It’s unfortunate that there isn’t an actress who’s “overdue” for an Oscar in 2015 because most media outlets will likely focus their actor awards coverage on whether or not Leonardo DiCaprio can get his first Oscar for The Revenant, likely shifting the spotlight away from 2015 being, top to bottom, the most stacked Best Actress race in years. In 2015, I’d argue that every viable Best Actress candidate—Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Lawrence, Juliette Binoche, Charlotte Rampling, Saoirse Ronan, Brie Larson, Rooney Mara, Alicia Vikander, Emily Blunt and Charlize Theron—actually gave a more nuanced and full performance than any of the actors on the other side.
While countless think pieces have centered around why the Best Actress category is almost always full of less significant roles than the robust Best Actor field, that cannot be said of 2015. That’s certainly a reason to toast 2015 as being unique. What is also unique about 2015 is that many of the best films of the year used the theme of women escaping male oppression as a major narrative thrust.
Usually this theme is explored psychologically and 2015 had some strong examples of that. In one of my personal favorite films of the year, Carol, a woman (Cate Blanchett) attempts to live out her fully realized personhood by living on her own as a lesbian. Her husband (Kyle Chandler) tries to use a 1950’s legal definition of lifestyle indecency as reason to keep their daughter away from her, and thereby within their male-dominated partnership. And in a more standard manner of prestigious film storytelling, women band together—sometimes through violent demonstration—in attempts to get votes for women in Suffragette.
What is most interesting about the patriarchal combatant motif of 2015, however, is that numerous films focused not on the psychological, but the physical breaking free of male suppression, servitude, and demands of gratitude for their dominance.
What elevated Mad Max: Fury Road from the best popcorn flick of the year to critical consensus pick for best film of the year, wasn’t just because a woman fought back against an oppressive ruler and stood on equal footing with her action hero counterpart. It’s the feminist visual encoding throughout.
In Fury Road, a warmonger (Hugh Keays-Byrne) in a toxic wasteland, has held a young group of women—nicknamed the Wives (Zoe Kravitz, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley)—in an elevated cave where they are kept from the toxic elements of the land but are clearly held against their will to essentially be a birthing factory for the ruler to have an heir. Rather than show even one inkling of the cycle of rape that occurs in this quest for a healthy son and ruling successor, director George Miller introduces the Brides with a definition of power, not victimhood, by showing their chalked declaration of “We Are Not Things” in their abandoned quarters. Those quarters and one visibly pregnant belly, tell us everything we need to know about their captivity and it’s equally refreshing and empowering that Miller chose their act of defiance to define their personhood.
The Wives are sprung by a woman christened by war, and thus entrusted by the male warriors, Furiosa (Charlize Theron). Furiosa hopes to take the Brides to the Green Space, an area where women have broken off to govern themselves, and focus not on war over oil, but on planting seeds and rebuilding a small patch of livable land. What they are escaping (with aid—not from the outset of the plan, but via road warrior convincing—from Tom Hardy and Nicholas Hoult) is best exemplified by one gloriously executed shot of coded visual communication. With the escapees’ tanker stuck in the mud, Furiosa, a sharper shot than Max, takes a rifle and shoots an oncoming vehicle tasked with retrieving the Wives. The bullet blinds the man in pursuit, who then bandages his bleeding eye sockets, picks up two automatic weapons and begins firing blindly while gleefully declaring himself to be “The scales of Justice! Conductor of the choir of death!” The scales of justice that are held in the famous statue by a woman, who represents fairness in humanity, has been replaced by a man’s “shoot first, ask questions later”-pursuit-of-warfare-as-order for their patriarchal society.
While the Wives and Furiosa were the most famous and celebrated of women who broke free of men in 2015, they were also viewed entirely in the new freedom of the outside world. Brie Larson in Room, Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina, and the five sisters in Mustang (Günes Sensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Elit Iscan, Eugba Sunguroglu, and Ilayda Akdogan) all had to escape their male dominated confinement, which is precisely where we met them. And again, giving a stance of letting their actions—not their abuse—define them, each director (Lenny Abrahamson, Alex Garland and Deniz Gamze Ergüven, respectively) implies any sexual or physical harm off camera via sounds or a witness’ face. I’m sure some readers will take umbrage to Vikander’s A.I. inclusion, since Ava’s manmade and programmed intelligence, but her given gender (and why her creator, Oscar Isaac, only created lifelike female A.I.) is explicitly discussed in Ex Machina. The look of a woman can provide more intimate and human companionship in Isaac’s secluded, self-made world.
These three films center on women, young girls, and manmade intelligence who are all kept against their will in a space defined by their male captors. In Room, it is a shed with an electronically sealed door where the unnamed man is in control of when it opens, what nutrition comes into it, and who can also shut off the electricity to try to train his captor to be grateful for what he supplies. In Mustang, it is a Turkish house with increased fence security that continues to be added to try and make sure that the girls kept inside do not sneak out, lose their virginity, and become impossible to marry to the township’s young men they do not know. In Ex Machina it is a household of constructed A.I. women—reprogrammed to only understand non-English languages and used as sexual releases for their creator when they fail to pass the Turing Test—who are kept inside a remote glass house of technological experiments. And in the case of Ava (Vikander), kept behind a glass barrier until she proves to be human.
In each of these films, there is an equal emphasis on humanity and nurturing as there is on the horrors of repression and confinement. In confinement, Larson’s become a mother of a five-year-old son. She creates games and rules to soften the horrific conditions of their confinement but then has to teach her child to unlearn them so that they can escape. In Mustang, the girls sneak out to attend a football game on the one day where only females are allowed to attend because the men unruly rioted at the previous match. In Ex Machina, Ava attempts to understand her Turing tester (Domhnall Gleeson) through calculated gestures, flirtations, and getting him to talk about and define himself. And when each of these young women escape, they are each escaping a different encasement of men who have created a space where their very existence outside of that space is perceived as an ingratitude for the inhuman existence they’ve given them. And in each case, their act of escape is to enter a society where they can be perceived as a full human being, and not as a thing to be overpowered, programmed, or married off for contracts.
Perhaps the subtlest use of this narrative theme of 2015 comes from a loose adaptation of one of the world’s earliest works, Arabian Nights. In this Portuguese economic fable, a largely unseen narrator, Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate) is held captive by an Arabian king who’s routinely married and then killed a bride each night due to boredom. Scheherazade saves her life each night by telling him engaging and humorous stories, but follows those more adventurous stories with minor ones that could put him to sleep. With this storytelling routine she spares her life every night. This process continues for 1,001 nights. And we do see her out in the world, once, when she is beginning to run out of stories and visits the ocean and encounters a wind wizard. From this meeting she finds her final story that will grant her freedom. And much like the films of 2015, women who discover how to free themselves from repressive men provided not only the best performances of 2015, but also many of the best stories for the 365 nights of 2015.
For more of our Best of 2015 coverage, peruse the links below: