Belatedly, here are my choices for the best films of 2013 — including movies that showed at film festivals and noncommercial venues in Chicago.
1. 12 YEARS A SLAVE
(Steve McQueen, U.S./U.K.) — Painful and horrifying, yet beautifully filmed and acted, with a sense of historical authenticity. A penetrating gaze into the warped American psyche of the slavery era. Watch the trailer.
2. THE ACT OF KILLING
(Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark/Norway/U.K.) — A queasy experience this is — a highly unusual documentary that takes us uncomfortably close to men responsible for genocidal acts, making them seem human without excusing their atrocities. And it’s damn surreal. Watch the trailer.
3. UPSTREAM COLOR
(Shane Carruth, U.S.) — A beguiling and peculiar puzzle involving worms and pigs and people, all tied together through some nefarious or mystical plot. Also, a terrific example of what is possible for an independent filmmaker to accomplish. Watch the trailer.
4. BEFORE MIDNIGHT
(Richard Linklater, U.S.) — The third “Before” film continues the remarkable experience of watching this love story unfold in something like real time, with nine-year gaps. This latest chapter was less about romance than a real-life relationship’s struggles. And it feels very real. Watch the trailer.
5. A TOUCH OF SIN
(Zhangke Jia, China) — Shocking violence erupts in various settings in China. As the startling film shifts from one short story to another, it becomes a tapestry of contemporary Chinese society and its tensions. Watch the trailer.
6. CAPTAIN PHILLIPS
(Paul Greengrass, U.S.) — The director of the outstanding documentary-style dramas United 93 and Bloody Sunday takes the same approach again in this riveting, superbly acted film, which builds to a cathartic scene that had me in tears. Watch the trailer.
7. THE GREAT BEAUTY
(Paolo Sorrentino, Italy) — A beautiful Italian film that finds a fresh way of updating Fellini’s fluid storytelling style and florid visuals, with a coolly laconic actor, Toni Servillo, at the center of its musings about life and art. Watch the trailer.
8. AMERICAN HUSTLE
(David O. Russell, U.S.) — A fun, highly entertaining picaresque performed by a terrific cast of actors at their best. Watch the trailer.
(Adrian Sitaru, Romania) — This ensemble story about life in an apartment building (which screened at the Chicago International Film Festival) is rich with absurdist humor as well as the sort of clear-eyed appraisal of human relationships that the Romanian cinema is known for. Watch the trailer.
(Alex van Warmerdam, Netherlands) — A surreal nightmare about a menacing stranger who inserts himself into a family and sets about destroying it. Another movie that screened at the Chicago International Film Festival, this is reminiscent of Greece’s Yorgos Lanthimos, the director of Dogtooth and Alps. Watch the trailer.
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22. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, Canada)
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24. Our Children (Joachim Lafosse, Belgium)
25. The Trials of Muhammad Ali (Bill Siegel, U.S.)