Whether you want to laugh or cry, you’ll find the perfect movie.
It’s hard to define just what an LGBTQ movie is because to limit LGBTQ stories to one category limits the experiences of the people who live them. Is an LGBTQ story about tragedy and triumph? Is it about loss and survival? Is it about love and recognition? Or is it just about trying to make your way in a world that doesn’t always see you? The movies on this list contain all these qualities while also pushing the boundaries of what we traditionally think of as “queer cinema.”
Here are some of the best options for LGBTQ viewers currently streaming on Netflix. (And if you’re here for But I’m a Cheerleader, bad news: It’s only available through the mail. (Maybe it’s time to renew that DVD subscription after all?)
The best LGBT movies on Netflix
Carol is a devastating love story, but it’s also hopeful. The film stars Cate Blanchett in the title role as a ‘50s housewife who’s starting to come into her sexuality, and Rooney Mara as Therese, a young woman who falls for her. They’re both terrific, and director Todd Haynes proves once again that he is not only a master of queer cinema but cinema in general. As the movie’s lush, gorgeous look washes over the characters, every glance, every gesture, every hint of longing becomes something profound. The story is familiar territory for Haynes, who also explored forbidden sexuality in “traditional” America with 2002’s Far from Heaven. Either one could rightly be called a melodrama, but while the former heightens emotions, the latter tempers them. If Far from Heaven was Todd Haynes using Douglas Sirk’s cinematic language to explore conformity and desire, Carol finds him taking a subtle, more delicate approach. Both films are haunting and beautiful, but Carol feels like the masterwork he’s been approaching his whole career. —Chris Osterndorf
2) How to Survive a Plague
How to Survive a Plague reflects the terrible struggle gay activists went through just to get noticed while their community was dying in record numbers. Depicting infighting among activist groups, ignorance, and apathy on the part of the political and medical establishment, and the onslaught of a disease no one knew anything about yet, How to Survive a Plague is a necessary reminder of a time when HIV meant an almost certain death sentence. As Larry Kramer reminds us in the film, this was no regular epidemic, it was a “FUCKING PLAGUE!” —Chris Osterndorf
In the tradition of LGBT-themed documentaries like Freeheld, the Bridegroom is one hell of a tearjerker. Directed by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, the film made headlines in 2013 when it was presented at the Tribeca Film Festival by former President Bill Clinton, who highlighted the award-winning doc’s incendiary subject matter. Mild spoiler alerts for those touchy about that sort of thing: In 2011, Shane Bitney Crone’s partner, Tom, was unexpectedly killed after falling off the couple’s roof. Because the two men were not legally wed, Crone wasn’t able to receive benefits—or even attend his partner’s funeral. Given the progress made since the film’s release, Bridegroom might feel like a time capsule, but it’s a powerfully important one, as well as a reminder of the right to basic dignity for which the LGBT movement continues to fight. —N.L.
4) The Imitation Game
The Imitation Game isn’t that different than any Oscar candidate in any given year. It’s a true story about a British man who overcomes incredible difficult to triumph against all odds. Except in The Imitation Game, Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) doesn’t triumph in the end, not really. He cracks the Germans’ Enigma code, effectively ending WWII and winning the war for the allies. But as a homosexual man living in the first half of the 20th century, his own ending is far more tragic. Of course, the movie downplays Turing’s sexuality for most of its runtime. It’s a movie that falls peril to the “inspirational” Oscar clichés, undoubtedly. But by telling the most painful part of Turing’s story along with the more triumphant moments, it manages to give the man some of the justice and credit he so desperately deserves. —C.O.
Milk is a sad movie because it shows you how hard the gay rights movement had to fight for the most basic respect. It’s a sad movie because the rights that were being fought for are still too often unrecognized in this country today. It’s a sad movie because Harvey Milk gave his life for what he believed in, and anytime a good man dies fighting for something he believes in, those that would carry on their fight must naturally mourn first. But it’s not an entirely sad movie because Harvey Milk also lived a life worth celebrating. —C.O.
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Netflix’s The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson explores the tragic 1992 death of a legendary gay rights activist, officially ruled suicide but which many suspect to be a murder. Director David France uses the film to explore the larger scope of Johnson’s life and impact on both the landscape of LGBTQ rights and those closest to her. —David Wharton
It’s a little sad that Pariah is best known for a drunken shout out: When accepting the Golden Globe for The Iron Lady in 2012, Meryl Streep slurred the name of Adepero Oduye, the film’s lead. But inebriated or not, Meryl knows what’s up. Directed by Dee Rees, making her debut, Pariah offers a fresh take on the coming-out story. Giving a star-is-born performance, Oduye plays Alike, a black teenager experiencing her queer coming of age on the streets of Brooklyn, New York. As she soon discovers, figuring out who you are isn’t without difficulty: The girl she likes (Aasha Davis) views their relationship as nothing more than “youthful experimentation.” Meanwhile, her parents force her to choose between her sexuality and her family. For Rees, the little-seen film was the beginning of a promising career: She directed HBO’s Emmy-winning Bessie in 2015 and will be helming the network’s Stonewall drama, When We Rise. —N.L.
8) Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine
Matthew Shepard was murdered in a brutal hate crime during October of 1998. Today, his legacy lives on, his tragic death becoming a watershed moment for LGBT rights. But Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine, from director Michele Josue, seeks to explore who Matthew was as a person, beyond being a victim, a martyr, or a symbol. Interviews with those who knew him best paint a tender and heartbreaking portrait. Love and sadness linger for Matthew’s family and friends, but the documentary shows how they turned their grief into something that could ultimately have a positive impact. —C.O.
9) Stranger by the Lake
Nobody makes psychological thrillers like the French. From Clouzot’s classic Les Diaboliques and Ozu’s Swimming Pool to Guillaume Canet’s Tell No One (which has more twists than a 1960s sock hop), L’Hexagone has long staked its claim as an international capital of suspense. One of the best in recent memory is Stranger by the Lake, an erotic stunner that doubles as an allegory for the AIDS crisis and a queer homage to Alfred Hitchcock. In Alain Guiraudie’s 2013 Cannes winner, sex is death. At a gay cruising spot nestled at the edge of a picturesque lake, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) meets the sexy Michel (Christophe Paou), with whom he has an instant connection. There’s just one problem: Michel is a murderer. Franck spies his the object of his affection drowning his current lover in the lake—but continues to get closer to him. In the movies, there’s nothing deadlier than l’amour. —N.L.
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Tangerine was a groundbreaking moment in LGBT cinema. Sean Baker’s micro-budgeted indie (which was filmed on his iPhone) was the first film to ever launch an Oscar campaign for a trans actor. Following the historic Emmy nomination for Laverne Cox (Orange Is the New Black), distributor Magnolia Pictures pushed Mya Taylor and Kitana “Kiki” Rodriguez for consideration at the 2016 Academy Awards. The campaign wasn’t successful (although Taylor earned an Indie Spirit award for her performance), but it showed just how far trans representation has come. Tangerine is both thrilling to watch and deeply humanizing in its portrait of a day in the life of two transgender sex workers in Los Angeles. If there’s any justice in the world, it will only be the start of many more great things to come from its talented pair of actresses. Hollywood desperately needs them.
See also: Eric Schaeffer’s Boy Meets Girl, starring breakout trans actress Michelle Hendley. —N.L.
2014 was a breakout year for Tig Notaro. During a performance at New York City’s Town Hall, the lesbian comic came out as a breast cancer survivor. In a career-making set, Notaro performed shirtless, baring her double mastectomy for the world to see. After the act generated massive buzz (and applause from those who lauded her fearlessness), she would do it again—this time on her HBO standup special, Boyish Girl Interrupted. The acclaimed Netflix documentary Tig examines the comedian’s life during her treatment and in recovery—as she and her partner attempt to have their first child. Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York’s film is both as candid and disarmingly intimate as you would expect a film about Notago to be. The documentary is a testament to human resilience—about finding the courage to go on after enormous hardship. —N.L.
Andrew Haigh has been one to watch since Greek Pete, which perfected the director’s seemingly improvisational style. The film, about a London rent boy, is so lived-in that it feels like a documentary. Haigh, best known in the states as the creator of HBO’s short-lived gay drama Looking, would perfect his vision with Weekend. The naturalistic 2011 indie owes a great deal to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, dialogue-heavy films about brief encounters between star-crossed lovers. Whereas Jesse and Celine share a connection on a train ride heading to Vienna, Glen (Chris New) meets Russell (Tom Cullen), a lifeguard, shortly before leaving for art school. The couple’s lost weekend may be their last together, but their fleeting romance feels both intense and real. The power of Haigh’s films is that they encourage both reflection and recognition, documenting universal experiences that feel painfully familiar.
See also: Andrew Haigh’s masterful 45 Years, starring Charlotte Rampling. —N.L.
13) We Were Here
There’s been an embarrassment of great documentaries on the ’80s AIDS crisis in recent years, the most well-known being David French’s great How to Survive a Plague. The year before Plague was released, David Weissman and Bill Weber directed We Were Here, an equally important look at queer life during an era where being gay was looked at as a death sentence. What’s refreshing about We Were Here is that shows a community coming together for hope and healing. Weissman and Weber interview psychologist Ed Wolf, activist Paul Boneberg, and others who worked to fight the disease, which had infected 50 percent of gay men by the mid-’80s, including Guy Clark, a dancer who lived in San Francisco’s famed Castro district during the epidemic. He brought flowers to the funerals of those who passed away from HIV. The uplifting We Were Here is a stirring reminder of the power and beauty of solidarity. —N.L.
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14) Blue Is the Warmest Color
Steeped in controversy upon its release (and for good reason), Blue Is the Warmest Color is nevertheless a nearly unparalleled achievement in 21st-century filmmaking. Discussions about male gaze and directorial ethics are sure to follow many people’s viewing, but we also don’t get many epic, three-hour lesbian love stories. There are elements of Blue Is the Warmest Color that still feel essential, if for no other reason than that we need more of what the film gets right, even while needing less of what it gets wrong. And of course, there are the performances from lead actresses Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, who rightfully became the first actors ever to be awarded the Palme d’Or when the film premiered at Cannes. Playing the two halves of young couple Emma and Adèle, Blue Is the Warmest Color’s leading ladies are both so good, it’s not just that they have created an indelible cinematic love story—it’s as if they’ve reinvented the cinematic love story itself. —C.O.
15) Paris Is Burning
A landmark of queer cinema, Paris Is Burning continues to stir so many emotions that when a special screening was arranged in New York several years ago, it sparked a protest over questions of exploitation. Depicting Harlem’s drag ball scene with a specificity only documentaries can provide, the film remains a cult favorite among the LGBTQ community. It was made at the height of the AIDS crisis and is one of the only movies ever made to dive into intersectionality with such detail, exploring race, class, homophobia, and transphobia in a way that still feels starkly relevant today. —C.O.
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Editor’s note: This article is regularly updated for relevance.
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