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The 13 Best Political Films of 2011

Looking back at the movies that moved us most.

We Were Here
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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.)

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