35 of the Best Lesbian Films of All Time

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1

Circumstance (2011)

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As teenagers living in post-revolutionary Iran, wealthy Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and her orphaned best friend, Shireen (Sarah Kazemy), turn to illicit means to get their kicks: They attend underground parties, experiment with illegal booze and drugs—but it’s when they fall in love with one another that their world begins to unravel. Homosexuality is strictly illegal in Iran, and as Atafeh’s increasingly religious brother develops an obsession with Shireen, the girls are forced to make a painful choice.

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2

Gia (1998)

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Widely considered the world’s first supermodel, openly queer Gia Carangi rocketed to stardom in the late 1970s, only for her life to spiral out of control after she became addicted to heroin and later contracted HIV—which led to her death from AIDS in 1986. A little over a decade later, this biopic about her life and love affairs helped catapult a young Angelina Jolie (herself openly queer) into the spotlight.

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3

Love Lies Bleeding (2024)

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Okay, so it technically isn’t out as of this writing, but this romantic thriller—starring Kristen Stewart and Katy O’Brian and scheduled for U.S. release in March—has all the makings of an instant sapphic classic. When drifter Jackie (O’Brian) rolls into the small-town New Mexico gym that Lou (Stewart) manages, their instant chemistry—and Jackie’s pursuit of raw physical power at all costs—quickly escalates into a trail of violence, with bodies piling up in the couple’s wake.

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4

Mosquita y Mari (2012)

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At first glance, teenagers and new neighbors Mosquita (Fenessa Pineda) and Mari (Venecia Troncoso) couldn’t be more different. But when Mari faces expulsion after saving Mosquita from a problem at school, the two begin to forge a friendship that slowly deepens into something more.

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5

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

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Director Celine Sciamma’s queer bona fides were already known to film buffs by the time she released Portrait of a Lady on Fire (her first feature, Water Lilies, is also on this list), but her 2019 masterpiece introduced her to the public in a big way. The historical romance centers on Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a young painter hired to do a marriage portrait of a noblewoman named Heloise (Adèle Haenel), only to fall in love with Heloise herself.

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6

Princess Cyd (2017)

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When headstrong teenager Cyd’s (Jessie Pinnick) parents send her away to spend the summer with her aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence), an author of religious books, they’re probably not anticipating a summer of queer sexual awakening for their teenage daughter—but life rarely follows a plan. Over the course of the summer, Cyd falls for a local nonbinary barista named Katie (Ro White), and she and her aunt gradually bring out new sides of one another.

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7

Stud Life (2012)

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Set in London’s Black queer scene, Stud Life follows butch photographer JJ (T’Nia Miller) as she falls for a femme woman named Elle who may be guarding several secrets. But the beating heart of this movie is JJ’s friendship with her roommate and business partner Seb (Kyle Treslove), a white gay man who is clearly more of a family to JJ than her absent blood relatives.

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8

Duck Butter (2018)

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In an echo of Andrew Haigh’s seminal film Weekend (2011), which charts two gay men’s escalating relationship over the course of two days, Duck Butter—co-written by star Alia Shawkat and director Miguel Arteta—explores how quickly intimacy can evolve over the course of 24 hours. After Nima (Shawkat) meets Sergio (Laia Costa) at a gay bar, what began as a one-night stand becomes more complicated when Sergio proposes a one-day experiment to test out a possible relationship.

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9

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)

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Miseducation follows the titular character’s (Chloë Grace Moretz) experience at a gay conversion therapy camp, where she meets and befriends fellow “campers” Jane (Sasha Lane) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck). Adapted from the Emily M. Danforth novel of the same name by Appropriate Behavior director Desiree Akhavan, the film is a tender, earnest and beautifully shot examination of the torture routinely inflicted on queer kids in the name of “fixing” them.

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10

Tig (2015)

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These days, comedian Tig Notaro is practically a household name—it’s a notoriety she owes almost entirely to her breast cancer diagnosis in 2012. After channeling her feelings about her diagnosis into a stand-up comedy set that quickly went viral, Notaro embarked on a year of cancer treatments, grief processing, and a burgeoning new relationship—all of which is captured on film in this quietly stunning slice-of-life documentary.

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11

Bound (1996)

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Long before we knew them as queer women, the Wachowskis made an indelible contribution to the sapphic film canon with their directorial debut, Bound, a heist movie featuring Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly as a pair of lovers getting ready to make a run for it. The movie itself is a sexy, stylish neo-noir; also noteworthy is the Wachowskis’ hiring of Susie Bright, a queer sex educator known as the “Pauline Kael of porn,” to choreograph the sex scenes between Corky (Gershon) and Violet (Tilly)—a decision that paid off handsomely in the final film.

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12

Water Lilies (2007)

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Portrait of a Lady on Fire has rightfully earned widespread acclaim since its 2019 release, but don’t sleep on director Celine Sciamma’s 2007 debut, Water Lilies, featuring Portrait star (and Sciamma’s former romantic partner) Adèle Haenel. A coming-of-age film set in a middle-class Parisian suburb, Water Lilies follows three teenage girls as they explore their sexualities at the local pool over the course of a summer.

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13

Desert Hearts (1986)

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When university professor Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) travels to Reno for an extended stay, she’s just doing what any woman trying to leave her husband in the 1940s would do: posting up at a “divorce ranch” long enough to qualify for residency in Nevada, the state with the easiest, quickest marital dissolution process in the nation. But Vivian gets more than she bargained for when she falls in love with Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau), a sculptor and the divorce ranch’s adopted daughter. One of the first wide-release films to positively portray a lesbian relationship, Desert Hearts has a permanent spot in the sapphic cinema canon.

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14

The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love (1995)

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Featuring Laurel Holloman before she was The L Word’s Tina Kennard, The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love isn’t a movie about coming out—although love interest Evie (Nicole Ari Parker) does come out to her popular friends—or about overcoming homophobia, even though protagonist Randy (Holloman) lives with her aunt because her mother kicked her out of the house for being gay. Instead, it’s a sweet, earnest, wryly funny story about two teenagers falling in love for the first time.

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15

Go Fish (1994)

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Frustrated by a dry spell in her dating life, college student Max (Guinevere Turner) agrees to go on a date with a woman named Ely (V.S. Brodie). Though they hit it off, they go their separate ways after that night—but Max’s friends are determined to see that she eventually gets the girl. In classic lesbian fashion, Turner cowrote the screenplay with director Rose Troche, only for the two to break up in the middle of production.

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16

Carol (2015)

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Based on Patricia Highsmith’s classic 1952 novel The Price of Salt, Todd Haynes’s splashy film adaptation is a real treat for the senses. Rooney Mara stars as Therese Belivet, a 1950s shopgirl and aspiring photographer who falls for housewife Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) when the latter accidentally-on-purpose leaves a glove at her store counter. Cue the whirlwind romance, epic road trip, and bittersweet resolution.

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17

Pariah (2011)

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Dee Rees’s deeply moving, beautifully shot debut film follows Alike (Adepero Oduye), a 17-year-old girl living in Brooklyn, as she comes into her identity as a butch lesbian. Her mother (Kim Wayans) and father (Charles Parnell) are, respectively, hostile and indifferent; her friendship with her openly lesbian best friend, Laura (Pernell Walker), is complicated by Laura’s own feelings for her. As she navigates first love, ostracism, and heartbreak, Alike finds solace in her English class and a growing passion for poetry.

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18

But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)

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Directed by Jamie Babbit, But I’m a Cheerleader is a campy, colorful, bighearted must-see of lesbian cinema. When 17-year-old cheerleader Megan’s (Natasha Lyonne) conservative family confront her with their suspicion that she might be gay, she is aghast. But after her parents ship her to a conversion therapy camp called True Directions, Megan gradually realizes they just might have been right about her—and as she falls for fellow camper Graham (Clea DuVall), she begins to question whether it’s really such a terrible thing to be a lesbian after all.

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19

Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013)

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Ever since it premiered at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, Blue Is the Warmest Color has been a wildly polarizing film—as much for its three-hour runtime as for its graphic seven-minute sex scene. Still, this movie (adapted from the French graphic novel of the same name) is a tour de force, featuring masterful performances from Adèle Exarchopoulos as a French teenager discovering her sexuality and Léa Seydoux as the confident older lesbian with whom she falls madly in love.

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20

The Watermelon Woman (1996)

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The Watermelon Woman is a (somewhat meta) romantic dramedy following Cheryl (writer-director Cheryl Dunye), a video store clerk who decides to make a documentary about a Black “mammy” actress from an Old Hollywood film in which she is credited only as “The Watermelon Woman.” Cheryl sets about tracking down the actress, all while navigating a new relationship with Diana (Guinevere Turner), a customer at the video store. A touchstone of what became known as the new queer cinema movement, The Watermelon Woman was the first feature film directed by an out Black lesbian.

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Headshot of Keely  Weiss

Keely Weiss is a writer and filmmaker. She has lived in Los Angeles, New York, and Virginia and has a cat named after Perry Mason.

 

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