians. (Like I said, it’s a Lesbian Film; you’re probably used to that by now.) If you can get off on subtext alone, go for it, there’s plenty to go around here.
Aside from the actress’ performances, the soundtrack is Times Square’s biggest draw (also, Tim Curry’s in it, and he’s really good, obviously). The Ramones, Roxy Music, and Lou Reed all feature, making this the punk rock, gyrating-less equivalent of Saturday Night Fever. –Emma Madden
Without Fame, there would be no High School Musical or Step Up. The 1980 musical directed by Alan Parker tells the stories of a fictional group of students at New York City’s High School of the Performing Arts with realism and empathy, setting the bar for all performing arts high school movies to come. While its most obviously queer storyline involves Montgomery MacNeil, a sensitive drama student who anxiously mentions being gay in a philosophical monologue to his classmates, the movie is rife with other queer-coded characters. There’s the capricious Ralph Garci, who gets into burlesque drag in order to bully and seduce MacNeil. There’s also the fabulous dance student Leroy Johnson, played by Gene Anthony Ray, who has been described as a “flamboyantly camp” actor and choreographer that “brushed aside questions about his sexuality.” After various personal devastations and reality checks, the students redeclare their ambitions of stardom in the film’s closing graduation performance of the ELO-inspired ballad “I Sing the Body Electric.” This ending message of hope amid an uncertain future and boldly celebrating one's unique self makes Fame a classic film among queer viewers and anyone else who is always in the process of becoming. –Michelle Hyun Kim
Can’t Stop the Music (1980)
Since its 1980 release, this musical starring the Village People has made regular appearances on lists of the worst films of all time. Its substance as a movie has nearly been eclipsed by its status, along with the similarly decadent Xanadu, as one of the inspirations for the Razzie Awards. Whether or not you agree with its reputation, there’s no denying that Can’t Stop the Music is one of the most unabashedly campy films Hollywood ever produced.
It’s a perfect embodiment of the pre-fabricated glitz and over-the-top aesthetics of the Village People themselves, with songs like “YMCA” and “I Love You to Death” rendered as colorful disco fantasies that would make Vincente Minnelli weep. Directed by Nancy Walker, best known as an actress on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, it’s also the rare major Hollywood production of its day helmed by a woman. Though much of the film is devoted to a drearily heteronormative romance, by today’s standards it’s surprising just how much Can’t Stop the Music lets the Village People be themselves. As with the bigoted backlash to disco itself, it’s hard not to feel like regressive attitudes contributed to the outsized hatred for such an innocently fun piece of Hollywood treacle. –Nadine Smith
Liquid Sky (1982)
Liquid Sky is as much a psychotronic sci-fi fever dream as it is a vivid artifact from a New York that no longer exists. Set within the downtown scene of the early ’80s, Russian director Slava Tsukerman’s film is like a queerer take on The Man Who Fell to Earth. Alien invaders in search of a powerful drug hide out beneath 14th Street, disguised amid a bold kaleidoscope of punk styles and androgynous identity. Even more entrancing than the film’s striking colors and futuristic costumes is its uncanny soundtrack, composed on a primitive digital audio workstation and ranging from creepy carnival music to synth-pop bangers. Like the musical subcultures it reflects, Liquid Sky is a thoroughly DIY affair produced on a shoe-string budget, and its myth has since spread among cult movie fans, New Wave obsessives, and queer cinephiles alike. –Nadine Smith
Watch it on YouTube
By 1982, Julie Andrews was already something of a goody diva thanks to her star turns in ’60s classics The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins, but Victor/Victoria certified her as a queer icon as well. Under the direction of her husband Blake Edwards, Andrews plays Victoria Grant, a starving soprano struggling to find her break on the cabaret circuit. Guided by the tutelage of Toddy (Robert Preston, another old-school musical star known for originating the title role in The Music Man), Victoria attempts to turn her fortunes around by presenting herself as a male performer.
In a delightful bit of gender-bending trickery, Andrews isn’t just playing a woman pretending to be a man, but a woman pretending to be a man who works as a female impersonator, adding yet another level to the film’s exploration of gendered performance. Despite the similar milieu, it’s considerably lighter in tone when compared to a film like Cabaret, but Victor/Victoria was a uniquely transgressive role for an entertainer so synonymous with family-friendly classics. It’s a loving tribute not just to the burlesque stages that gave birth to musical theater as an artform, but to performers of years past who pushed the boundaries of performance and identity alike. –Nadine Smith
City of Lost Souls (1983)
The undersung canon of German director and activist Rosa von Praunheim includes over 40 films, from his early verité-style tribute to trans icon Tally Brown to an essential three-part AIDS documentary trilogy in the early ’90s. Von Praunheim’s most striking feature is 1983’s farcical genderqueer punk cabaret odyssey City of Lost Souls. It takes place in gritty Reagan-era Berlin, where a group of American expats drink, smoke, fuck, and sing raucous musical numbers together under the leadership of fabulous den mother Angie Stardust. The film gleefully commits to the mayhem of its premise, allowing for an anything-goes approach from his cast of transgender artists and drag superstars, playing exaggerated versions of themselves. The iconic Jayne County, in her only starring role, delivers raucous punk performances at Stardust’s delightfully grotesque Burger Queen shop, while the rest of the cast—erotic trapeze acrobats, occultist performance artists—ratchet up the raunchy melodrama as their relationships begin to fracture.
Each of the film’s madcap musical scenes is a sight to behold, but the real revelations in City of Lost Souls lie in its characters’ to-the-camera monologues and frank debates with one another: about trans life and gender determinism, racism and anti-Semitism, homophobia and alienation. Absurdist, chaotic, and unbelievably funny, von Praunheim’s depiction of queer chosen family is just as messy as it can be in real life. –Eric Torres
Watch it on YouTube
Purple Rain (1983)
Dearly beloved, let it be said: Purple Rain’s plot is as straight as they come, following Prince (aka the Kid)’s fraught relationship with singer Apollonia and the cycles of violence that tear them apart. But take one look at him onstage at Minneapolis’ First Avenue club, dripping in ruffled shirts, heeled boots, and skintight pants, falling into orgasmic ecstasy over every guitar solo, and you see exactly why the rock musical remains one of the most vivid on-screen marriages of music and sexuality.
Though hampered by shaky acting and some truly jarring tonal shifts, Prince’s sheer style and insane stage presence make this more than just an exercise in mythmaking by one of the greatest pop stars to walk the planet. Wolfishly sexy as he blurs femme and masc identifiers, Prince’s erotic provocations are on full display as he amps up classics like “Darling Nikki” and “Let’s Go Crazy” with rakish energy. No one did it like Prince, a fact made abundantly clear throughout Purple Rain’s high-pitched, neon-drenched melodrama. –Eric Torres
With this heartfelt ode to the music of his youth, John Waters entered his own pop art era, turning away from the deliberate provocations of his early work to colorful studio spectacles. Hairspray, which follows the fearless Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) as she sets out to conquer the stage of her favorite dance show, may be less offensive to conventional sensibilities than Waters’ Pink Flamingos or Female Trouble, but it’s still a transgressive film about transgressive people. Set in 1962, it could have been a Happy Days-style nostalgia trip, but instead it foregrounds the political tenor of the era, as Tracy fights for racial integration as well as her own recognition as a proudly self-proclaimed “pleasantly plump” girl. Waters’ muse Divine turns in an unforgettable dual role as Edna, Tracy’s stern but loving mother, and an anti-integration TV station owner, while Debbie Harry is hilariously cast as a conservative matriarch. –Nadine Smith
It Couldn’t Happen Here (1988)
English synth-pop duo Pet Shop Boys have always been uniquely cinematic, regularly collaborating with filmmakers like Derek Jarman to produce vividly choreographed stage shows and music videos that verge on high art. They were hardly the first act to explore the concept of the longform video, but It Couldn’t Happen Here takes Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe’s distinctly queer sensibility and stretches it to feature-length. Directed by journeyman filmmaker Jack Bond, the film comprises songs from their classic albums Please and Actually, as the stone-faced musicians roam around the decaying English countryside getting caught up in surreal hijinks, not unlike a gritty reboot of A Hard Day’s Night. Though the Pet Shop Boys wouldn’t come out publicly as gay until the ’90s, the subtext of anthems like “It’s a Sin” is hard to miss, and the bleakness of It Couldn’t Happen Here feels similarly informed by the enormous amounts of loss brought on by both the AIDS crisis and the destructive reign of Margaret Thatcher. –Nadine Smith
All of Marlon Riggs’ works are connected to music and poetry: from Long Train Running, his debut, a documentary about Oakland blues musicians, to Tongues Untied, a vital film by and about Black gay men that aired to acclaim and controversy on PBS in 1989. He was diagnosed as HIV-positive that same year, and created Anthem, a sharp riff on the music video format, as part of a subsequent series of films that deepened his explorations of race, sex, and representation, including the stigma around HIV and AIDS.
Pumping with upbeat house and disco, Anthem positions the music as an irrepressible force, flickering to the same rhythm as the overlaid spoken word poetry and scenes of various dancers. (Their ranks include the unparalleled ballroom choreographer Willi Ninja and Riggs himself, sporting a leather jacket and voguing in front of a backdrop spangled with ACT UP pink triangles.) The experimental nine-minute video is an example of Riggs’ manipulation of established cinematic forms to enable a mission of care—for yourself and the people you hold community with. As the legendary Essex Hemphill says directly to the camera, reading from his poem “American Wedding”: “Every time we kiss, we confirm the new world coming.” –Eric Torres
Young Soul Rebels (1991)
Set in London in 1977, Young Soul Rebels focuses on a pirate radio station run by the Black, openly gay Caz and his half-white, half-Black, straight best friend Chris, who illegally bring soul and R&B hits to the masses. Set during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and inspired by luminary queer director Isaac Julien’s days as a soul boy himself, the genre-blurring movie is part murder mystery, part queer romance, and part musical love letter to a period in British history when Black style was developing its own unmistakable identity.
In a sharp, giallo-style opening, Caz’s friend is killed while cruising a local park, kicking off a plot that introduces probing questions that disrupt the duo’s lives and persist today: Can you rely on police accountability when queer people are murdered? How do marginalized communities acknowledge and protect their own who inhabit multiple vulnerable identities at once? Julien gracefully handles these and other issues, adding further depth through Caz’s romance with white punk socialist Billibud, which underscores racist and homophobic tendencies in the era’s punk scene. A countercultural gut punch with gorgeous visual style and an unimpeachable soundtrack spanning the O’Jays and the Blackbyrds to Sylvester and X-Ray Spex, Young Soul Rebels is as electrifyingly relevant now as it was in 1991. –Eric Torres
Watch it on Apple TV
Zero Patience (1993)
A strutting dance sequence in a steamy bathhouse, a pair of anthropomorphic sphincters serenading one another in bed—in 1993’s Zero Patience, camp musical numbers and spectral encounters frame an outré look at the origin and development of the AIDS crisis as it was happening. After imbibing from the fountain of youth, a sex researcher from the Victorian era finds himself still alive in the early ’90s, where he plans a museum exhibit featuring “Patient Zero,” the French-Canadian flight attendant accused of introducing AIDS to North America. He’s thrown into emotional disarray once Patient Zero himself arrives as a ghost and the pair become romantically entwined. Zero Patience soon shifts into an indictment of the government’s mishandling of AIDS, a critique that becomes clear when ACT UP-style activists sabotage the display (naturally, they burst into song in the process). Like Angels in America injected with Talking Heads-style dance rock, Zero Patience may be gleefully obvious in its takedowns, but it’s a captivating meta-musical about a dark chapter in American history and the queer will to survive. –Eric Torres
I once attended a screening of Derek Jarman’s Blue where most of the straight couples in the theater had left by the halfway mark. Surely, there’s no higher praise. As well as making heterosexuals run for their lives, throughout his three-decade career, Jarman was responsible for giving Tilda Swinton her first film role (Caravaggio) and Brian Eno one of his first credits as a film composer (Sebastiane). But his greatest achievement was Blue, quite literally the saddest film of all time.
Made in 1993, when AIDS was gradually turning him blind, Blue was Jarman’s final film—though it’s not so much a moving picture as a single screen, composed entirely of Yves Klein bright blue. Blue, in Klein’s words, communicates “what is most abstract,” which is also true of Jarman’s approach to music. His films, which typically feature minimal dialogue, prioritize music above speech. In Blue, Jarman collapsed the boundaries between sound and image entirely, as he and musician Simon Fisher Turner created an elaborate soundscape made of voice, breath, waves, and ticking clocks, placing the auditory at the center of the aesthetic experience. The music, ranging from a whisper to a thunderclap, is ever-present, Jarman’s—and the viewer’s—constant companion. –Emma Madden
Watch it on YouTube
The Watermelon Woman (1996)
Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, a fictional narrative about a documentary director, was the first film directed by a Black lesbian for Black lesbians. Dunye’s protagonist researches a historical actress who performed in Hollywood “race” films in the 1930s, and Dunye herself DIY-ed an entire lineage—faux photos, ephemera, and 16mm footage—to bring the subject of her film-within-a-film to life. This “Dunyementary” honors the many Black actresses who were pigeonholed by Jim Crow-era tropes, their names often erased from credits and the collective cinematic memory. And it goes down like chicken soup for the Black sapphic soul, snagging on every nuance of lesbian culture with a sharp comedic edge.
With an original score by jazz saxophonist Paul Shapiro, along with soundtrack selections spanning neo-soul, house, and hip-hop, The Watermelon Woman makes you feel like you’re front row at a mid-’90s poetry slam, or scratching your chin at the opening of a lesbian art gallery. Its narrative leaves questions unanswered, with a sense that there is more to say and do. Kathy Sledge’s “Another Day,” The Watermelon Woman’s spunky disco-pop theme, looks out to that horizon of queer possibility, punctuating the film with irrefutable soul. –Tatiana Lee Rodriguez
The influential New Queer Cinema pioneer Gregg Araki has said the inspiration behind each of his movies begins with music. Utilizing an ultra-cool soundtrack of dream pop, shoegaze, and punk, the California director’s postmodernist Teen Apocalypse Trilogy united his French New Wave and independent cinema influences to grapple with themes of depression and homophobia through humor and surrealism. Beginning with 1993’s Totally Fucked Up and 1995’s The Doom Generation, the trilogy concludes with 1997’s Nowhere, a Day-Glo bright 24-hour nightmare that follows Dark (James Duval, Araki’s muse) and his circle of sexually fluid friends on a psychedelic journey through Los Angeles on Armageddon day.
Like “Clueless with nipple rings,” as Paper tritely yet succinctly put it upon release, Nowhere captures Araki operating at his peak, where each unhinged character is played by a who’s who of teen actors before they were famous (Christina Applegate, Mena Suvari, Ryan Phillippe), every line of dialogue is a dry one-liner, and the costumes and handmade sets get progressively more colorful and complex as the night goes on. But it’s in Araki’s expert music curation that Nowhere becomes a true ’90s music masterpiece: Massive Attack, Elastica, Hole, Radiohead, the Chemical Brothers, and more heighten Araki’s full-throttle view of the world as a young queer person, where every moment holds the potential for both love and danger. –Eric Torres
Watch it on YouTube
Happy Together (1997)
Throughout his sensuous filmography, Wong Kar-wai has used cross-cultural collaborations and covers—like Faye Wong’s Cantopop remake of the Cranberries’ “Dreams” in Chungking Express or Malagasy musician Nogabe’s remix of Massive Attack’s “Karmacoma” in Fallen Angels—to impart subtext about the conflicting motivations of his characters. For Happy Together, the 1997 masterpiece that made a movie star of queer pop singer Leslie Cheung, Wai employed the intense tango compositions of Astor Piazzolla and the frenetic rock of Frank Zappa to represent the tumultuous relationship between Ho Po-wing (Cheung) and Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung), a gay couple from Hong Kong who cling to each other while stranded abroad in Argentina.
The melancholic and seductive accordion in Piazzolla’s music underscores the feeling behind their frenzied dance of fighting, making up, and relying on each other for survival. Even their moments of greatest intimacy are tinged with a sense of doom, as in the iconic kitchen tango scene, where the two hold each other with the safety of having no witnesses, soundtracked by Piazzolla’s “Finale (Tango Apasionado).” That theme comes back around toward the film’s end when Fai gazes at the Iguazú Falls, the landmark that he always thought he would see with his now-ex-lover. The moment offers a smidge of finality amid an elliptical plot that explores transnational alienation, exile, interpersonal power dynamics, and belonging. –Michelle Hyun Kim
Watch it on Max
Velvet Goldmine (1998)
If histories are the fictions of empires—to paraphrase Velvet Goldmine’s opening quote—then fanfiction is the history of queers, and Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine operates on both fan logic and fan time. To boil this complicated film down to its simplest essence: Velvet Goldmine is a fake Bowie biopic told through the eyes of a stan. From its title to the spiky, dykey wigs, high-glam dandyism, and spaceships, every part of Velvet Goldmine gestures towards Bowie without ever mentioning his name. Ziggy’s also a noticeable absence from the glammy, period-specific soundtrack, and that absence grants Haynes the opportunity to tell new, ludicrous versions of history. Multiple supergroups formed to reimagine songs by Roxy Music, the Stooges, and T. Rex for the film—including actual members of Roxy Music and the Stooges, not to mention Thom Yorke, Thurston Moore, and Michael Stipe as a producer.
Set in 1970s London, the film time-travels between Oscar Wilde’s 1850s Dublin and Orwellian 1980s New York, drawing links between queer theory, glamor and Britpop Britain. Velvet Goldmine is a glittering and prismatic retelling of events, relying less on fact than fannish affect. The film deeply and intimately understands queerness and glamor—and so, it deeply and intimately understands Bowie. –Emma Madden
Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
Sometimes it takes a third person to unlock the truth of a close relationship. In Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También, it’s Luisa, an older Spanish woman, who both disrupts and catalyzes the bond between Tenoch and Julio, two Mexican teenage friends who jerk off together and talk obsessively about having sex with women as an outlet for their own brewing sexual tension. Driven by the fantasy of Luisa, the horny lads depart with this relative stranger on a weed-fueled road trip through the Mexican countryside.
An eclectic soundtrack accompanies their voyage: the electronic alt-rock of Café Tacuba and Plastilina Mosh, the kitschy dance tunes of Señor Coconut, the norteño of Flaco Jiménez, and somber picks from Natalie Imbruglia and Brian Eno. When Luisa gains an emotional upper hand between the two boys, she lays down new ground rules: “I choose the music” is one of them. The film consummates the threesome’s increasingly entangled dynamic with a dance scene set to Marco Antonio Solís’ sultry ballad “Si no te hubieras ido,” which ends with a kiss between the two boys. The moment is gloriously messy and revelatory to this day, when onscreen depictions of polyamorous bisexuality are still rare in the mainstream. –Michelle Hyun Kim
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch represented a major breakthrough for trans cinema at the turn of the century. As both a stage musical and a feature film, Hedwig has endured for the simple reason that it brought a deeply felt and fully realized genderqueer character to life in a way few American productions previously had. The titular Hedwig, played by the musical’s creator and director, is a defiant rock star who lives in between cultures and genders, a trans East German emigre struggling to make it in Middle America. With a soundtrack inspired by David Bowie and Iggy Pop, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a living testament to the queerness of glam rock, a sound that blurred the lines of musical genre and gender presentation into something bedazzled and new. –Nadine Smith
The Adventure of Iron Pussy (2003)
Apichatpong Weerasethakul is known as a visionary of slow cinema, whose films Memoria and Syndromes and a Century are enveloping sensory experiences. But the restlessly inventive and prolific Thai filmmaker, whose body of work includes everything from gallery installations to virtual reality, is impossible to classify. 2003’s The Adventure of Iron Pussy, a psychedelic musical pastiche and candy-coated queer romance, is one of his most unpredictable and overlooked works.
The film is a collaboration with pioneering Thai visual artist Michael Shaowanasai, who plays the titular character, a gay 7-Eleven clerk with a female secret agent alter-ego. The filmmakers set out to queer the expressive Thai melodramas and movie-musicals they grew up on, landing somewhere between Douglas Sirk, James Bond, and Gregg Araki. For as deliberately campy and unrestrained as The Adventure of Iron Pussy might be, it’s of a piece with Apichatpong’s better-known meditations, a spectacle of color and light that stimulates the senses as much as it entertains. –Nadine Smith
Queen Latifah’s idea for a biopic about the legendary blues singer Bessie Smith had been floating around film studios for 20 years before Dee Rees rewrote its script. Coming off of her breakout feature, the Black lesbian coming-of-age story Pariah, Rees depicted Smith’s rise to fame as a dark-skinned bisexual woman in the 1920s, examining the ways that her tumultuous backstory informed the subject matter of her soulful songs, which often focused on working women’s independence and sexuality. Smith’s legacy as “the Empress of the Blues” stems in part from the implicit political protest in her songs, her assertive lyrics and contralto vocals—once sidelined for being coarse—giving voice to Southern Black communities. Latifah’s remakes don’t attempt to replicate that same vocal flair, but perhaps it’s better that her inflections on songs like “Young Woman’s Blues” and “Work House Blues” are true to her range, round and bright like a brass instrument. A scene in which Smith and fellow bisexual blues icon Ma Rainey (played by Mo’Nique, with singing from Carmen Twillie) don suits and top hats for a game of cards offers joyfully debonair masc representation the likes of which is rare to encounter on-screen. Keep some tissues around as you take it all in. –Tatiana Lee Rodriguez
100 Boyfriends Mixtape (2016)
Who else besides Brontez Purnell could take clips of ass eating, stir frying veggies, and complaining about paramours, splice them together over discordant jazz music, and have it actually work? Since the 2003 launch of his longrunning cult zine Fag School, the Oakland artist who does absolutely everything—writing, directing, leading punk bands, dancing—has established his madcap DIY aesthetic and love for airing out his short-lived hookups. But he’s expanded this seriously unserious mission of archiving all his sexual exploits through 100 Boyfriends Mixtape, a project spanning three short films from 2015 to 2023.
Through these entries, Purnell queers the form of standard audio “mixtape” by folding in poetry, video, and smatterings of electric guitar and drums. Really, it’s whatever it takes to relay the tumultuous nature of his love life, and the brutal, hilarious stories collected along the way. This boundless approach to artmaking, as well as his unflinching vulnerability, has led Purnell to become a cult DIY icon: Few can make it into the Criterion Collection with a self-starring short about a HIV-positive Black gay man who gabs on the phone for 10 minutes straight, while shrink-fitting a pair of shoplifted jeans in his bathtub. –Michelle Hyun Kim
Watch it on Criterion Collection
Song Lang (2018)
The Vietnamese folk opera form cải lương is the driving force behind the short-lived yet significant romance at the center of Song Lang, a slow-burning drama set in 1980s Saigon. Its title is taken from the wooden percussion instrument, whose name can be literally translated to “two men,” that keeps the rhythm in these theater performances. The film initially vacillates between wildly different paces, from the breakneck action scenes of the roughhousing debt-collector Dũng “Thunderbolt,” and the languid, melodramatic performances of Linh Phung, the star of a local cải lương company. Yet these two find a common tempo when Phung learns that Thunderbolt grew up in the cải lương tradition, and their connection blossoms through playing melancholic music together. It’s a beautiful testament to how music can spark a bond between potential lovers, and how one trusted creative partner can unlock a world of feeling hidden behind a hardened heart. –Michelle Hyun Kim
And Then We Danced (2019)
And Then We Danced follows Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), a young dancer training at the National Georgian Ensemble, who eventually bucks the rigidly masculine forms of traditional Georgian dance to find a fluid and queer style all his own. The soundtrack to director Levan Akin’s drama heavily features traditional Georgian music, whose intense doli drumming offers the backdrop for the heteronormative duets that Merab feels he must perfect. Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), a replacement dancer with whom Merab must compete with for a spot in the ensemble, awakens Merab’s dormant queer feelings.
Their blossoming fling begins with ABBA’s 1977 disco anthem “Take a Chance On Me,” and is then made real with a stunningly sensual scene in which Merab starts to find his freedom by playfully dancing to Robyn’s “Honey” while Iralki watches. Merab continues to forge his own identity by raving to techno at Bassiani, one of Tbilisi’s only LGBTQ+ spaces, and then by completely flubbing his audition to present an off-script contemporary routine. A transcendent tale of quiet rebellion, And Then We Danced reveals the self-discovery that can occur through the personal act of dance. –Michelle Hyun Kim
The title character of Pablo Larraín’s Ema doesn’t want a spotlight or a stage when she dances—she’d rather have a flamethrower in her hand, and to take it to the streets. Set in present-day Chile, this 2019 drama about a dancer and bisexual mother processing a family tragedy is a combustion of grief and desire, gently framed by an ambient reggaeton score from Nicolás Jaar. Ema’s emphasis on constant movement expands the possibility of dance, family, and sexuality, its main character fluctuating between creative birth and destruction, instinct and structure. The strings of “Separación” rise and fall like an aimless sailboat, moored by the crushing weight of consequence; the foamy shores of “Gaviotas” allot time for the protagonist to adjust her inner compass toward desire. Across the film, Jaar’s panoramic ambient universes mirror the stages of Ema’s emotional turmoil. –Tatiana Lee Rodriguez
Neptune Frost (2021)
This genre-blending Afrofuturist mashup has the makings of a queer cult classic. Written and directed by rapper-poet Saul Williams and Rwandan filmmaker Anisia Uzeyman, Neptune Frost is many things at once: a magical-realist tale about the Western world exploiting resources from Burundi; a love story between an intersex hacker and a coltan miner; and a dazzling hip-hop-inspired musical with mesmerizing songs and kinetic dance sequences. The film visualizes a cinematic language all its own, using intricate handcrafted costumes made out of damaged electronics and tense camerawork that dips and soars in sync with the music’s irresistible rhythm. It’s an anarchic, optimistic vision of a queer-led techno future that seems not only possible, but already in existence. –Eric Torres
Whenever a film blows up on Twitter, it’s easy to feel suspicious when finally sitting down to watch it. Are people talking about it because it’s a good movie or because it’s a discourse entity? Tár, of course, is both. Director Todd Field’s film essentially prefigured its own discourse and reception: All of the corresponding op-eds on cancel culture, the culture wars, and bad butch representation were essentially built in. Starring Cate Blanchett as the titular well-tailored Berlin daddy, Tár spotlights the composer’s fall from grace following a student’s suicide and a slew of allegations of sexual misconduct. Field really has it out for his protagonist, punishing her every step of the way. The film is deeply sexless—neither Lydia Tár’s sex life nor her transgressions are ever depicted; instead, sex is merely, and sickeningly, implied. The last laugh features a crowd of cosplaying gamers, and a creeping sense that maybe Tár was never a great composer at all. –Emma Madden