Raise your hand if you longing to escape the news and find solace in a feel-good film this week? (*Raises hand wearily!*) Don’t worry Hollywooders, I am right there with you. But I don’t want to watch frivolous, “everything’s dandy” movies that make me feel like I’m hiding from reality. I’m longing to watch films that embolden me to pick myself up by my proverbial bootstraps, soldier on, and summon my female strength and determination to make the world better.
Luckily for all of us, there is an entire sub-genre of cinema that fits that bill exactly! Fear not, frustrated folk! Badass female characters and movies about powerhouse women abound! Here’s a list of some of my favorite on-screen narratives of women conquering insurmountable challenges and rising above the BS… Let’s dive in, shall we?
Good Movies to Watch with Strong Female Leads: Nomadland
Starting with a recent hit, Nomadland is an indie documentary-style feature film starring one of the GOAT female performers: the illustrious Frances McDormand. (I swear, open any dictionary to the word “powerhouse” and you’ll see Frances’s face…and she won’t be smiling. Because she doesn’t have to! And you can’t make her.)
Nomadland is a documentary-style drama based on Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, a 2017 non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder. The movie documents the lives of older, van-dwelling Americans who migrate from place to place, often due to economic hardships, and fully embrace the nomadic lifestyle that they have chosen. Frances McDormand plays Pearl, a recent widow who leaves her deserted factory town (the factory shut down) to become a nomad. Not only does Nomadland tell the story of a strong woman, but it was also written, produced, directed, and edited by one– filmmaker Chloé Zhao (Songs My Brothers Taught Me, The Rider). Although Nomadland was shot on a $5 million budget (which is, by Hollywood standards, a pin-pricked size budget,) the film went on to win 3 of the top Oscars in 2020. Chloe and Frances both took home an Oscar, for Best Director and Best Actress, respectively, and Nomadland won Best Picture (Frances McDormand also produced the film along with Chloe Zhao and others). Chloe’s win made her the first woman of color to win an Academy Award for Best Director.
At the end of Chloe Zhao’s Best Picture acceptance speech, Frances McDormand graced the stage of the 94th annual Academy Awards with a feral wolf howl that shook Hollywood to its very core and made every Frances stan go “yaaaaaas!” at their screens while watching.
— New York Magazine (@NYMag) April 26, 2021
TL;DR: Go watch this movie!
Good Movies to Watch with Strong Female Leads: Wild
I could not write about strong female-driven films without waxing poetic about Wild. This 2014 adventure drama starring Reese Witherspoon is basically the epitome of an “overcoming your obstacles” type of film. Wild is based on the best-selling memoir by Cheryl Strayed and documents her experience hiking the Pacific Coast Trail on a journey of self-discovery and healing. The film also stars Laura Dern as Cheryl’s mother. Throughout the course of Wild, viewers learn of the backstory of Cheryl’s life, and what got her to take this pilgrimage of redemption to heal her own internal wounds (while earning a few external ones along the way).
A film review from The New York Times had this to say:
“In its thrilling disregard for the conventions of commercial cinematic storytelling, Wild reveals what some of us have long suspected: that plot is the enemy of truth, and that images and emotions can carry meaning more effectively than neatly packaged scenes or carefully scripted character arcs.”
The film, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club, Sharp Objects, Big Little Lies), was lauded with critical acclaim, and Reese’s performance as Cheryl Strayed earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in 2015. Laura Dern was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Upon first viewing, this film made me literally want to climb a mountain so if you’re looking for a movie to motivate you to do hard things, look no further. Wild will help you summon your inner strength.
Good Movies to Watch with Strong Female Leads: Little Women
This adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 book of the same name gained a ton of press and attention before its release in 2019, and once I saw it in my favorite hometown theater (recently featured by Hollywood.com), I knew why.
Little Women was adapted by actress and director Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird). The cast was absolutely stacked with Saoirse Ronan in the leading role of Jo March. Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, and Eliza Scanlen play her sisters, Meg, Amy, and Beth. Laura Dern, who we were *just* talking about above, plays Marmee, their beloved mother. And—bonus star— Thee Meryl Streep appears in a supporting role as their cantankerous Aunt March. Timothée Chalamet, Bob Odenkirk, and Tracy Letts also star in the film.
Little Women chronicles the lives of the March sisters, who live in Concord, Massachusetts during the time of the American Civil War. Jo, the writer of the family, is a rebel who eschews social norms and wants to become a successful author on her own accord, without a husband. Her older sister Meg happily marries and conforms to the cultural expectations of the time. The third March sister is Beth who is a talented pianist but is also chronically ill. Amy, the youngest of the sisters and the beauty of the family, longs to be a painter and joins Aunt March on a tour of Europe. When Beth begins visiting their neighbor Mr. Laurence’s house to play their grand piano, the March sisters grow closer with Laurie, Mr. Laurence’s lonesome nephew. Laurie very quickly becomes part of the family and a partner in adventure for Jo.
Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of this film grossed a total of $218.9 million worldwide, nearly 4 times as much as its $40 million production budget. Little Women was nominated for 6 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Saoirse Ronan), Best Supporting Actress (Florence Pugh), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Greta Gerwig). That year at the Oscars, controversy surrounded the fact that Greta failed to be nominated for Best Director, considering the critical acclaim of the film and the other nominations it had received. Also, since Greta had previously been nominated for Best Director in 2018 for her feature directorial debut, Lady Bird, Hollywood insiders considered her a shoo-in for a nomination.
Good Movies to Watch with Strong Female Leads: Erin Brokovich
Let’s throw it back to the year 2000, and this Julia Roberts classic if you’re looking for a film to light a fire under you. Erin Brokovich is a biographical underdog drama about an unemployed single mother-of-3 who takes on an enormous energy corporation on behalf of hundreds of plaintiffs after they become gravely ill due to groundwater contamination. Although she is not a lawyer, rather a legal clerk, Erin is a fighter who knows injustice when she sees it. This film epitomizes the “be the change you wish to see in the world” adage and was also based on a true story. The real Erin Brokovich successfully went up against Pacific Electric & Gas in 1993 when it was discovered that large numbers of residents of the California desert town Hinkley were falling ill with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, as a result of contaminated drinking water in the area.
Julia Roberts stars as Erin Brokovich, in one of her most forceful roles. Resplendent with profane language and short skirts, Erin struggles to be taken seriously by her boss, Ed Masry (played by Albert Finney), who relents to giving her a job after losing a medical lawsuit on her behalf. This screenplay, written by Susannah Grant (Ever After, 28 Days) soars with dry-humored, sardonic dialogue and rousing, unstoppable monologues by Erin. It is a film in which the underdog triumphs. That feeling is all the more satisfying knowing that it actually happened in real life.
The film was a commercial and critical success, earning over $257 million worldwide and gaining 5 Oscar nominations that year. Not only did Julia Roberts win an Oscar for Best Actress, she was the first actor to ever win an Academy Award, a BAFTA Award, a Critic’s Choice Movie Award, a Golden Globe, and a Screen Actor’s Guild Award for her performance. I cannot recommend this movie highly enough, especially when it comes to championing injustice against seemingly insurmountable odds.
Good Movies to Watch with Strong Female Leads: V for Vendetta
Want to watch a blockbuster film about political revolution, triumphing over a fascist government, dramatic civil unrest, and Guy Fawkes? Look no further than V for Vendetta. The 2005 political action drama, based on a graphic novel of the same name, is set in an alternate reality in which the United Kingdom is in the midst of civil war and facing mass extermination of “undesirables.” Natalie Portman stars as Evey Hammond, a young, middle-class employee of the state-controlled British Television Network.
When Evey is caught walking home after the national curfew, she is caught and endangered by a group of nefarious secret police who attempt to violate her wellbeing. She’s saved from harm by a mysterious, masked freedom fighter who goes simply by ‘V’ (Hugo Weaving). Upon taking Evey to his home, V informs her that she must stay there for a full year while he implements his anarchistic plan to overthrow the fascist government. Although Evey does escape to the home of her boss, a famous dissident talk show host, she is captured by the secret police during a raid on his home. She is held as a prisoner of the government and tortured for the information and whereabouts of V, who is considered an imminent threat to the totalitarian powers in charge of the British government.
Eventually, Evey learns V’s backstory and what caused his vendetta against the government. In doing so, she becomes a symbol of the resistance herself, joining forces with V as he stages a mass protest in front of the House of Parliament, having distributed thousands of Guy Fawkes masks to the residents of London, just like the one he wears throughout the film. Without giving away any big spoilers, the film culminates with mass demonstrations and a rousing rendition of the “1812 Overture” being played through the entire city of London as the populace revolts against their oppressive government, taking back their freedom en masse, fulfilling the plan that V spent so many years meticulously creating.
While this is the only film on this list where the strong female character shares the spotlight with another leading role, the development of Evey’s character is what warrants this film’s inclusion. Furthermore, the film was written by the Wachowski siblings (The Matrix, Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas), who have been champions of trans rights in Hollywood since their transitions from cisgender to transgender individuals in 2012 and 2016.
While V for Vendetta earned a decent $130 million in box offices worldwide, it failed to obtain any acclaimed award nominations after its release, as it was generally deemed a bit too anarchistic by Hollywood standards.
“Calling Warner Bros. irresponsible for releasing a film that rouses an audience to action is like calling the Constitution irresponsible for protecting free speech,” wrote Peter Travers in his review of V for Vendetta published in Rolling Stone. “The explosive V for Vendetta is powered by ideas that are not computer-generated. It’s something rare in Teflon Hollywood: a movie that sticks with you.”
In my opinion, Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Evey Hammond is the reason why the movie sticks so well.
Now, we’ve only had a chance to dip our toes into the sub-genre of strong female-driven movies. I can think of about 20 more I could sing the praises of here. What are some of your favorite films about badass women? Which movies make you stronger than you were before you watched them? This topic deserves a second installment. Keep your eyes peeled, Hollywooders…
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