As an election year, 2012 was particularly rife with political filmmaking. Capitalizing on the highly energized, contentious race for the White House—and a body politic particularly attuned to issues of economic inequality and foreign instability—Hollywood definitely got into the act: Even "The Dark Knight Rises" presented muddled perspectives on the super-rich and the less fortunate, hero-izing and condemning both elite and revolutionaries, alike. I don't think the film is one of the best political movies of the year—can anyone clearly identify its political stance, after all?—nor will I take this space to herald "Argo"—which I've written about elsewhere, and find to be deeply problematic in its depiction of Iran's Islamic Revolution—or "Zero Dark Thirty," which, likewise, confirms my suspicions about any movie that has CIA agents or American men with guns vanquishing an enemy.
Here, instead, is an alphabetical list of the top political movies of the year that don't need any excuses:
Compliance – Craig Zobel's masterfully clinical examination of power, class and subjugation in an American fast food restaurant captures our country's current moment of economic disparity and manipulation like no other. Uncomfortable to watch and straining credibility at times, the movie may lose viewers during its horrible set-up, but it builds to a brilliant pair of totally unexpected scenes that cement the story's themes of control and unaccountability that we've seen repeatedly, from the torture chambers of Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo to the evisceration of our economy by Corporate America. And big praise goes to Ann Dowd, whose smiling fast food manager, trying to keep her workplace in perfect order, reminds me of Sabrina Harman, the young female soldier in the Abu Ghraib photos who, giving a thumbs up, appeared totally oblivious to the torture that surrounded her.
How to Survive a Plague -- Like a time-travel machine, David France’s epic documentary places the viewer smack dab in the middle of the 1980s AIDS crisis. Using archival footage culled from some 700 hours of video, the film presents an urgent, you-are-there account of those who worked within the advocacy group ACT UP to combat the spread of the virus. The whole documentary zips along like a fast-breaking news story (this despite spanning some 10 years of material), making distant events tangible and the frustrations and fury of the people palpable. These activists are literally fighting for their lives, and to watch them in the midst of that struggle makes for compelling viewing.
Israeli Docs: Five Broken Cameras/The Law in These Parts/The Gatekeepers – Israel, the documentary subject that keeps on giving, served as inspiration for the most powerful collection of nonfiction movies this year. Even without the country's latest bloody incursion into Gaza, which killed a reported 100 innocent Palestinian civilians, this trio of movies remains ever-timely, presenting a vivid portrait of one of the world's most long-running state-sponsored injustices: the repression of the Palestinian people. It's worth noting that all three films were made by Israelis, who appear to be well aware of their country's moral failings and continuously duplicitous standing in the world
The Kid With a Bike – Like all of their movies, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have told another profoundly humanist tale of those on the fringes of society. Deceptively simple and surprisingly uplifting, "Kid" follows a 12-year-old misfit who is shunned by his father and finds solace with a hairdresser. What might, on the surface, seem like just another tale of coming-of-age is a quietly transcendent meditation on the struggles of the underclass, the difficulty of forgiveness and the possibility for redemption—all pertinent themes for a world of overly prideful nations trapped by their lack of reconciliation.
Magic Mike – Perhaps only Steven Soderbergh could make a searing and enjoyable indictment of the American capitalist dream via a tale of Florida strippers. Nearly every scene in the film perceptively comments on the wacked nature of economic ambition in our country. Whether a surreal bleached-out island beach party, or a more debauched indoor celebration, as the wrath of nature clamors outside, Soderbergh shows the characters' fun in the sun is about to collapse in from all sides. And the fact that scores of women went to see this movie to watch writhing half-naked male bodies makes it all the more convincing as a subversive political weapon against America's culture of superficiality.
Miss Bala – Woefully under-seen in the U.S., Mexican filmmaker Gerardo Naranjo's cinematic tour-de-force combines subversive critique with a harrowing thrill-ride through Mexico's drug war and its vapid pop culture. With a narrative that doesn't fall into some traditional action-movie cliché, Naranjo, rather, takes his beauty-queen protagonist through the looking-glass of a surreal Mexican nightmare, all the while, damning everyone from narcos to the DEA to Mexican television—ultimately, a bevy of cracked myths that has defined the country for too long.
The Pruitt-Igoe Myth – Chad Friedrichs' compelling look at a massive 1950s housing experiment in St. Louis, Missouri that went terribly awry was officially released back in January of this year, but should not be forgotten. Freidrichs uses the story of Pruitt-Igoe to provide a lucid case study of the circumstances that have led to the collapse of America's great metropolises, due to post-industrial economic changes that moved businesses outside of the city, as well as reprehensible and racist government housing policies that disempowered the already disenfranchised, and spurred white flight and suburban sprawl. While it might sound like a PBS history lesson, Freidrichs creates something uncommonly affecting through deeply resonant archival images (a broken doll splayed amid the rubble of the projects), poignant news clips (a black man breaks down in tears on camera because he can’t find a job to support his family), and intimate interviews with its former residents. While one former Pruitt resident fondly recalls the smell of pies cooking and the sounds of kids playing, another man recounts teary-eyed how it all went to crap, watching his brother being murdered right in front of his eyes in the same hallways.
Searching for Sugar Man -- A terrific mystery and a moving story about political resistance and the power of music, the film chronicles 1970s Latino folk singer Rodriguez who was ignored in America, but, unbeknownst to him, became a popular icon during South Africa’s Apartheid years. In the cruelest of ironies, songs such as “Establishment Blues” became protest anthems for South Africa’s white counterculture while he toiled away as a construction worker in a crumbling Detroit, completely unaware of his role in changing that society. Even though I saw it almost a year ago, I can still vividly see the image of Rodriguez, guitar strapped to his back, walking through the urban wastelands of the city—that gave him little—but which he never left.
This Is Not a Film -- Jafar Panahi's powerful act of political resistance is so clever and subtle that its protest is barely discernable. But that is precisely what makes this astute chronicle of his homebound imprisonment all the more stunning: It's a textbook case of how to protest a country that suppresses protest, managing to convey all of the outrage and injustice of his situation—banned from making movies and awaiting a jail-cell at whatever arbitrary moment authorities decide—just simmering under the surface, in quiet acts such as videotaping scenes from a script, feeding an iguana and putting out the garbage.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry – It has my favorite tweet of the year: "There are no outdoor sports as graceful as throwing stones at a dictatorship."
Barbara – German director Christian Petzold's period piece about a doctor banished to a small East German town, captures the pervasive sense of paranoia of living within a totalitarian state, without any of the smarminess of "The Lives of Others." Much to my surprise, it also ends on a subtly uplifting note of humanity and sacrifice.
Beyond the Hills – In Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu's chronicle of two young women in a rural monastery in Romania -- one of whom is effectively tortured in an attempt to "save her" from her sins – he indicts not just the religious fundamentalism of this small sect, but in a final act surprise, the intolerance and insensitivity of everyone else.
The Central Park Five – What I find most upsetting and powerful about Ken and Sarah Burns'd documentary about the innocent boys who were racially profiled by the New York political and legal system into dozens of years of jail-time is the way it reveals how a travesty of justice could take place right before the public’s eyes, but somehow remain unseen.
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God – Alex Gibney's affecting and infuriating investigation into child sex abuse in the Catholic Church manages to reach levels of intimacy, in its interviews with several deaf victims of abuse who tell their stories through sign language, and epic expose, in its wide-ranging attack on corruption in the Church, all the way up to the Vatican and the world's current Pope Benedikt. Now that takes balls.