Happy International Women’s Day from the Women and Hollywood team. In honor of the occasion, we’ve asked our interns to highlight some of their favorite movies by and about women. They’ve compiled a wide-ranging list of recommendations featuring influential films from various genres and decades. Whether you’re seeking a doc, biopic or drama, we’ve got you covered.
And while we’re celebrating women’s contributions to cinema, we’d also like to take this opportunity to celebrate Diana, Eboni and Siân’s invaluable contributions to this site, including our weekly newsletter, crowdfunding posts and social media campaigns. You can learn more about our interns here.
In “Dance, Girl, Dance,” Maureen O’Hara plays Judy, an aspiring ballerina who has to make a few artistic compromises in order to pursue her passion. When Judy finds herself jobless, Bubbles (Lucille Ball) takes her under her wing and ushers Judy into the world of burlesque. What ensues is a film filled with delightful performances coupled with a strong feminist point-of-view. The film’s treatment of Judy and Bubbles’ relationship is complex and nuanced. Though surface-wise the women clash over a mutual love interest (Louis Hayward), what the pair are really sorting out is a fundamental difference in their values: Judy is frustrated that Bubbles is willing to exploit herself to keep performing, and Bubbles is upset by Judy’s elitism. The film is best known for Judy’s powerful monologue toward the end, when she finally reaches her breaking point. As one of two women working in the studio system in the 1930s and 40s (the other was Ida Lupino), director Dorothy Arzner was committed to re-envisioning how women were depicted on-screen. So it’s difficult to deny that in the final moment of the film, Judy is articulating Arzner’s own frustrations with Hollywood. Many women are currently speaking out about their exclusion from the boy’s club of Hollywood: “Dance, Girl, Dance” is an essential film that still resonates today.
When Selena Quintanilla died at the age of 23, she was on the verge of recording an English-language album, preparing to “cross over” from the Latin music scene. This cross over extended beyond this particular moment. All her life Quintanilla straddled two cultures, remixing Mexican cumbia with Texan pop, rock and R&B. Though “Selena” is primarily a biopic chronicling the star’s childhood (young Selena is played by Becky Lee Meza) through her rise to fame and eventual death, the film is a must-see for its thoughtful depiction of the young Latina learning about her Mexican heritage while living in Texas. When Selena begins to sing, she is able to craft a space for herself in both worlds, recording the majority of her songs in Spanish (though she did not speak the language well) and infusing traditional Mexican genres with electronic beats to create her own sound, electro-cumbia. Quintanilla became the queen of Tejano music, a rare feat given the music industry’s sexism.
The casting of Jennifer Lopez as Selena was an ingenious way to drive home the themes of the film — Lopez, a girl from the Bronx of Puerto Rican descent, similarly juggled two cultures with ease. Lopez is magnetic in the film. She bears a striking likeness to the singer and is able to capture Quintanilla’s no-frills charm her fans admire and remember to this day. Last year, as part of the 20th anniversary of Quintanilla’s death, Lopez performed some of her songs at the Billboard Latin Music Awards backed by Quintanilla’s band, Los Dinos. It was a touching tribute to a woman whose legacy far surpasses the relatively small catalogue of music she left behind. This film is the perfect primer to the life of a woman that changed the visibility of Latinas in the American entertainment industry.
“Daughters of the Dust” is the first feature film from by an African American woman director to receive a theatrical release in the United States. The 1991 film follows three generations of Gullah women, a community of descendants of slaves in South Carolina, isolated unto themselves in a way of life uniquely made up of West African and American traditions. The dramatic costumes and landscapes elucidate this family of women as they work through conflicts with each other and themselves while maintaining connections to the past. Nana (Cora Lee Day) is the matriarch of the family and the heart of its connection to tradition and the beliefs of the ancestors who came before them, but Haagar (Kaycee Moore), Yellow Mary (Barbara O), Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) and Eula (Alva Rogers) each must navigate issues that propel them into the future, such as angst, sexuality, religion and unplanned pregnancy. “Daughters of the Dust” was added to the The Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2004.
Based on the supernatural novel penned by canonized writer Toni Morrison, “Beloved” is the story of Seethe (Oprah Winfrey), a former slave and mother of three, who is haunted by the horrific treatment she received in her previous life as a slave. The trauma of those memories is not the only thing haunting Seethe, however; she becomes accustomed to being taunted by an angry poltergeist that drives away her children and anyone else who dares try to become close with her. As the film progresses, we learn that Seethe had to do something very desperate to escape slavery and that this desperate act could be the cause of the haunting and the appearance of Beloved (Thandie Newton), a strange, disturbed young girl who seems to come out of nowhere. She is supernatural, but her pain is all too real. Her attachment to Seethe brings previously buried memories to the surface in this unique ghost story, which uses the supernatural horror film genre to explore the sexually exploitative nature of the United States’ enslavement of women.
I think it’s impossible to make a list about women in the film industry who’ve made history without mentioning Kathryn Bigelow. She is the only woman to have won an Oscar for Best Director (“The Hurt Locker”) after all, and her win in 2009 was also the last time a woman was even nominated in this category. Bigelow’s films inevitably end up on those infuriating “10 Unexpected Films Directed By Women” lists because apparently women are only supposed to direct chick flicks. You could pick almost any Bigelow film for this list but I’m going with one of my personal favorites, “Point Break.” It’s one of the most iconic action films of the 90s. It also demonstrates Bigelow’s deft skill at crafting jaw-dropping, heart-pounding action sequences. At one point there’s an epic chase scene featuring jumping over fences, smashing through fences, darting into traffic, breaking glass doors, interrupting a woman doing laundry, explosions and dogs being thrown.
“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” – DP Ellen Kuras
I love pretty movies and tend to gravitate toward the ones with striking or unique cinematography. I’m always on the lookout for women cinematographers and as such I’ve noticed how the industry fails to champion — or even notice — them. (Case in point: no woman has ever even been nominated for Best Cinematographer at the Oscars.) Despite what the Oscars will have you think, there are actually many women cinematographers responsible for the look of many amazing films but if I had to pick one, it’s Ellen Kuras. Her impressive body of work includes documentaries, music videos, indie films and concert films. But my favorite film of hers, and one of my favorite films period, is “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” A huge part of what makes the film special are the striking visuals, made possible through the manic marriage of Kuras’s careful eye and David Stein’s impressive art direction. How she was not nominated for an Oscar for this film is beyond me. I mean, come on.
“Kill Bill Vol. 1” – Editor Sally Menke
Behind many superstar dude directors are amazing women editors. I shit you not: Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker; J.J. Abrams and Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey; Joss Whedon and Lisa Lassek; Steven Spielberg and Verna Fields; George Lucas and Marcia Griffin; Woody Allen and Alisa Lepselter; Jason Reitman and Dana Glauberman. For me, no one can compare to Sally Menke. She edited every single one of Quentin Tarantino’s features before her death in 2010 and a huge, huge part of what distinguishes his films is the editing. Remember how we everyone fawned over the nonlinear storyline in “Pulp Fiction”? Yeah, exactly. “Kill Bill Vol. 1” is even more brilliant, with different styles of filming and editing throughout, and so many badass fight sequences. Check out this clip of Tarantino gushing about Menke.
I wanted to end my list with a film about an inspiring woman and it was really, really hard to chose only one. I settled on “Mission Blue” because it’s an absolutely gorgeous documentary and Dr. Sylvia Earle is one of the the coolest women I wish I could meet. I had never heard of her before seeing this documentary, a fact I’m ashamed by. Earle is a marine biologist, oceanographer and explorer and was one of the pioneers for women working in her field (and women working in STEM in general). She’s been awarded enough medals to fill a small room, is often called “Her Deepness” (as she’s spent more than 7,000 hours underwater) and was Time magazine’s first “Hero for the Planet.” Basically: we are not worthy. “Mission Blue” explores Earle’s life and work and will literally make you cry because the oceans are dying and we aren’t doing anything about it. Listen to her speak about women in science and then go watch “Mission Blue” on Netflix.