The 100 greatest female characters in movies

Females on film

While film school classes and incensed critics continue to debate the lack of women in film, female actresses are fighting the good fight on the silver screen itself. Alas, not in anywhere near the numbers needed - provided things were a little bit fairer, of course - or that woman over the age of 40 didn't suddenly become a movie exec's idea of nightmare kryptonite.

Over the years, these amazing actresses have been asked to play any number of damsels, dames, nagging housewives, ditzy girlfriends and occasionally (just occasionally) an interesting and nuanced character. This list celebrates the latter, looking at the very best female creations in the history of cinema. Enjoy.

100. Baby (Dirty Dancing)

The Character: Dirty Dancing's Jewish princess learns to thrust-'n-grind with Swayze's Johnny Castle. Nobody's gonna put her in a corner now.

The Actress: Though familiar as Ferris Bueller's sister, Jennifer Grey was also the daughter of Oscar-winning dancer Joel Grey, so had the heritage to pull off those moves. And still has, judging from her Dancing With The Stars win.

The Performance: The Bible for how to become a woman, for girls of a certain age.

99. Cherry Darling (Planet Terror)

The Character: Planet Terror's go-go dancer, whose job title is aptly named. Not even having her leg torn off by zombies can stop her. Plug in a grenade-launching gun and she's good to go-go.

The Actress: Already a cult sensation thanks to Charmed and a fistful of Gregg Araki movies, Rose McGowan was born to play Grindhouse.

The Performance: Rich in knowing humour and fucked-up sexiness, Rose's Cherry is exactly the kind of girl you need in the post-apocalypse.

98. Vivian Ward

The Character: The titular Pretty Woman, who doesn't let being a prostitute get in the way of a Pygmalion-style makeover into a modern-day princess.

The Actress: Julia Roberts had shown Oscar-nominated promise in Steel Magnolias, but still had to wait until others (including Daryl Hannah and Meg Ryan) turned it down. Result: the It Girl of the early '90s.

The Performance: Developed as a dark drama called $3,000 (as in, she'll do anything for that price), the decision to lighten the mood into a love story was centred on Julia Roberts' toothy charm and wholesome appeal.

97. Samantha Baker (Sixteen Candles)

The Character: Suburban teenager looking forward to blowing out Sixteen Candles with family and friends, only to discover everybody's forgotten her birthday except Ted the Geek.

The Actress: Debut director John Hughes needed experience but wanted a genuine teenager. He found the combo in Molly Ringwald, still only 16 herself, but fresh off Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone.

The Performance: Gawky, sarcastic and idealistic, Ringwald represented a richer, more realistic paradigm for screen depictions of teenage girls.

96. Stifler's Mom (American Pie)

The Character: Put simply, a MILF. And the inspiration for a sub-genre of porn remains a satisfyingly flirty, filthy archetype.

The Actress: This was jobbing comedienne Jennifer Coolidge's big-screen breakthrough, enough to get her a regular gig as one of Christopher Guest's Mockumentary repertoire alongside American Pie co-star Eugene Levy.

The Performance: A shallow, one-dimensional figure on paper gets real presence thanks to the naughty twinkle in Coolidge's eyes.

95. Layla (Buffalo '66)

The Character: Buffalo 66's teenage dancer, who is kidnapped by crazy ex-con Billy Brown but is arguably just as crazy herself, willingly pretending to be his wife for a strange family reunion.

The Actress: Child star Christina Ricci was in the process of translating Addams Family oddness into an adult career. She followed Buffalo 66 with the equally acerbic The Opposite of Sex.

The Performance: Director/star Gallo labelled Ricci a puppet, but she gives as good as she gets, refusing to let Layla be drowned out by Gallo's narcissism.

94. Marquise de Merteuil (Dangerous Liaisons)

The Character: The most dangerous liaiser in Dangerous Liaisons, the Marquise is in the business of ruining lives for her own sexual pleasure.

The Actress: By the late 1980s, Glenn Close was both a major film star thanks to Fatal Attraction, and a Broadway veteran - the ideal combo for the play's sharp dialogue.

The Performance: Arguably more frightening than Alex Forrest, Close acts as her own name suggests: quiet, guarded but devastatingly powerful.

93. Karen Silkwood (Silkwood)

The Character: Real life worker in a nuclear power plant whose brave investigation into unsafe practices led to her suspicious death in a motor accident. This never happened to Homer Simpson.

The Actress: Still only in her mid-30s, Meryl Streep already had two Oscars under her belt and a reputation as the best actress around.

The Performance: More fuel for Streep's reputation, so utterly convincing as a blue-collar, mid-West factory worker you even believe that her best friend could be Cher.

92. Marnie Edgar (Marnie)

The Character: It's hard enough being a kleptomaniac haunted by a terrible childhood memory, without brutish Sean Connery blackmailing you into marriage.

The Actress: When Grace Kelly's royal marriage prevented a rematch with Alfred Hitchcock, he cast the ingnue he'd groomed - and terrorised - during The Birds: Tippi Hedren.

The Performance: Marnie is the most challenging role given to a Hitchcock blonde, and induced a suitably hysterical, rabbit-in-the-headlights performance from Hedren.

91. Briony Tallis (Atonement)

The Character: A teenage girl whose erroneous accusation in Atonement destroys a love affair and plagues her for the rest of her life.

The Actresses: Newcomer Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave - a miraculous generational relay race.

The Performances: Briony's later guilt and desperation are ably conveyed by Garai and Regrave, but its Ronan's blazing, complex portrayal of pubescent confusion that dominates the film.