Rotten Tomatoes Has Deemed These the Best and Worst of All Gay Films (Video)
Movie studios have begun to fear Rotten Tomatoes, the review aggregator website that give films a “fresh” or “rotten” score based on published critic reviews and audience ratings. A fresh score can encourage more people to see a new film, but a rotten score can effectively kill its opening weekend at the box office.
So we decided to take a close look at how Rotten Tomatoes rated 70 beloved LGBTQ films and explain a little about what makes each film so great (or horrible). We chose the 70 films using two “best of LGBTQ” lists but we also threw in a few camp film favorites and more obscure queer films for the sake of fun and inclusion.
Because some films were equally rated among critics and we included all of them equally. When films were duplicated as the favorites or worst among critics and audiences, Here’s how it shook out:
The critics’ best films
Nine of our 70 films got a perfect Tomatometer score of 100%. Here they are in alphabetical order.
The Boys in the Band (1970)
100% (15 critics) / 87% (1,314 audience ratings)
While the first half of this film is rapturously funny and catty, it’s hard to imagine the film doing as well in the theatre these days as its second half is quite heavy, angsty and dramatic in a way that doesn’t make sense in a modern context. (Modern-day birthday party guests wouldn’t stick around for Harold’s depressing birthday party game of Telephone, they’d just text their other friends, find a better party and leave.) Nevertheless, all the critic reviews for its high Rotten Tomatoes score are from 21st century reviews, so perhaps it has retained staying power for its raw emotionality despite its somewhat dated premise.
La Cage Aux Folles (1979)
100% (18 critics) / 84% (6,376 audience ratings)
The film that later inspired Robin Williams’ 1996 comedy The Birdcage is a strange pick for a perfect score. While it has all the same major beats as the 1996 comedy, it’s actually a touch darker — the two nightclub owners are in an abusive relationship (even though it’s played for laughs) and they live in a homophobic society, something largely absent in the Miami setting of the 1996 film. But perhaps there’s no beating an original, even is spouse abuse is involved.
My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)
100% (36 critics) / 75% (7,036 audience ratings)
If you haven’t seen this older Daniel Day-Lewis flick, it’s full of delightful surprises, but has two noteworthy ones: First off, it’s one of the rare LGBTQ films that focuses on a person of color — a gay Pakistani man and his entire family. And second, most of the film’s drama results from the racism of the London street punks rather than homophobia the struggle of coming out. Pakistani machismo and homophobia crackle underneath, but never overtake the plot, adding to Laundrette’s longstanding appeal.
Paris is Burning (1991)
100% (13 critics) / 89% (3,795 audience ratings)
Do we really need to explain why Jennie Livingston’s groundbreaking documentary about the black and Latino ballroom communities has gotten a perfect score? It’s both an ethnographic study of a dying subculture (that taught everyone what “shade” and “reading” are) and it’s eminently quotable. It’s also quote tragic as Venus Xtravaganza, Willie Ninja, Pepper LaBeija and other queens vie for greatness in an American landscape whose disdain for poor, queer people of color is downright lethal. With an 89% viewer rating, it looks like most viewers agree that Paris is a timeless classic.
100% (48 critics) / 92% (38,988 audience ratings)
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological suspense film has retained its staying power. Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel (from which the was adapted) sold very well in its day and has never gone out of print. Hitchcock added even more lesbian undertones to the story through Miss Danvers, the stern housemaid who is obsessed with the film’s titular (but deceased) character.
While the film’s final third goes about 10 or 15 minutes too long (explaining every last plot thread, per film conventions of the age), the adaptation is otherwise sharply written with plenty of arch drama and jokes. Plus Hitchcock’s masterful camerawork makes even the happy scenes menacing, all the way to the film’s fiery conclusion.
The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
100% (18 critics) / 94% (4,071 audience ratings)
Anyone who saw this documentary before watching the 2008 Gus Van Sant movie Milk knows that it provided the factual skeleton that Dustin Lance Black later overlaid with dramatic meat. The documentary has plenty of meat on its own as it lets Milk charm the pants off of you, inspire you to new heights of queer pride and then devastates you with his subsequent assassination.
Unlike the 2008 film, the documentary sticks around after Milk dies and shows you the protests and riots that followed, which prove immensely satisfying and somewhat saddening when you wonder whether our community should be rioting a lot more than it has since his passing.
100% (7 critics) / 89% (1,701 audience ratings)
Lilies’ unique and dramatic premise has made it a critical favorite. Adapted from a 1987 stage play of the same name, it follows a group of prison convicts who trap a visiting priest into watching a dramatic staging of a gay love triangle that unfolded with tragic consequences earlier in his life.
Because the play within a play takes place in a men’s prison, all of the roles are played by men, even the female ones. It’s quite high concept and reaches a satisfying payoff as the priest must decide whether to confess his own guilt or go on acting purer than he actually is.
Longtime Companion (1990)
100% (16 critics) / 82% (2,859 audience ratings)
When Longtime Companion first hit theaters, the Reagan Administration had only ended two years prior and scores of gay and bi men continued to perish from AIDS-related illnesses since anti-retroviral medications had not yet become widely available. Surprisingly (or not), few films discussed HIV: Tom Hanks’ Philadelphia (1993) was still three years away and aside from Parting Glances (1986), an HIV drama starring Steve Buscemi, most HIV-related films were tear-jerkers and made-for-TV films rather than ones made for the big screen.
Longtime Companion threaded a difficult needle by being both a dramatic, realistic and compassionate illustration of AIDS’ effect on a tight-knit group of friends and yet one with genuinely funny moments that avoids any dehumanizing and voyeuristic fixation on AIDS’ debilitating physical effects. The film spans 10 years and ends on a hopeful yet wistful note. It also features a strong cast including Campbell Scott, Dermot Mulroney and Mary-Louise Parker and celebrates some of those who succumbed to the epidemic’s earliest days.
The Watermelon Woman (1997)
100% (9 critics) / 55% (849 audience ratings)
While we love that critics gave Cheryl Dunye’s lesser-known underdog indie a perfect score, audiences also gave it one of the lowest scores (the only gay film that audiences hated more was Bruce LaBruce’s gory 2011 narrative porn flick L.A. Zombie).
The Watermelon Woman has a lot to love: an earnest lesbian protagonist looking for love and success at her video rental day job, and a funny and heartfelt script that packs lots of historical truth and racial politics. As the aspiring documentarian at the heart of the film searches for the identity of a sexy black woman playing uncredited “mammy” roles in a black-and-white film. we’re reminded how many notable queers and people color had their lives erased by the history books too.
Perhaps its enduring truths made critics fond of The Watermelon Woman, but audiences seem half-interested with the film itself, possibly because of the way its ‘90s-era black lesbian postmodern meta-comedy defied easy categorization or the usual pleasures of mainstream narratives.
The audience’s best films
Since Rebecca and The Times of Harvey Milk are among Rotten Tomatoes top five highest audience ranked pictures, here are three of the next highest ranked audience favorites (and a brief mention of other audience favorites that ranked just below them).
Auntie Mame (1958)
92% (13 critics) / 93% (8,162 audience members)
Rosalind Russell will break your heart in two as she plays an effervescent Manhattan socialite fighting for the upbringing of her impressionable young nephew, Patrick. Yes, she’s undeniably witty and full of life — “Life,” after all, “is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.” But she’s also seeking a love that lasts (whether that’s with her nephew, an oil tycoon husband or alone as she writes her memoirs). And it’s her unapologetic need to be loved that makes Auntie Mame such a beloved gay film — it doesn’t hurt that the author of the semi-autobiographical book the film was based on was possibly bisexual himself.
Beautiful Thing (1996)
90% (21 critics) / 93% (10,321 audience ratings)
It’s no wonder that this British dramedy has resonated so well with audiences — it’s one of the earliest (and only) teenage gay romantic comedies, and its entire upbeat soundtrack features Mama Cass from The Mamas and the Papas — what’s not to love? Although it’s less gritty and real than Edge of Seventeen, it’s also much funnier and true-to-heart than 1998 film Get Real.
Beautiful Thing depicts child abuse, alcoholism and poverty in an English slum, but the film’s core couple — a bullied, bookish blonde and his closeted athletic love interest — have believable chemistry, and seeing them kiss and go to a gay bar for the first time is as sweet and affirming now as it was when it first came out.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
93% (108 critics) / 93% (49,569 audience ratings)
The movie that made John Cameron Mitchell a hero among gay artists continues to inspire (with many fan able to recite every lyric from memory even though the film is nearly two decades old). With such catchy tunes and such a fiery heroine, it’s hard not to become an instant fan of Hedwig.
Mitchell came up with his film’s central theme — the quest for one’s “missing half” — after reading Plato’s Symposium, an alcohol-fueled philosophical text from around 385 BC. Perhaps that’s why Hedwig has aged so well: Even though its gender-bending heroine has rockstar dreams, her fiery passion and personal betrayals feel intensely personal yet universal — almost everyone has had a ex-lover who ran-off with their livelihood and dreams. But it’s what we do after we fall apart that makes us who we are, and all the better if that’s set to catchy rock-and-roll songs with animated sequences and fabulously styled wigs.
Three more audience favorites
The next three highest ranked films after Rebecca were the trans-inclusive Christmas-time anime comedy Tokyo Godfathers (2003) with 91%; the film adaptation of Harvey Fierstein’s Tony Award winning play Torch Song Trilogy (1988) with 91%; and the melancholic meditation on co-dependency Happy Together (1997), also with 91%.
The critic’s worst films
Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall has the worst critic rating of all the LGBTQ movies we looked up omn Rotten Tomatoes (a pitiful 10%, though audiences gave it an 87% rating). We didn’t include it on this list for three reasons: One, the film’s 2015 release doesn’t qualify it as a “beloved classic;” two, it sucked; and three, the film white-washed such an important part of LGBTQ history (and unapologetically so), that it deserves to be forgotten rather than memorialized alongside these other brilliantly disparaged classics.
The Apple (1980)
14% (7 critics) / 51% (1,190 audience ratings)
The Apple is actually pretty great once you understand that the film’s original opening scenes showed the God character, Mr. Topps, creating the Earth and the Garden of Eden. This opening was later cut, making Mr. Topp’s sudden reappearance at the end of the movie completely baffling. This serious cutting room abortion might explain the film’s low critics score, but blame the editor, not the film!
The rest of this rock-musical is gloriously campy and a wondrous mess, a fact attested by its recent revival in the art house circuit. The Apple mixes the Bible and Faust in a sci-fi tale of good and evil. A wholesome hetero musical duo gets tempted to sign a devilish contract as a Mephistophelean dictator and his hordes and androgynous, makeup wearing queers wait to consume their souls.
The songs are mostly forgettable, but the whole spectacle is weirdly charming, even if everyone has weird European accents.
But I’m a Cheerleader (2000)
34% (47 critics) / 74 % (40,773 audience ratings)
You might not think that they could make a good comedy out of queer teens forced into a conversion therapy camp… and apparently the critics agree with you.
Yes, the film heavy-handedly depicts ex-gay camps as ridiculous and some of the characters are little more than cartoonish stereotypes, but its heart is in the right place (as the audience rating proves). Plus, it has some genuinely funny moments — like when RuPaul teaches the boys how to be butch while fixing a car in ultra-short shorts.
It’s worth seeing just once (Natasha Lyonne plays the lead, 14 years before her appearance in Orange is the New Black), even if you never return to it again.
It’s My Party (1996)
47% (15 critics) / 78% (4,151 audience ratings)
It’s My Party tried to pull off a hard trick. The film is based on the real-life death of Harry Stein, an architect and designer, who was actually the ex-lover of this film’s director. In 1992, Stein, an HIV-positive man, decided to throw himself a farewell party that ended with his assisted suicide, the idea being that he’d rather die with dignity by his own choosing than a slow and agonizing death in the hospital.
Though the film packed in stars like Margaret Cho, Olivia Newton-John and Bronson Pinchot (who famously played Balki Bartokomous from the sitcom Perfect Strangers), the script leans too heavily on its tragic undercurrent and startling premise rather than developing the estranged (and very wealthy) lovers at the heart of its story. As a result, it’s difficult to feel too strong about their loss without spending time reflecting on our own.
Latter Days (2004)
43% (46 critics) / 79% (11,177 audience ratings)
To its credit, Latter Days is one of the few (if not the only) films to deal with gay Mormons. It follows an anxious and closeted Mormon missionary who gets physically involved with a man who initially took on a bet to seduce him. But while the film tackles the real-life topics of the Mormon Church excommunicating its gay members and sending them to conversion therapy, the film never quite blossoms as either a full-throated love story or an indictment of the Latter Day Saints. It ends up being half of both, and has so many unlikely coincidences and flat characters to really give the topic the three-dimensionality that it deserves.
To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar (1995)
41% (32 critics) / 71% (50,514 audience ratings)
We’ve written extensively about what makes To Wong Foo both fantastic and awful. It’s the story of do-gooder Vida Boheme (played by a strong-jawed Patrick Swayze) and sassy Noxeema Jackson (Wesley Snipes serving his best fish), two prize-winning drag queens who decide to help an aspiring but forlorn Latina “drag princess” on their way to a national drag pageant.
The film was considered a less-brave, American version of Australia’s Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (even though the films were created at nearly the same time), but it’s hilariously quotable and mocks homophobic conservatism. On the downside, it dabbles in comedic racism and the tired trope of gay men as “angels” who can fix everything with a smart quip or well-placed punch.
Three more critics’ worsts
The next lowest ranked films were Todd Hayne’s glitter-drenched, Bowie-inspired glam rock epic, Velvet Goldmine (1998) with 56%; the fantastical Canadian AIDS musical Zero Patience (1994) with 67%, which we discuss below; and The Living End (1992), gay Japanese director Gregg Araki’s story of two HIV-positive outlaws, one of whom desperately desires an orgasmic suicide, which got 67% as well.
The audience’s worst films
Among the worst audience ranked films are The Watermelon Woman (1997) with 55% and
The Apple (1980) with 51%, but since we covered both films above, we’ve decided to share three other lowest ranked films.
L.A. Zombie (2011)
(No critic score) / 11% (27 audience ratings)
Director Bruce LaBruce became infamous for directing counter-cultural films that explore taboo forms of gay sexuality like sex work in Hustler White (1996), sexual terrorism in The Raspberry Reich (2004) and sex with senior citizens in Gerontoiphilia (2013).
L.A. Zombie has a horror movie premise:A zombie (who may actually just be a schizophrenic homeless man) walks out of the ocean and starts reanimating recently deceased men by sticking his monstrous zombie penis into their mortal wounds.
But while the film’s arthouse aspirations explore the dehumanizing effects of modern society on social outcasts and the revitalizing effects of public sex, the film largely consists of musclestud porn star Francois Sagat finding dead bodies to have sex with little other plot to speak of. It’s genuinely weird, if not alienating, but there’s a 103-minute directors cut, if the 63-minute cinematic cut doesn’t have enough zombie sex for you.
Tongues Untied (1991)
(No critic score) / 57% (310 audience ratings)
We imagine that the small group of people who saw this art film probably had little patience for its unconventional structure. There’s no plot so much as a series of spoken word and slam poems interspersed with documentary footage and choreographed performances that illustrate a wide swath of the black gay American experience.
It’s better appreciated as a collection of performances rather than a straightforward documentary or narrative feature. But the gallery leaves viewers with a deeper appreciation of the intersecting discriminations faced by black gay and bi men, the rarity with which such men are depicted as affectionate and artistic onscreen and what we lost when the AIDS epidemic hit their community the hardest in the years following this film’s release.
Zero Patience (1994)
60% (5 critics) / 49% (1,037 audience ratings)
A musical about AIDS? Yep. It may seem tacky, but the premise to Zero Patience is playfully absurdist and unabashedly political.
The famed English anthropologist and explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton, is somehow still alive and working on an Toronto museum exhibit about Patient Zero, the apocryphal flight attendant who was supposedly the first person to spread HIV into the Americas. In his quest to find the truth about Patient Zero, Burton goes on musical adventures through the local bathhouse and runs across a group of ACT UP militants who seek to sabotage his exhibition as a way to draw attention greedy pharmaceutical companies.
The musical’s lyrics and political camp seems dated and somewhat low-budget in our modern age, but it’s undeniably earnest and a good example of early ’90s “New Queer Cinema.”
The next two lowest ranked films were I Love You Phillip Morris (2010), the unbelievable romantic comedy about a irrepressible con-man and the love of his life who he met in prison, with 61%; and The Living End (1992), the gay roadtrip film mentioned among the critics’ worst films above, with 62%.
All the films below are listed in alphabetical order in the following way:
Name of film (YEAR) – CRITIC RATING / AUDIENCE RATING
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) – 93% / 88%
The Apple (1980) – 14% / 51%
Auntie Mame (1958) – 92% / 93%
Bad Education (2004) – 88% / 86%
Beautiful Thing (1996) – 90% / 93%
Bent (1997) – 67% / 78%
The Birdcage (1996) – 79% / 80%
Black Swan (2010) – 87% / 84%
Blue is the Warmest Color (2013) – 91% / 85%
Bound (1996) – 92% / 82%
Boys Don’t Cry – (1999) – 88% / 87%
The Boys in the Band (1970) – 100% / 87%
Brokeback Mountain (2005) – 87% / 82%
But I’m a Cheerleader (2000) – 34% / 74%
Cabaret (1972) – 97% / 87%
Carol (2015) – 94% / 73%
The Celluloid Closet – 96% / 89%
Death in Venice (1971) – 76% / 82%
Desert Hearts (1986) – 86% / 75%
Dog Day Afternoon (1975) – 95% / 90%
Edge of Seventeen (1999) – 73% / 73%
Fox and His Friends (1975) 82% / 89%
Funeral Parade of Roses (1969) – 100% / 88%
Gods and Monsters (1998) – 95% / 83%
Happy Together (1997) – 78% / 91%
Heavenly Creatures (1994) – 92% / 83%
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) – 93% / 93%
High Art (1998) – 73% / 77%
I Love You Phillip Morris (2010) – 72% / 61%
It’s My Party (1996) 47% / 78%
Jeffrey (1995) – 68% / 68%
The Kids Are All Right (2010) – 93% / 73%
La Cage Aux Folles (1979) – 100% / 84%
L.A. Zombie (2011) – (No critic score) / 11%
The Living End (1992) – 67% / 62%
Longtime Companion (1990) – 100% / 82%
Latter Days (2004) – 43% / 79%
Lilies (1996) – 100% / 89%
Milk (2008) – 94% / 89%
Moonlight (2016) – 98% / 80%
Mulholland Drive (2001) – 83% / 88%
My Beautiful Laundrette – (1985) – 100% / 75%
My Own Private Idaho (1991) 82% / 81%
Mysterious Skin (2005) 85% / 89%
Orlando (1992) – 83% / 82%
Paris is Burning – (1991) 100% / 89%
Parting Glances (1986) – 80% / 75%
Pink Flamingos – (1972) – 80% / 72%
Pink Narcissus – (1971) – (No critic score) / 76%
Philadelphia (1993) – 78% / 89%
Pride (2014) – 92% / 89%
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) – 80% / 85%
Rebecca (1940) – 100% / 92%
Rope (1948) – 97% / 90%
A Single Man (2009) – 85% / 81%
Shortbus (2006) – 67% / 77%
Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) 92% / 71%
Tangerine (2015) – 97% / 75%
The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) – 100% / 94%
Tokyo Godfathers (2003) 89% / 91%
Tongues Untied (1991) – (No critic score) / 57%
To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar (1995) – 41% / 71%
Torch Song Trilogy (1988) – 71% / 91%
Transamerica (2006) – 76% / 82%
Velvet Goldmine (1998) – 56% / 80%
Victor/Victoria (1982) – 96% / 86%
The Watermelon Woman (1997) – 100% / 55%
Weekend (2011) – 95% / 86%
Yossi & Jagger (2003) – 88% / 74%
Zero Patience (1994) – 60% / 49%