The Greatest Female Characters of the Decade

Best Female Characters of the Decade

(This article is part of our Best of the Decade series.)

There are so many amazing female characters who have burrowed their way into our hearts over the last decade that to come up with a list of just a few is painful. Cobbling together this list was a chronic process of killing one’s darlings and I want to reiterate this is by no means a definitive list. There are so many features throughout so many different countries. Essentially, this is a list of just ten of the best female characters of the decade (And apologies – it’s highly American.) Use this as a jumping off point to discover more of the phenomenal women who cinematically shaped us over the last ten years. 

“Smurf” Cody (Jackie Weaver) in Animal Kingdom (2010)

Who knew an independent Australian film about a family of criminals would have such a lasting impact. Animal Kingdom is a crime drama that’s transitioned into a successful, and American, television series here in the States but as good as Ellen Barkin is there, she’s nothing compared to Jackie Weaver’s “Smurf.” The feature follows a young boy tasked with living with his grandmother. But he soon discovers that his grandmother is far more deceptive than her smile implies. Not only is Smurf completely cold-blooded, but Jackie Weaver makes her look so sweet and innocent. Her short stature, accent, and wide smile seem so inviting. Who would ever think she’d kill her grandson as soon as look at him if the situation calls for it? Smurf proved to audiences that villainy can exist in any gender at any age. 

Justine (Kirsten Dunst) in Melancholia (2011)

Kirsten Dunst has given us some stellar performances this decade but none more beguiling than Justine in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. Justine is a woman no one can truly reach, including her new husband or sister. It’s no coincidence, depending on how you read it, that Justine’s increasing depression comes as the arrival of a new planet named Melancholia threatens to swallow up the Earth. As her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) tries to find a way to survive, Justine is content to watch the world be destroyed. For her, maybe with destruction can something truly beautiful be rebuilt. Dunst makes a character who feels so cold and unreachable easy to understand. Maybe sitting in a fort waiting for the end of the world isn’t as terrible as we think. 

Nikki (Emma Watson) in The Bling Ring (2013)

Director Sofia Coppola tapped into the bright excess that permeated the rise of reality culture in the early-2000s with The Bling Ring, and gifted us a meme-worthy performance we’re still mining today. Emma Watson, transitioning out of her straight-laced role in Harry Potter, burst out of the gate as Bling Ring member, Nikki, a self-absorbed teenager who couldn’t believe the stuff coming out of her mouth sounded stupid. Watson showed a penchant for comedic timing, dead-panning lines that anyone else would have sounded ridiculous. She’s a character who seems to truly believe “I wanna lead a country some day for all I know!” And yet, Nikki tapped into a generation of young people, fresh out of high school, desperately wanting to cling to the impossible. On the other hand, it’s a fun, frothy performance that’s utterly unforgettable. 

Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in Beyond the Lights (2014)

Gina Prince-Bythewood’s 2014 drama Beyond the Lights is criminally underseen, in general. But it specifically gave us a leading performance by Gugu Mbatha-Raw that’s powerful and impactful. Noni is a Black female recording artist navigating the hip-hop world. Feeling out of control of her own life she decides to kill herself, only to be saved by a heroic cop leading to romance. The romance aside, Noni is a fascinatingly written character as she’s a prism by which to look at the music world (little of which has changed). With Mbatha-Raw in the role, the character is sexualized and exploited, not just in her physical appearance but in the song lyrics she’s forced to sing. The opening music video, one of the best scenes of 2014, situates everything you need to know about the character and how she desperately desires to break free. Mbatha-Raw and Prince-Bythewood should all have been recognized, but thankfully we can rectify that now.

Mad Max Fury Road Prequel - Furiosa

Furiosa (Charlize Theron) in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

When you think of the film moment that marked a shift in the wind it had to be the first time Charlize Theron’s Furiosa makes herself known in Mad Max: Fury Road. George Miller’s long-gestating return to the Mad Max universe received criticism upon release for not purely focusing on Max (Tom Hardy), but much of that was drowned out because of the badass qualities Furiosa espoused. Her desire to liberate a group of sex slaves and take them to a place of freedom resonated with women who were already sick of the patriarchy (and in just a few years the dam the would burst and the #MeToo movement would be born). More importantly, Furiosa was a disabled woman with the movie not expressly being about her disability. Where disabled representation is still so minor, watching Furiosa fight and generally prove she could handle herself was refreshing and such fun to watch. Furiosa was every woman and she hasn’t been matched since. 

Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) in Christine (2016)

Every single minute in Antonio Campos’ underrated Christine is painful and sad, mostly because that was the world burgeoning news anchor Christine Chubbuck lived in. Rebecca Hall gives a quiet, contemplative voice to a woman so desperate to connect but so stuck in her own depression. She wants to do the news and have an impact on people but can’t make strides; she can barely make friends; she is, in a way, far too many of us. A beautiful scene sees Christine put on a puppet show for children, with the puppet asking if they can just be quiet. It’s a moment where the heroine worries about being too sad, too in her feelings. By the time she finally makes the decision that gives her immortality, committing suicide on-air, there’s enough explanation for the audience to understand Christine was just not built for this world. Rebecca Hall’s performance is just so blistering, a woman so desperate to be liked but couldn’t make the world see it. 

Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) in Wonder Woman (2017)

After the rough year that was 2016 we all needed someone to bring us light and hope, and that came in the golden lasso of one Diana Prince (Gal Gadot). Wonder Woman was a movie about finding hope in the strength of women. Director Patty Jenkins bestowed on audiences’ the island of Themyscira, a land where women could live, fight, and generally live in a society that remains so much a fantasy. At the center is Gadot’s Diana, an idealistic and sheltered woman who believes it’s her duty to end WWI. Teamed up with everyone’s favorite supportive man, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), Wonder Woman vacillated between showing Diana as a fish out of water as well as a woman of high ideals. She can love ice cream and babies as much as she knows she has to stop the god of war, Ares. If you had issues with how her character was handled in movies prior to this one, Jenkins and crew did a lot to fix that. Diana Prince was the shining beacon we needed in a time that felt so chaotic and unforgiving. 

Black Panther Featurette - Danai Gurira as Okoye

Shuri (Letitia Wright) and Okoye (Danai Gurira) in Black Panther (2018)

Is it cheating to tie these two in one movie? Yes. Is it my list and I love them both equally? Yes. These two women threatened to overshadow the actual star of the movie. Sorry, Chadwick Boseman! Wright’s Shuri is a highly intelligent, STEM-loving maven as adept at creating new technology as she is flipping someone the bird. She never backs down from a fight and, more importantly, is acknowledged and praised for her intelligence. This is a landscape where a smart woman showing up men isn’t perceived as threatening. Complementing her is Gurira’s character, Okoye, the general of Wakanda’s Dora Milaje. Okoye is a master on the battlefield and fiercely loyal to Wakanda. In most movies, if the man you love is fighting for the wrong team the movie would give significant screentime to the woman’s response to it all. Does she stay with him or not? Okoye’s not that kind of woman. When her lover, W’Kabi, asks if she’d kill him her response is perfect: “For Wakanda? Without question.” She’s a damsel never in distress. 

Jennifer Lopez career

Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) in Hustlers (2019)

Jennifer Lopez has been in movies for over two decades, but it isn’t until right now that she’s getting serious traction for her role in Lorene Scafaria’s brilliant Hustlers. Ramona is the best friend, mom, sister we’ve always wanted and that’s because of Lopez’s elegance, grace, and affability. From the moment the audience and fellow stripper Destiny (Constance Wu) see her, swinging from a pole to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” we’re hooked. Like a politician, Ramona is able to make anyone feel like they’re the apple of her eye, whether that’s being invited into her fur coat or having her ask Usher what his name is. Ramona is the supportive person who can make anything feel okay, even when Destiny is slipping drugs into men’s drinks and taking them for all their worth. If this doesn’t give Lopez the Oscar, I don’t know what will.  

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