54 that get it right


MOVIES with realistic, nuanced portrayals of women are so rare that when they do appear they can seem like revelations. My top picks include films both new and old whose female characters are portrayed in a humanistic light. Whether they are funny, sad, romantic or wry, what the films have in common is female characters who are complicated, flawed and, above all, recognizably human.


“Private Lives” (Sidney Franklin, 1931, VHS only): A newly remarried woman winds up in the hotel room adjacent to her newly remarried ex during her honeymoon.

“Stage Door” (Gregory La Cava, 1937): A young woman fulfills her dream of becoming an actress.


“Holiday” (George Cukor, 1938 -- only on VHS, but worth it): A free spirit gets engaged to a society girl who would like him to change, then falls in love with her free-spirited sister.

“The Women” (George Cukor, 1939): No men appear on-screen in this classic satire of women’s problems.

“The Philadelphia Story” (George Cukor, 1940): On the eve of her remarriage, a socialite is confronted with her ex-husband, whom she still loves, and a reporter who falls in love with her.

“The Lady Eve” (Preston Sturges, 1941): A smart, beautiful card shark tries to land a naive millionaire on a cruise ship, then, when he finds out, tricks him into believing she is someone else.

“Adam’s Rib” (George Cukor, 1949): A prosecutor and a defense lawyer, married to each other, take opposite sides on a case in which a woman tried to kill her cheating husband.


“All About Eve” (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950): A legendary aging stage actress takes on a young assistant who tries to take her place on stage and in her life.


“Pat and Mike” (George Cukor, 1952): A talented female athlete teams up with the sportswriter who would be her manager.

“Nine to Five” (Colin Higgins, 1980): The classic working girls’ lament.

“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (Amy Heckerling, 1982): The sexual initiation of high school girls and boys in the 1970s.

“Desperately Seeking Susan” (Susan Seidelman, 1985): A suburban housewife becomes obsessed with a female grifter she learns about from the personals.

“Broadcast News” (James L. Brooks, 1987): Two male TV reporters and a workaholic female producer work together and get involved in each other’s lives.

“Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” (Pedro Almodovar, 1988): A woman’s lover leaves her and she tries to find out why. When the police come looking for her to talk about her lover’s illegal activities, she hires a lawyer who turns out to be her lover’s new lover.

“Say Anything ... “ (Cameron Crowe, 1989): The romantic initiation of high school girls and boys in the ‘80s.


“Belle Epoque” (Fernando Trueba, 1992): During the Spanish Civil War, a young man deserts the army and winds up on the farm of a man with four beautiful and very different daughters.

“Heavenly Creatures” (Peter Jackson, 1994): Based on the true story of best friends who plot to kill one of their mothers when their parents come between them.

“Muriel’s Wedding” (P.J. Hogan, 1994): A lonely young woman obsessed with getting married comes into her own when she meets and moves in with a free-spirited stranger.

“Before Sunrise” (Richard Linklater, 1995): A young American guy and a young French girl meet on a train and spend a night in Vienna, and talk about life.

“Clueless” (Amy Heckerling, 1995): A high school girl in Beverly Hills tries to play matchmaker to her friends. Based on Jane Austen’s “Emma.”

“Home for the Holidays” (Jodie Foster, 1995): A comedy about a 40-year-old single mom who returns home for Christmas after losing her job and finds out her daughter plans to have sex that weekend.

“Sense and Sensibility” (Ang Lee, 1995): Adapted from Jane Austen’s novel, the story of two very different sisters and their love lives.

“The Daytrippers” (Greg Mottola, 1996): A woman discovers evidence that her husband is cheating and enlists her mother, father, sister and sister’s boyfriend to track him down over a day in New York City.

“Flirting With Disaster” (David O. Russell, 1996): A new dad sets out to find his birth parents along with his skeptical wife and the adoption agency worker who’d like to steal him away.

“Walking and Talking” (Nicole Holofcener, 1996): A woman deals with single life in New York as her best friend prepares to get married.

“Clockwatchers” (Jill Sprecher, 1997): Four very different women become friends at work, but when someone is accused of stealing, the friendship can’t withstand the pressure.

“Living Out Loud” (Richard LaGravenese, 1998): A poignant comedy about a woman who struggles to regain her identity after a divorce.

“Slums of Beverly Hills” (Tamara Jenkins, 1998): A young girl’s peripatetic life in the low-end apartment buildings of Beverly Hills, with her shiftless father and the wealthy cousin who comes to stay with them.

“Being John Malkovich” (Spike Jonze, 1999): A puppeteer discovers a portal into the head of actor John Malkovich and he, his wife and a woman he’s fallen in love with at work become obsessed with the idea of living another person’s (better) life.

“Election” (Alexander Payne, 1999): An uncommonly ambitious high school student finds herself locked in a battle of wills with a resentful high school teacher.

“Holy Smoke” (Jane Campion, 1999): A young woman who has joined a cult is deprogrammed by an expert, but her personality proves a challenge to him.

“Mansfield Park” (Patricia Rozema, 1999): An adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel, about a woman who struggles to remain true to herself in a society where an unmarried girl has no control over her own life.


“Ghost World” (Terry Zwigoff, 2000): Best friends and art geeks graduate from high school and drift apart when one of them becomes involved with a much older man.

“Girlfight” (Karyn Kusama, 2000): A young girl from a troubled home relies on her boxing talent.

“The Anniversary Party” (Alan Cumming, Jennifer Jason Leigh, 2001): An actress on the decline throws a party for her closest friends to celebrate the anniversary of her shaky marriage.

“Lovely & Amazing” (Nicole Holofcener, 2001): A comedy about the three daughters of an insecure woman dealing with identity issues in contemporary Los Angeles.

“Me Without You” (Sandra Goldbacher, 2001): The touching story of the complicated relationship of two lifelong best friends.

“Y Tu Mama Tambien” (Alfonso Cuaron, 2001): A woman in her 30s, secretly dying of cancer, leaves her husband and takes a road trip with two teenage boys who have been best friends since childhood.

“Adaptation” (Spike Jonze, 2002): An insecure screenwriter struggles to adapt a book by a journalist about whom he fantasizes, as the journalist adapts to being made into a character.

“The Good Girl” (Miguel Arteta, 2002): A woman bored with her job and her marriage hooks up with a cute young guy who thinks he’s Holden Caulfield.

“Sex Is Comedy” (Catherine Breillat, 2002): A female director directs a sex scene involving a prosthetic penis.

“Easy” (Jane Weinstock, 2003): A promiscuous young woman gives up on sex as she tries to figure out who she is.

“Funny Ha Ha” (Andrew Bujalski, 2003): A young girl navigates the murky waters of postgraduate life.

“Lost in Translation” (Sofia Coppola, 2003): A young woman with a splintering marriage meets an aging movie star in a hotel in Japan and a tender friendship develops.

“Pieces of April” (Peter Hedges, 2003): The black sheep struggles to make Thanksgiving dinner for her family before her mother dies of cancer.

“Before Sunset” (Richard Linklater, 2004): The couple meet in Paris 10 years after having failed to reconnect as planned, and talk about the turns their lives have taken.

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (Michel Gondry, 2004): Depressed over their breakup, former lovers attempt to have their memories of each other erased.

“Look at Me” (Agnes Jaoui, 2004): An overweight, directionless young woman deals with the pressures of having a famous, critical father and a beautiful stepmother close to her own age.

“Saving Face” (Alice Wu, 2004): A young Chinese American doctor comes out as a lesbian after her mysteriously pregnant widowed mother moves in.

“Me and You and Everyone We Know” (Miranda July, 2005): A lonely female artist meets a lonely, recently divorced shoe salesman and tries to connect.

“I’m the One That I Want,” “Notorious C.H.O.,” “CHO Revolution”: Stand-up comedy by Margaret Cho that takes on sexism and racism in the funniest way possible.

“Six Feet Under” (four of the five seasons are on DVD): Best female characters on TV.