It’s fitting that the first full year of the pandemic would be consumed with horror. Stories of isolation and paranoia were seemingly endless — easy to shoot during Covid and applicable for our time. Even films that weren’t outright horror like tales of novice rowers, Jewish family functions, and royal Christmases had the tone of a scary movie. There are 35 films on this attempted list of every lesbian+ movie released in 2021. (I’m sure I missed some.) I believe that’s some sort of record, so if horror isn’t your thing, there are other options as well. We have meandering romances, multiple Christmas movies, and even, for the first time, one very special work of kids animation.
It’s an exciting time to be gay at the movies. While this list includes some lesser known fare, there’s also the 2021 Palme d’or winner, several Netflix movies, and a few Oscar contenders. But as we celebrate, it’s still important to note that progress isn’t linear. Despite being almost twice as long, this list is whiter and way more cis than last year’s. More queer movies doesn’t inherently mean the work is better nor that we’re all being included. But it’s a start!
My top ten lesbian movies of 2021 challenged me, delighted me, turned me on, and, yes, horrified me. I’m just grateful to be back at the movies — masked, vaccinated, and avoiding crowded screenings — trying desperately to keep the horror on-screen.
The lesbian+ umbrella means any film with women or non-binary characters interested sexually or romantically in women or non-binary people.
Lesbian Movies of 2021 That Didn’t Make the Top Ten with a Short Review:
Ahead of the Curve (dir. Jen Rainin, Rivkah Beth Medow) — If you’re interested in the history of queer media, check out this documentary about the creation and legacy of Curve Magazine!
Barb & Star Go to Vista del Mar (dir. Josh Greenbaum) — The only time I’ve ever received publicity swag was when this movie sent me a gift basket of weed. I don’t remember much about the movie itself except that there was definitely a threesome and I had an incredible time.
Benedetta (dir. Paul Verhoeven) — Showgirls this is not! Paul Verhoeven knows how to make a movie, but if you go into this looking for scandal and eroticism, you’ll be disappointed.
Bloodthirsty (dir. Amelia Moses) — Gay pop star werewolf! Amelia Moses’ first two features both came out this year and I’m so excited about her new (gay) voice in horror. This isn’t necessarily doing anything new but it’s doing it well — and gayer.
Bruised (dir. Halle Berry) — Hollywood has treated Halle Berry terribly over the years and I’m thrilled she’s working to change that by getting behind the camera. I just wish she had a better script to work with! The good stuff here is really good even if the bad stuff is really bad. But since the good stuff is very gay I’d still say it’s worth a watch.
Christmas at the Ranch (dir. Christin Baker) — I haven’t seen this one because I want to save some of the multiple (!!) gay Christmas movies for closer to Christmas. But Heather called it a “welcome horse girl holigay rom-com.”
Deadly Illusions (dir. Anna Elizabeth James) — One of the worst movies of the year. I wanted a fun hate watch but it honestly just got tedious.
Every Time a Bell Rings (dir. Maclain Nelson) — I’m saving this one for closer to Christmas too!
The Harder They Fall (dir. Jeymes Samuel) — The queer coded Cuffie, played by Danielle Deadwyler, is the best part of this movie. But I wish they didn’t make her wear a dress in that one scene and end with her becoming a cop!
I Care a Lot (dir. J Blakeson) — Yes, this is amoral trash with poorly written female characters and a dash of transphobia. But its worst crime is that its queer ladies don’t even have chemistry!! This could’ve been fun trash if it had an ounce of sex appeal.
In the Heights (dir. Jon M. Chu) — I know too many people who didn’t realize the queerness was queerness for me to feel satisfied with what was added to this adaptation. In the Heights is one of my favorite musicals and there are moments in this that are truly incredible. But upon rewatches, its flaws have gotten worse — especially how Nina’s character is portrayed and the last half hour. Maybe if it was gayer I’d be more forgiving!
Knocking (dir. Frida Kempff) — Just missing the top ten is this claustrophobic thriller of guilt and paranoia. Short and not at all sweet, this tale of grief and isolation is unfortunately a perfect match for our current moment.
Ma Belle, My Beauty (dir. Marion Hill) — The random anti-Palestine sentiments are too reprehensible and distracting to enjoy this movie’s French countryside pleasures.
My Fiona (dir. Kelly Walker) — This movie offended me as a mentally ill person and as a screenwriter.
My Name is Pauli Murray (dir. Julie Cohen, Betsy West) — I think it’s weird to have a segment of your movie where you talk about how someone was trans only to spend the rest of the movie misgendering them to fit your simpler narrative.
Parallel Mothers (dir. Pedro Almodóvar) — I haven’t seen this yet! I’m seeing it on my birthday (the 24th) and I’ll be back with a review. But I hear it has queer women! I’m very excited!
The Retreat (dir. Pat Mills) — The characters are a bit thin but this is a fun cat-and-mouse horror movie with a strong central performance from Tommie-Amber Pirie.
The Scary of Sixty-First (dir. Dasha Nekrasova) — It’s like if the worst girl in Bushwick watched too many Roman Polanski movies.
Spencer (dir. Pablo Lorraín) — The casting of Kristen Stewart and the addition of a lesbian character aren’t enough to make up for this one-note movie that recasts Diana as the maker of her own misery.
Through the Glass Darkly (dir. Lauren Fash) — Despite some unnecessary voiceover, this “where is my daughter” mystery thriller is actually pretty good. But is it good enough to make up for how bleak it is? Personally, I’d say no.
Two of Us (dir. Filippo Meneghetti) — This is a well-made, brutal movie about two older lesbians. Screen icon Barbara Sukowa’s central performance may just be good enough to suffer through the movie’s pain.
Under the Christmas Tree (dir. Lisa Rose Snow) — Everything I want from a Lifetime Christmas movie: cheesy, gay, and starring my girlfriend.
We Need to Do Something (dir. Sean King O’Grady) — This one-room horror movie has its defenders so maybe I’m just missing something but in my opinion the only something that needs to be done is taking a screenwriting class.
White Lie (dir. Calvin Thomas, Yonah Lewis) — This is a good movie about a very, very bad person. Most media about amoral sociopaths tries to romanticize them so I guess points to this one for certainly not doing that.
My favorite 2021 releases that don’t qualify for this list:
Beans (dir. Tracey Deer)
Bergman Island (dir. Mia Hansen-Løve)
C’mon C’mon (dir. Mike Mills)
Drive My Car (dir. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)
The Power of the Dog (dir. Jane Campion)
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It (dir. Mariem Pérez Riera)
Shangri-La (dir. Isabel Sandoval)
Test Pattern (dir. Shatara Michelle Ford)
Wild Indian (dir. Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.)
Zola (dir. Janicza Bravo)
A Complicated Honorable Mention
The World to Come (dir. Mona Fastvold)
As I said in my review, it’s difficult to separate this film from Casey Affleck’s involvement as producer and star. Still, the craft on display is undeniable. Mona Fastvold is an extremely talented filmmaker and this movie is worth watching for the sound design alone. Yes, it’s a bleak lesbian period piece starring two white cis women. And, yes, I do think that’s connected to the kinds of queer movies a man like Casey Affleck would want to get behind and use as a cover for his past behavior. I hope we see more from Fastvold soon, but until then if you can stomach this movie’s problems, it’s a worthwhile experience.
The Top 10 Lesbian Movies of 2021:
10. Ride or Die (dir. Ryūichi Hiroki)
This is easily my favorite two and a half hour lesbian murder drama about bourgeoisie class betrayal with a Norah Jones needle drop. Based on the popular manga Gunjō, Ryūichi Hiroki has made the bonkers, gratuitous lesbian movie I’d hoped Benedetta would be. Does it need to be this long? Probably not. But the first half hour and the last half hour — and the chemistry between Kiko Mizuhara and Honami Sato — are good enough to justify the rest of the journey. And, look, if you want to complain about this movie having a “male gaze” or whatever you wouldn’t be totally unjustified, but at least don’t erase that it was written by a woman, Nami Yoshikawa. This may not be the most authentic lesbian movie (whatever that means) but it’s about big, irrational feelings and what’s gayer than that?
9. Tove (dir. Zaida Bergroth)
While this biopic of Moomin creator Tove Jansson is relatively straightforward, it’s elevated by a casual gay angst and a strong central performance from Alma Poystï. It follows Jansson as she struggles between her desire to be a serious artist and her increasing Moomin fame. Meanwhile, she has a series of relationships with people of various genders as she continues her pursuit for a truly free life. That freedom is felt especially in the party scenes that welcome us into Jansson’s bohemia. A fun fact is Jansson was a Leo sun, Pisces moon, Libra rising, so the dyke drama is on full display. An even more fun fact is ALL THREE of her love interests featured in this movie were Aquariuses! I love being gay.
8. Shiva Baby (dir. Emma Seligman)
The more I thought about Shiva Baby, the more I thought about the actual baby. At first, the crying was just sound design — another unsettling component in this claustrophobic non-horror horror movie. But a baby isn’t sound design. A baby is a human being, a responsibility, a stage of heteronormative development. On the surface, Emma Seligman’s acclaimed debut is a very well-made movie about an insufferable soon-to-be college graduate who doesn’t want a full-time job. But the more I thought about the baby crying, the more I realized what Danielle is actually running away from. Her ex-girlfriend and her sugar daddy represent her two possible paths. She can either lean into her queerness and build an adulthood unlike any her parents can imagine. Or she can start a family like the one her sugar daddy has, fulfilling expectations with a lie. And so this shiva is a sort of purgatory for Danielle. (Even though as Jews we don’t believe in that.) It’s a cusp of adulthood test to figure out what she wants for her future. Does she want to take a risk, succumb to comfort, or continue to choose neither, privileged enough to barely be alive? In just 77 minutes, Seligman and star Rachel Sennott take Danielle on an odyssey. At the end, she’s still stuck, and yet she’s finally free.
7. The Mitchells vs. The Machines (dir. Mike Rianda, Jeff Rowe)
While Disney is still bragging about their exclusively gay moments and NOT giving Elsa a girlfriend, Sony and Netflix have gifted us with this funny, emotional, and delightfully inventive queer kids movie. Katie Mitchell (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) is a teen filmmaker ready to escape her town where nobody understands her and go off to film school to find her people. Unfortunately, her plans get interrupted by her dad — oh and the robot apocalypse. As a former queer teen who left her family to go to film school, this movie hit me hard. I loved Katie’s journey toward accepting her biological family while still knowing she has a chosen family out there she needs too. Also it’s just really fun and funny! Few movies this year made me laugh this hard and maybe no movie made me cry this much. I wish Katie was maybe a bit more obvious in her gayness but she’s wearing a pride pin the whole time and ends the movie with a girlfriend so I’ll take this as wildly enjoyable step toward the queer kids movies we deserve.
6. Passing (dir. Rebecca Hall)
There’s a distance and a hyper-stylization to this adaptation of Nella Larsen’s masterpiece. Every choice Rebecca Hall makes as a director and writer is deliberate, some — such as the casting — to make the story feel current, others — such as the dialogue, 4:3 aspect ratio, and black-and-white photography — to pull the story back to the past. This is a film of contradictions, somehow both cold and sensual. It emphasizes the queer subtext of the novella without making it more explicit. It is a film of obstruction, of withholding, of glances. When I saw it at Sundance, I felt admiration and uncertainty. Watching it again, I felt the same — and the desire to see it yet again. It’s the performances of Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga that ground this puzzle. As our EIC Carmen Phillips wrote in her beautiful review, it’s in how they look at each other. It’s a mix of love and hatred, lust and repulsion, envy and superiority. Glances destined for tragedy.
5. The Strings (dir. Ryan Glover)
More Chantal Akerman than your average cabin in the woods thriller, cinematographer Ryan Glover’s directorial debut is arthouse horror with an emphasis on the arthouse. And yet the deliberate pace is manageable when the form and subject are this compelling. The movie follows Catherine, a queer musician isolating at a remote cabin after a break up — a break up break up and a band break up. Catherine is played by musician Teagan Johnston who wrote the film’s songs. They have a casually watchable on-screen presence which is useful because we spend most of the movie doing just that — watching them drive, watching them drink, watching them write music. But what begins as lonely and mundane, ultimately builds to moments of absolute terror. This movie has ghosts, this movie has great music, this movie has queer make outs, and this movie has some of the best cinematography of the year. I promise you’ll fall in love with Teagan Johnston and her music — I cannot promise you won’t have nightmares.
4. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (dir. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)
The first “short story” in Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s triptych is called “Magic (or Something Less Assuring).” It’s a fitting subtitle for a movie that’s technically a series of realist conversations yet somehow crackles with the energy of an epic fairy tale. These are love stories, lust stories, stories of regret. They feel so regular until they feel like so much more. All three sections of the movie are beautiful, but it’s the last section — the gay section — that’s found a home in my heart and refuses to leave. The twists and turns of each tale reveal some of its greatest pleasures so I’ll say nothing except that you should watch this movie as soon as possible. There’s nothing more comforting to me than a film this melancholy and hopeful. We can’t predict the lives we’ll lead, but we can appreciate the connections we make along the way. This is not a love story between two people — it’s a love story with love.
3. The Fear Street Trilogy (dir. Leigh Janiak)
If The Fear Street Trilogy had simply been a horror pastiche starring my Trinkets fave Kiana Madeira, I would’ve been thrilled. If it had simply centered around two pairs of angsty teen lesbians three centuries apart, I would’ve been delighted. If it had simply been really well made and a whole lot of fun, I would’ve been satisfied. And yet. AND YET. What makes The Fear Street Trilogy go from a solid good time to a masterful cinematic event is its understanding that intelligence and fun are not antithetical. Like my other favorite horror trilogy, Slumber Party Massacre, Fear Street doesn’t make us choose between campy horror and an engagement with reality. It’s proof that “good politics” are also good storytelling. A lot of slasher movies are about trauma and PTSD but these films go a step further and explore the trauma that can be carried in land and among a community. This is a film made by people who know the horror genre and know the horrors that exist in our real world. Together this knowledge results in a trio of movies with more developed characters and more resonate plots than we often see in the genre. I do think 1994 is the only one that really works as a standalone movie, but how many sequels work as standalone movies? 1978 and 1666 are a satisfying continuation and conclusion to this ambitious saga. This isn’t just horror with queer characters — it’s queer horror. It’s about things that should really scare us — generational trauma and income inequality. Pretty good for a series that also features a devastating kill with a bread slicer.
2. Titane (dir. Julia Ducournau)
Car fucking, the Macarena, the metal hairpin, the bathroom sink transformation, the roommate slaughter — Julia Ducournau’s Titane is a film that invented its own mythology. So many details and moments demanded a place in our collective film consciousness, but Titane’s deepest achievements are found in the subtleties. Ducournau knows genre and she uses her shock and awe to seduce us into her twisted — and melancholy — exploration of gender and family. Julia Ducournau is presumably a cis woman and while she’s talked about having a queer gaze, she’s revealed nothing about her personal life. I understand if her evocation of trans imagery bothers you. This isn’t a movie with answers or anything to say. It doesn’t even have a clear point of view except Ducournau’s whatever that is. It’s an exploration. It’s a feeling. It’s a confounding work of art. And, personally, I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful to be so moved and so horrified and so entertained by something that leaves me so puzzled. I’m grateful for an artist like Ducournau who is so confident in her ideas and in her form. It’s rare to see a movie and know it’s going to be with you for the rest of your life. I often think of its bursts of violence — I think of its tenderness even more.
1. The Novice (dir. Lauren Hadaway)
Legs body arms. Arms body legs. Legs body arms. Arms body legs.
Before writing and directing her masterful debut, Lauren Hadaway worked in sound. Her impressive resume includes movies such as Whiplash, Selma, The Hateful Eight, and Justice League. Once you know this, it makes sense why her film’s rowing instructions get stuck in your head like a pop song. Legs body arms. Arms body legs. It’s dialogue as rhythm, thoughts as rhythm, mental illness as rhythm. This film is not about novice rower Alex Dall as much as it is her. The movie’s sound design and score — along with accomplished cinematography and editing that knows when to cut and when to hold — place us in her mind and body. We don’t need exposition. We want her to win because we are her. We feel her pain because she’s in pain. The oft-told suggestion “show, don’t tell” only uses half of cinema’s tools. Hadaway uses them all. And while none of this technical achievement would work without a performance to match, Hadaway has just that in Isabelle Fuhrman. Together they’ve created a visceral cinematic experience. That this is all in service of a story of a queer girl feels almost like an afterthought. And yet this is exactly what I want from queer cinema. This is what happens when we are allowed to tell specific stories where gayness is both essential and casual. Nearly forty years after Personal Best, here’s a sweaty queer sports movie that’s as twisted and bloody as we are. Queerness is an escape — it’s everything else that’s the problem. Legs body arms. Arms. Body. Legs.
What hidden gems did I miss? What were your favorite queer and lesbian movies of 2021?