#38Dorothy brings out the best in everyone she meets with her kindness, generosity of spirit, and abiding decency. She speaks her mind, doesn’t discriminate and she isn’t shy about joining in her new friends’ catchy songs. She insists she’s “Dorothy, the small and meek” when she finally meets the Wizard, but she’s actually up for any adventure that comes her way. Best of all, she’s fiercely loyal to her scruffy little dog. A truly classic Judy Garland performance.
#39Gabrielle Union‘s Isis isn’t the central character of Bring It On, but she makes a powerful impression as the fierce, incorruptible, unflappable captain of the East Compton Clovers. She doesn’t back down when her routines are stolen, she doesn’t flinch when financial issues threaten to derail their chance at the championship, and she ultimately leads her squad to the win, earning the respect of her rival. In other words, she’s a leader worth following.
#40First off, let’s acknowledge that Elsa is immensely powerful. She’d be right at home fighting alongside the Avengers, and she’d be one of the more formidable members, too. But before she’s able to control her abilities, Elsa must contend with real issues of self-doubt, isolation, and a population of subjects who fear her. It’s a painful journey that ends when she realizes her magic is controlled by love, which transforms her into a proper queen no sniveling duke would even dare to challenge.
#41Hot shorts, the best make-up, and accessorizes with glitter guns and baseball bats. Oh, and she’s got a cadre of other fearless females at her back. Indeed, Harley Quinn‘s the luckiest — and most able — girl in Gotham, bar none.
#42For the 2020 reinvention of classic Universal monster movie The Invisible Man, Blumhouse and writer-director Leigh Whannell shifted the focus of the story away from the monster and onto his victim: a battered wife who escapes her husband’s clutches – or so she thinks. But Cecilia Kass, played by a never-better Elizabeth Moss, refuses to play victim for long. As the haunts mount and the gaslighting expands, Kass decides to wrestle back control of her story and her life, outsmarting her foe, kicking his transparent a–, and giving us one of the most satisfying f–k you finales we’ve seen in years.
#43She lives with her daddy on a remote, primal strip of eroding land at the southernmost reaches of the Louisiana bayou. Most of us would call it squalid. Six-year-old Hushpuppy calls it paradise. It’s also all she’s known, and it’s made her tough and resourceful beyond her years. Young Quvenzhane Wallis earned an Oscar nomination for her instinctive portrayal of this playful, brave girl whose imagination turns every challenge into an adventure.
#44If you’ve ever been told you need to be “more ladylike,” then you know exactly what Sanaa Lathan‘s Monica Wright has experienced throughout her life. A budding hoops star at a young age, she works tirelessly to improve her game, only for her mother to dismiss her as a tomboy, even as she proves to be stiff competition for her neighbor, the son of a former pro. Her perserverance ultimately pays off, as she lands a spot in the WNBA and the man she’s loved all her life.
#45She’s deadly with a bow and arrow, having needed them to survive for most of her young life. But Katniss Everdeen also learns to hone her other abilities and survival skills throughout the course of the Hunger Games – not just to protect herself, but also to save humanity from total dystopian collapse. Of all the Young Adult heroines we’ve seen in recent years, Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss is the most memorable for both her ferocity and her humanity.
#47Joan Crawford first played her in the 1945 Michael Curtiz classic and earned an Oscar for her efforts. Kate Winslet later played her in the 2011 Todd Haynes miniseries and earned a Golden Globe. Mildred Pierce is a juicy role with tons of range. She endures financial losses and successes, emotional highs and lows, various marriages, and the cruelty of her snobbish daughter. Through it all, Mildred perseveres and does what she must to survive and protect her family.
#48Most of the Disney princesses all deserve a shoutout or a place on this list, but we’re paying extra attention to the ones who just represent something a little more. Mulan, for example, objectively kicks ass, but being an Asian character gave a generation of young kids someone to look up to, even before gender politics became a mainstream thing.
#49Ever feel like the troubles of your teenage years had the weight of a Shakespearean tragedy? Kat Stratford can sympathize, considering her days just turned into The Taming of the Shrew. Played with jaunty intensity by Julia Stiles, Kat makes no concessions about her anti-social ways. That she’s so obdurate amidst high school mediocrity gives hope to whoever’s languishing in the same way.
#50Florence Pugh’s filmography is littered with formidable characters, from her take on Lady Macbeth to her upcoming role in Marvel’s Black Widow, but this one is based on a real person. Saraya “Paige” Knight may have been born into a wrestling family, but it’s her own strength of will that propels her into the spotlight as she works up the ranks of the WWE. Thanks to her hard work and dedication, she eventually becomes the youngest Divas Champion ever and makes sure everyone knows “This is my house!”
#51Who could forget Ryan Stone‘s long trip back to Earth? It’s an intense ride, with the movie aided immensely by Sandra Bullock‘s tightrope, athletic performance. We’re only give a few personal glimpses into Ryan (though they’re big ones, like her daughter dying in a random simple accident), so most of what we latch onto with the character is right up there on screen.
#52Vampire Selene began in the Underworld film series as a Death Dealer, hunting and killing lycans. After falling for a lycan-vampire hybrid, her motivations changed, bringing her in direct conflict with her vampire brethren. Her biggest challenge, however, might be from critics, who have repeatedly knocked the franchise. Still, Selene has ruled over five live-action feature films and one animated film.
#53Vivian Ward: A hooker with a heart of gold, given a chance to live the high life, who discovers what really matters by the end. Vivian’s story may be all fantasy but, after all, it’s the fairy tales that get us through the dreary, modern days.
#54It takes a lot of guts to roll with the punches, particularly when you wake up in the body of a scheming, unlikeable 30-year-old. But even with the mind of a teen, Jenna Rink (Jennifer Garner) quickly realizes her new life is not a good one and sets out to make amends. She fights for the future of the magazine that employs her and for the love of the man she abandoned, and when the magic dust settles, she’s a changed girl.
#55Emma Thompson shines in Kenneth Branagh‘s adaptation of this Shakespeare comedy as the charming but strong-willed Beatrice. Beatrice doesn’t take nonsense from anyone, and she’s got a sharp tongue of her own, which she uses with great precision in verbal sparring matches with Benedick. She’s a confident, slick talker who knows how to get what she wants, and Thompson brings her own potent ferocity to the role.
#56It almost feels unfair to include Cynthia Erivo’s Harriet Tubman on this list, being that the real-life abolitionist was such a legendary badass in her own right. The film focuses on Tubman as a grown woman, when she first made her daring escape from slavery, then decided to return in order to free her family… and then returned again and again to guide dozens more slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad. It would be difficult to find a truer American hero on this list, and Harriet is an earnest appreciation of her achievements.
#57You’ve gotta fight for your right…to fight! Michelle Rodriguez stars as Diana Guzman, the product of a macho Brooklyn society that tells her she has no place in the boxing ring. Guzman sets out to prove them wrong in a hard-hitting but ultimately uplifting sports drama.
#58If you thought Elizabeth Bennet was too passive in Jane Austen’s original novel, this is the movie for you. Not only does she lead her sisters as a zombie-killing machine, she actually fights Mr. Darcy when she learns of his meddling, and during the zombie invasion of London, saves him from the hands of the evil Wickham. You do not mess with this lady.
#59Rita Hayworth is the end-all femme fatale as Gilda, a luminous character with no shortage of amazing strapless dresses and men to manipulate. Of course, this being a golden era Hollywood production, love worms its way into her heart at the end.
#60She’s a woman who stood up for herself in a predominately male industry en route to becoming a respected titan. Katharine Graham also made these strides as publisher of The Washington Post during some of its most crucial 1970s reporting, including her bold decision to print the Pentagon Papers. It’s pure joy watching Meryl Streep portray this famous figure who finds her voice as Steven Spielberg’s film progresses.
#61Based on the 2009 book of the same name, the film portrays race relations between white families and their black household help in the South in the early 1960s. As Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson, respectively, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer formed the true heart of the 2011 drama, with Spencer earning an Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role.
#62You don’t get to be called a “Battle Angel” without being tough as nails, and Rosa Salazar’s Alita earns the title as she discovers the secrets of her forgotten past. She takes on a gang of cyborg killers, deadly bounty hunters, and an evil dictator, and survives to fight another day. If anyone can take down the sadistic overlord who rules from a wealthy city in the sky, it’s her.
#63Welder by day, dancer by night – you don’t get much more fearless than that. Alex Owens makes a living in a blue-collar world, but she dreams of artistic glory, with the ultimate goal of being accepted into a prestigious ballet school. She subjects herself to classism and snobbish scrutiny, but remains true to herself and her own radiant form of expression. It sounds cheesy now, but “Flashdance” was a legitimate pop-culture phenomenon, and it made Jennifer Beals a superstar.
#64Part of Catwoman′s allure has always been her sultry demeanor, and Michelle Pfeiffer certainly had that in spades when she played the role, but what set her apart was her sinister snarl. In this Tim Burton sequel, a meek Selina Kyle vows revenge after she’s pushed out a window by her boss, and as Catwoman, she’s both a smooth operator and a fearsome fighter who operates by her own set of rules. She makes you want to invest in some leather and parkour lessons.
#65Saoirse Ronan stars as a 16-year-old, blond-haired, blue-eyed killing machine – the heroine of the most violent fairy tale you can imagine. But beyond her formidable physical abilities, Hanna also keeps her enemies guessing as she fights for survival, fleeing the snowy wilds of Finland for the unknown dangers of civilization. Director Joe Wright’s thrilling action film provides the hugely versatile Ronan with a wide range to play within this complicated young character.
#66Forced into a botched gender reassignment surgery, Hedwig forms a band and takes on a young protégé, only for him to betray her. But she perseveres through some very low times and earns her fame, ultimately leading her to come to terms with her true identity. It’s a powerful journey of self-discovery told through rockin’ music and a magnetic central performance.
#67The central figure of Louisa May Alcott’s novel, Jo March (Winona Ryder) is the backbone of her family. Strong-minded and ambitious, aspiring writer Jo pens plays for her sisters to perform and later departs for New York City to pursue her dreams, helping to redefine what it meant to be a young woman at the time.
#68As a young girl, Jyn Erso had to hide while her parents were taken away from her. As a young woman, she takes the skills she’s developed as a soldier and a criminal and uses them for the greater good: specifically, the Rebellion. Felicity Jones brings a fiery, independent spirit to this character, a key figure in a daring mission that’s crucial to the Star Wars saga. In the tradition of Leia and Rey, she’s no damsel in distress.
#69Keisha Castle-Hughes became the youngest nominee for Best Actress Oscar for her role as a 12-year-old Maori girl with aspirations to become her tribe’s leader. Pai’s tenacity in the pursuit causes a painful rift with her grandfather, but Pai knows her truth: She is a Whale Rider.
#70She kicks all kinds of butt. That part is obvious. After all, she’s a heroine in a Quentin Tarantino action flick, with equal parts strength and style. But as intimidating and deadly as the statuesque Uma Thurman is in this iconic movie role – and as many bodies as The Bride leaves in her wake in her quest for revenge – the unexpected softer, maternal side she eventually reveals can be just as powerful in its own way.
#71Angela Bassett‘s stirring performance as Tina Turner in the story of her troubled relationship with Ike Turner hits particularly hard because it all really happened. Bassett is both moving and electric as the R&B singer who rose to superstardom even as her husband’s abusive behavior became increasingly severe, then found the courage to leave him and fought to retain her stage name.
#72They may seem like folksy Southern stereotypes – genteel flowers wilting in the sultry summer heat. But the ladies of Steel Magnolias are tough. They stick by each other no matter the situation, whether it’s a family celebration or a medical emergency. With a cast of Sally Field (M’Lynn Eatenton), Julia Roberts (Shelby Latcherie), Dolly Parton (Truvy Jones), Daryl Hannah (Annelle Desoto), Shirley MacLaine (Ouiser Boudreaux), and Olympia Dukakis (Clairee Belcher), you can’t go wrong. But Steel Magnolias also gets a lot right about the many shades of female strength.
#73Ellie Sattler is an expert in her field who’s invited to be one of the first people to witness the rebirth of dinosaurs on Isla Nublar, but she also demonstrates incredible bravery when she sets out in search of survivors after the park’s security is compromised. She risks her life to turn the park’s power back on, helping to save everyone left on the island.
#74She dares to risk everything for the man she loves – except he isn’t exactly a man, which makes Eliza’s elaborate scheme even more dangerous. The mute janitor at the center of Guillermo del Toro‘s Best Picture winner at this year’s Oscars has never felt truly seen until a mysterious creature enters the secret lab where she works. Sally Hawkins brings this character to life beautifully, wordlessly, and she makes you want to join her adventure.
#75When the ocean calls, you obey, even if it means going against what your elders tell you. That’s what plucky Moana does, braving the waves to find the demigod Maui and defeat the force that is poisoning her island. The journey is perilous, but Moana perseveres, and it’s thanks to her courage that her people are saved.
#76Emily Blunt has played a lot of gutsy characters, and her knack for portraying capable, determined heroines served her well in Rian Johnson‘s Looper. Sara is a single mother who lives alone on a farm with her son, and when she isn’t tending to the crops or chopping wood, she’s doing her best to keep her son’s explosive telekinetic powers in check. It’s not an easy job, but she’s one tough mother, and one glimpse of her with shotgun in hand is enough to know to stay off her property.
#77The Civil War was not a fun time for anyone, particularly Scarlett O’Hara, who marries a man she doesn’t love, then loses him to disease, and eventually returns to her abandoned plantation home, where her mother has died and her father is incompetent. It’s a lot for anyone to take in, but she vows to keep her family alive by any means, even if it means running the planatation herself. Vivien Leigh won an Oscar for the role, creating a screen icon for the ages.
Alicia Malone is a film reporter, author and self-confessed movie geek. She is a correspondent on Fandango and a host on Turner Classic Movies, FilmStruck, and The FilmStruck Podcast. Her first book, Backwards and in Heels, about the history of women in Hollywood was released in 2017, and she’s currently writing her second, called The Female Gaze.
Lindsey Bahr has been a film writer at The Associated Press since 2014 where she reviews films weekly, writes features and covers industry news and events, including the Oscars. She previously covered movies and pop culture for Entertainment Weekly and has contributed film and music stories to The Atlantic. A native of Pittsburgh and a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Bahr currently lives in Los Angeles.
Jamie Broadnax is the founder and editor-in-chief of Black Girl Nerds. She’s the executive producer of the Misty Knight’s Uninformed Afro podcast and she’s written for several publications including: Variety, Vox, Vulture, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Huffington Post. Her book, Black Girl Nerds, published by Penguin Random House, is due for release in 2019.
Angie Han is the deputy entertainment editor at Mashable, and was formerly the managing editor at Slashfilm. She’s also an occasional podcast guest who can be heard on shows like Slate’s Represent, Film School Rejects’ After the Credits, and the Slashfilmcast. Her favorite films change from day to day, but generally include some combination of Clueless, Goodfellas, and Synecdoche, New York. She is based in New York and Los Angeles.
Christy Lemire is a longtime film critic who writes for RogerEbert.com and ChristyLemire.com, co-hosts the YouTube film review show What the Flick?!, and authors the Rotten Tomatoes Parental Guidance column. She also makes frequent radio appearances on KPCC’s “FilmWeek” and KCRW’s “Press Play.” Previously, she covered movies and entertainment for The Associated Press for 15 years, and was the first full-time film critic in the news organization’s history. Christy is a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and a third-generation L.A. native.
Debbie Day is TV features editor at Rotten Tomatoes. She is the former editor-in-chief of Dennis Publishing’s U.S. digital properties, including Maxim.com, and was executive editor of Premiere.com. Her writing has appeared on EW.com, LATimes.com, LAmag.com, TimeOut.com, Yahoo.com, and other digital sites and in print. Debbie is a graduate of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University and a native of New Orleans.
Grae’s passion gave birth to The Popcorn Mafia podcast, landed her a gig at Fandango.com, and put her mug on TV every week as CNN’s movie critic. FINALLY, shooting her mouth off about movies was a GOOD thing. Inevitably, her cult following of fanboys, fangirls and pop culture nerds hit a tipping point. Today, her reviews and celebrity interviews continue to inform and entertain the masses.
Jacqueline has worked as a freelance film journalist and critic since 2014. She has also attended international film festivals such as Sundance Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, San Diego Comic-Con, and SXSW. Her interests include writing, musical theater, indie films, comics, and gaming. She is also passionately committed to promoting diverse and under-representing voices in cinema; particularly women of color.