A nonagenarian fashionista who wears her wrinkles as “a badge of courage.” Two transgender women of color stomping it out in the streets of Hollywood with only their friendship to cling to. A warrior woman risking life and limb to fight for the radical idea that she, and women like her, “are not things.” This year’s frontrunners for the best in feminist film break new ground by diverging from the path, blazing new narrative trails and celebrating women who paved their own way by breaking all the rules.
Count down the most trailblazing films of 2015 with us!
15. Iris (Documentary, Dir. Albert Maysles)
Dubbed the “rare bird of fashion,” 94-year-old Iris Apfel proves once and for all that you’re never too old to have great style. After a lifetime of using the New York City sidewalks as her own personal catwalk, documentary cameras detail her meteoric rise to fame when, in 2005, the Metropolitan Museum of Art displays her strange and extraordinary assemblage of accessories and textiles for all the world to see.
14. Sisters (Comedy, Dir. Jason Moore)
Former Saturday Night Live writer Paula Pell, the comic genius behind such sketches as the Spartan Cheerleaders, Debbie Downer and Gilly, unites real-life gal pals Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to play on-screen sisters throwing the mother of all house parties after their parents put their childhood home up for sale. Undeniably smart and ferociously feminist, in Sisters, this dynamic duo demonstrate what sisterhood is really all about.
13. Janis: Little Girl Blue (Documentary, Dir. Amy Berg)
With her signature rasp and her flamboyant dress, Janis Joplin ruled rock as a one-of-a-kind psychedelic soul goddess. Documentarian Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil, An Open Secret) composes a loving tribute to a woman and artist whose tragically short life took with it a piece of all our hearts.
12. Trainwreck (Comedy, Dir. Judd Apatow)
If hilarious women-driven comedies like 2011’s Bridesmaids and this summer’s Spy (see below!) didn’t already deal the death blow to the ridiculous myth that women aren’t funny, comedian Amy Schumer’s starring and screenwriting debut torched it and scattered its ashes in the sea. Playing an independent career woman with more on her mind than settling down, Schumer breathes new life into the tired rom-com genre by turning the traditional trope of the lovelorn little woman on its head.
11. Tangerine (Drama, Dir. Sean Baker)
Despite Hollywood’s well-intentioned attempts to present authentic transgender stories to mainstream audiences this year, the results were misguided at best (read: The Danish Girl) and at worst, down right offensive (WTF, Stonewall?). Who would’ve guessed an indie filmmaker armed with only an iPhone would break new ground by casting actual trans actors (including Happy Birthday, Marsha‘s Mya Taylor) in a fun and affecting flick about friendship? Sugar, spice and equal parts naughty and nice, you can watch Tangerine now on Netflix!
10. He Named Me Malala (Documentary, Dir. Davis Guggenheim)
Terrorist target. Tireless advocate for girls’ education globally. Nobel Peace Prize recipient. It’s easy to forget that at 17 years old, Malala Yousafzai is still just a teenager who delights in teasing her little brother and crushes hard on star athletes like Roger Federer. Director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) offers an awe-inspiring glimpse into the ordinary life of an extraordinary young girl seemingly destined to change the world.
9. Mustang (Drama, Dir. Deniz Gamze Ergüven)
After an innocent frolic in a neighborhood swimming pool with some boys from their school, five Turkish sisters on the cusp of womanhood are locked away in a “wife factory,” stripped of “skimpy” clothes, cell phones and computers, and schooled in cooking and housekeeping. Poignant and disturbing, writer and director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s thoughtful rumination on global society’s deeply entrenched fear of women’s sexuality will break your heart.
8. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Drama, Dir. Marielle Heller)
Startlingly frank, this hormonally charged story about one girl’s burgeoning sexuality feels like it was ripped from the pages of my high school journal (minus the whole affair-with-my-mother’s-boyfriend thing). Based on screenwriter Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel by the same name and featuring comedic powerhouse Kristen Wiig, The Diary of a Teenage Girl will give you all the feels (and some laughs, too!).
7. Spotlight (Drama, Dir. Tom McCarthy)
In 2003, with the help of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), the Boston Globe exposed a nationwide epidemic of sexual abuse inside the Catholic Church. More than just a film about power and corruption inside one the world’s most revered institutions, Spotlight, named after the Globe‘s investigative journalism team that broke the story wide open, takes special care to shine a light on the survivors of child rape and molestation, offering sensitive and nuanced portrayals of adults picking up the pieces in the wake of the ultimate betrayal.
6. What Happened, Miss Simone? (Documentary, Dir. Liz Garbus)
Documentarian Liz Garbus (There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane) compiles rare archival footage and interviews with close friends, loved ones and creative collaborators to piece together a picture of one of music’s most enigmatic artists. Both deeply insecure and unapologetically bold, Nina Simone sacrificed her superstar status in the service of furthering civil rights, later exiling herself to Europe in protest of what she perceived as the Civil Rights movement’s loss of momentum. But fans of the songstress will remember her best for her soul-stirring (and chillingly relevant) classics “Mississippi Goddam” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”
5. Grandma (Comedy, Dir., Writer Paul Weitz)
Fresh from her smash hit Netflix series Grace and Frankie, comedian Lily Tomlin plays Elle Reid, a feminist scholar helping her pregnant teenage granddaughter procure money for an abortion. Edgy, hilarious and heartwarming—just like Tomlin herself!—Grandma delivers the brutally honest, but delightfully uncomfortable sex talk we all craved growing up, from the “cool” relative we never had.
4. Carol (Drama, Dir. Todd Haynes)
You can’t help but fall in love with screenwriter Phyllis Nagy’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s classic lesbian romance novel The Price of Salt, or Carol. Starring the luminous Cate Blanchett as a glamorous divorcée, and Rooney Mara as a naive shopgirl, the love between the two women at the heart of Carol is conveyed with such tenderness and raw sensuality, you will feel butterflies.
3. The Hunting Ground (Documentary, Dir. Kirby Dick)
Director Kirby Dick (The Invisible War) takes on yet another powerful institution where sexual assault is not only rife, it’s expected: U.S. college campuses. In interviews with prominent student activists, sexual assault survivors and college administrators, audiences gain an education in the prevalence of campus rape—and how to stop it.
2. IT’S A TIE!
Spy (Comedy, Dir. Paul Feig)
It saddens me that so few of my friends (especially the feminist ones!) have seen this film. Underutilized as a field-trained CIA analyst, Susan Copper (Melissa McCarthy at her absolute best!) volunteers to go undercover when the male agent she’s charged with backing up is killed in the line of duty. Smart, hilarious, surprisingly body-positive and splitting at the seams with sisterhood (I want Miranda Hart to be my best friend!), Spy reminds us all to be brave, be bold, and… Why are you still reading this? Watch this movie NOW!
Mad Max: Fury Road (Fantasy/Science Fiction, Dir. George Miller)
Yet another film that too few of my friends have seen. After you check out Spy, this should be next in your queue. Frustrated by a society in which men are raised to be death-wielding “war boys” and women relegated to roles as sex slaves or mothers to be milked, soldier Imperator Furiosa (the badass Charlize Theron) charts a course to a utopian village just beyond Fury Road, where women live in peace. You thought this movie was all about Mad Max? Hell no! It’s about so much more!
1. IT’S ANOTHER TIE!
Selma (Drama, Dir. Ava DuVernay)
Yes, Selma was released 2014, but it was woefully absent from last year’s list (not to mention Oscar ballots!). A snapshot of one of the most violent periods in the history of the Civil Rights movement, Selma (masterfully directed by Ava DuVernay) honors the revolutionary acts organized by social-justice activists and led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that preceded the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Today, with violence against African Americans growing more and more visible every day, watching Selma is not just important—it’s necessary.
Suffragette (Drama, Dir. Sarah Gavron)
This is not your mother’s women’s suffrage movement movie. Intense, gritty and often violent, director Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan spotlight the women foot soldiers on the front lines of the movement to win the vote in Britain at the turn of the 20th century. A call to arms, Suffragette‘s appeal lives in the unwavering resolve of the film’s featured women to affect change by any means necessary, including speaking “the only language men listen to”: war.
Did I miss anything? Let me know your feminist favorites of 2015 in the comments below!