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The 13 Best Political Films of 2011

Looking back at the movies that moved us most.

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9. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (dir. Rupert Wyatt)

The ever-canny James Franco stars in this sci fi thriller as a well-meaning scientist, but obviously it's the apes who steal his absurdist shine: led by a super-intelligent super-chimp, a cache of experimented-upon apes revolts against humanity, taking to the streets in protest and, you know, smashing cars in the process. An incredibly fun film to watch, and if you let yourself be distracted from insane special effects, you'll get the union subtext and the limits of science, along with some commentary on how, if we can't co-exist naturally with nature, it will make a concerted effort not to have to co-exist with us. (Out now for home viewing.)

10. If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (dir Michael Curry)

How urgent is it to avert environmental disaster, and how far would you go to do it? This intense documentary follows the 2005 prosecution of one operating cell of the ELF under what the government termed America’s “No. 1 domestic terrorist threat” — despite the fact that their actions did not physically harm anyone. The ELF’s tactic was to set businesses it deemed environmentally damaging alight, including SUV dealerships and timber companies, which was counteracted by the government’s invocation of corporate personhood. In the interim, riot cops cracked down on protests — violent ones, the kind we’re seeing a lot of today — which are painfully and shockingly depicted here. (Aired on PBS in September; DVDs available.)

11. Addiction Incorporated (dir. Charles Evans Jr)

The true story of Victor DeNoble, who presented nicotine-free tobacco to Philip Morris after learning that the drug led to both heart disease and addiction — and who fought them when they opted for more addictive additives. Standing up against the tobacco industry has been documentary fodder before, but this look at one man’s resolve is inspiring. ( Airing now in New York; opening wide in January.)

12. The Loving Story (dir. Nancy Biurski) 

In 1967, Richard and Mildred Loving were arrested for marrying interracially, which was illegal in the state of Virginia. Banned from ever visiting their families together, they eventually sued the state with the help of the ACLU (and at the behest of Robert Kennedy). Their suit eventually made it to the Supreme Court, which overturned all miscegenation laws, stating they were in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. This documentary, complete with incredible archival footage of the Lovings, examines the history — and the present, including President Obama — of interracial marriage, but also tells a beautiful tale of love that couldn’t be kept down. (Opened in Nov; HBO will air in February.)

13. Battle for Brooklyn (dir. Michael Galinsky, Suki Hawley) Oscar shortlisted

For over six years, residents of downtown Brooklyn battled Bruce Ratner, one of the largest real estate developers in New York, for the heart of the neighborhood. After the state and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, invoking eminent domain, rezoned and seized the area known as Atlantic Yards, Ratner began developing his vision: a huge sports arena for the Brooklyn Nets, several skyscrapers (including mixed-income housing, the “mixed-income” part of which was eventually scrapped), and area for mass retail which some fretted would attract national chains and dilute the community reliance that’s been a part of downtown Brooklyn for decades. But most devastatingly, the land on which the new development was proposed already held apartment buildings and other living units. Set to be razed, its occupants and neighbors, some of whom had lived in the buildings for decades, embarked on a battle for their lives and principles. This compelling documentary chronicles the fight. (Upcoming screenings all across America, available on DVD soon.)

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