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2013 Movie Picks: Nick Olson
Image: Studio Ghibli
'From Up on Poppy Hill'

For movie lovers and movie critics, the end of the year brings an avalanche of "best of" lists to analyze, pick apart, and argue over. Here at CT Movies, knowing that every critic and every movie lover brings different tastes, interests, and perspectives to the table, we've decided to take a different approach.

Each of our regular critics came up with a list of "best" films in categories of their own choosing, and we'll be running them over the next week. These aren't necessarily the year's best films, nor even the best movies these critics saw all year—just a sampling of the riches of 2013. We hope you'll find something to love.

The Best Film About the (In)Human Capacity to Minimize Evil in Our Minds
The Act of Killing
(Not rated)

'The Act of Killing'

'The Act of Killing'

Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary depicts gangsters from the 1965-66 Indonesian Killings reenacting grim moments from their reign of genocidal terror. It's an invitation into woefully deluded imaginations that plays like a bizarre nightmare—equal doses shocking and, somehow, darkly comical. But their evils are all too real. So when Anwar Congo sits on a dock in the middle of the night with lightning flashing in the background as he describes karma as "a law of nature, a law straight from God," you begin to realize that though we may try to rationalize our evil acts, we will in the very least be haunted by them.

The Animated Film That Too Few People Are Talking About During Awards Season
From Up on Poppy Hill
(Rated PG for mild thematic elements and some incidental smoking images)

In a year when Pixar has a Monsters sequel, Hayao Miyazaki directed what may be his final film, and Disney delivered the pleasantly surprising Frozen, the animated film that seems to me to be unjustly under the radar during awards season chatter is the other Studio Ghibli film released in the U.S. this year: From Up On Poppy Hill. This is a delightful film about tradition and progress that's wrapped up in a sweet melodrama between a high school couple named Umi and Shun. It delivers its concern for lost and dying histories histrionically, but the film's defining scene—one of the scenes of the year—is when the kids get together to renovate the school's ancient clubhouse which is on the verge of closing. Renovative vision is what the film ultimately encourages when dealing with social conditions in which the past must be reconciled with the future.

Two Greatest Depictions of "The Kingdom Made Visible"
This is Martin Bonner
(Rated R for some language and brief sexuality)

Let me introduce you to Martin Bonner, a man in his late 50s who's recently divorced from his wife of over twenty years and ostracized from the church in which he's spent his life serving. Relocated to Nevada and trying to transition into his new life, Martin's a bankrupt man attempting to help newly released prisoners transition into freedom. It's a scenario that invites us to see people as human beings rather than things, and in these lowly circumstances are glorious moments of the kingdom made visible. (Jeffrey Overstreet's essay for CT.)

12 Years a Slave
(Rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality)

My colleague Josh Larsen is one critic I've seen remark on what is for me one of the most memorable shots from the film, which is the very first one, when a group of slaves in a sugarcane field stare directly into the camera. Breaking the fourth wall as a framing device is essential to how the film challenges the viewer through its dramatization of our country's dark history of slavery. Visually astute, insightful into the social psychology of freedom and enslavement, and featuring compelling performances all around, 12 Years a Slave never resorts to mere emotional manipulation. And when you consider Michael Fassbender's brutally cruel slave owning character, Edwin Epps, contextualizing slave whipping with a Biblical proof text, Solomon Northrup slowly joining in with the other slaves singing "Roll Jordan Roll" is one of the most loaded, emotionally charged moments at the movies this year. (Ken Morefield's review for CT.)

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2013 Movie Picks: Nick Olson