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The Top 11 Political Movies of 2011

ReelPolitik By Anthony Kaufman | ReelPolitik December 15, 2011 at 2:09PM

The Top 11 Political Movies of 2011
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Here is a year-end favorites list that is a little more relevant for ReelPolitik: What were the best political films of the year? Those movies that inspired action or reflection, that effectively and emotionally engaged with the big issues of the day, or less overtly, allowed for a deeper understanding of the human soul. 

Since I'm making up this list and its rules, I will allow myself, in some cases, a looser definition of what I mean by "political." The list also functions in some way as a highlight of past blog entries, because these are movies that I'm passionate about and found myself writing about over the year. (I've also compiled a standard list of my favorite films for those year-end critic polls, which I'll include below. There's some overlap, but my best political list allows me to highlight some films that for whatever reason didn't make my top ten final cut.)

In alphabetical order (in keeping with my socialist ways):

The Black Power Mixtape (1967-1975): The film is a lively historical chronicle of the black power movement, but particularly, as I've mentioned before on this blog, the jailhouse interview with Angela Davis is a riveting monologue about what violent resistance means to a black person in the 1960s, and I'd argue one of the best performances I've seen in a movie this year.  Steely, wounded, angry, frustrated, defeated and defiant, Davis expresses so many emotions, and such a fierce rhetorical argument, that I don't think anyone who sees the clip could argue with her about the need for a strong--and yes, possibly violent, if pushed--response to oppression.

Better this World: A bracing look at government crackdowns on civil disobedience and the injustice of our justice system, "Better this World" couldn't be more timely. And with its surpising narrative turns--I defy anyone to come up with a more surprising plot twist from a narrative movie--the documentary makes for engrossing viewing. And this is one story that just keeps on going: The two activists who were convicted and sent to jail are finally out of prison, and their personal true-life tales of deception and conspiracy are only beginning to unravel.

The Ides of March: George Clooney's political potboiler has its faults, and as I noted in an earlier post, some suspicious sexual politics, but the multi-shaded performances of Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti make it eminently watchable and a worthy addition to this year's Cinema of Moral Ambiguity (see an even better example of CMG, "Tinker, Tailor," also on this list below.)

The Interrupters Steve James' harrowing and humanistic examination of inner-city violence took me closer to the lives of people so far away from my own than any movie I can remember. I must have cried a half-dozen times during the course of the movie. James captures so many sudden moments of emotional intensity, laid totally bare for the audience to completely empathize with the characters.

Into the Abyss: Herzog's sympathetic gaze into the dark heart of capital punishment in a small Texas town is a haunting, enigmatic piece of work, offering a litany of honest, uncensored interviews of loss and transformation. Herzog is a genius at yielding and spotting suprising moments of emotional truth, teasing them out and making them last. And final testimony by a former death-house chief makes a more convincing argument against the death penalty than anything I've ever seen. Book-ended by discussions about rabbits and hummingbirds, it's Herzog's most profound meditation on death and life in years.

Putty Hill: Matthew Porterfield's contemplative, exquisitely lensed snapshot of working-class white Baltimore is sensitive and emotionally truthful, painting a delicate picture of grief and waywardness in a small community. Inspired by Martin Bell’s seminal 1984 documentary “Streetwise,” Kent MacKenzie’s 1961 neorealist “The Exiles” as well as the work of Jean-Luc Godard, Ulrich Seidl and theater director Bertolt Brecht, who all mix realist and formalist techniques, Porterfield says his priority was always to capture the lives of the people in the impoverished neighborhood of Baltimore’s Putty Hill with as much honesty as possible. “I was much more focused on my subjects and was interested in stories from their lives, and honoring them, and treating them with respect,” he says.

Rampart: Oren Moverman's drama, starring an amazing Woody Harrelson, may have a more overtly political framing story in its depiction of police brutality and the real-life LAPD Rampart scandals of years ago, but like "Shame," the heart of the film is in its observations of a man descending into personal hell, swallowed up by his very own testosterone. These movies show the limits of male bravado in the post-Bush age, revealing a charismatic tight-fisted machismo collapsing from the inside.

A Separation: A legal thriller, marital drama, and class-conscious melodrama rolled into one, "A Separation" chronicles the rifts in society with remarkable acuity and empathy. While the film takes place in Iran, it also completely transcends its setting, revealing universal questions about class, fidelity, and truth, and the costs of concealing it.

Shame: Is "Shame" a post-9/11 drama in disguise? For me, the politics of "Shame" were always gender-based, but Time Out NY critic Joshua Rothkopf has illuminated another political dimension to the film. In an interview with Rothkopf, writer-director Steve McQueen responds to a question about the film's implicit connections with the tragedy: “Of course 9/11 is an undercurrent in my movie," he said. "How can you make a film here without it? When we debuted in Toronto, it was the tenth anniversary of 9/11, and that really put the film in context. I’m a New Yorker, but at one time, we were all New Yorkers.” I've written before that Carey Mulligan's soul-crushing long-take singing of "New York, New York" at a skyscraper piano bar is one of the most stunning movie moments of the year, but taken into a political context, it raises the sequence to an entirely new level. No wonder Fassbender's character sheds a tear.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: A tale of loyalty and betrayal that's actually less about double agents or subversive insurgents than corruption, conformity and disillusionment, making for a less direct and more artful political parable for our fucked-up times. While it may not sound like a ringing endorsement, "Tinker Tailor" is one of the most dour and gloomy movies I've seen in a long time, and I think it's this overwhelming sense of hopelessness and despair that envelopes the film, a sense that there's no right or wrong, there's no good or bad, and every side is as corrupt and unjust as the other, that so powerfully speaks to our current realities.

Tuesday, After Christmas From its subtle, revealing dialogue to its powerfully alive performances, lead by Mimi Branesco, as the almost callous husband, and Mirela Oprisor, as the fierce, wounded wife who lays into her spouse in arguably the best dramatic scene of the year, this slow-burning Romanian masterpiece about infidelity is another piquant tale about the lies that drive our lives, and the selfish acts that we frequently make without being fully aware of their consequences or repercussions.

Also worth mentioning a slew of powerful documentaries: The Arbor, Nostalgia for the Light, Position Among the Stars, Project Nim and Hell and Back Again.

And for the Critcs Polls, My Top Ten List 2011

1. Tuesday, After Christmas (Radu Muntean)
2. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)
3. Contagion (Steven Soderbergh)
4. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Tomas Alfredson)
5. Shame (Steve McQueen)
6. Melancholia (Lars von Trier)
7. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
8. Carancho (Pablo Trapero)
9. Silent Souls (Aleksei Fedorchenko)
10. A Separation (Ashgar Farhadi)