From ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ To ‘Booksmart’: The Top 10 Feminist Films Of The Decade
Every film on this list is literally perfect.
The last decade has been huge for powerful films about powerful women.
From female monsters devouring the patriarchy to women telling women’s stories about women and FOR women, the past decade has given us some femmo gemmos in the wide world of film.
Yes — and we cannot emphasise this enough — the girls.
Wonder Woman (2017)
She’s not the first female comic book superhero, but she’s undoubtedly the most important — and with progressive, feminist origins to boot!
But the path to getting Wonder Woman up on the screen was a difficult one, with everything from questionable Joss Whedon scripts to widely panned TV reboots. The fact director Patty Jenkins was the babe with the power and got it done some 14-years after her directorial debut Monster was significant.
The female lens has authority and that was well and truly flexed with the eternally messy DC cinematic universe’s first film that wasn’t, well … shit. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman was sweet, compassionate, and romantic all at the same time as being able to literally cunt-punt a guy through a building.
Her Strong Female Character-ness did not come at the expense of stereotypically ‘feminine’ traits, plus there was that supporting cast absolutely bringing up the rear. From women in their fifties getting to occupy space in a mainstream comic book blockbuster like Robin Wright and Connie Neilsen, to women of colour, and actual female body builders as the rest of the Amazons showing a type of super-heroine that wasn’t exclusively for the male gaze.
Wonder Woman is not a perfect movie, but it has perfect moments: namely the No Man’s Land sequence, which is so fucking good and so fucking powerful it became immediately iconic.
Someone Great (2019)
Why men great ‘til they gotta be great? It’s the opening line of Lizzo’s Truth Hurts — THE song of 2019, which is ironic considering it first came out in 2017.
Yet such is the influence of Netflix’s Someone Great that the song’s inclusion in a key scene from the film between Gina Rodriguez and DeWanda Wise propelled it on to the US Billboard charts for the first time and into the hearts of millions (it did the same for Lorde’s Supercut too, but that didn’t reach Lizzo’s dizzying No.1 heights).
Written and directed by Jennifer Kaytin Robinson in her directorial debut post Sweet/Vicious, it’s somewhat of a bait and switch. Sold as a rom-com with a star-studded cast, in reality Someone Great isn’t about the love story between Rodriguez and LaKeith Stanfield’s characters.
Instead it’s a tribute to the enduring power of female friendships: how they can be the thing that binds us together and gets us through when everything else falls apart. A coming-of-age tale for women about to leave their twenties, it’s authentic and funny and sad and feminist and inclusive all without ever once looking like it’s trying to be.
You could be forgiven for thinking that people of colour just didn’t exist for a huge chunk of time, if historical romances were anything to go by.
Put simply, they’re hella white.
British filmmaker Amma Asante flipped that script in a big, bad way with Belle in 2013. Based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle — depicted famously in the 1779 painting with her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray — she was an illegitimate, mixed-race woman raised in high society by her great-uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice of England.
It’s a film defined by the contributions of women of colour. First and foremost, Asante as a director who deftly wields a period film of this immense scale like it’s her fiftieth feature and not her second. Screenwriter Misan Sagay, who manages to deliver on all the key hallmarks of the genre — romance, heart, humour, spectacle — while simultaneously making Belle about something, specifically race and the rise of England’s civil rights movement with the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807.
Last but by no means least, Gugu Mbatha-Raw who gives a star-making turn as the title character. Compassionate and empathetic, emotional but never weak, she’s captivating as she straddles identities in a world designed to exclude her before coming into her own as both a woman and a woman of colour.
Booksmart’s very existence is a feminist act, because largely the “We have one night to…” subgenre of movies hasn’t been a place where female narratives have a presence.
Olivia Wilde’s accomplished directorial debut changed that, giving us Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever as two A-type overachievers who set out to attend one big, epic, messy high school party before they graduate.
Written by four women, produced by several more, and directed by Wilde, Booksmart had gender parity in the crew, but the cast also gave us representations of young women — not just the two leads — that we rarely glimpse in stereotypical high school movies.
Underseen at the box-office, it became a cult film almost immediately upon release. It’s A-okay for Booksmart to be a grower, not a shower. The most crucial thing is that it exists.
Feminist, French, and feverish: alliteration is fun and so is the cannibalistic coming-of-age movie.
Written and directed by Julia Ducournau, it follows high-school graduate Justine as she negotiates the extreme hazing rituals of a veterinarian college that her older sister Alexa already attends, and which her parents have graduated from.
That’s what Raw is about on the surface, because what it’s really about is the metamorphosis of femininity, when — as Britney Spears sung — you’re not a girl, not yet a woman.
Justine’s burgeoning hunger is relatable to broads everywhere, regardless of whether they’ve tasted human flesh or not. They’re themes that have been examined beautifully in feminist horror movies before, namely the Ginger Snaps trilogy and When Animals Dream, and Raw carries on in their legacy, taking a magnifying glass to the complex nature of sisterhood.
Martin ‘Marvel-hater’ Scorsese was originally supposed to direct Hustlers.
It’s wild to think how different this film — based on the true story of strippers who scammed Wall Street bankers — would have been under his direction.
As it is, the version of the tale we got is told through and with the power of the female lens: writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s specifically. It shows us a variety of women with agency over their careers, their money, and their bodies.
It’s a crime movie where women aren’t the garnish for once and audiences responded, from the rapturous critical reception at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival premiere to the ever-growing $100M box-office haul.
It’s a film about women, written, directed, produced, dressed, designed, and starring women in a way that is sadly quite unique for Hollywood. Most importantly, it has shit to say and it never turns down the volume in order to do so.
“This whole country is a strip club,” Jennifer Lopez says at one moment in her career-redefining role as Ramona. “You’ve got people throwing the money and you’ve got people doing the dance.”
There are only two films on this list that aren’t directed by women and both of them are shining examples of what can be done with useful, creative allies.
In this case, Neil Jordon (Interview With The Vampire, The Crying Game) bringing to life Moira Buffini’s stunning stage play about a mother and daughter vampire combo, portrayed by Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan in the film.
Vampirism is a metaphor for the patriarchy in Byzantium, with the secret to immortality passed on only between rich, white men. When sex worker Clara (Arterton) breaks with tradition and seizes power for herself and her daughter (Ronan), the women are hunted by The Brotherhood who are keen to wipe out the only female vampires in existence.
Arterton in particular is captivating in this sweeping, Gothic narrative as a woman who doesn’t flinch at the opportunity to better her circumstances. When questioned by The Brotherhood about how she will use the gift of immortality, she looks them dead in the eye as she replies:
“To bring justice to those who prey on the weak and to curb the power of men”. A fucking icon.
The Breaker Upperers (2018)
The Breaker Upperers wasn’t the first film posing as a rom-com where the real love story isn’t between a heterosexual couple, but rather women instead: Bridesmaids did it, so too Girls Trip and fellow-lister Someone Great.
But The Breaker Upperers did it the best.
Co-written, co-directed, and co-starring Kiwi funny women Madeleine Sami and Jackie van Beek, it follows enterprising BFFs Mel and Jen who run a business breaking up with people when you’re too cowardly to do it yourself. Men are just a footnote to the complex friendship between these two very different women, who share an origin story and turn their heartbreak into something fruitful.
It’s everything a modern rom-com could and should be: hilarious, diverse, romantic, inclusive, original, and featuring a Celine Dion musical number.
The Love Witch (2016)
Witch Elaine is in love with love. She keeps making spells to make men fall in love with her, which is all well and good … except they keep dying.
No movie in the past decade looked or felt quite like The Love Witch, which was the singular vision of Anna Biller. The Asian-American filmmaker served as *takes breath* writer, director, producer, costume designer, set decorator, production designer, composer, and set dresser on the movie, infusing it with her unique aesthetic from top-to-bottom: despite resistance from her crew.
Like a pastel Goth version of a Hammer horror movie, it’s unashamedly sexy and seductive as Samantha Robinson’s Elaine becomes the vessel for a complicated and complex type of feminism we rarely see on screen.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
The greatest film of the decade just so happens to have a feminist narrative right at its very centre: “We are not things, we are not things!”
It’s repeated over and over again, both through the words and actions in George Miller’s 2015 masterpiece.
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa — a furious woman in name and nature — was instantly iconic, not just for her incredible performance, or convention-breaking portrayal of a character with a limb difference in mainstream pop culture who wasn’t a villain.
She was someone who literally drove a truck through toxic masculinity, liberating her sisters by any means necessary. Up until that point, women had existed in the Mad Max universe largely as victims: they were the thing that suffered horribly to motivate our hero or looked cool for a scene before dying in a blaze of glory.
Fury Road proved that a 40-year franchise could evolve, it could adapt with the times, and it could rewrite its own origin story to become something VITAL.
It did that through a combination of elements: Miller’s script and direction, obviously. The visual of one woman using a bolt cutter to liberate her sister from a fanged chastity belt doesn’t have to be subtle to be effective.
There were the Academy Award-winning women behind-the-scenes, including costume designer Jenny Beavan of the bad-ass jackets and editor Margaret Sixel, whose focusing of the female lens was invaluable to the final product.
Then there was the casting: not just Theron, but the ethnically diverse wives (Zoe Kravitz and Courtney Eaton), and The Vulvani, which featured older woman as action heroes with agency in a blockbuster for the first time.
Finally, of course, you have the dialogue which has been repurposed into slogan t-shirts and inked on countless bodies ever since. In the words of Miss Giddy: “You cannot own a human being. Sooner or later, someone pushes back!”
Honourable mentions: Salt (2010), Bridesmaids (2011), Haywire (2011), Hanna (2011), Brave (2012), Mama (2013), The Heat (2013), A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014), Housebound (2014), When Animals Dream (2014), The Lure (2015), Moana (2016), Girls Trip (2017), Suspiria (2018), Support The Girls (2018), Incredibles 2 (2018), Tomb Raider (2018), Widows (2018), Captain Marvel (2019), Top End Wedding (2019), The Kitchen (2019)
Maria Lewis is a journalist, screenwriter and author of The Witch Who Courted Death, It Came From The Deep and the Who’s Afraid? novel series, available worldwide.