Every Valentine’s Day, studios present big-budget romance movies about a fill-in-the-blank straight couple. While there can certainly be plenty of simple joy in watching two people attain their happily ever after, they do little for representation of identities that are not cis, straight, and white.
That doesn’t mean those movies don’t have a place in the Queer Cinema canon. But if the queer stories that studios invest in are limited to the tragedy of queer love, coming out, or power dynamics—there is not much opportunity for queer people or their allies to see the joy and nuance of queer love.
This isn’t to say that great movies made by and for queer people don’t exist but that they are not as accessible or lauded as they should be. While much of mainstream queer cinema relies on tropes, there are plenty of great films LGBTQ films to watch this holiday.
For this Valentine’s Day, here is a list of some movies that are explicitly queer, don’t pander to straight audiences, and show the infinite possibilities of queer love, heartbreak and yearning.
“The Watermelon Woman” (1996)
“Is Watermelon Woman her first name, her last name or is it her whole name? I don’t know but girlfriend has it going on.”
Cheryl, an aspiring filmmaker sets out to make a movie documenting her search for an actress from a 1930s movie that was credited as only “The Watermelon Woman.” A mainstay of queer cinema, Cheryl Dunye’s “Watermelon Woman” was the first narrative feature film made by a Black lesbian—it’s a mockumentary that stands the test of time.
A lesbian romance set in Kenya, “Rafiki” follows Kena and Ziki as they begin a tentative friendship. Despite the political rivalry between their families, it soon progresses into a romance. A familiar and joyful story of first love comes to life with the undeniable chemistry between leads played by Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019)
Among lesbian period-piece dramas, this one is likely the most successful in capturing a slow burn relationship that feels authentically queer. However it does this without veering into the land of over-sexualization, a keen problem with movies depicting two women (read: “Blue is the Warmest Color”). Spend two hours basking in the love story of two French women on a remote island. Note to Hollywood, though: After this film, “Ammonite” and “The World to Come” I think we can retire the white lesbian period piece trope for more contemporary or at least more diverse pastures.
Following a young Black man through three chapters of his life, “Moonlight” is a dazzling coming-of-age story. It chronicles its protagonist’s relationship to queerness and masculinity, as well as the community that shaped his identity. This cathartic character-driven film moves effortlessly between chapters of Chiron’s life as it considers the meaning of manhood beyond how tough, vulnerable, and brave you’re supposed to be.
“But I’m a Cheerleader” (1999)
When bubbly cheerleader Megan (Natasha Lyonne) kisses her jock boyfriend, she can’t help but picture her fellow cheerleaders. She also listens to Melissa Ethridge and eats tofu, all warning signs of lesbians “tendencies,” according to her friends and family. After an intervention she’s sent to True Directions, a gay conversion camp with campy counselors and the gamut of stereotypical queer campers. Jamie Babbit’s cult classic is campy and stylized fun that takes on the homophobic and traumatizing practice of conversion therapy by satirizing gender roles in a pastel retro landscape.
Speaking of cult classics, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” has spawned decades of debaucherous fun for fans dressing up as their favorite characters and attending live screenings. Often these include shadow casts that pantomime the film as it plays behind them. One of the longest tenures in movie theaters, Rocky Horror attracts all kinds of attendees from first time “virgins” that are forced to brandish a “V” in lipstick on their cheeks or hands, to die-hard fans that know every call and response cue by heart. While we can’t all do the time warp together in theaters just yet due to COVID-19 restrictions, watching this film with those you love (in your bubble) is a great option in the meantime.
“The Half Of It” (2020)
Ellie Chu, a smart but introverted teen helps well-meaning jock, Paul, by ghostwriting letters to the canonical girl of everyone’s dreams: Aster. “The Half of It” gives teenagers the emotional complexity they deserve with a thoughtful exploration of queerness, race and identity.
Ellie, played by Leah Lewis, takes on the inescapable feelings of yearning and the loneliness of assimilating into a predominantly white, rural and heteronormative town.
Bonus: “Saving Face” (2005)
Director Alice Wu’s directorial debut 15 years prior “Saving Face” (2005) is a staple lesbian film. A New York love affair between two women, Wil and Vivian, becomes strained when Wil’s 48-year-old mother becomes mysteriously pregnant and moves in with her. Highly recommended.
“The Handmaiden” (2016)
Sook-Hee, a pickpocket lands a job as a handmaiden at the estate of a wealthy book collector. Serving both him and Lady Hideko, the niece of his late-wife, she gets drawn into a plan hatched by a fake count looking to marry the niece so he can con her into an asylum and claim her fortune. Complications arise when Sook-Hee falls for her target in this intricate thriller.
This Brazilian coming-of-age film follows Leo, a blind high school student, who struggles with his independence from his worrying mother and well-meaning best friend, Giovanna. Leo develops feelings for a new classmate, Gabriel, disrupting his relationship with Giovanna and causing all the drama and fumbling awkwardness of adolescence and exploration of sexuality.
“Chutney Popcorn” (1999)
Reena, a lesbian photographer and henna-tattoo artist decides to carry a baby for her infertile sister. After her sister changes her mind about the endeavor, Reena, her sister and her intolerant mother are forced to grapple with their identities and the dynamics of their family. With all of the ingredients for a great comedy, “Chutney Popcorn” grapples with identity and family drama with sensitivity and humor.
“Certain Women” (2016)
Admittedly the least raunchy movie on this list, “Certain Women” is a triptych of interconnected stories about the day to day lives of women living in Montana. The third story portrays an emotional connection between Kristen Stewart’s night-school teacher and Lily Gladstone’s sweet ranch hand. It’s a slow and subtle film but heartfelt nonetheless.
Another quiet but powerful drama about the forbidden love between two women within an Orthodox Jewish community in north London. “Disobedience” integrates faith with longing and taboo desire. Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz have an intense connection as Esti and Ronit, two women that reconnect years after a teenage romance.
“Jennifer’s Body” (2009)
Diablo Cody’s cult classic is an all-in-one queer horror, comedy, revenge thriller with Megan Fox at her best in the titular role. “Jennifer’s Body” plays with the expectations of female sexuality as Jennifer is possessed by a demon that feeds on the flesh of her male peers after being offered up a virgin sacrifice to Satan. A fun slasher film that was perhaps ahead of its time, “Jennifer’s Body” is sure to delight and subvert expectations.
Dee Rees’ debut feature follows 17-year-old Alike as she navigates her life in Brooklyn, chasing first love, and balancing her parents’ approval with her own self-expression. This film gives the coming out narrative the nuance and authenticity it deserves.
After hearing that her pimp boyfriend cheated on her while she was in jail, Sin-Dee, played by an electric Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, and her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) set out to find the truth – and the woman he’s been cheating with.
In this Christmas Eve romp through the oft-overlooked subcultures of Los Angeles, Sin-Dee finds the woman she’s looking for and hauls her through the streets of the city on buses and subways and eventually to a donut shop where the messy climax of the film takes place.
Often trans people are the butt of jokes or reduced to overwrought stereotypes, even in queer films. Cis men like Jared Leto and Matt Bomer garnered critical acclaim for their respective roles in “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Anything,” as trans sex workers with hearts of gold. But these portrayals give little nuance to the vast experiences of trans people and rob them of any agency and motivation beyond helping a cis person on a journey of self-discovery.
“Tangerine” is a rare example of intricate and powerfully human portraits of trans women working in the streets of Los Angeles. Rodriguez and Taylor set the screen on fire with their quick rapport and make this film a delightful comedy.