The 20 Coolest Film Roles For Women; DVD Ideas For Your Holiday

Cover of "Erin Brockovich"
Cover of Erin Brockovich

Always open for debate, of course, here’s my vote for the 20 coolest female characters in film; here’s the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ list of the top 100.

1. Alien, and its later versions, with Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, who got to say some of the best lines ever in her calm, patrician way, even as a clone. “I thought you were dead!”, says one. “I get that a lot,” she coolly replies. Whether wielding a big-ass flamethrower or her compassion, Ripley remains one of my favorites: the definition of sangfroid amid unimaginable terror, droll in the face of acid-spewing monsters.

2. Doctor Zhivago, 1965Julie Christie as Lara, a complicated, tough woman who starts out selling her body as a desperate teenager to the creepy Komarovsky and ends up living with her doctor and lover Yuri in the wilds of Varykyno. She’s forever the adaptable survivor, cool enough at 17 to stash a pistol in her fur muff and shoot the man who controls her. Heady stuff for the times.

3. Queen Christina, 1933, with Greta Garbo in the lead role. It’s not easy being Queen.

4. Terminator, 1984 Linda Hamilton, big guns, serious biceps.

5. An Education, 2009,  Carey Mulligan. This fantastic new film about a young British girl — based on a true story — who falls for a handsome older con man is as much about her education as that of her parents, eager to marry her off, out and up.

6. Brick Lane, 2007, Tannishta Chatterjee, from the terrific book by Monica Ali. The choices made by the protagonist defy conventional wisdom about docile, male-ruled South Asian lower-class immigrant women.

7. Water, 2005, Lisa Ray. A film so controversial that filming in India was shut down by protestors and moved to Sri Lanka. Directed by Canadian woman director Deepa Mehta, it’s a powerful look at the lives of widowed Indian women. An exquisitely beautiful film with a haunting soundtrack, it’s both joyful and despairing about women’s lives within the most restrictive constraints.

8. Whale Rider, 2002, Keisha Castle-Hughes. I love this New Zealand film about a feisty 11-year-old Maori girl, Pai, who desperately wants to be accepted into the male-only rituals of her people. She is so touchingly, stubbornly insistent and persuasive. Haunting visuals and a great performance.

9. Erin Brockovich, 2000, Julia Roberts. One of the few films in which she doesn’t play a ditz but a tough, funny, compassionate woman, a real-life heroine.

10. Norma Rae, 1979, Sally Field. Who can ever forget her standing on a table in that deafening textile mill, holding up a sign saying “Union”? Based on the real life of union organizer Crystal Lee Sutton.

11. Silkwood, 1983, Meryl Streep. Another profile of a real-life fighter,  killed while trying to reveal information about an unsafe nuclear power plant; one of Nora Ephron’s earliest screenplays.

12. Notorious, 1946, Ingmar Bergman. Alicia Huberman moves into a mansion and marries a Nazi in Rio while secretly spying on him. The scene where she is rescued does me in.

13. Million Dollar Baby, 2005, Hilary Swank. Not an easy film to watch, and the ending was deeply controversial. I love how this film shows the incredible power a coach can have on a female athlete, for better or worse.

14. Silence of The Lambs, 1990, Jody Foster. Another difficult film to watch. OK, terrifying! Clarice Starling is a compelling character, a young woman in a man’s world as a novice FBI agent chasing a serial killer. Her relationship with her boss is as powerfully revealing of her own vulnerabilities.

15. The Piano, 1993, Holly Hunter. A woman married to a brute breaks free in colonial-era New Zealand.

16. Out Of Africa, 1985, Meryl Streep. Writer Isak Dinesen had it all, on paper — a coffee plantation, a farm in the Ngong Hills of Kenya, an aristocratic Danish husband and a dashing British lover. A powerful portrait of love, independence and compromise.

17. Juno, 2007, Ellen Page. Many people found this film nauseatingly anti-abortion. I loved the character of Juno, joking her way through the physical and emotional madness of bearing a baby while still in high school.

18. Rachel Getting Married, 2008, Anne Hathaway. She totally should have won the Oscar for this searing role of Kym, the narcisisstic, needy little sister. It takes guts to play a character so annoying and memorable.

19. Cabaret, 1972, Liza Minelli. “Divinely decadent,” darling!” As a lonely American cabaret singer, Sally flashes her dark green fingernails and blusters her way through life and love in pre-war Germany.

20. Charlotte Gray, 2001, Cate Blanchett. No one seems to recall this film, about a British woman who goes behind enemy lines in France to work with the French Resistance and falls in love there. I loved it.

20a. The Reader, 2008, Kate Winslet. Based on a best-selling German novel, she plays a female you can’t ever forget, tough and vulnerable and terrifying.

Do strong female characters really scare away movie-goers?

Who are some of your favorite women characters of the cinema?

23 thoughts on “The 20 Coolest Film Roles For Women; DVD Ideas For Your Holiday

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Caitlin Kelly - Broadside – The 20 Coolest Film Roles For Women; DVD Ideas For Your Holiday - True/Slant --

  2. My list would have to include: Bette Davis as Margo Channing “All About Eve,” Francis McDormand in “Fargo,” Lauren Bacall in “The Big Sleep” (whatta dame!) and Geena Davis and/or Susan Sarandon in “Thelma & Louise.”

    I loved Anne H. in “Rachel Getting Married,” although that movie is terribly flawed and could have used a good editor to cut about 30 minute of self-indulgent crap. But Hathaway was incredible. So good, in fact, that I waded through the crap just to watch her.

  3. Pingback: Caitlin Kelly – Broadside – The 20 Coolest Film Roles For Women … | I Film Channel

  4. Caitlin Kelly

    Thanks…I would have included Thelma and Louise but I hated the ending. Women have to die for having a kick-ass adventure? I agree about Rachel Getting Married; lots there to cut.

    1. Ms. Kelly,

      Thelma and Louise are both great roles. The ending that they had was the only ending possible for those characters in that movie. How else could it have ended? It is like the ending of Dr. Strangelove, it certainly not a “positive” or “uplifting” ending, the exact opposite in fact but nothing else would have made any sense. Imagine if Major Kong had disabled the atom bomb after learning that it was all a false alarm and then parachuted off of the now inactive atom bomb? This is what ruined “Fight Club”, the movie keeps taking us to crazier and crazier heights of testosterone induced madness and then just screeches to a frustratingly unsatisfying halt at the precipice of self-destruction. The entire administration of George W. Bush is how that movie actually should have ended – a mad orgy of massive destruction and chaos. T&L went where it had to go (people would not still be talking about that movie if it hadn’t). Think of it as Mrs. Strangelove.

  5. nakis

    I am glad you included the great Garbo in “Queen Christina” in your list. In my opinion, this is probably the most powerful portrait of a woman we have ever seen on the screen, a true model for feminists. Unlike, some of the other characters suggested including Seagourney Weaver (whom I admire) in “Alien” Garbo’s “Queen Christina is a great exemple for she remains powerful, strong and fragile, intelligent, sensitive masculine and feminine at the same time and of course extraordinarily beautiful without ever being violent. The best exemple and a true role model for women. I would put her in number one and I think any list would not be complete without some of the other great actresses of the golden era like Bette Davis let us say in “Now Voyager”, Katharine Hepburn in “African Queen” and Vivien Leigh in “Gone with the wind”.

  6. Caitlin Kelly

    “Open a new window, open a new door, travel a new highway you’ve never been down before….”

    We can do the show at our holiday party.

  7. andygeiger

    Slight correction: Linda Hamilton didn’t grow those big biceps and commensurate attitude until T2 (1991).

    I’m really surprised. I mean, my plebian, non-cultured self would pick Sigourney aka Ripley for the top of the list, but then again i don’t know the first thing about the Ingmar Bergmans and Greta Garbos, et al, of classic Hollywood. In fact, i was just watching Aliens last night and never get tired of seeing Sigorney strap it on and show those quivering space marines how it’s done.

    If i were able to add one to the list, it would be Anjelica Huston in The Grifters (hell in any role, that woman is one class act).

  8. Caitlin Kelly

    andy, thanks for the correction. I was OD-ing this weekend on the Alien series re-runs on TV and was so struck, again, by what a fantastic character Ripley is — especially compared to the insipid and moronic film roles for women of late (Shopaholic, bridal tizzies, etc. UGH) where women have to be money or marriage obsessed to find a role, instead of knowing how to blast some crappy space alien to smithereens. That’s my kind of woman. I so loved her pal-ship with Winona Ryder — officially playing a robot – in Alien 3. How can a clone and a robot be fantastic women characters? They were and they are.

    The final astonishing image at the end of Alien 3 of Ripley throwing herself, in a long, graceful plummet to her death into a pool of fire to kill the alien inside her is extraordinary.

    I bet entire theses have been written on the symbolism in these films about birth and death and motherhood.

  9. inmyhumbleopinion

    How about (in no particular order):
    1. Jodie Foster, “The Accused”?
    2. Tatum O’Neal, “Paper Moon”?
    3. Frances McDormand in “Fargo”?
    4. Ellen Barkin, “The Big Easy”?
    5. Mary Stuart Masterson, “Fried Green Tomatoes”?
    6. Meg Ryan, “When Harry Met Sally”?
    7. Diane Keaton, “Something’s Gotta Give”?

  10. Dawn, I have a friend who has gone as Tippi Hedren in “The Birds” for multiple Halloweens. Hilarious every time.

    Kate Hepburn in “The Philadelphia Story?” I prefer Kate in both “Pat and Mike” and “Adam’s Rib.”

    Angela Bassett in “Strange Days.” Disappointing movie, but she’s a complete and total bad ass in it. Put it in your Netflix for a slow week.

    Does Helen Mirren as Detective Jane Tennison in the BBC “Prime Suspect” series count?

  11. Caitlin Kelly

    Jody, I think we need a totally separate list of cool women TV characters…I’ll get on it.

    I agree, Mirren was amazing in that role.

    1. Claire Bushey

      I’m nominating C.J. Cregg of “The West Wing” for your list of all-around awesome female TV characters. Series creator Aaron Sorkin writes her as an intelligent, compassionate woman who’s very, very good at her job as presidential press secretary.

      I like to see depictions of women who are strong and successful in professional life. Very few get the opportunity to strap on a flamethrower and incinerate aliens, but the majority of us fight it out each day in the workplace, and to show a woman doing so with grace and savvy is a welcome antidote to the usual pop culture pap.

  12. datajunkie

    My vote is for America Ferrera in Real Women Have Curves. Not as well known as some on your list, but definitely a must watch for daughters/nieces/cousins in early high school. It seems to me that Ms. Ferrera has had to whitewash herself considerably to go mainstream. Quite a waste of considerable talent.

  13. Caitlin Kelly

    Claire, great call. I’m already starting my list of female TV characters, so thanks! I’ll put it up maybe this weekend…

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