This week the Oscars were announced, and once again they were notable for a lack of diversity. Popular entertainment helps shape how we view the world, and Hollywood shapes the world as a very white male place. While every year has exceptions, the Oscars often follow the trend of the rest of Hollywood, snubbing films like Selma for the awards last year, and giving its seal of approval to a whitewashed world. But the Oscars are also just reflecting the bleak reality of who is given the resources to make films that might qualify.
My list of the best films of 2015 seeks to highlight politically and artistically powerful films of 2015 that have not received the recognition they deserve. But even looking at a larger pool of possibilities, no one can quantify the films that were never made, locked out of a discriminatory system from the very beginning. It’s no secret that Hollywood continues to exclude women and people of color at every level. Hiring for directors, screenwriters, cinematographers and other key positions are still around 90% white and 90% male.
Below is my top ten for 2015, plus another dozen that nearly made the list.
The best experimental film of the year was Jason and Shirley, Steven Winter’s uncomfortable reimagining of the classic 1967 documentary Portrait of Jason. Director Guillermo del Toro reimagined classic horror with Crimson Peak, a stunningly beautiful and relentlessly creepy shout back to classic horror stories that the director refers to as a “gothic romance.” David Robert Mitchell’s more modern horror flick It Follows was also filled with creepy thrills. Alex Garland’s Science Fiction film Ex Machina visits similar themes to the 2013 Spike Jonze film Her. The Jonze film is better, but Ex Machina is still smart, thoughtful, and surprising. There were a few comedies that tried something different. Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope was a throwback 90’s hip-hop teen comedy set in today’s LA. It wasn’t the year’s funniest comedy, but it was the most original. The funniest film of the year wasn’t fiction – it was Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel’s documentary Finders Keepers, a disarmingly sweet true story of a custody battle over a human leg found in a barbeque smoker.
As always, the best documentaries of the year deserve much more exposure. Co-directors Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe found themselves in a situation filmmakers dream of, with full access to an FBI informant while he was in the middle of trying to trap an apparently innocent man. The resulting film, (T)error, should be required viewing to understand the story behind convictions in the so-called war on terror.
Liz Garbus’ What Happened, Miss Simone? is the civil rights and Black Power–era story of one of the most important musicians of the last century, from the filmmaker that co-directed the classic documentary The Farm: Angola, USA. Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land tells the interconnected stories of US vigilantes, Mexican Autodefensas, drug dealers, and border communities through a vérité portrait. The film doesn’t provide much in the way of context or answers, but it’s stunningly filmed – even when he is caught in the middle of a shoot out at one point in the film, the filmmaker never stops capturing beautiful images.
Among the dramas that almost made my list: Andrew Haigh, who made my 2011 list with Weekend, the story of two young gay men discussing relationships and polyamory after a one night stand, looks at a very different relationship with 45 Years, the story of a straight couple as they approach their 45th wedding anniversary. Director Lenny Abrahamson and star Brie Larson take the kind of topic that could be a movie on the Lifetime cable network – the life of a woman who was kidnapped as a young girl – and elevate it to intense art in Room. Peter Strickland’s lesbian S&M drama The Duke of Burgundy is witty and strange. Director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan deserve credit for reinvigorating the stale Rocky series with Creed.
10) Magic Mike XXL – While this films was directed by Gregory Jacobs, Steven Soderbergh, who directed the original Magic Mike, shot and edited this sequel, and his creative hand is all over it. Aside from being one of the best Hollywood films about sex workers, this film is sexy, smart, funny and unpredictable.
9) The Revenant – Alejandro González Iñárritu’s revisionist western has been credited with consulting Native American advisors and showing the evil brutality of western colonialists. The film still has a white male hero – it’s not revisionist enough. But Iñárritu, who also directed 2014’s Birdman has become one of the most skilled directors in Hollywood, and the film is breathtaking to watch.
8) The Look of Silence – Joshua Oppenheimer’s devastating documentary revisits the unrepentant killers featured in his 2012 film The Act Of Killing in a film that is even more brutal and devastating. Oppenheimer continues to explore the mass killings perpetrated by anti-communists in Indonesia in the 1960s, with incredible access to both killers and the family members of victims. This sequel stands on it’s own, and also as a crucial companion to the first film. There have never been films like these two before, and there likely (hopefully) never will be again.
7) The Big Short – Adam McKay’s 2010 comedy The Other Guys was a dumb comedy that was smarter, and more class-conscious, than anyone would have expected. His newest film dives fully into themes of corporate malfeasance that were hinted at in his earlier films, with an attempt to make an accessible, popular film about the story behind Wall Street bankers robbing the US and tanking the economy in 2008. The film’s storyline is so male-centered, it might as well be called Bros vs Bros. But it has an important mission, and it mostly succeeds, helped by a killer cast that includes Steve Carell, Christian Bale, and Ryan Gosling.
6) Joy – 2015 saw two high-profile films about an entrepreneur triumphing over odds to succeed. Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs tells the story of a cruel rich businessman crushing everyone in his path. The film asks the question, “Is being an asshole part of being brilliant?” This is a question that is only interesting to assholes who think they are brilliant, which clearly includes the film’s screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. Audiences wisely ignored this terrible movie. Much better was Joy, David O. Russell’s moving film about the inventor of the Miracle Mop. I never thought I would care about a story of home shopping, but this is a beautifully written and performed film that is smart about class and humanity.
5) Where to Invade Next – Michael Moore takes a lot of heat from critics on the left and right, but he has shaped the documentary form more than perhaps any other modern filmmaker. His newest doc takes important ideas about reforms to education, criminal justice, labor, and many other systems, and makes them accessible to a wide audience.
4) Mad Max Fury Road, by director George Miller, is the feminist action film we needed.
3) Carol – Todd Haynes 1991 film Poison launched the new queer cinema and still feels revolutionary. His 1988 short Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, is incredibly moving, even (or maybe because) its cast is almost entirely made up of Ken and Barbie dolls. His newest film, based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 lesbian romance novel, is heartbreaking and beautiful and timeless.
2) Tangerine – Sean S. Baker’s low-budget independent film made waves for being shot on an iPhone, and for telling an empathetic story of Black trans women sex workers in Los Angeles, and one of the rare films to cast trans women. The film is also funny and moving and features star-making performances by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor.
1) Bessie – Director Dee Rees’ film Pariah topped my list for 2011. Her latest film features Queen Latifah in a revelatory starring role as Blues singer Bessie Smith. Rees cites Blues Legacies and Black Feminism by Angela Davis among her main resources for the film, which tells the kind of complicated story Hollywood avoids: A strong, smart, bisexual working class Black woman who stands up to both armed southern racists and white northern liberals. The film was made for HBO and never received a theatrical release. However, changes in technology and viewing habits have made the line between film and TV ever more hazy. And because it remains difficult for stories like this to make it to the big screen, this film deserves to top this list of the best films of the year. My hope is that future years will see many more stories like this.