2015 has been a remarkable year for female-led films. The Women and Hollywood team struggled to compile this list because there were just so many worthy candidates this year — a problem we’re thrilled to have, of course.
The films below span genres and time periods — not to mention, age, race, geography and gender identity — to tell stories about girls and women as varied as a preteen engulfed in a turbulent emotional storm ("Inside Out") to a hell-raising, scene-stealing feminist action star ("Mad Max: Fury Road") and a housekeeper negotiating how to balance her obligations to the family she’s employed by and her visiting daughter ("The Second Mother").
Here are our 12 best films about girls and women in 2015, in no particular order:
"Mustang" – Directed by Deniz Gamze Erguven; Written by Deniz Gamze Erguven and Alice Winocour
This tale of sexually repressed sisters living in Turkey dazzled us at its premiere in Cannes, and its steadily rising profile in recent months couldn’t be more well-deserved. Deniz Gamze Erguven’s coming-of-age story has been selected as France’s Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film and is also nominated for an Independent Spirit Award in the same category, which will hopefully introduce a bigger audience to the engrossing and emotionally resonant portrait of a family ravaged by patriarchy and religious intolerance. These sisters — particularly the youngest, indefatigable Lale (Gunes Sensoy) — and their story will leave a lasting impression on viewers who watch them transform from wild, carefree girls playing on the beach to prisoners in their own home as it becomes a "wife factory" where the girls are married off.
"Mad Max: Fury Road"
No disrespect to Tom Hardy, but did anyone actually leave "Mad Max" talking about, well, Mad Max? This was Furiosa’s tour de force, as Charlize Theron reached previously uncharted levels of badassery in the action flick. When the former henchwoman to evil, tyrannical leader Immortan Joe goes rogue and rescues the sex slaves he’s impregnated, she earned a spot as one of our all-time favorite heroines, nevermind 2015’s.
Bride kidnapping, or marriage by abduction, is a globally prevalent but vastly underdiscussed issue. "Difret," based on true events, brings important light to this epidemic. Hirut (Tizita Hagere) is 14 years old when she shoots her captor/wannabe husband. This inspiring account of Hirut and the lawyer who travels to Ethopia to defend her shows that, although it’s difficult to change people’s perceptions about tradition, it’s not impossible to convince them that this grotesque practice is morally wrong and demeans everyone involved.
"Carol" – Written by Phyllis Nagy
A beautiful-looking movie that tells a beautiful story. Lesbian romances aren’t common — and neither is seeing women’s desire, for that matter. "Carol" is an important reminder of the progress we’ve made, touchingly illustrating the dangers and consequences of a world where women aren’t free to be themselves. The titular character of Carol, played to perfection by the always exquisite Cate Blanchett, is faced with a terrible dilemma: be a lesbian or be a mother. Rooney Mara’s performance as the younger, more naive partner in the love affair is a revelation.
"Far from the Madding Crowd"
Carey Mulligan plays a woman who is radicalized in "Suffragette," beginning her journey as meek and mild-mannered and concluding it as an empowered feminist activist. Earlier this year, Mulligan played another trailblazing female character, but in "Far from the Madding Crowd," an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel of the same name, farmer Bathsheba Everdene is a boss right from the first frame of the film. The period romance includes a lover who tries to hinder Bathsheba’s leadership on the farm, but the real romance blossoms with Gabriel, her employee who respects and admires her capable mind and fearless independence.
"Testament of Youth" – Written by Juliette Towhidi
Another lady in a corset who takes care of business. Alicia Vikander just made headlines for receiving two Golden Globe nominations, in the Best Supporting Actress category for "Ex Machina" and Lead Actress (Drama) with "The Danish Girl." While we’re on board with recognizing the Swedish actress’s work in those projects, we were most impressed by her portrayal of writer Vera Brittain in the underrated "A Testament of Youth" (in fact, we called the war drama "a slam-dunk case for awards consideration"). Vera fights tooth-and-nail for the opportunity to attend Oxford University, but once she gets there, she abandons her studies to become a nurse on the frontlines of World War I when all the young men she grew up with enlist to fight. "Testament of Youth" is a lovely romance that offers a powerful critique of war — and marks the introduction of a new female movie star.
"Tangerine" is unlike anything we’ve seen before — and yes, that’s partly due to the fact that it was shot entirely on an iPhone. But its frenetic pacing and charismatic leading ladies are what make this dramedy truly memorable. The film follows two pals, both transgender sex workers — who are actually played by transgender women, thank goodness — searching for an unsavory ex-flame on Christmas Eve. In addition to showing a side of Los Angeles that rarely gets the big-screen treatment, "Tangerine" offers messy, complicated female protagonists in a messy, complicated friendship. The result is riveting.
"The Diary of a Teenage Girl" – Written and Directed by Marielle Heller
Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley) is a character we’ve needed — an artistic, rebellious, smart, sensitive and thoughtful teenage girl who is also unapologetically horny. Powley is a delight to behold, beautifully showcasing the nuances of Minnie’s relationship with her mother’s boyfriend as their interactions totter between sexual liberation and sexual exploitation.
"Inside Out" – Co-Written by Meg LeFauve
Everyone has an inner world, and all too often children are treated as though theirs either don’t matter or don’t exist. That’s why this intimate look into an 11-year-old girl’s interior life — and a movie that treats kids as the complicated beings that they are — is so refreshing. "Inside Out" made us laugh and cry, and as director and co-writer Peter Docter told Women and Hollywood, the experience is universal. "When I’ve seen people leaving the theater, there are more men in tears than women," he said. "For whatever reason, it hits fathers hard." More evidence (even if it’s anecdotal) that girl- and women-centric movies don’t just appeal to female viewers.
This complex, sexy look at aging and power dynamics in the film industry impressed us, particularly Kristen Stewart’s depiction of a boundary-pushing personal assistant to an actress whose star is fading (played by Juliette Binoche). Stewart won France’s Caesar Award for her performance, making her the first American actress to do so. The drama’s cynical take on the business and young Hollywood (embodied by an up-and-comer played by Chloe Grace Mortez), as well as the powerful sexual tension and chemistry between Stewart and Binoche, left us wanting to spend more time with these characters.
"Girlhood" – Written and Directed by Celine Sciamma
You’ll never hear Rihanna’s "Diamonds" the same way again after watching "Girlhood," French writer-director Celine Sciamma’s indelible coming-of-age portrait of a black Parisian teen with few prospects for the future. Desperate for a refuge from her repressively sexist family and her callously indifferent school, Marieme (played with Karidja Touré with warmth and grace) finds that and so much more in her newfound friendship with a group of tough but similarly vulnerable girls. "Girlhood" is above all a celebration of female friendship, but the film is never so naive to mistake solidarity for institutional support. Marieme’s journey of self-discovery with and without her friends is remarkably poignant for both the distance she has to travel and how far she comes.
Honorable Mentions: "Brooklyn," "Grandma," "Amy," "What Happened, Miss Simone?" and "Suffragette."