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The 13 Best Political Films of 2011

Looking back at the movies that moved us most.
 
 
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We Were Here
Photo Credit: wewerehere.com

 
 
 
 

This year was defined by anxiety: the economy roiled, the GOP was increasingly hostile, the government careened towards shutdown more than once. And while these things all still seem to loom, 12 months later, there is a landscape of renewed hope and empowerment. The Arab Spring set off revolutions across the Middle East, which first inspired the Western world to rise up into Occupy Wall Street. Now the ripple effect of people power travels further, as we see the germination of the Russian Winter. Culturally, we’re gearing for a seismic shift: In 2012, expect to see the effects of the year manifested in film, music, and art. But in 2011, we felt the tremors, and a clutch of political films and documentaries both presaged and inspired the increasing awareness and resolve we’ve seen smattering across the globe. You’ll see some of these in the Oscar nomination lineup, but all of them are must-see. 

1. Margin Call (dir. JC Chandor)

As Occupy Wall Street was congealing—and the scrutiny surrounding Wall Street's robbery and subsequent bailout was occupying America's consciousness—an intensely disquieting thriller called Margin Call was released. Set over the course of 24 hours inside an ostensibly fictional Wall Street firm in the hot zone that was 2008, it's an intimate look at the decision-making that precipitated the financial crisis, "inspired" by real events, including the ultimate meltdown of mortgage securities. The all-star ensemble cast is collectively brilliant at portraying the nuance of the morality, and lack of it, that these firms displayed—Zachary Quinto's troubled math genius acts as a compass against the supreme evil embodied in the CEO and other top-level employees, portrayed by Jeremy Irons, Simon Baker, and Demi Moore, whose Machiavellian greed leads them to sacrifice not only company employees, but the American people. Though the technical aspects of the financial crisis can sometimes seem arcane, Margin Call threaded together an idea of how it could happen—as interpreted by writer/director JC Chandor, who'd never made a film before this one—and gave us a clearer view into what exactly we were protesting. Stunning. (Currently in theaters.)

2. We Were Here (dir. David Weissman, Bill Weber)

Perhaps this year’s dramatic bigotry against gay works of art dating back or relating to the AIDS crisis seeped into the collective consciousness, because this is one of two important films looking back at AIDS activism in the 1980s and ’90s. (The second, How to Survive a Plague, debuts at Sundance in February.) We Were Here focuses on San Francisco as it began to feel the early effects of what was then-called “the gay cancer,” tapping into five people who were there and their profound, unfading memories. As frightening and depressing as the documentary is, the incredible community that mobilized to fight both the disease and the perception of those infected is the true story here. It’s activism at one of its most inspiring moments. (Currently playing in Denver, Tulsa, and various cities in Canada; more dates to come)

3. Into the Abyss (dir. Werner Herzog)

A Werner Herzog romp is always fun — resplendent with his pithy, absurdist observations and pleasurable deadpan — but this film takes him in a more somber, more serious direction, as he examines the case of Michael Perry, a Texas man on death row for the murder of three people, and what it means when a democratic society enacts an eye for an eye. In the wake of Troy Davis, it’s an important, self-searching look at a society gone haywire and questions the nature of humanity with typical Herzog objectivity. He does not judge, only poses questions — it’s philosophically impactful as a result. (Opened wide in November.)

4. The Adjustment Bureau (dir. George Nolfi)

Philip K. Dick left so much work that was dying to be made into film. The Adjustment Bureau, based on his short story, is a perfect example why: when done well, his paranoia (and his prescience) translates thrillingly to the big screen, and in the hands of a great actor like Matt Damon, just gets more electric. It's the tale of an ambitious would-be Senator who's been tracked for the Presidency by a mysterious organization called the Adjustment Bureau, which not only fixes fate for those it works with, but proves to have psychic abilities about them, removing any semblance of free will. Damon's character reluctantly accepts this (mostly out of fear), but once the Adjustment Bureau threatens to come between himself and his potential love (Emily Blunt), he's no longer having it. It's complete romantic sci fi, but through its fantastical lens raises questions about the powerful and often nefarious mechanisms that currently exist in politics, from lobbyists to campaign managers. (Shades of the 2000 election, too.) Plus Damon and Blunt work great together, their chemistry and talent playing off each other. (Currently available for home viewing.)

5. The Ides of March (dir. George Clooney)

Speaking of electoral politics, Matt Damon's partner in progress George Clooney shined in this as both actor and director. Focusing on a hotly contested presidential campaign (the screenwriter, Beau Willimon, worked with Howard Dean in 2004), the "ides" refers to the dirty politics that unseat a deputy campaign manager and sully an entire presidential election. Ryan Gosling, as said disgraced employee, imparts a savvy toughness that alludes to a character in his other breakthrough film this year, Drive, but this one inflicts just as many bruises with virtually no physical violence. (Currently in theaters.)

6. Miss Representation (dir. Jennifer Siebel Newsom)

A highly critical look at media representations of women that value us solely for our tits and ass and never for our intellect, director Newsom pulls no punches in exposing the most damaging and disgusting comments made toward us through the years. Most importantly, she looks at how young girls are affected by the portrayals, and how their potential is truncated by a sexist landscape — but can be reawakened by positive representation and women writing our own history. Alternately depressing and inspiring! (Aired on Oprah's OWN Network in October, with screenings across the US currently scheduled.)

7. The Black Power Mixtape, 1967–1975

In the late ’60s, Swedish journalists, fascinated and compelled by the Black Power movement in the United States, began documenting its most famous and outspoken purveyors more diligently than any American media, filming interviews with the likes of Angela Davis, Harry Belafonte, and Stokely Carmichael. Roundly dissed by stateside institutions and propagandist journalists, they nevertheless continued their work for several years, showing the true anguish and dignity that propelled one of the country’s most resolute and beautiful moments — and hopefully reframing it in the American consciousness from a “violent” movement to one that sought to empower until it was sabotaged by the government. (Currently in theaters across America.)

8. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (dir. Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky)

Similarly to Into the Abyss, Paradise Lost 3 takes a long, hard look at the justice system in America, but this is the third in a trilogy about the West Memphis Three, teenagers who spent almost two decades in prison for the murder of three boys despite evidence to the contrary — and who were finally cleared after DNA evidence proved their innocence. A story with a strong following, from normal justice activists to the likes of Johnny Depp and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, the finale offers a denouement to a broken justice system. (Opened in October; will air on HBO beginning January 12.)

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.)

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.
 
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