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The 25 Best Movies from The Past 5 Years That Feature Female Leads

30 March 2016 | Features, Film Lists | by Andrea Thompson

Tangerine

The past five years have been a great time for women in film. Not only are the movies featuring them finally thought of as profitable, women are even finally allowed to talk about things that have been going on practically since the dawn of the industry, like unequal pay and the quality of the roles they’re offered.

Of course, great female-centric films are not a new phenomenon, but it does mean that in a short period of five years there are quite a few great movies about women of all different shapes, sizes, and ages. Below are those which I feel are the greatest of the bunch. I am overjoyed to say there were so many I believed were worthy of the list that I had to make a few brutal cuts.

If there are a few you think I’ve missed, well, frankly it makes me all the happier that there are even more to choose from. And so as we cap off Women’s History Month, enjoy the list, and curse the movie gods that “Winter’s Bone” came out in 2010.

 

25. Spy (2015)

spy-1

Spy spoofs aren’t new, but having them led by an actress like Melissa McCarthy is. She’s Susan Cooper, who joined the CIA hoping to become a great spy, but her insecurities have her firmly planted behind a desk and in the earpiece of impossibly cool James Bond-inspired operative Bradley Fine (Jude Law). But when Fine is suddenly out of commission, Cooper is inspired to volunteer to head out into the field.

From there, it’s the stuff great comedies are made of as she slowly builds her confidence, inevitably becomes more involved in the action, and shows great chemistry with the very talented ensemble, especially Jason Statham, who shows off his own comedic chops as he relentlessly spoofs his own action star image. It may be a familiar journey, but getting there is still a laugh riot.

 

24. The Hunger Games movies (2012-2015)

The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 2

A YA action franchise with an incredibly watchable, competent, charismatic star like Jennifer Lawrence which also touches on issues like class, gender, media, and ethics during war? Wow.

These films succeeded by firmly embracing the values of its source material, and for the most part, displayed a stunning lack of timidity about it. And unlike other big mainstream movies aimed at teenage girls, it features one of the best characters ever brought to the screen, period: the compellingly flawed Katniss Everdeen. And the fact that these movies proved (again!) that critically and commercially successful action films can be led by a woman is just a bonus.

 

23. Two Days, One Night (2014)

Two Days, One Night

It’s always a hard sell when an actress like Marion Cotillard has to play one of the normals. But incredibly, Cotillard not only passes for one, she gets you deeply invested in her character Sandra, a wife, mother, and factory worker fresh from a nervous breakdown who discovers that while she was away, her superiors figured out a way to save money. And it involves eliminating her job. But there is a way she can keep it, and it’s by convincing the majority of her coworkers to give up their bonus.

So over the weekend, she treks around town in an attempt to get them to change their minds, with reactions ranging from enthusiastic support to violent opposition. But Sandra isn’t the strong, courageous crusading matriarch you’d expect to see.

Throughout most of the film, she’s still deeply depressed, pops pills, needs constant encouragement, and is fearful of practically everything. But Cotillard’s performance is such that you never feel contempt for her, only empathy as Sandra’s real fight is against the most pernicious foe she will ever face: herself.

 

22. Crimson Peak (2015)

Crimson Peak movie review

Sometimes homage is the sincerest form of creation. Director Guillermo del Toro’s acts as a love letter to the Gothic horror tradition. There is the European aristocrat from a decaying world, the Victorian setting, and the innocent American virgin dressed in white, clutching a candelabra.

Mia Wasikowska is the virginal aspiring author who’s less helpless than she seems, Tom Hiddleston is the baronet whose seductive charm conceals some dark secrets, and Jessica Chastain is his twisted sister.

Put them all in an incredibly old, very much haunted house that is a character in an of itself, and it’s the building blocks for old school chills. The deliciously wicked twists aren’t exactly surprising, but Toro’s goal isn’t to conceal, but to entertain and to subvert what inspires him.

 

21. Mustang (2015)

Mustang

Life is precarious for all of us, but seems to be especially so for women. For the five sisters in a remote Turkish village in “Mustang,” it becomes almost unbearable after some innocent play with the local boys is taken for sexual activity. Soon, the girls are removed from school, confined to their home, and forced to wear modest, drab dresses.

Almost anything that could connect them to the outside world, from their computers to photos to books to their phones, are confiscated, and the only education they receive is in cooking and housework from the village matrons.

The relationship between the girls is one of the most genuine depictions of the sisterly bond in cinema, with director Deniz Gamze Ergüven refusing to ascribe sexuality to their every word and gesture as their conservative guardians ironically insist on doing. But their unity and rebelliousness won’t be enough to save all of the girls.

Some of them are forced into marriage, one commits suicide, and one makes love itself a trap when she marries a boy she genuinely falls for. What else could happen when female sexuality is a cause for such fear that beauty itself becomes a quagmire that all but guarantees unhappiness? Thus, it’s no accident that the youngest sister, the one that puberty hasn’t begun to distract or ensnare, is the most defiant, and the only girl to actively plot an escape.

 

20. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2015)

a-girl-walks-home-alone-at-night

A movie reminiscent of a noir western that’s about a female vampire interacting with the various inhabitants of a sparsely populated Iranian town named Bad City? Believe it or not, this isn’t an SNL sketch about pretentious filmmakers, it’s a really enjoyable, stylish movie from writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour.

The characters who inhabit “A Girl Walks Home” comprise a veritable who’s who of societal pariahs, from pimps to junkies to prostitutes to dealers and thieves. But the one who binds them all together is the mysterious, lonely vampire who serves as their judge, jury, and occasionally their executioner.

But Amirpour keeps it non-exploitative with Jim Jarmusch-like sensibilities, a kickass soundtrack, and a strong feminist undercurrent. Her monster judges those who dish out pain, not the usual promiscuous girls. (Take a lesson, Coppola.) But she’s a monster who is also capable of love, and the one she falls for is also a heartbreaking example of romanticized desperation. To see this movie is to witness something that feels utterly unique and iconic, and a worthy addition to the vampire genre.

 

19. A Ballerina’s Tale (2015)

A Ballerina's Tale (2015)

A documentary so inspirational that also confronts topics like race, class, body image, and diversity is not to be taken lightly. To say that ballerina Misty Copeland faced obstacles is an understatement. She’s black in a world that contains almost no diversity, she has the kind of muscular, busty body that defies ballet’s traditional waifish expectations, she’s a prodigy despite discovering her calling at the relatively late age of 13, and she is seriously injured at an age when many dancers are considering retirement.

The doc follows Copeland throughout a very eventful time in her life, and shows that it truly takes a village to make someone so successful. Copeland’s talent carries her to the top, but when isolation threatens to dim her star before it truly begins to rise, a community of women steps in to guide and inspire her. In a world where catty behavior is supposedly the norm, it’s a truly wonderful thing to see a nurturing environment that helps Copeland achieve her dreams.

 

18. Blue Jasmine (2013)

Blue Jasmine (2013)

Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine is a woman constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but you can hardly blame her. She’s a (formerly) wealthy New York socialite whose husband committed suicide after he was arrested for financial crimes, she has no idea where her son is, any money she had is now practically nonexistent, and she’s been forced to take refuge with her estranged working-class sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins).

It’s entirely to Blanchett’s credit that Jasmine retains our sympathy even as it becomes more and more clear that she deserves none of it. She exploits even the people closest to her and throws them away when she decides they’re no longer useful, but Jasmine is also nearly impossible to hate when Blanchett infuses her with so much sheer vulnerability and fragility.

 

 

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  • Paul Ispas

    This is a great list. However, I was expecting to see Mad Max: Fury Road in here. Not sure why…

  • wendell ottley

    Very good list, though I would personally leave off The Hunger Games flicks. I fully understand why they’re here, so I’m not too mad about it. It just goes to show that we are definitely heading in the right direction that I could even entertain the notion of leaving such a film off a list like this. Some other great ones that aren’t on your list or among the Honorable Mentions:

    Pariah
    Mad Max: Fury Road
    Beyond the Lights
    Dear White People
    Under the Skin
    Gone Girl
    Stoker
    Gravity
    Cabin in the Woods
    Another Earth
    We Need to Talk About Kevin
    The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
    The Help
    Martha Marcy May Marlene
    Tyrannosaur

    • Bob Jennings

      You should have written this list. All most of these movies are better than half of the ones listed.

  • Luís Fernandes

    I guess “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America” deserve to be mentioned. Mainly the first, i think.
    Anyway, good list.

  • Dimitrije Stojanovic

    Under the Skin, surely. White God, Gloria, La vie d’Adele,

  • jannik

    Victoria

  • Brandon Harrelson

    Definitely a few I think deserved a spot that’ve already been named. Like Frances Ha and Blue Is The Warmest Color. Still a great list. Phoenix has one of the best ending scenes I’ve seen in years.

  • Awesome! Congrats for the list, as a feminist, I’m glad it goes on and on…