Before the year’s end, I asked friends and followers for suggestions and recommendations for best feminist films and TV shows of 2015. I received many responses and suggestions and watched most of them, and put together a list of my favourites. Of course, this list could be much longer and more inclusive, but I wanted to limit it based on the following selection criteria: was the film or TV show:
- Innovative and original?
- Funny/witty and/or thought-provoking?
- Pushing gender boundaries?
- Challenging patriarchal stereotypes and conventions?
- Would you watch it more than once?
- Would you recommend it to others?
After I watched and categorized the year’s crop of films and TV shows, I noticed several patterns emerging. A number of actors (female and male) gravitated towards films and shows that had diverse casts, feminist themes, and a radical-honesty-approach to story-telling. There is an emerging new cohort in Hollywood of artists doing cool, important work, and they deserve special acknowledgement.
2015 started with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler hosting the Golden Globes and standing up to Bill Crosby’s mass rapes with a bad-ass comedy routine. At the end of February 2015, Parks and Recreation (NBC, 2009-2015) – one of the few, great examples in mainstream television of what feminist, supportive, and loving relationships and friendships look like – wrapped its 7th season.
Tina and Amy returned with several projects (on and off screen) throughout the year, as did some of their cast members and colleagues. Here is my list of feminist films and TV shows (in the order of release) of 2015:
The Hunting Ground (Weinstein Company, February 2015) – written and directed by Kirby Dick and produced by Amy Ziering (the creative team behind the award-winning and policy-changing 2012 documentary The Invisible War – about sexual assaults in the U.S. military), their new film was inspired by the reactions to their first film from women who wanted to speak out about sexual assault at American colleges. It premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, and was released on February 27, 2015. The film follows many male and female protagonists who have been victims of sexual assaults on campuses, and whose repeated attempts to take action against the perpetrators have been suppressed and silenced by the universities. This corrupt and institutionalized injustice led them to organize and file the Title IX complaint against the university administrations, and co-found the group End Rape on Campus. The filmmakers interviewed students, parents, administrators, professors, and police officers who criticized how rape cases were handled at that institution, and expose the level of corrupt mistreatment of sexual assault cases at most U.S. universities. On February 26, 2015, one day before the theatrical release of the film, a bipartisan group of twelve U.S. Senators, accompanied by the film’s lead subjects, Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, reintroduced the Campus Accountability and Safety Act. The act, originally introduced in July 2014, would require universities to adopt standard practices for weighing sexual charges, and to survey students on the prevalence of assault. Lady Gaga provided the film’s Oscar nominated song “Til It Happens To You.” The film is available on Netflix.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix, March 2015) – created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock (former staff writer at SNL and 30 Rock), the series follows 29-year-old Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper) as she adjusts to life in New York City after her rescue from a doomsday cult in Indiana where she and three other women were held by Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm) for 15 years. Determined not to be seen as a victim and armed only with a positive attitude, Kimmy decides to restart her life in New York, where she quickly befriends a struggling actor Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess), and gets a job as a nanny for the melancholy and out-of-touch socialite Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakowski). With their help, Kimmy learns to adapt to an unfamiliar world, and jump-start the adult life that had been taken away from her, while helping others in the process.
Far From the Madding Crowd (Fox Search Light, May 2015) – This new adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel has a strong female protagonist, Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), who declares at the beginning of the film, “I don’t need a husband,” and proceeds to work hard to turn the farm she inherited into the most profitable in the county, while “leading on” three different men in her life: a rich farmer William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), who is at first indifferent to her, but whom she playfully toys with and makes fall for her, a sexy playboy soldier Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge), who awakens her desire and sexuality, but who is incapable of secure attachment, and a wise and caring farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), who remains her loyal companion and confidant until the end. Her choices of men in her life are not based on a “need” or financial or emotional dependence on a man (which she continues to reject as all her suitors use the language of property in their marriage proposals, to which she replies: “It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in a language made by men chiefly to express theirs”), but rather on her free will to love. Learning from her experiences and mistakes, Basthheba grows and matures, all the while making her own decisions and solving her own problems, while Oak remains quite literally strong, rooted, supportive, and loving. The film is available on Neflix.
The True Cost (Life is My Movie Entertainment Company, May 2015) – directed by Andrew Morgan, this documentary explores the underlying damaging impact of the fashion industry, and especially the current fast fashion practices, on women’s lives, the environment, and abusive labour practices in developing countries around the world. “Fashion today is the number two most polluting industry on earth, second only to the oil industry. The alarming thing is that not only is fashion using huge amount of natural resources and creating staggering environmental impacts, these natural resources and this impact is often not even measured.” The filmmaker interviews international designers, activists, labourers, and environmentalists, and aims to raise our consciousness about the wasteful and mindless ways in which we produce, consume, and (mis-)understand fashion. The film is available on Netflix.
Inside Out (Disney & Pixar, June 2015) – directed and co-written by Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen (the creative team behind Monsters, Inc. (2001), WALL·E (2008), and Up (2009)), the film is set in the mind of an 11-year-old girl Riley Andersen (Kaitlyn Dias), where five personified emotions—Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling)—try to lead her through life as her parents move the family from Minnesota to San Francisco and she has to adjust to her new life. Docter first began developing Inside Out in 2009 after noticing changes in his daughter’s personality as she grew older. The film’s producers consulted numerous psychologists, who helped revise the story by emphasizing the neuro-psychological findings that human emotions affect interpersonal relationships and can be significantly moderated by them. After premiering at the 68th Cannes Film Festival in May, Inside Out was released in North America on June 19, 2015, and received several awards, including the Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice Award for Best Animated Feature, and has also been nominated at the 88th Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Screenplay. The film is available on Netflix.
Infinitely Polar Bear (Sony Pictures Classics, June 2015) – written and directed by Maya Forbes (co-producer of The Larry Sanders Show), this autobiographical film is based on a period in her childhood when she and her sister were left in the care of their father, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Set in Boston in the late 1970s, the film features powerful performances by Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana, as well as the two girls (Imogene Wolodarsky (Forbes’ daughter) and Ashley Aufderheide). Despite constant struggles with his responsibilities as a single parent while his wife accepts a scholarship to attend Columbia University to pursue her MBA for 18 months, Cam grows and evolves as a person, ultimately putting his family’s needs before his own. Maggie’s heart-breaking decision to leave the girls in order to be the breadwinner of the family is portrayed with a moving tenderness and honesty, rarely portrayed in mainstream media. Originally released at Sundance in January 2014, the film had a wide release in June 2015, and earned Mark Ruffalo a Golden Globe nomination for his powerful portrayal of a very complex character.
Grandma (Sony Pictures Classics, August 2015) – it premiered at Sundance in January 2015, but had it’s wide release in August. It’s Lily Tomlin’s first leading role in 27 years (after co-starring with Bette Midler in 1988’s Big Business), and is directed by Paul Weitz, creator of Admission (with Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, and Lily Tomlin, 2013). The film tells the story of Elle, a lesbian poet coping with the recent death of her long-term life partner, who gets a visit from her 18-year-old granddaughter Sage in need of $630 for an abortion. As Glenn Kenny noted on the Roger Ebert film review website, “any movie in which abortion is treated as a standard medical procedure performed by trained and concerned medical professionals, is by definition a political movie in the U.S.” Moreover, the film “approaches women’s self-determination without even the vaguest hint of apology,” and it doesn’t “just ‘pass’ the Bechdel Test, but gets 100 on it.” The film also explores “healing made possible by bonds that are restored,” with lots of humour.
Magic Mike XXL (Warner Bros., June 2015) –directed by Gregory Jacobs (who produced the first Magic Mike in 2012), with cinematography and editing my Steven Soderbergh (who directed the first part), this is one of the few mainstream films that explores desire on screen in a positive and celebratory way, without objectifying women. Three years after abandoning his life as a stripper, Mike (Channing Tatum) is now running his own furniture business, but his friends and former colleagues convince him to join them on a road trip to Myrtle Beach for a stripping convention. On their trip, they have many adventures as well as many heart-to-heart conversations about their lives, dreams, careers, as well as women, relationships, and female desire – which is basically unheard of in mainstream media (unless it is tied with violence and objectification). With the help of the strip club owned and MC named Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith), as well as the rapper/singer Andre (Donald Glover), and the dancer Malik (Stephen “tWitch” Boss), they revamp their performances for the great dance finale at the convention. The film ends in a celebration, with everyone watching the 4th of July fireworks, without any cheesy romance resolutions or false promises as Hollywood likes to end on.
The Martian (20th Century Fox, September 2015) – This mission to Mars is headed by a female commander (Jessica Chastain) who comes back to rescue an abandoned crew member (Matt Damon) and single-handedly goes out into space to fetch him. There is a Hispanic crew member (Michael Peña) and some of the top engineers at mission command in charge of planning their return are African American and Asian (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, and Benedict Wong). Unfortunately, the two top guys in charge of NASA are still old white dudes (Jeff Daniels and Sean Bean) who are assisted by two pretty blondes (Kristen Wigg and Mackenzie Davis) – so while little changed on Earth, at least in the “international waters” of space things are a bit more race and gender diverse, although still with a white majority. But Ridley Scott never disappoints in terms of fun, wit, and emotionally engaging adventure.
Suffragette (Focus, October 2015) – directed by Sarah Gavron and written by Abi Morgan (known for her screen plays for The Iron Lady (2011), Shame (2011), and The Invisible Woman (2013)), it portrays the women’s suffrage movement in the United Kingdom in 1911-13 from the perspective of a female working-class protagonist, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) and her struggles for her rights as a female worker and a mother, as well as the movement’s confrontations with police brutality, imprisonment, parliamentary bureaucracy, media manipulation, sexual abuse, social stigmas and injustices that forced the suffragettes to become more radical in their methods for fighting injustice. The film ends by listing the dates when women’s rights were recognised in Britain (in 1928), as well as in other countries worldwide (Saudi Arabia appearing last). While historically accurate, the film was criticised on social media for not depicting suffragettes of colour, and its publicity campaign that depicted its white protagonists in white t-shirts with the quote: “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave” (from a speech by Emmeline Pankhurst), were criticised as racially insensitive.
Master of None (Netflix, November 2015) –created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang (former writer on Parks and Recreation), this show stars Ansari in the lead role of Dev, a 30-year-old actor in New York City, who takes on sexism, racism, and relationship equality in a funny and smart way. The show’s title alludes to the figure of speech, “Jack of all trades, master of none.” You can follow the evolution of Ansari’s feminist consciousness in his live stand-up comedy shows (also available on Netflix), as he gradually transformed (no doubt under Amy Poehler’s watchful eyes) from a bro, to a reluctant feminist, to a full-blown feminist and anti-racist advocate. Best episode of this season: immigrant parents.
Spotlight (Open Road Films, November 2015) – a group of investigative reporters at the Boston Globe expose a massive cover-up of child abuse by the Catholic Church in Boston (and later world-wide). While the cast is mostly male (with the exception of Rachel McAdams) and all white, the film nonetheless deals with standing up for human (and children’s) rights that have been abused for decades. Despite its understated simplicity, the film unfolds like a suspense-thriller and culminates with a list of abusive Catholic communities around the world that leaves the audience both speechless and enraged. With powerful performances by Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, and Michael Keaton, the film also pays homage to investigative reporting and quality journalism often neglected in today’s fast-paced, social-media-driven news world.
The Danish Girl (Focus and Universal, November 2015) – directed by Tom Hooper (known for The King’s Speech 2010 and Les Misérables 2012), and based on the fictional novel of the same name by David Ebershoff (2000), loosely inspired by the lives of Danish painters Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne), one of the first known recipients of sex reassignment surgery, Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander), and art dealer Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts). At Hans’s recommendation, Lili and Gerda meet Dr. Kurt Warnekros (Sebastian Koch) a pioneer in sex reassignment surgery at his clinic in Dresden. The film focuses primarily on Lily’s desire to change her anatomy, rather than the day-to-day experiences and pleasures of living as a woman, which makes the whole film a bit claustrophobic rather than affirmative and celebratory. But still, an important exploration of transgendered identities. The film has been banned in Qatar on grounds of moral depravity, as well as in the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, Jordan and Kuwait.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Walt Disney, December 2015) – finally there is a female Jedi protagonist Rey (Daisy Ridley), more powerful than all the previous Jedis and the Dark Force. Unlike most people in the galaxy, Rey speaks many languages, can communicate with all creatures, is a pilot, mechanic, hunter-gatherer, and an experienced fighter who can stand up for herself and others. Her male companion, a former Storm Trooper, Finn (John Boyega), who escapes and saves a Resistance pilot (Oscar Isaak), is witty, smart, and compassionate. She rescues him in the end, when he is wounded and unconscious, after she kicks some serious ass and shows Han Solo and Princess Lea’s misguided son Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) who’s the boss. Directed, co-produced, and co-written by J. J. Abrams (known for Regarding Henry (1991), Armageddon (1998), Felicity (1998–2002), Alias (2001–2006), Star Trek (2009, 2013) and for producing Infinitely Polar Bear (2014)), this is the seventh instalment in the Star Wars film series, and one you can definitely watch more than once!
Sisters (Universal, December 2015) – directed by Jason Moore (Pitch Perfect, 2012) and written by Paula Pell (writer at SNL and 30 Rock, who also appeared in several episodes of 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, and as the dream producer and Mom’s Anger in Inside Out), this film is a reversal of Baby Mama (2008) roles, where Tina Fey played the responsible, professional woman and Amy Poehler played the dysfunctional surrogate. In Sisters, Kate (Tina Fey) is the dysfunctional sister, mother, and unemployed stylist, while Maura (Amy Poehler) is the over-functional, recently-divorced nurse, who is constantly helping others. They return to clean out their childhood belongings from their parents’ house in Orlando, when their ageing parents decide to downsize and move to a condo in a retirement community. After a disastrous party and high school reunion, Kate decides to take responsibility and fix up the house, reconnect with her daughter, and open her own nail salon in Orlando. The movie closes with Kate and Maura celebrating their first Christmas at their parents’ new home with all of the family happy together. Despite its often over-the-top silliness, the film has some great, honest moments that explore female bonding, family, and relationships. But mostly it’s just laugh-out-loud fun and entertainment.
Joy (20th Century Fox, December 2015) – written and directed by David O. Russell (Three Kings, 1999, I Heart Huckabees, 2004, The Fighter (2010), Silver Linings Playbook (2012), and American Hustle (2013)), this is the biographical story of Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence), a self-made millionaire who created her own business empire. Mangano was a divorced mother with three children in the early 1990s when she invented the Miracle Mop, after which she patented many other products, often selling on the Home Shopping Network. The film is a semi-fictional and inspirational portrayal of how Mangano overcame personal and professional obstacles to rise to the top. Her creativity, entrepreneurial skills, perseverance, resilience, and the ability to overcome failure and betrayal are highly inspirational and moving. Lawrence portrays the protagonist with equal doses of vulnerability and strength – a rare, up-close portrait of a woman, mother, daughter, entrepreneur, and powerful fighter (and winner) in the patriarchal, corrupt, ruthless, capitalist system of survival of the smartest. Lawrence won a Golden Globe for Best Actress in Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, and received a nomination for Best Actress at the 88th Academy Awards.
- Transparent (Amazon, 2014-now)
- Broad City (Comedy Central, 2014-now)
- Girls (HBO, 2012-now)
- Orange is the New Black (Netflix, 2013-now)
- Madam Secretary (CBS, 2014-now)
- The Good Wife (CBS, 2009-now)
- Late Night with Seth Meyers (NBC, 2014-now)
I wish I had started this tradition earlier because there were so many great feminist films and shows in 2014, such as She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, Wild, Selma, A Little Chaos, and Obvious Child, to name a few, and because I have been seeking out inspiring feminist work for years. I will continue this tradition in the coming years, so please stay tuned.
Things I missed the first time around:
The Mask You Live In (January 2015) – documentary film written, directed, and produced by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the creator of Miss-Respresentation (2011) about how we raise boys to disconnect from their feelings and objectify women. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in early 2015. The film follows boys and young men as they struggle to stay true to themselves while negotiating America’s narrow definition of masculinity. Research shows that compared to girls, boys in the U.S. are more likely to be diagnosed with a behavior disorder, prescribed stimulant medications, fail out of school, binge drink, commit a violent crime, and/or take their own lives. Newsom raised $101,111 on Kickstarter towards making the film. Both films are available on Netflix.
The Dressmaker (October, 2015) – I wasn’t sure whether to include this film or not because of its revenge narrative (described by its director as “Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven with a sewing machine”), but decided to include it because of the power-house, inspiring, full-emotional-range-performances by the two female protagonists, Kate Winslet and Judy Davies, who keep you at the edge of your seat with their talent. Written and directed by Australian treasure, Jocelyn Moorhouse, the creator of classics such as Muriel’s Wedding (1994), How to Make an American Quilt (1995), and A Thousand Acres (1997), the film won the People’s Choice Award for Favourite Australian Film. It has incredible costumes designed by Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson.
Concussion (December 2015) – directed by Peter Landesman and produced by Ridley Scott (always great!), this film was released in December 2015, but completely snubbed by the Oscars, so I didn’t get a chance to watch it until months later. Based on the exposé “Game Brain” by Jeanne Marie Laskas, published in 2009 by GQ magazine, the film is about a forensic investigation into the death of former NFL players in 2002 by Dr. Bennet Omalu (masterfully portrayed by Will Smith), a Nigerian forensic pathologist who fights against efforts by the National Football League to suppress his research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) brain degeneration suffered by professional football players. There are a few scenes that have feminist undertones, especially in the portrayal of the film’s relationship between Omalu and his wife Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), as they grow closer and become supportive partners, and in the portrayal of Omalu’s struggle to remain true to scientific inquiry and human dignity when taking on the capitalist, exploitative, and corrupt NFL. In one scene, after the NFL begins to retaliate against his scientific findings and tries to repress him, his work and his colleagues, Omalu asks his wife, “I don’t understand why it’s happening. I thought I was doing the right thing,” letting the audience fill in the conclusion that the patriarchal world order values money and spectacle way above human life, dignity, health, and well-being.