Women have not always been the best represented gender in films. For quite some time, films all over the world have featured ineffective to downright disposable female characters, who have either been damsels-in-distress waiting to be rescued by the male characters or just a mere prop only written into the film to fill the quota of a love interest. But as Bob Dylan said once, the times they are a changin’. Women have not only started landing superbly written roles in mainstream films , they have also started headlining their own films (even franchises!) that put them in front and center of the story. So here we are, with 12 such films that feature strong independent and overall, realistic, prominent female characters. We have considered films from various genres and various languages, featuring a straight up female lead, or some other eminent roles. We have also omitted superhero films in this list.
This is probably one of the most definitive sci-fi horror films of all time. First in a long series of films featuring extra-terrestrial horror( the latest one, Alien: Covenant, came out in 2017), this is also the best. A truly terrifying build-up and the pulsating dread running throughout the entire film makes sure the viewer is glued to their seats, as does Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley, the ultimate survivor. She is established as the most intelligent and fierce character in the film, with a survival spirit so strong, that she is rightfully “last woman standing” as the movie ends. This was definitely very important film for horror genre, as it had a female character who fought her way to survival instead of just being subjected to violence. Sigourney has played many female leads after this, but this will definitely be remembered as one of her most iconic roles.
One of the most important sci-fi films of recent years, Arrival is a timeless masterpiece. It raises many questions true to the very existence of a human life and the world we live in. An extremely humane story woven around a true blue scientific premise, this is a film as epic (it features aliens, after all) as it is intimate and as a result, extremely moving. Denis Villeneuve is undoubtedly a living genius but the film would have never been the same without Amy Adams, who carries the film on her own shoulders. Louise Banks is a wonderfully written role, with the same questions and dilemmas as ours and Amy breathes life into her character, making her one of the most engaging film characters of recent times.
This Quentin Tarantino classic needs absolutely no introduction. “The bride”, who is out for revenge from those who wronged her, is one of the most badass and iconic characters of all time. Tarantino is not new to writing great female roles( Pulp Fiction, True Romance) but the bride is arguably the most memorable character created by him. Thurman owns the role and shines in the action sequences as well as the dramatic scenes, giving the performance of a lifetime. This will definitely go down in history as one of her most spectacular performances.
Bollywood rarely makes good thrillers, that too THIS good. After experimenting with various genres and churning out some memorable( and some unmemorable) films, Sujoy Ghosh gave us one of the most nail-biting thrillers seen in Bollywood in recent years. But of course, the true star of the film is Vidya Balan. She is no stranger to strong female roles( The Dirty Picture, Paa) and Kahaani is again a fierce reminder of her incredible acting gifts. She carries the film on her shoulders like a true Bollywood star, and oh, how she delivers!
Charulata(The Lonely Wife)
Satyajit Ray used to write the greatest female roles. From “Teen Kanya”( Three Women), “Mahanagar”(The Big City) to “Ghare Baire”, “Devi”(The Goddess), he was unmatchable when it came to creating original, realistic female characters. “Charulata” or “The Lonely Wife”(adapted from “NastaNirh” or “The Broken Nest” by Rabindranath Tagore) is remembered as one of his best works not only because of the intimate and detailed portrayal of an Indian housewife of an affluent, sophisticated family ,dealing with her loneliness and the thirst to find herself, but also because of Madhabi Mukherjee’s subtle and heartfelt performance. A timeless classic, this film deserves to be watched again and again to discover and appreciate its nuances in a different way in each viewing.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Even though this film shares its name with and is a part of the iconic “Mad Max” franchise, this is actually a film about Imperator Furiosa (made immortal by none other than Charlize Theron) and her gang of female fighters. Certainly a welcome change for the franchise that was mostly known for its testosterone fueled lead character’s journey in a dystopic world, this is one of those few films that despite having a male lead, are actually driven by the female characters. The important questions raised regarding the role of the women in a world run by war-hungry leaders where everyone is out for survival, this film benefits heavily from Charlize Theron’s magnificent performance.
A retelling of “Devdas”, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay’s classic novel, this is one of the most important films for contemporary Indian women. Even though it features Abhay Deol as the eponymous “Dev” in the lead role, where the film really succeeds is portraying the lives of women in our modern India, their hopes, their desires, in a fiercely unapologetic way. This film made stars out of Kalki Koechlin and Mahi Gill, two show-stealing actors and powerhouses of talent. Modern Bollywood cinema was forever changed with the arrival of this film and its women, Paro (Mahi Gill) and Chanda (Kalki Koechlin).
This film made Indian actress Kangana Ranaut the star that she is today. Rarely has a Bollywood comedy portrayed the coming-of-age of a woman with such aplomb. Kangana Ranaut drives the film, as we see her character Rani( which means queen in English) taking control of her own life, embarking on a journey from the nooks and corners of Delhi to the exotic streets of Paris and Amsterdam. It also features another remarkable female character named Vijaylakshmi (Lisa Haydon) and when these two characters come across with each other, we witness one of the most accurate and affecting depictions of female friendships.
Gone Girl is not the best David Fincher film. It is not even the best film of 2014. But what it has that not many other mainstream films can boast of having, is a truly chilling and terrifying female character. Amy Dunn, played to an astonishing perfection by the ever so engaging Rosemund Pike, is by no means a role model for women; she is cunning, she is manipulative and she is what people call a regular villain, but what she also is a survivor, a strong ,independent but damaged woman who deals with a cheating husband and failure to live up to her own perceptions of herself, in her own twisted, violent way. Rosemund Pike practically stole the film from Ben Affleck and rightfully so, because this actually is about her and her alone.
Silence of the lambs
Jodie Foster will forever be known as Clarice Sterling to the film lovers. She truly shines in the role of a determined and badass FBI trainee, who is hell-bent on finding a serial killer, even sharing the most chilling conversations imaginable with one of the most famous onscreen serial killers of all time, Hannibal Lecter(played by Sir Anthony Hopkins) in order to achieve her goals, while dealing with her own demons throughout the film. Even though Hannibal Lecter is definitely an iconic character, this film belongs to Clarice. Jodie Foster earned that Oscar fair and square, giving a performance that is as iconic as the film itself.
This is the best performance of Natalie Portman’s career. She portrays the journey of an ambitious ballet dancer determined to achieve “greatness” and her slow descent into probable insanity in such a spectacular way, that Academy could not but give her the Oscar for best actress that year. This film simply would not have been the same without her. Nina is essentially a mirror for every artist that has ever existed, and that definitely makes her one of the most memorable characters in recent films.
Amelie is one of those rare films, that are funny, goofy, quirky but also sometimes extremely dark. As a result, this is one of the most engaging movie experiences that one can imagine. Audrey Tautou is a revelation as the titular character and she drives the film. A whimsical depiction of Paris and essentially a love letter to everything that is intrinsic to the city, the film is all about Amelie and her small adventures. The film depicts her daily life , capturing her wonderful weirdness in a playful but sensitive way, and never makes her just about her peculiarities. This film is bound to move you and capture your imagination in its own way.