A-List: Top 10 Movies of 2015

By J. Don Birnam

December 30, 2015

Fiction's about what it is to be a human being.

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Christmas lists, shopping lists, New Years’ resolutions lists, and….favorite movies lists. The end of the year is undoubtedly the time for list-making, the one time all year the A-List expands to 10 titles. Last year, I gave important caveats about this list that must be repeated. Over 320 movies were eligible for a Best Picture nomination this year, of which I’ve seen about a quarter, approximately 81 (roughly the same as last year!). Several hundred others, not submitted for Academy consideration, were released in theaters across North America in 2015 and reviewed by major newspapers, but I have seen few of those movies. And this year, there are at least a half dozen movies that I have on good authority are worthy entrants on this list, but which I have yet had a chance to see (from Diary of a Teenage Girl to The Heart of a Dog). To say that one can, under such circumstances, list the best of these movies (aside from the subjectivity of the endeavor), is silly. Thus, feel free to take to Twitter and Instagram if you hate my choices.

Last year, the first observation that emerged was that although there was a “2014 is a weak year for movies” narrative, the top choices somewhat debunked that idea. This year, there is no doubt that it is a strong year for movies, with at least 25 movies more than worthy of being on this list. The narrowing down was excruciatingly difficult to say the least. Indeed, there are at least 20 titles with a realistic shot at a Best Picture nomination.

Other than that, the themes to these movies are as diverse as ever (which will, hopefully, be reflected in this year’s Oscars ceremony). There is a particularly strong mother or motherhood theme, especially among foreign language films.


A final word on rules: last year I made the list based on movies that had been released theatrically in North America in 2014. I figured I could mention movies I had seen in festivals but were not released in theaters until 2015, if worthwhile, the following year. In hindsight, it seems somewhat dated to now mention movies from January 2015 (which entered into critical awards discussion in 2014). This is to the detriment of brilliant titles such as two nominees for Best Foreign Language Film last year, Argentina’s Wild Tales and Mozambique’s Timbuktu, two movies that are outwardly polar opposites but are, at their core, two stunningly-vivid portrayals of modern-day problems (middle class oppression in the former, terrorism in the later), the frustrations they cause, and how passive or outwardly violent resistance can help ease it. To fix this issue, I will now consider any movie I may have seen in 2015, regardless of whether it has had a theatrical release yet.

Having already cheated by mentioning two additional movies without giving them a slot, onto the top 10.

10. James White/Mia Madre

Allow me to cheat once more and list two movies at the tenth spot, as they could basically be companion pieces despite seemingly outwardly different. Both movies deal with the illness and eventual death of a mother. In James White (covered during TIFF) the mother at issue (a stunning, brilliant Cynthia Nixon) is a booze-hound and a drug-dependent partier. In Mia Madre (covered during NYFF, we see the mother of a driven, successful, and at times tyrannical (female) movie director. Both movies are, by the way, on their own meritorious for their nuanced while realistic analysis of the emotional turbulence that the loss of a parent can cause. Seen together, they brilliantly showcase how these whirlwinds can be the same across humanity, regardless of whether you are a party animal or a driven professional. Both movies are exceedingly lyrical (and James White even features some very awkward close-ups reminiscent of those in the lauded Holocaust movie that is set to win Best Foreign Language Film this year), and make sympathetic the two mostly unsympathetic protagonists, simply because of the humanity in themselves that they discover as they have to care for their ailing mothers.

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