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Year in review: 2013 at the movies

J.R. Jones and Ben Sachs each pick their top ten.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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