my top ten lesbian films and why i love them

Spoiler warning! may contain details on the films you don't want to know if you have not seen them.

I revisited my top ten recently to try and get a handle on what I think makes an excellent lesbian film, and these common themes came to me:

  1. It can't be just about being gay. That means no pure coming out stories, unless they are sensationally good, no stories where the heroine consistently angsts about being gay.
  2. Films that are not afraid of showing sexuality and sexual difference. Passion that has nothing to do with being lesbian and all to do with the human need for connection.
  3. The lead female characters are strong. I don't mean they all have to be butch babes with guns, I'm saying they need to have a strong sense of self, or work towards that sense of self. In short, the films are character-driven.
  4. It's not about money, it's about talent. I will admit that my top ten list is filled mostly (but not exclusively) with films that had some money behind them and production values to match. What they all do have behind them is oodles of talent.

So, in the interest of brevity (of which my girlfriend claims I am not capable), I will offer the one overriding reason why I love each of these films.

1. All Over Me
Newcomer Alison Folland's totally real and almost-heartbreaking romance with her pink-haired lady Lucy, played by a pre-L-Word Leisha Hailey. I will watch that scene where Claude breaks down while listening to Patty Smith's "Pissing in a River" over and over and see new things each time. The scene speaks to the angst-junkie in me like no other film ever has, and offers the kind of hope that angsty films rarely do.

2. By Hook or By Crook
Oh so different. Different to any lesbian film I have ever seen or ever will see. Different in theme, in tone, in scope, in ambition. Different in how it presents sexuality and the battle for love, different in pacing and insight and all the things that make a good film. Just different. This film has no production values, but passion in spades. Find it if you can.

3. Fucking Åmål (Show Me Love)
And here's the opposite to being different - I loved Fucking Åmål because of its universal familiarity. How does this one young girl, this one teenage experience in a small town, manage to so successfully speak to the experience of being a gay teen more than any other film ever made? How is that possible? Through a stunningly talented writer, director and cast. Alienation of young people is such an important theme, and like All Over Me, this film just comes to the party in all the best ways.

4. High Art
Hard to pinpoint. I think I love this film because Cholodenko keeps us so utterly held on the brink of disaster throughout the entire film that when disaster finally comes, it feels like a letting go of the angst, rather than a shock. Every scene has tension, every line of dialogue a purpose, every character an exactly thought out reason for being. The film is sleek, sensual, self-referential and dark.

5. Saving Face
Pure joy. This film is pure joy for me. The characters are funny, appealing, engaging, culturally grounded and real, and filled with love for each other which is the hallmark of truly good family films. Wil is just so hapless, so emotionally tied down, that watching the cage open and seeing her walk out is a truly joyous thing. So few films revel in the joy of life - food, sex, family - and this one does, and I love it. It doesn't hurt that Michelle Krusiec is hot. Like Michelle Yeoh hot. Gosh.

6. Bound
For me, Bound is all about style and story, those essential genre hallmarks. The art direction is superb, the cinematography inspired. Everything hangs together as Noir is supposed to, with twists and turns, double entendres, sex, violence and revenge. Everyone is a bad guy and they know it. It's supreme entertainment. Bound is the one truly great lesbian genre film. Why the only one? Because genre film is so desperately conservative (IMHO) and needs films like this to show its potential. I desperately wish there were more - let's try SciFi next.

7. Boys Don't Cry
I often wonder (as I said in my initial review) if Kimberley Pierce had an inkling that she was putting on film one of the truly great female performances of all time. I agree completely that Boys Don't Cry is not a lesbian film - it's a "queer" film, but I put it here because the chemistry between Chloe Sevingny and Hilary Swank was so amazing. Boys Don't Cry for me is like an actor's workshop, a study in truly great, unfettered performance. This extends to every last member of the supporting cast. Extraordinary.

8. Gia
If a film could be a page-turner, this would be one. Despite being rushed for time, Gia was a portrait of a woman who carried her lesbianism (or bisexuality depending on your POV) with her like it were no more a weird thing than wearing a pair of shoes that fit. Angelina Jolie goes no-holds-barred, as Gia apparently did in life. I will admit though, the thing that keeps me coming back to this film is that I first discovered Elizabeth Mitchell here. The sex scenes are hot, and the turmoil was shocking.

9. The Kids Are All Right
Controversial I know, and still a fresh wound for some. However, since my greatest turn-on in films is a strong character, I flipped for Annette Bening. So many emotions and so much truth in one character, and a depth of characterisation and believability not generally seen in lesbian film. Not a tragic lead performance like Hilary Swank's Oscar-winning turn, and unlikely to garner Oscar attention, but so solid, unwavering, and complete. Bening is a true character actress, and it's time that stopped being an insult.

10. Tipping the Velvet
The romance, the history, the costumes, the burlesque humour, the Sarah Waters/Andrew Davies dialogue. Where do you start? For me, surprisingly, this film/series comes down not to Kitty or Nan or interesting uses of wooden dildos (OW!), but to gentle, earnest, gorgeous Florance. Such a different character on screen than in the book (and I see them as entirely seperate characters and love them for different reasons). Nan, Florance, happy endings, roses, and the line "press me harder". Swoontastic, a must for die hard romantics, an excellent contribution from the BBC both to costume drama and to the lesbian film canon.

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Annette Bening - the Kids Are All Right

Last updated: 25 August 2010