In 2017, three of the highest-grossing films in the US had female leads, with Star Wars: The Last Jedi taking the top spot, followed by Beauty and the Beast and Wonder Woman. Hollywood is still waking up to its masculinity problem, but 2018 looks as if it could be the year powerful women gracing the silver screen, ranging from art house independent films to extravagant action blockbusters.
In conjunction with International Women’s Day, we at August Man Malaysia take a look back at some of the most riveting female-centric films throughout the years. Much like women themselves, they can be profound, endearing and unpredictable.
NOTE: Films presented are not ranked in any way.
WONDER WOMAN (2017)
Up until Wonder Woman, the female-led superhero films we have had were tolerable at best. From negatively received films such as Catwoman and Elektra, movie studios are notoriously sceptical when it comes to investing in a female-led superhero film. However, this all changed when Wonder Woman stormed into cinemas in 2017. The film’s greatest strength perhaps is the portrayal and writing of Diana Prince (Gal Gadot). In Wonder Woman, Diana Prince is a fully realised character. She’s emotional, confident yet insecure. She’s fearless as well as innocent. As its core, Wonder Woman is a coming-of-age tale that illustrates the passion and love that Diana Prince has for humanity. Despite falling flat on its third act, the Pat Jenkins-directed flick went on to garner major critical and financial acclaim, even becoming the highest-grossing superhero-origin film of all time.
KILL BILL VOL.1 & 2 (2003 & 2004)
Enthralling, riveting and straight up bloody. Kill Bill Vol .1 & 2 tell the story of the Bride (Uma Thurman) seeking revenge towards those who wronged her. Directed by Quentin Tarantino, the two-parter masterfully balances between character development and action sequences. Thurman’s ferocious performance rendered The Bride as one of cinema’s greatest characters. However, the stellar performance of Thurman isn’t the only reason Kill Bill films made our list, but rather the women around her as well. Featuring an ensemble that includes Lucy Liu, Daryl Hannah, Vivica A. Fox and so on. Alongside breathtaking action sequences, classic Tarantinian dialogue, as well as its unique cinematography, The Kill Bill duology cements its mark in cinema history through its monumental achievement in female representation in film.
Often regarded as one of the greatest foreign films ever made, Amélie tells the simple yet engrossing tale of a naïve French girl, portrayed by Audrey Tautou, who loves people but can’t quite bring herself to join them. Light-hearted, endearing and undoubtedly charming, this Jean-Pierre Jeunet-directed masterpiece of a comedy enthrals moviegoers with its unique direction and relatable story. Tautou dazzles by bringing a level of gravitas and depth to a character that’s determined to get involved in everyone else’s business, but lives her own from a safe distance. Oh, did we forget to mention that the film also features what may very well be the most adorable romance sub plot that has ever put on the big screen?
THELMA AND LOUISE (1991)
It all begins innocently enough. The weary Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) plan a weekend away from their life of drudgery but even before they can get a move on, things go wrong. An attempted rape puts them on the wrong side of the law and a series of events turns them into fugitives from the law. Featuring two female leads, the film received critical acclaim for its female representation as well as its decision to cast women in more diverse roles in Hollywood. Thelma and Louise received six Oscar nominations including two best actress nods for Davis and Sarandon. Dealing with heavy themes such as sexual harassment, revenge and violence, Thelma and Louise went on to become one of the highest grossing movies of the year.
Released during the Disney Renaissance, Mulan remains a progressive outing for the studio. Up until that point, an animated film featuring a butt-kicking woman was virtually unprecedented, let alone an Asian one. Directed by Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft, this animation masterpiece is notable for delivering great storytelling alongside epic visuals effects. Mulan’s heartfelt emotional sequences are perfectly complemented by its stunning battle sequences. In addition, Mulan has a pretty kickass soundtrack too. Mulan succeeds by featuring a heroine that isn’t the usual “Damsel in Distress”. Ingenious, brave and inspiring, Mulan might have been released 20 years ago, but it is still as relevant today as ever.
HIDDEN FIGURES (2016)
Hidden Figures tells the amazing true story of three brilliant African-American women who work at NASA in the ‘60s and who ended up being the brains behind on one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, which completely turned around the Space Race against the Russians. Despite being light-hearted and occasionally hilarious, Hidden Figures tackles heavy themes such as racism and sexism. Directed by Theodore Melfi, Hidden Figures succeeds in delivering a heart-warming film by hitting all the right emotional notes.
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)
Strip away its stunning action set pieces and breathtaking cinematography, Mad Max: Fury Road is ultimately a movie about empowerment and fighting for a cause that you believe in. Unlike its predecessors, the titular character is actually a secondary figure in this instalment. In fact, Furiosa’s (Charlize Theron) own motivations are what set off the events of film, leading a band of enslaved women from a tyrant whose only purpose for women are producing milk and manufacturing babies. Director George Miller manages to deliver a compelling tale about preserving one’s freedom and dignity, where barbarism is no longer the norm of the day. Mad Max: Fury Road acknowledges the importance of women while delivering one hell of a blockbuster.
ERIN BROCKOVICH (2000)
Based on the incredible story of Erin Brockovich, portrayed by Julia Roberts, who fought against the energy corporation Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) for contaminating the drinking water with toxic chemicals. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the biography of the consumer crusader solidifies Roberts’ status as one of the most remarkable thespians in Hollywood, winning her the Best Actress Award at the 73rd Academy Awards. Roberts succeeds in delivering a strong and feisty, yet at the same time, vulnerable woman. In essence, Erin Brockovich is a story about persistence and the conviction in doing what’s right. Erin may not be a genius, but her will and concern for the fate of others leads her to achieve the impossible.
IRON JAWED ANGELS (2004)
During the early 1900s, women in the US weren’t allowed to vote. Therefore, there were those that revolutionised the American feminist movement to grant women the right to vote. Alice Paul (Hilary Swank) and Lucy Burns (Frances O’Connor) who are actively involved in the suffrage movement in England, return to America to join the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). They soon realise that their ideas were too radical that they left and formed the National Women’s Party (NWP) to fight for their rights. Through their ordeals they fought tirelessly, even surviving stints in jail, hence the title “Iron Jawed Angels”. Iron Jawed Angels serves as a reminder that the price of freedom is high, but it is something that’s worth fighting for.
RAISE THE RED LANTERN (1991)
During the Warlord Era of China in the 1920s, most women suffered the fate of either becoming slaves or concubines to wealthy men. In Raise the Red Lantern, Gong Li portrays Song Lian, a college-educated girl who is married off. At her new home, she is pitted against three other mistresses, symbolised by the lighting of the red lantern at the home of the chosen mistress. Despite its relatively thin plot, the women portrayed in Raise the Red Lantern are complex characters with intricate motives that ultimately enrich and elevate the film to a whole new level. Directed by Zhang Yimou, Raise the Red Lanterns succeeds with its incredible cinematography, well-written characters, as well as a jaw-dropping performance from Gong. The film went on to receive the Silver Lion award at the Venice Film Festival.