1) Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) – The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Hannibal Lecter is considered the greatest villain of them all in cinematic history. It is quite the achievement then that Clarice Starling was not lost in his shadow but instead became the greatest female hero to match him. With her good bag and cheap shoes, Starling is the underdog from the outset, fighting against patriarchy and sexism from all areas, she is ever composed and will not give up. Jodie Foster only ever plays women with great inner strength, the reason this role is her best though is because Starling is not afraid of herself and lays open her inner demons to a psychopath in order to save the day.
2) Lola (Franka Potente) – Run Lola Run (Lola Rennt) (1998)
SHIZA! Here is a woman who knows how to cuss and scream, sometimes at the same time. This is a role reversal so effective you don’t even know it has happened. Lola is going to save Manni, and she is going to run all over Berlin to do it, the end. Director Tom Tykwer wrote this part specifically for then-partner Franka Potente, and she embodies the role of woman willing to do anything to save her lover perfectly.
3) Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) – Alien (1979)
A part originally written for a man, the character of Ripley was so breakthrough that Sigourney Weaver was nominated for an Oscar for the sequel Aliens in 1986. The role though is not above criticism and has been debated in regards to its gender politics, in particular the cat rescue and the possible conservative maternalising of the character at the end. But almost 30 years later Ripley has no competition and is still the best example of a strong, self-reliant take-charge female hero on film, particularly in the genre of sci-fi.
4) Frida Kahlo (Salma Hayek) – Frida (2002)
You couldn’t invent a character this good – if it weren’t for the biographical nature of this film, it would be at the top of the list. Salma Hayek personally pushed the project for a number of years until it was given the green light before overcoming the bigger challenge of doing justice to the role of Frida. A feminist icon, Frida is at her best when she is fighting against injustice and dealing with the betrayal of her own body, lovers and family. Never one to grieve quietly, she cuts her hair, sings, drinks, and of course, paints.
5) Amelie Poulain (Audrey Tautou) – Amelie (2001)
At age six she gets duped, a few days later realising she has been tricked she gets even. Throughout the film Amelie takes fate into her own hands and plays matchmaker and karma to those around her, in her own special style of doing good. When she finds herself attracted to a man, she becomes the pursuer and quirky seducer determined to win his heart. Audrey Tautou gives an engaging performance as the imaginative obsessive Amelie, who is never self-depreciating or in competition with anyone but herself.
6) Nausicaa/Princess Mononoke/Kiki/Chihiro – Hayao Miyazaki films (1984 – 2001)
Miyazaki is the feminist whom animation could not do without. All of his feature films have young female characters as the leads and often also place women as the powerful nemesis. A few of the best would be Nausicaa (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind) the young heroine who is respected by her people and becomes a peacekeeper between warring factions. Princess Mononoke (Princess Mononoke) a child thrown to the wolves who ends up living with them; the poster alone deserves special mention for depicting Mononoke defiantly staring with blood on her face. Kiki (Kiki’s Delivery Service), a young witch on a rite of passage, whose struggles in growing up are as realistic as any. And finally Chihiro (Spirited Away), the young girl trapped in another world who must save her parents from turning into pigs.
7) Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) – Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
For the reprisal of the role of Sarah Connor, Linda Hamilton built herself up physically to reflect the change in character. Such was the impact of this transformation she was often only sent similar roles after the release of the film. More than just a tough body though, Sarah Connor is a woman deemed insane by the rest of society because she knows the future and becomes a vigilante in order to change it. Who can argue with a mother who can pump a shotgun with one arm? She is a true female action hero.
8) Agnes Ahlberg (Rebecca Liljeberg) – Show Me Love (Fucking Amal) (1998)
If there was a Top 10 Cutest Movie Couple list Agnes and Elin would be on it. Agnes is an awkward Swedish teen rejected by everyone at her school and forced to hang out with the other reject, a girl in a wheelchair, and she has a crush on popular and cool Elin. Alienated and troubled she writes poems about Elin, and with these simple moments she seems to exactly encompass what being a teenager is all about.
9) Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) – Scream (1996)
In the horror genre notorious for objectifying, torturing and killing women, there are few characters that survive and manage not to expose themselves at the same time. Sidney Prescott is one of these characters. The heroine of self-referential slasher Scream, Sidney is the nice girl with the tragic past who isn’t above punching a bitchy reporter in the face or suspecting her own boyfriend of being a killer. Ultimately winning out, she foils her two captors and the film’s serial murderers with the help of a TV and umbrella. Macgyver would be so proud.
10) Jesminder ‘Jess’ Kaur Bhamra (Parminder Nagra) – Bend it like Beckham (2002)
One of only two movies on the list to be directed by a female (the other being Frida), Bend it Like Beckham is a feel-good family affair that centers on the unlikely story of girls playing football. Jess talks to posters of Beckham on her wall, wants footy boots instead of heels and matches the boys on the pitch rather than chase them off it. Then there’s her footy mad mate Jules (Keira Knightley), who gets hassled by her mum about sports bras and told there’s a reason why Sporty Spice is the only one without a man. Brilliant.
A few that came close to making the list, but ultimately couldn’t be on it because their depth of emotion does not stretch beyond their need for revenge, include Vanessa Lutz in Freeway, Hayley Stark in Hard Candy, and of course The Bride in Kill Bill. Neither could any roles that are part of romantic comedies nor hard-hitting dramas make the cut. As parts will always be written for women in these genres, those to make the list of female heroes needed to be something unexpected.