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10 Best of 2000-2010: Women Protagonists in Film

Updated on August 10, 2011
Lucia y la luna.
Lucia y la luna.

Oftentimes, I find myself identifying with strong and sassy female characters in the films I watch. I have realized, lately, that movies are not about these women - they are, as stated by another blogger, the "appendages" or vehicles of stories in the film world. The ladies merely pave the way for marked change in my most beloved stories, only end up being sacrificed for the sake of drama: they are murdered, raped, or otherwise disgraced to get the story from one scene to the next. In some cases, they simply disappear... and I miss them. Below are 10 films from the past decade that have had active women protagonists (as opposed to passive, disposable, and minor "leading" women).

NOTES: If there is a female director, I wrote it. I put the original title of each film first, because that is the name of the film. If they were different, then the titles that were marketed in the States are in parentheses. Lastly, the films are listed in chronological order. There is no other order to put them in that would teach us as much about progress (or show us the lack thereof).

1) Pane E Tulipani ("Bread & Tulips"): Silvio Soldini, 2000- Rosalba gets stranded in Venice when her tour bus leaves her at a rest-stop on the way home. By the time her kids and husband realize that she was left behind, it is too late to turn back. In the meantime, she makes the most of the mishap by taking up residence in the town and finding herself a job (and a lover). Her confidence grows for the first time in her life. When she is faced with the prospect of having to return to her family and resume her duties, she rebels and finds a happy compromise that surprises everyone, especially her two-timing husband. 

2) Lucia y el sexo ("Sex & Lucia"): Julio Medem, 2001- Lucia, a young waitress in Madrid, leaves her old life behind when she gets a call that her boyfriend was hit by a car. She travels to an island he loved, with the assumption that she will have to live out her life alone. The side stories twist and turn and characters past and present come together in a fascinating web as Lucia learns about her lover's history. The film is known for its graphic sexuality. It is my understanding that the playfulness of the many scenes of sexuality and fantasy contribute to the inner-workings of the film rather than distracting from it.

3) Te doy mis ojos ("Take My Eyes") + Female director: Iciar Bollain, 2003- The film opens with Pilar on the run. She succeeds in escaping the home she shares with her abusive husband, Antonio, but is lured back by his promise to enter anger management courses. The story follows them both as they enter into a seemingly common pact: he will "change" as long as she stays by his side. Antonio's efforts in recovery are juxtaposed with Pilar's new-found freedom: a real job, friends and - to their mutual surprise - a good deal of self-respect. The film presents both sides of the story effectively, uncovering each subject's vulnerability without labeling the "victim" or "monster."

4) White Rainbow: Dharan Mandrayar, 2005- When Priya, a young, educated, wealthy city housewife loses her husband, her in-laws pressure her to enter into the widow's city of Vrindavan. To avoid their maltreatment, she travels to the city and, over the course of a few days, meets Roop, Mala, and Deepti - three widows who all shared a fate worse than her own and teach her what the real meaning of faith is. Together, despite multiple challenges imposed by an unjust legal system and dirty businessmen, they succeed in building networks that help change the lives of the widows of Vrindavan.

5) Volver: Pedro Almodovar, 2006- Raimunda's life shifts, ironically, for the better when her daughter experiences an attempted assault and enacts her own justice... on her stepfather. Together, the women start a new life in a community of female family members and friends. With all of the men out of the picture, Raimunda, her sister, and her daughter form stronger bonds and heal until-then secret wounds while uncovering the messy past left by the ghost/unghosted, Grandma Irena. 

6) Irina Palm: Sam Garbarski, 2006- Mild-mannered, middle-aged Maggie's grandson has the opportunity to undergo a life-saving operation overseas, but his parent's can't afford the trip. With no hope of landing a normal job, Maggie comes across a sign that reads "hostess wanted" in the red light district. Stumbling tired and ragged into the underground tavern, Sexy World, she convinces the owner, Mickey to give her a chance. Once the shock of her new occupational prospect wears off, she proves she is excellent at her job and acquires the name "Irina Palm." She finds herself battling social stigma, and, with her characteristically timid nature and secret kinky side, she works for the first time in her life to make a happy ending for herself and those around her.

7) Arranged + Female director: Diane Crespo and Stephen C. Schaefer, 2007- Rochel and Nasira are from closely situated but carefully segragated neighborhoods in Brooklyn, New York. They train and work at the same school and, neverminding their cultural differences (Rochel is an orthodox Jew and Nasira is Muslim), they develop an unspoken respect for one another. Both women go through the process of arranged marriages and they realize that they are uniquely prepared to share their hopes and diminish each others fears about the future. The movie emphasizes the concept of choice in the context of arranged marriages and religious obedience. Nasira and Rochel both choose to live their lives in the communities they were raised in and, in the same way, it is their choice to remain friends in spite of their communities intolerance of such relationships.

8) Män som hatar kvinnor ("The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo") Niels Arden Oplev, 2009 - This film was marketed as the story of a disgraced journalist who takes on the job of finding a wealthy man's lost relative, helped along by a young female hacker. However, the series and indeed the basis of the story itself is actually that of a young woman who seeks calculated revenge on her tormenters after a lifetime of abuse and helps along a useful comrade, the infamous journalist Mikael Blomkvist, in an uncharacteristically sympathetic act of curiosity. They are the perfect crime-fighting duo and their targets are, as the original title lets on, men who hate women.

9) La teta asustada ("Milk of Sorrow") + Female director: Claudia Llosa, 2009- The protagonist, Fausta, is the daughter of a rape victim. Her mother experienced terrible torture and sexual abuse during military skirmishes while she was pregnant with her and all her life, she sang to her daughter about the terror of evil men. When she dies, Fausta's inherited fear of sexual violence leads her to using a traditional method of rape prevention. Her strong will and extreme timidity make it difficult for her to connect with people even within her own community. However, when her method of "protection" becomes a threat to her life, she decides to trust one man, for a short while, to help her to safety.

10) Habitacion en Roma ("Room in Rome"): Julio Medem, 2010- Alba meets Natasha in a bar in Rome and brings her back to her hotel room. After much hesitation on Natasha's part, they decide to spend their last night in Rome nourishing their terrifying new love. Secrets unfold, insecurities slip-up and by daylight the women must make a decision that will change the course of their lives. Due to the fact that the two characters spend the majority of the film naked, some critics have written it off as a saucy erotic art piece. From my perspective, the tale of Alba and Natasha is explored on camera as an intense narrative study of female sexuality and the stigma of women in love. The dialogue and visuals explore, among other things, the question of how women can enjoy sex without a man. I suggest you see the film and experience their answers for yourself. 


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