In honor of International Women’s Day and as a woman in film, we have created a must watch female-centric film list of the 21st century.
Since I was a little girl nothing has been more captivating to me than women in film. Standing the test of time, there is nothing more magical and alluring than when a leading lady makes her grand entrance on the silver screen.
And being the old soul that I am, I also included my top three films from the 90’s that monumentally shaped me (when I was finally old enough to watch them) and in my opinion, the three most important female films of all time dating back to the 60’s and 70’s, starring the women who paved the way for the women who unapologetically star on the screen today.
Here is Reel 360’s list of essential female-centric films to consider watching today:
Erin Brockovich (2000)
Erin Brockovich is a film about a woman down on her luck getting the job done her way and wearing what she wants while doing what she wants. What’s more feminist than that? Erin Brockovich is an unemployed single mother of three children who has recently been injured in a traffic accident in which she is not at fault and suing, but her confrontational courtroom behavior under cross-examination loses her the case.
At a financial rock bottom, Erin pleads with her attorney to hire her at his law firm. Erin stumbles upon some medical records placed in real estate files. She convinces her now boss to allow her to investigate, where she discovers a cover-up involving contaminated water in a local community which is causing devastating illnesses among its residents.
Based off a real life story of an unexpected woman who fought against the energy corporation Pacific Gas and Electric Company regarding its culpability for the Hinckley groundwater contamination incident. Erin succeeds at proving men and women wrong about her sexy appearance with her unwavering tenacity in this Oscar winning, female driven must see film.
Mulholland Drive (2001)
A film with a solo female lead as the focal point is extremely rare, but two female leads driving a film is practically unheard of. Not in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. A dark-haired woman is left amnesiac after a car crash and she wanders the streets of Los Angeles in a daze before taking refuge in an apartment.
There she is discovered by Betty, a wholesome Midwestern blonde who has come to the City of Angels seeking fame as an actress. Together, the two women attempt to solve the mystery of Rita’s true identity in a dream like Los Angeles.
Directed in the surrealist style of David Lynch is a story that explores the dreams and identity of women in a very toxic, rigid, male run Hollywood.
Kill Bill Volumes 1 & 2 (2003/2004)
The Kill Bill Volumes are stories of female revenge that paved the way for women in action. A former assassin, known simply as The Bride (Uma Thurman), wakes from a coma four years after her jealous ex-lover Bill attempts to murder her on her wedding day.
Fueled by an insatiable desire for revenge, she vows to get even with every person who contributed to the loss of her unborn child, her entire wedding party, and four years of her life. A Tarantino masterpiece that portrays the leading lady and all the women on screen as bad ass females taking charge in their own stories.
Women kicking ass with their own motive makes this an art house feminist action flick must watch.
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
A film that tests the confinement of a woman’s physicality is Million Dollar Baby. When a young woman arrives in veteran Los Angeles boxing trainer’s gym seeking his expertise, he is reluctant to train the young woman, a transplant from working-class Missouri.
Eventually, he relents, and the two form a close bond that will irrevocably change them both. This story of a woman in a male dominated arena follows her unconventional, traditionally masculine dreams of going from underdog amateur boxer to professional.
To overcome her feminine physicality to prepare for her role, Swank underwent extensive training in the ring and weight room, gaining 19 pounds of muscle by training for 5 hours each day.
A female boxing film challenges both the preconceived masculine notion of the sport and of femininity, in turn is a bad ass feminist film.
I’m not sure if there’s a male Director who loves women as much as Quentin Tarantino, as he glorifies their ability to kick ass in most all of his films. In Deathproof women dominate the screen, as two separate sets of women are stalked at different times by a scarred stuntman who uses his “death proof” cars to execute his murderous plans.
The central focus of the strength of female friendships and the never ending way Tarantino’s lens adores women, makes this a female film. Tarantino has been widely criticized for his violence and specifically violence against women, but in his films women always come out victorious in the end.
The stuntman “Killer Mike” ends up in over his head with female revenge when he targets the tough group of female friends.
Spoiler alert: female revenge wins.
An Education (2009)
A coming-of-age story about a sheltered school girl with her young life on the right track and aspirations of going to Oxford, until she meets a charming, older conman who seduces her. This inexperienced and focused young woman gets a taste of the adult world through the eyes of her older lover with newfound drinking, sex, partying, and traveling.
This is a story of a loss of innocence and the pure naïveté of a young woman entering the adult man’s world. A story exploring a woman’s right of passage directed by a woman makes this is another must watch women’s film.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
This female directed, written, and produced debut feature about a female vampire is a feminist revenge must see. The Iranian ghost-town Bad City, a place that reeks of death and loneliness, the townspeople are unaware they are being stalked by a lonesome vampire.
This skateboarding vampire preys on men who disrespect women. Shot in stark black and white white, it’s been called the “the first Iranian vampire Western.” With a kick ass female lead and a female auteur behind the camera, it’s a top modern feminist film.
Gone Girl (2014)
The story of Gone Girl is a postmodern mystery that follows the events surrounding a suburban husband Nick Dunne, who becomes the prime suspect in the sudden disappearance of his wife Amy. The film pits a feminist psychopath against a misogynist jerk in what might be the world’s most twisted marriage.
The rare narration from female’s point of view, demands an exploration on female rage. It challenges the male created concept of a “cool girl” and what the does to a woman. The psychological character study of a scorned woman makes this an important modern feminist film.
It’s the beginning of summer. In a small village in northern Turkey, Lale and her four sisters are on their way home from school, innocently playing with local boys. However, prying village eyes view their games with suspicion and the girls’ behaviour, and refusal to repent, quickly causes a scandal among the family.
This young-women-boarded-away plot sheds light on the fact that for women in Turkey it’s like the middle ages. The female filmmaker wanted to convey this and does a poignant job putting the audience in the mindset of her protagonists, trapping us right along with them.
This Turkish filmmaker wanted to show us what it is to be a woman and turkey today and her ability to make The political creative makes this a female political must watch.
Mad Max Fury Road (2015)
In this Feminist Action Flick a girl gang like no other takes the center stage. In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, a woman rebels against a tyrannical ruler in search for her homeland with the aid of a group of female prisoners, a psychotic worshiper, and a drifter named Max.
The female lead, Furiosa, five tough women trying to escape the role of breeders, and Max join forces to take down a literal patriarchy. I’m not sure it gets more feminist than that.
This groundbreaking film follows the heartbreak of a transgender sex worker and was shot with three iPhone 5s smartphones. After hearing that her boyfriend/pimp cheated on her while she was in jail, a hooker and her best friend set out to find him and teach him and his new lover a lesson. Another rare thing about this film is the two women who star and carry the film.
Tangerine is brash and brave in the way it presents its two fiery heroines as fiercely individualistic trans women trying to survive the streets of Los Angeles via any means necessary.
With gorgeous cinematography, the film explores the subculture of a trans street and working girl lifestyle rarely seen on film. A love letter to all women, but specifically transgender women of color.
Hidden Figures (2017)
Hidden Figures is the story of three women of colour who helped put “man” on the moon. Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly , the story centers on three African American female mathematicians who worked at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) during the Space Race.
Taraji P. Henson stars as Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who calculated flight trajectories for Project Mercury and other missions, Octavia Spencer plays NASA supervisor Dorothy Vaughan and Janelle Monáe as NASA engineer Mary Jackson.
Though the story is set in 1960’s, the story is a familiar one and serves as a metaphor for today’s mysogynist attitudes as even the nicest of men in the film fall into the traps of their ingrained patriarchal language time.
Promising Young Woman (2020)
Cassie was a promising young woman in med school until a mysterious, traumatic event abruptly caused her to drop out of school, derailing her future. The exploration of women surviving and existing in rape culture within a society that enables is so chillingly relevant.
This female led story is also written and directed by a woman, Emerald Fennell. This modern feminist masterpiece sheds a spotlight on silenced and preyed upon women and the female rage this results in.
ALSO READ: These 10 female superheroes inspire us for IWD
90’s Women in Film Must Watch
Thelma and Louise (1991)
Thelma and Louise is a rare portrait of two women in the drivers seat of a film. Two best friends set out on an adventure, but it soon turns around to a terrifying escape from being hunted by the police, as these two girls escape for the crimes they committed.
Their girls trip becomes a flight from the law when Louise shoots and kills a man who tries to rape Thelma at a bar. Louise decides to flee to Mexico, and Thelma joins her. Men of the law try to convince the two women to surrender before their fates are sealed. This is a road movie that transcends the feminist message at it’s core.
Virgin Suicides (1999)
In an ordinary suburban house, on a lovely tree-lined street, in the middle of 1970s America, lived the five beautiful, dreamy Lisbon sisters, whose doomed fates indelibly marked the neighborhood boys who to this day continue to obsess over them.
A story of love and repression, fantasy and terror, sex and death, memory and longing. It is at its core a mystery story: a heart-rending investigation into the impenetrable, life-altering secrets of American adolescence. Written and directed by Sofia Coppola this young female centric story is a feminist, coming of age must watch.
Girl, Interrupted (1999)
A film based on the book of a young woman’s 18 month stay at a women’s mental hospital written by Susanna Kaysen is colorful with women of all kinds. Set the changing world of the late 1960s, “Girl, Interrupted” is the searing true story of Susanna Kaysen, a young woman who finds herself at a renowned mental institution for troubled young women with mental illness, addiction, eating disorders, etc.
In this white walled seclusion she must choose between the world of these flawed women—who become her friends— who also belong on the inside or the often difficult world of reality on the outside.
The women in the institution are made up of an all star cast before they were icons Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie, Brittany Murphy, Elizabeth Moss and more. This raw female cast and coming of age story poses the question: is a woman really crazy or is the world around her that she’s forced to exist in?
Criterion Collection Feminist Masterpieces
Maybe the New Wave’s most anarchic entry, Věra Chytilová’s absurdist farce follows the misadventures of two brash young women. Believing the world to be “spoiled,” they embark on a series of pranks in which nothing—food, clothes, men, war—is taken seriously. Daisies is an aesthetically and politically adventurous film that’s widely considered one of the great works of feminist cinema.
With her first and only feature film—a hard-luck drama she wrote, directed, and starred in—Barbara Loden turned in a groundbreaking work of American independent cinema, bringing to life a kind of character seldom seen on-screen. In this feminist masterpiece Wanda has left her husband, lost custody of her children, and now finds herself alone, drifting between dingy bars and motels, where she falls prey to a series of callous men—including a bank robber who ropes her into his next criminal scheme. Wanda is a compassionate and wrenching portrait of a woman stranded on society’s margins.
Woman Under The Influence (1974)
This uncompromising portrait of domestic turmoil details the emotional breakdown of a suburban housewife and her family’s struggle to save her from herself. Gena Rowlands gives a tour-de-force and unforgettably harrowing performances as a married woman whose mental illness —in a confined female societal role— reaches its breaking point.
This landmark American film and feminist masterpiece is perhaps the most beloved work from the extraordinary John Cassavetes and Oscar nominated Gena Rowlands.
This list is intended to honor the female trailblazers in film that lit the way—and the screen— towards the increasingly more female-centric stories being told in the modern day and to inspire the women in film to come.
On International Women’s Day and with the femme road map of this list, I hope you revisit some of your classic female favorites and discover some hidden gems.
Happy International Women’s Day to all women, specifically the women in film telling female stories and the women who have been shaped by female film. May Women in Film continue to shine brightly— and from their own divine feminine energy source— on the silver screen.
Contributor Megan Penn has a passion for stories in which women are in the drivers seat, along with a bad case of retrophilia.