Retro Film Review: 10 Queer Films from 20+ years ago that are streaming and worth your time
When I first set out to make this list, I thought it would be an easy post to research. Turns out, many of the LGBTQ films of the 80s and 90s are not available to stream, and to make matters worse, if they are available via DVD, they can cost you upwards of $90 to get your hot little hands on. This is certainly a larger conversation to have, but an important one. What happens if our queer cinematic history starts to disappear? Chew on that for a moment, then after, support these 10 queer films from the 80s and 90s.
Big Eden (Amazon) This romantic dramedy is set in gorgeous rural Montana and was a breath of fresh air when it came on the scene in 2000. A sweet little film with a gay romance at the center was not to the norm at the time, and Big Eden helped kickstart a genre of queer films where love and understanding were the throughlines. When NYC artist Henry Hart (Arye Gross) returns to his hometown to take care of his ailing grandfather, he meets the painfully shy Pike Dexter (Eric Schweig), who runs the local general store. Instead of adversity, the two men find the whole town is rooting for them. A real feel-good film.
The Celluloid Closet (Amazon) If you are a cinephile at all, then you need to watch and learn from The Celluloid Closet. Inspired by gay film historian Vito Russo's book of the same name, the 1995 documentary starts at the beginning of LGBTQ representation in silent films, all the way up to the mid-90s. There are candid and fascinating interviews with writers, historians, creators, and actors including Tom Hanks, Shirley MacClaine, Harvey Fierstein, and more, plus narration by Lily Tomlin. You'll learn about the way representation changed over the decades, how the Hays Code stifled and harmed LGBTQ representation for a generation, and how the tides were beginning to turn in the 90s.
Desert Hearts (Amazon, Criterion) Donna Deitch's Desert Hearts isn't just one of the first lesbian films, it's also one of the best. Set in 1959, but filmed in 1985, Desert Hearts was a real rule breaker. Age gap romance, no Hays Code era type punishments for queer characters, female gaze, and a happy ending! Talk about revolutionary in the mid-80s. When Professor Vivian Bell arrives in Reno to get a divorce from her husband, the last thing she expects is to fall for the young and wild Kay. This film has a groundbreaking love scene, stunning visuals and thoughtful performances all around.
Basquiat (Amazon) Jeffrey Wright (Westworld, The Hunger Games) stars in this 1996 biopic about the sexually fluid artist, Jean-Michael Basquiat. David Bowie also stars as gay artist and icon Andy Warhol. The film follows Basquiat's brief but brilliant career as an artist in 80s New York, the friends and lovers he had, and ultimately, his tragic and all too soon passing.
Edge of Seventeen (Netflix) The 90s really loved the 80s! This coming out and coming of age flick from 1998 takes place in 1985, and follows a teen named Eric (Chris Stafford) who meets his first big crush, Rod (Andersen Gabrych), right before Rod heads back to college. It sets in motion Eric's understanding of his sexuality and his own misadventures in self-love and coming out. Bonus Lea Delaria as Eric's old boss, and manager of a gay bar.
Bound (Amazon) Lana and Lilly Wachowski sure knew what they were doing when they created this classic queer noir. Filmed in 1996 but sprinkled with a dash of a bygone era, Gina Gershon stars as sexy butch ex-con Corky, who works as a handywoman at a high-end apartment complex. The instant she meets tenant Violet (Jennifer Tilly) their chemistry is off the charts, and soon sets a neo-noir crime thriller into motion. Unapologetically sexy and thrilling from beginning to end.
And the Band Played On (Amazon): It's really impossible to talk about the queer 90s, without talking about the AIDS crisis. It's understandable that this monstrous disease that decimated the LGBTQ community in the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s would have a massive impact on the way we told stories. The 1993 docudrama originally aired on HBO and starred people like BD Wong, Matthew Modine, Angelica Houston, Ian McKellen, and many more as the real doctors, patients, and activists who fought for treatment and awareness of HIV and AIDS. It's an important part of our history, one that should never be dismissed or ignored.
High Art (Amazon) Lisa Cholodenko's 1998 film about a heroin-addicted photographer, her partner and the young woman she falls in love with is peak 90s indie filmmaking. Dreary, sexy, and tragic. Ally Sheedy made her big return to film as Lucy Berliner, the reclusive photographer whose career has been derailed by her co-dependent relationship and too many drugs. When an aspiring editor at an art magazine, Syd (Radha Mitchell), realizes that the two are actually neighbors, she attempts to get Lucy to do a project for the magazine. Soon, Syd is pulled into Lucy's orbit and nearly loses herself along the way.
When Night is Falling (Amazon) If dreary isn't your cup of tea, When Night is Falling is dreamy. The 1995 film by Patricia Rozema finds that opposites attract. Camille Baker (Pascale Bussières) is a professor at a religious university in Toronto. Content enough with her life and long time partner, Martin (Henry Czerny), her world is flipped upside down after the death of her dog and a chance meeting with circus performer Petra (Rachael Crawford). No longer content with "content" Camille takes a leap of faith and into the unknown.
Watermelon Woman (Amazon) This award-winning 1996 lesbian rom-com by Cheryl Dunye was ahead of its time. It stars Dunye herself, as a young filmmaker and film store employee who becomes obsessed with an unknown black actress from the 30s and begins creating a documentary based on her. Along the way she starts a romance with a customer named Diana (Guinevere Turner) and learns more and more about the actress referred to as "The Watermelon Woman." Filmed on a tiny budget but with big heart, this is a must-see.