The Seven Most Influential Lesbian Movies of The Last Seven Years

Despite the strides queer women have made on TV in the past seven years, the big screen has mostly eluded us. It’s hard enough to get a movie made with a straight female lead. Getting a movie made with a main lesbian character — thereby cutting her off from a big-name male co-star as romantic interest — is basically impossible. 2015 was the exception to this rule, but it’s important not to mistake a moment for a trend. Below are the seven most influential lesbian/bi/queer movies that have been birthed into the world since our own birthday in March 2009.

They are, you’ll notice, overwhelmingly, glaringly, painfully white. We’ve come a long way, baby. We’ve got a long way to go.


The Kids Are All Right (2010)

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The criticisms of The Kids Are All Right are scathing and they are valid. The film centers on a man — the sperm donor for Annette Bening and Julianne Moore’s two children — to the point of one of the lesbian moms having an affair with him. During the press tour, Director Lisa Cholodenko even notoriously said she didn’t make the movie for queer women: “I was much more interested in reaching out to the male population than I was concerned about alienating a sector of the lesbian population.”

Lesbians sleeping with dudes is one of the oldest, most offensive tropes in the book, and it’s particularly discouraging here because of the sad fact that the movie probably wouldn’t have been made by a major studio if it hadn’t included a central storyline for a man.

However, it’s impossible to overlook the The Kids Are All Right‘s significance. It won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture in 2010 (and Annette Benning won the Globe for Best Actress), and was nominated for a four Academy Awards as well. Focus Features distributed the beloved lesbian classic Imagine Me & You in 2005, but it didn’t make much of a splash at the box office or receive any critical acclaim with mainstream viewers. This was Focus’ first time dipping their toes back in the lady pond and it paid off enormously. That coupled with the success of their other award-winning gay film, Brokeback Mountain, was the catalyst for Focus Features investing in other queer-themed films, and it proved to serious actresses that playing gay could translate into trophies.

Also, the ending is pretty happy and no one dies. In 2016, that’s still a big deal!


Freeheld (2015)

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Freeheld is one of the only widely distributed movies in history to feature two queer female characters in the leading roles. And, of course, it’s Ellen Page’s first gay role, and after she came out as a lesbian, too!

In her review, Riese said:

If you’re interested in watching a really solid film with a lesbian couple smack dab at the center of a small story with national implications, I cannot recommend a better place to do so than in a movie theater screening Freeheld. It’s not without lightness, either, or humor in fists, humor at the moments when you most need it (because you were just crying). It’s a real rollercoaster, y’all.

And it’s true! You will cry for two hours. But you know a lesbian will die going into the movie, and you know that death is real (as in real life) and that it was catalyst for some enormous leaps forward on the marriage equality front in The United States. It’s not a stray bullet; Laurel’s death meant something real in the real world.


Carol (2015)

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Carol may have gotten shut out of the Oscars and Golden Globes (though it was nominated for dozens of them) but it is still — unequivocally, I think — the best lesbian movie ever made, and one of the most feminist movies ever made. It also doesn’t need the qualifiers. It’s one of the best movies ever made, period. What I wrote in my review is still true:

Carol is the very first piece of queer art I’m glad I didn’t engage with before right now, with all my lived experience tucked in my pocket, and years and years of doing this job under my belt. To grasp the uncommonness of the incomparable Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara inhabiting every centimeter of these fully realized queer female characters and pinging off of each other like electric pinballs. To understand what it means that Carol arrives in furs like a predator and abandons them before the movie’s end, what it means that Carol is in nothing but red in the first act and that it’s Therese who dons it in the final scenes. To watch them watching each other through windows — endlessly, it seems, this movie is filmed through windows — and to feel it all the way down in my bones when Therese is ready to stop just looking. To appreciate that Haynes knows when to let the film breathe and when to pull the narrative so taut that it seems like your heart will hammer its bloody way right out of your chest. To value the rarity of seeing a lesbian film stitched together with such accomplished precision it makes me wish the word “epic” hadn’t been completely diluted so I could bring the full weight of its meaning to bear on this love story.

And I will never stop believing that it was Carol‘s misandrist heart that caused it to flop with the old white men at the Academy and in the Foreign Press who hand out the hardware.


Bessie (2015)

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It’s egregious that the only critically acclaimed film featuring a black lesbian/bi character in the last seven years was made for HBO. I mean, don’t get me wrong, HBO is a great platform for quality content, but Bessie deserved even more. It won four Emmys, a Critics’ Choice award, a Screen Actors Guild Award (for Queen Latifah), and a Directors Guild of America Award (for Dee Rees).

From Gabby Rivera’s gorgeous review:

Bessie is bomb, y’all. Super bomb. She stands up for herself and her people even in the face of the damn Klan. The Klan and the moments with rich white people are fucking terrifying. Like hold-my-breath, oh-my-god is Bessie going to die right now terrifying. There are no white saviors in this film, thank the universe. Bessie Smith doesn’t cater to white people or men and as brave as her fight is, it’s equally gut-wrenching; at any moment, the world she fights for could have swallowed her whole and left her to rot. Queen Latifah ever so capably maneuvers Bessie from any sort of static strong-Black-woman archetype and weaves a palpable vulnerability, an ache for love, into her portrayal and it’s glorious.

Bessie is an exceptional film, and Queen Latifah has never been better. If we need more of any of the movies on this list, Bessie is the one.


Pride (2014)

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This is the movie that made me cry the most — yes, even more than Freeheld because I stifle my sad cries and roll with my happy ones. It’s the only UK-crafted movie to make the cut because it’s enormous success across the pond propelled it to acclaim here too. It won the Queer Palm at Cannes, two British Independent Film Awards, and a BAFTA.

Kaitlyn’s review really captures what makes this movie so great:

Rather than focusing purely on pride marches or the AIDS crisis or any of the other very real, important issues the early LGBT rights movement faced, this movie centers on a small group of queer activists (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) and their support of a Welsh mining community that’s participating in nationwide strikes against shrinking subsidies. They struggle to find a union that will accept their donations, and once they finally do, it’s only by mistake that they’re accepted. Luckily, it turns out that the town is home to some very welcoming, kind people, and they stand up against those who resist; it’s that struggle that propels us through the two-hour film. And that’s a very clever move, because by focusing on the miner strike storyline — which was a huge national story when it happened — the film creates a more authentic environment in which to tell those other stories of the lesbian and gay diaspora.

Pride has a has a lovable British sensibility and feels so authentic you’ll find it hard to believe, at times, that you’re not watching a documentary.


Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013)

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Has there ever been a more hotly contested lesbian film than Blue Is the Warmest Color? Queer critics run the spectrum from thinking it’s a piece of voyeuristic garbage to the a piece of revolutionary art. The controversy doesn’t stop with film criticism and lesbian fandom, though. After the film’s release, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos said the experience of working with director Abdellatif Kechiche was so traumatic they’d never do another movie with him again.

It’s very common in mainstream art criticism to look past a creator’s dubious behavior to appreciate the art he creates. Blue Is the Warmest Color is the first time queer audiences were faced with that dilemma in such a far-reaching way. It unanimously won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and became the first movie to extend that award to both the director and the actresses. In fact, Seydoux and Exarchopoulos are the only women, ever, besides Jane Campion to receive the Palme d’Or. It was also nominated for a Golden Globe and BAFTA for Best Foreign Language Film. (The studio strategically released the film at a time that made it eligible for the French Oscars, which meant it wasn’t eligible for an American ones.)

Critics who loved Blue praised it for being “raw, honest, powerfully acted” and “deliciously intense.” All of which things are very true, though I’m not sure I would call the intensity “delicious.” It’s so intense it’s almost nauseating!

Blue Is the Warmest Color is probably the most talked-about lesbian film in history. It’s also notable that, unlike the graphic novel on which it was based, no one died in the end.


The Runaways (2010)

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Julie and Brandy (in our box office) reviewed The Runaways for us, so if you allow yourself only one piece of Autostraddle nostalgia today, click through and watch their review for yourself. You won’t be sorry. There are wigs.

No one can say for sure if this is the film that caused Kristen Stewart to finally accept her undefinable sexuality, but probably it is, right? Probably you don’t play Joan Jett and come away straight. Queer women were always going to go all in on this, and not just to see Joan and Cherrie making out on screen. No, this is The Runaways, the gateway to all our all-female rock-and-roll dreams, our dark angel icons! And while the film didn’t get everything right about the band, everyone from Joan and Cherrie to the press praised it for capturing that “despair and frustrated energy” that pervaded life in the mid-70s.

And, like I said, it made KStew gay.

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle managing editor who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Heather has written 890 articles for us.

66 Comments

  1. “I was much more interested in reaching out to the male population than I was concerned about alienating a sector of the lesbian population.”

    Wow, I didn’t think I could hate this movie more than I already did.

    I love Carol but I did sort of resent the hype about how it was the lesbian movie for our generation – our own Brokeback Mountain, I guess, except with fewer dead gay people! – when you know nobody would be saying that about a movie centered around LGB WOC. But god, I wish it had won something at the Oscars. So many guys were pissed that Carol unapologetically shoves men to the sidelines, but it’s about time they had a taste of what it’s like.

  2. in addition to giving me confusing new feelings about kristen stewart, i credit the runaways movie with making me unashamed to buy just one onion and a bottle of vodka at the grocery store.

  3. The thing about “Blue is the Warmest Color” is that I didn’t hate the gratuitous sex scene, I thought it was real enough. The movie itself was just obnoxious and the main characters were insufferable. I didn’t get the hype.

    • A thousand thank you’d for your mention of the eating. I just couldn’t grasp the significance of constantly eating spaghetti. Halfway through, I stood up and did the dishes instead.

      • Someone tried explaining the significance to me once but I was just, “I DON’T CARE WHAT THE SIGNIFICANCE IS, IT’S DISGUSTING!” Years of listening to my mom admonish my brother and father for chewing with their mouths open have left their mark on me lol.

  4. Beyond the most obvious reasons, a big part of why so many of us have a lasting anger at Kids Are Alright is that we were so excited for it when it was in production. I remember very clearly all the hype. This wasn’t some little indie art house movie it was finally a mainstream movie with a lesbian couple at the center! Well known actresses playing them! We waited with bated breath only to have a man sit his dumb ass down in the middle of OUR movie and fuck with everything (and one of the lesbians). It was invalidating in so many ways. You silly queers, two women couldn’t possibly raise happy kids without their sperm donor involved! They need to learn a lesson about what REAL family is. And it was made so much worse by the mainstream critics, most of them straight men obviously, saying how amazing it was, and later dismissing upset lesbians. The prick at Salon called it a “tempest in a teacup”. Fucker.

    • I always felt that the answer to ‘The Kids Are Alright’ riddle was in the title; that in spite of their search for the sperm donor,the intrigue, the affair their sense of family was very clearly with the women who had parented them from birth. Once it was obvious that’Dad’ had upset the family structure, the door was quite literally closed in his face. A very “who do you think you are?” reresponse.

  5. Just wanted to clarify that ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’ didn’t win the BAFTA or Golden Globe for best foreign film, it was only nominated in those categories.

  6. Though the plot was different, the director of Jenny’s Wedding was as dismissive of the LGBT community as the director for The Kids Are Alright. It said it was a “normal rom com about lesbians,” but actually it was about the parents and siblings of lesbians. The fiancée didn’t say more than 10 words!

  7. Ugh why can Autostraddle not dictate more of the film industry?

    And also explain Carol..

    I am a terrible, cynical human but the only part of that film that emotionally impacted me was the custody battles and Abby. The central relationship just seemed to happen so immediately and be based around the younger woman just *getting stuff* in a way not really relatable to most queer people’s lives and issues – most of us can’t just quit our jobs or offer our brand new partner a house just like that.
    Of course Carol herself was enthralling, but it felt like we were gazing at her, and everything, even first time sex, was just so perfectly perfect.
    And even the men were represented as individually homophobic or abusive rather than an actual system that discriminated heavily against queer people and women, among others.
    The custody though, especially any discussion of mental illness was very affecting. A similar issue happened for my great grandmother and again for another grandmother during those time period, based on adultery outside of marriage. Both were horrific and ended very badly for the women.

    And more venting: I just want queer films to be, you know, better?

    And The Kids Are All Right, beyond even the ‘lesbian has to sleep with a man and cheat on her spouse’ storyline, coming from a blended, mixed ethnicity family with adoptions, separations and egg donations, to have the idea that the donor has to come in and threaten the parental stability (as well as perceived ability of the couple to parent) like why. ‘To come in and be the father,’ isn’t at all the only, or realistic, relationship that man could adopt for the kids. Now days open adoptions/or donations are recommended and families treat donors all kinds of ways but the predominant narrative is not replacement.
    This story would have made a lot more sense if cutting out the bio father/sperm donor who was an ex/one night stand, and that’s actually a story where queer sexuality has gotten kids taken away from their parent(s)(eg. Carol). It felt like: Yay! Let’s uphold the sanctity of these lesbians’ parenting(WHICH YES, WE NEED THIS!)by upholding a very rigid, middle-class, nuclear family structure.
    Queer people can be kinda amazing in terms of families of choice, or forming diverse and interconnected webs of support, so it would be awesome to see that represented.
    Also – They said porn featuring guys fucking is somehow more authentic…Please, can people just embrace the porn they enjoy but refer to actual sex workers for ‘authenticity claims’ that all just seems so..argh.

    THANK YOU FOR YOUR ARTICLE. I AM SORRY I VENTED AT IT. 😀

  8. Why is this titled “lesbian movies” rather than saying “queer women” or something? At least one of the female leads in these “lesbian” films is known to be bi, and others could be too. Labeling all queer women / all women in same-sex couples as lesbians is a widespread and damaging practice that erases bi people and isolates them in queer communities. I hate seeing AS do that.

    • IA that the title could (should) be more inclusive. But tbh I hate how “queer” has become so ubiquitous as the catch-all term of choice these days. I don’t believe “queer” is inherently more inclusive than “lesbian” albeit for different reasons; there are plenty of people who still feel alienated and excluded by the word “queer” considering its history as a slur. People should not have a reclaimed slur imposed upon them against their will.

      Personally I don’t have the same sort of kneejerk reaction to “queer” than I do to racial slurs because the former, unlike the latter, was never used against me. I don’t care if people want to use it for themselves, and I use it myself in certain contexts. But I really can’t get on board with the idea that queer is some sort of 100% more inclusive panacea. I know the word has a long history in academia (e.g. “queer studies”) and I guess it didn’t bother me then but now it’s super common in everyday discourse and it bothers me a whole lot.

    • I agree that the title can be seen as not very accurate and erasing a character’s identity (and therefore contributing to real bisexual people’s problems) but why queer and not… I don’t know… films about lesbian and bisexual women? LBPQ films?

    • They’ve explained it on other threads before and it’s an search engine optimisation issue. I understand how important SEO is to the survival of an online publication and I trust them when they say they really need to use lesbian in place of a more inclusive term for this reason.

      • I agree with Rachel here, I know it’s not as inclusive as we would all like (and for the record, I explicitly don’t ID as a lesbian- I prefer queer or bi) but sometimes I think, especially for the listicle/ click bait type articles, they have to go with “lesbian” to make it google friendly. It’s the ugly work of how the internet sausage gets made.

        I trust AS in this regard because they really do it so very sparingly. They are usually very good about being inclusive. I know that sometimes we unfortunately have to put up with it, but I also know that I want Autostraddle to be able to get the google hits that allow it continue in business.

    • I’m 97% sure that I read an interview with a writer and the director of Bend it Like Beckham and the original plan was for it to be a gay movie, but the studio wanted it cut, so insert weird soccer coach crush fighting??

      Either way, deep in my heart and soul it is a lesbian movie.

  9. Ugh, my heart hurt reading that linked article about Blue Is The Warmest Color. So tired of reading about “tortured genius” directors mistreating the actresses working under them. Like reading about David O’Russel and Alfred Hitchcock didn’t upset me enough this week.

    Also, I need to watch Bessie. QUEEN LATIFAH DOESN’T GET ENOUGH CREDIT FOR ANYTHING AND DESERVES EVERYTHING.

  10. What about Pariah? I remember feeling, when it came out, like it was different and ground breaking, particularly for featuring a more masculine lesbian of color. I think it was also critically acclaimed, if I remember correctly. Haven’t seen it in a while but I remember leaving the theater with a LOT of feelings.

  11. Sometimes I feel like I am the only lesbian that loved blue is the warmest color!! I really disliked the kids are alright though, I was really disappointed with it! Haven’t been able to see freehold yet but can’t wait until I am able to

    • It’s not just you–I loved Blue Is the Warmest Color, too! In fact, I went to see it with a bunch of my queer friends and we all walked away thinking it was amazing–only to find out later that it seemed like everyone else hated it. Did we see different movies?
      I also thought Carol was just OK, though, so who knows…

    • You’re not alone, I loved it too. I just thought because I’m francophone and grew up in the French culture that perhaps I “got” it more, my European friends loved it too, only the Americans seemed to despise it but oh well glad to know there are other people out there who liked it too. I read the graphic novel before and I found it depressing as hell -_-

      • I am glad to see it is not just me!! The bot being American part could play a part, I am American but love watching foreign films and I do feel that they have a different feeling to them. So perhaps that is why Americans used to watching American movies didn’t care for it? Idk but its a thought. A lot of people felt it moved slow, hated the length, but those were things I loved about it, it didn’t feel rushed at all

  12. Meh, I loved Blue is the Warmest Color when I watched it. I got out of the cinema feeling slightly dizzy. And the sex scenes… the first one, the long one, I thought it was alright and it made sense to the film. the rest of them I think were completely pointless. The repetition of them can feel voyeuristic or just redundant, but personally it felt more voyeuristic the way the director shoots Adele throughout the film, her body, her features, almost like he’s in love with her, man. The spaguetti shots are supposed to be disgusting, she’s low class, Emma is high class, that’s why they ultimately don’t fit, according to the narrative.

    It has its problems of course, but I do see how in 2013 it won the longest standing ovation at Cannes.

  13. 3x the vote for Pariah!!! That move changed me. I had never before (and let’s be real, my love for Carol aside, never after) seen my love and my story shown on the big screen before. It made such major waves among queer women of color at it’s release.

    I did my black queer coming of age in Brooklyn, and it felt like Pariah knew my *soul*. I made my mother see it. I made my roommate see it. I made my two best friends see it. Basically, if you knew me in 2011, you saw Pariah.

    Furthermore, Pariah is Dee Rees’ (the writer/director of “Bessie”) big break! It’s what got her HBO’s attention to begin with.

    Leaving out Pariah definitely feels like a mistake. Especially considering, as Heather noted, the list has such a paucity of QWOC centered films already.

    (On that note, I haven’t personally seen it and am therefore not advocating for it as much as noting it, but what about “Tangerine”? I think it just came out last year. Isn’t it about a trans woman of color? The actress in it became the first out trans woman to win a major acting film award this past award season- yeah?)

  14. I’m cutting on my coffee and smokes consumption so I’m probably going stupid right about now, but the influential part of The Kids Are All Right means all the things you shouldn’t do when you’re making a not-lesbian lesbian movie, no?

  15. I’m still very upset that HBO Asia edited out all the w|w scenes in Bessie because homosexuality is still illegal in some countries here.
    Yeah, give me a reason to cancel my subscription and jump head first into Netflix why don’t you.

  16. Room in Rome (2010)!!!
    it was THE lesbian movie, and a big influence for Blue… I may say…
    and dont forget La belle saison (Summertime, 2015)
    I think there”s a trend, but we still need more variety of stories, and that”s because we need a lot of lesbian directors, screen writers, producers telling other stories. and I dont live in the states, so I have so many less queer movies to watch at theaters here in the south of the continent. HBD Autostraddle! cheers for more years and movies!!

  17. Today watched Carol. First off, the best lesbian romance film i have seen, ever. For all i hoped, i never expected anything that can put love&tenderness, hard realism and good writing in a single film. <3

    Now i get to judge dismissal of men and misandry as the reason of Oscar arsehattery:

    I am the judge from hell you can imagine only in your nightmares. A nonbeliever/apostate adversely biased by a personal vendetta. Someone who does not buy the idea misandry does not exist. Someone who has no regard for history and no regard for cultural sacrosancts. Someone loyal to gamer/technocrat folks and the entire punk-originated music underground far more than to gender or ethnic groupings. In short, someone you really don't want to judge anything that needs an insider mindset, 'focus' and 'positive' bias to exist. I don't do focus. on principle. Reason: you can't build The Culture (the Iain M. Banks one) on gang mentality and essentialism.

    So, Carol. Because of the vendetta i am sensitive to agitprop and things 'injected' between the lines. But there isn't any. The film is as beautifully humanist as anything could ever hope to be. It's actually about 2 queer women in love. And every accusation of a statement of 'men don't matter' is a complete fabrication – in fact Carol and Therese both take effort to be as civil as possible without sacrificing themselves. Also, strength to do so. Also huge kudos for the fact that the storyline involves a rational, reasoned, shades-of-gray move in response to being cornered by a classic black/white moral panic trigger 'what about the children' – which probably is the real reason why the film grates against the social conformist 'rules of a game' sensibilities of Academy folks.

    Genuinely sweet, genuinely inspirational – and totally slandered by the Oscar arseholes.

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