25 Great Feminist Films That You Should Watch
25 Great Feminist Films That You Should Watch: This list includes films with female protagonists who have left an impact on me, moved me to tears, given me sleepless nights, and made me rethink the world around me. It includes timeless characters portrayed by women being real and raw, embracing themselves, and not merely playing out male fantasies. Some of them are directed by women directors who are consciously subverting the male gaze and bending stereotypes and gender norms. To me, this list symbolizes girl power, it envisions a world run by women, gives hope and strength, and represents an alternative way of being. Some of these films would also pass the Bechdel test, i.e., at least two women conversing about literally anything and everything else under the sun but a man.
We are always sold a perfect woman on screen that most of us cannot relate with or take inspiration from. This list drives home the point that women do not exist to inspire and be muses for male artists; they can often be flawed and messed up characters looking for inspiration themselves and projecting their own fears and insecurities onto others around them. Which is why this list also includes some bad-ass rebellious women characters with grey shades and controversial roles.
Just like the women portrayed in these films, this list is not perfect either. While working on it, I realized how little I know about feminist films and how much I would appreciate your suggestions that will help me learn more about it. A limitation of this list is that it falls short of movies that embrace intersectionality and diversity. Another limitation is that I have not been able to accommodate Bollywood and regional cinema. There are a few regional films that stand out for me but I hope to cover that separately in another list some other time. Here go my top 25 favorite feminist films of all time.
20th Century Women (2016)
“Men always feel like they have to fix things for women but they’re really not doing anything. Just be there. Somehow that’s hard for all of you.”
I cannot begin this great feminist films list with any other film but 20th Century Women. It has some unforgettable scenes, a stellar star cast, and several iconic dialogues. The film is set against the backdrop of the cultural churnings of 1970s Santa Barbara. It marks inter-generational feminism with women belonging to three different generations (a punk artist played by Greta Gerwig, an edgy teen neighbor played by Elle Fanning, and a 50 plus single mom played by the vivacious Annette Bening) getting along with their lives and coming together to raise the latter’s teenage son.
In the process, they draw from their own experiences and help each other grow and heal. In the director Mike Mills’ own words, “20th Century Women is a tribute and a portrait of all the women who raised me, loved me, confused me and are still a mystery to me.”
Little Women (1994)
“I’m so sick of people saying that love is all that a woman is fit for”
Based on the novel written by Louisa May Alcott in 1868, Little Women needs no introduction. While Greta Gerwig’s adaptation is fresh and appealing with a millennial star cast, I prefer the 1994 version directed by Australian director Gillian Armstrong who is known for her depiction of strong female protagonists in films like My Brilliant Career, Starstruck, and Charlotte Grey. She deserves her own listicle of 10 best feminist Armstrong films to watch. Set in 19th century America torn by the Civil War, this period drama portrays the lives of the March sisters – Joe, Amy, Meg, and Beth and their mother struggling to make ends meet when their father leaves for serving in the Union War.
What makes it truly iconic is its celebration of sister bonding and grittiness of dialogue that stands out for a literary work of its era and time. The sisters tread along different paths in their lives that often lead to conflict and unfavorable outcomes but they never give up on each other. The film also addresses the age-old debate of marriage vs career. One of my favorite literary characters, Jo March (played by Winona Ryder in the 1994 adaptation and Sairose Ronan in the 2020 adaptation) defies conventional norms by refusing to marry and “settle down” in her 20s. As a writer, she wants to leave her mark on the world and live her life on her terms. “I’m so sick of people saying that love is all that a woman is fit for,” she vents in a memorable scene.
Sita Sings the Blues (2008)
“Assemble the monkey warriors!”
Sita Sings the Blues (2008) is an animated musical romantic comedy-drama film written, directed, produced, and animated by American artist Nina Paley. It retells the mythological epic of the Ramayana through the eyes of its female protagonist Sita. The narrative is interspersed with some autobiographical episodes from the director’s own life that feel oddly similar to the narrative in the epic.
The film uses music by the noted American jazz singer Annette Hanshaw that transforms the quality of scenes to something magical. It was a huge hit among all international film festivals in the year it was released and has received great reviews ever since.
Two Days, One Night (2014)
“I don’t exist. I’m nothing. Nothing at all!”
Directed by the Dardenne brothers and starring the French actor Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night depicts the struggles of a working-class woman and her fight to retain her job. Sandra is a worker at a solar panel factory who after returning from her sick leave after a bout of depression, discovers that her colleagues have opted for a hefty bonus in exchange for her dismissal. She, assisted by her husband, has only a weekend (two days and one night, hence the title) to convince her sixteen co-workers to give up their bonuses in order to keep her job.
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“I ask only to work, to have a salary, because at home we need it to survive,” she tells one of her colleagues. For her, work is worship, work is survival – she only feels alive when she is working. Move over Cinderella, Sandra’s passionate fight for her right to work makes this film a modern working woman’s tale.
The Incredibles 2 (2018)
“Done properly, parenting is a heroic act… done properly.”
Another gem from Pixar Animation Studios, The Incredibles 2 is a refreshingly cute action-comedy superhero movie that subverts gender norms, one mission at a time. Brad Bird enthuses it with humor and girl power, giving us a wholesome and entertaining potboiler. Helen and Bob are assigned a mission to restore the world’s faith in superheroes.
In a plot twist, Helen sets off on the mission to catch a supervillain and save the world, while Bob (Mr. Incredible) stays home to manage the house and look after the children, Dash and Violet, facing the challenges of stay-at-home parenting. The superfamily finds newer ways of working together while our amazing Elastigirl steals the spotlight with her bad guy bashing and cool stunts. What’s better than a superhero movie? A superhero movie about a gender role reversal I say! Here is the second animation entry in the list of great feminist films.
Frances Ha (2012)
“I like things that look like mistakes.”
Directed by Noah Baumbach and starring Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha is a 2012 black and white comedy-drama about a 27-year-old New York woman called Frances who is an apprentice at a small dance company, aspiring to become a permanent member. Instead, she gets dropped off and becomes unemployed, homeless, and miserable shuffling between odd assignments and chanced encounters with people.
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Baumbach uses tropes from the French New Wave cinema and even remakes an iconic scene from Leos Carax’s “Bad Blood” where Frances runs through the streets to the music of David Bowie’s “Modern Love. The film is a toast to the struggling 20s and finding one’s feet in the world; a tale about adulting and the pursuit of happiness.
The Wife (2017)
“I am a kingmaker.”
The Wife is a work of masterful cinema that stays with you long after you have watched it. The story follows Joe Castleman who is being awarded the Nobel Prize for his literary contributions. The days that follow this announcement reopen old wounds and reveal secrets, betrayals, and sacrifices that threaten his marriage of 30 years. The brilliant Glenn Close, in what is one of her finest Oscar-worthy performances so far, plays Jenn’s self-effacing and elegant wife, Joan in the film.
Joan, who is unacknowledged as an individual person with her own identity as a talented writer, feels invisible as she gets referred to as the Nobel winner’s “wife” throughout the film. Her humiliation at this mistreatment and her suffocation in her marriage is essayed poignantly on screen. In the end, this is a resounding reminder of the silent gender battles being fought inside the home; self-centered men standing tall on years of women’s labor and talents, feeding off them without an iota of remorse or shame.
“It’s not nice to throw people!”
This 3D animated musical fantasy film produced by Disney Animation Studios and based on Hans Anderson’s fairy tale “The Snow Queen” is an inspiring tale of sisterhood. Frozen won two Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song, “Let It Go”. Set in the Kingdom of Arandelle, it is the story of two sisters Elsa and Anna who are fiercely stubborn and competitive yet protective of each other. Elsa, voiced by Idina Menzel, is the 21-year-old Queen of Arandelle who possesses magical ice powers but is afraid of using them.
In her confusion and rage, she lands up freezing the kingdom in a spell of perpetual winters. Anna, voiced by Kristen Bell, is the princess of Arandelle who must find her sister Elsa and undo her spell to save the kingdom. The side characters like Olaf, the snowman, and Sven, the reindeer who assist Anna in her mission make the film even more endearing. Breaking from cinematic traditions, in the climax scene, the “act of true love” that saves Elsa’s life and restores order in the kingdom is not a kiss from a knight in shining armor but a courageous selfless gesture of love by her sister Anna.
Birds of Prey (2020)
“You know what they say: behind every successful man is a badass broad.”
Harley Quinn, the second woman in the DC superhero multiverse to get her own movie, is not the anti-hero we need but the anti-hero we deserve. She is the Joker with a heart. In the Birds of Prey, she finally breaks up with her “puddin”, seizing to be his faithful shadow, and comes into her own element, forging alliances with three other kickass women – Huntress, Black Canary, and Renee Montoya with their subplots going on.
In a fitting tribute to the Me Too Movement, Harley and her girls take on the egotistical crime boss Black Mask and his henchmen, serving them justice the DC way. Filled with action and well-timed comical moments, the film is a great insight into Harley’s colorful, criminal mind. Margot Robbie is super impressive and convincing as the badass and vivacious anti-hero and one simply cannot get enough of her.
“The first marriage is practice for the second.”
This is Marjane Satrapi’s personal account of her living through the pre and post-Iranian revolution and the Iran/Iraq war. It is a subaltern reading of history seen from the eyes of a woman whose family was executed for its liberal leanings in the changing Iran of the 70s and 80s. Based on the graphic novel written by her, the film chronicles her growth from a child to a rebellious, punk-loving teenager in Iran and her later adult life in Europe.
She is critical of the society she is born into, questioning its practices and morals. At home, her heart aches for freedom while away from home, she misses her homeland. Satrapi’s story then also becomes the story of her nation’s uncomfortable violent journey and its numerous ups and downs. The black and white animation is breath-taking and adds more value and depth to the narration.
Lady Macbeth (2016)
“A bitch gets restless if she’s tied up too long.”
Set in 19th century England, Lady Macbeth is anything but a feminist film. While I applaud it for its ruthless depiction of a female character in a negative role, its obfuscation of the issues of class and race makes it problematic. It is at best a cold revenge film circling around its female protagonist transforming from victim to villain, leaving us in the audience to fear her rather than feel sympathetic towards her.
When Catherine (played by Florence Pugh), is married off to a wealthy landowner in the North, she feels trapped in her new home environment and begins a passionate affair with one of her workers. Expected to be submissive and proprietous as the lady of the house, she defies morality and convention, shaking off the status quo and going after her targets with ferociousness and strength. In the process, she spares none and sets in motion a destructive ball of fire.
Lady Bird (2017)
“Anyone who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.”
How can we compile a great feminist films list with this coming of age wonder of a film by Greta Gerwig that captures the turbulent high school years of its female teenage lead, Christine McPherson, aptly played by the talented Saoirse Ronan. The film chronicles her complex relationships with herself, her body, and the people in her life. In one of the most defining scenes of the film, the fiery and assertive Christine names herself “Lady Bird” a name she feels most at home with. “I gave it to myself. It is given to me by me,” she declares to the world. She is fearless, determined, and does not shy away from speaking her mind or pursuing her dreams.
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She wants to move out of her hometown and go to college in California, an issue that often puts her at loggerheads with her mother. Departing from other teenage dramas of the past, Lady Bird is refreshing for its protagonist is not chasing boys or money or success; she is chasing herself while figuring out her niche in the world. It is precisely this bittersweet romance with herself that makes the film a fascinating watch. Certain moments in the film are reminiscent of Amy and Molly from Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart.
I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore (2017)
“I don’t want a pay-off. Well, then I’m confused. What do you want? For people to not be assholes.”
Macon Blair’s directorial debut is the best dark, goofy and offbeat film that exists on Netflix. Packed with awkward action and comical punches, it is the kind of wholesome cinema that the world needs more of. Ruth is a depressed nurse who is compassionate, sensitive, and gentle. Her faith in the world is shaken when a robber breaks into her house and steals her laptop and her grandma’s silverware.
Together with her oddball neighbor Tony, she sets on a mission to nab the robbers and recover her stolen possessions. Things, obviously, do not go as planned and they both land up in neck-deep trouble. In a telling scene, Ruth reveals her motives for going after the robber: “Ruth: I don’t want a pay-off. Chris: Well, then I’m confused. What do you want? Ruth: For people to not be assholes.”
“Trust me, you can, uh, understand communication and still end up single.”
Arrival is a sharp departure from other science-fiction films featuring aliens. Unlike its predecessors, it moves at a slower pace (but rewards you for your patience in the end) and focuses on our shared humanity to learn and understand rather than eliminate the unknown threat that looms over our existence. This is a smart gripping tale of how language shapes the world around us and helps us assign meanings to it.
Dr. Louisa Banks, played by Amy Adams, is a linguist who tries to make contact with the aliens and reach out to them through signs. Banks is also haunted by a personal tragedy that overlaps with her professional challenges. Apart from Amy Adams’ stellar performance, it is the soundtrack that stands out for me. Strains of Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” play over the opening shots of Arrival, setting a melancholy and somber mood to the film.
Private Life (2018)
“Sorry about the environment!”
A 2016 drama available on Netflix and written and directed by the talented Tamara Jenkins of the ‘Slums of Beverly Hills’ and ‘Savages’ fame, this is one of the most mature and heart-warming films on assisted reproduction and the experience of a couple living through it. Interestingly, Jenkins wrote the script after undergoing fertility treatment herself and the details are pretty accurate and horrific. Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn play an infertile New York couple in their mid-40s trying to have a child through IVF. The problems they undergo in the process cast aspersions on their marriage.
The film is nothing less than a roller coaster ride and is bound to resonate with anybody who has been through a similar experience. While Kathryn is passionate and hormonal (literally since her body is transforming with treatment and injections), Paul is calm and supportive. They look so real and relatable on screen, the plot hardly feels scripted.
The Beguiled (2017)
“What have you done to me, you vengeful bitches?”
I have to confess that I have been a consistent fan of Sofia Coppola’s work especially her colorful pop rendition of Marie Antoinette in which she traces the infamous queen’s adolescent years. A creative heir to the industrious Coppola family, she brings her indomitable style and verse to filmmaking. In The Beguiled, she flips the script on the 1971 original Don Siegel film starring Clint Eastwood, putting the women at the heart of her version and establishing a clear precedent for a ‘female gaze’ in cinema. The term has been popularized by “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway: “I’m trying — if there is such a thing. Maybe it’s the queer gaze, maybe it’s the other gaze, maybe it’s the gazed gaze.”
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Set during the Civil War, the film concerns an injured Union soldier who wreaks havoc on the inhabitants of Miss Farnsworth’s School For Girls in Virginia. The soldier played by the Irish actor Colin Farrell takes shelter in a woman’s boarding school and becomes an object of their desire, leading to jealousy and in-fighting among the girls. In a reversal of the male gaze, Coppola objectifies and sexualizes Colin Farrell, emasculating him in the process.
“Loving people doesn’t save them”
This Canadian film directed by the wunderkind Xavier Dolan is an intense emotional rollercoaster of adolescent angst and aggression. Mostly shot in a square 1:1 aspect ratio, it is a bittersweet exploration of the complex parent-child relationship and the challenges of dealing with a troubled child with violent tendencies. Struggling to raise her teenage son (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), Anne Dorval plays a recent widow who finds comfort and support in a neighbor (Suzane Clément) facing speech disorders and domestic issues of her own.
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As the two women strike a friendship, the odd trio seems to share some wonderful and painful moments. In a mesmerizing scene, the trio is seen dancing to the tune of Céline Dion’s ‘On ne change pas,’ making the screen come alive. The soundtrack fits well with the mood of the film and the bold and brilliant Antoine stands out with his class act.
“Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us from doing anything at all. Believe me.”
Elle means “she” or “her” in French. Isabelle Huppert stars in it as a successful businesswoman who runs a video games company. When she is raped at home by a masked assailant, she does not file a complaint. Instead, she tries to find out her rapist’s identity and reaches out to him in the most unexpected plot twists of all times. Her reaction to rape sparked controversy and initiated a debate on whether there exists any standard response to a traumatic event like rape.
While Emma Stone won the Oscars in the Best Actress category in 2017, Huppert, known for her portrayals of cold and disdainful characters devoid of morality, was also nominated for the best actress category for Elle that year. By devising her own unique response to a violent situation, Huppert’s character asserts her agency while she navigates her way around the other men in her life, giving them a solid piece of her mind.
A Fantastic Woman (2017)
“What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”
Starring the Chilean actress and soprano singer Daniela Vega as the lead, this Spanish film is the winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2017. Vega became the first transgender person in history to be a presenter at the Academy Awards. A Fantastic Woman is a moving story of love and loss that raises the issues of gender identity and sexuality.
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The film was used by Chilean LGBTQ activists to advance transgender rights in their country. It follows Marina, a transgender singer, and waitress working in Chile. Her life is thrown into chaos after the death of her older partner who she was deeply in love with. While she is still recovering from the loss, she finds herself under immense scrutiny and discrimination from those with no regard for her privacy.
“So when you like it, it’s vintage; when you don’t like it, it’s old. Is that right?”
Clara, a 65-year-old widow and retired music critic, is born into a wealthy and traditional family in Recife, Brazil. She is the last resident of the Aquarius, an original two-story seafront facing building, built in the 1940s. She refuses to get bullied by the company that has already acquired other neighboring apartments and has different plans for the land. She vows to live in her apartment until she dies, thereby starting a cold war of sorts with the company.
This chaos rattles Clara and shakes up her daily routine. It also gets her thinking about her loved ones, her past, and her future. The film is based on the director’s mother and mirrors the political climate in Brazil, showcasing its corruption, vices, and its decaying institutions, and anti-democratic tendencies. The radiant Sonia Braga portrays Clara with tremendous vigor and wit, breathing force and life into her character.
“We are alone. No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone.”
I watched this gem at the MAMI Year-round screening in Delhi. I was blown away by every single nostalgia-filled shot and frame in the film that felt like one was walking by framed photographs on a wall. It is little surprise then that apart from becoming the first Mexican entry to win Best Foreign Language Film, Roma also won Best Cinematography and Best Director, marking the first time a director has won Best Cinematography for his/her own film. Set in 1970s Mexico City, Roma is a semi-autobiographical take on director Cuarón’s upbringing in the Roma neighborhood.
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Starring Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira, it follows the life of a live-in housekeeper of a middle-class family. Cleo is one of the two domestic workers who help Antonio and Sofía take care of their four children. All hell breaks loose when Antonio runs away with his mistress and Cleo finds out that she’s pregnant. Over time, Cleo becomes an integral part of the family accompanying them on vacations and developing a special bond with Sofia and the kids. The beach scene in particular is beautifully shot and emotionally overpowering. The slow pace of the film revolves around the monotony and repetitive nature of Cleo’s daily tasks and domesticity.
Toni Erdmann (2016)
“You have to do this or that, but meanwhile life is just passing by”
Toni Erdmann is a delightful German-Austrian comedy-drama film directed, written, and co-produced by Maren Ade. It stars Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller in lead roles as the endearing and refreshing father-daughter duo. A career-oriented young businesswoman called Ines reluctantly agrees to spend time with her estranged father when he unexpectedly shows up at her apartment. Frustrated and caught up with work, she tries to ignore him, much to his dismay. The father who loves to play childish pranks assumes a completely different identity as “Toni Erdman” and pretends to be her CEO’s life coach to lighten the mood and reconnect with her.
The father-daughter duo resolves their issues and gets to know each other better, one encounter at a time. What follows is a joyful three hours of the craziest and thought-provoking cinema I’ve ever seen. An interesting fact about the film is that the father’s character in the film is loosely based on Ade’s own father, who wore a pair of fake teeth she gave him as a gag gift to play practical jokes.
Blue Valentine (2010)
“I’m so out of love with you. I’ve got nothing left for you, nothing, nothing. Nothing, there is nothing here for you.”
Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling come together in this Derek Cianfrance film to tell the devastating story of a working-class couple working through the cracks in their love marriage. Ryan plays Dean, a house painter and alcoholic, whose sole purpose in life is to be a family man, look after his daughter and laze around doing pretty much nothing. Breaking away from the egotistical, hypermasculine heterosexual men we are so used to watching on screen, Ryan portrays a sensitive man with flaws who does not shy away from letting his guard down or being vulnerable in front of his wife.
Michelle brilliantly essays the role of Cindy, an ambitious and mature nurse who has fallen out of love with her partner and wants to exit the suffocating relationship instead of silently suffering through it. Both the characters are humane and realistic and there are moments when you feel terribly sorry for their pain and hurt. The sex scenes in the film stand out for their rawness and awkwardness. Ryan does a moving cover of The Mills Brothers classic, “You Always Hurt the One You Love” that sums up the entire plot of the film in a song.
Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that when one part of your life starts going okay, another falls spectacularly to pieces.”
One of the most relatable female characters on screen – 32-year-old Bridget is a single woman, struggling in her personal and professional life, getting herself into complicated and awkward situations. She is funny, clumsy, disorderly, lacks diplomacy and tact, and feels sorry for herself. She maintains a diary journaling her daily events, fears, dreams, and wishes. Her life changes when two interesting handsome men with diametrically polar personalities vie for her affection – her boss played by the charming Hugh Grant and a lawyer who happens to be a family acquaintance played by Colin Firth.
Directed by Sharon Maguire, the film is based on a book by her close friend Helen Fielding, and one of the characters “Shazzer” is allegedly based on Maguire herself. Bridget Jones Diary can be best summed up as a feel-good British rom-com that makes you both laugh and cry along with its protagonist. It is as if Fleabag meets Pride and Prejudice.
Women at War (2018)
“You don’t need anyone else. You know that you can do it. You’re the mom and nothing will stop you. Moms can do anything.”
This Icelandic-Ukrainian comedy-drama film written, produced, and directed by Benedikt Erlingsson, and starring Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir is an underrated gem. In Iceland, a 50-year-old angry and fearless environmental activist (Halla) takes on her local aluminum industry. Inspired by real-life environmental activists, she resorts to taking bold actions against the authorities and wages a solo war against corporate greed. Set against the beautiful backdrop of rural Iceland, the film offers hope and solace.
Not only does Halla want to save the planet from ruthless destruction, she also wishes to adopt a child. When the opportunity does present itself, she is stuck in a tricky situation and must decide if she can have it all. Halla, the judicious activist, and concerned citizen is truly the kind of superhero we need.