In a world where “girl boss” culture often overshadows genuine portrayals of strong female characters, these movies rise above the noise, showcasing powerful women without succumbing to inauthentic girl boss energy. Whether these women embrace their femininity or embody a more masculine archetype, these characters aren't defined by clichéd empowerment tropes.
A strong female lead doesn't always need to be a femme fatale or action heroine, but she certainly can be. Celebrate great storytelling and character development with these 25 fantastic movies with intelligent writing that don't treat women as performative tokens for their feminist screenplay.
1. Kill Bill Vol 1 (2003)
In this Quentin Tarantino masterpiece, Uma Thurman portrays “The Bride,” a former assassin seeking revenge on her former associates who left her for dead. With raw determination and unparalleled combat skills, she embarks on a relentless mission to take down each member of the deadly assassination squad that betrayed her.
Kill Bill Vol. 1 is a thrilling and visually captivating journey filled with intense action sequences and a fierce female lead that doesn't feel performative. Despite epic action sequences and stylized violence, Tarantino does a great job of portraying just how hard Beatrix (The Bride) had to work for all her kills.
She isn't a Mary Sue with unexplainable combat skills and no flaws. Even though she does work her way down the list, she doesn't get all of her revenge in the first movie, and it's a rough slew of suffering along the way.
2. Kill Bill Vol 2 (2004)
Continuing the tale of “The Bride,” played by Uma Thurman, Kill Bill Vol. 2 delves deeper into her quest for vengeance. As she confronts her remaining adversaries, the film explores her complex past and the motivations driving her relentless pursuit. Through stunning cinematography, Tarantino intertwines martial arts, suspense, and poignant storytelling, giving us a compelling conclusion to this epic tale of strength and resilience.
The best sequence in this movie is the training scenes with Pai Mei, where we're finally introduced to the man who bestowed Beatrix with so much power and combat prowess. It's here that we understand just how much pain, suffering, and hard work it was to become the deadly assassin she is today.
3. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Jodie Foster stars as Clarice Starling, an ambitious FBI trainee assigned to interview the incarcerated cannibalistic serial killer, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins. In this psychological thriller, Clarice finds herself entangled in a dangerous game of wits as she seeks Lecter's insights to apprehend another elusive serial killer.
Foster's portrayal of Starling showcases intelligence, determination, and vulnerability, making her a formidable force in a male-dominated field. The Silence of the Lambs is a great example of how to make a film with a feminist subtext without being too on the nose about it.
There are running feminist themes throughout the movie, but they never feel spoon-fed or disingenuous to the audience, and they serve a purpose in the overall narrative. After all, Starling is the only female trainee at the academy, and the film deals with a serial killer who specifically targets women.
4. Gone Girl (2014)
Rosamund Pike delivers a mesmerizing performance as Amy Dunne, a complex and enigmatic woman who goes missing under suspicious circumstances. As the investigation unfolds, the film subverts expectations and explores the dark dynamics of marriage and societal expectations.
Pike's portrayal of Amy is chilling and captivating, embodying a character who is cunning, manipulative, and unafraid to challenge conventional notions of femininity. The most famous scene in this film comes from her “cool girl” monologue, where she vocalizes the frustrations many women feel in their relationships.
This makes the viewer sympathize with or even root for her despite her callous, cruel, psychopathic actions. The brilliance of Dunne's anti-heroism is in her exploitation of her feminity, something that can arguably be branded “toxic femininity.” Don't worry, we're not suggesting she's a role model over here, just a brilliant, twisted character who was played brilliantly by Rosamund Pike. The biggest snub in Oscar history!
5. Alien (1979)
Sigourney Weaver stars as Ellen Ripley, the iconic and resilient warrant officer aboard the spaceship Nostromo. When a deadly extraterrestrial creature wreaks havoc on the crew, Ripley emerges as a beacon of strength and survival. Weaver's portrayal of Ripley is groundbreaking, establishing her as a trailblazing heroine in the science fiction genre.
While Ripley is often used as an example of a female who defies gender stereotypes, the role was never written with a woman in mind. Ripley's gender plays no defining role in her development as a character because Ripley was imagined as a male who happened to be played by a woman. Often we now see characters conceived as women who are trying to be like men as some sort of social commentary.
In Alien, however, there is no intentional deconstruction of gender stereotypes. Weaver seemed like an excellent fit for the role, and Ridley Scott couldn't think of a reason why she shouldn't be able to play the character.
6. Sicario (2015)
Emily Blunt portrays Kate Macer, an idealistic FBI agent enlisted in a high-stakes operation to combat Mexican drug cartels. As she gets pulled deeper into the treacherous world of crime and corruption, Macer faces moral dilemmas and tests her limits of bravery. Blunt's performance captures vulnerability and unwavering determination, making Sicario a gripping exploration of a female protagonist navigating a dangerous landscape.
7. Winter's Bone (2010)
Jennifer Lawrence shines in her breakout role as Ree Dolly, a resilient teenager in a poverty-stricken rural community. When her father disappears, leaving their house as collateral for his bail, Ree embarks on a desperate quest to find him. Lawrence's portrayal showcases Ree's strength as she fearlessly confronts a web of secrets and risks her safety to protect her family.
8. V for Vendetta (2005)
Natalie Portman portrays Evey Hammond, a young woman caught in a dystopian society ruled by a totalitarian government. When she becomes entangled with a mysterious freedom fighter, V, played by Hugo Weaving, Evey discovers her capacity for courage and rebellion. Portman's performance captures Evey's transformation from vulnerability to empowerment, inspiring viewers with her resilience and defiance.
9. The Witch (2015)
In this atmospheric horror film, Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Thomasin, a teenage girl accused of witchcraft in 17th-century New England. The Witch follows Thomasin's journey as she navigates the paranoia, superstition, and religious fervor of her puritanical family and community.
Taylor-Joy's portrayal captures the character's strength amidst adversity as she confronts the darkness within herself and the surrounding wilderness. Not to give anything away, but the ending is so brilliant and unexpected. Robert Eggers truly outdid himself in this directorial debut.
10. Hereditary (2018)
Toni Collette delivers a haunting performance as Annie Graham, a mother grappling with the aftermath of her family's sinister secrets. As the supernatural forces surrounding them escalate, Annie's strength is tested as she fights to protect her loved ones from an evil fate.
Collette's portrayal of Annie is emotionally raw and powerful, capturing the complexity of a woman battling her demons while trying to keep her family intact. There's an emotional dinner table scene where Collette portrays the complexity of a grieving mother destroyed by tragedy who is plagued by her resentment for her son.
11. X (2022)
In a rural Texas setting, a group of actors discreetly embarks on a daring endeavor to produce an adult film. They choose the secluded home of an elderly couple as their filming location, believing they can go unnoticed. However, their plans take a terrifying turn when the older hosts unexpectedly discover the actors amid their explicit activities. Suddenly, the cast is thrust into a life-or-death struggle as they fight to survive the wrath of the enraged couple.
While I found this to be one of the more overhyped A24 horror movies, it's worth checking out for Mia Goth's brilliant portrayal of both young Maxine and old Pearl. This film's events also take place after the events in the sequel Pearl, so it's worth checking out before watching Pearl for a better context of the character.
12. Pearl (2022)
In this prequel to X, Pearl tells the story of a young woman named Pearl who finds herself trapped on a secluded farm, caring for her sick father while being closely watched by her mother. As Pearl yearns for a life of glamor and excitement that she has only witnessed in movies, her desires clash with the limitations and constraints imposed upon her.
The film explores the internal struggle between Pearl's temptations and repressed aspirations, creating a poignant narrative that dissects the complexities of longing and self-discovery within the confines of an isolated existence.
13. Midsommar (2019)
Florence Pugh takes on the role of Dani Ardor, a grieving woman who reluctantly joins her boyfriend and his friends on a trip to a rural Swedish commune. As the idyllic festival turns sinister, Dani's resilience is tested in unimaginable ways. P
ugh's portrayal of Dani explores themes of trauma, resilience, and empowerment, making Midsommar a captivating and unsettling daytime horror.
14. Us (2019)
In Jordan Peele's chilling horror film, Lupita Nyong'o delivers a mesmerizing dual performance as Adelaide Wilson and her doppelgänger, Red. As the Wilson family faces a terrifying home invasion by a group of sinister figures who resemble them, Adelaide's strength and determination come to the forefront.
Nyong'o's portrayal showcases the complexity of both characters, blending vulnerability and unwavering resolve in a gripping tale of survival. Nyong'o should have won an Oscar for her performance.
15. Black Swan (2010)
Natalie Portman gives an Academy Award-winning performance as Nina Sayers, a dedicated ballerina vying for the lead role in “Swan Lake.” As Nina descends into a psychological battle with her own identity and desires, Portman's portrayal captures the intense physical and emotional demands of her character.
Black Swan explores the dark and obsessive pursuit of perfection, showcasing Nina's journey of self-discovery and her quest to find agency when her overprotective mother has spent her entire life sheltering Nina so that she stays innocent. Mila Kunis gives a great performance as Nina's foil, the black swan.
The role of the black swan embodies the competitive and cutthroat nature of the ballet world, highlighting the pressures and sacrifices demanded of performers in their pursuit of excellence.
16. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Emily Blunt stars as Rita Vrataski, a highly skilled soldier in a war against alien invaders. When Tom Cruise's character, William Cage, gains the ability to relive the same day over and over, he seeks Rita's guidance. Blunt's portrayal of Rita showcases her unwavering determination, combat skills, and strategic brilliance, positioning her as a powerful ally in the fight against the extraterrestrial threat.
17. Girl, Interrupted (1999)
Winona Ryder portrays Susanna Kaysen, a young woman who voluntarily checks herself into a psychiatric institution in the 1960s. Through her interactions with fellow patients, including the enigmatic Lisa Rowe, played by Angelina Jolie, Susanna finds strength and confronts her inner demons. Ryder's performance captures Susanna's journey of self-discovery and resilience, but it's Jolie's performance as Lisa that steals the show.
Jolie earned an Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of the cunning and manipulative Lisa, who has Antisocial Personality Disorder.
18. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Clint Eastwood directs and stars alongside Hilary Swank in this Academy Award-winning sports drama. Swank plays Maggie Fitzgerald, an aspiring boxer who convinces Eastwood's character, Frankie Dunn, to train her. Despite facing adversity and discrimination in the male-dominated boxing world, Maggie's unwavering determination and resilience shine through. Swank's portrayal captures the physical and emotional strength of a woman defying the odds.
19. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Rooney Mara takes on the role of Lisbeth Salander, a brilliant computer hacker with a troubled past. Lisbeth's fierce intelligence and unwavering determination shine as she teams up with journalist Mikael Blomkvist, played by Daniel Craig, to solve a decades-old mystery.
Mara's portrayal captures the complex layers of Lisbeth, a character who defies societal norms and fights for justice on her own terms. It's a shame this film never got the sequels they deserved because this would have been a fantastic Fincher-directed franchise, but the single film still stands alone as an excellent thriller.
20. Knives Out (2019)
Rian Johnson's murder mystery features an ensemble cast, with Ana de Armas standing out as Marta Cabrera, a compassionate nurse caught up in a wealthy family's web of secrets. Marta's strength lies not only in her ability to uncover the truth but also in her moral compass and unwavering integrity. De Armas's portrayal brings depth and empathy to Marta, showcasing a resilient woman who holds her ground amidst the chaos.
21. Legally Blonde (2001)
Reese Witherspoon brings bubbly energy to the role of Elle Woods, a fashionable sorority girl who surprises everyone when she enrolls in Harvard Law School. While initially underestimated, Elle's determination and sharp legal mind shine as she challenges stereotypes and proves her worth.
Witherspoon's portrayal of Elle celebrates her strength, resilience, and intelligence, delivering a lighthearted yet empowering message. Legally Blonde is like the quintessential girl boss before the concept of a girl boss became a thing. However, the story has heart and charm as one of the most classic chick flicks in modern history, and it's missing all the force-fed cringe that recent overtly feminist flicks deliver nowadays.
Legally Blonde feels like an organic story, not a story that was crafted after the fact to deliver a specific social commentary. I love social commentaries, but they need to serve a purpose to avoid coming off as performative.
22. Jojo Rabbit (2019)
Scarlett Johansson plays Rosie Betzler, a compassionate and courageous mother in a satirical World War II comedy-drama. As her young son Jojo gets entangled in Hitler Youth, Rosie navigates her resistance efforts while imparting important lessons about love and acceptance. Johansson's performance captures Rosie's strength as she defies societal expectations and stands up for what she believes in, even in the face of great danger.
23. Ex Machina (2014)
Alicia Vikander portrays Ava, an advanced humanoid robot created by a brilliant and reclusive scientist. As a young programmer, Caleb, played by Domhnall Gleeson, interacts with Ava, her intelligence and complexity become evident. Vikander's performance blends vulnerability, intelligence, and a sense of agency, making Ava a captivating female android challenging notions of humanity and power.
24. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Although Inglourious Basterds features an ensemble cast, Mélanie Laurent's portrayal of Shosanna Dreyfus stands out. As a Jewish cinema owner in German-occupied France, Shosanna became a pivotal figure in a plan to assassinate high-ranking German officials. Laurent brings quiet strength and resilience to the character, showcasing Shosanna's determination to seek justice and reclaim her power in the face of oppression.
25. Easy A (2010)
Easy A is a fun, teenage drama about a high school student (Emma Stone) who is usually a good, clean-cut kid. But when she lies about losing her virginity, she can't help but notice her life is turning into a real-life edition of The Scarlet Letter. So instead of letting the rumors devour her, she uses the lie to improve her standing in life.
Jaimee Marshall is a culture writer, avid movie buff, and political junkie. She spends the bulk of her time watching and critiquing films, writing political op-eds, and dabbling in philosophy. She has a Communication Studies degree from West Chester University of Pennsylvania, where she flirted with several different majors before deciding to pursue writing. As a result, she has a diverse educational background, having studied economics, political science, psychology, business admin, rhetoric, and debate.
At Wealth of Geeks, Jaimee places an emphasis on film and television analysis, ranking the best [and worst] in media so you can find more diamonds in the rough and waste less time on box-office duds. You can find her articles on politics and culture in Evie Magazine, Katie Couric Media, Lotus Eaters, and Her Campus. You can also find her find her episode of Popcorned Planet, where she analyzes the Johnny Depp & Amber Heard trial. She has written extensively about due process, free speech, and pop culture.