The best female-led films to watch on International Women’s Day, from Widows to Erin Brockovich

Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich (Alamy Stock Photo)
Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich (Alamy Stock Photo)

It’s International Women’s Day on Friday, a day for celebrating women and drawing attention to the inequalities that still exist between men and women.

One fantastic way of taking part in IWD is by watching a film with a strong female lead. And given that there are literally hundreds to choose from, we have narrowed down the list by selecting nine of our favourites.

His Girl Friday (1940)

This comedy about a newspaper editor and his relationship with his star reporter is not only one of the best screwballs ever made, but has one of the best central heroines of all time too. Hildy Johnson, who is played by the formidable Rosalind Russell, is a no-nonsense and brilliant journalist who keeps everyone around her – and particularly her boss Walter Burns (Cary Grant) – on their toes. A film that has inspired hundreds to choose journalism over the years, His Girl Friday is also simply a joy to watch.

9 to 5 (1980)

This hilarious American comedy from Colin Higgins (who also wrote the screenplay for Harold and Maude) stars Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton as three working women who decide to get even with their horrible boss, the chauvinist Franklin Hart Jr (Dabney Coleman). Higgins, along with co-writer Patricia Resnick, does a great job of finding the right tone in this feel-good payback film – after all, the film’s underlying theme of inequality in the workplace is a serious one. But mostly it’s just great fun to watch the effervescent Fonda, Tomlin and Parton on screen.

The Accused (1988)

This legal drama, which is loosely based on the true story of the crimes committed against Cheryl Araujo in 1983, won Jodie Foster the award for Best Actress at the Oscars in 1988. Foster stars as Sarah Tobias, a young woman who is gang-raped by three men at a local bar. She decides not only to prosecute the men who raped her, but the men who solicited the assault too, and she turns to attorney Kathryn Murphy (Kelly McGillis) for help. It was criticised for being overly graphic in the depiction of the assault – and the jury is still out over this – but it was also praised for tackling the subject matter head-on. Sarah is a force to be reckoned with.

Thelma & Louise (1991)

Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise stars Susan Sarandon as waitress Louise Sawyer, and Geena Davis as housewife Thelma Dickinson. The best friends go for a weekend away together, but when a flirtatious stranger attacks Thelma and the situation gets out of hand, the women decide to flee. Their behaviour becomes increasingly erratic as they are chased across states by the authorities. The film has gained cult status over the years, and – barring a few criticisms – is regarded as a feminist film.

Erin Brockovich (2000)

There are few films that are better to watch on International Women’s Day than this biographical David and Goliath legal drama. Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich is based on the true story of an American legal clark who took on major gas company Pacific Gas & Electric in the Nineties for contaminating the groundwater in Hinkley, California. The case, which began with Brockovich investigating a number of unexplained illnesses in the area, culminated in a major class-action lawsuit.

Julia Roberts, who won an Oscar for playing Brockovich, plays the paralegal perfectly: Brockovich was undermined and underestimated at every turn, partly because she was a beautiful woman.

Winter’s Bone (2010)

This mystery drama from Debra Granik launched the career of Jennifer Lawrence who would go on to get an Oscar nomination for her role in the film. Lawrence plays tough 17-year-old Ree Dolly who has to track down her father because her family are facing eviction from their remote Missouri home. Although Ree Dolly’s father is on bail for making meth, the film is more of an exploration of family, morality, love and individual choices, rather than of drug abuse. It’s an astonishing work: tense, eerie and incredibly moving.

Widows (2018)

This fantastic neo-noir heist thriller from Steve McQueen tells the story of four women in Chicago who plan to steal $5m from a wealthy local politician. They need it to pay back a crime boss whom their late husbands – who were all killed during a getaway – had stolen from. Full of tension and incredibly well-paced, the film was co-written by Gillian Flynn, who wrote the book Gone Girl. Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki star alongside Cynthia Erivo, Jacki Weaver and Carrie Coon.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Director for her 2008 film The Hurt Locker about an American bomb disposal unit in Iraq. But we prefer Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, and not only because it stars the fantastic Jessica Chastain as CIA analyst Maya Harris. The film retells the story of the American manhunt for Osama Bin Laden from Maya’s point of view, beginning with difficult-to-watch black site interrogations and ending in the nail-biting raid. The film picked up five Oscar nominations in 2013, winning Best Sound Editing and Chastain won a Best Actress Golden Globe for her role.

Corsage (2023)

This exquisite period drama by Marie Kreutzer reimagines some of the life of the fiercely independent Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Vicky Krieps), who is suffocated by her duties at court and depressed in her loveless marriage. She’s a fantastic character, although not necessarily likeable: she loves her dogs and horses almost as much as her children, is vain and often mean, and flirts with everyone except her husband. But she’s also tremendously enchanting, which is why Corsage makes for such a compelling watch.