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87 Fearless Women Movie Heroes Who Inspire Us

No challenge is too great for these strong, hilarious, and formidably intelligent women of the movies.

by | February 28, 2021 | Comments

Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz (Everett Collection)

(Photo by Everett Collection)

 

The Wizard of Oz (1939) 99%

#38Dorothy brings out the best in everyone she meets with her kindness, generosity of spirit, and abiding decency. She speaks her mind, doesn’t discriminate and she isn’t shy about joining in her new friends’ catchy songs. She insists she’s “Dorothy, the small and meek” when she finally meets the Wizard, but she’s actually up for any adventure that comes her way. Best of all, she’s fiercely loyal to her scruffy little dog. A truly classic Judy Garland performance.


Gabrielle Union in Bring it On (Everett Collection)

(Photo by Everett Collection)

 

Bring It On (2000) 63%

#39Gabrielle Union‘s Isis isn’t the central character of Bring It On, but she makes a powerful impression as the fierce, incorruptible, unflappable captain of the East Compton Clovers. She doesn’t back down when her routines are stolen, she doesn’t flinch when financial issues threaten to derail their chance at the championship, and she ultimately leads her squad to the win, earning the respect of her rival. In other words, she’s a leader worth following.


Idina Menzel as Elsa in Frozen (Walt Disney Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection)

(Photo by Walt Disney Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection)

 

Frozen (2013) 90%

#40First off, let’s acknowledge that Elsa is immensely powerful. She’d be right at home fighting alongside the Avengers, and she’d be one of the more formidable members, too. But before she’s able to control her abilities, Elsa must contend with real issues of self-doubt, isolation, and a population of subjects who fear her. It’s a painful journey that ends when she realizes her magic is controlled by love, which transforms her into a proper queen no sniveling duke would even dare to challenge.


Margot Robbie in Birds of Prey

(Photo by Claudette Barius/©Warner Bros.)

 

Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020) 78%

#41Hot shorts, the best make-up, and accessorizes with glitter guns and baseball bats. Oh, and she’s got a cadre of other fearless females at her back. Indeed, Harley Quinn‘s the luckiest — and most able — girl in Gotham, bar none.


Elisabeth Moss as Cecelia Kass in The Invisible Man (2020)

(Photo by Universal Pictures)

 

The Invisible Man (2020) 91%

#42For the 2020 reinvention of classic Universal monster movie The Invisible Man, Blumhouse and writer-director Leigh Whannell shifted the focus of the story away from the monster and onto his victim: a battered wife who escapes her husband’s clutches – or so she thinks. But Cecilia Kass, played by a never-better Elizabeth Moss, refuses to play victim for long. As the haunts mount and the gaslighting expands, Kass decides to wrestle back control of her story and her life, outsmarting her foe, kicking his transparent a–, and giving us one of the most satisfying f–k you finales we’ve seen in years.


Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild (Fox Searchlight./Courtesy Everett Collection)

(Photo by Fox Searchlight./Courtesy Everett Collection)

 

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) 86%

#43She lives with her daddy on a remote, primal strip of eroding land at the southernmost reaches of the Louisiana bayou. Most of us would call it squalid. Six-year-old Hushpuppy calls it paradise. It’s also all she’s known, and it’s made her tough and resourceful beyond her years. Young Quvenzhane Wallis earned an Oscar nomination for her instinctive portrayal of this playful, brave girl whose imagination turns every challenge into an adventure.


Sanaa Lathan in Love and Basketball (New Line Cinema/courtesy Everett Collection)

(Photo by New Line Cinema/courtesy Everett Collection)

 

Love and Basketball (2000) 83%

#44If you’ve ever been told you need to be “more ladylike,” then you know exactly what Sanaa Lathan‘s Monica Wright has experienced throughout her life. A budding hoops star at a young age, she works tirelessly to improve her game, only for her mother to dismiss her as a tomboy, even as she proves to be stiff competition for her neighbor, the son of a former pro. Her perserverance ultimately pays off, as she lands a spot in the WNBA and the man she’s loved all her life.


Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games (Lionsgate/courtesy Everett Collection)

(Photo by Lionsgate/courtesy Everett Collection)

 

The Hunger Games (2012) 84%

#45She’s deadly with a bow and arrow, having needed them to survive for most of her young life. But Katniss Everdeen also learns to hone her other abilities and survival skills throughout the course of the Hunger Games – not just to protect herself, but also to save humanity from total dystopian collapse. Of all the Young Adult heroines we’ve seen in recent years, Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss is the most memorable for both her ferocity and her humanity.


Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element (Columbia Pictures/ Courtesy: Everett Collection)

(Photo by Columbia Pictures/ Courtesy: Everett Collection)

 

The Fifth Element (1997) 71%

#46The 1997 sci-fi action film provided young Milla Jovovich with a breakout role next to established stars Bruce Willis and Gary Oldman. Jovovich’s divine being Leeloo mastered martial arts and love in equal measure.


Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (Everett Collection)

(Photo by Everett Collection)

 

Mildred Pierce (1945) 86%

#47Joan Crawford first played her in the 1945 Michael Curtiz classic and earned an Oscar for her efforts. Kate Winslet later played her in the 2011 Todd Haynes miniseries and earned a Golden Globe. Mildred Pierce is a juicy role with tons of range. She endures financial losses and successes, emotional highs and lows, various marriages, and the cruelty of her snobbish daughter. Through it all, Mildred perseveres and does what she must to survive and protect her family.


Ming-Na Wen in Mulan (Buena Vista Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

(Photo by Buena Vista Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

 

Mulan (1998) 86%

#48Most of the Disney princesses all deserve a shoutout or a place on this list, but we’re paying extra attention to the ones who just represent something a little more. Mulan, for example, objectively kicks ass, but being an Asian character gave a generation of young kids someone to look up to, even before gender politics became a mainstream thing.


Julia Stiles in 10 Things I Hate About You (Buena Vista/courtesy Everett Collection)

(Photo by Buena Vista/courtesy Everett Collection)

 

10 Things I Hate About You (1999) 69%

#49Ever feel like the troubles of your teenage years had the weight of a Shakespearean tragedy? Kat Stratford can sympathize, considering her days just turned into The Taming of the Shrew. Played with jaunty intensity by Julia Stiles, Kat makes no concessions about her anti-social ways. That she’s so obdurate amidst high school mediocrity gives hope to whoever’s languishing in the same way.


Florence Pugh as Saraya "Paige" Knight in Fighting with My Family

(Photo by Rogert Viglasky/©MGM)

 

Fighting with My Family (2019) 93%

#50Florence Pugh’s filmography is littered with formidable characters, from her take on Lady Macbeth to her upcoming role in Marvel’s Black Widow, but this one is based on a real person. Saraya “Paige” Knight may have been born into a wrestling family, but it’s her own strength of will that propels her into the spotlight as she works up the ranks of the WWE. Thanks to her hard work and dedication, she eventually becomes the youngest Divas Champion ever and makes sure everyone knows “This is my house!”


Sandra Bullock in Gravity (Warner Bros. Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection)

(Photo by Warner Bros. Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection)

 

Gravity (2013) 95%

#51Who could forget Ryan Stone‘s long trip back to Earth? It’s an intense ride, with the movie aided immensely by Sandra Bullock‘s tightrope, athletic performance. We’re only give a few personal glimpses into Ryan (though they’re big ones, like her daughter dying in a random simple accident), so most of what we latch onto with the character is right up there on screen.


Kate Beckinsale in Underworld (Screen Gems/courtesy Everett Collection)

(Photo by Screen Gems/courtesy Everett Collection)

 

Underworld (2003) 31%

#52Vampire Selene began in the Underworld film series as a Death Dealer, hunting and killing lycans. After falling for a lycan-vampire hybrid, her motivations changed, bringing her in direct conflict with her vampire brethren. Her biggest challenge, however, might be from critics, who have repeatedly knocked the franchise. Still, Selene has ruled over five live-action feature films and one animated film.


Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman (Everett Collection)

(Photo by Everett Collection)

 

Pretty Woman (1990) 64%

#53Vivian Ward: A hooker with a heart of gold, given a chance to live the high life, who discovers what really matters by the end. Vivian’s story may be all fantasy but, after all, it’s the fairy tales that get us through the dreary, modern days.


Jennifer Garner in 13 Going On 30 (Columbia/courtesy Everett Collection)

(Photo by Columbia/courtesy Everett Collection)

 

13 Going on 30 (2004) 65%

#54It takes a lot of guts to roll with the punches, particularly when you wake up in the body of a scheming, unlikeable 30-year-old. But even with the mind of a teen, Jenna Rink (Jennifer Garner) quickly realizes her new life is not a good one and sets out to make amends. She fights for the future of the magazine that employs her and for the love of the man she abandoned, and when the magic dust settles, she’s a changed girl.


Emma Thompson in Much Ado About Nothing (Samuel Goldwyn/courtesy Everett Collection)

(Photo by Samuel Goldwyn/courtesy Everett Collection)

 

Much Ado About Nothing (1993) 90%

#55Emma Thompson shines in Kenneth Branagh‘s adaptation of this Shakespeare comedy as the charming but strong-willed Beatrice. Beatrice doesn’t take nonsense from anyone, and she’s got a sharp tongue of her own, which she uses with great precision in verbal sparring matches with Benedick. She’s a confident, slick talker who knows how to get what she wants, and Thompson brings her own potent ferocity to the role.


Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman in Harriet

(Photo by Focus Features)

 

Harriet (2019) 73%

#56It almost feels unfair to include Cynthia Erivo’s Harriet Tubman on this list, being that the real-life abolitionist was such a legendary badass in her own right. The film focuses on Tubman as a grown woman, when she first made her daring escape from slavery, then decided to return in order to free her family… and then returned again and again to guide dozens more slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad. It would be difficult to find a truer American hero on this list, and Harriet is an earnest appreciation of her achievements.


Michelle Rodriguez in Girlfight (Screen Gems/courtesy Everett Collection)

(Photo by Screen Gems/courtesy Everett Collection)

 

Girlfight (2000) 88%

#57You’ve gotta fight for your right…to fight! Michelle Rodriguez stars as Diana Guzman, the product of a macho Brooklyn society that tells her she has no place in the boxing ring. Guzman sets out to prove them wrong in a hard-hitting but ultimately uplifting sports drama.


Lily James in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Screen Gems/courtesy Everett Collection)

(Photo by Screen Gems/courtesy Everett Collection)

 

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016) 46%

#58If you thought Elizabeth Bennet was too passive in Jane Austen’s original novel, this is the movie for you. Not only does she lead her sisters as a zombie-killing machine, she actually fights Mr. Darcy when she learns of his meddling, and during the zombie invasion of London, saves him from the hands of the evil Wickham. You do not mess with this lady.


Rita Hayworth in Gilda (Everett Collection)

(Photo by Everett Collection)

 

Gilda (1946) 90%

#59Rita Hayworth is the end-all femme fatale as Gilda, a luminous character with no shortage of amazing strapless dresses and men to manipulate. Of course, this being a golden era Hollywood production, love worms its way into her heart at the end.


Meryl Streep in The Post (20th Century Fox Film Corp./courtesy Everett Collection)

(Photo by 20th Century Fox Film Corp./courtesy Everett Collection)

 

The Post (2018) 88%

#60She’s a woman who stood up for herself in a predominately male industry en route to becoming a respected titan. Katharine Graham also made these strides as publisher of The Washington Post during some of its most crucial 1970s reporting, including her bold decision to print the Pentagon Papers. It’s pure joy watching Meryl Streep portray this famous figure who finds her voice as Steven Spielberg’s film progresses.


Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis in The Help (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

(Photo by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

 

The Help (2011) 76%

#61Based on the 2009 book of the same name, the film portrays race relations between white families and their black household help in the South in the early 1960s. As Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson, respectively, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer formed the true heart of the 2011 drama, with Spencer earning an Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role.


Rosa Salazar as Alita in Alita: Battle Angel

(Photo by 20th Century Fox)

 

Alita: Battle Angel (2019) 61%

#62You don’t get to be called a “Battle Angel” without being tough as nails, and Rosa Salazar’s Alita earns the title as she discovers the secrets of her forgotten past. She takes on a gang of cyborg killers, deadly bounty hunters, and an evil dictator, and survives to fight another day. If anyone can take down the sadistic overlord who rules from a wealthy city in the sky, it’s her.


Jennifer Beals in Flashdance (Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection)

(Photo by Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection)

 

Flashdance (1983) 36%

#63Welder by day, dancer by night – you don’t get much more fearless than that. Alex Owens makes a living in a blue-collar world, but she dreams of artistic glory, with the ultimate goal of being accepted into a prestigious ballet school. She subjects herself to classism and snobbish scrutiny, but remains true to herself and her own radiant form of expression. It sounds cheesy now, but “Flashdance” was a legitimate pop-culture phenomenon, and it made Jennifer Beals a superstar.


Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman (Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection)Returns

(Photo by Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection)

 

Batman Returns (1992) 80%

#64Part of Catwoman′s allure has always been her sultry demeanor, and Michelle Pfeiffer certainly had that in spades when she played the role, but what set her apart was her sinister snarl. In this Tim Burton sequel, a meek Selina Kyle vows revenge after she’s pushed out a window by her boss, and as Catwoman, she’s both a smooth operator and a fearsome fighter who operates by her own set of rules. She makes you want to invest in some leather and parkour lessons.


 Saoirse Ronan in Hanna (Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection)

(Photo by Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection)

 

Hanna (2011) 71%

#65Saoirse Ronan stars as a 16-year-old, blond-haired, blue-eyed killing machine – the heroine of the most violent fairy tale you can imagine. But beyond her formidable physical abilities, Hanna also keeps her enemies guessing as she fights for survival, fleeing the snowy wilds of Finland for the unknown dangers of civilization. Director Joe Wright’s thrilling action film provides the hugely versatile Ronan with a wide range to play within this complicated young character.


John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Fine Line Features/courtesy Everett Collection)

(Photo by Fine Line Features/courtesy Everett Collection)

 

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) 92%

#66Forced into a botched gender reassignment surgery, Hedwig forms a band and takes on a young protégé, only for him to betray her. But she perseveres through some very low times and earns her fame, ultimately leading her to come to terms with her true identity. It’s a powerful journey of self-discovery told through rockin’ music and a magnetic central performance.


Winona Ryder in Little Women (Columbia/courtesy Everett Collection)

(Photo by Columbia/courtesy Everett Collection)

 

Little Women (1994) 92%

#67The central figure of Louisa May Alcott’s novel, Jo March (Winona Ryder) is the backbone of her family. Strong-minded and ambitious, aspiring writer Jo pens plays for her sisters to perform and later departs for New York City to pursue her dreams, helping to redefine what it meant to be a young woman at the time.


Felicity Jones in Rogue One: A Star Wars Movie (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/ Lucasfilm Ltd. /Courtesy Everett Collection)

(Photo by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/ Lucasfilm Ltd. /Courtesy Everett Collection)

 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) 84%

#68As a young girl, Jyn Erso had to hide while her parents were taken away from her. As a young woman, she takes the skills she’s developed as a soldier and a criminal and uses them for the greater good: specifically, the Rebellion. Felicity Jones brings a fiery, independent spirit to this character, a key figure in a daring mission that’s crucial to the Star Wars saga. In the tradition of Leia and Rey, she’s no damsel in distress.


(Photo by Newmarket/courtesy Everett Collection)

 

Whale Rider (2003) 91%

#69Keisha Castle-Hughes became the youngest nominee for Best Actress Oscar for her role as a 12-year-old Maori girl with aspirations to become her tribe’s leader. Pai’s tenacity in the pursuit causes a painful rift with her grandfather, but Pai knows her truth: She is a Whale Rider.


Uma Thurman in Kill Bill (A Band Apart)

(Photo by A Band Apart)

 

Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003) 85%

#70She kicks all kinds of butt. That part is obvious. After all, she’s a heroine in a Quentin Tarantino action flick, with equal parts strength and style. But as intimidating and deadly as the statuesque Uma Thurman is in this iconic movie role – and as many bodies as The Bride leaves in her wake in her quest for revenge – the unexpected softer, maternal side she eventually reveals can be just as powerful in its own way.


Angela Bassett in What's Love Got To Do With It? (Fox Searchlight Pictures./Courtesy Everett Collection)

(Photo by Fox Searchlight Pictures./Courtesy Everett Collection)

 

What's Love Got To Do With It? (1993) 97%

#71Angela Bassett‘s stirring performance as Tina Turner in the story of her troubled relationship with Ike Turner hits particularly hard because it all really happened. Bassett is both moving and electric as the R&B singer who rose to superstardom even as her husband’s abusive behavior became increasingly severe, then found the courage to leave him and fought to retain her stage name.


Sally Field, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, Shirley MacLaine and Dolly Parton in Steel Magnolias (TriStar Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

(Photo by TriStar Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

 

Steel Magnolias (1989) 68%

#72They may seem like folksy Southern stereotypes – genteel flowers wilting in the sultry summer heat. But the ladies of Steel Magnolias are tough. They stick by each other no matter the situation, whether it’s a family celebration or a medical emergency. With a cast of Sally Field (M’Lynn Eatenton), Julia Roberts (Shelby Latcherie), Dolly Parton (Truvy Jones), Daryl Hannah (Annelle Desoto), Shirley MacLaine (Ouiser Boudreaux), and Olympia Dukakis (Clairee Belcher), you can’t go wrong. But Steel Magnolias also gets a lot right about the many shades of female strength.


Laura Dern in Jurassic Park (Universal/courtesy Everett Collection )

(Photo by Universal/courtesy Everett Collection)

 

Jurassic Park (1993) 91%

#73Ellie Sattler is an expert in her field who’s invited to be one of the first people to witness the rebirth of dinosaurs on Isla Nublar, but she also demonstrates incredible bravery when she sets out in search of survivors after the park’s security is compromised. She risks her life to turn the park’s power back on, helping to save everyone left on the island.


Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water (Fox Searchlight Pictures. All Rights reserved. /Courtesy Everett Collection)

(Photo by Fox Searchlight Pictures. All Rights reserved. /Courtesy Everett Collection)

 

The Shape of Water (2017) 92%

#74She dares to risk everything for the man she loves – except he isn’t exactly a man, which makes Eliza’s elaborate scheme even more dangerous. The mute janitor at the center of Guillermo del Toro‘s Best Picture winner at this year’s Oscars has never felt truly seen until a mysterious creature enters the secret lab where she works. Sally Hawkins brings this character to life beautifully, wordlessly, and she makes you want to join her adventure.


Auli'i Cravalho in Moana (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection)

(Photo by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection)

 

Moana (2016) 95%

#75When the ocean calls, you obey, even if it means going against what your elders tell you. That’s what plucky Moana does, braving the waves to find the demigod Maui and defeat the force that is poisoning her island. The journey is perilous, but Moana perseveres, and it’s thanks to her courage that her people are saved.


Emily Blunt in Looper (TriStar Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection)

(Photo by TriStar Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection)

 

Looper (2012) 93%

#76Emily Blunt has played a lot of gutsy characters, and her knack for portraying capable, determined heroines served her well in Rian Johnson‘s Looper. Sara is a single mother who lives alone on a farm with her son, and when she isn’t tending to the crops or chopping wood, she’s doing her best to keep her son’s explosive telekinetic powers in check. It’s not an easy job, but she’s one tough mother, and one glimpse of her with shotgun in hand is enough to know to stay off her property.


The Wiz

(Photo by Everett Collection)

 

The Wiz (1978) 42%

#77It took a lot of courage, heart, brains, and, most of all, persistence for Diana Ross to land the part of Dorothy in Sidney Lumet’s loose adaptation of the stage musical The Wiz, itself a loose adaptation of that Frank L. Baum joint about a certain displaced Kansan who makes a habit of killing witches. Berry Gordy, whose Motown was producing the film, said Ross – at 33 – was too old for the part, and ultimately some critics would say the same thing. But Ross outmaneuvered the powerful record exec and got herself cast in a move that Pauline Kael described as “the strongest example of sheer will in film history.” We’re glad Ross believed: Her Dorothy is a joy to watch, and eventually as strong and self-possessed as the woman who gave her such life. If you can watch Ross sing “Home” in the finale and not feel completely moved, it might be time to see the Wiz – we think you’re missing something.


Cabaret

(Photo by Everett Collection)

 

Cabaret (1972) 93%

#78The character of Sally Bowles changed a lot in her journey from Christopher Isherwood’s novella, Sally Bowles, to the play I Am a Camera and then the musical Cabaret and its eventual Bob Fosse-directed film adaptation. (For one thing, Sally – based on actress and Marxist Jean Ross – was originally British; for another, she could barely hold a note.) Yet, while some purists quibble with Liza Minelli’s quite radical reinterpretation of the character for the Certified Fresh film, taken on her own merits, the movie Sally is a fearless, liberated, curious, and iconic figure, a whirl of energy and relentless optimism hard to resist… and hard not to find inspiring.


Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

(Photo by ©Sony Pictures Classics)

 

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2001) 97%

#79The women at the center of Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning martial arts drama are essentially two sides of the same coin, and both are impressive in their own right. On one hand, you have Michelle Yeoh’s Yu Shu Lien, a formidable security officer who is understated and professional but deadly with any number of weapons and driven by honor and purpose. On the other, you have Zhang Ziyi’s Jen Yu, whose rebellious streak is admittedly a little harder to root for until you realize she’s a young, free spirit who feels trapped by society’s expectations of her as a woman in 18th century China. Oh, and by the way, she can also swing a sword like nobody’s business. Both represent a certain fearlessness, and when they meet in an epic duel that sees Jen destroying every weapon Shu Lien attacks her with until she’s finally beaten by a broken sword, it’s a jaw-dropping fight for the ages.


Frances McDormand in Nomadland

(Photo by ©Searchlight Pictures)

 

Nomadland (2021) 94%

#80Fern (Frances McDormand) is a vagabond not by choice, but by necessity; her small Nevada town lost all of its residents when a mine shut down. First, she fills seasonal packing jobs at Amazon warehouses, but then she makes the choice to enter in and out of communities of other vagabonds across America rather than return to her ghost town. It’s a choice that’s forced upon her by the dissolution of labor and the gig economy that has provided only patches of support, but what makes Fern inspiring is how she takes ownership of each and every choice she makes, whether it’s hitting the road, asking for help, or simply pausing.


The Old Guard

(Photo by Aimee Spinks/©Netflix)

 

The Old Guard (2020) 80%

#81Charlize Theron’s “Andy” of Scythia makes this list on any day of the week: she’s an immortal, centuries-old warrior who carries a battle axe and leads an elite mercenary unit of other immortal, centuries-old warriors on dangerous black ops-style missions. “Badass” doesn’t even begin to describe her. But when she and her crew become aware of the existence of another like them, namely Kiki Layne’s U.S. Marine Nile Freeman, Andy finds something of a kindred spirit. Nile is clever, resourceful, and loyal, as Andy discovers late in the film, and her military background makes her a perfect addition to the team. Their mentor-mentee chemistry – and a slew of incredible action set pieces – helped make The Old Guard a surprise hit for Netflix during a quarantine summer when audiences were hungry for a blockbuster experience. Credit where it’s due: Netflix recently greenlit a sequel, so there’s more on the way.


The 40-Year-old Version

(Photo by Jeong Park courtesy of Sundance Institute)

 

The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020) 98%

#82It’s tough for anyone to switch careers at the age of 40, but to try and enter the rap game at that age? You’d be lucky if you weren’t laughed straight out of the recording booth. But that’s exactly what Radha does in The Forty-Year-Old Version, pivoting from her gig as a playwright to focus on spitting rhymes on mixtapes. But film isn’t just about a woman approaching middle age trying to impress her fellow kids; writer-director-star Radha Blank’s feature debut is a bold critique of the compromises artists – and particularly artists of color – are often forced to make to stay “relevant.” Radha’s journey is a bold “f— you” to anyone who ever questioned her instincts, and we’re only too happy to raise our middle fingers alongside her.


Miss Juneteenth

(Photo by ©Vertical Entertainment)

 

Miss Juneteenth (2020) 99%

#83We meet Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie) as she’s scrubbing a toilet. She’s a former beauty queen who won Miss Juneteenth, an annual celebration that commemorates the official ending of slavery when Texas became the last state to recognize emancipation; with her daughter nearing the age to sign up, she attempts to instill pride about an event that’s taught by communities but not in school. The beauty of Beharie’s performance is how she is able to portray the grace and confidence of a woman who refuses to buy into the idea of faded glory; despite whatever occupation she might hold, beauty and grace is an internalized force to reckon with and share.


Enola Holmes

(Photo by ©Netflix)

 

Enola Holmes (2020) 91%

#84Every youngest child knows what it’s like to live in the shadow of their older siblings, but what if those siblings are Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes? If you’re Enola Holmes, it’s no big deal. As played by Millie Bobby Brown, Enola is every bit as brilliant as her famous brothers, possibly more deadly (ju-jitsu, anyone?), and just as strong-willed — although, who wouldn’t be at the prospect of being shuffled off to some boarding school? It makes sense that she’s the daughter of a suffragette, because her fierce independent streak is what helps her save the life of a clueless lord. Sherlock may get all the press, but we don’t think it’ll be long before Enola starts grabbing all the headlines.


To Live

(Photo by ©Samuel Goldwyn Films courtesy Everett Collection)

 

To Live (Huo zhe) (1994) 86%

#85Zhang Yimou’s To Live was allowed to be made because it showed the resilience of the Chinese people, millions of whom died, from the Great Leap Forward through the Cultural Revolution. Jiazhen (Gong Li) embodies this resilience, guiding her family not just through years of famine but also her husband’s gambling debts. But Gong’s performance was fearless on another level altogether: To Live was ultimately banned in its homeland because it tucked in many criticisms of the government, and as the highest-profile Chinese actress at the time, Gong was also banned from filmmaking for two years. It’s a sacrifice we’re all fortunate she made.


Poster for Joan the Maid

(Photo by Cohen Media Group)

 

Joan the Maid 1: The Battles (Jeanne la Pucelle I - Les batailles) (1994) 86%

#86This five-and-a-half-hour biopic of Joan of Arc (Sandrine Bonnaire) concerns her rise through the ranks of the military during times of battle and her downfall during peace time. Joan the Maid is less concerned with whether or not her martyrdom was due to hearing voices, but more interested in how Joan of Arc was able to play toward the egos of so many powerful men during wartime, which endeared her to them and granted her much authority in their ranks. This is a massive portrait of a woman battling within the patriarchy and finding many allies when times were futile, and she filled that with courage and hope, but finding only enemies when order was restored. As Joan, Bonnaire has conviction and charm; she doesn’t play at Joan’s potential insanity, but instead depicts her as firm until the very end.


Promising Young Woman

(Photo by Merie Weismiller Wallace/©Focus Features)

 

Promising Young Woman (2020) 90%

#87Without spoiling the ending to Emerald Fennell’s debut feature as both writer and director – a debut for which she is racking up dozens of awards and nominations – we will say some may quibble with our inclusion of its protagonist on this list. Cassie is a complex angel of vengeance, feigning falling-down drunkenness in order to lure so-called “nice guys” and teach them a #MeToo lesson, and as portrayed by a career-best Carey Mulligan, she’s a flawed antihero we alternately root for, pray for, and, ultimately, are crushed by. But her noble crusade, using the means at her disposal – no guns or katanas for this avenger – and fueled by a deep sense of love and injustice, had audiences cheering even as the movie masterfully blurred the divides between hero, villain, and innocent bystander.


Meet Our Fearless Panel of Critics


Alicia Malone

Alicia Malone is a film reporter, author and self-confessed movie geek. She is a correspondent on Fandango and a host on Turner Classic Movies, FilmStruck, and The FilmStruck Podcast. Her first book, Backwards and in Heels, about the history of women in Hollywood was released in 2017, and she’s currently writing her second, called The Female Gaze.


Lindsey Bahr

Lindsey Bahr has been a film writer at The Associated Press since 2014 where she reviews films weekly, writes features and covers industry news and events, including the Oscars. She previously covered movies and pop culture for Entertainment Weekly and has contributed film and music stories to The Atlantic. A native of Pittsburgh and a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Bahr currently lives in Los Angeles.


Jamie Broadnax

Jamie Broadnax is the founder and editor-in-chief of Black Girl Nerds. She’s the executive producer of the Misty Knight’s Uninformed Afro podcast and she’s written for several publications including: Variety, Vox, Vulture, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Huffington Post. Her book, Black Girl Nerds, published by Penguin Random House, is due for release in 2019.


Angie Han

Angie Han is the deputy entertainment editor at Mashable, and was formerly the managing editor at Slashfilm. She’s also an occasional podcast guest who can be heard on shows like Slate’s Represent, Film School Rejects’ After the Credits, and the Slashfilmcast. Her favorite films change from day to day, but generally include some combination of Clueless, Goodfellas, and Synecdoche, New York. She is based in New York and Los Angeles.


Christy Lemire

Christy Lemire is a longtime film critic who writes for RogerEbert.com and ChristyLemire.com, co-hosts the YouTube film review show What the Flick?!, and authors the Rotten Tomatoes Parental Guidance column. She also makes frequent radio appearances on KPCC’s “FilmWeek” and KCRW’s “Press Play.” Previously, she covered movies and entertainment for The Associated Press for 15 years, and was the first full-time film critic in the news organization’s history. Christy is a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and a third-generation L.A. native.


Debbie Day

Debbie Day is TV features editor at Rotten Tomatoes. She is the former editor-in-chief of Dennis Publishing’s U.S. digital properties, including Maxim.com, and was executive editor of Premiere.com. Her writing has appeared on EW.com, LATimes.com, LAmag.com, TimeOut.com, Yahoo.com, and other digital sites and in print. Debbie is a graduate of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University and a native of New Orleans.


Grae Drake

Grae’s passion gave birth to The Popcorn Mafia podcast, landed her a gig at Fandango.com, and put her mug on TV every week as CNN’s movie critic. FINALLY, shooting her mouth off about movies was a GOOD thing. Inevitably, her cult following of fanboys, fangirls and pop culture nerds hit a tipping point. Today, her reviews and celebrity interviews continue to inform and entertain the masses.


Jacqueline Coley

Jacqueline has worked as a freelance film journalist and critic since 2014. She has also attended international film festivals such as Sundance Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, San Diego Comic-Con, and SXSW. Her interests include writing, musical theater, indie films, comics, and gaming. She is also passionately committed to promoting diverse and under-representing voices in cinema; particularly women of color.

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