Speaking to Interview Magazine in November, director Catherine Hardwicke — who, until her record for Twilight was shattered by Fifty Shades of Grey, was the highest-grossing female director in Hollywood — noted a potential tide shift for women in film this year. "I think this is going to be the year that people are going to have to stop ignoring it," she said. It's not clear whether the spotlight on gender disparities across Hollywood — and across all industries — will continue to shine in coming years, but it has been a boon to filmmaking this year. Yet even in spite of the increased attention paid to women in Hollywood and the barriers they continue to confront, a small minority of films made this year featured women behind and in front of the camera. These 12 movies that all women should have seen in 2015 are simply some of the best of the lot.
There's a disconcerting line of thought that movies by women, starring women, do not appeal to men. It's a gender-normative perspective that relegates these films to second-tier, assuming they won't make as much, won't draw big enough audiences, will consistently underperform. It's not for nothing that none of this year's Golden Globe-nominated best directors were women.
Yet this year also saw work from some of the best writers and directors working today, many of which also happen to be women: Hardwicke, Julia Hart, Angelina Jolie, Sam Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Banks, Leigh Janiak, and Ava DuVernay, to name a few. And while it's fallacious to think that movies by and starring women won't attract male audiences — assuming men won't be interested in these movies only subtly reinforces the idea that they shouldn't be interested in these movies — studies have also shown that women represent the majority of purchasing power at movie theaters. The MPAA's annual demographics study showed that, in both 2013 and 2014, women make up 51 percent of the population, and 52 percent of movie-goers. And yet only 15 percent of film stars are women, Film School Rejects noted in 2013. Women have long viewed, and enjoyed, films by and starring men, an empathetic leap that also works in reverse. But the female-driven films are out there, and they're worth seeing, praising, and holding up as standards for the ways Hollywood can do better. This year saw an uptick in the conversation, but there's still a lot of space for improvement.
This Dee Rees-directed biopic of blues legend Bessie Smith, played by Queen Latifah, flew under the radar when it premiered on HBO earlier this year. Bessie was nominated for Emmys for writing, directing, cinematography, lead actress (Latifah) and supporting actress (Mo'Nique) this year, eventually winning the cinematography prize.
This comedy about two transgender women chasing a cheating boyfriend across Hollywood on Christmas Eve was shot on an iPhone on a shoestring budget. It premiered at Sundance to near-universal acclaim, and better yet, it's on Netflix now. Don't sleep on it.
On the surface, these movies don't bear too much similarity. There's the historical drama, the biopic, the music documentary, the indie breakout, comedy, drama, action-adventure. That's precisely the point: Movies by women, that feature women in prominent roles, are not just for women, though it's always amazing to see yourself reflected on screen. There's no one genre that's particularly suited to a gender. An action movie starring a woman (ahem, The Hunger Games) can fare just as well as its male counterpart (Guardians of the Galaxy). These movies are tied together by empowering women, giving them meaty, real roles to play at all levels of production.
Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller's long-awaited follow-up to the Mel Gibson franchise, sidelines its main character, now played by Tom Hardy, in favor of a story about women liberating themselves from sexual slavery with a little help from the titular Max. There will never be enough feminist thinkpieces about how this movie doesn't privilege particular brands of femininity, how incredible it is that this movie got made in the first place, and how it subverts everything the franchise had set up in the '80s.
While we're talking documentaries, Amy is another essential 2015 release. The documentary reveals with touching intimacy the effect of the spotlight on an enormously talented musician, and how — like Simone, one of Amy Winehouse's influences — it ultimately contributed to her death.
Amy Schumer's feature debut takes itself just seriously enough. Trainwreck turned Schumer from a lauded comedian into a veritable movie star — and helped spawn one of the most enviable girl gangs (including Jennifer Lawrence) around.
What was actually the best Cate Blanchett movie of the year is also a long-awaited worthy adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt. Rooney Mara, also in top form, plays Blanchett's lover, a stand-in for Highsmith herself (Carol is semi-autobiographical, envisioning how a chance encounter might have turned out if the two women had seen each other again).
Brie Larson stuns in this adaptation of Emma Donoghue's novel of the same name. Room demonstrates why Larson is on her way to becoming one of the most sought-after actors around.
Miss You Already is a weepie, and those movies tend to inhabit a particular subset of the pink ghetto. But that shouldn't discourage potential audiences: Miss You Already is an excellent film, and not just "for what it is." Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette co-star in Catherine Hardwicke's latest film with a screenplay by Morwenna Banks (better known as Tony and Effie Stonem's mother on Skins). Miss You Already doesn't shy away from the hard truths about a cancer diagnosis, and you may occasionally hate its characters. Yet it's that precise distaste that makes the women in the film so very real.
Over on the documentary side of things, What Happened, Miss Simone? is director Liz Garbus's attempt to unravel the fraught life and career of legendary blues singer Nina Simone, from her early days as a barroom chanteuse to her massive success and ascent into cultural iconography. It's equal parts tragic and illuminating, and a must-see that's available on Netflix now.
Saoirse Ronan recently earned a Golden Globe nomination for her performance as a young Irish immigrant to the United States in the '50s. It's based on a Colm Toíbín novel adapted by Nick Hornby and directed by John Crowley. (For all the strides women have made in visibility in front of the camera this year, dynamics behind the camera have been slower to change.)
Truth wasn't the best journalism movie out this year, nor was it the best Cate Blanchett movie out this year. Yet it's still essential viewing to understand the gender disparities in journalism and on screen, as it depicts the insidious sexism that 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes confronted as the most important story of her career was eventually debunked and retracted.
Breakout Diary of a Teenage Girl star Bel Powley plays Minnie Goetz, a 15-year-old girl seeking love and sex and finding it with her mother's new boyfriend, 20 years her senior. Rarely is a young girl's sexuality so candidly depicted on screen — and it's unfortunate that Diary's R-rating prevents those who might benefit most from the movie, girls under 17, from seeing it in some situations. Diary of a Teenage Girl is also written and directed by Marielle Heller, based on Phoebe Gloeckner's graphic novel of the same name.
Image: Warner Bros. Pictures