If you're a lover of period pieces, lesbian romance films, or just gorgeous cinema, you're likely planning to spend part of this December catching the new Todd Haynes movie Carol, where Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara play lovers in sumptuous 1950s New York. But fully appreciating the real depth of the film, at least from a historical perspective, needs a little research first. Carol isn't just a stand-alone piece; it's the latest in a tradition of lesbian cinema across the world, one that has changed and shifted according to societal mores and the history of film itself. And it's certainly not just about Cate Blanchett's cheekbones. (Although we could all watch a close-up of those for two hours and consider it money well spent.)
Lesbian film has had many amazing entries over the decades. Some of the most iconic moments are actually in television; Tipping The Velvet, the UK miniseries based on lesbian author Sarah Water's bestseller, remains a classic. But these 11 cinematic pieces are some of the most seminal, marking big changes, cult status, and serious shifts in how film portrayed LGBT women and their stories. Even "ordinary," small-scale romances are a big deal when you're part of a group that's remained, for the most part, hidden in Western art and culture for hundreds of years. (It's why Kissing Jessica Stein made such a big splash in 2001: a fairly by-the-numbers rom-com, it was one of the first to make the love triangle two parts female.)
So get yourself immersed in some significant lesbian cinema. At the very least, it'll make Mara and Blanchett seem as if they're part of a love affair with film that lasts longer than just 120 minutes.
1. Blue Is The Warmest Color (2013)
It seems every year has its hit "lesbian film," these days — and we couldn't be happier. Blue Is The Warmest Color was certainly 2013's. A smash hit with critics and now famous for the excruciating conditions on set, the love story between the two leads, played by Adele Exarchopolous and Lea Seydoux, was based on a cult-hit French comic series, but the tenderness and heartbreak of the narrative made a good transition to the screen. It's explicit and very sad, but it also feels like an incredibly vivid picture of young romance. (It also happens to have one of the hottest sex scenes streaming on Netflix.)
Blue Is The Warmest Color, $4, Amazon
2. Mulholland Drive (2001)
David Lynch's opus on Hollywood has twists and turns inside its twists and turns. In one of the layers, Naomi Watts' ingenue starts an affair with dark-haired noir heroine Laura Harring, only to be derailed by blonde interloper Melissa George. Of course, this is all packed within a dense puzzle-box of narrative leads, dreams, and conspiracies, so who knows what actually happens, but the romance itself is one of the most sparkling parts of the (extremely strange) film.
Mulholland Drive, $16, Amazon
3. Bound (1996)
Before The Matrix, the Wachowski siblings made this, and you are missing out if you haven't seen it. Starring Jennifer Tilly as a gangster's moll and Gina Gershon as an androgynous ex-con, it's sexy, funny, and exceedingly good film noir. Tilly and Gershon team up for a crime caper and (obviously) a romance, and the explicit sex scenes are renowned for being "choreographed" by Susie Bright, a sexual expert and feminist commentator.
Bound, $4, Amazon
4. Mosquita Y Mari (2012)
This is one for those who wish they'd had their first lesbian encounter in high school, when everything was simpler. This indie Sundance entrant was a hit with critics because of its sweetness and good direction, and the plot will sound like every teenage film you've ever loved: honor roll kid meets streetwise "bad" girl, sparks unexpectedly fly, parents disapprove, complications ensue. The Latina leads are spectacular and you'll end up rooting for them all the way through.
Mosquita Y Mari, free, Kanopy
5. Desert Hearts (1985)
If you've ever seen the film The Women (another LGBT classic, featuring no men whatsoever), you'll know that Reno, Nevada was the place to go for quickie divorces in the '40s and '50s. This film, set in 1959, centers on an academic who travels there for just such a purpose, and gets messed up with her landlady's surrogate daughter. Things, predictably, get sexy; the film's sex scenes are so well-done that the producers of lesbian TV series The L Word made them required viewing for their actors. And (spoiler) it doesn't all go horribly wrong at the end, which is almost a trope of lesbian films, unfortunately. It's streaming on Netflix.
Desert Hearts, $4, Amazon
6. Fire (1996)
Deepa Mehta's Elements trilogy is one of the classics of Indian cinema, but while Water tends to be the most critically acclaimed, Fire, the first installment, got her into the hottest water. Its plot, where two unhappily married women become lovers, caused several cinema riots in India, a fight with the Indian film censorship authority, and several counter-protests led by Mehta herself. It's an important film, but also extremely beautiful and far-reaching.
Fire, free with subscription, DirectTV
7. But I'm A Cheerleader (1999)
Natasha Lyonne may be familiar to you now from Orange Is The New Black, but lesbians in the '90s adored her in But I'm A Cheerleader, where she plays a cheerleader sent to a "de-gaying camp" in deep denial of her lesbian tendencies. She meets Clea Duvall, sparks fly, and touching teen romance follows in situations hilariously parodying the entire concept of "gay therapy". It's a very silly film, but it's also enormously sweet, and reaches almost Tim Burton-esque levels of technicolor set design.
But I'm A Cheerleader, $4, Amazon
8. Pariah (2011)
Warning: if you or anybody you know had their sexuality rejected, violently, by their parents, or has had their heart broken by a straight person, this is going to be an uncomfortable watch. But it's also magnetic. The first feature from director Des Rees, who originally made it as a short, the story of a 17-year-old black teen grappling with her sexuality and choices in modern America garnered a host of awards, and the lead, Adepero Oduye, is amazing. It looks like a future classic, so you should probably catch it now. It's also streaming on Netflix.
Pariah, $4, Amazon
9. The Children's Hour (1961)
Audrey Hepburn and Shirley Maclaine playing sort-of lovers? What do you mean you've never heard of this? The film, based on Lilian Hellman's (more explicitly gay) play, focused on rumors: namely one spread by an unhappy student at a school that two teachers, Hepburn and Maclaine, are secret lovers. The story turns out to be untrue, but with a twist I'll save for those who haven't seen it yet. It's tortured lesbian territory at its best, and you're missing out if you haven't picked it up.
The Children's Hour, $4, Amazon
10 & 11. High Art (1998) & The Kids Are All Right (2010)
Chance meetings leading to convoluted romantic problems seem fairly standard fare for romantic films, but this 1998 film put a distinct spin on the old trope. Radha Mitchell's hungry young up-and-comer meets Ally Sheedy's retired legend (and her drug-addicted girlfriend, played by Patricia Clarkson), and things begin to unravel. The director, Lisa Cholodenko, also made the film The Kids Are All Right starring Julianne Moore and Annette Benning as long-term partners, so she's a tour-de-force in lesbian film all by herself.
High Art, $3, Amazon
The Kids Are All Right, $4, Amazon
Image: The Weinstein Company
This post was originally published on Dec. 3, 2015. It was updated on Aug. 23, 2019. Additional reporting by Sage Young.