Since the early 2000s, films for and about people in the LGBTQIA+ community have become more and more prevalent. At one point, the only queer content we could expect to have were independent films that weren’t widely known.
Now, the whole spectrum of LGBTQIA+ identities are not only shown but celebrated throughout media on a more mainstream level. The road to get where we are today hasn’t always been easy, but we have many fantastic films to show for it.
This list will only cover films from 2003 onward. So, compelling films such as Philadelphia, The Birdcage, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar and But I’m a Cheerleader won’t be on this list, but we feel they deserve honorable mentions regardless.
The films on this list are the best-written, most compelling stories from our community and beyond. So, in no particular order, here are the 20 Most Compelling LGBTQIA+ Films of the Last 20 Years.
1. Moonlight (2016)
This Oscar-winning film chronicles the very complicated and difficult life of Chiron. It is told in three parts: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.
Each of these parts points to defining moments in Chiron’s life that led him on his path toward the queer existence he holds as an adult. During his adolescence, he meets his longtime friend Kevin, and the two share a kiss under the moonlight.
Unfortunately, Chiron and Kevin’s lives don’t converge like that again until the film’s final moments, when they reconnect and give audiences hope for a happy future for them both.
The cinematography, storytelling, acting, and overall representation that Moonlight provides have us coming back to it repeatedly — despite the somewhat heavy subject matter.
2. Shelter (2007)
One of the few late 2000s independent films to grace this list, Shelter tells the coming-of-age story of Zach, who struggles to hold onto his family and his art as his sexuality comes into question. During the summer, Zach bonds with his best friend’s older brother as they both use surfing to navigate their frustrations.
Shaun teaches Zach to have more confidence in himself and to stand up for what he wants out of life. It’s a discussion that almost breaks them up. However, when Zach finds out Shaun submitted his art school application for him, he finds it in himself to love and trust Shaun.
Despite being a very cliche romance film, the dialogue never falls into cheesy or cringy. In fact, the writing and acting is so well executed its easy to forget the film wasn’t a big release.
3. Prayers for Bobby (2009)
This made-for-TV movie stars Sigourney Weaver and Ryan Kelley as a mother and son whose relationship falls apart when the son tells her he’s gay. Focusing on themes related to religious trauma and suicide, this film is one of the heavier ones on the list. Kelley spends most of the film either crying or visibly depressed, but it’s still worth mentioning.
It is based on a true story about the turning point at which Mary Griffith became one of the LGBTQIA’s staunchest advocates and supporters following the death of her beloved son. She realizes much too late that pushing her son to “pray the gay away” was the leading cause of his suicide. That guilt led her to action.
The acting and writing for Prayers for Bobby is top-notch, which might be surprising considering it is a Lifetime original.
4. Breaking Fast (2020)
What happens when you meet the man of your dreams and you find out he comes from a culture you know nothing about? If you say, try to learn everything you can in order to get closer to him, then you’ve just described the plot of Breaking Fast.
When Kal meets Mo he learns that the man is Muslim and that it is the first night of Ramadan, which makes it harder for the two to further explore their connection. That is unless Kal breaks fast with Mo in mutual celebration of the holy holiday.
The story that follows is filled with accurate cultural portrayals, heartwarming moments of understanding, and a group of actors who make us believe that all love can be this sweet.
5. The Way He Looks (2014)
The Way He Looks is a foreign film that checks quite a few boxes when it comes to diversity, though this isn’t the main reason the film graces this list. Originally released in Brazil before making waves in the United States, this movie follows the budding friendship between two teen classmates — Leonardo, who is blind, and Gabriel.
The two learn how to navigate the world in exciting and beautiful new ways. As if being blind in a world that isn’t easily accessible isn’t hard enough, the two boys are also gay.
The writing takes viewers on a journey of love, acceptance, independence, and strength that never once feels like you’re being educated or preached at.
6. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
Yet another foreign film, this time from France, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is a romantic historical drama that centers on the most captivating kind of love — forbidden. Two women, one a painter and the other the subject, engage in a short-lived, intense love affair during which they dread the subject’s upcoming marriage.
Marianne and Héloïse know there is no hope for a future for them together, but that doesn’t stop them from enjoying the week they have together as Marianne finishes the portrait. It’s a love that’s filled with passion, fire, and turmoil, but sometimes those are the best stories to watch.
Having won the Best Screenplay Award and the Queer Palm at the Cannes Film Festival, this film is one everyone should see at least once.
7. Carol (2015)
For the 2016 Academy Awards, Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett’s performances in one of the top films of the year received high accolades. While neither ended up winning an Oscar, the nomination speaks loudly enough.
The story of Carol follows a glamorous woman going through a divorce who falls for a woman she meets at the checkout counter of a department store. The two have a tumultuous affair that briefly ends when Carol realizes that she needs to hide who she is if she has any hope of keeping custody of her daughter.
While this drama sometimes borders on devastating and sad, in the end, Therese and Carol seem to end up together on a path going in the same direction at the same speed.
8. Weekend (2011)
Sometimes the encounters that mean the most to our lives are extremely short-lived. Such is the case with Weekend, which spans a full 48-hour time period — nothing more, nothing less.
Russell is an extremely reserved gay man, which is caused by never having the chance to come out to a parental figure because of his life spent in foster homes. One Friday night, he meets a young man named Glen at a bar, and he takes him home.
Over the course of the weekend, the two men find out they have their own somewhat similar relationship hangups and that they both have a way of recording each encounter they have — one by writing about it, the other by voice recording the person explaining the experience.
The writing has a raw and natural realness to it that leaves viewers captivated from start to finish. In the end, we all can relate to both Glen and Russell’s experiences in some way or another.
9. A Fantastic Woman (2017)
At the 2018 Academy Awards, A Fantastic Woman won the award for Best Foreign Language Film. The film centers on a young trans woman named Marina, who is a singer and waitress in Santiago, Chile.
She is in a relationship with an older man named Orlando. When he dies suddenly, Marina’s life is thrown into a tailspin as she tries to find a new normal and fight against the public perception of her in relation to his death.
One of the most heartbreaking elements of this film is Marina’s identity being questioned at every turn, whether by being misgendered or labeling her as a sex worker instead of just Orlando’s girlfriend.
Between the writing, the cinematography, and the acting, this is a film everyone should see and more people should be talking about.
10. Boy Erased (2018)
Much like Prayers for Bobby, this entry is a film that centers on the negative effects that certain religious beliefs have on the gay community. In the case of Boy Erased, the young man at the center is found out to be gay, and his devout Baptist parents send him to be reprogrammed.
While at conversion therapy, Jared, played by the captivating Lucas Hedges, finds the strength to go against the leader and what he’s being asked to do to himself and his identity. Eventually, he leaves therapy and his family behind and seeks out the existence he knows he deserves to live.
Definitely not one of the more positive LGBTQIA+ portrayals. However, this film is well-written and still a story worth knowing. The more we know about the true horrors that some within the community face, the less alone we all will feel.
11. Milk (2008)
“My name is Harvey Milk, and I’m here to recruit you.” These iconic words serve as the anthem of the mesmerizing biopic about the political career of San Francisco’s first openly gay supervisor, Harvey Milk.
Milk dares to paint the realities and struggles of being an out gay man during the 70’s, let alone one aiming for a political office such as a seat on the Board of Supervisors. Without this film, the story of this man would probably have never become mainstream knowledge.
Considering the climate in 2008, the fact that Dustin Lance Black won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay is still astounding to this day.
12. Any Day Now (2012)
If you are looking for a beautiful yet haunting tale of found family and loving a child despite all odds, then Any Day Now is right up your alley. Out of all the entries on this list, the acting is beyond words and brings forth emotions you never knew you had.
Alan Cumming gives the performance of his career in this film, playing an aspiring singer/drag performer named Rudy who finds love with the extremely closeted attorney, Paul — played by Garret Dillahunt. The two men are thrust into the joys of navigating a new relationship while also providing a home, love, and shelter to Marco a teen with Down Syndrome abandoned by his mother.
While there are times in this film when the writing gives you hope for a positive outcome, no such miracles come to pass. Marco is taken from their home based on homophobic accusations, and he never manages to find his way back to them despite the men never giving up the fight.
13. The Boys in the Band (2020)
Based on a play of the same name, this Netflix film starring the cast of the Broadway production made waves upon its release in 2020. The Boys in the Band follows a group of gay friends as they navigate the trials and tribulations of being queer in New York City.
Centered on a particular event, a birthday party in 1968, this drama depicts how special events, small spaces, alcohol, and big personalities can create friction even within the closest of friend groups. There is a relatability to the tale that extends beyond the confines of time, making this tale timeless in its own way.
The performances by Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Charlie Carver, Andrew Rannells, and more make this outing one viewers won’t soon forget.
14. God’s Own Country (2017)
One of the most highly acclaimed British films from 2017, God’s Own Country stands out for its story as well as the acting talents of Josh O’Conner (The Crown) and Alec Secăreanu.
The film tells the softly romantic tale of Johnny, a young sheep herder, and Gheorghe, a young Romanian migrant worker, as they learn to work together on Johnny’s family farm. While there are challenges along the way, ultimately, the two learn to love and respect each other enough to run the farm together.
There are dramatic moments throughout this film, to be sure, but overall it’s an easy-flowing story about the power of love, acceptance, and finding your way in a world working against you.
15. Fire Island (2022)
This spin on the ever-iconic Pride and Prejudice takes things in a very queer direction — much to our pleasure. A group of queer pals makes their yearly voyage to Fire Island for a week of fun, friends, and frivolity, only to be met with some harsh realities.
With memorable performances by Bowen Yang, Conrad Ricamora, Joel Kim Booster, and Margaret Cho, this film has become an instant classic. We find ourselves rooting for, yelling at, and holding our breaths about each of these complicated queer characters as their summer of a lifetime unfolds.
What’s even more amazing about Fire Island is that it’s overall fun and easy to watch; things never get too drastic or dramatic, and gives us the happily ever after we’ve always deserved.
16. The Imitation Game (2014)
The tragic life of Alan Turing comes to light on The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. While the film shows snapshots of his life growing up, the majority of the story focuses on how his efforts helped during WWII and how his homosexuality caused him pain and suffering in the years after.
In 1939, the MI6, looking to crack Nazi codes, hires Turing, an expert cryptanalyst, to help crack codes as well as Enigma. He becomes a war hero only to have those accomplishments overshadowed by his arrest for being gay in 1952.
Turing never really recovers from his brush with the law and eventually commits suicide. Cumberbatch gives a performance worth remembering, and the film garnered an Adapted Screenplay Academy Award in 2015.
17. Love, Simon (2018)
This romcom has definitely warmed hearts since its release in 2018. In fact, it was the start of young, coming-of-age, coming-out stories being told for a wider release.
Based on a best-selling book, Love, Simon follows Simon as he comes out to his family, gets outed at school, and navigates typical high school experiences. This feel-good, heartwarming tale never breaks our hearts and never really shows the ugly side of coming out.
While this movie isn’t going to ever win any awards, the writing still pulls at our heartstrings and gets us rooting for Simon and Bram. Viewers will all walk away from this film feeling more empowered to love themselves just a little bit more.
18. A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story (2006)
Another made-for-TV drama, this film covers the story of Gwen Araujo, who was murdered by a group of boys when they discovered her biological sex doesn’t match how she presented herself. A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story is an early depiction of trans issues that doesn’t get nearly enough recognition due to its originally airing on Lifetime.
Gwen’s mother, Sylvia, is portrayed as a fierce, independent woman who defends her daughter’s right to exist until she is blue in the face. Seeing her address the court during her daughter’s murder trial is the kind of emotional performance that makes this film what it is.
While it’s miles away from the proper trans representation we have come to expect from media in 2023, this early film still holds up for the attention it gives to issues not really addressed at the time.
19. A Single Man (2009)
Colin Firth’s performance as George, a man grieving the death of his partner and determined to end it all, is one that will break your heart and give you a better appreciation for the things you have. A Single Man explores the process of making sense of a world where everything you’ve known no longer matters.
George’s depression and devastation over his loss is a feeling so universal it isn’t central to the LGBTQIA+ experience. That is what makes this film so mesmerizing it hones in on universal emotions and makes George’s sexuality and experiences secondary to his profound loss.
It is one of the few films on this list that is considered LGBTQIA+ but doesn’t focus entirely on elements that are only true to that community. It’s a form of storytelling that we continue to need more of in the world because it normalizes being queer.
20. Bros (2022)
2022 was the year of light-hearted queer romcoms between the release of Fire Island and Bros. Instead of the typical romcom trope of one commitment-phobe meeting a hapless romantic and is convinced relationships are suddenly worth it, this film focuses on two guys who meet and fall in love despite not trusting commitment.
Bobby and Aaron shouldn’t work on paper, and even at times onscreen, they don’t work either. But that’s what makes this film so much fun, they shouldn’t work, and yet, in the end, they do.
Billy Eichner and Luke McFarlane charm the pants off audiences making viewers compelled to root for their character’s relationship success. If you’re looking for heartwarming, fun, sometimes silly romance, then this movie is the one for you.
What LGBTQIA+ films from the last 20 years do you feel were most compelling? Sound off in the comments below.