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Twenty years ago, compiling a list such as this would’ve been impossible. While television has made strides for queer stories, the same can’t be said for the big screen. In the rare – we repeat, rare – instances an LGBTQ+ person made an appearance in the cinema, it was to serve as the side character to the cis-het lead. Often, their sexuality would be undefined and their sole purpose in the narrative was for (sigh) comedic effect. Yes, we’re absolutely hilarious, but we offer just as much as our straight counterparts. As LGBTQ+ rights advance in certain corners of the world, stories for those within the community have finally increased – you can even find dedicated sections for queer dramas and romances on streaming services such as Netflix, Prime Video and Disney Plus. Here, we’ve collected 12 of the best lesbian films of all time – from the satirical and campy stylings of But I’m a Cheerleader to the heartwrenching work of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Carol.

Blue is the Warmest Color (2013)

Cast: Léa Seydoux, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Salim Kechiouche, Aurélien Recoing, Catherine Salée, Benjamin Siksou

After meeting in a gay bar, French teenager Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) falls in love with a blue-haired art student called Emma (Léa Seydoux). The romantic drama follows their relationship from Adèle’s high school years until her adult life as a school teacher. Based on the 2010 graphic novel of the same name from Jul Maroh, Blue is the Warmest Colour received widespread critical acclaim and nominations at the Golden Globe Awards and the BAFTAs. It also won the Palme d’Or from the official jury and the FIPRESCI Prize, becoming the first film in history to win the Palme d’Or for both the director and lead actresses.

But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)

Cast: Natasha Lyonne, Clea DuVall, RuPaul, Melanie Lynskey, Eddie Cibrian, Katrina Phillips, Michelle Williams

Orange is the New Black and Russian Doll alum Natasha Lyonne stars as Megan Bloomfield, a popular high school cheerleader who is shipped off to conversion therapy camp after her parents discover her lesbianism. But I’m a Cheerleader received negative reviews at the time of its release because of its stereotypical portrayal of gay men and women, and the similarities with John Waters films, but later reassessments have appreciated Waters’ influence and its deliberately satirical and campy themes. It has since developed a cult following in the LGBTQ+ community, particularly amongst queer women.

Carol (2015)

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Jake Lacy, Kyle Chandler, John Magaro, Cory Michael Smith

Set in the 1950s, Carol stars Cate Blanchett as an older woman navigating a difficult divorce who embarks on a forbidden affair with an aspiring female photographer (Rooney Mara). Watching the effects of homophobia and a jealous soon-to-be-ex-husband on their relationship is heartbreaking, and if nothing else, the pure melodrama of it all will get you in a state of melancholy. After making audiences sob throughout most of the film with its beautiful portrayal of queer heartbreak, wistful cinematography and evocative soundtrack, the final shot signals that there’s hope yet for the title character’s romance, helping challenge the notion that all queer stories end in tragedy. We challenge you to find a film more breathtaking than Carol.

Circumstance (2011)

Cast: Nikohl Boosheri, Sarah Kazemy, Reza Sixo Safai, Keon Mohajeri

Exploring homosexuality in modern Iran, Circumstance follows Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri), the teenage daughter of a wealthy Iranian family and her relationship with her orphaned best friend Shireen (Sarah Kazemy). The French-Canadian-American drama was banned in Iran due to the country’s archaic views on homosexuality, while the director, Maryam Keshavarz, was prohibited from returning to Iran by the Iranian authorities. However, Circumstance won the Audience Award: Dramatic at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and has since been hailed by several publications as one of the best lesbian films of all time.

Desert Hearts (1985)

Cast: Helen Shaver, Patricia Charbonneau, Audra Lindley, Andra Akers, Gwen Welles, Dean Butler

Widely considered one of the first mainstream films to represent lesbians favourably, Desert Hearts stars Helen Shaver as Vivian Bell, a soon-to-be divorced university professor who, after meeting a free-spirited sculptor called Cay Rivers (Patricia Charbonneau), finally finds her authentic self and comes to terms with her sexuality. An adaptation of Jane Rule’s iconic lesbian novel Desert of the Heart, the Donna Deitch-directed drama broke boundaries for queer women on the big screen and has since earned status as a queer cult classic, as well as one of the most romanic LGBTQ+ films of all time.

 

Disobedience (2017)

Cast: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola, Bernado Santos, Anton Lesser

Based on Naomi Alderman’s novel of the same name, the Sebastián Lelio-directed drama focuses on the forbidden relationship between two women from an Orthodox Jewish community. Rachel Weisz stars as Ronit Krushka, a woman who returns to her hometown in London after the death of her father. There, she rekindles her romance with her cousin’s wife Esti Kuperman (Rachel McAdams), after being shunned for the same attraction years prior. Lelio, who also directed the Academy Award-winning trans film A Fantastic Woman, received rave reviews for his direction and screenplay, while Weisz and McAdams’ were commended for their “career-best” performances.

The Half Of It (2020)

Cast: Leah Lewis, Daniel Diemer, Alexis Lemire, Collin Chou, Enrique Marciano, Catherine Curtin

Nancy Drew’s Leah Lewis stars as Ellie Chu in the modern retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac, a shy and introverted Asian-American student who agrees to help the school jock, Paul Munsky, (Daniel Diemer) woo his crush Aster Flores (Alexis Lemire). Plot twist alert: Ellie likes her too. One of Netflix’s most adorable romances and coming-of-age stories to date, The Half It won several awards upon release, including the Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival. With representation for queer people of colour still scarce in mainstream media, the film was celebrated by audiences for its depiction of a young, Asian lesbian.

Imagine Me & You (2005)

Cast: Piper Perabo, Lena Headey, Matthew Goode, Celia Imrie, Anthony Stewart Head, Darren Boyd

Game of Thrones icon Lena Headey leads Imagine Me & You as Luce, a florist who catches the attention of Rachel (Piper Perabo) on her wedding day. The two soon become close friends and form a romantic connection, which causes Rachel to question her marriage. The rom-com originally received mixed reviews upon release, but in recent years, Rachel and Luce have been noted as two of the most iconic lesbians in film. It’s important to add that LGBTQ+ stories were rare at the time of release, let alone a queer rom-com with two major stars at the forefront, which is why Imagine Me & You has been retrospectively praised as a groundbreaking film for queer cinema.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)

Cast: Chloe Grace Moretz, John Gallagher Jr, Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck, Jennifer Ehle

Chloë Grace Moretz delivers a career high performance as the titular character in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, conjuring up moments of teen confusion, dejection and forthright certainty with sublime subtlety. Based on Emily M. Danforth’s 2012 novel of the same name, the film arrived at a vital time. As governments around the world push forward to outlaw the type of practice on display here, Desiree Akhavan’s film is starkly important, showcasing the unspeakable destruction conversion therapy has had on our community, and why we should never let this happen to our LGBTQ+ youth ever again.

Pariah (2011)

Cast: Adepero Oduye, Aasha Davis, Charles Parnell, Kim Wayans, Pernell Walker, Sahra Mellesse

Directed by Dee Rees, Pariah tells the story of Alike (Adepero Oduye), a 17-year-old teenager coming to terms with her identity as a butch lesbian. While her out-and-proud best friend Laura (Pernell Walker) encourages her to be open about her sexuality, Alike faces opposition from her parents – particularly her strict Christian mother Audrey (Kim Wayans). The drama was lauded for Oduye’s lead performance, as well as its exploration of Black and LGBTQ+ culture. The film was initially touted as a frontrunner at the Academy Awards, although it failed to be nominated in any category. Rees went on to direct highly-acclaimed dramas Bessie and Mudbound, the latter of which earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Cast: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino

Set in France in the late 18th century, Portrait of a Lady on Fire tells the story of a forbidden love affair between Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) an aristocrat, and Marianne (Noemie Merlant), an artist commissioned to paint her portrait. The historical drama made history when it screened at the Cannes Film Festival, with Céline Sciamma becoming the first ever female director to win the coveted Queer Palm award. It earned further nominations at the Critics’ Choice Awards and Golden Globe Awards, and became the second highest-reviewed film of 2019 on Rotten Tomatoes.

Rafiki (2018)

Cast: Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva, Neville Misati, Nini Wacera

Tensions run high when Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) start a same-sex love affair and are forced to hide their affection from the Kenyan locals. Homosexuality is still illegal in the African nation, and when they are caught, they are confronted by an angry mob. However, with this film the fictional discrimination on screen shone a harsh spotlight on the reality queer people in Kenya face when the Kenya Film Classification Board banned its release “due to its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law”. Director Wanuri Kahiu sued the Kenyan government to get the film released so it could be submitted as the country’s entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The ban was lifted for seven days and went on to sell out cinemas, subsequently becoming the second highest-grossing Kenyan film of all time.

Saving Face (2004)

Cast: Lynn Chenn, Michelle Krusiec, Joan Chen, Jin Wang, Guang Lan Koh, Jessica Hecht, Ato Essandoh, Wang Luoyong

The first Hollywood film to centre on Chinese-Americans since The Joy Luck Club nine years prior, Saving Face marked the feature-length debut of Alicex Wu, who also wrote, directed and produced another title on this list: The Half Of It. The 2004 romantic comedy-drama follows a young surgeon called Wilhelmina (Lynn Chena), who is openly lesbian but closeted to her mother Gao (Joan Chen). One of the most notable films to deal with homosexuality within Chinese culture, Saving Face – even though it didn’t set the box office alight – has remained relevant since its release due to its unprecedented impact on the LGBTQ+ Chinese community. The Los Angeles Times also named the film as one of the 20 best Asian American films of the last 20 years.