You’re probably reading this in hope of learning what the year in movies was like. Well, I’ll tell you: it was just like last year, only with different movies. In 2012 the big Oscar contenders included a fact-based political intrigue set in the late 70s (Argo), a period piece about slavery (Django Unchained), a screwball comedy about a mentally ill man and his wacky family (Silver Linings Playbook), and a historical drama set in the White House (Lincoln). In 2013 the big Oscar contenders include a fact-based political intrigue set in the late 70s (American Hustle), a period piece about slavery (12 Years a Slave), a screwball comedy about a mentally ill man and his wacky family (Nebraska), and a historical drama set in the White House (The Butler). When I asked my boss if we could just run the copy from 2012 and change the titles, she said that would be fine as long as we recashed our paychecks from last year. So here’s our new copy. —J.R. Jones
Film editor J.R. Jones
1The Act of Killing There’s never been a movie like this one before, and God willing, there’ll never be one like it again. Documentary maker Joshua Oppenheimer traveled to Indonesia to interview the retired government thugs who helped slaughter more than a half-million suspected communists in the mid-60s, and invited them to dramatize their experiences onscreen in a variety of movie genres. The resulting vignettes provide not only a glimpse inside the deformed souls of these aging executioners but a horrific parody of the Hollywood fantasy factory.
2Amour “Hey, this movie already won an Oscar!” Sorry, I seem to have one of these stragglers every year, because it opens in New York and LA the last weekend of December to qualify for awards but doesn’t premiere in Chicago until January. Michael Haneke’s deepest and most profound movie looks at an elderly married couple as the wife inches closer to death and the husband suffers with her, until every labored breath they share becomes a testament to their love.
3Neighboring Sounds In this brilliant debut feature, Brazilian writer-director Kleber Mendonca Filho weaves together numerous characters who live crammed together in a suburban, middle-class high-rise, though ultimately the building itself becomes the main character. His subject is not how these people relate to one another but how, for the sake of their own mental health, they try to block each other out, constructing a privacy for themselves that’s as shaky as a house of cards.
4A Touch of Sin Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke tells four stories about individuals driven to violence, yet his real subject is the economic violence visited upon them every day by a predatory capitalism. With an agenda like this, the movie might easily have turned into a heavy-handed thesis film, yet Jia focuses so intently on each of his four protagonists that his social argument accumulates slowly and silently. How much can a person take before he snaps? we wonder in each instance, until the question widens to include all of China, and the whole human race.
512 Years a Slave Most movies about American slavery are designed to help white people forgive themselves, but this uncompromising historical drama, adapted by British filmmaker Steve McQueen from a 19th-century memoir, wasn’t meant to make anyone feel better. Michael Fassbender plays the most sinister character, a slave owner whose romantic infatuation with one of his slaves is indistinguishable from his brutality toward her, but what haunts me is a more quotidian moment in which Paul Giamatti, playing a slave merchant, casually pulls down a man’s jaw to inspect his teeth, as if he were a horse.
6Let the Fire Burn Jason Osder’s gripping documentary revisits the 1985 battle between police and black revolutionaries in Philadelphia that left nine people dead and destroyed 60 homes. The racial angle implicit in this notorious incident gradually fades as the black radicals, who spent months harassing their black neighbors, were targeted by a police bombing attack ordered by the city’s black mayor, Wilson Goode; eventually the movie becomes a drama about a minority’s right to combat injustice versus the majority’s right to live in peace.
7Dirty Wars They’re all dirty, but some are dirtier than others. I’d never heard of Blackwater, the soldier-of-fortune firm that perpetrated some of the worst outrages of the Iraq war, until investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill blew the whistle on it. And I’d never heard of the Joint Special Operations Command, which functions overseas as the commander in chief’s personal death squad, until I saw this documentary based on Scahill’s latest book. In the first case, the buck stopped with George W. Bush; in the second, it stops with Barack Obama. Am I ready for Hillary? No, I don’t think so.
8Lore I hope I never have to sit through another Holocaust movie or coming-of-age drama—so naturally one of my favorite movies this year was a coming-of-age drama about the Holocaust. After a high-ranking Nazi officer and his wife are rounded up by the invading Allies, their eldest child (played by the blond-haired, blue-eyed, icily beautiful Saskia Rosendahl) leads her younger siblings across American- and then Russian-occupied Germany, trying to reach her grandmother’s home in Hamburg but stumbling across the awful truth about her father, and her fatherland.
9The Missing Picture Like The Act of Killing above, this documentary by Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh deals with atrocities in southeast Asia, and like that film it’s unique. Panh uses archival footage, sound effects, voice-over narration, and meticulously hand-carved and -painted figurines to re-create his experiences in the late 70s as a victim of the Khmer Rouge, who destroyed his little village and forced him into an agricultural collective for four years. The movie screened only a handful of times at the Chicago International Film Festival, but expect a commercial release next year.
10American Hustle Judging from the poster art—a horizontal shot of the five stars strutting toward the camera in lockstep as they model their flamboyant 70s fashions—I was prepared to write this off as a Boogie Nights rip-off. To some extent I was right, though director David O. Russell tells a more political story—about Abscam, the FBI sting operation that rocked Washington—and asks whether the practice of seducing U.S. legislators with cash-filled suitcases didn’t uncover wrongdoers so much as manufacture them.
Film critic Ben Sachs
1At Berkeley Shot at the nation’s most respected public university during an unprecedented budget crisis, Frederick Wiseman’s epic, mosaiclike documentary ponders the state of the American experiment in the wake of the second Bush administration, a period marked by deregulation, cultural disunity, and sweeping disinvestment in social programs. How do we agree on higher values, much less preserve them, asks Wiseman, when everything is for sale and citizens are urged to look out only for themselves? The content speaks to an anxiety over the future, yet Wiseman’s imagery is frequently serene, conveying a classical sense of beauty.
2Paradise: Faith and Paradise: Hope Ulrich Seidl’s “Paradise” trilogy is an extraordinary achievement, not only for its breadth but for its resolutely compassionate approach to subjects many people would rather not consider at all. The second entry, Faith, tracks a religious fanatic’s descent into loneliness and self-loathing; the third, Hope, transpires at a weight-loss camp for spoiled suburban preteens. Each film threatens to lapse into sneering caricature but never does. The cinematography (by Seidl’s regular collaborators Edward Lachman and Wolfgang Thaler) inspires awe for environments both natural and man-made; the intimate, unforced performances reflect the director’s profound sympathy for his performers, many of whom have no acting experience.
3Computer Chess In a weird, offhand way, Andrew Bujalski’s deadpan comedy, set at a Reagan-era conference for computer geeks, manages to say a good deal about the Internet age, much of it surprisingly unsettling. Bujalski posits, only somewhat in jest, that the automated, passive-aggressive culture we now inhabit might be the result of a botched programming experiment from the early 1980s. The premise suggests something out of Thomas Pynchon, and the movie earns that comparison through its loopy humor, discussions of hard science, and wild formal experimentation. Bujalski shot this on outmoded video cameras, using the format more creatively than most Hollywood filmmakers employ cutting-edge special effects.
4A Touch of Sin See J.R. Jones’s list, above.
5I’m So Excited! Most reviewers described Pedro Almodóvar’s hysterical bad-taste comedy as a throwback to his early films, but I see it as a summation of his career to date. An allegory about why we need escapist entertainment (specifically the musicals, melodramas, and farces that Almodóvar invokes in all his films), this finds the passengers of an imperiled airliner losing their worries in gossip, sex, drugs, and cabaret numbers. Meticulously plotted and paced, it’s the work of a master filmmaker reveling in his craft.
6Stray Dogs If this turns out to be Tsai Ming-liang‘s last feature, as the Taiwanese filmmaker has suggested, then it’s a hell of a curtain call. A largely silent drama about a homeless Taipei family, it communicates volumes about the characters and contemporary alienation in general through its inspired architecture photography and the physically precise work elicited from its actors. Tsai’s minimalist aesthetic reaches its apex in the movie’s daring final sequence, 14 minutes of virtual inactivity that crescendo to a moment of Zen-like revelation.
7Tabu Portuguese critic-turned-director Miguel Gomes invokes the legacy of F.W. Murnau to meditate on the legacy of Portuguese colonialism in Africa. As sensual as it is cerebral, the movie proceeds like a lyric poem, conjuring a rich, mysterious ambience. Along with the “Paradise” trilogy, this contains the best cinematography I saw all year; the black-and-white images (shot on both 16- and 35-millimeter film) not only pay tribute to earlier eras of filmmaking—they’re vibrant enough to succeed on their own terms.
8Drug War Hong Kong director Johnnie To is a master at orchestrating action-movie plots; even in its quiet moments, this cops-and-robbers saga never flags. It’s grandly entertaining but also formally rich in its visual motifs, camera movements, and interconnected characters; no current Hollywood director works so fruitfully in the classic Hollywood tradition.
9Gravity With this sci-fi blockbuster, director Alfonso Cuarón demonstrates uncommon intelligence in his use of special effects, using them to consider nothing less than man’s place in the universe. This is one of the only movies I’ve seen in which the 3-D effects are integral to the theme. Much of the suspense—even aspects of character development—derive from whether the subjects are approaching us or drifting away.
10You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet Like I’m So Excited!, Alain Resnais’s drama presents imagination and death as inextricably related. It’s set at the home of a recently deceased theater director, where two productions of Jean Anouilh’s Eurydice unfold in tandem. The combined force of the productions gradually overpowers reality, and the film comes to seem as though it’s taking place outside of time and space. This may feel like a final statement, but that’s only an illusion—as the title suggests, Resnais still has plenty of tricks up his sleeve.
Read Ben Sachs’s lists of runners-up and the year in repertory in screenings.