There is a long held perception in Hollywood that films fronted by women just don’t sell, nor are they very good…but that would be a lie. Despite this popular, long-held myth it is not hard to name a whole host of successful films fronted by females, even if they don’t rival male lead films in quantity. Some of the greatest, most memorable and most beloved characters in the entire history of cinema have been women, and some of the films fronted by women have hit the highest highs of Cinematic quality, with critical acclaim and commercial success. In celebration of this truth, and in celebration of all the amazing films fronted and created by women, and served up as proof that Hollywood can only benefit from more women in the limelight and working behind the camera, we have compiled a list of 10 of the best films fronted by women. From side-splitting comedy to life-affirming drama, these films show women at their best, most inspiring and most influential, in films that will forever remain fondly remembered and held in high regard in pop culture, or films that will inspire and give representation to a generation of little girls looking to Hollywood for representation. Sure, we’ve still got a long way to go for equality in a male dominated industry, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate a few of the films that have already broke through that glass ceiling.
The Help is a film about subtle, and not so subtle, empowerment, and a film about community, progression and equality. It features some of the best actresses of our time in some of their best roles. The men involved are, at most, supporting characters, and are used only as much as they are needed. No woman in this will be remembered as the wife or the girlfriend, the sidekick or the damsel in distress, but there is a very good chance that the men will be remembered that way. There is not a single man amongst the leading cast, but the film is not obsessed with that truth; it doesn’t parade about the fact it puts females at the forefront; it relies on the strength of its story and its characters, and the talents of the women portraying them (And with 2 nominations and a win for Octavia Spencer at the Oscars for Best Supporting Actress and the same at Screen Actors Guild Awards, as well as 1 nomination for Best Actress for Viola Davies at the SAGs and a SAG win for the entire ensemble, the talents in question are widely commended). Only in hindsight do you realise how little the men in this story matter in the equation, and how little effect that has on what a great movie it is.
Zero Dark Thirty
Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman in history to win the Academy Award for Best Director with her 2009 film The Hurt Locker, and with her 2011 follow up Zero Dark Thirty, a based-on-true-life story about the CIA’s hunt for Osama Bin Laden, many would argue that she should have became the first woman to win it twice. Like The Help, this movie garnered a lead actress nomination for its star, Jessica Chastain (who was previously nominated as Best Supporting Actress for The Help), and was critically acclaimed (though not without controversy). The film is thrilling, intense and unrelentingly gritty throughout; it never lets you forget the high stakes or the importance of the mission at hand, and you are fully invested in the film, and it’s lead character especially, throughout. Though Jennifer Ehle shines as one of the films only supporting females, it is Jessica Chastain’s portrayal of Maya that brings the heart, the soul and the bad-assery to this film!
Mean Girls is a film starring women, by women and for women, but is of such a high quality that it transcends all gender expectations in regards to its audience. Quotable and meme-able to the highest proportions, with a distinctly generational appeal that will probably mean it will live and will be loved for as long as that audience is still alive. When you think of all the great, well loved comedy of the 80s, for example Ghostbusters, it conjures up a nostalgic fondness in the people who loved it when it was new and exciting, and they love it just as much now that it’s old and well-watched as they did back then; in that respect, Mean Girls is Ghostbusters for the Millennial Generation. It is a film loved and embraced by an audience as eclectic as the lunch room cliques it showcases – the goths, the jocks, the geeks and even the Mean Girls all love this film alike.
Alien solidified Ridley Scott’s status as one of the Best Sci Fi directors in Hollywood, and Sigourney Weaver’s status as a feminist icon; both of those things in no small part thanks to the lead character, the icon of cinema that is Ellen Ripley. Breaking all the rules and expectations of women and femininity on film, Ripley is an all-guns-blazing pull-no-punches kinda heroine; hard as nails, and the kind of woman you’d want on your side in a back alley brawl! Though it is deemed Science Fiction because of its space setting and, well, its Alien, Alien is heavily influenced by the horror genre, and by utilising some of the best known and most effective conventions of the genre, Alien cements itself as a masterclass of the horror genre, but when it comes to its leading lady, she is no scream queen, nor a damsel in distress; she won’t be the first one to die and she definitely does not need a man come and save her.
The Silence of the Lambs
Though Anthony Hopkins portrayal of Hannibal Lector is probably the more memorable character in this film he does have the advantage of being a psychopathic serial killer and cannibal, but ask yourself this; would The Silence of The Lambs be anywhere near as good as it is without Clarice Starling, played phenomenally by Jodie Foster? The answer is probably no. She is the films heart and soul, it is through her eyes the narrative takes shape, and it is her character that guides us throughout. Without Clarice, this film is just another horror movie, just another cop drama, just another empty shell…with her as the lead character (and with a lot more screen time than he has), it becomes one of Hollywoods greatest cinematic achievements. Clarice is a woman surrounded by sexism, sometimes in ways that are obvious and sometimes in ways that isn’t, and she is forced to navigate her way through a world in which the serial killer is specifically targeting women, almost alone. She is undeniably the hero, and Jodie Foster did the character justice in one of her most memorable starring roles.
Okay – so we all know that Maleficent isn’t going to go on to be renowned and revered as a cinematic classic in the same way many of the other films on this list will, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less worthy of a spot; the key difference between this film and most of the others is the audience. Children and teens need to be catered to, too, and they need to be taught that women can be just as bad ass as men. Maleficent, which does not focus so much on the much over done damsel in distress awaiting her saviour on a white horse narrative, is perfect for that. It has the Fairytale appeal of its origin in Sleeping Beauty, but the true magic in this film is the magnetic performance of Angelina Jolie as Maleficent; it is the kind of portrayal that makes this one of those films where you prefer the villain to the heroes, and that will have kids on the playground all yearning to play Maleficent rather than Prince Charming.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Despite the films only male lead being the titular character, it is abundantly clear to all who watch that it is the five wives who are the stars of this film, and its theme and representation of females and empowerment was acclaimed by critics, and probably helped score it a surprise Best Picture nomination at the Academy Awards. The heart, soul and drive of the story all comes from Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, who helps free Immortan Joe’s imprisoned and abused wives and escape with them in tow across an unforgiving wasteland; she is their saviour, and on many occasions she is Max’s too, but even better than that is that all of the wives get a chance to be their own saviours, too, and when the times comes that the saviours need saving, in comes the Vuvalini, a gang of motorbike driving, gun-toting badasses and…you guessed it…all of them women! Mad Max: Fury Road was the recipient of the most Oscars at this years Academy Award Ceremony, and was a success for females there too, with female editors, production designers, costume designers and hair and make up artists all taking home a golden statue for their work in a male dominated industry.
The Devil Wears Prada
If Meryl Streep is in it, it’s almost guaranteed to be good, and The Devil Wears Prada is no exception. Though Stanley Tucci get’s a chance to shine in a comedic role, this film truly belongs to it’ tremendous trio of leading women; Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly, the fictional(ish) boss of the fictional(ish) Runway magazine, Emily Blunt as the scathingly sharped tongue British assistant Emily, and Anne Hathaway as the meek and mild mannered, but incredibly ambitious, new recruit Andy Sachs. The film makes fashion funny, and was widely reviewed as surpassing the novel in terms of its high quality and comedy. Anne Hathaway brings heart and soul to a nuanced performance as a woman trying to balance her personal and professional lives and advance in an industry of dubious morality, Meryl Streep proved there isn’t a role she can’t play and won that rarest of accolades, an Academy Award Nomination for a Comedy Performance, and Emily Blunt stole every single scene she was in with her quick quips and scathing sarcasm. As far as female fronted 21st Century Comedy goes, The Devil Wears Prada is up there with the best of them.
The story of the Suffragette’s is one that most people have come to know, but never (in recent memory at least) has it been portrayed so excellently in cinema. With some of the best female actors of our time, Meryl Streep portraying real life suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, and Helena Bonham Carter and Carey Mulligan portraying a pair of fictional feminists, the film dramatizes history well, with a piece of cinema that is gritty, intense and unrelenting, but the core story of feminism and equality is still painfully relatable and relevant today. With a female director, a female writer and two female producers crafting the film to such a high standard behind the scenes, it is a triumph in that aspect, too, and proves beyond belief that by hiring so few women writers, producers and directors, Hollywood and the wider mainstream film industry is doing itself a great disservice.
Kill Bill, for all its faults and its habit of over indulging in pastiche to the extent it almost bares no identity of its own, is a memorably kick-ass action film that follows Uma Thurman’s The Bride, AKA Beatrix Kiddo, on a quest for vengeance. The benefit of a film with such a wide mixture of influences all thrown together is that it allows Uma Thurman to be the star of a spaghetti Western, a samurai film, a Yakuza film (Highly violent Japanese gangster films) and a modern day martial arts movie all at once. With striking and memorable Mise-En-Scene (the yellow motorbike suit, the Bride’s bright yellow vehicle of choice and the stark contrast of colour in the Bridges fight against Lucy Lui’s O’ren Ishii) and some choice dialogue (“Black Mamba? I should’ve been motherf***ing black mamba”), Quentin Tarantino’s ode to the B-Movie and the exploitation film was elevated to unexpected heights of popularity, and is well deserving of a place on this list. The Bride has become one of the most iconic female action stars in cinema, and her fight with O’Ren Ishii one of the most memorable action sequences.
So, for those of you with a Netflix account and nothing to do with your night, each and every one of these films comes highly recommended! But, what about the others? Hit us up on Twitter @CelebMix or leave a comment below and tell us what you think is the best of the rest, and what female fronted film you think we should be watching this week!