According to GLAAD, the preeminent LGBTQ+ media watchdog, queer representation in TV is at an all-time high. In the last five years, we’ve also seen a steady stream of films with LGBTQ+ leads and positive storylines. Many coming out of big studios and streaming giants like Netflix and Hulu.
To celebrate the progress we’ve made and honor the artists and filmmakers that have made it all possible, we highlight some of the best lesbian movies ever made. This list includes sapphic movies with bisexual, pansexual, and queer characters as well.
1. Desert Hearts (1985)
Before Brokeback Mountain, there was Desert Hearts, a 1985 romantic drama about a Columbia University professor named Vivian (Helen Shaver) who travels to Reno to speed up her divorce proceedings. There, she meets and falls in love with Cay (Patricia Charbonneau), an adventurous and unpredictable sculptor.
Before Desert Hearts, no wide release film had portrayed sapphic love in such a nuanced and positive light. Today, the film is considered a cult classic in queer cinema and is recognized for paving the way for future LGBTQ+ films.
2. The Incredibly True Adventures Of Two Girls In Love (1995)
Featuring a pre-L Word Laurel Holloman as Randy, a tomboyish high schooler who falls in love with new girl Evie (Nicole Ari Parker), this coming-of-age film is based on the age-old premise that opposites attract. At a time when lesbian films often had some kind of dark and tragic element to them, The Incredibly True Adventures Of Two Girls In Love was a warm, funny, and refreshing film that stood out among its peers.
3. The Watermelon Woman (1996)
This meta-romantic dramedy tells the story of video store clerk Cheryl (director Cheryl Dunye), who embarks on a quest to track down an Old Hollywood “mammy” actress known as “The Watermelon Woman” for a documentary film project.
Aside from having a Black lesbian actress in the lead role (Cheryl as a fictional version of herself), The Watermelon Woman is also the first full-length film to have been directed by an out Black lesbian.
4. But I’m A Cheerleader (1999)
Directed by Jamie Babbit, But I’m A Cheerleader is a satirical teen comedy about a cheerleader (Natasha Lyonne) who gets sent to a conversion therapy camp after her parents suspect her of being a lesbian. With stellar performances from Lyonne, Clea DuVall, and Melanie Lynskey, a hilarious cameo by RuPaul (yes, that RuPaul), and a story that’s got a lot of heart underneath its campy exterior, But I’m A Cheerleader should be on every gayby’s list of lesbian movies to watch.
5. Saving Face (2004)
Sixteen years before she released The Half Of It, another iconic sapphic movie, Alice Wu directed Saving Face. The rom-com/drama revolves around a young Chinese-American surgeon named Wil (Michelle Krusiecl) and Vivian (Lynn Cheng), a ballet dancer. Having grown up in the tight-knit Chinese community of Flushing, New York, Wil struggles to maintain her burgeoning romance with Vivian while keeping up with the expectations of her traditional family.
Before the film’s release, The Joy Luck Club was the only Hollywood movie that featured a primarily Chinese-American cast and narrative. Praised for its accurate, funny, and nuanced portrayal of Asian-American life, Saving Face is an excellent example of what happens when LGBTQ+ people of color get the opportunity to tell their own stories.
6. D.E.B.S. (2004)
As far as lesbian movies on Netflix go, D.E.B.S. is certainly the most unique. Instead of your typical coming-of-age/romance/family drama, D.E.B.S. is like if Charlie’s Angels and Austin Powers had a lesbian baby. The film follows Amy (Sara Foster), a young woman recruited into the secret spy academy D.E.B.S. (that’s Discipline, Energy, Beauty, Strength), and the supervillain Lucy Diamond (Jordana Brewster), whom Amy is tasked with taking down. That catch? They end up falling in love.
Despite being a critical and box office failure at the time of its release, D.E.B.S. has gained a cult following over the years.
7. Imagine Me & You (2005)
Imagine Me & You is a British romantic comedy starring Piper Perabo as Rachel, a new bride, and Luce, a florist. The pair develop an undeniable connection at Rachel’s wedding and spend the rest of the film trying to resist their feelings for one another. Imagine Me & You might just be the very definition of sapphic yearning but ultimately, this film is just a feel-good, fluffy, low-stakes rom-com that you can watch over and over again.
8. Pariah (2011)
Dee Rees’ debut film tells the story of Alike (Adepero Oduye), a 17-year-old Brooklynite who struggles to come to terms with her butch identity. Reeling from her mother’s inability to accept her sexuality and the pain of her first heartbreak Alike finds respite in poetry.
9. Carol (2015)
Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, Carol follows a young shopkeeper and aspiring photographer named Therese (Rooney Mara) who catches the eye of Carol (Cate Blanchett), an older soon-to-be divorcee. Needing a break from a bitter custody battle for her daughter Rindy, Carol invites Therese on a road trip over the holidays where their love blossoms.
Equal parts heart-wrenching and hopeful, with impeccable cinematography and a beautifully adapted script, Carol is often regarded as one of the best LGBTQ+ films of all time. The film has received over 100 awards and nominations, including six Oscar nominations for Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, and Best Original Score. No list of lesbian movies is complete without Carol.
10. The Handmaiden (2016)
Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is a dark and eerie adaptation of Sarah Waters’ acclaimed historical crime novel Fingersmith. The erotic psychological thriller features numerous twists and turns, so it’s best we keep our plot description as sparse as possible.
11. Disobedience (2017)
Disobedience is, like many LGBTQ+ films, about forbidden love. The story follows Ronit (Rachel Weisz), a former Orthodox Jew who was ostracized from her community years ago for being with another woman. Ronit returns to her community following the death of her father, but, soon after, she learns that her former lover Esti (Rachel McAdams) has married their childhood friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola). What ensues is an emotional tale of love, faith, and freedom.
12. The Favourite (2018)
In this delirious tale of power, politics, and womanhood in 18th century Britain, cousins Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) court the childish and unpredictable Queen Anne. A monarch who has lost interest in governing her country. But the two only vie for the queen’s favoritism out of their own selfish interests. The result is a black comedy bursting with frenetic energy. Needless to say, it’s a wild ride from start to finish. A must-see lesbian movie.
13. Rafiki (2018)
When Rafiki premiered at Cannes in 2018, it became the first Kenyan film to be screened at the festival, opening doors for African filmmakers everywhere.
The story is almost reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), daughters of political rivals in a local election in Nairobi, have to figure out how to navigate their relationship amid their parents’ political aspirations and the fact that homosexuality is illegal in Kenya.
14. Wild Nights With Emily (2018)
Directed by Madeleine Olnek, Wild Nights With Emily is loosely based on the life of American poet Emily Dickinson. Wild Nights With Emily is a laugh-out-loud funny reimagining of the life of one of America’s most misrepresented and misunderstood poets.
The film explores Emily’s (Molly Shannon) decades-long relationship with her best friend/neighbor/sister-in-law Susan Gilbert. And the circumstances that led to the erasure of Gilbert’s existence in the poet’s published works.
15. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire (2019)
While we can’t quite explain why there are so many lesbian period dramas, we can tell you which ones are well worth the watch. In Portrait of a Lady On Fire, director Celine Sciamma creates a tender, slow-burn romance between painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and her subject, bride-to-be Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). One that ends up being a masterful exploration of what it means to want and to be wanted, to love and to be loved. Warning: the ending will make you cry.
16. The Half Of It (2020)
The Half of It is a modern-day retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac where a kind, but rather dense, footballer named Paul (Daniel Diemer) employs the help of introverted, straight-A student Ellie (Leah Lewis) to write love letters to his crush, Aster (Alexxis Lemire). Initially taking on the task to help her father make ends meet, Ellie slowly realizes that the more she gets to know Aster, the more she develops feelings for her.
The Half of It was well-received by critics for its deft handling of a teenage coming-of-age story. As well as, director Alice Wu’s ability to communicate the struggles of a young, sapphic Asian-American in a small town.
The Bottom Line
As we come to the end of our list of iconic lesbian movies, we hope you’ve enjoyed the journey. We know there are so many more amazing films that could have made the list. Just consider this as your first introduction to sapphic cinema. From laugh-out-loud comedies to heart-wrenching dramas, these movies represent the myriad of experiences faced by the LGBTQ+ community.