The best political movies ever made, from ‘Mr. Smith’ to ‘Mean Girls’ – The Washington Post

election years are often called “ the silly season. ” But in 2020, the stakes feel much excessively gamey for such carefreeness. We need divine guidance, edification and, quite honestly, a massive course correction when it comes to the american project : its most aspirational ideals, its most parlous pitfalls, and the partially potent institutions and informed citizens play in keeping the hale crazy experiment from exploding into hyperpartisan smithereens. political movies can help. But first we must define the terminus. John Sayles — possibly the greatest american political film maker of his or any generation — once wrote in Mother Jones that movies vitamin a disparate as “ Rambo ” and “ Adventures in Babysitting ” could be described as political, because “ they served lone to maintain the condition quo, tone pigeonhole, and press people apart. ” He makes an excellent degree : A political film can be great — or at least jarringly effective — even though it ’ s not political on determination. A few movies like that are on this number. But there ’ sulfur besides the usual collection of thrillers, biopics, satires and straight-ahead play. many are fact-based, set amid the levy edifices and featureless bureaucracies of Washington. Others are more notional and metaphorical, taking viewers to the Texas border or an Omaha high gear school to explore the vagaries of world power as they play out within communities and individual relationships.

There are titles not on this list that are sure to launch a million “ How could you leave out … ? ” objections. Oliver Stone ’ s “ JFK ” international relations and security network ’ thymine hera ( it ’ sulfur more productively silent as a deeply psychological movie than a political one ), nor are classics such as “ The Great McGinty, ” “ The Candidate ” and “ Lincoln ” — not because they aren ’ deoxythymidine monophosphate worthy, but to make room for films that may be more obscure but are no less indicative or playfulness to watch. And we ’ ve limited this list to 34 films, with the thirty-fifth title to be filled in by you. One person, one vote, barely as the framers intended.

1. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Have you watched it recently ? You should. ( And by “ you, ” we mean every sentient being on Capitol Hill. ) Frank Capra ’ randomness authoritative is still the grandfather of America ’ s small-d democratic, participatory ideals. And James Stewart ’ s portrayal of a small-town cipher and his quixotic battle against self-dealing politicians even claims pride of space as Hollywood ’ s most stir, convert and dateless admonisher that the Constitution is a hallowed confidence that all american citizens — and their representatives — have duty for hold.

2. All the President’s Men (1976)

For many viewers — particularly the untold number who became reporters after being inspired by it — this flawlessly crafted Watergate procedural is a journalism movie. But in the march of untangling the skein of lies, malfeasance and coverups that defined the scandal, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward ( Robert Redford ) and Carl Bernstein ( Dustin Hoffman ) wind up exposing the seamy bottom of enthusiast realpolitik, and underline the all-important character of a free press in holding leaders accountable. Bonus points for featuring Jason Robards as history ’ randomness best big-screen Ben Bradlee. Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh ace in “ The manchurian Candidate, ” released in 1962. ( Everett Collection )

3. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

The 1960s and ’ 70s produced their partake of big paranoid thrillers, but this one proved shockingly prescient, not only regarding the era of assassinations that immediately followed its passing, but of nowadays, when foreign influence on our elections poses a credible and escalating threat. masterfully directed by John Frankenheimer and featuring Frank Sinatra ’ s finest acting operation, this hallucinatory masterpiece still manages to be darkly amusing and queasily discomfiting in peer measure. ( Which unfortunately can ’ metric ton be said of Jonathan Demme ’ s forgettable 2004 remake. )

4. Primary (1960)

Robert Drew ’ south history of John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey ’ mho contest for the democratic presidential nomination marks a watershed in an emerging documentary form alternately called “ film verite ” and “ calculate cinema. ” however you describe it, this startlingly intimate glance of the candidates and the people who surrounded them reminds audiences of a meter when media access, brand identity and message had yet to be weaponized — and it anticipates another classical, “ The War Room ” ( 1993 ), which captured the presidential campaign of an strange named Bill Clinton with similar fairness.

5. The Battle of Algiers (1966)

This strain, closely observe drama about the guerrilla war of independence with France is sol realistic that it was screened at the Pentagon for pacification train in 2003. Director Gillo Pontecorvo cast largely nonprofessional actors in the film, which helped codify the jangling aesthetic of hand-held filming. But Pontecorvo never lost his cool, cinematically or ideologically. As the film maker said himself, “ I am on the side of the Arabs, but I feel compassion for the french flush if historically they were at fault. ”

6. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

When Stanley Kubrick foremost set out to adapt the novel “ Red Alert, ” about the dismay and all-too-likely hypothesis of a hair-trigger nuclear war, he considered it a drama. But as he began contemplating concepts such as “ common assured destruction, ” “ massive retaliation ” and “ megadeaths, ” he realized the only desirable slang was satire as black and polished as onyx. If “ The manchurian Candidate ” is the earned run average ’ second finest Cold War thriller, “ Dr. Strangelove ” is its most lacerate comedy, one that still cuts deep as a funhouse mirror interpretation of hubris, belligerence and stagger self-deception. ( For a good approximation of what “ Dr. Strangelove ” might have looked like as a drama, check out “ Fail-Safe, ” which came out the same year. )

7. The Lives of Others (2006)

For many Americans, this finely staged and act play provided their first exposure to the East german clandestine police, known as the Stasi, and their methods of political and social command. Reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola ’ mho 1974 thriller, “ The Conversation, ” Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck ’ s arresting feature debut brought viewers inside the know of both the watchers and the watched. The film ’ mho hushed restraint made its conclusion all the more shattering. And, less than two decades and one Edward Snowden late, it feels tied more Cassandra-like in its delineation of the surveillance state of matter.

8. Mean Girls (2004)

Yes, “ Mean Girls. ” Lindsay Lohan has never been better than in this bubbling adolescent coming-of-age drollery. But in accession to the common adolescent high jinks and bitchy comebacks, screenwriter Tina Fey managed to create an in­cred­ibly insightful taxonomy of hierarchical might as it is amassed, wielded and ultimately dismantled — all within the complicate context of high school politics, Queen Bee-enforced sex norms and internalize sexism. That ’ s a lot to accomplish, even if we never precisely made “ fetch ” happen.

9. Born Yesterday (1950)

Fans of the epic political biography “ All the King ’ s Men, ” in which Broderick Crawford channels Louisiana democrat Huey Long, will notice that title is missing here — not out of disrespect, but in deference to Crawford ’ s equally titanic performance in a similarly bumptious function : a coarse bragger seeking to buy the political allegiance of a U.S. congressman. The empyreal Judy Holliday brings her signature brand of intelligence and sensitivity to his girlfriend Billie Dawn, who may be daffy but is anything but speechless, specially when she catches on to the cynical influence-peddling in her midst. What would Billie make of the excesses of nowadays ’ s lobbying diligence, not to mention Citizens United ? One hopes she ’ d say they “ equitable aren ’ metric ton couth ! ” Chris Cooper stars in “ Lone Star, ” released in 1996. ( Sony Pictures Classics/Everett Collection )

10. Lone Star (1996)

As previously noted, John Sayles is our poet laureate of political film. His film “ Return of the Secaucus 7, ” “ City of Hope ” and “ Matewan ” could have well made this tilt, along with several others. But “ Lone Star ” is his masterwork. A simultaneously epic poem and finely drawn intergenerational and time-shifting mangle mystery set on the Texas-Mexico boundary line, “ Lone Star ” interrogates history, narrative and tidal shifts in power through the lens of subspecies and immigration, but never at the expense of their complexities. timely when it inaugural came out, today it feels more relevant than ever.

11. Citizen Kane (1941)

The lapp hairsplitting argument regarding politics-vs.-journalism applies here as with “ All the President ’ s Men. ” And it forms an antipode to the idealism of that movie, demonstrating the badmouth effects of an unaccountable press harnessed in service to insecurity, arrogance and insatiate crave for personal aggrandizement. visually, “ Citizen Kane ” was a discovery that helped shape film ’ s authoritative vocabulary ; as a cautionary fib, it ’ second no less formative or necessary.

12. Wag the Dog (1997)

As an exercise of art about instantaneously becoming life, this sarcasm — about a president embroiled in a sexual activity scandal who, for beguilement, hires a movie manufacturer to stage a bogus war — would have been thoroughly harbor. But merely as the movie was hitting theaters, Bill Clinton became embroiled in his own sex scandal ; months by and by, he decided to bomb a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. on the spur of the moment, the film ’ s bizarre premise felt all excessively very and “ Wag the Dog ” had become a metonym for political dramaturgy at its most poltroon and mendacious. From left, Russell Simpson, Frank Darien, Zeffie Tilbury, Charley Grapewin, Jane Darwell, Darryl Hickman, Shirley Mills and Frank Sully star in “ The Grapes of Wrath, ” released in 1940. ( twentieth Century Fox/Everett Collection )

13. The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Critics have pointed out that John Ford ’ south production of John Steinbeck ’ s Depression-era novel excised the author ’ s most radical messages and expansive imagination of collective action. But Ford ’ s consummate interpretation — anchored by a absolutely calibrated operation by Henry Fonda as Tom Joad — shares Steinbeck ’ s core values of compassion and reciprocal care in response to a bankrupt american Dream. “ We ’ ll go on forever, ” Jane Darwell ’ s Ma Joad says in the film ’ s final fit, “ ’ cause we ’ re the people. ”

14. A Face in the Crowd (1957)

Every administration, it seems, inspires a argue about which movie predicted it most accurately. Over the by three years, it has been neck and neck between satires such as “ Idiocracy ” and “ Bob Roberts ” and more foreboding, thoughtful drama such as “ All the King ’ s Men ” and “ Citizen Kane. ” This wryly amuse and terrifying portrayal of a TV-personality-turned-demagogue has them all beat. Andy Griffith makes a sear big-screen introduction as Larry “ Lonesome ” Rhodes, a cracker barrel philosopher who first hoodwinks a fleeceable producer, then a cadre of New York network and advertise executives and, finally, an stallion nation. Written by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan, “ A Face in the Crowd ” offers an edgy, more confrontational counterpoint to the team ’ south 1954 movie, “ On the Waterfront, ” which easily could have made this list.

15. Malcolm X (1992)

Name your front-runner political biopic : “ Young Mr. Lincoln ” ? “ Gandhi ” ? “ Nixon ” ? We ’ re spoiled for option when it comes to a genre that at its best illuminates an entire era through one liveliness, and at its worst slips into simplistic hagiography. Spike Lee ’ s brilliant, sprawling rendition of the life of one of the civil rights era ’ s most pivotal and controversial leaders — featuring a phenomenal performance by Denzel Washington in the title function — transcended polemics and easy platitudes to encompass an much confounding development. The result is a moving if tragic testament to the human capacity for apparitional and political growth, one that does judge, in Lee ’ sulfur words, to “ all the different Malcolms ” who lived within one valet.

16. Election (1999)

Alexander Payne ’ s note-perfect adaptation of Tom Perrotta ’ s novel featured a break turn from Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick, the campaigner for scholar body president whose indefatigable self-belief has been credited with inspiring everyone from Sarah Palin to the fabricated Leslie Knope on “ Parks and Recreation. ” There was no doubt at the prison term that Tracy was the film ’ s antihero, as the unethical and overachieving foil to Matthew Broderick ’ south beleaguered social studies teacher. But in the fullness of time, the Flick original of female political ambition has taken on more nuance, with viewers understanding Tracy less as a villain and more as a creature of male chauvinist and classist circumstance.

17. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

A classical sci-fi film ( which got a more than estimable remake in 1978 ) that besides serves as a Trojan Horse for all manner of themes that were germane during the 1950s, “ Invasion of the Body Snatchers ” would lend itself to as many interpretations as there are agendas. At its most obvious, the fib of extraterrestrial being creatures who take on the identities of Earthlings — creating a race of blank-eyed “ pod people ” — was the perfective metaphor for the communist threat. But wait, it was besides the perfect metaphor for Eisenhower-era conformity ! No, those are both incorrect ; it ’ south about McCarthyism, you dummies ! The film ’ mho director, Don Siegel, constantly denied injecting a political subtext into the film, but it ’ sulfur still a brilliant contemplation of the civic and psychic anxieties of its time.

18. Thirteen Days (2000)

When this tick of the Cuban projectile crisis came out, some observers carped that the role of Kenneth O ’ Donnell — extra assistant and appointments secretary to President John F. Kennedy — was inflated. ( When you ’ ra played by Kevin Costner, that tends to happen. ) But it turned out that this no-nonsense, refreshingly lead thriller got senior high school marks for tacking close to the truth of how events unfolded in October 1962, when the Soviet Union deployed nuclear missiles merely 90 miles from the United States and Kennedy and his advisers debated how to respond. “ Docudrama ” is a backhand condition these days, much connoting bum reenactments or bum theatrics. This sleek, sophisticate film shows how it can be done correct — while doing right by its subjects.

19. Bulworth (1998)

Warren Beatty wrote, directed and starred in … “ Reds, ” which is frequently included on lists of capital political films. And that ’ s finely ! But he besides wrote, directed and starred in this completely bonkers drollery, in which he plays a presidential candidate who, for reasons we won ’ metric ton go into, hires his own assassin. In a liberate fit of fatalism, he begins to speak accuracy to power, i.e. his handlers, his fiscal backers, the news program media and anyone else who will listen. Touching on everything from raceway and class to single-payer health concern, this brace exert in plain honesty is a brash tightrope dissemble that feels deoxyadenosine monophosphate dizzy as its protagonist ’ s own hotheaded travel to clarity. And the consequence is just a contagiously exhilarating. “ The Fog of War ” is an up-close-and-personal documentary about early defense secretary Robert McNamara. ( Claire Folger/Sony Pictures Classics )

20. The Fog of War (2003)

This up-close-and-personal documentary about erstwhile defense secretary Robert McNamara is apparently a first-person memoir of his clock as an air force policeman serving under Curtis LeMay during World War II, his stretch at Ford and his function as “ architect ” of the Vietnam War. But in the adept — and frequently ironically doubting — hands of film maker Errol Morris, what could have been an exert in excuse becomes a haunting memoir of the ultimate Washington insider, whose willingness to recognize his mistakes is offset by an apparent moral certitude that lingers, even when he admits he and the men he was advising were grievously amiss.

21. Selma (2014)

For decades, the civil rights movement had somehow eluded cinematic storytelling. It took Ava DuVernay ’ s sight and doggedness to bring it to the big shield with proper sweep and gravitas. David Oyelowo ’ s Martin Luther King Jr. is the supporter of this fact-based report about the historic 1965 march in Alabama ; but DuVernay managed to make a movie bigger than the man, casting Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon B. Johnson, a president of the united states grappling with his own political exigencies and pulling her lens back to include the countless community leaders and activists who made King ’ s work possible and survive.

22. The Incredibles (2004)

This delightful animize drollery about a family of superheroes trying to live a normal life sentence while stealing away to save the world exhibits all of the hallmark strengths we ’ ve come to expect from Pixar movies, including bright write, deep and fully realized characters, and gorgeous visuals. More than a few viewers have besides noticed that its history line serves as a covert review of some cherished shibboleths, particularly the kind of everyone-gets-a-ribbon egalitarianism that post-boomer generations have grown up on. One of the film ’ s most memorable tag lines — “ When everyone ’ s super, no one is ” — is considered by some as welcome pushback to the kind of liberal sanctimoniousness long buried in Hollywood films ; others see a scantily conceal case for elitism. The film ’ randomness world power is that it ’ sulfur adroitly crafted enough to withstand both those critical interpretations and anything else you want to throw at it.

23. Gabriel Over the White House (1933)

This little-known curio stars Walter Huston as a corrupt, apathetic and adulterous president who, after about losing his life in an accident, undergoes a humanistic change of heart, becoming an almighty but beneficent drawing card under the care of the titular angel and, hem, Abraham Lincoln. This is a surpassingly strange slice of cinematic secret, the product of a team of pro-Roosevelt filmmakers who rushed it into production to support the newly elected president and his Depression-era reforms ; the fact that it actually seemed to support the fascist idea of a oppressive executive was either lost on them or beside the indicate. The movie is fascinating, not despite but because of these contradictions, which suggest how perilously easy it is for evening the loftiest ideals to curdle into their claim face-to-face.

24. Being There (1979)

This fable about Chauncey Gardener — a childlike code who becomes a shamanic adviser to Washington ’ s elect — feels exceptionally well suited for the confront moment. Director Hal Ashby made “ Shampoo ” with Warren Beatty a few years early, and that film endures as a engaging meter capsule of the 1968 election. “ Being There ” is a weird movie, and in its own way far more incisive. Like “ A face in the Crowd, ” it ’ s about credulousness and miss of critical think. But here, they ’ ra not couched in bovine passivity but the active projections of narcissists tidal bore to see their most flatter reflections in the enigmatic pronouncements of Gardener, played by Peter Sellers as a perfect lacuna slate. The film is besides an astute comment on unearned privilege, summed up by Chauncey ’ s erstwhile health professional when she observes his ascend despite his lack of intellectual capacity or curiosity : “ It ’ south for sure a white valet ’ mho earth in America. ”

25. Born in Flames (1983)

Its sentimentalization of armed struggle hasn ’ t aged well, and its tease production values much reflect the constraints of its budget. But Lizzie Borden ’ s inquisitive action thriller brims with punk-rock defiance, as a group of lesbian feminists prepare to overthrow their patriarchal overlords. The twist is that the baddies aren ’ thyroxine rightist Reaganites but the socialist leave ; the value of “ Born in Flames ” lies less in its putative action than in the debates going on between the characters ( one of whom is played by fabled activist Flo Kennedy and another who turned out to be an Oscar-winning director ). Its footage of real-life women going about their daily work is of a piece with “ 9 to 5 ” and “ Tootsie, ” which had arrived in theaters just a year or two before.

26. The Contender (2000)

This bang-up White House drama stars Joan Allen as a U.S. senator who is considered for the vice presidency until a past indiscretion threatens her future. Written and directed by Rod Lurie ( who went on to create the television receiver series “ Commander in Chief ” ), this is the kind of sleek, mainstream entertainment that is increasingly endangered in Hollywood, buoyed by terrific performances from Allen, Jeff Bridges and Gary Oldman. Made as Lurie ’ s answer to the Clinton era, the film besides raises provocative questions about sex, female sex and bivalent standards that still ring dispiritingly true today.

27. High Noon (1952)

Speaking of Clinton : This is reportedly his darling movie, then a lot so that he screened it 20 times when he was in the White House. And he ’ mho not alone : american presidents frequently mention this classic western as their personal No. 1. Gary Cooper ’ s brave lawman — pulled out of retirement when no one else in his township will agree to do struggle with a posse of evildoers — perfectly captures the isolation of leadership, equally good as the expansive self-mythologizing it takes to believe that you alone can fix things. There ’ second another political subtext as well : Screenwriter Carl Foreman, who refused to name communist colleagues during the McCarthy-era Red Scare, insisted that “ High Noon ” was meant to celebrate the political courage of dissent. Like all great films, this one allows for a wealth of interpretations. Luz Maria Collazo stars in “ I Am Cuba, ” released in 1964. ( Everett Collection )

28. I Am Cuba (1964)

One of the most visually gorgeous films ever made, this tone poem to the Cuban revolution was commissioned as a patch of communist propaganda, but its delineation of Batista-era Havana proved so sensuously inviting that it was shelved by the Soviet ministry that produced it. Revered for its velvet black-and-white photography and sensational trailing shots ( one of which travels down an elevator to a hotel swimming pool, then dives in ), “ I Am Cuba ” hush reverberates, most recently in Alfonso Cuarón ’ s “ Roma. ”

29. Triumph of the Will (1935)

If “ I Am Cuba ” allows artwork to break free of flush the most suffocate ideological straitjacket, Leni Riefenstahl ’ s documentary of a 1934 Nazi tease in Nuremberg offers chilling evidence of how efficaciously conventional beauty can be husbanded to the nauseating contented. It ’ s included here less for its technical dexterity and aesthetic sophistication than as a warn — proof of cinema ’ s singular power to lie, seduce and capture our deepest fears and most grotesque aspirations.

30. Milk (2008)

This absorbing, elaborately integrated drama traces the improbable career trajectory of Harvey Milk, who, as a San Francisco city supervisory program, was the first openly brave politician to be elected in California. But Gus Van Sant ’ mho drama about Milk ’ s career international relations and security network ’ triiodothyronine applaudable precisely as a wonderfully crafted biopic, or as a vehicle for a noteworthy Sean Penn performance. Like “ Selma, ” the film focuses equitable ampere much on the movement, in this case the LGBTQ community that coalesces with Milk as a drawing card and that comes into its own as a political force with him as a martyr.

31. In the Loop (2009)

Co-written and directed by “ Veep ” creator Armando Iannucci, this fast-talking Iraq War sarcasm introduced Iannucci ’ s scabrously fishy voice to Americans, who immediately recognized his form of backbiting underlings and their knife-fighting bosses, flush if they reported to Tony Blair rather of George Bush. Filmed as a shaky-cam mockumentary, the film is amusing not just for its f-bomb-throwing one-liners, but for its preternatural appreciation of the deep submit at its most shoal.

32. The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973)

Based on the fresh by former U.S. Information Agency policeman Sam Greenlee, this mismatched but occasionally electrifying sarcasm centers on a CIA enroll who becomes the agency ’ mho first gear black secret agent and later uses his skills to foment arm guerrilla war. Adapted by Ivan Dixon, the movie traffics in the lapp place pieces and cliches of the earned run average ’ mho blaxploitation classics, but for a far more serious purpose than bum thrills. This is a flaw film, weighed down by sludgy pace, awkward acting and choppy edit. But it bursts with the most fickle arguments and impulses of its era. ( Greenlee believed the FBI pressured theaters to stop playing the movie because of its radical message. ) And it dares to speak truths that still sting, about such topics as the wages of tokenism and assimilation a well as big hypocrisy. Jeffrey Wright plays Bobby Seale, left, being held, and Hank Azaria plays Abbie Hoffman, presence proper, in “ Chicago 10, ” released in 2007. ( Roadside Attractions/Everett Collection )

33. Chicago 10 (2007)

Brett Morgen ’ s documentary about the test of antiwar protesters who were arrested during the 1968 democratic National Convention is a crafty a man of agitprop as the test itself. Morgen intercuts archival footage with rotoscoped liveliness to create images that are simultaneously stylized and dazzling in their verisimilitude. With Hank Azaria, Mark Ruffalo, Jeffrey Wright and Liev Schrieber on bridge player to voice Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Bobby Seale and lawyer William Kunstler, a brief and otherwise disregarded chapter of history comes back to life with rivet and provocative storm.

34. The Queen (2006)

As fluent and satiny as a imperial girdle, this two-hander — about the relationship between British Prime Minister Tony Blair ( Michael Sheen ) and Queen Elizabeth II ( Helen Mirren ) in the wake of Princess Diana ’ s prematurely end — is delectably harbor as a psychological cat-and-mouse furrow. But it besides gets to the kernel of how power is deployed, most adeptly by those who insist they ’ re above politics — a theme screenwriter Peter Morgan has spent a career exploring with the equally absorbing “ Frost/Nixon ” and, most recently, “ The Crown. ” Read more:

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