13 Landmark Movies for Women in Film - Raindance

In 2015, many people’s attention has turned to a particular demographic that mainstream movies may not have taken into account so much. It just happens that this particular group makes up for half the world population. Starting with Patricia Arquette’s viral Academy Award speech, to comments made by the likes of Dame Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfried, Jennifer Lawrence, and particular illustrations linked with the Sony Hack. A conversation has been sparked about the place of women in film, and here’s a look at 16 films that have contributed, through their content or production, to the advancement of women in the film industry.

1962 – Cleo from 5 to 7

Agnès Varda is one of the few women to have emerged from the French New Wave, between the likes of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, for instance. Her film explores the thought process of a self-centered singer after she’s had a biopsy, and contemplates imminent death during the two hours (from 5 to 7) before she gets the results. She roams the streets of Paris, and meets friends who are just about as self-possessed as she is. The film is a landmark not only because it’s directed by one of the few French women directors, it’s also about a great female character.

1980 – Nine to Five

Long before Grace & Frankie, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin once were co-working buddies with Dolly Parton, in a tale of women in the workplace standing up to a blatantly sexist boss. The film has since become a cult classic with camp overtones. The office dynamics are certainly dated (Fonda stated that the movie would probably be called 24/7 if it were made today) but the core message is still as relevant as ever.

1991 – Thelma & Louise

This landmark film is one of the earlier ones to pass now famous Allison Bechdel’s test. It’s the story of two women who kill a rapist and flee the police in their ’66 Thunderbird. It came as a shock because it showed profound female bonding, and actually was a buddy movie like so many Hollywood had produced except for the fact that it had two female protagonists. It also subtly subverted the codes of the road trip, buddy movie. This project was once supposed to star Meryl Streep and Cher, the two former co-stars from Silkwood. Streep turned down the role due to her pregnancy, and Cher consequently left the project. If a remake is in the works, someone should think about contacting those two first.

1999 – Boys Don’t Cry

Long before Caitlyn Jenner had her own reality series about her gender transition, before Orange is the new Black happened, there was Boys Don’t Cry. In fact, it was closer to Ellen DeGeneres’ Time Magazine cover than that of Laverne Cox, last year. Director Kimberley Pierce put transgender on the map with this harrowing tale of Brandon Teena, who was beaten, raped and murdered after his acquaintances discover he is transgender. Hillary Swank won a much-deserved Oscar for her performance.

2000 – Erin Brockovich

This real-life story of twice-divorced, working mom Erin Brockovich, put a larger-than life character on the screen. She’s rambunctious, curses like a sailor, and her high heels are longer than her skirts are. It’s a good example of how a woman can be shown on screen, and Julia Roberts gave an extraordinarily compelling performance. Many have called for strong female characters to be shown in films. This one is not only strong, she’s complex, she has her weak spots; we know what her struggles are. In short: she’s as complex as a human being gets.

2004 – Kill Bill

Quentin Tarantino has never shied away from violence, that’s a given. He’s always given good characters for his actresses to play, and that’s never been truer than in Kill Bill. Uma Thurman’s now iconic Bride had her load of fight scenes (that fight against the Crazy 88, at the end of Volume 1) and emotionally heavy moments as well (not to spoil, let’s just say that the final sequence of Volume 2, before she manages to kill Bill is pretty emotional). Even though female-led action films are still scarce, this one stands as an example.

2006 – Volver

Pedro Almodovar has a long history of portraying strong and complex female characters in his movies, generally in ensemble pieces. This one stood out as it is pure Almodovar (a colourful depiction of women st anding up for themselves) and as it features two major muses of his: Carmen Maura who starred in many of his pictures in the 80’s and Penelope Cruz, who worked with him in the 90’s and 2000’s. Cruz accomplished the rare feat of earning an Oscar nomination in a foreign language film for her powerful portrayal.

2006 – Devil Wears Prada

After 9 to 5, this is another workplace comedy – except this time a woman is in charge. That woman is the fearsome Miranda Priestly, spectacularly played by Meryl Streep in another Oscar-nominated turn. The movie explores the struggles of Anne Hathaway’s Andrea in dealing with the excessive demands of her boss. The movie isn’t too heavy on the gender politics, as it is a comedy, but it does make a point of stating that, were Miranda Priestly a man, he wouldn’t have the demonic reputation she does – he’d just be any businessman doing his job.

2010 – The Kids are All Right

This beautifully made independent film stars Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as parents who struggle to keep their family together as their children’s sperm donor barges into their life. Directed with a light tone by Lisa Cholodenko, this is not a gay movie in that gay is not the issue here, nor is it even really discussed. It’s a story that happens to be about LGBT women, and the fact that it was made with such high-profile actors may have contributed to a shift in the perception of women and diversity within this gender demographic.

2011 – Bridesmaids

At a time when The Hangover was taking Hollywood by storm, this film emerged from the mind of Saturday Night Live performer Kristen Wiig. Given its title, it might have been a chick flick had it not so obviously belonged in the raunchy comedy department. It is undeniably that, and its leads just happen to be women, thus proving that all genders can be equal, even in vulgarity, if they work hard enough for it. Bridesmaids earned Wiig and writing partner a well-deserved Oscar nomination, and helped cement her status as a film star. Her career has flourished since, and she’ll next be seen in the all-female remake of Ghostbusters.

2013 – Frozen

Disney’s illustrious history of animated films lies in the pantheon of filmmaking, and can equally be used in any gender studies class to illustrate how gender stereotypes are perpetuated through the media. But Frozen was like a snowball in the face: not only did it have great casting, great music, endearing characters… and no Prince Charming rescuing a damsel in distress. Marking a significant departure for animated films, the main element that drove the story was the relationship between the two sisters. Of course, Disney’s source material comes from old fairy tales, but this film shows that, if they want, they can let it go.

2014 – Mommy

Canadian prodigy Xavier Dolan had presented all but one of his features at Cannes, and this one was the first to earn, despite being tipped by many for the Palme d’Or, earned him the Jury Prize. It’s the story of a violent teenager’s relationship with his widowed mother, and the balance they find once their recluse neighbour finds her way into their life. It depicts the lives of beautiful characters, two of whom are strong, struggling, complex women, and Dolan spent most of his acceptance speech calling for filmmakers to depict female voices.

2014 – Selma

Despite earning only two Academy Awards nominations, this film was hailed as one of the year’s best. It depicts the events leading the civil rights march on Selma, Alabama, and Martin Luther King’s activism. It was directed by an African-American woman, Ava DuVernay, which is exceptional enough to be mentioned, for a rather mainstream movie. Yet what’s most significant is the conversation that was sparked by the fact that she was conspicuously robbed of an Oscar nomination for a work, at what was the least diverse ceremony in a long time. It echoed the renewal of racial tensions in the United States, and maybe the lines can start moving for women filmmakers, black filmmakers, and black, female filmmakers too.

Any other film you can think of ? Feel free to share in the comments !



Baptiste is a writer hailing from the part of France where it is always sunny. After a stint in politics and earning his Master's Degree in Management, he was a marketing intern for the 23rd Raindance Film Festival in 2015, then joined the team permanently in 2016 as the Registrar of the MA in Filmmaking. He is passionate about diversity in film, which he researches and writes about extensively. He is the producer of the hit webseries "Netflix & Kill" and the multi-award-winning short film "Alder", as well as a writer for stage and screen. His short film "U Up?" is currently in pre-production.