Women's pictures used to be guilty pleasures: No more! Now they're kicking butt, getting respect, and grossing huge. From frothy romances to whale-riding adventures, these films show us who we are, where we've been, what we can take, and better yet, what we can dish out.
If you don't find all your own favorites here, old and new, that's for a happy reason: A truly inclusive list would be four times as long and growing fast. In the meantime, enjoy!
By Karen Durbin
1. Morocco (1930) In top hat and tails, Marlene Dietrich has never been more worldly than when she seduces men and women alike with her act at a nightclub in Mogador—and never more womanly than when she casts aside her cool for the love of Gary Cooper's foreign legionnaire.
2. Camille (1936) Greta Garbo is so exquisite she can seem unearthly on-screen, but here she's heartbreakingly human as Alexandre Dumas's famously fragile courtesan who finds love too late.
3. Notorious (1946) This postwar thriller is one of Alfred Hitchcock's most woman-loving movies. Ingrid Bergman penetrates a Nazi cabal in Rio de Janeiro by marrying its leader—in an act of heroism and despair after she's spurned by the man she adores (Cary Grant), a government agent too puritanical to let his love for her bloom.
4. The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981) Two actors have an adulterous affair while making a movie about a rule-breaking 19th-century romance in this brilliant investigation of passion and risk in different eras. Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons are terrific as the literally two-timing lovers.
5. The English Patient (1996) Like the excellent novel it so skillfully adapts, this intensely romantic film makes you feel the urgency of its wartime confrontation with love and death. Kristin Scott Thomas and Ralph Fiennes aren't just good, they're incandescent.
6. The Women (1939) The stars! The clothes! The cruelty! The catfights! This is Sex and the City before women knew how to bond—so pungently politically incorrect, it plays like a cross between a guilty pleasure and a cautionary tale.
7. Julia (1977) On the eve of World War II, a well-off American writer risks her safety for a beloved girlhood friend in Europe who has become a resistance fighter. The chemistry between Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave lights up this gripping film about the kind of friendship that enlarges one's life.
8. Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) A bored suburban housewife (Rosanna Arquette) follows a series of personal ads in a New York paper and ends up in the orbit of a true wild woman (Madonna). Susan Seidelman's impish comedy feels as fresh as ever.
9. The Truth About Cats & Dogs (1996) When a dashing fellow (Ben Chaplin) falls for the wit of a romantically challenged radio host (Janeane Garofalo), she persuades the gorgeous bimbo next door (Uma Thurman) to date him in her name. True love finds a way, but the heart of the movie is what these unlikely friends give each other: a sense of self-worth.
10. Romy and Michele's High School Reunion (1997) Female friendship has never been funnier or more endearing than in this deliciously silly screwball comedy featuring Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow as ditzy pals. Highlights: their roadside fight about who was more popular, their claim to have invented the Post-it, and the unexpectedly tender line "Wanna fold scarves?"
11. The Hours (2002) Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep play three women of different eras who say no to the unbearable, each in her own eloquent way. The movie taps an intimacy so deep—and deeply female—that to watch it is to feel both acknowledged and consoled.
12. All About Eve (1950) A young Marilyn Monroe appears briefly in this sharp-toothed comedy about women and ambition. But the real action involves ingénue Anne Baxter snapping at the keister of Broadway star Bette Davis.
13. Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) Harvey Keitel is the scary mistake and Kris Kristofferson the soul-soothing reward that await Ellen Burstyn in Martin Scorsese's classic about a newly single wife and mother awakening to her right to life, love, and the pursuit of happiness.
14. Aliens (1986) Star of the original Alien, Sigourney Weaver turns this and Alien3 (1992), the second and third installments in the wildly successful science fiction horror quartet, into wrenching dramas of the difficult choices in women's lives. Her homeless cosmonaut Lieutenant Ripley is one of the great movie heroines of all time.
15. Thelma & Louise (1991) As friends who take an impulsive break from the men in their lives, Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis embrace the fierce American motto "Live free or die" and kick women's movies up to a whole new level.
16. What's Love Got to Do with It (1993) Great performances by Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett as Ike and Tina Turner make this showbiz biopic a triumphant portrait of a submissive battered wife who not only manages to break free of her abusive Svengali but proceeds to rebuild her soul from the ground up.
17. Girlfight (2000) With her mother dead, partly as a result of her father's abuse, Michelle Rodriguez's stormy girl from the projects finds an outlet for her fury in the boxing ring. Unexpectedly, she also finds love in Karyn Kusama's award-winning movie about anger and power and release and resolution.
18. Black Narcissus (1947) A demented, sex-crazed nun wreaks psychological havoc in a cliffside convent high in the Himalayas. Deborah Kerr's all too human Sister Superior, Jean Simmons's naughty Nepalese beauty, and David Farrar's handsome Mr. Fix-it striding around the place half-naked help make this one of the most deliriously enjoyable melodramas ever.
19. The Shop Around the Corner (1940) This charming Ernst Lubitsch comedy stars Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as employees of a leather goods shop who squabble at work while pseudonymously falling in love by letter. The 1998 Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks remake, You've Got Mail, has its moments, but the melancholy grace of the original is matchless.
20. The Lady Eve (1941) "A moonlit deck is a woman's business office," Barbara Stanwyck's deliciously shady lady coos to her latest mark, the rich, priggish herpetologist played by a wide-eyed Henry Fonda. Of course they fall in love, but the most savory pleasure of this great screwball comedy is watching her teach him a little lesson about presuming to sit in judgment of a woman with a past.
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