I’m probably the only person eagerly awaiting the Oscar nominations. Yes I’m that film nerd. But this time of year always makes me want to look back over the last year of movies and make sure I didn’t miss anything good. This year was a great year for women in film, in particular. We still have a ways to go—toy makers still leave us out of their franchise sets, and men still dominate casts, production teams and writing rooms. But there were a lot of silver screen stories featuring strong, awesome ladies in the past twelve months. These are my top ten favorite characters brought to life in 2015.
10. Brooke in Mistress America
Brooke is probably the most paradoxical character I’ve come across in a long time. Impulsive, professional, naive, worldly, funny, terrible at jokes… She’s the 30-something, almost-step-sister of a quiet college freshmen and she’s got some of the wittiest dialogue delivered this year. The movie, overall, feels like Girls without all the pessimism. But at its heart it is still about the struggle of millennials to make a place in the world and leave something significant when we’re just barely piecing together a living. Brooke’s character is a fool triumphant. She’s someone you will laugh at, laugh with, and ultimately hang on her every word.
9. Gerda Wegener in The Danish Girl
The script is much more fiction than fact (which is problematic when it presents itself as a “true story”). However, Gerda is a beautiful ally to Lili throughout the story. With Catlin Jenner making news over and over, and the visibility of actresses like Laverne Cox, the trans community is more visible than ever. It is a difficult road that trans men and women walk, and all too often they walk it alone. “You’re the only person who made sense of me… and made me possible,” says Lili to Gerda in a particularly powerful scene. The character of Gerda serves as a pattern for the rest of us: a pattern of selfless love. Like her, we must be willing to give up everything to defend, serve, and protect those we love through their journey towards truth.
8. Maura and Cate in Sisters
Sisters is Tina Fey and Amy Poehler at their best. These two were made to be siblings, and their friendship shines through every scene. It’s one of the few movies this year to pass the Bechdel Test with flying colors, and the portrayal of the classic straight sister vs wild sister dynamic is beautifully nuanced and hilariously presented. It’s Mean Girls all grown up. Maura and Cate are what make it wonderful.
7. Ava in Ex Machina
Ava is stunning. She’s the most advanced A.I. ever created and is undergoing the final phases of the Turing test. While the movie strongly features two male leads, Alicia Vikander’s performance overshadows them both. Ava loves to discuss poetry, to draw, and she’s even developing a sense of style—just like a normal girl. But still waters run deep. Her journey of awakening and her quest for escape is a chilling look at the dangers of keeping a woman caged. I won’t spoil the ending, but let me just say it’s one of the most satisfying and powerful endings since Breaking Bad concluded.
6. Riley in Inside Out
At the center of one of the most beautifully told stories from Pixar, Riley stands without pretense. Her favorite thing is hockey, her clothes lack any trace of pointless pink, and her imaginary friend helps her do everything from singing like a pop star, to rocketing to the moon. At 11 years old, she’s the good kid just trying to be there for her parents and learning that it’s okay to cry sometimes. Riley comes with a bonus, because in addition to her charming self, she brought us the trio of Joy, Sadness and Disgust—all of whom have a unique purpose in keeping Riley safe and healthy. This trio is so refreshing because, often, these are simply the emotional extremes women are written to yo-yo between until someone tells them they are pretty or gives them a kiss. These female characters combine into a powerhouse portrayal of life growing up in today’s world of frequent moving, new schools, and parental employment instability.
5. Amy in Trainwreck
Amy Schumer’s debut feature presented Amy as a witty, selfish and emotionally isolated protagonist. Yes, it was a rom-com, but as Amy’s arc progressed, it became clear that this story was not pandering to romantic notions of true love. Amy takes the usual guy’s place as the commitment-phobic work-a-holic, turning regular gender expectations on their heads. The movie is funny, but also plays extensively with shades of grey (no, not the ones you’re thinking of). Amy is a basket of contradictions and there is no easy answer in her quest for nothing much. Her mistakes, her fears and her objectives are so familiar to any woman who has a father, a boss, a love of short skirts (and also sweat pants), an adored boyfriend, and a job they’ve merely settled for. And it’s this honesty about life and life’s messiness that is the genius of Amy and her hilarious Trainwreck.
4. Ella in Cinderella
Feminists hated this movie. Cinderella was too submissive, too stuck, and too dependent on the men in her life. But let’s be honest, if Ella were the archetype of a modern, empowered woman as these critics seem to have wanted, she would have just run away from home the first time her step family mistreated her—movie over. This analysis also overlooks a key strength in Ella’s character. Few other stories deal with how to respond to hardship when you are stuck with it. It’s nice to think about always being strong enough, with enough resources to simply get away from a hard family situation, or stand up to the bully, or defeat the bad guy yourself. But that’s often just as mythical a notion as the perfect Prince Charming.
Ella is not powerless. She choses kindness in the face of cruelty, over and over—not in a way that dismisses the wrongs done her, but in a way that demonstrates her resilience until she is saved. The moral of the story is that sometimes, we need help—but even then, we are still in control. No bully can change who we are at our core. And THAT is a beautiful message to give to young women everywhere.
3. Indominus Rex in Jurassic World
You forgot the baddest dino ever created by InGen was female, didn’t you? Jurassic World roared into the box office this summer to the delight of moviegoers of all ages. While Bryce Dallas Howard may have portrayed a more traditional damsel in distress opposite Chris Pratt, the real danger was the female that everyone forgot about, locked in a box that was supposed to be inescapable. “Truly, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” said the drunk philosopher as he fled I. Rex, margarita in hand.
2. Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Rarely are women given characters that are so powerful, so understated, and so impactful as Furiosa. She’s so much more than your usual pretty girl action hero. She’s the essence of what made mythic heros like Medea or Odysseus immortal. Mad Max doesn’t have a ton of dialogue, so she only speaks a few times. But her actions speak so much louder than any monologue. The film is epic in its visual scope, but Furiosa stands out as a character that should be added to any list of the most iconic movie heroes ever.
1. Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
It doesn’t even matter who’s daughter she is. Rey has changed the way we expect to see women in sci-fi and action roles. Princess Leia was a badass in her own right, and Rey is carrying on that mantle in a new and exciting way. Personally, I can’t wait to see what she does next. And that’s how you know you’ve got a truly great heroine.