From Joan Crawford’s tough bar owner Vienna to Kate Beckinsale’s acerbic Lady Susan Vernon, the women in these movies are by turns courageous, funny, and sharply intelligent
Words Greg Taylor
In our July issue we celebrated some of the strongest, most badass women in the movies, and last month we pondered the enormous, exciting, disruptive potential of Netflix. This issue, we’re combining the two and trawling through the dark and dingy labyrinths of the Netflix’s archive to unearth some of their shiniest hidden gems, with the two provisos being that (a) they focus on tough, brave, interesting, hilarious women and (b) they are thoroughly worth you putting the iPhone out of reach, eschewing the chill and giving them your undivided attention.
Johnny Guitar (1954)
Johnny Guitar is a remarkable Western for many reasons, though most memorable for its extraordinary central performance from Joan Crawford as the tough-as-nails bar owner Vienna. She’s an oasis of intelligence and dignity amidst a sea of tobacco-chewing testosterone-puffed half-wits, the only person to recognise the value of the incoming railroad and the only person brave enough to stand up to the bullies and bruisers who populate the desolate and vicious Wild West. Vienna gives far better than she gets, takes shit from absolutely no one, and ends up centre stage in the inevitable final gunfight that cements her as a genre icon. If you only ever watch one Western, make it this one.
Jodie Foster is most definitely one of the coolest of Hollywood stars, and has forged an impressively idiosyncratic path both as a director and star. She’s a towering, mesmeric presence in this extraordinary, if under-appreciated, story of a young autistic woman with her own unique language found living a feral existence in the wilds of the North Carolina mountains. If the storytelling feels a little basic and the reveals underwhelming, you’ll be too captivated by Foster’s moving, compassionate and Oscar-nominated portrayal of wide-eyed, terrified innocence to care.
Tank Girl (1995)
Before Wonder Woman, before the Black Widow, there was the utterly bonkers and thoroughly brilliant action comedy Tank Girl which, perhaps inevitably, tanked on release but is ripe for reappraisal. Lori Petty is gleefully anarchic as the anti-heroic, snarky and resolutely self-sufficient Tank Girl, out for revenge and justice in post-apocalyptic Australia where access to water is controlled by a corporation that’s so evil it’s run by Malcolm McDowell’s sneer. Tank Girl is a rare example of a truly feminist action film – its female characters are powerful, complex and hilarious and bring their fury and disdain to the oppressive patriarchy with fist-pumping, grin-inducing girl power, in no small part thanks to Professor Rachel Talalay, its savvy and talented director.
The Lunchbox (2013)
The insanely complex system that brings packed lunches to hundreds of thousands of office workers in Mumbai is renowned as one of the most efficient and meticulous human processes in the world. This gentle, perceptive Indian comedy drama charts what happens when the system goes wrong, as the meals that have been so lovingly prepared by frustrated young wife Ila (Nimrat Kaur) for her cheating husband go unexpectedly awry, ending up at the desk of a melancholy widower with whom she strikes up a tentative, epistolary romance. Ila is a fantastic character – passionate, talented and committed – and you’ll spend the whole film rooting for her to break the depressing cycle of unappreciated subservience she’s fallen into and get the happy ending she deserves.
Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)
Kristen Stewart is one of our most impressive young stars, capable of startling and incisive range that far exceeds most of her contemporaries. Her precocious talent has allowed her to subtly dominate the screen in an eclectic range of unusual and provocative films, not least her first outing with director Olivier Assayas in which she plays the loyal personal assistant to a faded star (Juliette Binoche, luminously acerbic) who is tempted back onto the stage to play the older of a lesbian couple, having played the younger character 20 years earlier in a production that made her famous. The film expertly blurs the lines between art and reality, youth and experience, loyalty and love, and builds an uncomfortable and erotic tension between its leads that is at once revealing and intensely unknowable. It’s to the credit of its stars and director that Clouds of Sils Maria works as well as a confounding mystery as it does an incisive character study.
Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)
Think this sounds like another lame rom-com with a fake-gawky teen fawning over some smirking stud, only to realise that true love is in the form of her nerdy-but-devoted best friend? Well, this is most certainly not that film. Instead this is a sex-filled, bawdy, insightful and painful comedy about a 15-year-old girl who is exploring her sexuality with unabashed freedom, to hell with the consequences. The outstandingly brazen Bel Powley (who also played the Princess Margaret in a somewhat less sexually-explicit role) throws herself heart and soul into a rare film that refuses to shy away from the excitement and awkwardness of female sexual awakening, presenting a series of hilarious and horrifying encounters that avoid narrow judgements but give eye-opening insight into the mind, desires and fears of a creative, intelligent and naïve girl who wants to get laid. The film’s rare 18 certificate makes it clear, this is no She’s All That, and the febrile and winning combination of female writer and director ensure this Diary is a revelation.
Denis Villeneuve’s crime thriller about a cross-agency operation to take down a bloodthirsty drugs cartel operating across the Tex-Mex border positively seethes with tension and barely- restrained violence. Our very own Emily Blunt shines as Kate, the young FBI agent (who could have been trained by Clarice Starling) pulled into a world of unimaginable and casual evil, aiming her gun into a festering abyss that’s staring straight back into her soul. Opening with a sequence of unforgettable savagery and ratcheting up the horror from then, Sicario isn’t a film for the faint of heart, but if you like your dramas meaty, realistic and ripped from the headlines, then it’s a gut-thump trip into the heart of darkness.
Love and Friendship (2016)
While it’s based on a little-remembered Jane Austen novel, Whit Stillman’s hilarious and free-wheeling period-piece has all the caustic wit and brutally-brilliant one-liners of a Billy Wilder classic. The core of the film is typical Austen, focusing on marriages, balls and scandals, but the real fire comes from the explosively acerbic character of Lady Susan Vernon, played to grandiose perfection by Kate Beckinsale. If she’s not shooting down ill-suited suitors with vitriolic abandon or sliding verbal daggers into her nearest and dearest, she’s gliding around the streets of London on the prowl for a man who can match her wicked way with words. She’d be lucky. If Love and Friendship feels more like a pithy sketch show than a languid costume drama, its take on the perils and pitfalls of dating amidst a circus of bozos and clowns couldn’t be more relevant.
I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore (2017)
This remarkably assured and wilfully strange comedy thriller scooped the Grand Jury prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, delivering a compelling and often hilarious mix of offbeat suburban vigilantism and angsty character work from the wonderfully glum Melanie Lynskey. Lynskey (one half of the murderous couple in Peter Jackson’s 1994 true-life Heavenly Creatures, which made a star of Kate Winslet) plays Ruth, a downtrodden nurse whose burglary sparks a chain reaction of beatings, shootings and very bad kung-fu as she tries to recover her property after the police come up empty handed. It’s thoroughly refreshing to have such a recognisable, believable and ordinary protagonist (and one who isn’t a muscle-bound sweating thug), one whose dogged refusal to be kowtowed despite having absolutely no idea what she’s doing or how deep the shit she’s getting herself into is gives this refreshing film both its drive and its heart.
Frances Ha (2012)
There are an awful lot of quirky, meandering comic character studies that are neither as funny or as insightful as their creators think they are. Frances Ha, written by Greta Gerwig and Noah The Squid and the Whale Baumbach, is funnier and more insightful than it has any right to be, and is one of the most toe-curlingly brilliant slice-of-real-life comedies to appear in years. Frances, played with puppy-dog optimism and genial kookiness by the ever-excellent Gerwig, tumbles through life, pinballing across America (and, hilariously, to Paris) while lamenting her romantic failings, unrealised ambitions and fragmenting friendships. And she’s utterly brilliant company, the kind of good-hearted but unfocused person you pray will make good someday. Thankfully, Frances Ha doesn’t follow such well-trodden paths, but still allows for a warm and fuzzy sense of hope and optimism – exactly what its wonderful and frustrating protagonist deserves.