10 underground queer movies from the 90s (that aren't Paris is Burning)

From camped up historical dramas to odes to late transgender legends.

by Douglas Greenwood
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24 June 2021, 9:24am

Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures, Second Sight Films and Saffron Hill

Before playing queer characters became surefire Oscar bait, movies about LGBTQ+ existence were scarce and underseen — but those that existed were still powerful. In 1993, Tom Hanks won an Oscar for his portrayal of a lawyer fighting a battle against his own employer, having been dismissed due to his sexuality and for being HIV positive, in Philadelphia. A new era of effusively queer 1990s cinema was, by this point, already in motion, but they were operating on a less mainstream level than the awards-friendly big studio features.

Many have, over time, crafted huge legacies: Paris is Burning remains a queer classic over 30 years later, despite being criticised for its probing and cishetero-friendly framing by many who appear in it. And despite its (assumedly) hetero leads, My Own Private Idaho holds a special place in many queer hearts.

But what about the underground movies, the low budget affairs, that didn’t get the love they deserved back then? Well, here are 10 of them you can catch up with and stream in present day. 

1. Butterfly Kiss (1995)

This sapphic romantic-thriller was the big screen directorial debut of prolific British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom, but remains one of his lesser known works. Butterfly Kiss tells the story of Eunice, a bipolar woman who peruses the petrol stations of the North trying to find a woman she wants to be her lover, named Judith. She is murderous, and kills men for their cars. On her trip, she runs into a bewildered young lesbian named Miriam, and the two strike up a connection to find Eunice’s lost lover.

2. Poison (1991)

Before he committed alchemic gay sorcery by bringing Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett together in Carol, Todd Haynes made an abstract queer classic. Poison, based on the works of writer Jean Genet, is a triad of shorts stitched together, collectively queer in their concepts. There is an HIV/AIDS subtext to the psychotic “Horror”, the obvious gay energy to prison romance “Homo”, and the spirit of deadbeat dads in the patricidal “Hero”. Wild, of course, but really wonderful too.

3. All About My Mother (1999)

Pedro Almodóvar is veering into mainstream territory these days as arguably one of cinema’s most active filmmakers who’s still making sharp moves today, in his 70s. His most famous, perhaps, is All About My Mother. Starring Cecilia Roth and Penélope Cruz, this follows a grieving mother who, after the death of her son, sets out to find her former partner who, since their break-up, has transitioned. Touching and subtle in ways Almodóvar’s most camp affairs seldom are, this is a rare gem in European queer cinema.

4. The Watermelon Woman (1996)

A pivotal part of the 90s New Queer Cinema movement, The Watermelon Woman was the first movie ever (yes, ever) to be directed by a Black lesbian woman: Cheryl Dunye. The movie, which also stars Cheryl as the central character, chronicles the life of a Black lesbian woman working in a VHS store as she attempts to make a movie of her own; one that riffs on the archaic “mammy” stereotype. Having premiered back in 1996 at the Berlin Film Festival, this breezy and well-humoured movie has become a cult classic, and even became part of the Museum of Modern Art’s film collection on its 20th anniversary.

5. Silverlake Life: The View from Here (1993)

No fictional representation of the AIDS crisis matches the agony and honesty of Silverlake Life: The View from Here. This documentary, shot partly by its director Peter Friedman and also one of its subjects, Tom Joslin, painstakingly captures the minute details of what it’s like to succumb to complications related to AIDS. In its latter half, the film is shot with handheld cameras, as Tom watches his partner Mark Massi die. Tom follows. It’s gruelling stuff, but immensely eye-opening.

6. Memento Mori (1999)

In our rundown of 90s horror movies, we mentioned the Whispering Corridors series, one of the first projects to be made post-censorship in South Korea. Here, its sequel makes the cut. Memento Mori takes place, like its predecessor, in a high school. Two girls, Yoo Shi-eun and Min Hyo-shin, are in love but experience the rejection of their peers. Another pupil, curious about their life, discovers a diary that discovers a darker undertone to their love. A queer horror B-movie? Sign us up.

7. No Skin Off My Ass (1991)

No one makes aggressively queer punk art like Bruce LaBruce, and the Canadian artist’s debut feature No Skin Off My Ass is a proud example of that. Shot on a shoestring budget, the piece is about the relationship between a lonely hairdresser and a bum skinhead he sees in the park. As the hairdresser takes him under his wing, the sexual fantasies he’d long mulled over start to come true. The tags for this film on IMDB? “Pubic hair” and “gay unsimulated sex scene”. Enjoy!

8. The Goddess Bunny (1994)

The heroic Goddess Bunny’s life story was a remarkable one: born in Santa Monica, she contracted Polio as a child and lived most of her life in a wheelchair, due to the malpractice of her doctors. But she thrived regardless, coming out as a trans woman at 14 and becoming a star in the Los Angeles’ queer scene and online. This documentary, directed by Nick Bougas, captures that ascent in her own words. Goddess Bunny died in early 2021 of coronavirus, but leaves behind a legacy — one you can revisit in this movie — that will be remembered for decades.

9. Nitrate Kisses (1992)

A vital work of queer movie, this filmic essay explores the history of oppression placed upon LGBTQ+ people from World War I through to the 1990s. Directed by Barbara Hammer, the famed American auteur who covered feminism, queerness and the framing of lesbian relationships within her work, the film’s formed of voiceover interviews, visuals that include elderly lesbian couples having sex, and it features a dissection of the life of author Willa Cather, whose sexuality has been the subject of speculation for decades after her death.

10. Edward II (1991)

Derek Jarman’s legacy has so many highlights, and his adaptation of Edward II is just one of them. The artist and filmmaker, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1994, remade the classic renaissance-era play and added (more) mounds of camp surrealism to it, starting with the casting of our queen Tilda Swinton. His Edward II is brilliantly ambiguous with its timeframe (the year 1991 is mentioned on a royal proclamation), and Jarman transforms Edward’s army into a group of pro-LGBT protestors and permits gay men to fuck on screen – as they would have done in those days anyway!

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