Of course, there’s been a lot of discussion about presentation for quite a long time. And yes, it’s still needed. We can’t exactly go back and make the superheroes of 60s and before more diverse, but it could finally be a time for Black Widow movie.
I can find excellent movies with female leads, but they are nowhere close to half the population I’m looking at. Maybe shining a little bit of light onto these movies might encourage others to follow the examples of these moviemakers. Not that I have that kind of sway…
Of course, I did have some rules here. The woman can’t be a co-lead with a man, but if there’s more than one woman sharing the lead, that is fine.
As usual for my lists, these are on average fairly new with six of them from the current millenium.
Notes: This wasn’t the intention, but there’s a lot of European movies here. In fact, there’s only one movie from the US and it’s a fairly unknown movie about a preteen black girl. This isn’t the case in most of my lists, which I find interesting. Again, you shouldn’t read too much into single person’s taste, but still. It’s kind of telling.
Anyhow, here they are: My favorite movies with female leads in chronological order:
La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928)
This is simply a gorgeous movie. It’s now 90 years old and it still feels unique in the way Jeanne D’Arc’s face is depicted in close-ups. It’s a real shame the actress never worked in movies again (as I understand it, she had a successful stage career and in those days movie careers in Europe probably weren’t as lucrative).
Everyone knows the key points of the story, but this is the latter part of her life, focusing on the trial. The whole movie has a strong expressionistic feel to it, which I love. It’s a landmark movie in many different ways.
… and still it’s a small miracle we even have it available to us today. For a very long time, the director’s edit was lost due to various re-edits done by various censors. It was finally found by accident in a janitor’s closet in a Norwegian mental institute. No one knows how it ended up in there. There’s some speculation that the head of the institute had a personal copy due to interest in the subject matter.
La strada (1954)
Now that I’ve started to write this, I’m not sure if this qualifies under the criteria I set. However, I think she’s the lead through enough of the movie that the shift in the final act shouldn’t change this.
Gelsomina is like a proto-quirky girl of modern movies. She’s just living her life with her head in the clouds until she gets sold to Zampano, a travelling strong man. He’s very violent and abusive towards her, even as she’s trying to make their forced relationship work.
Although my appreciation of Fellini movies has definitely risen in recent years, this is still defnitely my favorite. It’s not as weird as the other movies of his I enjoy, but instead it sort of feels very straight-forward drama, even if there’s a lot going on underneath the surface.
Les diaboliques (1955)
Two women decide the kill a man. One is his wife, the other his lover. They plan the whole affair very carefully and carry the whole thing out in meticulous detail. Only one problem. The body isn’t found as they were planning to happen and seems to have disappeared.
The director, Clouzot, is the master of suspense. I know Hitchcock often gets this particular denomination, but those people haven’t seen Clouzot’s work. Hitchcock is no slouch. Clouzot just happens to be better here (and in Le salaire de la peur as well).
Lola rennt or Run Lola Run (1998)
Lola’s boyfriend has gone and lost a bag of money and in order to get that money, he’s about to rob a store. Now, it’s up to Lola to fix the situation and she only has 20 minutes to do so. Not much room for error.
Gladly, she has three attempts. It’s a neat idea for a movie. Not the first time this has happened. There was a movie called A Gunfight starring Kirk Douglas and Johnny Cash, which had several possible endings for their gunfight and of course, the Clue movie had different endings on the home release, but in the theaters you’d get one of three. This is quite different, since most of the movie is her three attempts. Quite like a video game. You fail, you start again.
Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain or just Amélie(2001)
Jeunet had directed three films previous to this one. His first two, Delicatessen and City of Lost Children, were dark, even if they had comedic elements to them. Alien: Resurrection was… well, you know what Alien movies are about. This… a change of direction. Amelie is a very light romantic comedy. You get swept into her world.
If you’ve seen any other Jeunet movie, you’ll immediately recognize this as his work. He just happens to be one of those very idiosyncratic directors. However, the colors are very different, even if they have a similar tint to them.
This is one of those truly great feel-good movies. We have an eccentric hero, who sets out to help the world in her own convoluted way and finds love. What else could you ask for? Well, it’s also done very well, which is also important.
4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile or 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days(2007)
From the lightest movie on this list to the darkest. I mean, how much darker can you get than Jeanne D’Arc, La Strada or Les Diaboliques? The answer: Much, much darker. I was quite young when Romania was still under a dictatorship, but it was just absurdly and incredibly bad place to live. And when I say ‘incredibly’, I do mean ‘hard to believe’ or ‘not credible’. Still, all that shit happened.
Abortion was illegal, because the powers-that-be were selling babies to abroad. In fact, women were often questioned if they weren’t pregnant. Abortion wasn’t only illegal, but it was punishable by death. Well, it still happened. In the movie, Otilla’s friend Gabita has become pregnant and Otilla has agreed to help her get an abortion. This pretty much leaves them both in the hands of someone who does these illegal abortions for a living.
This rests largely on the shoulders of Anamaria Marinca, who played Otilla. Her understated performance is devastating. There’s a scene where she just sits there with the camera focused on her face, while there’s a meal with her boyfriend’s family going on around her. In another context it might not work, but when you know what she’s just gone through and there’s more that’s going to happen, it’s just great.
The Babadook (2014)
A single mother feels burdened by her son, who keeps acting up. Now, her son is seeing a presence in the house, making her life even worse.
This could have easily been a mediocre horror movie, but somehow Kent, the director, made this about the mother, not the monster. Sure, the monster is there, but it’s more of an allegory for the troubles the mother is facing after the violent death of her husband and with the bad behavior of her son.
And despite the son actually being a pain in the ass for the viewer as well, the whole works wonderfully.
The Fits (2015)
Toni is a preteen girl, who likes to help her brother out at the gym. One day she becomes enamored by a dance troupe. However while she tries to fit in, the girls in the troupe start to have strange convulsions.
It’s a pretty short movie, which is just fine. The story isn’t deep and complicated, so you don’t need more time than that. It’s pretty weird and might even put off certain people, who might want clearer answers in their movies, but if you are willing to go along with, especially the final scene is awesome.
The lead role is played by a girl named Royalty Hightower in her first role.
Le tout nouveau testament or The Brand New Testament (2015)
God is apparently an asshole, who likes to toy with humans. He’s quite abusive at home, which is apparently the reason Jesus left back in the day. Now, his young daughter, Ea, has reached a similar conclusion, so she notifies everyone on earth about their death dates and escapes with the help of her big brother to inspire the newest addition to the bible.
As an atheist, I do find all of this quite appealing, but it’s also funny in a weird transgressive way, because it sees these things as lovable. All of it. I mean Catherine Deneuve’s (who put her support behind the film, which probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise) character finds a new lover in a gorilla, but it’s not seen in this film as anything filthy. Instead, she’s just trying to make the most of days she has left and the gorilla is just a better choice for a companion than her husband.
Ah-ga-ssi or The Handmaiden (2016)
Sook-hee is hired as a handmaiden to a rich heiress. Her actual mission is to help her accomplice seduce the lady in order to steal her fortune from her step-father. However, everything’s not quite what it seems.
The plot is kind of convoluted, but in a beautiful way. I love this new trend of South Korean movies. They have clearly seen Hollywood movies, but instead of copying them, they are absorbing ideas from them and building something. Or maybe they are just trying to copy them, but can’t do it very well because of their eastern bias, which just happens to lead into something great.
Anyhow, be careful with this one. It’s not that extreme, but there is some sexual violence involved, so if you can’t handle that… It is still a great movie.