25 Of The Best Kick-Ass, Female-Led Films To Watch For Some Uplifting And Empowerment

Becky Burgum, Saskia Kemsley
·13-min read
Photo credit: Booksmart  - Getty Images
Photo credit: Booksmart - Getty Images


Strong female leads in Hollywood films were once hard to come by.

Thankfully, the #MeToo and Time's Up movements kickstarted new conversations around gender equality and led to an exciting newfound emphasis on women's stories.

Many actresses, from Jennifer Aniston (The Morning Show) to Nicole Kidman (Big Little Lies), ventured to the small screen, for more developed characters and better storylines for women. And over the past couple of years, there have been films with inspiring female leads aplenty, from Greta Gerwig's Little Women to Olivia Wilde's Booksmart.

Although the awards circuit continually fails to recognise female directors, we most certainly have not. Talented female writers, directors and actors are claiming the spotlight in a post-Weinstein world, and for all the right reasons so deserve to be championed.

Here is a list of the best female-led films to get you through self-isolation:

1. Eighth Grade, 2018

Seeing 13-year old Kayla (played by rising star Elsie Fisher) shuffle awkwardly into the pool party of the coolest girl in school while dressed in a swimming cozzy that's far too small is utter genius. Along with having her on YouTube channel (complete with a cringey catchphrase), a creepy run in with an older boy and being furiously embarrassed any time dad opens his mouth, this is the most relatable representation yet of the horrors of early adolescence.

One of Barack Obama's favourite films of 2018, this awkward coming-of-age tale empathetically represents kids who live their lives online with razor sharp accuracy.

2. Hustlers, 2019

Based on Jessica Pressler’s New York Magazine article, 'The Hustlers at Scores', Lorene Scafaria directs one of the most talked about films of last year. With Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu as leads, the film follows a group of New York City strippers with a masterplan to scam Wall Street executives. Look out for cameos by Lizzo and Cardi B.

3. Harriet, 2019

'I will give every last drop of blood in my veins until this monster called slavery is dead.' Kasi Lemmons directs the powerful biopic of American political activist, Harriet Tubman – played by Cynthia Erivo – who escapes slavery, joins the abolitionist movement and returns to help others to freedom.

For her performance in the film, Erivo received nominations at the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, and the Screen Actors Guild. Janelle Monae supports.

4. The Sky Is Pink, 2019

Featuring former ELLE UK cover star Priyanka Chopra Jonas – who returns to Bollywood after a three year break – The Sky Is Pink is based on the real life story of Aisha Chaudhary (played by Zaira Wasim) who was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis. Directed by Shonali Bose, the film tells the 25-year love story of her parents, Aditi and Niren, dealing with their daughter's illness and their journey from India to the UK.

5. Booksmart, 2019

Getting straight A's and giving zero Fs, Molly and Amy are the know-it-all bookworms who have fake IDs just to get into the library and use the word 'Malala' (as in Yousafzai) as their secret BFF codeword. Played by rising stars Beanie Feldstein and BAFTA nominated Kaitlyn Denver, on the eve of graduation the friends vow to have the wildest night of their lives after discovering the kids who partied through school also got into Ivy League universities.

Olivia Wilde's directorial debut is the ultimate feel-good teen adventure which sees two best friends unintentionally tripping on acid, hunting future lovers down via Snapchat and strengthening their sisterhood.

6. Spirited Away, 2003

Considered one of the greatest anime films ever made, crossing generations and cultures, Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away sees 10-year-old Chihiro as its hero. After her parents are turned into pigs in an abandoned theme park, it's up to Chihiro to break the spell.

Taking you on a truly enchanting journey through the spirit world, this film might start a new anime obsession.

7. Little Women, 2019

Greta Gerwig's adaptation of the literary classic, starring Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh and Eliza Scanlen, will have you weeping for the entire second half. In perhaps the most explicitly feminist take to date on the Louisa May Alcott's 1868 novel – highlighting the value of women’s joy and labour – we are reunited with sisters Jo, Amy, Meg and Beth.

Following their passage from childhood to adulthood, the star-studded cast also includes Call Me By Your Name's Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep and Laura Dern,

Though Greta was snubbed at the 2020 Oscars, this film rightfully received critical acclaim. It will make you more grateful for opportunities we are given as women in 2020, while inspiring you to keep pushing the glass ceiling in the name of the women who pushed long before.

8. The Runaways, 2010

In The Runaways – a biographic about the band of the same name – periods take centre stage in a glorious opening scene that sees droplets of Cherie Currie's (Dakota Fanning) period blood hit the pavement. She runs into a petrol station bathroom to stuff toilet paper in her knickers as a makeshift sanitary towel, and the film continues to smash stereotypical onscreen representations of women.

Kristen Stewart plays the co-lead, Joan Jett, to tell the story of the world's first rock and roll (girl) band, directed by Floria Sigismondi.

9. Erin Brockovich, 2000

Showing Julia Roberts at her finest, this film will have you scouring eBay and Depop for every killer 1990s / 2000s look. Every outfit is a total moment for the single mother and legal assistant seeking justice for a town poisoned by their water supply.

Robert's tells the true story of a woman who transcends her humble surroundings, a force of nature who takes on the big dogs and wins.

10. Kill Bill, 2003

Quentin Tarrentino doesn't often give much airtime to women in his movies (except Jackie Brown, another must-watch), but Uma Thurman is the ultimate, bad ass hero in this cult-classic, revenge-fuelled two parter.

A pregnant assassin - nicknamed The Bride - is beaten into a coma by husband-to-be boss Bill on their wedding day. When she wakes up four years later, she is hellbent on revenge against him and his associates.

11. Knock Down the House, 2019

If, like us, you're in love with congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (aka AOC) then look no further than this Netflix documentary. Directed by Rachel Lears, it follows AOC, as well as Nevada's Amy Vilela, Missouri's Cori Bush, and West Virginia's Paula Jean Swearengin as they all prepare for the 2018 midterm elections in their respective states.

It provides the much-needed feeling of hope about American politics and reportedly sold to Netflix for $10 million, making it the biggest documentary sale ever from a film festival.

Wether you're in the politics loop or not, expect tears and a renews sense of drive to make the world a better place.

11. Rocks, 2020

Filmed on estates in east London, with every actor making their screen debut, Rocks is a tender exploration of the resilient spirit of girlhood and the transformative power of female friendships, with all the rawness of Larry Clarke’s Kids.

Scouted from her Hackney secondary school, lead Bukky Bakray plays a girl in Year 11 (Rocks) tasked with looking after her lovable little brother Emmanuel (D’Angelou Osei Kissiedu) after their troubled mother abandons them. On the run from social workers, Rocks tries to prevent her brother from being taken into foster care, living off money she makes from working as a make-up artist after school.

Directed by Suffragette's Sarah Gavron, the crew was deliberately made up of 75% women.

12. Wild Rose, 2019

Starring BAFTA Rising Star nominee Jessie Buckley and legendary British actors Julie Walters and Sophie Okonedo, Rose-Lynn Harlan (Buckley) is a single mother of two, fresh out of prison, who dreams of leaving Glasgow for Nashville to make it as a country singer. Written by BAFTA award-winning writer Nicole Taylor (Three Girls, The C Word), Wild Rose is an uplifting (yet slightly traumatic) story about family, dreams and reality, with an epic original soundtrack sung by Buckley herself.

She sings an entire album of country bangers (half of which she co-wrote) with vocals so hauntingly beautiful it will send shivers down your spine or (highly likely) tears down your cheeks.

13. Bombshell, 2019

Bombshell is a revealing look inside the most powerful and controversial media empire of all time: Fox News, and the explosive story of the women who brought down the infamous man who created it.

Based on the real sexual harassment allegations against former Chairman and CEO of Fox News Roger Ailes, Margot Robbie, Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman portray the extremely contrasting female experiences and responses.

14. Thelma and Louise, 1991

When it was released in 1991, the cult film, directed by Ridley Scott, was heralded as a screen breakthrough – two spirited female protagonists breaking free from male dominance. It scooped an Oscar for Best Screenplay for writer Callie Khouri and five nominations, including a Best Actress for both Geena Davis (Thelma) and Susan Sarandon (Louise).

When two best friends embark on a road trip, unforeseen violent circumstances ensue. Thelma and Louise have since become established as Hollywood's favourite friends-turned-outlaws and feminist debates over this story of female revenge secured the film's legacy.

15. Whitney, 2018

Set against the backdrop of previously unseen personal home videos, Kevin Macdonald’s incredibly intimate portrayal of the life and music of a young Whitney Houston creates an honest, unapologetic depiction of the icon’s stratospheric rise to fame and subsequent self-destructive fall.

Not only does Whitney chronicle how the Queen of Pop fought for independence in a male-dominated industry, but the film also acts as a raging commentary on racial politics from the Eighties through to the Noughties. Get ready, it’s going to be So Emotional…

16. Generation Wealth, 2018

You’ll be stifling some awkward laughter at this hilariously bizarre, yet dark and twisted documentary on the psychology of the money-hungry society that we live in. Through a series of photographs and candid first-person interviews with people from Los Angeles to Moscow, we're confronted with the question: is the world of luxury really all that it seems?

Written and directed by all-round wonder woman Lauren Greenfield, the film also focuses on her own struggle between pursuing her wild career (as an artist, photographer and documentary maker) and staying at home to help raise her kids.

17. Matangi/ Maya/ M.I.A, 2018

This documentary starring M.I.A is drawn from a never-before seen store of personal footage spanning from her teenage years through to present day. An exploration of her ever-evolving identity, the title reflects the many names that the singer Maya… Matangi, or M.I.A, goes by.

Like Whitney, the film creates an intimate portrait of the Sri Lankan artist, musician and activist as she utilises the platform that fame has given her in order to fight for the rights of the disadvantaged – all while perfecting her own original sound.

Spoiler alert: Prepare for some real Nineties nostalgia: Maya does dance in her room in front of a Wu Tang Clan poster.

18. Disobedience, 2018

Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams take the lead in this daring exploration of female sexuality within the Orthodox Jewish community in London; more specifically, Hendon and Golders Green.

When the outlandish, though dedicated photographer Ronit (Weisz) returns to the community that shunned her for her attraction to a childhood friend (McAdams), their passions reignite as they attempt to navigate the boundaries of faith and sexuality. Hard-hitting and erotic, this film is one to watch.

19. Widows, 2018

Based on the 1983 ITV series of the same name, Steve McQueen’s Widows is set in present-day Chicago in which four women, whose dead husbands’ criminal activities have left them in crippling debt, band together in order to secure their own fates.

Written by Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn, the film features an all-star cast including Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki. Now that’s some kick-ass female casting. Oh, Colin Farrell and Daniel Kaluuya also make appearances.

20. If Beale Street Could Talk, 2018

This modern take on the classic novel by James Baldwin is written and directed by Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins, and stars Kiki Layne, Dave Franco and Pedro Pascal. Based in 1970s Harlem, the plot follows 19-year-old, pregnant Tish (Layne) as she desperately tries to prove her fiancé Fonny (Pascal) innocent of an accusation of rape.

Though suspenseful and hard-hitting at times, as the systematic racism of 1970s New York is laid bare, the story is ultimately a must-see celebration of love, family and the importance of community during times of crisis.

21. Second Act, 2018

Jennifer Lopez returns to the screen in this new romantic comedy as 40-year-old store worker Maya, who ditches her job and tries to prove herself as a Madison Avenue PR wizard. Think Working Girl meets Maid in Manhattan.

Also starring Vanessa Hudgens and Annaleigh Ashford, this is the latest move by entertainment company STX Films in their active attempts to produce more female-led films, and we’re in full support.

22. The Girl in The Spider’s Web, 2018

The Girl in The Spider’s Web follows computer hacker Lisabeth Salander (Claire Foy) and journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason), as they find themselves caught in a web of spies, cybercriminals and corrupt government officials.

This highly anticipated revamp of the fourth novel of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series sees Foy add her own unique twist to the hardened, merciless vigilante against an intense, dystopian backdrop. Prepare for a wild ride.

23. The Hate U Give, 2018

Originally a YA novel by Angie Thomas, this film follows a young teen named Starr (Amandla Stenberg), who is drawn to activism after witnessing the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend. With community pressure mounting on all sides, Starr finds herself in the centre of a political upheaval while standing up for what she believes in.

Incredibly relevant and brutally honest, this movie will strike a chord across all audiences.

24. A Star Is Born, 2018

Though written and directed by leading man Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born also marks Lady Gaga’s feature film debut, following the huge success of TV series American Horror Story that propelled her into the acting world.

The film tells the story of seasoned musician Jackson Maine (Cooper) and his love affair with relatively unknown singer-songwriter Ally (Gaga). While the plot sounds like a Nicolas Sparks-esque romance, the film also tackles the taboo around mental health within the celebrity world, bringing to light how many continue to suffer in silence; an issue Gaga is known to speak up about.

25. Queen & Slim, 2020

Written by Lena Waithe and directed by Melina Matsoukas, Queen & Slim offers a revisionist twist on a familiar scenario in America. A story of defiance and protest, it takes the tragedy one could anticipate when a Black person encounters a racist police officer and turns it on its head.

A routine traffic stop ends with two Black motorists walking away and a white officer dead. An unremarkable first date between two electrifying leads, played by Jodie Turner-Smith (Queen) and Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya (Slim), ends with the couple on the run as a nationwide manhunt ensues. It’s Bonnie and Clyde for the Black Lives Matter era.

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