Best woman-led thrillers

Written by:
March 15, 2022
Le Films Alain Sarde

Best woman-led thrillers

Women in film, like women in almost every other industry, are grossly underrepresented. Nearly half of the world’s population is female, yet only 29% of new movies released in 2020 featured female protagonists. Yet, even though women working from the director’s chair reached a record high that same year, almost 80% of the theatrical films released in 2020 were directed by males, according to Statista. This means there’s not a lack of stories to tell, or women to write, direct, and act in them, but a larger, more systemic issue concerning the way cinema values women, both on and offscreen.

Of course, today’s women in film are still reaping the consequences of Hollywood’s long, implicit history of misogyny, hearkening all the way back to the passing of the Hays Code of 1934. When the Code’s “moral guidelines for the industry” were made effective, practically erasing roles depicting women contesting feminine conformity and gender norms of the time, roles for women onscreen became even harder to come by.

A 2019 survey showed that men go to the movie theater more often than women, with 17% of men surveyed saying they went to see new releases “frequently,” compared to only 12% of women. Despite limited opportunities, female-led thrillers have broken through to garner critical acclaim and box office success, showing this studio strategy might be a misguided one. After all, who could imagine “The Silence of the Lambs” without Jodie Foster’s harrowing, Oscar-winning turn as Clarice Starling? Who better to lead box-office franchises than the likes of Sigourney Weaver (“Alien,” “Aliens”) and Uma Thurman (“Kill Bill: Vol. 1,” “Kill Bill: Vol. 2”), who both delivered powerhouse performances in their respective leading roles?

Bottom line: The mass appeal of female-driven films and female main characters has been proven time and again.

To prove the point, Stacker surveyed all thriller movies and ranked the top 40 led by women. Films are ranked by Stacker score, a weighted score split evenly between IMDb user rating and Metascore. To qualify, the movie had to have a Metascore and at least 2,500 votes on IMDb. Ties were broken by votes. Each of these films is considered a critical success, box-office hit, or cult classic, solidifying the fact that female-led movies are just as good as those led by men.

You may also like: 100 best movies of all time

1 / 40
BBC Films

#40. Dirty Pretty Things (2002)

- Director: Stephen Frears
- Stacker score: 81.6
- Metascore: 78
- IMDb user rating: 7.3
- Runtime: 97 minutes

When a human heart is found inside a toilet in a seedy London hotel, a chain of events is set in motion that could lead to a new life or total destruction for two illegal immigrants in the U.K. Shot in a documentary style and starring Audrey Tautou as the lead, “Dirty Pretty Things” highlights the many ways society exploits these immigrants even while it is totally reliant on them.

2 / 40
Miramax

#39. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)

- Director: Quentin Tarantino
- Stacker score: 81.6
- Metascore: 69
- IMDb user rating: 8.2
- Runtime: 111 minutes

Uma Thurman stars as a former assassin who has a deadly bone to pick with the group of hitmen that attempted to murder her and killed her unborn child. A box-office smash, this incredibly violent Quentin Tarantino film—the story for which came to its conclusion in “Kill Bill: Vol. 2”—pays homage to the grindhouse cinema movies of decades past.

3 / 40
Roxanne

#38. The Honeymoon Killers (1970)

- Directors: Leonard Kastle, Martin Scorsese, Donald Volkman
- Stacker score: 82.2
- Metascore: 82
- IMDb user rating: 7.0
- Runtime: 107 minutes

Inspired by the so-called lonely hearts killers of the 1940s, “The Honeymoon Killers” follows a bitter nurse (Shirley Stoler) who falls in love with a con man, only to get roped into his murderous schemes. The film’s original director, a young Martin Scorsese, was fired after just 10 days, leaving Leonard Kastle, who had only been a composer up to that point, to take over and finish the project.

4 / 40
Warner Bros.

#37. Klute (1971)

- Director: Alan J. Pakula
- Stacker score: 82.2
- Metascore: 81
- IMDb user rating: 7.1
- Runtime: 114 minutes

Jane Fonda plays a high-priced call girl who joins forces with a small-town detective (Donald Sutherland) to solve a missing persons case in “Klute.” The film won critical praise for its nuanced approach to sex work, and Fonda even won an Academy Award for her truly revolutionary portrayal of a sex worker.

5 / 40
Broth Film

#36. Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005)

- Director: Marc Rothemund
- Stacker score: 82.2
- Metascore: 76
- IMDb user rating: 7.6
- Runtime: 120 minutes

This historical thriller follows the last days of Sophie Scholl (Julia Jentsch), a 21-year-old member of the anti-Nazi group, the White Rose, who was found guilty of treason. A bone-chillingly true story, the movie compels viewers to look inward to see if they have within themselves the strength of conviction and nerves of steel that Scholl exhibited near the end of her life.

You may also like: The best streaming services in 2021

6 / 40
New Regency Productions

#35. Widows (2018)

- Director: Steve McQueen
- Stacker score: 82.7
- Metascore: 84
- IMDb user rating: 6.9
- Runtime: 129 minutes

Award-winning thriller author Gillian Flynn wrote the script for this 2018 film about a group of women who attempt to rob a local politician in order to pay back a debt to a crime boss owed by their dead husbands. Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, and Carrie Coon star in the film, which was based on an early ’80s ITV series of the same name.

7 / 40
MonkeyBoy

#34. Victoria (2015)

- Director: Sebastian Schipper
- Stacker score: 82.7
- Metascore: 77
- IMDb user rating: 7.6
- Runtime: 138 minutes

In “Victoria,” the titular character (Laia Costa) finds herself in over her head after a night out with her new love interest and his friends goes off the rails. The crime drama was shot in a single take in Berlin on April 27, 2014.

8 / 40
Columbia Pictures

#33. To Die For (1995)

- Director: Gus Van Sant
- Stacker score: 83.2
- Metascore: 86
- IMDb user rating: 6.8
- Runtime: 106 minutes

Loosely based on the story of Pamela Smart, “To Die For” follows Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman) as an aspiring newscaster who is willing to do whatever it takes—and get rid of whoever it takes—to realize her dream. The film marked Kidman’s breakout role, and its success did quite a bit to boost the star power of its other leads— Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck, and Matt Dillon.

9 / 40
X-Filme Creative Pool

#32. Run Lola Run (1998)

- Director: Tom Tykwer
- Stacker score: 83.2
- Metascore: 77
- IMDb user rating: 7.7
- Runtime: 80 minutes

A German woman (Franka Potente) has 20 minutes to find 100,000 Deutschmarks or else her boyfriend dies in “Run Lola Run.” Experimental in its structure, parts of the movie run on a “Groundhog Day”-esque loop, leaving audiences to watch the same scenes over and over again, while subtle changes in circumstance and the character’s behavior affect the outcome.

10 / 40
Incorporated Television Company (ITC)

#31. The Last Seduction (1994)

- Director: John Dahl
- Stacker score: 83.8
- Metascore: 85
- IMDb user rating: 7.0
- Runtime: 110 minutes

Described by the BBC as “the greatest femme fatale ever,” Bridget Gregory (Linda Fiorentino) ruins not one but two men’s lives in “The Last Seduction.” Greedy and diabolical with a touch of sociopathy mixed in, Bridget is one of those rare female characters who is never redeemed—she’s bad from start to finish, through and through.

You may also like: Oscar Best Picture winners from worst to first

11 / 40
Ancine

#30. Bacurau (2019)

- Directors: Juliano Dornelles, Kleber Mendonça Filho
- Stacker score: 83.8
- Metascore: 82
- IMDb user rating: 7.3
- Runtime: 131 minutes

The fictional Brazilian town of Bacurau begins experiencing sinister and unexplainable events after the death of their community’s matriarch. Starring Sônia Braga, this Portuguese and English language film explores themes like the lasting harm of colonialism, the corruption of governments, and the literal soul-crushing effects of American imperialism.

12 / 40
Canal+

#29. Read My Lips (2001)

- Director: Jacques Audiard
- Stacker score: 83.8
- Metascore: 82
- IMDb user rating: 7.3
- Runtime: 115 minutes

A deaf woman (Emmanuelle Devos) and an ex-convict join forces to change both of their lives in this early-aughts thriller. Equal parts crime caper, romance, and character study, critics called the French film “Hitchcockian” thanks to its detached and understated style.

13 / 40
Columbia Pictures

#28. The China Syndrome (1979)

- Director: James Bridges
- Stacker score: 83.8
- Metascore: 81
- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Runtime: 122 minutes

Best categorized as a natural disaster thriller, “The China Syndrome” follows a young reporter and her cameraman as they unravel a conspiracy surrounding a nuclear power plant in China. Fonda stars as the gutsy newswoman, alongside Michael Douglas and Jack Lemmon.

14 / 40
Slot Machine

#27. Woman at War (2018)

- Director: Benedikt Erlingsson
- Stacker score: 83.8
- Metascore: 81
- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Runtime: 101 minutes

In this joint Ukrainian and Icelandic production, a woman named Halla attempts to balance her role as an environmental activist who isn’t afraid of a little illegal activity with her desire to become an adoptive mother. Dry, black comedic bits break up the tension in this otherwise bleak offering.

15 / 40
Kôdansha

#26. Ghost in the Shell (1995)

- Director: Mamoru Oshii
- Stacker score: 83.8
- Metascore: 76
- IMDb user rating: 7.9
- Runtime: 83 minutes

A spin-off of a manga series of the same name, “Ghost in the Shell” is a Japanese anime film about a cyborg policewoman who’s hunting a villain named the Puppet Master. Set in the near future and dealing with themes like the perils of a technology dependant world, the cult classic movie inspired a host of more widely-known titles, including the “Matrix” quartet.

You may also like: Top 100 thrillers of all time, according to critics

16 / 40
The Associates & Aldrich Company

#25. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

- Director: Robert Aldrich
- Stacker score: 83.8
- Metascore: 75
- IMDb user rating: 8.0
- Runtime: 134 minutes

An absolute classic in the psychological horror genre, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” is about a former child star who torments her paraplegic sister, also a former actress, in their decaying Los Angeles mansion. The film is as famous for its behind-the-scenes drama—caused by the real-life feud between its stars Joan Crawford and Bette Davis—as it is for its on-screen antics.

17 / 40
Toho Film (Eiga) Co. Ltd.

#24. Lady Snowblood (1973)

- Director: Toshiya Fujita
- Stacker score: 84.3
- Metascore: 80
- IMDb user rating: 7.6
- Runtime: 97 minutes

A woman (Meiko Kaji) seeks revenge on the criminals who raped her mother and killed her father and brother in “Lady Snowblood.” Based on a manga series of the same name, this Japanese film is often regarded as the inspiration behind Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” series.

18 / 40
CJ Entertainment

#23. Mother (2009)

- Director: Bong Joon Ho
- Stacker score: 84.9
- Metascore: 79
- IMDb user rating: 7.8
- Runtime: 129 minutes

This South Korean thriller won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, thanks in large part to its controversial ending. Still, most audiences are sure to enjoy the ride as they follow the titular mother (Kim Hye-ja) who, desperate to clear her mentally disabled son’s name, searches for the truth behind a young woman’s death.

19 / 40
Madhouse

#22. Paprika (2006)

- Director: Satoshi Kon
- Stacker score: 85.4
- Metascore: 81
- IMDb user rating: 7.7
- Runtime: 90 minutes

Set almost entirely in its characters’ dreams, “Paprika” is a Japanese anime film and famed director Satoshi Kon’s last movie. It’s a story about a stolen device that allows people to enter others’ minds through their dreams, and the detective who is hired to track it down before all hell breaks loose.

20 / 40
WingNut Films

#21. Heavenly Creatures (1994)

- Director: Peter Jackson
- Stacker score: 85.9
- Metascore: 86
- IMDb user rating: 7.3
- Runtime: 99 minutes

Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey made their feature film debuts in “Heavenly Creatures,” a biographical thriller based on New Zealand’s Parker-Hulme murder case. Set in the 1950s, the movie follows two teenage girls with an unnaturally close bond who resort to murder after their parents attempt to separate them.

You may also like: Steven Spielberg films ranked from worst to first

21 / 40
River Road Productions

#20. Blood Simple (1984)

- Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
- Stacker score: 85.9
- Metascore: 83
- IMDb user rating: 7.6
- Runtime: 99 minutes

An independent film, “Blood Simple” is significant primarily because it marks the Coen Brothers’ directorial debut and Frances McDormand’s acting debut. The neo-noir crime thriller tells the tale of a Texas bartender who initiates a misguided murder plot after realizing that his wife is having an affair with one of his bartenders.

22 / 40
Lionsgate

#19. Sicario (2015)

- Director: Denis Villeneuve
- Stacker score: 85.9
- Metascore: 82
- IMDb user rating: 7.7
- Runtime: 121 minutes

Emily Blunt plays an FBI agent hired by the government to bring down a violent Mexican drug cartel in this Oscar-nominated 2015 hit. Fans of the high-intensity action film will be happy to learn that a sequel exists, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” and that a third, yet-to-be-named installment is reportedly in the works.

23 / 40
Fox Searchlight Pictures

#18. Black Swan (2010)

- Director: Darren Aronofsky
- Stacker score: 85.9
- Metascore: 79
- IMDb user rating: 8.0
- Runtime: 108 minutes

In “Black Swan,” Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman star as rival ballerinas competing for the same role in “Swan Lake.” As the competition between the two women heats up, one of them starts to lose her tenuous hold on reality and begins a terrifying descent into madness. Portman’s performance, in particular, has been called one of the best of the 21st century.

24 / 40
SBS Productions

#17. Elle (2016)

- Director: Paul Verhoeven
- Stacker score: 86.5
- Metascore: 89
- IMDb user rating: 7.1
- Runtime: 130 minutes

Film critic Shelia O’Malley called “Elle” a “dissertation on power dynamics.” The French thriller follows a capable and successful businesswoman (Isabelle Huppert) as she attempts to track down and exact her revenge on her rapist.

25 / 40
Non-Stop Productions

#16. Elena (2011)

- Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
- Stacker score: 86.5
- Metascore: 87
- IMDb user rating: 7.3
- Runtime: 109 minutes

Money is one of those things in life that often leads people to make rash decisions. Or at least leads the titular character (Nadezhda Markina) in “Elena” to do so. When her inheritance is threatened, this dutiful Russian wife acts with abandon to ensure she gets what she believes to be her rightful share of her husband’s fortune.

You may also like: 111 monumental movies from film history and why you need to see them

26 / 40
Boshra Film

#15. Fireworks Wednesday (2006)

- Director: Asghar Farhadi
- Stacker score: 87.0
- Metascore: 84
- IMDb user rating: 7.7
- Runtime: 102 minutes

This Iranian domestic thriller follows a maid (Hedye Tehrani) who accidentally finds herself caught up in a dispute between her employer and his wife. The New York Times wrote that, on a deeper level, the critically acclaimed film is actually about the “undeclared war of attrition between the sexes and the classes.”

27 / 40
Gamechanger Films

#14. The Tale (2018)

- Director: Jennifer Fox
- Stacker score: 87.6
- Metascore: 90
- IMDb user rating: 7.2
- Runtime: 114 minutes

Hugely controversial upon its release, HBO’s “The Tale” is about a woman (Laura Dern) forced to reconsider the stories she tells herself about her own childhood after finding an essay she wrote as a preteen that seems to indicate she had been groomed and sexually molested—and not, as she had long believed, in a consensual relationship with a decades-older man. Dern stars in the project based on writer and director Jennifer Fox’s own real-life experiences.

28 / 40
Stanley Donen Films

#13. Charade (1963)

- Director: Stanley Donen
- Stacker score: 87.6
- Metascore: 83
- IMDb user rating: 7.9
- Runtime: 113 minutes

Equal parts rom-com and thriller, “Charade” stars Audrey Hepburn as an American widow on the run in Paris. In the film, Hepburn’s Regina Lampert flees three crooks who are after the money her deceased husband stole from them, and the only person she can rely on is a mysterious stranger with multiple identities (Cary Grant).

29 / 40
Miramax

#12. Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)

- Director: Quentin Tarantino
- Stacker score: 88.1
- Metascore: 83
- IMDb user rating: 8.0
- Runtime: 137 minutes

Filmed at the same time as “Kill Bill: Vol 1,” “Kill Bill: Vol 2” wraps up the story of the Bride’s (Emma Thurman) revenge. The “Kill Bill” series is so popular among Tarantino fans that the director has openly discussed plans for a third film, which would follow the Bride’s daughter.

30 / 40
Les Films Alain Sarde

#11. Mulholland Drive (2001)

- Director: David Lynch
- Stacker score: 88.6
- Metascore: 85
- IMDb user rating: 7.9
- Runtime: 147 minutes

When a newly arrived actress (Naomi Watts) finds a strange, amnesiac woman (Laura Harring) in her Hollywood apartment, the two join forces to figure out the latter’s true identity. Things quickly take a dark and twisted turn, and the line between dreams and reality begins to blur the harder the two women push for answers. “Mulholland Drive” is widely considered to be one of David Lynch’s best films.

You may also like: Best and worst Al Pacino movies

31 / 40
CJ Entertainment

#10. The Handmaiden (2016)

- Director: Park Chan-wook
- Stacker score: 89.2
- Metascore: 84
- IMDb user rating: 8.1
- Runtime: 145 minutes

“The Handmaiden” is a dark, erotic, puzzle thriller from South Korea, about a maidservant (Kim Tae-ri) who is plotting with a swindler to defraud her mistress (Kim Min-hee). Incredibly violent with graphic depictions of abuse, the film certainly isn’t for the faint of heart.

32 / 40
PolyGram Filmed Entertainment

#9. Fargo (1996)

- Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
- Stacker score: 89.7
- Metascore: 85
- IMDb user rating: 8.1
- Runtime: 98 minutes

In this black comedy thriller, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), a pregnant Minnesota policeman, investigates a local car salesman’s crime spree gone wrong. The movie marks the second collaboration between McDormand and the Coen brothers to make this list, and their fifth since 1984’s “Blood Simple.”

33 / 40
Compton Films

#8. Repulsion (1965)

- Director: Roman Polanski
- Stacker score: 90.3
- Metascore: 91
- IMDb user rating: 7.6
- Runtime: 105 minutes

Considered one of cinema’s most shocking psychological thrillers, “Repulsion” tracks a fragile young woman’s (Catherine Deneuve) descent into insanity. After being left alone while her sister goes on vacation, the woman begins to break, and her hallucinations cause her to commit heinous and violent acts. “Repulsion” was Roman Polanski’s first English-language film.

34 / 40
AB Svensk Filmindustri

#7. Persona (1966)

- Director: Ingmar Bergman
- Stacker score: 90.3
- Metascore: 86
- IMDb user rating: 8.1
- Runtime: 83 minutes

Ingmar Bergman wrote and directed this psychological thriller about a nurse (Bibi Andersson) who finds herself unable to distinguish her own person from that of her patient, a mute actress. Since the film’s release in the mid-’60s, film critics, fans, and scholars have hotly debated the enigmatic film’s meaning.

35 / 40
Selznick International Pictures

#6. Rebecca (1940)

- Director: Alfred Hitchcock
- Stacker score: 90.3
- Metascore: 86
- IMDb user rating: 8.1
- Runtime: 130 minutes

Based on the novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier, “Rebecca” is about a young woman (Joan Fontaine) who struggles to deal with the constant presence of her new husband’s deceased wife in their marriage and home. Winner of the 1940 Academy Award for Best Picture, the movie was also Alfred Hitchcock’s first American project.

You may also like: Best and worst Leonardo DiCaprio movies

36 / 40
Twentieth Century Fox

#5. Aliens (1986)

- Director: James Cameron
- Stacker score: 90.8
- Metascore: 84
- IMDb user rating: 8.4
- Runtime: 137 minutes

The second film in the “Alien” franchise, “Aliens” sees Sigourney Weaver called back into action to help locate any potential survivors in a moon colony that was attacked by the same ruthless extraterrestrial species she faced some 50 years earlier. Many moviegoers consider this to be an example of the rare case of the sequel being better than the original installment.

37 / 40
Columbia Pictures

#4. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

- Director: Kathryn Bigelow
- Stacker score: 91.4
- Metascore: 95
- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Runtime: 157 minutes

A dramatization of the decade-long international manhunt for Osama bin Laden, “Zero Dark Thirty” begins in the days following the 9/11 attacks and ends with the assassination of the Al-Qaeda leader. The story is told through the lens of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a fictional CIA intelligence analyst, who becomes obsessed with tracking down the terrorist and bringing him to justice. For her turn in the movie, Chastain garnered a Best Actress Oscar nomination.

38 / 40
Strong Heart/Demme Production

#3. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

- Director: Jonathan Demme
- Stacker score: 92.4
- Metascore: 85
- IMDb user rating: 8.6
- Runtime: 118 minutes

An instant classic, “The Silence of the Lambs” follows a young FBI agent (Jodie Foster) who attempts to track down one serial killer with the help of a second, cannibalistic serial killer. One of the top-grossing films of 1991, the movie also won Academy Awards in all five of the major categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

39 / 40
Nouvelles Éditions de Films (NEF)

#2. Elevator to the Gallows (1958)

- Director: Louis Malle
- Stacker score: 93.5
- Metascore: 94
- IMDb user rating: 7.9
- Runtime: 91 minutes

Set over the course of one tumultuous night in Paris, “Elevator to the Gallows” is about a pair of young lovers who plot to kill one lover’s husband so that they will be free to start their life together. Revolutionary for its narrative and cinematographic style and starring Jeanne Moreau in the leading role, the movie has been credited with being one of the establishing examples of French New Wave and New Modern Cinema.

40 / 40
Gainsborough Pictures

#1. The Lady Vanishes (1938)

- Director: Alfred Hitchcock
- Stacker score: 95.1
- Metascore: 98
- IMDb user rating: 7.8
- Runtime: 96 minutes

Finally, the best woman-led thriller of all time is “The Lady Vanishes.” This Alfred Hitchcock picture is about a young lady (Margaret Lockwood) traveling by train through continental Europe who discovers that her elderly companion seems to have vanished into thin air. When no one else seems willing to confirm that the lady ever existed, the younger woman becomes determined to unravel the mystery even when her own sanity is called into question.

You may also like: 100 best Westerns of all time

Trending Now