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Pass The Popcorn: Okayplayer's Guide To The Most Exciting New Films Of 2015
Pass The Popcorn: Okayplayer's Guide To The Most Exciting New Films Of 2015

Pass The Popcorn: Okayplayer's Guide To The Most Exciting New Films Of 2015

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

Pass the popcorn, children, and grab a 2000-oz. soda--2015 is already set to be a banner year for exciting new films. There's a breeze in the air, which means the Summer Blockbuster season is about to descend on us like a gigantic world-destroying robot but in cinema as in music, we know the real heat radiates from the underground up. The 2015 festival circuit which shines a light on the most compelling upcoming, indie, arthouse and documentary films--the vehicles for the actors, directors and cinematographers that the mainstream media will be buzzing about next year--kicked off out west in January with Sundance and will hit its East Coast peak at the Tribeca Film Festival (which launches tonight!--and immediately gets crazy tomorrow night with a live performance by Mary J. Blige for the premiere of MJB: The London Sessions). In between, both chronologically and on the map, SXSW premiered some of the most interesting music-related movies of the season.

Okayplayer has been keeping a close eye on the seen, sending special film correspondents to each (our close personal peoples Samora Pinderhughes put us up on the highlights of Sundance while in Park City, Utah as the musical director for a Nina Simone tribute from Erykah Badu! That's what you call the best of both worlds). From artist biopics to documentaries to dramatic features that push at the very boundaries of cinema, there's something for everyone to revel in when it comes to the year's most anticipated films.  And now, in selfless dedication to you the OKP reader, we clothes-pinned our eyeballs open to watch, collect and collate for you a comprehensive guide to 2015's best film releases, musical and otherwise. From the long-overdue story of Ms. Simone to an unexpected personal journey by Chicago MC Rhymefest into his windy city childhood, to an unflinching look at rape on college campuses, our list covers the full spectrum of cinematic experience and will have you lining up at your local movie hall for flicks upon flicks. So load up at the concessions stand and find your seats; the Okayplayer guide to 2015 in film begins here and now.

1. What Happened, Miss Simone? [dir. Liz Garbus]

What Happened, Miss Simone? opened the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, and the film was a huge focus throughout the festival, featuring a performance after the opening showing by John Legend, and a later concert of Nina Simone's music with artists including Erykah Badu, Common and Aloe Blacc. The documentary itself was met with packed houses and teary eyes, as everyone talked about how moving and beautiful it was. Featuring amazing never-before-seen archival footage and interviews with important people in Nina’s life, especially with Al Schackman (Nina’s musical director) and Lisa Simone Kelly (Nina’s daughter), the film documents the evolution of her life and music as it moves through many chapters. The title comes from a Maya Angelou poem, and in a general sense it refers to the psychological and physical challenges that Nina endured during the course of her life and the point at which her career seemed to take a more difficult turn. The film underlines Nina’s deep commitment to the civil rights movement, and how her identity and spirit were affected by its rise and fall. It also emphasizes her love of classical piano and how deeply hurt she was her whole life by the racial barriers that kept her from classical music success. All in all this is a vital documentary that everyone must see--an extremely moving portrait of Nina Simone’s life and music.

Look out for a longer and more in-depth feature in the coming weeks on the Nina Simone celebration concert, the documentary, and reflections on Nina’s life in the context of the modern day #BlackLivesMatter movement. -Samora Pinderhughes

2. Mavis! [dir. Jessica Edwards]

Mavis Staples is finally getting her own proper documentary film after what's become a 60-year career filled with legendary soul recordings and performances. Mavis! features both live performances and conversations with the likes of Bob Dylan, Prince, Bonnie Raitt, and Chuck D, all of whom have come together to sing the praises of one of gospel and soul's greatest vocalists. Anyone familiar with Miss Staples's work will know that she, along with her family group The Staples Singers, were a driving force for causes like peace and equality throughout the 60s and 70s; Mavis! captures revisits her storied career and makes it clear that its subject, now 75 years old, is just as vital and capable as ever. Directed by documentarian Jessica Edwards. -Scott Heins

3. Mary J. Blige - The London Sessions [dir. Sam Wrench]

Avid readers should already be well aware of The London Sessions, Mary J Blige's triumphant collaboration LP, which features appearances from the likes of Sam Smith, Disclosure, Emeli Sandé and more. Now the process of creating that record, from beginning to end, will live forever on film as Mary J. Blige - The London Sessions opens at this year's Tribeca Film Festival. Shot over the course of a month, the film bears witness to Blige's budding interest in UK house music and treats us to a tender scene in which the legendary vocalist sits down to break bread with Amy Winehouse's father Mitch Winehouse. Through and through the film soars on the strength of Blige's friendships with her collaborators. Those lucky enough to catch the film during the TFF will be treated to a performance after the screening, but every fan should seek out a theater seat--this is Mary as we've never seen her before. -Scott Heins

Mary J Blige - The London Sessions debuts 4/16 at the Tribeca Film Festival. Tickets and info can be found here.

4. Live From New York [dir. Bao Nguyen]

When it comes to cultural impact and comedic delight, almost nothing holds a candle to Saturday Night Live. The iconic late night variety show is ringing in its 40th anniversary this year, and now this week the Tribeca Film Festival will host the world premiere of Live From New York!, an expansive (and hilarious) look back at the ideas, events, and people that made SNL essential weekly viewing. Stars including Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey, Chris Rock, Chevy Chase, Candice Bergen, and veteran newsman Tom Brokaw all appear in the film, which was directed by Bao Nguyen. Nguyen pulls no punches with the film, homing in on the political and social issues that frequently made their way into the program's sketches. Still, comedy rules over the documentary, and the film is a must-see for anyone with fond memories of staying in and staying up to catch the program over the years. Live From New York will be released in select theaters nationwide on June 12th. -Scott Heins

Live From New York! is currently screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. Tickets and info can be found here.

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

5. The Wolfpack [dir. Crystal Moselle]

For those living in New York City, and highly populated areas in general, the description of this movie alone is enough to pique your curiosity: “Locked away from society in an apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the Angulo brothers learn about the outside world through the films that they watch.” What you actually see in this film is even more bizarre than you might have guessed. It is a highly fascinating portrait of isolation, family, media and film. The Angulo family consists of six brothers and one sister, whose father only allows them to leave their apartment up to once a year – apparently out of fear of American social pressures, drugs, and the violent and unpredictable nature of the city. This film chronicles their late teens as the brothers begin to rebel against the authorities of the house, and venture outside.

The other fascinating thing about the film is the importance of movies in shaping the entire way that these kids form their identities, and also the siblings’ ingenuity and resourcefulness in recreating the scenes they love with household items. They end up being experts in the art of filmmaking because they spend all their time studying and replicating movies. Watching these amazingly creative children form their entire identities around the worlds of their favorite movies brings to mind interesting and important questions about the purpose of film as a medium – is it important to create worlds that could never exist in reality, or is it more vital to reflect the real world that people are living in?

However, there is also an extremely problematic side to The Wolfpack that it didn’t seem anyone at Sundance wanted to deal with: the racial, cultural and historical subtext of a situation obviously affected by the history of American colonialism and indigenous displacement. Even if you were to watch this movie with the sound off, it would be clear that the Angulo family is descendant to an indigenous population of some kind – it is only addressed one time in the movie, when the mother of the family mentions that she met her husband while she was on a trip to South America, where he was a tour guide. Other than that, any issues of race and heritage are completely absent from the film. It seems clear that the father is influenced by the colonial history of the U.S. in South America, and the destruction of indigenous communities, given the way he explains his crazy decisions to completely separate his whole family from American society and his heavy alcoholism, but that is never mentioned at all. In fact, the movie seems intent on doing the easiest possible thing for the white viewer, which is to paint the father as an evil villain and a caricature. While it is true that he did some absolutely horrible things, it would have made for a much better film if we had been given insight into the greatest question of all: why did this situation ever happen in the first place? -Samora Pinderhughes

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

6. Stop [dir. Reinaldo Marcus Green]

Stop is a vital movie in these times. The main character of the film is Xavier, an African-American teen baseball player from Brooklyn. The film shows a day in his life when he is stopped and frisked by two police officers. By focusing simply on this event and not escalating it to a shooting or a fight, it highlights the trauma and the violence of the stop itself, something that thousands of people of color have gone through in New York. It also shows how heartbreaking it is that black and brown children are experiencing this all the time, to the point that it becomes a regular part of life, and how devastating it is that parents must ready their kids to have these kinds of confrontations, where one wrong movement could end your life. -Samora Pinderhughes

7. As I Am: The Life And Times of DJ AM [dir. Kevin Kerslake]

Denizens of the dance scene of the early 2000s will never forget Adam Michael Goldstein, AKA DJ AM. A pioneer in mashing hip-hop, rock and electronic music together into the hybrid beats we recognize as post-millenial, Philly's own AM was responsible for pushing the genre forward and created some of the most memorable records (and party moments) in its history. As I Am: The Life And Times of DJ AM tells the behind-the-music story of Goldstein who tragically died of an overdose in 2009. Directed by Kevin Kerslake, the film features testimony from Mark Ronson, Steve Aoki, Jazzy Jeff and other turntable greats, but most important is the feature's narration: AM himself leads us through the doc as the loudest, clearest voice. It's only right, after all; AM always did things his own way. -Scott Heins

As I Am: The Life And Times of DJ AM is currently screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. Tickets and info can be found here.

8. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution [dir. Stanley Nelson]

As the movement against police brutality continues to grow around the country, and “Black Lives Matter” has become a rallying cry, legendary filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s new documentary looks into the history of the Black Panther Party – one of the most important historical examples of Black Power in action. The Black Panthers were originally founded in Oakland with the purpose of “patrolling the police” – and extended outwards with their 10-point plan towards changing housing policy, providing health care, food, and education for the community, and dismantling the white supremacist capitalist system. The film documents their founding and their rise, through interviews and archival footage, and shows the government’s attempts to destroy their organization. You learn that SWAT was first created to raid Black Panther offices, and that the FBI would covertly get guns to Panther members so that they could tip off police to arrest them. It also deals with the police murder of Fred Hampton, a prominent Black Panther member in Chicago who was working to build a coalition of blacks, Latinos, and poor whites. It's fascinating to see the parallels between the present day and the events in the film (especially the importance of youth leading the movement), as well as the heavy differences. And it makes you wonder what people will say of our present movement 50 years from now. -Samora Pinderhughes

9. Cronies [dir. Michael Larnell]

Michael J. Larnell, a native of St. Louis, wrote and directed Cronies as his thesis film for NYU. Spike Lee, one of his teachers there, liked the film and decided to support the it as an executive producer. The result is a highly original and extremely arresting portrait of three young men in St. Louis. Although it was written before Mike Brown was murdered, the film certainly takes on a different character and an added dimension after the recent popular uprisings in Ferguson, New York City, and around the country. Larnell definitely represented for St. Louis on this one – all of the music in the film was made by St. Louis artists, and the actors were all residents of the city who had never acted in a film before. When the actors told the audience after the showing that they had no prior acting experience, a huge gasp went up – because the acting performances in this film were really amazing. Cronies uses stark black-and-white footage, and a car that takes the main characters where they need to go, to show that sometimes a few streets can separate completely different worlds with completely different consequences.

The film at its heart is about male friendship (the female characters are unfortunately too one-dimensional), and how it is affected by race, class, and circumstances. It is also about trauma, and struggling to heal in an environment that might re-traumatize you at any second. Through interviews with the main characters, we uncover the things they have experienced. One line that the character Jack says was the best line of the film for me: “I hate to see people I love in pain”. That right there is the heart of the matter.

The film unfolds very slowly, and it is really refreshing. The tense character of the film is exaggerated by the very spare use of music, and focuses on character and simplicity. By the time the three friends drive silently down the freeway nodding along to gospel music, I’m ready to ride with them. -Samora Pinderhughes

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

10. Thought Crimes [dir. Erin Lee Carr]

Who draws the line between conspiracy and daydreaming? Crime and fantasy? These judicial shades of grey are the key subject in Erin Lee Carr's latest film, Thought Crimes, which examines at the strange criminal case of NYPD officer Gilberto Valle. Valle was convicted on conspiracy to kidnap, rape, kill, and eat multiple women, and was labeled "The Cannibal Cop" by media and prosecutors. However, Valle never committed these acts--rather, he spent hours and hours searching out vile corners of the internet and posting online about his twisted desires. His case begs the quandary--can we be locked up for our darkest thoughts? Carr's documentary is unquestionably difficult to watch, but that's on account of its unflinching look at the deranged corners of what the mind is capable of. One bone-chilling true horror story, the documentary is also a gripping moral drama and demands more of its viewers than perhaps any other film will this year. -Scott Heins

Thought Crimes is currently screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. Tickets and info can be found here.

11. Fresh Dressed [dir. Sacha Jenkins]

Fresh Dressed, directed by Sacha Jenkins and co-produced by Nas, details the history of hip-hop fashion as it grew from a revolutionary form of expression in Bronx neighborhoods to a billion-dollar industry. The film follows many of the influential figures in this history, such as Harlem’s Dapper Dan, as well as everyday people in the communities that built the culture, and puts together a vibrant account of this rise in freshness. The only critique of the film was that it was very male-centric and failed to highlight female hip-hop influences. Aside from that, it was quite thorough and informative. It taps into the aspirational and creative qualities of this fashion movement, and the music that came with it. As Dapper Dan says: a roll of fabric can be whatever you want it to be. -Samora Pinderhughes

12. Welcome to Leith [dir. Michael Beach Nichols]

This movie documents a tiny town in North Dakota where a white supremacist attempts to take over the area and turn it into a neo-Nazi haven. It raises really important questions about the way our country’s laws enable and protect dangerous racist people. The filmmakers did an amazing job of telling all sides of the story and were successful at simply showing what was happening rather than imposing judgments, which would seem so tempting given the despicable and frightening subject matter. At the same time, they didn’t shy away from showing how the white supremacists attempted to use a culture of fear to impose their will upon the town, including carrying guns everywhere with them. Writer/director James Bland, a friend of mine at the festival, told me: “The score and the cinematography did a great job of projecting suspense and fear for the viewers. I found myself on a roller coaster of emotions watching this film.” -Samora Pinderhughes

13. In My Father's House [dirs. Ricki Stern & Annie Sundberg]

Hip-hop aficionado and Grammy winner Che "Rhymefest" Smith does something audacious in the new Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg-directed doc In My Father's House; he takes his family back to the hood, buying the South Side Chicago house he himself grew up in and raising his family there. Smith discovers that his alcoholic and homeless father lives just down the street from his newly-reclaimed home, and sets out to reconnect with him in a new, positive way. The film is a story of street culture, family, and fatherhood, one in which Smith must come to terms with his own parents' mistakes and the challenge of raising his own kids. A story built from present-day footage, old home movies, photographs, and interviews, In My Father's House is a patchwork piece that puts family under the microscope in today's harsh cityscape. -Scott Heins

In My Father's House is currently screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. Tickets and info can be found here.

14. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl [dir. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon]

This film was the big hit of Sundance, winning the Jury and Audience Awards for Dramatic Film. It is the story of a high school kid named Greg, who spends all of his time making crazy home movies with his friend Earl until his mother forces him to befriend his classmate Rachel, who has been diagnosed with leukemia. Although I didn’t get to see this one in person, word at the festival was that the film got long standing ovations and it was impossible not to be emotional after watching it. The chemistry and the acting of the main characters is said to be incredible, and in addition to making you cry your eyes out it is also supposed to be hilarious. If you like movies from The Criterion Collection and deeply moving stories about illness and high school, you should definitely see this film. -Samora Pinderhughes

15. James White [dir. Josh Mond]

This film is a story at its heart about being forced by your circumstances to grow up, perhaps before you are ready for certain responsibilities. It focuses on James White, described as “a troubled twentysomething trying to stay afloat in a frenzied New York City.” With his father having passed away and his mother facing cancer, James has to fully take on his mother’s care before he has even figured out how to begin dealing with his father’s death. The film never shies away from showing the day-to-day difficulties of caring for someone with a devastating illness, but it also carries a dreamlike quality in the way it is shot and edited. My friend Gabby Shepard, a Chapman University MFA Producing student, said about the film: “It was definitely an ‘experience’. Everyone left the theater blown away. The sincerity of the film turned out to make sense because this was the director's personal story. He said in the Q&A that his friends/fellow filmmakers were actually in the room when his mom died.” Kid Cudi also was great in this film, and composed music for it. -Samora Pinderhughes

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

16. Tom Swift And His Electric Rifle [dir. Nick Berardini]

Tragic recent events have made the story of Tom Swift And His Electric Rifle even more poignant. After Eric Harris was killed last week by a Tulsa, Oklahoma officer who mistook his handgun for his non-lethal taser, Nick Berardini's documentary on the birth and rise of the taser in America is an essential film for audiences everywhere. Born out of the business acumen of brothers Tom and Rock Smith, the M26 taser's 1999 release was taken to be a non-lethal godsend by police forces across the country. But with little government oversight, tasers have now become a dangerous, potentially deadly weapon in the hands of officers who wield them in hopes of stopping an uncharged suspect. With their reported death toll ever-climbing, Tom Swift And His Electric Rifle challenges us to reconsider how law enforcement pursues its human targets. -Scott Heins

Tom Swift And His Electric Rifle is currently screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. Tickets and more information can be found here.

17. Dope [dir. Rick Famuyiwa]

Dope, a film by Rick Famuyiwa, was one of the most talked-about films at this year’s festival. Produced by Forest Whitaker and Pharrell Williams’s I Am Other team, this film centers on three self-described geeks going to high school in the Bottoms section of Inglewood, Los Angeles. In a time where punk and rock music are being rightfully reclaimed as black art forms by today’s generation, and with festivals like Afropunk and artists like Tyler, The Creator and Childish Gambino gaining huge followings, this film feels extremely timely and wonderful. The film immediately breaks down stereotypes with its first lines of dialogue about bitcoins, and continues from there – one of my favorite scenes involved drug dealers (played by A$AP Rocky, Vince Staples and Tyga) expertly discussing foreign politics and President Obama’s use of drones. All too often smarts are equated with white European conventions in speech, dress, and culture, and this film highlights the amazing creative ingenuity of black culture and dialect as well as giving its characters time and space to exhibit their high levels of knowledge. In a world where white people have John Hughes movies and the like, it is refreshing to have a hilarious and crazy coming-of-age tale with super-fresh and super-smart kids of color at the center of it.

Dope was super on point with the laughs, combining movie tropes with new modern responses to them (such as a car chase featuring the usage of the Find My iPhone app), and brilliantly poking fun at modern viral culture. The film also touches on an incredible array of important topics, including appropriation of black culture, suburban obsessions with black music, the double standard of acceptable drug use in white communities while communities of color are over-policed, and an education system that makes it as difficult as possible for people from neighborhoods like Inglewood to succeed.

Most importantly for me, the music (written by Pharrell) performed in the film by the main characters, who have a band called Awreoh, was incredible. They really went in. And even without the film I would buy just the soundtrack, full of '90s classics. -Samora Pinderhughes

18. A Ballerina's Tale [dir. Nelson George]

What if all the flash and fiction of Black Swan were stripped away, its tale of dancers' ambition laid bare and rendered true? That's what Nelson George set out to achieve with A Ballerina's Tale. The film follows Misty Copeland, the New York American Ballet Theatre's first African-American female soloist in twenty years, as she trains tirelessly to perfect her craft even as ballet conventional wisdom tells her she's too curvy, that she comes from the wrong part of town. Copeland herself narrates the documentary, and in challenging the expectations of what a great ballerina can be, A Ballerina's Tale takes aim at the larger-scale stereotypes and power structures that dominate our society at large. The film is set to a tranquil and features gorgeous extended scenes of Copeland dancing unaccompanied and in full command of her talent. -Scott Heins

A Ballerina's Tale is currently screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. Tickets and info can be found here.

19. Jaco [dirs. Stephen Kijak & Paul Marchand]

Finally, one of the greatest bassists to pick up the instrument is getting his own film. Jaco tells the story of Jaco Pastorius, the 20th century jazz and fusion legend who practically recreated the electric bass as he pushed it beyond every conceivable boundary with his incredible, virtuosic playing. The film will bring never-before-seen photographs and audio recordings to light, and features interviews with a host of stars including Herbie Hancock, Geddy Lee, Bootsy Collins, Wayne Shorter, Santana, Joni Mitchell, and more. Directed by both John Cassavetes student Stephen Kijak and first-time filmmaker Paul Marchand, Jaco was executive produced by Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo and is in every way a bassist's homage to one the greatest players of all time. -Scott Heins

20. Hotel 22 [dir. Elizabeth Lo]

This short tells the story of Silicon Valley’s Line 22 bus, the only 24-hour bus in the area and one where much of the area's homeless population attempts to sleep during the night. Director Elizabeth Lo states: “When we think of Silicon Valley, we tend to imagine a world of extreme wealth and limitless opportunity. What we forget are the populations that have been displaced or neglected by the recent tech boom.” Hotel 22 confronts viewers with the reality of what happens at night on this bus--what homeless people have to go through, and how people and institutions fail to treat them with the dignity and humanity that they deserve. This is a serious, important and beautifully shot treatment of a subject that many people prefer to pretend doesn't exist. You can watch the full short right now online at the New York Times website. It is necessary viewing. -Samora Pinderhughes

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

21. Ghettotube [dir. Saïd Belktibia] (short)

Anyone with an internet connection and a pair of working eyes can attest that violence and virality rule so much of modern media. Now, a new 19 minute film directed by French self-taught filmmaker Saïd Belktibia asks: "When faked violence spreads like wildfire, what comes next?" Ghettotube is a new drama that tells the story of two housing project teens that shoot a staged bus assault, then upload it. From there, the boys quickly lose control of their work, as copycat videos appear before, finally, real violence finds their doorstep. Ominous in its lighting and sparked by a fresh face cast, Ghettotube looks at how base but innocent intentions can bring about brutal events, and how the virtual can quickly turn into reality. -Scott Heins

Ghettotube is currently screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. Tickets and info can be found here.

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

22. Nasty Baby [dir. Sebastián Silva]

Nasty Baby is a story featuring a friend of Okayplayer, Tunde Adebimpe, also known as the lead singer of TV on the Radio. It also stars Kristen Wiig and the director of the film, Sebastian Silva. The plot of the movie centers on a Brooklyn artist who wants desperately to have a baby with his boyfriend, and gets their best friend to agree to help them via artificial insemination. This is another film I had to hear about through the grapevine, and everyone’s main reaction was the same: you think you know what’s going on… until everything takes a turn. Can’t provide you with any spoiler alerts, so all I can say is, keep your eyes open. This is a film that looks like a comedy or a drama, until it becomes a crazy thriller. Definitely a must-see. -Samora Pinderhughes

23. Cartel Land [dir. Matthew Heineman]

With riffs on the classic "western" genre signifiers (dirt roads, vigilantes on horseback), Cartel Land offers an immersive look at modern day drug trafficking and the struggle for legitimacy by both gangs and law enforcement groups alike. Directed by Matthew Heineman (whose brilliant cinematography work is also at work throughout the documentary), the film gets startlingly close to some of the most successful and dangers drug lords in the world--in this case they happen to all be Mexican--and neatly explicates the complex local issues that lead to violence, fear, and in some cases, justice. -Scott Heins

Cartel Land is currently screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. Ticekts and info can be found here.

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

24. Song of Lahore [dirs. Andy Schocken & Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy]

A story rich in color and sound, Andy Schocken and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy's Song of Lahore brings audiences on a trip through Pakistan's capital and the struggle of its musicians to keep their art alive under decades of crack-downs and stigmatization. The musicians at the film's center were able to keep playing and attract worldwide audiences even as an increasingly oppressive Islamist government pursued them and their instruments. Song of Lahore is a tale of artistry winning out over dogma. -Scott Heins

Song of Lahore is currently screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. Tickets and info can be found here.

25. Havana Motor Club [dir. Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt]

As almost everyone in Havana--and Cuba in general--waits with bated breath to see what's about to happen to their culture, economy and cityscape in the wake of warming U.S. relations, a dedicated clique of auto racers continues to do their own thing. Havana Motor Club takes viewers on a 90-minute ride that's louder, faster, and frankly much more fun than your average travel doc. Under the film's glistening top coat of gorgeous cars and shimmering blue skies lies its beating six cylinder heart--greasy hands, exhaust fumes and the political lineage of Fidel Castro and his ban on racing nationwide. Directed by veteran filmmaker Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt, Havana Motor Club is more than just a slice of indulgent car eye candy--it's the story of aging revolutionaries hanging on to their ideals while Cuba changes at a speed that even their mighty engines can't outrun. -Scott Heins

Havana Motor Club is currently screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. Tickets and info can be found here.

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

26. Democrats [dir. Camilla Nielsson]

Filmed in Zimbabwe, Democrats has already become a favorite at documentary and feature film festivals this year, thanks to its courageous look at Paul Mangwana and Douglas Mwonzora. Mangwana and Mwonzora, men from two rival political parties, were tasked with charting a bipartisan course for the country as it began to leave dictatorship behind in 2008. Democrats scrutinzes Zimbabwe's current government under president Robert Mugabe as a delicate charade, and gets intimate with both the nation's fraught hopes for democracy and the sly diplomacy of its two subjects. Shot by Camilla Nielsson, the director behind Good Morning Afghanistan, Durga, and The Children of Darfur, Democrats was made over the course of three years and is a fascinating portrait both of democracy and human grace under institutional pressure. -Scott Heins

Democrats is currently screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. Tickets and info can be found here.

27. The Hunting Ground [dir. Kirby Dick]

Everyone needs to see this documentary. It focuses on rape at colleges and universities across the country – how frequently it happens, and how these institutions actively ignore, blame and re-traumatize women (and men) who have been raped. In an age where one in five women in college are sexually assaulted, this film shows the truth of the matter: colleges cover up rape cases so that they won’t face financial damages and bad publicity. The film also shows a growing movement of women who are fighting back against these despicable practices through art, community, grassroots education, and the law – and are making their voices heard. The director and producer who made this movie, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, also made the Oscar-nominated film The Invisible War, which focused on sexual assault in the military. They said that the inspiration for making The Hunting Ground was that when they screened their previous film at college campuses, women everywhere would come up to them and say “this happened to me here”. -Samora Pinderhughes

28. We Live This [dir. James Burns] (short)

Every straphanger who relies on New York's famous subway to get around knows well these words: "It's showtime!" Now, a new 10-minute short film written and directed by James Burns looks at the hard-knocks story of four boys who leave the projects every day to perform for tips on the subway. We Live This is a gorgeously-shot and sharply edited look at what it is to be young and black in New York City, seething with the drive and devotion that its subjects depend on to stay alive. -Scott Heins

We Live This is currently screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. Tickets and info can be found here.

29. Sembene! [dir. Samba Gadjigo]

Documentaries at this year's Sundance were a very strong group indeed, and this was our favorite of them all. Sembene!--at its heart--is two things at once: 1) a love letter to a great friend and 2) a thesis on how art can be used as an empowering and revolutionary force. This film focuses on director Samba Gadjigo’s longstanding friendship with and study of the ‘father of African cinema’, Ousmane Sembene. Sembene's story is incredible: he was expelled from school, worked as a fisherman and dockworker, taught himself writing and filmmaking, and then returned to Senegal to create some of the first major films with African characters at their center. Before the screening, director Gadjigo said, “The only liberation of a people that has been occupied is through a reclaiming of their stories” – and this represents the essence of what Sembene fought for through his movies. The film is an incredible and complex portrait of the man and his commitment to telling the truth – several of his films were banned both by African countries and European nations including France. His films told stories of African independence, condemned European colonialism and interference, and criticized problematic religious practices. He took many risks, and above all sought to reclaim images of Africa so that Africans would see their realities and themselves reflected on the screen. Finally, the music is nothing short of amazing. Sembene! is truly a film for everyone, and opens the door to discovery the wonderful world of Ousmane Sembene’s movies. His message, at the end of the movie, is extremely powerful: “We are our own sun… if [others] don’t see me, I see myself.” -Samora Pinderhughes

For more information on Sembene!, as well as other debuting African-made films, read Okayafrica's Sundance 2015 roundup.

30. 808 [dir. Alexander Dunn]

Billed as "an inspirational story of the Roland TR808," 808 is an in-depth look at the drum machine that shook the foundations of music in the 20th century. A favorite of thousands of artists across multiple genres, the iconic and gritty sound of the 808's drums was the motor behind Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing"; the b-boy classic "Planet Rock" by Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force...and so many other tracks. Its sound and sequence patters are still a key part of modern music today, and so 808 simultaneously investigates and commemorates a machine both groundbreaking and beautiful to behold. The new Alexander Dunn-directed documentary features in-depth interviews with Bambaataa, Questlove, Rick Rubin, David Guetta, Pharrell Williams and many more. -Scott Heins

31. 3 ½ Minutes [dir. Marc Silver]

On November 23, 2012, Jordan Davis was murdered by Michael Dunn at a gas station in Florida. This situation was tragic, and sadly almost routine--yet another example of a young black person killed by an adult white man, and came right on the heels of Trayvon Martin’s murder in the same state. Although this has been going on for decades now, it has been compounded by the epidemic of police violence against people of color and the increasingly high number of young people in prison for non-violent offenses, stripped of all their rights as citizens and stigmatized by the label of criminal. In the environment of #BlackLivesMatter and #Every28Hours, it was good to see that Sundance's lineup was strong in its calling out of racial violence and the fractures in our justice system. 3 ½ Minutes makes plain the details of the court proceedings during Michael Dunn’s trial, and exhibits how problematic the American judicial system is--including how youth who have been murdered are quickly "put on trial" by defense attorneys and the national media, portrayed as threats to the safety of their killers.

The film was made with the support of Jordan Davis’s parents and focuses heavily on their testimonies and their activism on behalf of their son. It also looks at Stand Your Ground, the absurd law that allowed George Zimmerman to walk free and remains on the books in many states. Watching this film reaffirmed the absolute necessity of the tireless work that organizations like the Dream Defenders are doing in Florida and around the nation to dismantle this unjust system. We all must take it upon ourselves to ensure that black lives are protected and valued in this country. -Samora Pinderhughes