My favorite Chicago movie premieres of 2013, 30-21

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From Up on Poppy Hill
  • From Up on Poppy Hill
In the run-up to the publication of my ten favorite movies of 2013, I'm posting a two-part list of my runners-up. So many good movies—and, more importantly, so many different kinds of movies—come through Chicago every year that a list of ten fails to convey the breadth of what was out there. Expanding my year-end list from ten to 30 films gives me room to consider the achievements in nonfiction, animated, and experimental filmmaking. Looking over these titles makes me appreciate what an amazing variety of movies I get to see on a regular basis.

30. Dusty Stacks of Mom: The Poster Project The Jodie Mack program that played in Conversations at the Edge this fall provided further evidence that experimental cinema could be as fun as commercial cinema. This homemade musical epic—set to a lo-fi, song-for-song parody of Dark Side of the Moon—charts the rise and fall of the Florida-based mail-order poster company run by Mack's mother. The animation and special effects reveal a rich imagination at play.

29. This Is Martin Bonner Chad Hartigan's second feature is a tough and honest movie about people who are getting edged out of America's middle class. The title character is a divorced father starting over in Nevada (where he doesn't know a soul) after he loses his job of 20 years. It's rare to see a movie about the vulnerability of men, especially middle-class men who are neither old nor young. Paul Eenhoorn, an Australian actor whom I'd never seen before, is remarkable in the lead. On a side note, this was a good year for sad, little stories set in Nevada, between About Sunny, The Motel Life, and this.

28. La Camioneta
27. The Missing Picture The Act of Killing got the most attention, but there were numerous nonfiction films this year that confronted atrocities in a manner both responsible and creative. In The Missing Picture, Cambodian documentarian Rithy Panh (S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine) uses small clay figurines to retell his experience of living under the Khmer Rouge. "I could say the movie requires some patience," J.R. Jones wrote when it premiered at the Chicago International Film Festival, "but in fact it commands patience with its humbling tale of a boy being cruelly torn from one life and forced into another of extreme privation." La Camioneta was easier to watch but no less difficult to think about. Like a nightmare-world Sesame Street segment, it's narrated by a friendly decommissioned school bus as it bears witness to injustice and random violence across Latin America. Both movies adopt the tone of children's stories in order to recapture the shock we experienced as children when we first learned about real-world horrors. So many films are accused of desensitizing viewers to violence—here are two that do the opposite.

The Missing Picture
  • The Missing Picture

26. Pioneers My favorite experimental program of the year was Tender Muscles: Films by Charles Fairbanks, which screened at the Nightingale in August. These works suggest that Fairbanks would have been a successful comedy director in the silent era. He's got a great eye for body language and interesting-looking people (most of these shorts were about wrestlers), and he's talented at framing shots for comic effect. Pioneers is a laugh-out-loud portrait of Fairbanks's oddball parents. You can watch it for free at his website.

25. Morning of St. Anthony's Day My favorite work at this year's Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival was João Pedro Rodrigues's 25-minute short about a bunch of attractive young people wandering through a deserted city under a weird love spell. Like Jean Cocteau or Leos Carax, Rodrigues (To Die Like a Man) communicates in a cryptic and personal visual language. This gorgeous, dialogue-free work was like spying on someone else's dream.

Like Father, Like Son
  • Like Father, Like Son
24. Like Father, Like Son I've never been a fan of Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda, but I think he outdid himself with this novelistic drama. A rich family and a poor family discover their five-year-old sons had been switched at birth—how can they resolve the problem to mutual satisfaction when they have so little in common? Kore-eda imagines the characters—adults and children alike—so vividly that the story feels epic in its complications. This premiered at the Chicago International Film Festival in October; it starts a full run at the Music Box on January 31.

23. The Spectacular Now This adaptation of Tim Tharp's young-adult novel succeeds as both a teen movie and an old-fashioned romantic melodrama, communicating a warm, sensitive perspective that rarely enters into either genre these days. James Ponsoldt's direction is artful without being arty—the lovely imagery never overwhelms the characterization, and the characterization is often heartbreaking.

22. To the Wonder Though it features movie stars (Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem), Terrence Malick's follow-up to The Tree of Life is the closet he's come to making an experimental film. Character and story are virtually irrelevant here—Malick wants to explore his ideas about spirituality and transcendence through cinematic form, taking bold risks with editing, sound design, and camera placement. I was content to sit back and enjoy the spectacle.

21. From Up on Poppy Hill This gentle coming-of-age story from Studio Ghibli might seem like a minor effort because its dramatic stakes are fairly low. But the movie succeeds in dramatizing something that few films succeed in describing at all: the period of life when a child begins to recognize his or her relationship to the world. Written by Hayao Miyazaki and directed by his son Goro, this shows greater understanding of child psychology than most live-action films about children.

Honorable mentions:

The Bling Ring, Grigris, Lenny Cooke, Narco Cultura, Passion, Short Term 12, Sister, Stranger by the Lake

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