The 10 most essential feminist movies of the 21st century

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The importance of being rendered visible and understood on screen is something that cannot be underplayed. Since the beginning of cinema, women have typically been relegated to secondary roles, both behind and in front of the camera. The male-dominated industry has prevented women from receiving equal opportunities, often discouraging female filmmakers from believing they can become successful.

Subsequently, countless movies have misrepresented and misunderstood women, especially those from other marginalised backgrounds, such as those who identify as non-white or non-heterosexual. However, it is vital for movies to accurately explore the lives of real women, allowing female viewers to feel seen and heard – our experiences of issues such as sexism communicated with depth and power.

Feminist cinema isn’t simply the highlighting of female oppression and the terrors of the patriarchy. It can also be the celebration of female friendship, independence and liberation. The films listed below are some of the greatest releases of the 21st century to accurately dissect the female experience in all its multitudinous nature.

We’ve plucked movies from different countries and cultures, which we believe to be the most unforgettable and groundbreaking titles that address feminist themes from 2000 onwards.

10 essential feminist movies of the 21st century:

The Circle (Jafar Panahi, 2000)

The Iranian film director and screenwriter Jafar Panahi is one of the country’s greatest exports when it comes to cinema, with the filmmaker having created such modern greats as No Bears, Taxi, and This Is Not a Film. Arguably, his greatest feat came back at the turn of the new millennium, however, when he released The Circle, a film that told the story of several women who struggle to function in the sexually oppressive reality of modern-day Iran.

Receiving the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, Panahi’s film doesn’t make for easy viewing, yet it is undoubtedly one of the most potent feminist films of the 21st century, heavily criticising the treatment of women in Iran while well conveying the hope and despair they experience in tandem on a daily basis.

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Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, 2002)

Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay followed up her debut feature, Ratcatcher, with Movern Callar in 2002. The film, adapted from Alan Warner’s book of the same name, sees Samantha Morton play the eponymous protagonist, who discovers her boyfriend has committed suicide on Christmas Day.

In response to her findings, which include the manuscript of his book that he has asked her to publish for him, she chops up his body and discards it in the woods before pretending the novel is hers. Morvern finds a strange sense of liberation throughout the film as she detaches herself from her previous life, and her actions are never explicitly condemned or praised. Instead, Ramsay provides a fascinating study of the female experience, merging it with a study of grief and class.

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Innocence (Lucile Hadžihalilović, 2004)

The bizarre world of Innocence by the Cannes nominee Lucile Hadžihalilović is certainly haunting and unforgettable. The French filmmaker is known for her unusual approach to cinema, making movies that are slow and atmospheric, often holding back on dialogue, and allowing us to immerse ourselves in her uncanny settings. Innocence is set at an all-girls boarding school where girls are prepared to be assimilated into the sexualised adult sphere.

New arrivals are delivered in coffins, and the only subjects the girls are taught are related to the body – ballet and biology. They must perform for mysterious, faceless men, and violence and death always linger at the precipe of this strange microcosm. Hadžihalilović’s film is a damning exploration of the patriarchal structures which dictate the journey from girlhood to adulthood.

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Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi, 2007)

Based on the graphic novel of the same name by Marjane Satrapi, who also co-directed the film with Vincent Paronnaud, Persepolis is one of the greatest, yet underappreciated, animated movies ever made. The movie tells the tale of Marjane, who comes of age against the backdrop of the Iran–Iraq War. As she gets older, she finds herself becoming more and more rebellious, her interests at odds with the strict culture she has been surrounded by.

However, inspired by her grandmother’s demands to remain authentic and to never forget the right to be free and live as she chooses, she embarks on a journey of self-discovery and liberation. While this isn’t without struggle, such as depression, Persepolis is an empowering study of strength and perseverance, especially in the face of attitudes and regulations which place restrictions on the female experience.

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4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)

Depictions of abortion and the struggle for reproductive rights have always remained taboo in cinema, yet movies like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days by Cristian Mungiu bring attention to such vital topics. Released in 2007, the Romanian film won the Palme d’Or and was praised for its powerful exploration of two friends and their experience of poverty and abortion.

Set in the 1980s, the movie uses a simple visual style, which makes it feel incredibly realistic, allowing audiences to truly understand the weight and accuracy of the themes presented in front of them. There’s an element of tenseness present, gripping us to a story that remains relevant to many women today, decades after the period in which the movie is set.

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Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009)

In the early parts of the 21st century, filmmaker Andrea Arnold set herself up as being one of the greatest British directors in the industry. Her Palme d’Or nominee Fish Tank was released in 2009 after her Oscar-winning short film Wasp, and the subversive drama Red Road had already captivated audiences, with the former being her breakout hit, telling the story of 15-year-old Mia, a promising dancer whose life changes when her mum brings home an enigmatic new boyfriend.

A complex coming-of-age study, Fish Tank explores the life of a girl who feels hemmed in by the trappings of her own circumstances, with Arnold’s terrific script speaking to the objectification of women in a society which looks down on individualism.

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Girlhood (Céline Sciamma, 2014)

In 2014, both Richard Linklater and Céline Sciamma released accompanying coming-of-age tales that differ significantly in quality. While Linklater’s Boyhood felt like an exercise in Oscar bait, Sciamma’s excellent Girlhood was an engrossing look into the life of a young African-French teenager living in the poor suburbs of Paris searching for self-confidence in the complex world of adolescence.

Sciamma has since gone on to create such modern gems as 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire and 2021’s Petite Maman, but not enough has been said of Girlhood, which feels like one of the most raw and tender expressions of the female coming-of-age experience ever put to film.

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A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014)

Thanks to the Twilight film franchise, back in the early 2000s and 2010s, vampire movies were all the rage, but Ana Lily Amirpour’s monochrome horror A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night might just be the pick of the bunch. A stylish and slick fantasy tale engulfed in feminist messaging, the film is set in the Iranian town of Bad City, where the lonely land is stalked by a vengeful vampire.

Subverting societal norms, Amirpour’s film gives power to the central woman, giving her the power rather than the lack of agency which the title suggests. A comment on the abuse of power and also on drug addiction, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is an extraordinary, delightful piece of cinema that hasn’t lost its potency even a decade after its release.

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Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 2015)

Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s form of cinematic resistance in 2015’s Mustang is one of this list’s most dramatically powerful works of art. Nominated for an Academy Award while also gaining much acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival, the film tells the story of five orphaned siblings whose lives are altered when their guardians force them into arranged marriages, restricting their autonomy.

The debut feature from the Turkish-French filmmaker is a takedown of the patriarchy, in essence, with the movie demonstrating the hold that such a society has on women while showing hope for how such constructs can be defied.

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Earth Mama (Savanah Leaf, 2023)

After releasing the documentary The Heart Still Hums in 2020, which explored the difficulties faced by several soon-to-be mothers, such as addiction, Savannah Leaf transformed these themes into a beautiful feature film, Earth Mama. The film has already won Leaf an award at the Baftas, and it’s not hard to see why.

The tender film is an honest and unflinching look at the prejudices facing many mothers who are failed by systems supposedly put in place to provide help. Race, motherhood, female identity, community, poverty, addiction and adoption are all explored in depth in Earth Mama, which is essential viewing.

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