There is a pretty clear divide between movies that women like, the so-called chick flicks, and movies that guys like, or action movies. It's fairly obvious what the action/adventure genre consists of: a hero killing bad guys and saving the world. But what exactly defines a chick flick?
It boils down to whose fantasy is being fulfilled. A man giving his life for a woman (Titanic) is not a typical male fantasy. A movie where women are expendable playthings (any James Bond film) is. Women's movies feature love; men's feature sex.
Any movie where the heroine does the unexpected (Erin Brockovich) is a chick flick. A movie where the man is heroic (Die Hard) is a guy's movie.
No action movie ever features: a heroine who is torn and must make up her mind; the subject of weight loss; heartfelt conversations between the protagonist and her best friend in which they commiserate about men's faults; or a male lead without much muscle.
Any movie where females are "empowered" (Fried Green Tomatoes, Thelma and Louise) is geared to women. That word, by the way, is simply not part of the male vocabulary. You'll never hear a guy say, "I adore my new Glock 19, it's really empowering," even though that's exactly why he feels that way about it.
While the Lara Croft movies might initially appear chick flicks, they are actually geared towards a certain type of male fantasy. (Men who like dominatrixes seem to have taken over Hollywood.) There is nothing about Angelina Jolie that most women can identify with, and the way Jolie's breasts are featured so prominently makes clear this is not a movie aimed at women. (The movies were, after all, based on a video game played almost exclusively by males.)
The basic template for many chick flicks is the Cinderella story (Pretty Woman, The Wedding Planner, 27 Dresses). Thus any actor whose primary purpose is to play Prince Charming (a role frequently played by Richard Gere, Patrick Dempsey, and Matthew McConnaughey) is in a chick flick.
In fact, any movie where marriage is a prominent motif (The Wedding Planner, 27 Dresses), especially when it ends in a marriage, has to be chick flick. No Bond film ever showed 007 fretting about finding the right girl to settle down with.
In chick flicks, the romantic conflict is at the center of action: the man and woman must resolve their differences to pave the way for a happy ending. In guy flicks, the guy gets the girl as a byproduct of his heroism. (Seriously, what girl is going to say no after witnessing you singlehandedly wipe out a nest of terrorists to save her life?)
Any movie with the theme of revenge on men (Second Wives Club, 9 to 5, Fried Green Tomatoes) is, needless to say, a chick flick. Any movie in which the word "sisterhood" is uttered, likewise.
In women's movies, the actors tend to look more like real people. Bridget Jones' Diary is a good example. Renee Zellwegger looks as if she's struggling with her diet, and Colin Firth looks like one of your less memorable prep school classmates. In action films, no one really looks human. Dolph Lundgren and Arnold Schwarzenegger simply don't look like guys you'd meet at a suburban barbecue. And the women in those movies look like airbrushed models.
If English accents signal refinement, then it's more likely a chick flick (Sense and Sensibility, An Affair to Remember, Notting Hill). If English accents signal villainy (Die Hard, Last Action Hero, Commando, The Expendables), then it's more likely an action movie.
Any weepie is a chick flick. I can't recall any guy friends ever saying, "I'm in the mood for a good cry -- Let's go see Titanic again."
In a chick flick, women get the best lines. Julia Roberts, probably the biggest all time star of such movies (Pretty Woman, Steel Magnolias, Sleeping With the Enemy, Dying Young, My Best Friend's Wedding, Runaway Bride, Erin Brockovich), has been a shrewd manipulator of her own career this way. She has never appeared in a single movie (except Ocean's Twelve) where she wasn't given all the best lines.
In an action movie, the female lead's job is to go from icy hostility to complete infatuation in the course of an hour or so. Thus her lines are mostly variants of "I hate you" and "You're so amazing!" Needless to say, the male lead gets all the best lines -- such as they are -- in these movies. (If guys were actually interested in what women have to say, more men would go see chick flicks.)
Any movie where a guy is described as "sweet" or "cute" is a chick flick. (James Bond was never described as "cute." And Pussy Galore never said, "Aw, he brought me flowers -- he's so sweet!")
Any movie which focuses on social status in high school (Mean Girls) is a chick flick. If such movies incorporate singing and dancing they cross the line from chick flick to gay (Grease). Any movie which is supposed to make us nostalgic for the wild and crazy times we supposedly had in high school (Porky's, Porky's II, American Pie) is a guy movie.
The most common template for men's films is Rudyard Kipling's Captains Courageous: boy encounters difficult circumstances, boy grows muscles, boy triumphs (The Karate Kid). Even movies like Superman and Spiderman are variations on this common male fantasy. (There was never a Supergirl II or Wonder Woman II because most girls don't fantasize about having super powers.)
Any movie where any actor playing either the hero or a villain is obviously on steroids is a guy film. How much evidence of steroid abuse did you detect in Notting Hill, or Bridget Jones' Diary?
In a guy movie, the clock is always ticking as the hero must race to save the town -- or his romantic interest, or the world -- from certain disaster. In chick flicks, the loudest ticking is that of a biological clock.
Certain actors and actresses become associated with one or the other type of movie. Any movie with Reese Witherspoon (Sweet Home Alabama, Legally Blonde) is likely a chick flick. Likewise with Sigourney Weaver, Geena Davis, and Katharine Heigl. You never saw Rosie O'Donnell (A League of Their Own, Sleepless in Seattle) in a guy's movie, even as a comic sidekick.
On the other hand, Bruce Willis, Jean Claude Van Damme, or Arnold Schwarzenegger in a chick flick would be as out of place as a polar bear on your patio.
Don't tell anyone, but I actually prefer a well made chick flick to a dumb action film. I've never seen a Steven Seagal, Chuck Norris, or Bruce Lee movie which was anything but lame. And I enjoyed Bridget Jones' Diary, Sleepless in Seattle, and Sense and Sensibility.