political films essay

The 100 Most Significant Political Films of All Time

Not “best.” not “favorite.” not “most likable.” most significant. some are obvious. some obscure. a few will be controversial. let the debate begin..

We wanted to do something special for this double July-August issue of The New Republic , but we weren’t sure what; then it hit us that summer is movie season, so why not combine that fact with this magazine’s great passion and come up with a list of history’s best political movies? ( TNR , by the way, is no stranger to motion pictures. For decades, the magazine published the work of famed twentieth-century critic Stanley Kauffmann, and we continue to run trenchant film analysis today.)

It was that germ of an idea that led us to reach out to J. Hoberman, one of the leading film critics of the last half-century, to curate this project. Hoberman changed it from “best” to “most significant” and led us in assembling a list of around 130 critics to whom we wrote, asking them to participate. We were pleased that 79 wrote back with their lists. On the following pages, see what they came up with, as well as Hoberman’s overview essay , and some movies that we at TNR thought deserved a mention. Discuss away—and cast your own votes at our readers’ poll here . Summaries 100-11 written by Julian Epp, 10-1 by J. Hoberman.

political films essay

100. One Sings, the Other Doesn’t

(1977) Dir: Agnès Varda Two French women—an aspiring singer and a young mother—leading parallel lives in the 1970s reunite as they search for meaning against the backdrop of the women’s liberation movement. 99. Fail Safe (1964) Dir: Sidney Lumet The president attempts to contact the Soviet prime minister and prevent a nuclear catastrophe after a fleet of bombers is accidentally sent to destroy Moscow. A classic Cold War thriller. 98. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) Dir: John Ford This black-and-white Western starring Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne tells the story—almost entirely through flashback—of a young lawyer traveling to a frontier town terrorized by an outlaw. Probably Ford’s most morally complex film. 97. Germany Year Zero (1948) Dir: Roberto Rossellini In Allied-occupied Berlin, a German boy and former Hitler Youth struggles to provide for his family in the war-torn city. The third entry in Rossellini’s War Trilogy. 96. A Grin Without a Cat (1977) Dir: Chris Marker A remarkable documentary and essay on radical movements worldwide, exploring the success of the global left in the 1960s and its decline in the 1970s. 95. I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) Dir: Mervyn LeRoy Unable to find work, a returning veteran is forced at gunpoint to participate in a robbery and sentenced to hard labor.

political films essay

94. Weekend (1967) Dir: Jean-Luc Godard

A bourgeois married couple take a weekend road trip to collect their inheritance in this black comedy satirizing the 1960s and French society. 93. The World (2004) Dir: Jia Zhangke Following the lives of the young employees at Beijing World Park, this gloomy drama examines globalization’s influence on China’s working class. 92. The Tin Drum (1979) Dir: Volker Schlöndorff A three-year-old child in Danzig during the rise of the Nazi Party is disgusted by the adult world and decides to stop growing. Based on the novel by Günter Grass. 91. Syriana (2005) Dir: Stephen Gaghan Using multiple interlocking narratives, this slick thriller, starring George Clooney as CIA agent Bob Barnes, highlights the conspiracy and corruption of the global oil industry.

90. Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970) Dir: Elio Petri A high-ranking police detective cuts the throat of his mistress and intentionally leaves behind evidence to see if he is immune to prosecution. 89. Salvador (1986) Dir: Oliver Stone Photojournalist Richard Boyle travels to El Salvador to document the country’s civil war in this fictionalized biographical drama. Try to forget what’s become of James Woods, who is excellent. 88. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) Dir: Carl Theodor Dreyer This timeless silent film based on actual historical records tells the story of the trial, conviction, and execution of Joan of Arc in 1431. Dreyer was one of the world’s most important early filmmakers.

political films essay

87. Zero Dark Thirty (2012) Dir: Kathryn Bigelow

A dramatized account of a CIA agent’s search for Osama bin Laden and the slaying of the Al Qaeda leader by Navy SEALs. Jessica Chastain’s performance won a Golden Globe. 86. Olympia (1938) Dir: Leni Riefenstahl The controversial documentary follows the 1936 games held in Nazi Germany, using multiple cameras and a range of innovative and distinctive techniques. 85. Ivan the Terrible, Part Two (1958) Dir: Sergei Eisenstein A follow-up on Russia’s infamous and violent first czar. Stalin liked part one. This one, featuring secret police and summary executions, not so much . 84. High and Low (1963) Dir: Akira Kurosawa An anonymous caller has mistakenly kidnapped the son of a wealthy executive’s chauffeur and holds him for 30 million yen in ransom. The Washington Post said this was Macbeth “if Macbeth had married better.” 83. Go, Go Second Time Virgin (1969) Dir: Kôji Wakamatsu In this experimental Japanese drama, two sexually traumatized teenagers meet on an apartment rooftop and open up about their troubled lives. A controversial entry in Japan’s “ pink film ” genre. 82. American Sniper (2014) Dir: Clint Eastwood Based on the memoir by Chris Kyle, the story follows the famed Navy SEAL sniper during his four tours in Iraq and how the war altered his life after. Its history of U.S. involvement in Iraq is … odd. 81. The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) Dir: Rob Epstein The story of the first openly gay man elected to public office in California, Harvey Milk, from his time as an activist with the Gay Rights Movement to his assassination. Murderer Dan White killed himself the year after this film was released.

political films essay

80. City Hall (1996) Dir: Harold Becker A deputy mayor, played by John Cusack (to Al Pacino’s mayor), investigates the killing of a six-year-old during a shootout between a cop and a mobster in New York City. 79. No (2012) Dir: Pablo Larraín A semi-fictional account of Chile’s 1988 referendum to decide whether dictator Augusto Pinochet would stay in power. It stars Gael García Bernal as the adman who leads the opposition campaign. 78. Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day (1972) Dir: Rainer Werner Fassbinder Broadcast in five episodes, this miniseries depicted contemporary working-class German life through the eyes of a young factory employee who falls in love and organizes with his co-workers.

77. A Short Film About Killing (1988) Dir: Krzysztof Kieslowski When a man murders a taxi driver in the Polish countryside, a young criminal defense lawyer tries to keep him from receiving the death penalty. 76. They Live (1988) Dir: John Carpenter A drifter in Los Angeles finds a pair of sunglasses that reveal the world’s ruling class as skull-faced aliens controlling humanity with subliminal messages: “Stay Asleep,” “Submit to Authority.” Sound like anyone you know? 75. Starship Troopers (1997) Dir: Paul Verhoeven In the twenty-third century, the human United Citizen Federation is at war with a race of alien insects from the planet Klendathu in this initially misunderstood satire of militarism and fascism. 74. Platform (2000) Dir: Jia Zhangke Following the death of Mao Zedong and in the shadow of the Cultural Revolution, an amateur theater troupe abandons state-approved performances and starts playing rock and roll. 73. Dogville (2003) Dir: Lars von Trier In this avant-garde film shot on a single soundstage, a woman on the run from gangsters takes shelter in a small Colorado town. It looks like no other film you’ve ever seen. 72. Three Days of the Condor (1975) Dir: Sydney Pollack When a paper-pushing analyst for the CIA discovers that his co-workers have been brutally murdered, he goes undercover to find the perpetrators. Redford and Dunaway: It didn’t get much better in the ’70s. 71. Being There (1979) Dir: Hal Ashby A naïve gardener in Washington, D.C., leaves his secluded life to explore the outside world, becoming a political adviser and celebrity. Based on the novel by Jerzy Kosiński.

political films essay

70. The Death of Stalin (2017) Dir: Armando Iannucci

After Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin unexpectedly dies from a stroke (well, most likely),members of the Central Committee fight for power in this satirical black comedy banned by the Russian Culture Ministry. 69. The Best Man (1964) Dir: Franklin J. Schaffner Written by Gore Vidal and based on his 1960 play, this drama follows two leading presidential candidates vying for their party’s nomination. Of its time, but a great cast keeps it moving. 68. Arsenal (1929) Dir: Aleksandr Dovzhenko A frontline Ukrainian soldier returns home to Kyiv after World War I to organize a workers’ uprising at the town’s arsenal. Number two in the trilogy (see number 61). 67. Point of Order! (1964) Dir: Emile de Antonio Using only television footage from the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings , this documentary is a stunning insight into the downfall of the corrupt, anti-Communist senator. “Have you no sense of decency?” will live forever. 66. The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) Dir: Marcel Ophüls This stunning two-part documentary examines the French people’s collaboration and resistance during Nazi occupation in World War II. The witness-interview format, now well-worn, was still new in 1969. 65. The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987) Dir: Kazuo Hara After the end of World War II, Kenzō Okuzaki, a former Imperial Japanese private, searches for and interrogates the officers involved in the execution of two of his fellow soldiers. Forty-two years after the war’s end, but worth the wait . 64. The American President (1995) Dir: Rob Reiner Written by Aaron Sorkin, this romance stars Michael Douglas as a widowed president running for reelection who falls in love with an environmental lobbyist—despite his staffers’ objections. That rare genre : a political rom-com. 63. Lumumba: Death of a Prophet (1991) Dir: Raoul Peck A bracing documentary on the life and mysterious death of Lumumba, the prime minister of the Congo and a monumental figure in the fight for African independence before his assassination in 1961. 62. Khrustalyov, My Car! (1998) Dir: Aleksey German This hallucinatory black-and-white Russian comedy-drama is set in the winter of 1953, guiding us through the horrifying final days of Joseph Stalin’s reign. 61. Earth (1930) Dir: Aleksandr Dovzhenko In a Ukrainian village, peasant farmers begin collectivizing with the help of a tractor in the final film of Dovzhenko’s “ Ukraine Trilogy .” Certainly relevant right now. 60. Love and Anarchy (1973) Dir: Lina Wertmüller In the 1930s, an anarchist farmer in Italy begins living in a brothel while preparing to assassinate Benito Mussolini after his friend is killed by the fascist police.

political films essay

59. All the King’s Men (1949) Dir: Robert Rossen

An ambitious populist politician is corrupted by power after being elected governor. Based on the Pulitzer-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren. Huey Long remains the only prominent social democratic fascist America has ever produced. 58. I Am Not Your Negro (2016) Dir: Raoul Peck Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson and based on James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript , this astonishing documentary reflects on the lives of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Baldwin himself. 57. The Last Hurrah (1958) Dir: John Ford An old-school Irish American mayor in New England tries to run for a fifth—and final—term. Ford gets mawkish here; Spencer Tracy keeps it real. 56. The Fog of War (2003) Dir: Errol Morris Robert McNamara, former secretary of defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, discusses his life and lessons learned in this confessional documentary. His reputation—already hurting—took a big hit here.

55. Grand Illusion (1937) Dir: Jean Renoir When their plane is shot down during a reconnaissance mission, two French soldiers are sent to a World War I German prison camp, but the pair work with their fellow inmates to plot an escape. Goebbels ordered the destruction of every print of the film.

political films essay

54. Wag the Dog (1997) Dir: Barry Levinson As the president prepares for reelection, a political spin doctor and a famous Hollywood producer manufacture a fake war with Albania to distract the public from an impending sex scandal. A poorly timed release from the perspective of Bill Clinton, who was accused—wrongly—of doing the same in Iraq. 53. Nazi Concentration and Prison Camps (shown at the Nuremberg trials) (1945) Dir: George Stevens After the end of World War II, this footage was presented at the war crime trials of Nazi leaders. The evidence included film from Germans as well as the Allied troops who liberated the concentration camps. Stevens, known for comedies in the 1930s, shifted to drama after seeing what happened in Dachau.

52. Bicycle Thieves (1948) Dir: Vittorio De Sica A working-class man and his eight-year-old son search the streets of Rome for a stolen bicycle in this neorealist Italian drama. A searing depiction of the state in which Mussolini and his fascists left their country. 51. The Act of Killing (2012) Dir: Joshua Oppenheimer In this documentary, decades after the mass murders of civilians by the Indonesian military, the leaders of the death squads reenact the killings—often with a bone-chilling casualness —using their favorite movie genres. 50. Punishment Park (1971) Dir: Peter Watkins In this pseudo-documentary, President Nixon declares a state of emergency and has political radicals arrested. Put before a tribunal, the rebels are given two options: prison or their participation in a brutal military training exercise. 49. Come and See (1985) Dir: Elem Klimov An adolescent Belarusian boy finds a rifle and joins the Soviet resistance during World War II to fight against the occupying Nazi forces. Things get even worse when he returns home.

political films essay

48. Bulworth (1998) Dir: Warren Beatty An incumbent California senator facing a tough primary battle takes out a $10 million life insurance policy before putting a contract out on himself. With days left to live, he finally starts to speak his mind . Seen at the time as a dark commentary on Clintonian triangulation. 47. The Parallax View (1974) Dir: Alan J. Pakula After a senator and presidential candidate is assassinated, the witnesses are quickly killed off, leading a journalist to go undercover and investigate the conspiracy. Part of Pakula’s famous Paranoia Trilogy from the 1970s.

46. Medium Cool (1969) Dir: Haskell Wexler Using real footage from the 1968 riots in Chicago, the famed cinematographer’s directorial debut depicts an unfeeling television cameraman amid the social upheaval surrounding the Democratic National Convention. 45. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) Dir: Lewis Milestone Based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque, this film follows a group of naïve German recruits fighting in the bloody and horrific front lines of World War I. A bold antiwar statement for 1930. 44. Duck Soup (1933) Dir: Leo McCarey The dictator of the fictional nation of Freedonia declares war on a neighboring country in this slapstick comedy starring the Marx Brothers. Featuring Groucho’s unforgettable couplet : “If you think this country’s bad off now, just wait ’til I get through with it!”

political films essay

43. Born in Flames (1983) Dir: Lizzie Borden Set in a dystopian New York City a decade after a peaceful socialist revolution, this film follows a group of feminist organizers after an activist is killed in police custody. 42. Man of Marble (1977) Dir: Andrzej Wajda In what is considered one of Poland’s greatest movies, a film student attempts to track down Mateusz Birkut, a bricklayer turned Communist hero, for her university thesis.

41. Reds (1981) Dir: Warren Beatty Beatty’s masterwork, a historical drama about the life of the idealistic journalist John Reed, who documented the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. And Jack Nicholson as Eugene O’Neill? It works. 40. The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973) Dir: Ivan Dixon A Black man joins the CIA to learn guerrilla warfare techniques, then resigns to train freedom fighters in Chicago. Based on the novel by Sam Greenlee. 39. Hearts and Minds (1974) Dir: Peter Davis Released shortly after American withdrawal, this groundbreaking documentary examined the U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War over the course of five presidential administrations. 38. Primary (1960) Dir: Robert Drew Presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey are followed behind the scenes in Wisconsin as they compete for the Democratic Party primary nomination. One of the first of its kind. 37. The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971) Dir: Howard Alk A documentary about the life of the 21-year-old leader of the Illinois Black Panther Party and his murder by the Chicago Police Department. The film vigorously challenged the official police testimony. 36. Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) Dir: Chantal Akerman A widowed mother living in a small Brussels apartment has a mundane life—cooking, cleaning, shopping, and having sex to pay the bills—until she slowly starts to stray from her routine. A feminist tour de force. 35. Night of the Living Dead (1968) Dir: George A. Romero In what is considered the first modern zombie film, a group barricades themselves in a rural western Pennsylvania farmhouse as the dead are reanimated to hunt for human flesh, with a real-life Pittsburgh TV personality doing on-the-scene reporting. Political? Call it allegorical . 34. JFK (1991) Dir: Oliver Stone A highly sensationalized but absorbing retelling of the investigation of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, exploring—nay, endorsing —the conspiracy theories and an alleged government cover-up.

political films essay

33. Citizen Kane (1941) Dir: Orson Welles

Frequently cited as one of the best films ever made—and Welles’s first—the fictional biography centers on the life of wealthy newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane and the mystery of his last word before dying. Still hard to think of a better American film. 32. The Hour of the Furnaces (1968) Dir: Octavio Getino & Fernando E. Solanas A polemical three-part documentary exploring the history of colonialism, class struggle, and liberation in Argentina and the rest of Latin America. Perhaps the paradigmatic “Third World” leftist film. 31. Salt of the Earth (1954) Dir: Herbert Biberman Created after the director, producer, and screenwriter were all blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, the film is a dramatization of the Empire Zinc mine workers strike in New Mexico. The film, too, was blacklisted. 30. Gabriel Over the White House (1933) Dir: Gregory La Cava Walter Huston is an uninterested president who pledges to solve the issues of the Great Depression after a near-fatal car accident and divine intervention inspire him to become a populist dictator. William Randolph Hearst helped finance this fantasy. 29. The Great McGinty (1940) Dir: Preston Sturges Dan McGinty escapes a life of poverty to become a henchman for a crooked political boss (Akim Tamiroff, one of the great cinematic sidemen of the golden age). But his meteoric rise is threatened once he develops a conscience.

political films essay

28. Selma (2014) Dir: Ava DuVernay A poignant portrayal of the 1965 Selma Marches led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the nonviolent campaign to grant Black Americans their right to vote. David Oyelowo is a spellbinding King.

27. Memories of Underdevelopment (1968) Dir: Tomás Gutiérrez Alea After his wife and family flee to Miami following the Bay of Pigs invasion, a wealthy Cuban writer stays behind to reflect on the history and transformation of both his country and himself. The most celebrated work in the history of Cuban cinema. 26. The Great Dictator (1940) Dir: Charlie Chaplin Charlie Chaplin, in a dual role, plays both a fascist modeled after Adolf Hitler and a Jewish barber suffering from amnesia in this biting satire of autocracy. His first full-blown talkie. 25. Strike (1924) Dir: Sergei Eisenstein An early and emblematic work of Soviet cinema, this silent film depicts the ultimately unsuccessful revolt by factory workers in prerevolutionary Russia. 24. Lincoln (2012) Dir: Steven Spielberg The sixteenth president attempts to formally abolish slavery while facing opposition from his own party and increased pressure to end the Civil War. Daniel Day-Lewis is captivating, as is the dark, dusty Washington that Spielberg creates. 23. Advise & Consent (1962) Dir: Otto Preminger

When the president nominates a man with a reddish background to be secretary of state, the Senate … does what the Senate does. Amazingly frank for 1962, right down to the Greenwich Village gay bar scene .

political films essay

22. Malcolm X (1992) Dir: Spike Lee A tribute to the life and legacy of the civil rights leader, stretching from his teenage years in Boston to his spiritual journey and fight for Black liberation. Probably Denzel’s best performance.

21. Night and Fog (1955) Dir: Alain Resnais Filmed a decade after World War II, this haunting documentary uses footage of the abandoned Auschwitz and Maj­danek concentration camps alongside archival documents to force viewers to confront the horrific atrocities committed by Nazi Germany. 20. The Candidate (1972) Dir: Michael Ritchie Left-wing lawyer Bill McKay runs a long-shot campaign for the U.S. Senate against the popular Republican incumbent—trying not to lose his ideals and integrity in the process. One of the great last lines of any movie. 19. The Lives of Others (2006) Dir: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck Set in the 1980s, this German drama tells the story of a morally conflicted Stasi agent spying on two East German residents, a playwright and an actress. 18. The Battle of Chile (1975-1979) Dir: Patricio Guzmán A documentary series released in three parts from 1975 to 1979, chronicling the political repression and counterrevolution after the military coup d’état against the Allende government. 17. La Commune (Paris, 1871) (2000) Dir: Peter Watkins At over five hours long, this historical reenactment—filmed in the style of a documentary—depicts the events of the Paris Commune in 1871 as if modern-day television were there to capture them.

political films essay

16. Election (1999) Dir: Alexander Payne

A high school teacher meddles in a student body presidential election in order to stop a particularly cunning student from winning. Tracy Flick will endure forever as one of the great names in cinema. 15. Z (1969) Dir: Costa-Gavras A riveting, fictionalized account of the 1963 assassination of a left-wing Greek politician—and the conspiracy behind it—when he is killed in what seems like a traffic accident. Costa-Gavras wrote the screenplay with Jorge Semprún. 14. The Conformist (1970) Dir: Bernardo Bertolucci An Italian fascist becomes a g overnment agent and is sent to assassinate his former professor, his onetime leftist mentor. Based on the novel by Alberto Moravia.

13. La Chinoise (1967) Dir: Jean-Luc Godard In a loose adaptation of Demons by Fyodor Dostoevsky, the film follows a group of young Maoist student activists in Paris organizing a revolution. Visually stunning; politically … of its time. 12. Harlan County U.S.A. (1976) Dir: Barbara Kopple This gripping documentary covered the 1973 Brookside Strike by a coal mining community in rural Kentucky against a subsidiary of the Duke Power Company. Way back before places like this became Trump Country. 11. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) Dir: Frank Capra Capra was just the right director—and Jimmy Stewart just the right hero—for this fantasy about good actually triumphing over corruption on Capitol Hill. This one never gets old.

10. A Face in the Crowd

(United States, 1957) DIR: Elia Kazan

political films essay

In the midst of the Cold War, Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg collaborated on a warning—not about alien invaders or the threat of nuclear war, but about the dangers posed by the American media. The rise and fall of the down-home demagogue Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (part Huey Long, part Elvis, part Madison Avenue huckster) has long since ceased to be a cautionary warning and become a fact of American life: the specter of entertainment come to power.

(France, 1985) DIR: Claude Lanzmann At nine-and-a-half hours, Lanzmann’s monument to the murdered Jews of Europe refuses to reconstruct the past. The movie is notable for its rigor—eschewing archival footage and narration in favor of contemporary landscapes and long interviews (shown mainly in real time) with those who in one form or another experienced the Holocaust. As ethical as Shoah is, I hadn’t thought of it as a political film, but then again, a well-known critic once told me it was Israeli propaganda.

political films essay

8. Do the Right Thing

(United States, 1989) DIR: Spike Lee Set in the heart of Brooklyn on the hottest Saturday of the summer, Lee’s daring mixture of naturalism and allegory, agitprop and psychodrama, broke ground with its outspoken discussion of race and urban tension. Everyone in the large cast of characters has their individual perspective, and everyone mixes it up with everyone else. No one watching can avoid having a point of view. Do the Right Thing is uniquely confrontational in addressing racism and racial violence while refusing to take an unambiguous stance for (white) civil order.

7. Battleship Potemkin

(USSR, 1925) DIR: Sergei Eisenstein Commissioned to mark the twentieth anniversary of the failed 1905 revolution against the czar, Eisenstein’s second feature film—dramatizing a mutiny on a Black Sea battleship—is the fullest example of what, in opposition to Dziga Vertov’s “ kino-eye ,” Eisenstein called his “kino-fist.” Time and space are pulverized and reassembled. The notorious “ Odessa Steps ” sequence has never been surpassed for dynamic montage, nor has the film been bettered as a political rabble-rouser. Everybody, including Nazis, wanted one. (They got Triumph of the Will .)

6. Triumph of the Will

(Germany, 1935) DIR: Leni Riefenstahl The Birth of a Nation uses drama to contaminate, personalize, and rewrite history. No less accomplished, formally innovative, or intermittently exciting than Birth and even more steeped in the magic of the movies, Riefenstahl’s staged documentary of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress demonstrates how cinema can be used to frame an event and fabricate an idol—in this case the twentieth century’s foremost homicidal psychopath. Griffith was a sincere revanchist; Riefenstahl, more sophisticated , took refuge in her opportunism.

5. The Birth of a Nation

(United States, 1915) DIR: D.W. Griffith American cinema was born in sin, founded on an unprecedented three-hour historical spectacle with an unscrupulous political agenda. “The task I’m trying to achieve, above all, is to make you see,” Griffith announced, by which he meant to overwhelm the spectator into recognizing the nobility of the white supremacist antebellum South—not to mention appreciate the horror of Reconstruction and root for the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan. A groundbreaking film in many ways, The Birth of a Nation is also the most inflammatory and dangerous movie ever made in the United States. It rewrote history but cannot itself be written out or wished away.

political films essay

4. All the President’s Men

(United States, 1976) DIR: Alan J. Pakula Two Washington Post reporters, helped by a mysterious source, single-handedly break the Watergate story and oust Richard Nixon from the White House. More a celebration of investigative journalism than of American democracy, All the President’s Men was released to coincide with the Bicentennial and supplanted Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as the most positive of American political movies. Like the Capra film, however, Pakula’s stirring thriller is a relic of a less cynical time. A contemporary equivalent would be that perennial favorite of politicians from Rudy Giuliani to Fidel Castro, The Godfather .

political films essay

3. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

(United States, 1964) DIR: Stanley Kubrick Contemporary commentators considered The Manchurian Candidate irresponsible. Strangelove took desecration to another level. Kubrick’s outrageous dark comedy of nuclear obliteration was a liberating exorcism. In 1933, the Marx Brothers mocked dictatorship with Duck Soup ; three decades later, Kubrick and writer Terry Southern travestied the Bomb. Was a hard rain about to fall? Released less than two weeks before the Beatles made their U.S. debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, Strangelove ushered in the ’60s.

2. The Manchurian Candidate

(United States, 1962) DIR: John Frankenheimer The consummate political entertainment (and quintessential Kennedy-era thriller) is a baroque tale of mind control, assassination, and conspiracy, originally released at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Although the most fantastic elements of American politics were acknowledged, just as the nation—even the planet—seemed headed toward total destruction, the movie came into its own as prophesy after JFK was murdered a year later. That it was withdrawn from circulation (albeit over a contract dispute rather than regret) only burnishes its cult reputation.

political films essay

1. The Battle of Algiers

(Algeria-Italy, 1966) DIR: Gillo Pontecorvo Commissioned by the Algerian government, influenced by Frantz Fanon, shot like a newsreel, cast with nonactors, paced (and scored) like a thriller, Pontecorvo’s account of a bloody, anti-colonialist insurrection projected Italian neorealism into a new arena. The Third World spoke. That The Battle of Algiers had its U.S. premiere months after Newark and Detroit erupted insured its local relevance. The film was introduced as evidence during the trial of 13 Black Panthers charged with a conspiracy to bomb public places and murder police. After their acquittal, a juror wrote that The Battle of Algiers “did more to help me see things from the defense point of view than the DA suspected.”

What did we get right—and wrong? Vote now in our readers’ poll !


The New Republic asked each critic to submit a list of at least 10 films, ranked from most to least significant. For each list, the highest-rated film received 10 points, the second highest received nine points, etc., with the lowest rated receiving one point. For lists that contained more than 10 films, each additional film received just one point. Because 10 ranked films received a total of 55 points, films listed by critics who submitted their choices “unranked” and in no particular order received 5.5 points each. The points for each film were then added together. Films that tied—that is, when two or more received the same number of total points—were ordered by the number of individual votes.


Sam Adams, Slate ; Siddhant Adlakha; David Ansen, Palm Springs International Film Festival; Michael Atkinson, The Village Voice ; Jami Bernard; Manuel Betancourt; Peter Biskind; Charles Bramesco; Richard Brody, The New Yorker ; Dwight Brown, nnpa News Wire; Jeannette Catsoulis, The New York Times ; Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times ; Karen Cooper, Film Forum; Jordan Cronk, Film Comment ; Gary Crowdus, Cineaste ; Gary Dauphin; Peter Debruge, Variety ; David Denby, The New Yorker ; Thomas Doherty, Brandeis University; Alonso Duralde, The Film Verdict ; Bilge Ebiri, New York Magazine /Vulture; David Edelstein; Steve Erickson, UC Riverside; David Fear, Rolling Stone ; Kathy Fennessy, Video Librarian; Kenji Fujishima, Slant Magazine & TheaterMania; Chris Fujiwara; Graham Fuller, Cineaste ; Devika Girish, Film Comment ; Bruce Goldstein, Film Forum; Ed Gonzalez, Slant Magazine ; A.S. Hamrah, The Baffler & n+1 ; Odie Henderson, Boston Globe ; J. Hoberman; Travis Hopson, Punch Drunk Critics; Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post ; Peter Howell, Toronto Star ; Dave Kehr, Museum of Modern Art; Ben Kenigsberg; Lisa Kennedy; Glenn Kenny, RogerEbert.com; Stuart Klawans; Eric Kohn, Indiewire; Nguyên Lê; Emanuel Levy; Stuart Liebman, CUNY Graduate Center; Dennis Lim, New York Film Festival; Violet Lucca; Leonard Maltin, LeonardMaltin.com; Ben Mankiewicz, Turner Classic Movies; Mia Mask, Vassar College; Wilson Morales, Black Film and TV; Vikram Murthi, The Nation ; Adam Nayman, Cinema Scope ; Farran Smith Nehme, Self-Styled Siren; Darragh O’Donoghue, Cineaste ; Michał Oleszczyk, University of Warsaw; Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune ; Nick Pinkerton; Claudia Puig; Leonard Quart, Cineaste ; Jed Rapfogel, Anthology Film Archives; Rex Reed, Observer; Carrie Rickey; Lupe Rodriguez Haas, CineMovie.TV; Richard Roeper, Chicago Sun-Times ; Jonathan Rosenbaum, JonathanRosenbaum.net; A.O. Scott, The New York Times ; Gene Seymour, CNN Opinion & The Nation ; Jose Solís; José Teodoro, Film Comment ; David Thomson; Scott Tobias; Kenneth Turan; Dennis West, Cineaste ; Armond White, National Review ; Alissa Wilkinson, Vox; Deborah Young, The Film Verdict ; Stephanie Zacharek, Time

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Arts and Entertainment

The 34 best political movies ever made

political films essay

1. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

2. all the president’s men (1976).

political films essay

3. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

political films essay

4. Primary (1960)

5. the battle of algiers (1966).

political films essay

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

7. the lives of others (2006).

political films essay

8. Mean Girls (2004)

9. born yesterday (1950).

political films essay

10. Lone Star (1996)

political films essay

11. Citizen Kane (1941)

12. wag the dog (1997).

political films essay

13. The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

14. a face in the crowd (1957).

political films essay

15. Malcolm X (1992)

16. election (1999), 17. invasion of the body snatchers (1956).

political films essay

18. Thirteen Days (2000)

19. bulworth (1998).

political films essay

20. The Fog of War (2003)

political films essay

21. Selma (2014)

22. the incredibles (2004).

political films essay

23. Gabriel Over the White House (1933)

24. being there (1979), 25. born in flames (1983).

political films essay

26. The Contender (2000)

27. high noon (1952).

political films essay

28. I Am Cuba (1964)

29. triumph of the will (1935).

political films essay

30. Milk (2008)

31. in the loop (2009), 32. the spook who sat by the door (1973).

political films essay

33. Chicago 10 (2007)

34. the queen (2006), we noticed you’re blocking ads.

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The Film Comment Podcast: The Most Significant Political Films of All Time

By Film Comment on July 4, 2023

Last February, the magazine The New Republic invited a host of film critics to participate in a new poll, curated by esteemed critic and longtime Film Comment  contributor J. Hoberman: a list of the 100 Most Significant Political Films of All Time. Not best or favorite political films, mind you—most significant . The New Republic unveiled the results of the poll on June 22, along with an essay by Hoberman analyzing the results. Topped by The Battle of Algiers , the final list is both a fascinating snapshot of what political cinema means to critics today, and the limits of such exercises in ascertaining consensus. On today’s podcast, we invited Jim for a deep-dive into the impetus behind the poll; the surprises, disappointments, and notable entries in the list, from  The Birth of a Nation to La Chinoise to Hour of the Furnaces to All the President’s Men ; and how notions of political cinema have changed over time.

Links & Things

The New Republic ‘s list of 100 Most Significant Political Films of All Time J. Hoberman’s essay on the poll The Birth of a Nation  (D.W. Griffith, 1915) The Battle of Algiers  (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966) Red Dawn (John Milius, 1984) Triumph of the Will  (Leni Riefenstahl, 1935) La Commune (Paris, 1871) (Peter Watkins, 2000) The War Game (Peter Watkins, 1966) No (Pablo Larrain, 2012) Nightcleaners (Berwick Street Film Collective, 1975) All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976) Newsreel The Film and Photo League The Black Audio Film Collective Be Seeing You ( A Bientot J’espere ) (Chris Marker, 1967) The Prostitutes of Lyon Speak  (Les Insoumuses, 1975) The Monopoly of Violence (David Dufresne, 2020) Afrique sur Seine  (Mamadou Sarr & Paulin Soumanou Vieyra, 1955) My Survival as an Aboriginal (Essie Coffey, 1979) Handsworth Songs (Black Audio Film Collective, 1986) Hour of the Furnaces (Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas, 1968) Toward a Third Cinema ,” Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas, 1970 Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964) The Great Dictator (Charlie Chaplin, 1940) The Bicycle Thieves  (Vittorio de Sica, 1948) The Breakfast Club (John Hughes, 1985) Rocky III (Sylvestor Stallone, 1982) Predator (John McTiernan, 1987) Sambizanga (Sarah Maldoror, 1972) Attica (Cinda Firestone, 1974) Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014) Tout va bien (Jean-Luc Godard, 1972) Weekend (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967) La Chinoise (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967) Something Like a War (Deepa Dhanraj, 1991) “ Whose History ,” Lis Rhodes, 1978 Memories of Underdevelopment (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, 1968) The Battle of Chile (Patricio Guzmán, 1975-79) Los Olvidados (Luis Buñuel, 1950) Tele-Machine (Takis, 1960) and its removal from the MoMA’s “The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age ” All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (Laura Poitras, 2022)

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Seeing Through the Screen: Interpreting American Political Film

political films essay

  • September 13, 2018

Bruce Altschuler

  • Articles , Arts & Culture Articles , Arts & Culture Reviews , Reviews

Understanding Political Films

In choosing movies to include in this book, we had to start by asking what makes a film political. This seemingly simple question has caused considerable debate among those who have tried to answer it. One school of thought opts for a very narrow definition. Harry Keyishian’s textbook includes films “about politicians and the political process in America” whose primary concern is “the relationship between personal integrity and political success” (Keyishian 2003: xiii). This definition is so limited that it excludes Dr. Strangelove “because it does not imagine a connection between a society of real people with a stake in existence and its cartoon versions of national leaders” (Keyishian 2003: 67).

Others take a totally opposite approach, arguing that nearly every American film is political because, as Phillip L. Gianos asserts, an overwhelming majority of them essentially claim that happiness is primarily an individual matter (Gianos 1998: 4). Politics is hidden by personalizing the story, using allegory as code, selecting a formerly controversial topic that has become safe or avoiding specifics about what politics and parties in a particular film stand for (Gianos 1998: 8–9). Even in such noted films about politicians as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and The Best Man , the specific parties that these office holders belong to and even the one holding its presidential nominating convention are never named. As noted German director Wim Wenders contends, “It’s very hard to grasp what America understands as ‘political’ because this notion all too often exists only in its negation as the absence of the political” (Maltby 2003: 270). Similarly, Chilean director Sebastian Lelio sees The Devil Wears Prada “as completely political. Fashion is totally political, the icon of a political system” (Rohter 2014: AR14).

The dichotomy between foreign and American views is not surprising as, unlike many other countries, the United States has never developed a political film genre. Because the label “political film” is widely considered damaging at the box office, Hollywood tends to discourage the production of such pictures or to disguise their content using methods such as those pointed out by Gianos. Rather than examine political phenomena, American movies prefer to tell tales of individual triumph, simplifying those larger issues to tell a good story while validating the status quo to avoid controversy or offense. As we look at individual films, readers should think about the choices made by the producers, directors and script writers.

Keeping these issues in mind, let us return to the task of definition. The narrow conception of restricting political films to those depicting, in Keyishian’s words, “politicians and the political process” omits numerous movies whose content and themes are clearly political. For example, it would seem to exclude films about the media, interest groups and even many courtroom dramas. Would it include Erin Brokovich , which is more about the legal process and activism than the political process? 1 It also leaves out influential genre films such as westerns, war or gangster films which explore such basic political issues as the state of nature, the basis of law and order, immigration and the treatment of Native Americans.

On the other hand, if we consider all films to be political, we have a category that fails to classify and is therefore of no practical use. Ian Scott (2011: 11–12) tries to bridge the gap by distinguishing between political films and films about politics. Political films (16) “have very direct settings, characters and/or references to politicians, political institutions and political history,” while films about politics often have a subtext in which apparently nonpolitical subjects serve as a metaphor or allegory for more explicitly political topics. The latter is similar to Richard Maltby’s “social problem films” that allow the depiction of controversial issues “by sugaring the didactic political pill with the more pleasurable elements of genre and star performances, and above all by individualizing the issue depicted” (Maltby 2003: 293). However, these new categories don’t help much in defining political film as they leave us with the choice of retaining the narrow definition or adding a second category that could include nearly every film, depending on how much subtext the viewer decodes. Instead, this book will find a middle ground by using a basic definition of politics to determine what should be included in a film to consider it “political.” This method has probably been avoided because defining politics has been no less contentious than defining political film.

Here too, definitions vary between the narrow and the broad, but in very different ways. Lexicographers tend to prefer the narrow such as “the art and science of government or governing” (American Heritage 1992: 1402). In contrast, most political scientists choose to go beyond government to include other actors. Two of the classic definitions come from Harold Lasswell and David Easton. Lasswell’s (1950: 3) pithy definition served as his book’s title, “who gets what, when, how.” Easton’s (1953: 129) classic formulation is “the authoritative allocation of values for a society.” Because policies grant things to some that they deny to others, his focus is on the making of authoritative policy whether by government or private actors. Government’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force ensures that its decisions are authoritative, but some private decisions can have comparable finality.

Many contemporary political scientists, however, believe that these definitions are still too restrictive. Eisenstein et. al. (1996: 6) have two criticisms of the Lasswell and Easton definitions. Because cooperation can create additional collective benefits, politics should not be limited to dividing existing resources. Second, they fail to go far enough in including non-governmental actors who have a major impact on people’s lives as in the closing of a factory. Their formulation (16) is an expanded version of Lasswell and Easton: “politics consists of influence processes involving both conflict and cooperation, and occurring both within and outside of government, that authoritatively determine for a wide range of groups who gets what when and how?” Thomas Patterson (2013: 17) provides a more succinct definition: “the means by which society settles its conflicts and allocates the resulting benefits and costs.” These provide a good basis for determining which films to consider political.

As with any definition, there is room for debate at the margins. How much (or how little) political content is necessary for a film to meet the definition? For example, should courtroom comedies such as Adam’s Rib or My Cousin Vinny be included or is their political content too minimal? Do the James Bond and Bourne series fit? Does the emphasis on process exclude films about political outcomes such as the dystopian dramas 1984 or the popular Hunger Games series? Furthermore, definitions of what is political change over time. As Leon H. Hurwitz (1979: 4) writes, every generation has its “own particular (some would say peculiar) view of the nature and components of politics,” but each is limited by its culture to emphasizing those aspects they find most prevalent and important. Our survey has shown significant change from Lasswell and Easton in the mid-twentieth century to more contemporary views. This may also explain our earlier point that conceptions of what makes a film political often vary from one country to another.

Nevertheless, this definition was helpful in choosing what films to include in this book. Try applying it to recent films to evaluate how well it works. Does it help find common factors in political films, while allowing us to compare and contrast them? Is it useful in comparing American films to those of countries that claim to have a more developed genre of political films? Have American political films actually done as poorly at the box office as film company executives seem to think or is that just due to their use of the narrow definition?

The Language of Film

This book consists of a series of essays that attempt to discover the messages communicated by American political films. The language of film is far more than plot and dialogue. As Bill Nichols (2010: 12) has written, films are best understood “when viewers enter into, imaginatively inhabit, collectively reemerge from, and critically reflect on what they have experienced during their encounter with a cinematic world.” To do this, we need to examine the camera’s point of view, the visual images on the screen, music and other sounds along with a variety of other devices used by filmmakers to convey their messages. Because viewers enter a film’s world with diverse experiences and perspectives, the best films are complex enough in their nonverbal messages that more than one interpretation is possible. These essays will provide tools for understanding, but will often ask questions for viewers to answer, using their own perspectives.

Careful attention should be paid to the opening of each film which sets the tone and themes for the remainder of the movie. often with little or no dialogue. In Citizen Kane , the camera penetrates the isolated estate of its title character, Charles Foster Kane, beginning by passing a “No Trespassing” sign. The audience then sees him drop a snow globe as he dies, with only a single word of dialogue, “Rosebud.” The Conversation opens with a series of seemingly random shots and sounds in a San Francisco park that are presented from the point of view of an eavesdropper who is recording the sounds with multiple microphones much as the film recorded the scene using multiple cameras. The audience soon learns that this surveillance expert, Harry Caul, is the film’s protagonist, but by the time it does, we have already begun to identify with Harry and his apparent paranoia. By beginning with a scene of two airplanes rendezvousing to refuel to the strains of “Try a Little Tenderness,” Dr. Strangelove communicates one of its themes, the connection between war and sex.

Because many of these films are based on historical events or utilize actual institutions to tell a fictional story, we will also try to supply the background information necessary to put the movies in context. It is important to keep in mind that even a historically based film is not a documentary. The script writer or director who is not fully faithful to the historical record may have good reasons for this such as adding to the drama or suspense, making a larger point or simply condensing a lengthy historical event into the two hours or so available to view a film. No audience would sit still to watch every trivial moment of a trial that lasted weeks or months. We simply want to understand the larger picture. Also, a film about the past may be trying to use its subtext to make a point about contemporary events. For example, audiences for the 1940 movie Abe Lincoln in Illinois generally understood that in showing how Lincoln decided that taking up the fight against slavery was worth the risk of civil war, the film was arguing that the battle against fascism in Europe was similarly worth risking American involvement in World War II.

That example also illustrates the importance of political films in shaping popular opinion. Daniel Franklin (2006:5) asks whether film is “an influence on or a mirror of society?” He concludes that the influence goes in both directions because movie makers may decide which films to make, but audiences choose which are worth paying to see. Even more important is the need to find financial backing before production can even begin. Because of the high cost of producing and advertising a film, especially if it is intended for a mass market, producers often than play it safe by avoiding controversies that could alienate a significant portion of their potential audience. As noted earlier, this could be a reason that there are not more American political films or that many avoid taking controversial positions. Making films based on comic book superheroes has been a lot more profitable that those about, for example, presidential elections. Nevertheless, as this book demonstrates, there have been quite a few important political films made over the years. Some have a very clear message, but the need for films to entertain and to make a profit will sometimes mean that our essays need to analyze carefully to understand the political point their makers intend.

1. Keyisihian does not include this film or any courtroom dramas other than Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) in his book.

This excerpt is from Seeing through the Screen: Interpreting American Political Film (Lexington Books, 2017) with our review of the book here .

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Bruce Altschuler is a Professor Emeritus at SUNY Oswego. He is editor, with Michael Genovese, of Shakespeare and Politics (Paradigm, 2014) and author of several books, including Acting Presidents: 100 Years of Plays About the Presidency (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) and Seeing through the Screen: Interpreting American Political Film (Lexington Books, 2017).

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political films essay

The essay film

In recent years the essay film has attained widespread recognition as a particular category of film practice, with its own history and canonical figures and texts. In tandem with a major season throughout August at London’s BFI Southbank, Sight & Sound explores the characteristics that have come to define this most elastic of forms and looks in detail at a dozen influential milestone essay films.

Andrew Tracy , Katy McGahan , Olaf Möller , Sergio Wolf , Nina Power Updated: 7 May 2019

political films essay

from our August 2013 issue

Le camera stylo? Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

Le camera stylo? Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

I recently had a heated argument with a cinephile filmmaking friend about Chris Marker’s Sans soleil (1983). Having recently completed her first feature, and with such matters on her mind, my friend contended that the film’s power lay in its combinations of image and sound, irrespective of Marker’s inimitable voiceover narration. “Do you think that people who can’t understand English or French will get nothing out of the film?” she said; to which I – hot under the collar – replied that they might very well get something, but that something would not be the complete work.

political films essay

The Sight & Sound Deep Focus season Thought in Action: The Art of the Essay Film runs at BFI Southbank 1-28 August 2013, with a keynote lecture by Kodwo Eshun on 1 August, a talk by writer and academic Laura Rascaroli on 27 August and a closing panel debate on 28 August.

To take this film-lovers’ tiff to a more elevated plane, what it suggests is that the essentialist conception of cinema is still present in cinephilic and critical culture, as are the difficulties of containing within it works that disrupt its very fabric. Ever since Vachel Lindsay published The Art of the Moving Picture in 1915 the quest to secure the autonomy of film as both medium and art – that ever-elusive ‘pure cinema’ – has been a preoccupation of film scholars, critics, cinephiles and filmmakers alike. My friend’s implicit derogation of the irreducible literary element of Sans soleil and her neo- Godard ian invocation of ‘image and sound’ touch on that strain of this phenomenon which finds, in the technical-functional combination of those two elements, an alchemical, if not transubstantiational, result.

Mechanically created, cinema defies mechanism: it is poetic, transportive and, if not irrational, then a-rational. This mystically-minded view has a long and illustrious tradition in film history, stretching from the sense-deranging surrealists – who famously found accidental poetry in the juxtapositions created by randomly walking into and out of films; to the surrealist-influenced, scientifically trained and ontologically minded André Bazin , whose realist veneration of the long take centred on the very preternaturalness of nature as revealed by the unblinking gaze of the camera; to the trash-bin idolatry of the American underground, weaving new cinematic mythologies from Hollywood detritus; and to auteurism itself, which (in its more simplistic iterations) sees the essence of the filmmaker inscribed even upon the most compromised of works.

It isn’t going too far to claim that this tradition has constituted the foundation of cinephilic culture and helped to shape the cinematic canon itself. If Marker has now been welcomed into that canon and – thanks to the far greater availability of his work – into the mainstream of (primarily DVD-educated) cinephilia, it is rarely acknowledged how much of that work cheerfully undercuts many of the long-held assumptions and pieties upon which it is built.

In his review of Letter from Siberia (1957), Bazin placed Marker at right angles to cinema proper, describing the film’s “primary material” as intelligence – specifically a “verbal intelligence” – rather than image. He dubbed Marker’s method a “horizontal” montage, “as opposed to traditional montage that plays with the sense of duration through the relationship of shot to shot”.

Here, claimed Bazin, “a given image doesn’t refer to the one that preceded it or the one that will follow, but rather it refers laterally, in some way, to what is said.” Thus the very thing which makes Letter “extraordinary”, in Bazin’s estimation, is also what makes it not-cinema. Looking for a term to describe it, Bazin hit upon a prophetic turn of phrase, writing that Marker’s film is, “to borrow Jean Vigo’s formulation of À propos de Nice (‘a documentary point of view’), an essay documented by film. The important word is ‘essay’, understood in the same sense that it has in literature – an essay at once historical and political, written by a poet as well.”

Marker’s canonisation has proceeded apace with that of the form of which he has become the exemplar. Whether used as critical/curatorial shorthand in reviews and programme notes, employed as a model by filmmakers or examined in theoretical depth in major retrospectives (this summer’s BFI Southbank programme, for instance, follows upon Andréa Picard’s two-part series ‘The Way of the Termite’ at TIFF Cinémathèque in 2009-2010, which drew inspiration from Jean-Pierre Gorin ’s groundbreaking programme of the same title at Vienna Filmmuseum in 2007), the ‘essay film’ has attained in recent years widespread recognition as a particular, if perennially porous, mode of film practice. An appealingly simple formulation, the term has proved both taxonomically useful and remarkably elastic, allowing one to define a field of previously unassimilable objects while ranging far and wide throughout film history to claim other previously identified objects for this invented tradition.

Las Hurdes (1933)

Las Hurdes (1933)

It is crucial to note that the ‘essay film’ is not only a post-facto appellation for a kind of film practice that had not bothered to mark itself with a moniker, but also an invention and an intervention. While it has acquired its own set of canonical ‘texts’ that include the collected works of Marker, much of Godard – from the missive (the 52-minute Letter to Jane , 1972) to the massive ( Histoire(s) de cinéma , 1988-98) – Welles’s F for Fake (1973) and Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), it has also poached on the territory of other, ‘sovereign’ forms, expanding its purview in accordance with the whims of its missionaries.

From documentary especially, Vigo’s aforementioned À propos de Nice, Ivens’s Rain (1929), Buñuel’s sardonic Las Hurdes (1933), Resnais’s Night and Fog (1955), Rouch and Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer (1961); from the avant garde, Akerman’s Je, Tu, Il, Elle (1974), Straub/Huillet’s Trop tôt, trop tard (1982); from agitprop, Getino and Solanas’s The Hour of the Furnaces (1968), Portabella’s Informe general… (1976); and even from ‘pure’ fiction, for example Gorin’s provocative selection of Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat (1909).

Just as within itself the essay film presents, in the words of Gorin, “the meandering of an intelligence that tries to multiply the entries and the exits into the material it has elected (or by which it has been elected),” so, without, its scope expands exponentially through the industrious activity of its adherents, blithely cutting across definitional borders and – as per the Manny Farber ian concept which gave Gorin’s ‘Termite’ series its name –  creating meaning precisely by eating away at its own boundaries. In the scope of its application and its association more with an (amorphous) sensibility as opposed to fixed rules, the essay film bears similarities to the most famous of all fabricated genres: film noir, which has been located both in its natural habitat of the crime thriller as well as in such disparate climates as melodramas, westerns and science fiction.

The essay film, however, has proved even more peripatetic: where noir was formulated from the films of a determinate historical period (no matter that the temporal goalposts are continually shifted), the essay film is resolutely unfixed in time; it has its choice of forebears. And while noir, despite its occasional shadings over into semi-documentary during the 1940s, remains bound to fictional narratives, the essay film moves blithely between the realms of fiction and non-fiction, complicating the terms of both.

“Here is a form that seems to accommodate the two sides of that divide at the same time, that can navigate from documentary to fiction and back, creating other polarities in the process between which it can operate,” writes Gorin. When Orson Welles , in the closing moments of his masterful meditation on authenticity and illusion F for Fake, chortles, “I did promise that for one hour, I’d tell you only the truth. For the past 17 minutes, I’ve been lying my head off,” he is expressing both the conjuror’s pleasure in a trick well played and the artist’s delight in a self-defined mode that is cheerfully impure in both form and, perhaps, intention.

Nevertheless, as the essay film merrily traipses through celluloid history it intersects with ‘pure cinema’ at many turns and its form as such owes much to one particularly prominent variety thereof.

The montage tradition

If the mystical strain described above represents the Dionysian side of pure cinema, Soviet montage was its Apollonian opposite: randomness, revelation and sensuous response countered by construction, forceful argumentation and didactic instruction.

No less than the mystics, however, the montagists were after essences. Eisenstein , Dziga Vertov and Pudovkin , along with their transnational associates and acolytes, sought to crystallise abstract concepts in the direct and purposeful juxtaposition of forceful, hard-edged images – the general made powerfully, viscerally immediate in the particular. Here, says Eisenstein, in the umbrella-wielding harpies who set upon the revolutionaries in October (1928), is bourgeois Reaction made manifest; here, in the serried ranks of soldiers proceeding as one down the Odessa Steps in Battleship Potemkin (1925), is Oppression undisguised; here, in the condemned Potemkin sailor who wins over his imminent executioners with a cry of “Brothers!” – a moment powerfully invoked by Marker at the beginning of his magnum opus A Grin Without a Cat (1977) – is Solidarity emergent and, from it, the seeds of Revolution.

The relentlessly unidirectional focus of classical Soviet montage puts it methodologically and temperamentally at odds with the ruminative, digressive and playful qualities we associate with the essay film. So, too, the former’s fierce ideological certainty and cadre spirit contrast with that free play of the mind, the Montaigne -inspired meanderings of individual intelligence, that so characterise our image of the latter.

Beyond Marker’s personal interest in and inheritance from the Soviet masters, classical montage laid the foundations of the essay film most pertinently in its foregrounding of the presence, within the fabric of the film, of a directing intelligence. Conducting their experiments in film not through ‘pure’ abstraction but through narrative, the montagists made manifest at least two operative levels within the film: the narrative itself and the arrangement of that narrative by which the deeper structures that move it are made legible. Against the seamless, immersive illusionism of commercial cinema, montage was a key for decrypting those social forces, both overt and hidden, that govern human society.

And as such it was method rather than material that was the pathway to truth. Fidelity to the authentic – whether the accurate representation of historical events or the documentary flavouring of Eisensteinian typage – was important only insomuch as it provided the filmmaker with another tool to reach a considerably higher plane of reality.

Dziga Vertov’s Enthusiasm (1931)

Dziga Vertov’s Enthusiasm (1931)

Midway on their Marxian mission to change the world rather than interpret it, the montagists actively made the world even as they revealed it. In doing so they powerfully expressed the dialectic between control and chaos that would come to be not only one of the chief motors of the essay film but the crux of modernity itself.

Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929), now claimed as the most venerable and venerated ancestor of the essay film (and this despite its prototypically purist claim to realise a ‘universal’ cinematic language “based on its complete separation from the language of literature and the theatre”) is the archetypal model of this high-modernist agon. While it is the turning of the movie projector itself and the penetrating gaze of Vertov’s kino-eye that sets the whirling dynamo of the city into motion, the recorder creating that which it records, that motion is also outside its control.

At the dawn of the cinematic century, the American writer Henry Adams saw in the dynamo both the expression of human mastery over nature and a conduit to mysterious, elemental powers beyond our comprehension. So, too, the modernist ambition expressed in literature, painting, architecture and cinema to capture a subject from all angles – to exhaust its wealth of surfaces, meanings, implications, resonances – collides with awe (or fear) before a plenitude that can never be encompassed.

Remove the high-modernist sense of mission and we can see this same dynamic as animating the essay film – recall that last, parenthetical term in Gorin’s formulation of the essay film, “multiply[ing] the entries and the exits into the material it has elected (or by which it has been elected)”. The nimble movements and multi-angled perspectives of the essay film are founded on this negotiation between active choice and passive possession; on the recognition that even the keenest insight pales in the face of an ultimate unknowability.

The other key inheritance the essay film received from the classical montage tradition, perhaps inevitably, was a progressive spirit, however variously defined. While Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1938) amply and chillingly demonstrated that montage, like any instrumental apparatus, has no inherent ideological nature, hers were more the exceptions that proved the rule. (Though why, apart from ideological repulsiveness, should Riefenstahl’s plentifully fabricated ‘documentaries’ not be considered as essay films in their own right?)

The overwhelming fact remains that the great majority of those who drew upon the Soviet montagists for explicitly ideological ends (as opposed to Hollywood’s opportunistic swipings) resided on the left of the spectrum – and, in the montagists’ most notable successor in the period immediately following, retained their alignment with and inextricability from the state.

Progressive vs radical

The Grierson ian documentary movement in Britain neutered the political and aesthetic radicalism of its more dynamic model in favour of paternalistic progressivism founded on conformity, class complacency and snobbery towards its own medium. But if it offered a far paler antecedent to the essay film than the Soviet montage tradition, it nevertheless represents an important stage in the evolution of the essay-film form, for reasons not unrelated to some of those rather staid qualities.

The Soviet montagists had created a vision of modernity racing into the future at pace with the social and spiritual liberation of its proletarian pilot-passenger, an aggressively public ideology of group solidarity. The Grierson school, by contrast, offered a domesticated image of an efficient, rational and productive modern industrial society based on interconnected but separate public and private spheres, as per the ideological values of middle-class liberal individualism.

The Soviet montagists had looked to forge a universal, ‘pure’ cinematic language, at least before the oppressive dictates of Stalinist socialist realism shackled them. The Grierson school, evincing a middle-class disdain for the popular and ‘low’ arts, sought instead to purify the sullied medium of cinema by importing extra-cinematic prestige: most notably Night Mail (1936), with its Auden -penned, Britten -scored ode to the magic of the mail, or Humphrey Jennings’s salute to wartime solidarity A Diary for Timothy (1945), with its mildly sententious E.M. Forster narration.

Night Mail (1936)

Night Mail (1936)

What this domesticated dynamism and retrograde pursuit of high-cultural bona fides achieved, however, was to mingle a newfound cinematic language (montage) with a traditionally literary one (narration); and, despite the salutes to state-oriented communality, to re-introduce the individual, idiosyncratic voice as the vehicle of meaning – as the mediating intelligence that connects the viewer to the images viewed.

In Night Mail especially there is, in the whimsy of the Auden text and the film’s synchronisation of private time and public history, an intimation of the essay film’s musing, reflective voice as the chugging rhythm of the narration timed to the speeding wheels of the train gives way to a nocturnal vision of solitary dreamers bedevilled by spectral monsters, awakening in expectation of the postman’s knock with a “quickening of the heart/for who can bear to be forgot?”

It’s a curiously disquieting conclusion: this unsettling, anxious vision of disappearance that takes on an even darker shade with the looming spectre of war – one that rhymes, five decades on, with the wistful search of Marker’s narrator in Sans soleil, seeking those fleeting images which “quicken the heart” in a world where wars both past and present have been forgotten, subsumed in a modern society built upon the systematic banishment of memory.

It is, of course, with the seminal post-war collaborations between Marker and Alain Resnais that the essay film proper emerges. In contrast to the striving culture-snobbery of the Griersonian documentary, the Resnais-Marker collaborations (and the Resnais solo documentary shorts that preceded them) inaugurate a blithe, seemingly effortless dialogue between cinema and the other arts in both their subjects (painting, sculpture) and their assorted creative personnel (writers Paul Éluard , Jean Cayrol , Raymond Queneau , composers Darius Milhaud and Hanns Eisler ). This also marks the point where the revolutionary line of the Soviets and the soft, statist liberalism of the British documentarians give way to a more free-floating but staunchly oppositional leftism, one derived as much from a spirit of humanistic inquiry as from ideological affiliation.

Related to this was the form’s problems with official patronage. Originally conceived as commissions by various French government or government-affiliated bodies, the Resnais-Marker films famously ran into trouble from French censors: Les statues meurent aussi (1953) for its condemnation of French colonialism, Night and Fog for its shots of Vichy policemen guarding deportation camps; the former film would have its second half lopped off before being cleared for screening, the latter its offending shots removed.

Night and Fog (1955)

Night and Fog (1955)

Appropriately, it is at this moment that the emphasis of the essay film begins to shift away from tactile presence – the whirl of the city, the rhythm of the rain, the workings of industry – to felt absence. The montagists had marvelled at the workings of human creations which raced ahead irrespective of human efforts; here, the systems created by humanity to master the world write, in their very functioning, an epitaph for those things extinguished in the act of mastering them. The African masks preserved in the Musée de l’Homme in Les statues meurent aussi speak of a bloody legacy of vanquished and conquered civilisations; the labyrinthine archival complex of the Bibliothèque Nationale in the sardonically titled Toute la mémoire du monde (1956) sparks a disquisition on all that is forgotten in the act of cataloguing knowledge; the miracle of modern plastics saluted in the witty, industrially commissioned Le Chant du styrène (1958) regresses backwards to its homely beginnings; in Night and Fog an unprecedentedly enormous effort of human organisation marshals itself to actively produce a dreadful, previously unimaginable nullity.

To overstate the case, loss is the primary motor of the modern essay film: loss of belief in the image’s ability to faithfully reflect reality; loss of faith in the cinema’s ability to capture life as it is lived; loss of illusions about cinema’s ‘purity’, its autonomy from the other arts or, for that matter, the world.

“You never know what you may be filming,” notes one of Marker’s narrating surrogates in A Grin Without a Cat, as footage of the Chilean equestrian team at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics offers a glimpse of a future member of the Pinochet junta. The image and sound captured at the time of filming offer one facet of reality; it is only with this lateral move outside that reality that the future reality it conceals can speak.

What will distinguish the essay film, as Bazin noted, is not only its ability to make the image but also its ability to interrogate it, to dispel the illusion of its sovereignty and see it as part of a matrix of meaning that extends beyond the screen. No less than were the montagists, the film-essayists seek the motive forces of modern society not by crystallising eternal verities in powerful images but by investigating that ever-shifting, kaleidoscopic relationship between our regime of images and the realities it both reveals and occludes.

— Andrew Tracy

1.   À propos de Nice

Jean Vigo, 1930

Few documentaries have achieved the cult status of the 22-minute A propos de Nice, co-directed by Jean Vigo and cameraman Boris Kaufman at the beginning of their careers. The film retains a spontaneous, apparently haphazard, quality yet its careful montage combines a strong realist drive, lyrical dashes – helped by Marc Perrone’s accordion music – and a clear political agenda.

In today’s era, in which the Côte d’Azur has become a byword for hedonistic consumption, it’s refreshing to see a film that systematically undermines its glossy surface. Using images sometimes ‘stolen’ with hidden cameras, A propos de Nice moves between the city’s main sites of pleasure: the Casino, the Promenade des Anglais, the Hotel Negresco and the carnival. Occasionally the filmmakers remind us of the sea, the birds, the wind in the trees but mostly they contrast people: the rich play tennis, the poor boules; the rich have tea, the poor gamble in the (then) squalid streets of the Old Town.

As often, women bear the brunt of any critique of bourgeois consumption: a rich old woman’s head is compared to an ostrich, others grin as they gaze up at phallic factory chimneys; young women dance frenetically, their crotch to the camera. In the film’s most famous image, an elegant woman is ‘stripped’ by the camera to reveal her naked body – not quite matched by a man’s shoes vanishing to display his naked feet to the shoe-shine.

An essay film avant la lettre , A propos de Nice ends on Soviet-style workers’ faces and burning furnaces. The message is clear, even if it has not been heeded by history.

— Ginette Vincendeau

2. A Diary for Timothy

Humphrey Jennings, 1945

A Diary for Timothy takes the form of a journal addressed to the eponymous Timothy James Jenkins, born on 3 September 1944, exactly five years after Britain’s entry into World War II. The narrator, Michael Redgrave , a benevolent offscreen presence, informs young Timothy about the momentous events since his birth and later advises that, even when the war is over, there will be “everyday danger”.

The subjectivity and speculative approach maintained throughout are more akin to the essay tradition than traditional propaganda in their rejection of mere glib conveyance of information or thunderous hectoring. Instead Jennings invites us quietly to observe the nuances of everyday life as Britain enters the final chapter of the war. Against the momentous political backdrop, otherwise routine, everyday activities are ascribed new profundity as the Welsh miner Geronwy, Alan the farmer, Bill the railway engineer and Peter the convalescent fighter pilot go about their daily business.

Within the confines of the Ministry of Information’s remit – to lift the spirits of a battle-weary nation – and the loose narrative framework of Timothy’s first six months, Jennings finds ample expression for the kind of formal experiment that sets his work apart from that of other contemporary documentarians. He worked across film, painting, photography, theatrical design, journalism and poetry; in Diary his protean spirit finds expression in a manner that transgresses the conventional parameters of wartime propaganda, stretching into film poem, philosophical reflection, social document, surrealistic ethnographic observation and impressionistic symphony. Managing to keep to the right side of sentimentality, it still makes for potent viewing.

— Catherine McGahan

3. Toute la mémoire du monde

Alain Resnais, 1956

In the opening credits of Toute la mémoire du monde, alongside the director’s name and that of producer Pierre Braunberger , one reads the mysterious designation “Groupe des XXX”. This Group of Thirty was an assembly of filmmakers who mobilised in the early 1950s to defend the “style, quality and ambitious subject matter” of short films in post-war France; the signatories of its 1953 ‘Declaration’ included Resnais , Chris Marker and Agnès Varda. The success of the campaign contributed to a golden age of short filmmaking that would last a decade and form the crucible of the French essay film.

A 22-minute poetic documentary about the old French Bibliothèque Nationale, Toute la mémoire du monde is a key work in this strand of filmmaking and one which can also be seen as part of a loose ‘trilogy of memory’ in Resnais’s early documentaries. Les statues meurent aussi (co-directed with Chris Marker) explored cultural memory as embodied in African art and the depredations of colonialism; Night and Fog was a seminal reckoning with the historical memory of the Nazi death camps. While less politically controversial than these earlier works, Toute la mémoire du monde’s depiction of the Bibliothèque Nationale is still oddly suggestive of a prison, with its uniformed guards and endless corridors. In W.G. Sebald ’s 2001 novel Austerlitz, directly after a passage dedicated to Resnais’s film, the protagonist describes his uncertainty over whether, when using the library, he “was on the Islands of the Blest, or, on the contrary, in a penal colony”.

Resnais explores the workings of the library through the effective device of following a book from arrival and cataloguing to its delivery to a reader (the book itself being something of an in-joke: a mocked-up travel guide to Mars in the Petite Planète series Marker was then editing for Editions du Seuil). With Resnais’s probing, mobile camerawork and a commentary by French writer Remo Forlani, Toute la mémoire du monde transforms the library into a mysterious labyrinth, something between an edifice and an organism: part brain and part tomb.

— Chris Darke

4. The House is Black

(Khaneh siah ast) Forough Farrokhzad, 1963

Before the House of Makhmalbaf there was The House is Black. Called “the greatest of all Iranian films” by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who helped translate the subtitles from Farsi into English, this 20-minute black-and-white essay film by feminist poet Farrokhzad was shot in a leper colony near Tabriz in northern Iran and has been heralded as the touchstone of the Iranian New Wave.

The buildings of the Baba Baghi colony are brick and peeling whitewash but a student asked to write a sentence using the word ‘house’ offers Khaneh siah ast : the house is black. His hand, seen in close-up, is one of many in the film; rather than objects of medical curiosity, these hands – some fingerless, many distorted by the disease – are agents, always in movement, doing, making, exercising, praying. In putting white words on the blackboard, the student makes part of the film; in the next shots, the film’s credits appear, similarly handwritten on the same blackboard.

As they negotiate the camera’s gaze and provide the soundtrack by singing, stamping and wheeling a barrow, the lepers are co-authors of the film. Farrokhzad echoes their prayers, heard and seen on screen, with her voiceover, which collages religious texts, beginning with the passage from Psalm 55 famously set to music by Mendelssohn (“O for the wings of a dove”).

In the conjunctions between Farrokhzad’s poetic narration and diegetic sound, including tanbur-playing, an intense assonance arises. Its beat is provided by uniquely lyrical associative editing that would influence Abbas Kiarostami , who quotes Farrokhzad’s poem ‘The Wind Will Carry Us’ in his eponymous film . Repeated shots of familiar bodily movement, made musical, move the film insistently into the viewer’s body: it is infectious. Posing a question of aesthetics, The House Is Black uses the contagious gaze of cinema to dissolve the screen between Us and Them.

— Sophie Mayer

5. Letter to Jane: An Investigation About a Still

Jean-Luc Godard & Jean-Pierre Gorin, 1972

With its invocation of Brecht (“Uncle Bertolt”), rejection of visual pleasure (for 52 minutes we’re mostly looking at a single black-and-white still) and discussion of the role of intellectuals in “the revolution”, Letter to Jane is so much of its time as to appear untranslatable to the present except as a curio from a distant era of radical cinema. Between 1969 and 1971, Godard and Gorin made films collectively as part of the Dziga Vertov Group before they returned, in 1972, to the mainstream with Tout va bien , a big-budget film about the aftermath of May 1968 featuring leftist stars Yves Montand and  Jane Fonda . It was to the latter that Godard and Gorin directed their Letter after seeing a news photograph of her on a solidarity visit to North Vietnam in August 1972.

Intended to accompany the US release of Tout va bien, Letter to Jane is ‘a letter’ only in as much as it is fairly conversational in tone, with Godard and Gorin delivering their voiceovers in English. It’s stylistically more akin to the ‘blackboard films’ of the time, with their combination of pedagogical instruction and stern auto-critique.

It’s also an inspired semiological reading of a media image and a reckoning with the contradictions of celebrity activism. Godard and Gorin examine the image’s framing and camera angle and ask why Fonda is the ‘star’ of the photograph while the Vietnamese themselves remain faceless or out of focus? And what of her expression of compassionate concern? This “expression of an expression” they trace back, via an elaboration of the Kuleshov effect , through other famous faces – Henry Fonda , John Wayne , Lillian Gish and Falconetti – concluding that it allows for “no reverse shot” and serves only to bolster Western “good conscience”.

Letter to Jane is ultimately concerned with the same question that troubled philosophers such as Levinas and Derrida : what’s at stake ethically when one claims to speak “in place of the other”? Any contemporary critique of celebrity activism – from Bono and Geldof to Angelina Jolie – should start here, with a pair of gauchiste trolls muttering darkly beneath a press shot of ‘Hanoi Jane’.

6. F for Fake

Orson Welles, 1973

Those who insist it was all downhill for Orson Welles after Citizen Kane would do well to take a close look at this film made more than three decades later, in its own idiosyncratic way a masterpiece just as innovative as his better-known feature debut.

Perhaps the film’s comparative and undeserved critical neglect is due to its predominantly playful tone, or perhaps it’s because it is a low-budget, hard-to-categorise, deeply personal work that mixes original material with plenty of footage filmed by others – most extensively taken from a documentary by François Reichenbach about Clifford Irving and his bogus biography of his friend Elmyr de Hory , an art forger who claimed to have painted pictures attributed to famous names and hung in the world’s most prestigious galleries.

If the film had simply offered an account of the hoaxes perpetrated by that disreputable duo, it would have been entertaining enough but, by means of some extremely inventive, innovative and inspired editing, Welles broadens his study of fakery to take in his own history as a ‘charlatan’ – not merely his lifelong penchant for magician’s tricks but also the 1938 radio broadcast of his news-report adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds – as well as observations on Howard Hughes , Pablo Picasso and the anonymous builders of Chartres cathedral. So it is that Welles contrives to conjure up, behind a colourful cloak of consistently entertaining mischief, a rueful meditation on truth and falsehood, art and authorship – a subject presumably dear to his heart following Pauline Kael ’s then recent attempts to persuade the world that Herman J. Mankiewicz had been the real creative force behind Kane.

As a riposte to that thesis (albeit never framed as such), F for Fake is subtle, robust, supremely erudite and never once bitter; the darkest moment – as Welles contemplates the serene magnificence of Chartres – is at once an uncharacteristic but touchingly heartfelt display of humility and a poignant memento mori. And it is in this delicate balancing of the autobiographical with the universal, as well as in the dazzling deployment of cinematic form to illustrate and mirror content, that the film works its once unique, now highly influential magic.

— Geoff Andrew

7. How to Live in the German Federal Republic

(Leben – BRD) Harun Farocki, 1990

political films essay

Harun Farocki ’s portrait of West Germany in 32 simulations from training sessions has no commentary, just the actions themselves in all their surreal beauty, one after the other. The Bundesrepublik Deutschland is shown as a nation of people who can deal with everything because they have been prepared – taught how to react properly in every possible situation.

We know how birth works; how to behave in kindergarten; how to chat up girls, boys or whatever we fancy (for we’re liberal-minded, if only in principle); how to look for a job and maybe live without finding one; how to wiggle our arses in the hottest way possible when we pole-dance, or manage a hostage crisis without things getting (too) bloody. Whatever job we do, we know it by heart; we also know how to manage whatever kind of psychological breakdown we experience; and we are also prepared for the end, and even have an idea about how our burial will go. This is the nation: one of fearful people in dire need of control over their one chance of getting it right.

Viewed from the present, How to Live in the German Federal Republic is revealed as the archetype of many a Farocki film in the decades to follow, for example Die Umschulung (1994), Der Auftritt (1996) or Nicht ohne Risiko (2004), all of which document as dispassionately as possible different – not necessarily simulated – scenarios of social interactions related to labour and capital. For all their enlightening beauty, none of these ever came close to How to Live in the German Federal Republic which, depending on one’s mood, can play like an absurd comedy or the most gut-wrenching drama. Yet one disquieting thing is certain: How to Live in the German Federal Republic didn’t age – our lives still look the same.

— Olaf Möller

8. One Man’s War

(La Guerre d’un seul homme) Edgardo Cozarinsky , 1982

political films essay

One Man’s War proves that an auteur film can be made without writing a line, recording a sound or shooting a single frame. It’s easy to point to the ‘extraordinary’ character of the film, given its combination of materials that were not made to cohabit; there couldn’t be a less plausible dialogue than the one Cozarinsky establishes between the newsreels shot during the Nazi occupation of Paris and the Parisian diaries of novelist and Nazi officer Ernst Jünger . There’s some truth to Pascal Bonitzer’s assertion in Cahiers du cinéma in 1982 that the principle of the documentary was inverted here, since it is the images that provide a commentary for the voice.

But that observation still doesn’t pin down the uniqueness of a work that forces history through a series of registers, styles and dimensions, wiping out the distance between reality and subjectivity, propaganda and literature, cinema and journalism, daily life and dream, and establishing the idea not so much of communicating vessels as of contaminating vessels.

To enquire about the essayistic dimension of One Man’s War is to submit it to a test of purity against which the film itself is rebelling. This is no ars combinatoria but systems of collision and harmony; organic in their temporal development and experimental in their procedural eagerness. It’s like a machine created to die instantly; neither Cozarinsky nor anyone else could repeat the trick, as is the case with all great avant-garde works.

By blurring the genre of his literary essays, his fictional films, his archival documentaries, his literary fictions, Cozarinsky showed he knew how to reinvent the erasure of borders. One Man’s War is not a film about the Occupation but a meditation on the different forms in which that Occupation can be represented.

—Sergio Wolf. Translated by Mar Diestro-Dópido

9. Sans soleil

Chris Marker, 1982

There are many moments to quicken the heart in Sans soleil but one in particular demonstrates the method at work in Marker’s peerless film. An unseen female narrator reads from letters sent to her by a globetrotting cameraman named Sandor Krasna (Marker’s nom de voyage), one of which muses on the 11th-century Japanese writer  Sei Shōnagon .

As we hear of Shōnagon’s “list of elegant things, distressing things, even of things not worth doing”, we watch images of a missile being launched and a hovering bomber. What’s the connection? There is none. Nothing here fixes word and image in illustrative lockstep; it’s in the space between them that Sans soleil makes room for the spectator to drift, dream and think – to inimitable effect.

Sans soleil was Marker’s return to a personal mode of filmmaking after more than a decade in militant cinema. His reprise of the epistolary form looks back to earlier films such as  Letter from Siberia  (1958) but the ‘voice’ here is both intimate and removed. The narrator’s reading of Krasna’s letters flips the first person to the third, using ‘he’ instead of ‘I’. Distance and proximity in the words mirror, multiply and magnify both the distances travelled and the time spanned in the images, especially those of the 1960s and its lost dreams of revolutionary social change.

While it’s handy to define Sans soleil as an ‘essay film’, there’s something about the dry term that doesn’t do justice to the experience of watching it. After Marker’s death last year, when writing programme notes on the film, I came up with a line that captures something of what it’s like to watch Sans soleil: “a mesmerising, lucid and lovely river of film, which, like the river of the ancients, is never the same when one steps into it a second time”.

10. Handsworth Songs

Black Audio Film Collective, 1986

Made at the time of civil unrest in Birmingham, this key example of the essay film at its most complex remains relevant both formally and thematically. Handsworth Songs is no straightforward attempt to provide answers as to why the riots happened; instead, using archive film spliced with made and found footage of the events and the media and popular reaction to them, it creates a poetic sense of context.

The film is an example of counter-media in that it slows down the demand for either immediate explanation or blanket condemnation. Its stillness allows the history of immigration and the subsequent hostility of the media and the police to the black and Asian population to be told in careful detail.

One repeated scene shows a young black man running through a group of white policemen who surround him on all sides. He manages to break free several times before being wrestled to the ground; if only for one brief, utopian moment, an entirely different history of race in the UK is opened up.

The waves of post-war immigration are charted in the stories told both by a dominant (and frequently repressive) televisual narrative and, importantly, by migrants themselves. Interviews mingle with voiceover, music accompanies the machines that the Windrush generation work at. But there are no definitive answers here, only, as the Black Audio Film Collective memorably suggests, “the ghosts of songs”.

— Nina Power

11.   Los Angeles Plays Itself

Thom Andersen, 2003

One of the attractions that drew early film pioneers out west, besides the sunlight and the industrial freedom, was the versatility of the southern Californian landscape: with sea, snowy mountains, desert, fruit groves, Spanish missions, an urban downtown and suburban boulevards all within a 100-mile radius, the Los Angeles basin quickly and famously became a kind of giant open-air film studio, available and pliant.

Of course, some people actually live there too. “Sometimes I think that gives me the right to criticise,” growls native Angeleno Andersen in his forensic three-hour prosecution of moving images of the movie city, whose mounting litany of complaints – couched in Encke King’s gravelly, near-parodically irritated voiceover, and sometimes organised, as Stuart Klawans wrote in The Nation, “in the manner of a saloon orator” – belies a sly humour leavening a radically serious intent.

Inspired in part by Mark Rappaport’s factual essay appropriations of screen fictions (Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, 1993; From the Journals of Jean Seberg , 1995), as well as Godard’s Histoire(s) de cinéma, this “city symphony in reverse” asserts public rights to our screen discourse through its magpie method as well as its argument. (Today you could rebrand it ‘Occupy Hollywood’.) Tinseltown malfeasance is evidenced across some 200 different film clips, from offences against geography and slurs against architecture to the overt historical mythologies of Chinatown (1974), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) and L.A. Confidential (1997), in which the city’s class and cultural fault-lines are repainted “in crocodile tears” as doleful tragedies of conspiracy, promoting hopelessness in the face of injustice.

Andersen’s film by contrast spurs us to independent activism, starting with the reclamation of our gaze: “What if we watch with our voluntary attention, instead of letting the movies direct us?” he asks, peering beyond the foregrounding of character and story. And what if more movies were better and more useful, helping us see our world for what it is? Los Angeles Plays Itself grows most moving – and useful – extolling the Los Angeles neorealism Andersen has in mind: stories of “so many men unneeded, unwanted”, as he says over a scene from Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1983), “in a world in which there is so much to be done”.

— Nick Bradshaw

12.   La Morte Rouge

Víctor Erice, 2006

The famously unprolific Spanish director Víctor Erice may remain best known for his full-length fiction feature The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), but his other films are no less rewarding. Having made a brilliant foray into the fertile territory located somewhere between ‘documentary’ and ‘fiction’ with The Quince Tree Sun (1992), in this half-hour film made for the ‘Correspondences’ exhibition exploring resemblances in the oeuvres of Erice and Kiarostami , the relationship between reality and artifice becomes his very subject.

A ‘small’ work, it comprises stills, archive footage, clips from an old Sherlock Holmes movie, a few brief new scenes – mostly without actors – and music by Mompou and (for once, superbly used) Arvo Pärt . If its tone – it’s introduced as a “soliloquy” – and scale are modest, its thematic range and philosophical sophistication are considerable.

The title is the name of the Québécois village that is the setting for The Scarlet Claw (1944), a wartime Holmes mystery starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce which was the first movie Erice ever saw, taken by his sister to the Kursaal cinema in San Sebastian.

For the five-year-old, the experience was a revelation: unable to distinguish the ‘reality’ of the newsreel from that of the nightmare world of Roy William Neill’s film, he not only learned that death and murder existed but noted that the adults in the audience, presumably privy to some secret knowledge denied him, were unaffected by the corpses on screen. Had this something to do with war? Why was La Morte Rouge not on any map? And what did it signify that postman Potts was not, in fact, Potts but the killer – and an actor (whatever that was) to boot?

From such personal reminiscences – evoked with wondrous intimacy in the immaculate Castillian of the writer-director’s own wry narration – Erice fashions a lyrical meditation on themes that have underpinned his work from Beehive to Broken Windows (2012): time and change, memory and identity, innocence and experience, war and death. And because he understands, intellectually and emotionally, that the time-based medium he himself works in can reveal unforgettably vivid realities that belong wholly to the realm of the imaginary, La Morte Rouge is a great film not only about the power of cinema but about life itself.

Sight & Sound: the August 2013 issue

Sight & Sound: the August 2013 issue

In this issue: Frances Ha’s Greta Gerwig – the most exciting actress in America? Plus Ryan Gosling in Only God Forgives, Wadjda, The Wall,...

More from this issue

DVDs and Blu Ray

Buy The Complete Humphrey Jennings Collection Volume Three: A Diary for Timothy on DVD and Blu Ray

Buy The Complete Humphrey Jennings Collection Volume Three: A Diary for Timothy on DVD and Blu Ray

Humphrey Jennings’s transition from wartime to peacetime filmmaking.

Buy Chronicle of a Summer on DVD and Blu Ray

Buy Chronicle of a Summer on DVD and Blu Ray

Jean Rouch’s hugely influential and ground-breaking documentary.

Further reading

Video essay: The essay film – some thoughts of discontent - image

Video essay: The essay film – some thoughts of discontent

Kevin B. Lee

The land still lies: Handsworth Songs and the English riots - image

The land still lies: Handsworth Songs and the English riots

The world at sea: The Forgotten Space - image

The world at sea: The Forgotten Space

What I owe to Chris Marker - image

What I owe to Chris Marker

Patricio Guzmán

His and her ghosts: reworking La Jetée - image

His and her ghosts: reworking La Jetée

Melissa Bradshaw

At home (and away) with Agnès Varda - image

At home (and away) with Agnès Varda

Daniel Trilling

Pere Portabella looks back - image

Pere Portabella looks back

John Akomfrah’s Hauntologies - image

John Akomfrah’s Hauntologies

Laura Allsop

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50 best movies about politics

Movies about politics can provide perspective, history, comic relief, and uncanny insight as life sometimes imitates art. As America tumbles through this stormy and unprecedented election year, Stacker took a look at the 50 best films made about politics.

Some offer comfort and wisdom that heroes can prevail, like "Hotel Rwanda" or stirring portrayals of "Lincoln," "Gandhi," and the swashbuckling "Lawrence of Arabia." Others are thrillers that tell of realistic mysteries and conspiracies, like "Argo" and "Zero Dark Thirty," that keep audiences at the edge of their seats. Many teach lessons from history, such as the generations-long conflict in Northern Ireland, the Cold War, and the historic rifts in the Middle East. "Frost/Nixon" and "All the President's Men" are reminders of corruption in the White House that led to a president's downfall.

William Shakespeare provided tragedies and historic dramas that ring true centuries later, while more contemporary tales like "Network" have become cultural touchstones, with dialogue that has joined the political lexicon. Some are chilling, painting pictures of worlds people hope never to see or nightmarish dystopias set in futuristic, lawless worlds. Some threaten to break hearts with stories of brutality, pain, and compassion. But others make audiences laugh at absurdity, like the twisted comedies "Death of Stalin" and "Dr. Strangelove," the cheery satire of "Being There," or the Marx Brothers' timeless silliness in "Duck Soup."

Nearly all of the best took home armfuls of Oscars and other prestigious honors.

Stacker compiled data on all movies about politics to rank them, using a weighted index split evenly between Aug. 26 IMDb and Metacritic scores. To qualify, the film had to have an explicitly political premise, a Metascore, and at least 5,000 IMDb votes. Ties were broken by Metascore, and further ties were broken by IMDb user rating. Every film on the list has been considered according to the cinematic history and development of political films.

#50. The Constant Gardener (2005)

- Director: Fernando Meirelles - Stacker score: 81 - Metascore: 82 - IMDb user rating: 7.4 - Runtime: 129 minutes

“The Constant Gardener,” about the murder of a British diplomat’s wife in Kenya, was based on a novel by John le Carre. It delves into conspiracies and corruption by multinational corporations and governments. Actress Rachel Weisz won an Academy Award, a Golden Globes award, and a Screen Actors Guild Award for her performance.

#49. The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006)

- Director: Ken Loach - Stacker score: 82 - Metascore: 82 - IMDb user rating: 7.5 - Runtime: 127 minutes

“The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” about two brothers fighting in the Irish War for Independence, earned director Ken Loach the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006. In the film, the director’s biggest commercial success, two brothers join the Irish Republican Army after a friend is killed by the British, but are driven apart as the violence worsens.

#48. Frost/Nixon (2008)

- Director: Ron Howard - Stacker score: 82 - Metascore: 80 - IMDb user rating: 7.7 - Runtime: 122 minutes

“Frost/Nixon” stars Frank Langella and Michael Sheen in a dramatization of interviews with the former president three years after he left office during the Watergate scandal. Nixon is looking to reshape his legacy, and Frost is trying to overcome doubts that he is up to the task of such a high profile confrontation.

#47. Bridge of Spies (2015)

- Director: Steven Spielberg - Stacker score: 82 - Metascore: 81 - IMDb user rating: 7.6 - Runtime: 142 minutes

Capturing the dark tensions of the Cold War, “Bridge of Spies” is based on the true story of a 1962 prisoner exchange with the U.S.S.R. to bring home American pilot Francis Gary Powers, who had been shot down over the Soviet Union two years earlier. It was drawn from the memoir of lawyer James Donovan, played by Tom Hanks, whose client, a Soviet spy played by Mark Rylance, was being sent home in return. Rylance, a heralded British stage actor, won an Oscar for best supporting actor.

#46. In the Loop (2009)

- Director: Armando Iannucci - Stacker score: 82 - Metascore: 83 - IMDb user rating: 7.4 - Runtime: 106 minutes

The political satire “In the Loop” takes a darkly comical look at government missteps, damage control, scheming functionaries, and the media amid the threat of war. It’s drawn from the relations between Britain and the United States before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Among its actors was the late James Gandolfini, star of the hit television series “The Sopranos.”

#45. Pride (2014)

- Director: Matthew Warchus - Stacker score: 82 - Metascore: 79 - IMDb user rating: 7.8 - Runtime: 119 minutes

“Pride” tells the story of a group of gay and lesbian activists from London who pitch in to help striking miners in South Wales in 1984, and the friendships that emerged in the process. It is based on a true story , and several of the real-life characters were involved in the making and promotion of the film. Writer Stephen Beresford and producer David Livingstone won a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award for outstanding debut by a British writer, director or producer.

#44. Election 2 (2006)

- Director: Johnnie To - Stacker score: 82 - Metascore: 83 - IMDb user rating: 7.4 - Runtime: 93 minutes

Set in the gangster underworld of Hong Kong, action film “Election 2” is the saga of a bloody fight for power as the head of a crime syndicate faces a lower-ranking challenger. It features violent scenes of torture, bludgeoning, and rabid dog attacks. It follows the first “Election” film and was also released under the title “Triad Election.”

#43. Sicario (2015)

- Director: Denis Villeneuve - Stacker score: 82 - Metascore: 82 - IMDb user rating: 7.6 - Runtime: 121 minutes

The U.S.-Mexico border provides the setting for “Sicario,” a thriller about corruption, duplicity, and ethics of the U.S.-led war on drugs. Emily Blunt plays an FBI agent, joined in battle by Josh Brolin, playing a government task force officer, and Benicio del Toro as a former cartel member with a dangerous past. It was praised for its cinematography of the desert landscape, dramatic aerials, and tense action scenes inside a smuggling tunnel.

#42. BPM (Beats Per Minute) (2017)

- Director: Robin Campillo - Stacker score: 82 - Metascore: 84 - IMDb user rating: 7.4 - Runtime: 143 minutes

AIDS activists in Paris in the 1990s are the focus of “ BPM (Beats Per Minute) .” The kinetic drama portrays their passions, struggles, and conflicts as they face the growing health crisis and try to spur the government and pharmaceutical companies into action. It won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, but is considered to have been snubbed by the Oscars.

#41. Henry V (1989)

- Director: Kenneth Branagh - Stacker score: 82 - Metascore: 83 - IMDb user rating: 7.5 - Runtime: 137 minutes

Kenneth Branagh directed and starred in this film version of William Shakespeare’s battle-filled “Henry V.” The historical drama follows the newly crowned monarch as he makes plans to invade France, beset by betrayals, treachery, and power struggles. It features Derek Jacobi, Emma Thompson, Ian Holm, Judi Dench, and Christian Bale.

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#40. Hamlet (1948)

- Director: Laurence Olivier - Stacker score: 82 - Metascore: 82 - IMDb user rating: 7.6 - Runtime: 154 minutes

This version of Shakepeare’s drama, starring Laurence Olivier, is the one by which all others are measured many decades later. “Hamlet” won four Academy Awards, including best picture and best actor. Olivier focused on a psychological interpretation of the play, like Hamlet’s Oedipus complex, and his decision to cut out large sections of the play rankled some. It uses long, slow shots and shadowy, misty camerawork that underscores Hamlet’s indecision and isolation.

#39. Lincoln (2012)

- Director: Steven Spielberg - Stacker score: 83 - Metascore: 86 - IMDb user rating: 7.3 - Runtime: 150 minutes

Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar for his lead performance in “Lincoln,” which also won an Oscar for production. The drama explored the president’s political maneuvering, oratory talents, and moral courage as he tried to build support for a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery and unite a divided country against the backdrop of Civil War carnage.

#38. Milk (2008)

- Director: Gus Van Sant - Stacker score: 83 - Metascore: 84 - IMDb user rating: 7.5 - Runtime: 128 minutes

Gus Van Sant’s film “Milk” follows Harvey Milk as he grows into his historic role as the first openly gay man elected to public office in the country. Sean Penn’s character moves to San Francisco, where he is elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1977 and becomes a voice for gay rights. Penn won an Academy Award for best actor, and writer Dustin Lance Black won for best writing of an original screenplay.

#37. Gandhi (1982)

- Director: Richard Attenborough - Stacker score: 83 - Metascore: 79 - IMDb user rating: 8 - Runtime: 191 minutes

“Gandhi” won eight Academy Awards, including best picture, best director, and best actor, which went to Ben Kingsley for his portrayal of the Indian leader. The film is a lengthy biopic of Mahatma Gandhi’s life as he gives up his possessions, cultivates nonviolent resistance, and leads the cause of Indian independence. In making the film , a crowd of a half million people was needed for its funeral scene, so the filmmakers donated to various charities in exchange for help getting people to appear. The film had more than 430 speaking parts and nearly 30,000 paid extras.

#36. Russian Ark (2002)

- Director: Aleksandr Sokurov - Stacker score: 83 - Metascore: 86 - IMDb user rating: 7.4 - Runtime: 99 minutes

“Russian Ark” is an experimental political fantasy about a 19th-century aristocrat who travels through time, arriving at historical events and meeting historical figures portrayed in the Winter Palace of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. The film was shot in one day in a single continuous shot, using hundreds of actors throughout almost three-quarters of a mile of the Hermitage’s courtyards and corridors.

#35. The Death of Stalin (2017)

- Director: Armando Iannucci - Stacker score: 83 - Metascore: 88 - IMDb user rating: 7.2 - Runtime: 107 minutes

“ The Death of Stalin ” is a black comedy about the machinations of the Soviet leader’s coterie of advisors and Central Committee members as he is dying. They jockey for power and position, hide from responsibility and making decisions, and busily plot against one another. Risque and darkly funny, it features Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev, Jeffrey Tambor, Jason Isaacs, and Rupert Friend.

#34. Hotel Rwanda (2004)

- Director: Terry George - Stacker score: 83 - Metascore: 79 - IMDb user rating: 8.1 - Runtime: 121 minutes

Don Cheadle starred as the manager in “ Hotel Rwanda ,” a Hutu who sheltered and protected some 1,200 Tutsi and Hutu people during the bloody genocide of a million people in 1994. The film was based on the true story of Paul Rusesabagina, who recently was detained by Rwandan authorities on charges of terrorism, arson, and murder. He has become a critic of the Rwandan government, which has accused him of supporting opposition rebels.

#33. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)

- Director: Paul Schrader - Stacker score: 84 - Metascore: 81 - IMDb user rating: 8 - Runtime: 120 minutes

“ Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters ” portrays the life, works, and final day of Japanese playwright and author Yukio Mishima, who publicly killed himself by the rite of seppuku, or disembowelment, and had himself decapitated by a follower. The film delves into his torments, his intensity, and his fanatical belief in waging a mutiny to overthrow democracy and restore Japan’s emperor to power. It features a highly regarded score by composer Philip Glass.

#32. American Hustle (2013)

- Director: David O. Russell - Stacker score: 84 - Metascore: 90 - IMDb user rating: 7.2 - Runtime: 138 minutes

“American Hustle,” a political crime caper, is based on the true story of Abscam , an FBI sting staged in the late 1970s. In the scheme, FBI agents impersonated Arab sheikhs seeking citizenship, building permits, casino licenses, and other favors, offering cash to politicians who would help. The sting led to several convictions, including a U.S. senator, six members of the House, the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, and city council members in Philadelphia. Nominated for 10 Oscars, “American Hustle” starred Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jeremy Renner. When U.S. public sentiment later changed, Abscam came to be viewed as an expensive entrapment plot, and the U.S. Attorney General issued guidelines limiting undercover operations aimed at elected officials.

#31. Traffic (2000)

- Director: Steven Soderbergh - Stacker score: 84 - Metascore: 86 - IMDb user rating: 7.6 - Runtime: 147 minutes

“ Traffic ” is set in the thick of America’s war on drugs, weaving together stories of cartels, smuggling, politics, addiction, law enforcement, and corruption. It earned four Academy Awards, including best director for Steven Soderbergh and best supporting actor for Benicio Del Toro. The film was based on an award-winning European miniseries from 1989.

#30. Brazil (1985)

- Director: Terry Gilliam - Stacker score: 85 - Metascore: 84 - IMDb user rating: 7.9 - Runtime: 132 minutes

The futuristic story of “Brazil” centers on a technocrat trying to escape a dystopian, nightmarish tangle of bureaucracy and technology. Disturbing and absurd, the film was directed by Terry Gilliam, a former member of the comic troupe Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Gilliam was born in the United States and renounced his U.S. citizenship for British in 2006.

#29. Being There (1979)

- Director: Hal Ashby - Stacker score: 85 - Metascore: 83 - IMDb user rating: 8 - Runtime: 130 minutes

In the satirical “Being There,” Peter Sellers plays a gardener with a simple naivete who is mistaken for a political sage and rises to Washington’s highest echelons. With gentle humor, the film makes fun of politics, the media, and public gullibility. The film earned a best supporting actor Oscar for Melvyn Douglas.

#28. The Edge of Heaven (2007)

- Director: Fatih Akin - Stacker score: 85 - Metascore: 85 - IMDb user rating: 7.8 - Runtime: 122 minutes

The German film “The Edge of Heaven” looks at a host of political, cultural, and social issues as it interweaves the stories of three families in Germany and Turkey. It tackles thorny questions of immigration, class, religion, activism, radicalism, and idealism. Released in Germany with the title “Auf der anderen Seite” or “On the Other Side,” it was awarded for best screenplay at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.

#27. Children of Men (2006)

- Director: Alfonso Cuarón - Stacker score: 85 - Metascore: 84 - IMDb user rating: 7.9 - Runtime: 102 minutes

“ Children of Men ” is a bleak science-fiction thriller set in a squalid, collapsing world besieged by xenophobia, hatred, terror, and chaos in which women can no longer bear children. The movie was celebrated for its long, uninterrupted action shots, and it won British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards for cinematography and production design.

#26. Argo (2012)

- Director: Ben Affleck - Stacker score: 85 - Metascore: 86 - IMDb user rating: 7.7 - Runtime: 120 minutes

“Argo” is a tense thriller about the real-life rescue of six Americans who were trapped in Iran and hiding at the residence of the Canadian ambassador during the 1979 hostage crisis. Led by a CIA operative played by Ben Affleck, the risky plan called for them to escape while posing as a Canadian film crew. “Argo” gets a boost from actors John Goodman and Alan Arkin as Hollywood characters who help produce the phony movie and Bryan Cranston as Affleck’s boss.

#25. Incendies (2010)

- Director: Denis Villeneuve - Stacker score: 85 - Metascore: 80 - IMDb user rating: 8.3 - Runtime: 131 minutes

Shot in Jordan, “Incendies” is the story of adult twins, a brother and sister, who travel to the Middle East to fulfill their mother’s dying wishes and find family they never knew. On their journey , they learn of the politics, war, and horrors that shaped their mother’s life. “Incendies” is a Canadian movie, based on a stage play, with dialogue in French and Arabic, and it was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film.

#24. The Fool (2014)

- Director: Yuriy Bykov - Stacker score: 85 - Metascore: 83 - IMDb user rating: 8 - Runtime: 116 minutes

In the Russian drama “The Fool,” a morally upright plumber does battle with an army of corrupt and greedy bureaucrats. At stake are the lives of hundreds of residents living in a building poised to collapse. Underscoring the dismal saga, the movie is set entirely at night.

#23. Network (1976)

- Director: Sidney Lumet - Stacker score: 85 - Metascore: 83 - IMDb user rating: 8.1 - Runtime: 121 minutes

In “ Network ,” a scathing takedown of political culture and the news media, television anchorman Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch, comes unraveled as his network is taken over by a multinational conglomerate. His memorable character gave the world the now oft-quoted line: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” More than four decades on, “Network” gets kudos for its insight into political demagoguery, corporate power, and the integrity of journalism. It won four Oscars—best screenplay for Paddy Chayefsky, best supporting actress for Beatrice Straight, best actress for Faye Dunaway, and best actor for Finch, who died before the awards ceremony was held.

#22. Downfall (2004)

- Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel - Stacker score: 85 - Metascore: 82 - IMDb user rating: 8.2 - Runtime: 156 minutes

“Downfall,” released in German as “Der Untergang,” depicts the last days in the life of Adolf Hitler as the Third Reich collapses in defeat in 1945. It’s set in Berlin in Hitler’s labyrinth bunker underground and in the fighting in the streets above. The movie is based in part on a memoir by Hitler’s personal secretary Traudl Junge, who was with Hitler in his final days. Excerpts of interviews with Junge, who was jailed after the war, are included in the film.

#21. All the President’s Men (1976)

- Director: Alan J. Pakula - Stacker score: 85 - Metascore: 84 - IMDb user rating: 8.0 - Runtime: 138 minutes

Based on the true story of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, “All the President’s Men” recounts the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon in 1974. The reporters cover a seemingly minor break-in at the Democratic Party’s national headquarters and, suspicions aroused, “follow the money” under the guidance of the mysterious source Deep Throat and the courageous wisdom of Post editor Ben Bradlee. It earned four Oscars, including best supporting actor for Jason Robards, who played Bradlee, and best screenplay for William Goldman.

#20. The Queen (2006)

- Director: Stephen Frears - Stacker score: 85 - Metascore: 91 - IMDb user rating: 7.3 - Runtime: 103 minutes

“ The Queen ” provides a fictionalized glimpse of royal life when Diana, Princess of Wales, was killed in a car accident in 1997. It delves into the emotional and political response of the Queen, played by Helen Mirren, and others in the royal family as they struggle with how to respond to the public’s deep mourning. Mirren won the Oscar for best actress.

#19. Kagemusha (1980)

- Director: Akira Kurosawa - Stacker score: 85 - Metascore: 84 - IMDb user rating: 8 - Runtime: 162 minutes

The drama “ Kagemusha ,” set in feudal Japan, portrays a thief who, because of his appearance, is pressed into service as a double for a slain warlord. The film is filled with epic battles and political intrigue. Hollywood’s George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola helped Kurosawa get financing when he ran into budget trouble. The film took nine months to shoot, with 200 specially trained horses shipped to Japan from the United States and 5,000 extras used in its battle scene finale.

#18. In the Name of the Father (1993)

- Director: Jim Sheridan - Stacker score: 86 - Metascore: 84 - IMDb user rating: 8.1 - Runtime: 133 minutes

Based on a true story, “In the Name of the Father” recounts the case of the Guildford Four—four men accused of being members of the provisional IRA and bombing a London pub in 1974, killing several people. They were convicted and sentenced to life in prison amid doubts over their guilt. The film draws from the memoir of one of the men, Gerry Conlon, played by Daniel Day-Lewis.

#17. Bloody Sunday (2002)

- Director: Paul Greengrass - Stacker score: 86 - Metascore: 90 - IMDb user rating: 7.6 - Runtime: 107 minutes

“ Bloody Sunday ” tells the story of the fatal shooting of 13 unarmed civilians during a demonstration in Northern Ireland in 1972. Based on true events, it’s filmed like a documentary and tensions build as marchers face off with uneasy British soldiers. Actor James Nesbitt and director Paul Greengrass were winners at the British Independent Film Awards. The film credits list the names of those killed, and U2’s song “Sunday Bloody Sunday” plays over a darkened screen when the credits finish.

#16. The Favourite (2018)

- Director: Yorgos Lanthimos - Stacker score: 86 - Metascore: 91 - IMDb user rating: 7.5 - Runtime: 119 minutes

In “The Favourite,” actress Olivia Colman portrays a sickly, petulant Queen Anne playing her closest confidants against one another. While England is at war with France, life in the palace is a nest of treachery, political shenanigans, and debauchery. Colman scooped up an Oscar, Golden Globes award, and British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award for her performance.

#15. Spartacus (1960)

- Director: Stanley Kubrick - Stacker score: 86 - Metascore: 87 - IMDb user rating: 7.9 - Runtime: 197 minutes

The epic film “Spartacus” recounts a slave revolt led by Spartacus, played by Kirk Douglas, against the Roman Empire. The cast included such greats as Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, and Peter Ustinov who won an Oscar for best supporting actor. It also won a Golden Globes award for best motion picture—drama.

#14. To Be or Not to Be (1942)

- Director: Ernst Lubitsch - Stacker score: 88 - Metascore: 86 - IMDb user rating: 8.2 - Runtime: 99 minutes

The satirical “To Be or Not to Be” revolves around a Polish theater troupe that is drawn into spying during the Nazi occupation. Despite its dark setting, the film is considered a comic masterpiece . It starred Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, who was killed in a plane crash a month before its release.

#13. The King’s Speech (2010)

- Director: Tom Hooper - Stacker score: 88 - Metascore: 88 - IMDb user rating: 8 - Runtime: 118 minutes

“ The King’s Speech ” is based on the true story of Britain’s King George VI, Queen Elizabeth II’s father, as he struggled to overcome a stutter and secure his public image as the country stood at the brink of war. He was helped by speech therapist Lionel Logue, whose diary about working with the king was used in making the film. The monarch was played by Colin Firth, who won an Oscar for his lead performance. The film also won Oscars for best picture, best director, and best original screenplay.

#12. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

- Director: Kathryn Bigelow - Stacker score: 88 - Metascore: 95 - IMDb user rating: 7.4 - Runtime: 157 minutes

“ Zero Dark Thirty ” is a thriller based on the U.S. hunt for Osama bin Laden and depicted the controversial use of torture in prisoner interrogation. The star of the movie is Jessica Chastain, who played a CIA counterterrorism officer and won a Golden Globes award.

#11. Persepolis (2007)

- Directors: Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi - Stacker score: 89 - Metascore: 90 - IMDb user rating: 8 - Runtime: 96 minutes

Based on a graphic novel, “Persepolis” is an animated film about an Iranian girl named Marjane during the Islamic Revolution in the 1970s. She is sent away for her protection from the rise in fundamental extremism, but returns several years later. Voices are provided by Chiara Mastroianni as Marjane, Catherine Deneuve as her mother—and Mastroianni’s real-life mother, Sean Penn as her father, and Gena Rowlands as her grandmother.

#10. Duck Soup (1933)

- Director: Leo McCarey - Stacker score: 89 - Metascore: 93 - IMDb user rating: 7.8 - Runtime: 69 minutes

“ Duck Soup ” is a Marx Brothers classic featuring Groucho as Rufus T. Firefly, the ruler of Fredonia; Zeppo as his secretary; and Harpo and Chico as enemy spies for a neighboring country. The movie with its suggestive insults and double entendres was made just before the Hays Code , which set “moral standards” for movies, was fully enforced in Hollywood.

#9. The Lives of Others (2006)

- Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck - Stacker score: 90 - Metascore: 89 - IMDb user rating: 8.4 - Runtime: 137 minutes

Set in Berlin in 1984, “ The Lives of Others ” is a haunting drama about an East German intelligence officer whose job it is to spy on a successful playwright. As the agent listens in on the intimate details of the playwright’s life, he comes to question the decency, morality, and humanity of his job. The film won an Oscar for best foreign language film.

#8. The Irishman (2019)

- Director: Martin Scorsese - Stacker score: 90 - Metascore: 94 - IMDb user rating: 7.9 - Runtime: 209 minutes

In Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” an aged hitman played by Robert De Niro reflects on his life and his involvement with the disappearance of Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa. It also stars mobster film veterans Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel. Financed by Netflix, the film is three-and-a-half hours long.

#7. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

- Director: John Frankenheimer - Stacker score: 90 - Metascore: 94 - IMDb user rating: 7.9 - Runtime: 126 minutes

“The Manchurian Candidate” is a Cold War thriller about a prisoner of war who is brainwashed as part of a Communist conspiracy against the United States to become a political assassin. It starred Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury, and Frank Sinatra, who helped finance the production. Sinatra got President John F. Kennedy to support the making of the film when executives at United Artists balked at the subject matter.

#6. The Battle of Algiers (1966)

- Director: Gillo Pontecorvo - Stacker score: 92 - Metascore: 96 - IMDb user rating: 8.1 - Runtime: 121 minutes

“ The Battle of Algiers ” recreates scenes from the Algerian struggle for independence from France in the 1950s. A classic of cinema verite, it was shot in black-and-white documentary style, unflinchingly portraying urban warfare, bomb blasts, and rioting mobs.

#5. The Conformist (1970)

- Director: Bernardo Bertolucci - Stacker score: 94 - Metascore: 100 - IMDb user rating: 8 - Runtime: 113 minutes

“ The Conformist ” follows a member of an Italian fascist organization ordered to assassinate a political dissident who is his former university professor. The dark, shady imagery and eerily confining sets of the film, considered a political masterpiece, provide a backdrop to the assassin on his way to fulfilling his duty.

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

- Director: Stanley Kubrick - Stacker score: 94 - Metascore: 97 - IMDb user rating: 8.4 - Runtime: 95 minutes

“Dr. Strangelove” is a black comedy about a wildly unhinged general threatening to launch a nuclear bomb attack against the Soviet Union, convinced that the Communists have poisoned the American water supply with fluoride. Peter Sellars plays three roles with panache in the Cold War satire , including U.S. President Merkin Muffley and the heavily accented Dr. Strangelove, whose gloved arm uncontrollably flies into Nazi salutes.

#3. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

- Director: David Lean - Stacker score: 95 - Metascore: 100 - IMDb user rating: 8.3 - Runtime: 228 minutes

The epic “Lawrence of Arabia” is based on the story of T.E. Lawrence, an English officer who banded together Arab tribes in World War I in Britain’s battles against the Turks. Played by Peter O’Toole, Lawrence led surprise raids, perilous desert journeys, and daring rescues. It took home seven Oscars, including best picture, best director, and best color cinematography.

#2. Citizen Kane (1941)

- Director: Orson Welles - Stacker score: 95 - Metascore: 100 - IMDb user rating: 8.3 - Runtime: 119 minutes

Orson Welles was director, producer, and star of “Citizen Kane,” the story of an enigmatic newspaper tycoon. It follows the efforts of a reporter trying to decipher why the once powerful Charles Foster Kane died alone and the meaning of his last word, “Rosebud.” Claiming it constituted defamation, newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst tried to stop the release of the film and would not allow it to be advertised in his newspapers.

#1. Schindler’s List (1993)

- Director: Steven Spielberg - Stacker score: 95 - Metascore: 94 - IMDb user rating: 8.9 - Runtime: 195 minutes

“Schindler’s List” is a powerful, moving film based on the true story of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who initially used Jews in Krakow’s ghetto as free labor for his factory. As he awakens to the realization that they would otherwise be sent to death camps, he schemes to get more workers for his munitions factory. By the war’s end, it is estimated that he saved the lives of 1,100 people, several of whom appeared in the final scene of the heart-wrenching film at the grave of the real-life Schindler in Jerusalem. “Schindler’s List,” which stars Liam Neeson, won seven Oscars, including best picture, best director, best cinematography, and best film editing.

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World Cinema and the Essay Film: Transnational Perspectives on a Global Practice

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  • Published: July 2019
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In this introductory chapter readers are made familiar with the expanding research field of essayistic filmmaking in world cinema-contexts around the globe. Brenda Hollweg and Igor Krstíc argue that the essay film is a privileged political and ethical tool by means of which filmmakers around the world approach historically specific and locally, geographically concrete issues against larger global issues and universal concerns. The chapter also includes a genealogical overview of important moments in the development of essay filmmaking, particularly during the 1920s and 1960s, and provides readers with short abstracts on the individual chapters and their specific transnationally inflected case studies on essay film practitioners from around the world.

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The Essay Film: Dialogue, Politics, Utopia

Profile image of Caroline Eades

2016, The Essay Film: Dialogue, Politics, Utopia, co-edited by Elizabeth A Papazian and Caroline Eades. London: Wallflower Press, November 2016 (ISBN: 9780231176958 (pbk), 9780231176941 (hbk), 9780231851039 (e-book).

With its increasing presence in a continuously evolving media environment, the essay film as a visual form raises new questions about the construction of the subject, its relationship to the world, and the aesthetic possibilities of cinema. In this volume, authors specializing in various national cinemas (Cuban, French, German, Israeli, Italian, Lebanese, Polish, Russian, American) and critical approaches (historical, aesthetic, postcolonial, feminist, philosophical) explore the essay film and its consequences for the theory of cinema while building on and challenging existing theories. Taking as a guiding principle the essay form's dialogic, fluid nature, the volume examines the potential of the essayistic to question, investigate, and reflect on all forms of cinema—fiction film, popular cinema, and documentary, video installation, and digital essay. Includes contributions by Luka Arsenjuk, Martine Beugnet, Luca Caminati, Timothy Corrigan, Oliver Gaycken, Anne Eakin-Moss, Ernesto Livon-Grosman, Laura U. Marks, Laura Rascaroli, Mauro Resmini, and Eric Zakim.

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The essay film is one emerging genre in which the sonic elements and the editing characteristics are constructing the basis of its communication structure within and beyond the audiovisual material. This paper will enlighten the unique language and the means of communication of the essay form. In the essay film, the voice functions as a means of expression as opposed to a stack of sounds. With the support of the editing elements, the voice becomes a stylistic reflection towards the world, where the audience perceives the tone of the filmmaker. The voice is also not a rhetoric that oppresses the viewer but functions as a bridge to communicate with, and throughout, the audiovisual material as an artistic act that demands an intellectual response, like an open letter to be finalized in the viewers’ mind. The essay film does not seek to provide answers. Rather, it asks questions to the viewer, directly or indirectly, throughout the dialogue as the core of this filmmaking style. For the filmmaker to communicate with their viewer effectively, they position themselves as part of the audience. The essay film strives to go beyond formal, conceptual, and social constraint. Its structure undermines traditional boundaries, and is both structurally and conceptually transgressive, as well as self-reflective. It also questions the subject positions of the filmmaker and audience as well as the audiovisual medium itself – whether film, video, or digital electronic. This work highlights the dialogical characteristics of the essay film through a selection of essay film works with a focus on the voiceover usage and editing characteristics, to understand how a body of essayistic work addresses the viewer for a dialogical relationship.

political films essay

Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television (32) 4, 2012: 637-639

Dagmar Brunow

Lourdes Monterrubio Ibáñez

The present article aims to show how the consolidation of the cinematic form of the essay film in Jean-Luc Godard’s work is a consequence of the evolution of his experience in the cinéma militant. This militant cinema emerges from the political and social circumstances that caused May 68 and in the case of the filmmaker is materialized through his participation in the Dziga Vertov Group. The defining elements of the group’s filmic experience –the supremacy of montage, the dialectics between images and sounds and the relevance of the spectator as an active part of a dialogical practice– are the same that bring about the essayistic form when the film is enunciated from the author’s subjectivity. With the analysis of Letter to Jane this paper tries to demonstrate how the irruption of subjectivity in the revolutionary cinematic practice allows the appearance of self-reflexivity and the thinking process that define the cinematic essay. RESUMEN El presente artículo pretende mostrar cómo la consolidación de la forma cinematográfica del film-ensayo en la obra de Jean-Luc Godard es consecuencia de la evolución de su experiencia en el cinéma militant. Un cine militante que surge de las circunstancias político-sociales que dieron lugar a mayo del 68 y que en el caso del cineasta se materializa mediante su participación en el Grupo Dziga Vertov. Los elementos definitorios de la experiencia fílmica del grupo –la primacía del montaje, la dialéctica entre imágenes y sonidos y la relevancia del espectador como parte activa de una práctica dialogística– son los mismos que propician la forma ensayística cuando la obra se enuncia desde la subjetividad del autor. Con el análisis de Letter to Jane pretendemos mostrar cómo la irrupción de la subjetividad en la práctica cinematográfica revolucionaria posibilita la aparición de la auto-reflexión y del proceso de pensamiento definitorios del ensayo cinematográfico.

Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media

carolina sourdis

The essayistic device in film often brings together two temporalities of film creation: the present of the filmed image and the present of the editing process. Through the interaction of both moments, provoked by the critical revision of the raw material and its possibilities of montage, the essay film is constructed through the filmmaker’s exploration of the filmic apparatus, thus revealing film forms as a way of producing and disseminating knowledge. The essay film, therefore, subverts a common theoretical practice: thought is no longer assumed as a procedure for unveiling an image, but it is rather produced by film forms. We claim that the essay film, as a research methodology and a theoretical approximation to film informed by practice, must be unfolded through creative gestures, this is to say, images and sounds that present an audiovisual synthesis of the conscious and intuitive work that both precedes and is synchronic to the moments of filming and editing. This article addre...

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This article intends to identify characteristic traits of the essay film in The Amazed Spectator / O Espectador Espantado (2016), by the Portuguese filmmaker Edgar Pêra. Throughout the analysis, I reflect on how the use of different types of resources-technical (3D), compositional (color and space) and social (the communities involved)-combine to create a sensory object, one which not only aims to question the relationship between the viewers and the films but is also helpful in understanding the director's praxis. More than providing answers, The Amazed Spectator poses questions, prompting a constant dialogue, be it between the film's interviewees, be it among the actors who represent the different kinds of film audiences or the viewers, who watch Pêra's film. Positioning myself as a viewer of the said film, I try to reproduce sensations, add further layers of doubt to the questions posed and erect a new discourse on the The Amazed Spectator. Amongst enigmas and contradictions, one can state that The Amazed Spectator is an essay film about cinema (more specifically about the opposition between window cinema and screen cinema) but might also be about life. That is to say, the way that the viewers-amongst the fear and the awe-go about assuming either a more passive or a more interventional stance towards the world.

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Though it stubbornly resists classification, the essay in cinema still tends to be approached as a genre or quasi-genre constituted through recurring structural traits. This article develops an alternative view by stressing the adaptive principles of the form, specifically as they concern citation, self-portraiture, and an implicit running dialogue with a spectator who potentially shares in the intellectual labor of montage. I offer a pointed discussion of the Essais of Montaigne in order to draw attention to the activity of essaying over time, in and across multiple works. Then, while extending this conception to several of the cinema's most prolific essayists, I focus on how Jean-Luc Godard takes up a Montaignian sense of the practice in his late endeavors of self-portrayal, most notably in his film JLG/JLG: Autoportrait in December and in his video series Histoire(s) du cinéma. Ultimately I argue that what distinguishes the most capable essayists working with sounds and images is a " pedagogical " mission to pass on to the spectator not simply ideas and arguments but a particular way of seeing, a means of investigation to be incisively replayed and re-tested.

Comparative Cinema

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Abstract The essay film is defined by its capability to embody an audiovisual thinking process. Chris Marker’s Sans soleil/Sunless (1983) is undoubtedly one of the highest expressions of this filmic form, which reflects on postmodernity through the nature of images. This article aims to analyse the thinking in act of the film, using Jacques Rancière's concept of sentence-image, and applying Gilles Deleuze's theory of the time-image and the crystal-image. The cinematic thinking process thus develops through a succession of sentence-images, which forces the spectator to constantly transform the actual image/virtual image relationship of the film until it reaches a time-image and crystal-image of postmodernity. It is possible thanks to the shifts among the different subjectivities created by Marker and the interstices they generate. This shift also reaches a crystal-image as a materialisation of the postmodern concept of alterity as analysed by Paul Ricœur and Zygmunt Bauman. The reflection is constructed by means of an itinerary through four types of images and their screens –film image, television image, electronic image and video game image– in order to develop the image-memory-history axis and to generate an audiovisual reflection on postmodernity in total consonance with Jean Baudrillard's theory of the image, Marc Augé's of non-places or Fredric Jameson's of the postmodern historicism. Keywords: essay film, cinematic thinking, postmodernity, time-image.


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essay films

Defining the Cinematic Essay: The Essay Film by Elizabeth A. Papazian & Caroline Eades, and Essays on the Essay Film by Nora M. Alter & Timothy Corrigan

political films essay

When it came time for the students to create their own documentaries, one of my policies was for them to “throw objectivity out the window”. To quote John Grierson, documentaries are the “creative treatment of actuality.” Capturing the truth, whatever it may be, is quite nearly impossible if not utterly futile. Often, filmmakers deliberately manipulate their footage in order to achieve educational, informative and persuasive objectives. To illustrate, I screened Robert Flaherty’s 1922 film Nanook of the North and always marveled at the students’ reactions when, after the screening, I informed them that the film’s depiction of traditional Inuit life was entirely a reenactment. While many students were shocked and disappointed when they learned this, others accepted Flaherty’s defence of the film as true to the spirit, if not the letter, of the Inuit’s vanishing way of life. Another example that I screened was a clip from controversial filmmaker Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002) which demonstrated how Moore shrewdly used editing to villainise then-NRA president Charlton Heston. Though a majority of the class agreed with Moore’s anti-gun violence agenda, many were infuriated about being “lied to” and “misled” by the editing tactics. Naturally these examples also raise questions about the role of ethics in documentary filmmaking, but even films that are not deliberately manipulative are still “the product of individuals, [and] will always display bias and be in some manner didactic.” (Alter/Corrigan, p. 193.)

To further my point on the elusive nature of objectivity, I screened Alain Resnais’s Nuit et brouillard ( Night and Fog , 1956), Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983) and Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008.) Yet at this point I began to wonder if I was still teaching documentary or if I had ventured into some other territory. I was aware that Koyaanisqatsi had also been classified as an experimental film by notable scholars such as David Bordwell. On the other hand, Nuit et brouillard is labeled a documentary film but poses more questions than answers, since it is “unable to adequately document the reality it seeks.” (Alter/Corrigan p. 210.) Resnais’s short film interweaves black and white archival footage with colour film of Auschwitz and other camps. The colour sequences were shot in 1955, when the camps had already been deserted for ten years.   Nuit et brouillard scrutinises the brutality of the Holocaust while contemplating the social, political and ethical responsibilities of the Nazis. Yet it also questions the more abstract role of knowledge and memory, both individual and communal, within the context of such horrific circumstances. The students did not challenge Night and Fog’s classification as a documentary, but they wondered if Waltz with Bashir and especially Sans Soleil had entirely different objectives since they seemed to do more than present factual information. The students also noted that these films seemed to merge with other genres, and wondered if there was a different classification for them aside from poetic, observational, participatory, et al.  Although it is animated, Waltz with Bashir is classified as a documentary since it is based on Folman’s own experiences during the 1982 Lebanon War. Also, as Roger Ebert notes, animation is “the best way to reconstruct memories, fantasies, hallucinations, possibilities, past and present.” 2 However, it is not solely a document of Folman’s experiences or of the war itself. It is also a subjective meditation on the nature of human perception. As Folman attempts to reconstruct past events through the memories of his fellow soldiers, Waltz with Bashir investigates the very nature of truth itself. These films definitely challenged the idea of documentary as a strict genre, but the students noticed that they each had interesting similarities. Aside from educating, informing and persuading, they also used non-fiction sounds and images to visualise abstract concepts and ideas.

Sans Soleil (Marker, 1983)

Sans Soleil has been described as “a meditation on place […] where spatial availability confuses the sense of time and memory.” (Alter/Corrigan, p. 117.) Some of my students felt that Marker’s film, which is composed of images from Japan and elsewhere, was more like a “filmed travelogue”. Others described it as a “film journal” since Marker used images and narration to describe certain experiences, thoughts and memories. Yet my students’ understanding of Sans Soleil was problematised when they discovered that the narration was delivered by “a fictional, nameless woman […] reading aloud from, or else paraphrasing, letters sent to her by a fictional, globe-trotting cameraman.” 3 Upon learning this, several students wondered if Sans Soleil was actually a narrative and not a documentary at all. I briefly explained that, since it was also an attempt to visualise abstract concepts, Sans Soleil was known as an essay film. Yet this only complicated things further!  The students wondered if other films we saw in the class were essayistic as well. Was Koyaanisqatsi an essay on humanity’s impact on the world? Was Jesus Camp (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, 2006) an essay on the place of religion in society and politics?  Where was the line between documentary and the essay film? Between essay and narrative? Or was the essay just another type of documentary?  Rather than immerse myself in the difficulties of describing the essay film, I quickly changed the topic to the students’ own projects, and encouraged them to shape their documentaries through related processes of investigation and exploration.

If I had been able to read “Essays on the Essay Film” by Nora M. Alter & Timothy Corrigan and “The Essay Film: Dialogue, Politics, Utopia” by Elizabeth A. Papazian & Caroline Eades before teaching this class, I still may not have been able to provide definitive answers to my students’ questions. But this is not to say that either of these books are vague and inconclusive! Each one is an insightful collection of articles that explores the complexities of the essay film. In her essay “The Essay Film: Problems, Definitions, Textual Commitments” featured in Alter and Corrigan’s “Essays on the Essay Film” Laura Rascaroli wisely notes that “we must resist the temptation to overtheorise the form or, even worse, to crystallise it into a genre…” since the essay film is a “matrix of all generic possibilities.” (Alter/Corrigan, p. 190) Fabienne Costa goes so far as saying that “The ‘cinematographic essay’ is neither a category of films nor a genre. It is more a type of image, which achieves essay quality.” (Alter/Corrigan, p. 190) It is true that filmmakers, critics, and scholars (myself included) have attempted to understand the essay film better by grouping it with genres that bear many similarities, such as documentary and experimental cinema. Yet despite these similarities, the authors suggest that the essay film needs to be differentiated from both documentary and avant-garde practices of filmmaking. Both “Essays on the Essay Film” and “The Essay Film: Dialogue, Politics, Utopia” illustrate that this mutable form should not be understood as a specific genre, but rather recognised for its profoundly reflective and reflexive capabilities. The essay film can even defy established formulas. As stated by filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin in his essay “Proposal for a Tussle” the essay film “can navigate from documentary to fiction and back, creating other polarities in the process between which it can operate.” (Alter/Corrigan, p. 270.)

Nora M. Alter and Timothy Corrigan’s “Essays on the Essay Film” consists of writings by distinguished scholars such as Andre Bazin, Theodore Adorno, Hans Richter and Laura Mulvey, but also includes more recent work by Thomas Elsaesser, Laura Rascaroli and others. Although each carefully selected text spans different time periods and cultural backgrounds, Alter and Corrigan weave together a comprehensive, yet pliable description of the cinematic essay.

“Essays on the Essay Film” begins by including articles that investigate the form and function of the written essay. This first chapter, appropriately titled “Foundations” provides a solid groundwork for many of the concepts discussed in the following chapters. Although the written essay is obviously different from the work created by filmmakers such as Chris Marker and Trinh T. Minh-ha, Alter and Corrigan note that these texts “have been influential to both critics and practitioners of the contemporary film essay.” (p. 7) The articles in this chapter range from Georg Lukacs’s 1910 “On the Nature and Form of the Essay” to “Preface to the Collected Essays of Aldous Huxley” which was published in 1960. Over a span of fifty years, the authors illustrate how the very concept of the essay was affected by changing practices of art, history, philosophy, culture, economics, politics, as well as through modernist and postmodernist lenses. However, these articles are still surprisingly relevant for contemporary scholars and practitioners. For example, in an excerpt from The Man Without Qualities , Robert Musil writes that, “A man who wants the truth becomes a scholar; a man who wants to give free play to his subjectivity may become a writer; but what should a man do who wants something in between?” (p. 45.) Naturally, this reminded me of my class’s discussion on Sans Soleil and Waltz with Bashir. It concisely encapsulates the difficulties that arise when the essay film crosses boundaries of fiction and non-fiction. However, in his 1948 essay “On the Essay and its Prose”, Max Bense believes that the essay lies within the realm of experimentation, since “there is a strange border area that develops between poetry and prose, between the aesthetic stage of creation and the ethical stage of persuasion.”  (p. 52.)  Bense also notes that the word “essay” itself means “to attempt” or to “experiment” and believes that the essay firmly belongs in the realm of experimental and avant-garde. This is appropriate enough, given that writers, and more recently filmmakers and video artists have pushed the boundaries of their mediums in order to explore their deepest thoughts and emotions.

Alter and Corrigan follow this chapter with “The Essay Film Through History” which details the evolution of the essay film. Writing in 1940, Hans Richter considers the essay film a new type of documentary and praises its abilities to break beyond the purportedly objective goals of documentaries in an attempt to “visualize thoughts on screen.” (p. 91) Eighteen years later, Andre Bazin celebrates Chris Marker’s thought-provoking voice-over narration as well as his method of “not restricting himself to using documentary images filmed on the spot, but [using] any and all filmic material that might help his case.” (p. 104) Bazin even compares Marker’s style to the work of animator Norman McLaren, supporting the idea of the essay film’s use of unfettered creativity. By the time the reader gets to the third chapter, “Contemporary Positions”, he or she is well aware of the capricious and malleable nature of the essay film. As Corrigan remarks:

As it develops in and out of those documentary and avant-garde traditions, the history of the essay film underlines a central critical point: that the essayistic should not necessarily be seen simply as an alternative to either of these practices (or to narrative cinema); rather it rhymes with and retimes them as counterpoints within and to them. Situated between the categories of realism and formal experimentation and geared to the possibilities of “public expression,” the essay film suggests an appropriation of certain avant-garde and documentary practices in a way different from the early historical practices of both, just as it tends to invert and restructure the relations between the essayistic and narrative to subsume narrative within that public expression. The essayistic play between fact and fiction, between the documentary and the experimental, or between non-narrative and narrative becomes a place where the essay film inhabits other forms and practices. (p. 198)

Alter and Corrigan’s volume implies that the essay can inhabit many forms, styles or genres. More importantly is the idea that it should be recognised for its intentions and capabilities. Whatever form it takes, the essay is an attempt to seek, explore, understand, visualise and question, without necessarily providing clearly defined answers. The essay film also places considerable value on the intellect and opinion of the viewer, since it is an invitation to reflect on the thoughts, experiences, emotions and perceptions that are being conveyed. “Essays on the Essay Film” sensibly concludes with the chapter entitled “Filmmakers on the Essayistic”. Notable filmmakers, such as Lynn Sachs and Ross McElwee provide valuable insight into their own practices. The featured filmmakers, documentarians and video artists in this chapter do not focus specifically on what form their work takes, but what they are trying to achieve. For instance, in her article “On Writing the Film Essay,” Lynn Sachs proclaims that “My job is not to educate but rather to spark a curiosity in my viewer that moves from the inside out.” (p. 287.) Admittedly, Sachs’s statement contradicts the idea that documentary films seek to educate, inform and persuade, which I taught in my own classes. Yet Sachs’s insights, as well as those of the many other filmmakers in “Essays on the Essay Film” demonstrate how the camera is as versatile as the pen when communicating thoughts, emotions and ideas.

Tree of Life (Malick, 2011)

Elizabeth A. Papazian and Caroline Eades have also compiled several surprising, challenging and thoroughly captivating articles that exemplify the many forms that the essay film can take. The Essay Film: Dialogue, Politics, Utopia includes articles by several prominent scholars that explore the essay film’s place throughout history as well as within various cultural settings. Like Alter and Corrigan, they also present a convincing argument that the essay film is distinct from both documentary, avant-garde and narrative filmmaking, since it is “characterized by a loose, fragmentary, playful, even ironic approach […] and raises new questions about the construction of the subject, the relationship of the subject to the world and the aesthetic possibilities of cinema.” (Papazian/Eades, p. 1) Papazian and Eades explore how essayistic tendencies can manifest in narrative, documentary, avant-garde, and even video art through careful analyses of specific films and videos. The book opens with Timothy Corrigan’s “Essayism and Contemporary Film Narrative” which explores how the essayistic can inhabit narrative film, specifically through Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Lech Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross , both released in 2011. Corrigan observes that The Tree of Life “continually seems to resist its own narrative logic” (p. 18) by presenting a highly fragmented and non-linear plot.  Instead of placing it into the hybrid realm of experimental-narrative, however, Corrigan argues that:

Rather than locate a linear connection between past, present and future, the narrative flashbacks in The Tree of Life become a search for genesis – or more accurately many geneses – which might be better described as disruptive recollections that never adequately collect and circulate, as fractured and drifting images and moments producing not evolutionary lines, but the spreading reflective branches of essayism. (p. 19-20.)

The Essay Film: Dialogue, Politics, Utopia continues with essays by other acclaimed, yet indefinable filmmakers such as Jean Luc-Godard and Claire Denis. Essays by Rick Warner and Martine Beugnet explore how these filmmakers defy closure and continuity, even while appearing to work within established forms and genres. Ann Eaken Moss explores the essayistic approach that Chantal Akerman imbues within her experimental “home movies.”   News from Home (1977) is a meditation on Akerman’s own sense of dislocation from her home in Belgium while she adapts to life in New York City. In “Inside/Outside: Nicolasito Guillen Landrian’s Subversive Strategy in Coffea Arabiga” Ernesto Livon-Grosman investigates Landrian’s means of furtively including his own political agenda within a government-sanctioned documentary. What was meant to be a propagandistic documentary about the benefits of Cuban coffee plantations becomes an essayistic critique on the power structure of Fidel Castro’s government. (Livon-Grosman.) Papazian and Eades conclude their volume with an afterward by Laura Rascaroli, affirming that “it is with the potentiality of all essay films to question and challenge their own form”. (p. 300) The essay film may be distinct from narrative, documentary and the avant-garde, but it itself has no discernable style or formula. The Essay Film: Dialogue, Politics, Utopia clearly illustrates how the essay film, although bordering on established genres “must create the conditions of its own form.” (pp. 301-302.) Every filmmaker’s unique thoughts, experiences, meditations, questions and perceptions cannot neatly fit into a strict set of generic guidelines. However, this does not make the essay film more difficult to understand, but further implies that it is a unique practice rather than a specific form.

News from Home (Akerman, 1977)

Even with the insight provided by these two volumes, I do not regret introducing the essay film to my documentary students, despite their questions and confusion. As illustrated throughout Essays on the Essay Film and The Essay Film: Dialogue, Politics, Utopia it has typically been an esoteric and transgressive form, and perhaps including it with better known genres such as documentary and experimental films could be an effective way of introducing it to beginning filmmakers and scholars. Then again, perhaps it should be taught as a form separate from documentary, narrative and the avant-garde. I do wish that I was able to speak more about it at length during that particular instance, since the essay film deserves a considerable amount of thought and attention. Whether or not there is a correct pedagogical approach to teaching the essay film, both of these volumes are tremendously illuminating, but also open the door to further discussion about this compelling form of cinema.

  • Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary , 2nd ed. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2010). ↩
  • Roger Ebert, “Waltz with Bashir”, rogerebert.com , January 21, 2009, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/waltz-with-bashir-2009 ↩
  • Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Personal Effects: The Guarded Intimacy of Sans Soleil”, The Criterion Collection , June 25, 2017, https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/484-personal-effects-the-guarded-intimacy-of-sans-soleil ↩

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This is England: Narrative and Ideology

Binary opposites (Theory by Levi Strauss) How are they used to achieve narrative or aesthetic tension?

Levi Strauss argues that one side of the binary pair is always seen by a particular culture as more valued than the other (Meadows deliberately places us to side more with Woody than Combo etc)

Skinheads vs Racists Two different types of Skinhead culture presented. Rise in discrimination partly due to economic recession leading to working class insecurities about the stability of their homes/jobs (see ethnic minorities as threats – time of significant unemployment/de-industrialisation).

Youth vs Old

Left-Wing vs Right-Wing (Liberal vs Conservative)

Patriotism vs Nationalism

Violent Masculinity vs Hegemonic Masculinity

White vs Black

Acceptance vs Isolation

Enemies: Foreign vs Domestic

Narrative/Character Development

Opening sequence introducing Shaun : introduces his youthful presence as well as his isolation and discontent with his surroundings (contrasts his later friendship with Woody’s friends as well as contextualising why he joins combo’s gang: in order to achieve a sense of belonging and associate with a new father-figure)

Shaun’s friendship with Woody and pals montage : Shaun has found a purpose in joining the skinhead movement. Introduces other characters and the relationships Shaun forms with them.

Combo arriving at the party

Combo’s This is England Monologue : the catalyst for the central conflict of the film between Woody’s ideology and Combo’s ideology and the trigger for the destruction of Shaun’s friendship with Woody’s group.

Shaun’s conversion to Combo’s racist gang (Combo scaring little boys, robbing Sandhu) : Shaun is transformed as a character becoming corrupted by racism. Although the audience is positioned with Shaun throughout, we are not encouraged to be persuaded by Combo’s views in the way he is thus we become detached from him/aware of his delusion.

Combo beating Milky : catharsis at the end of the film that signifies the extreme level of racism in the 1980s and exemplifies how things have gone too far. This moment also triggers Shaun’s return to his old self as he leaves Combo’s ideology behind him (shown when he throws the flag into the sea) and returns to his isolated presence at the beginning of the film (cyclical narrative).

Ideology (messages and values) embedded in the film by the filmmakers

Differences in characters to strengthen ideological messages (e.g. Woody vs Combo)

Skinhead vs Racism

When Shaun is introduced to Woody’s skinheads, he maintains his character (doesn’t stray from himself the only changes made are to his style and his acceptance by other characters); contrastingly when he joins Combo he is transformed as a character in terms of personality as well as style. Exposes the complexity of the skinhead movement in the 1980s.


The male characters are shown to have violent tendencies rooted in them. In the first scene following Shaun we see him engage in a fistfight at school and Woody and his friends use “rough” humour with each other etc. The violence can be traced to the ideology projected onto them: Combo enforces a strong masculinity (telling Shaun not to cry because “real men don’t cry”) and even the school teacher violently punishing Shaun and the bully for their fight will inevitably contribute to the boys developing ideologies. Father figures: opening shot of Shaun’s deceased father, Woody and Combo both act as surrogate father figures for Shaun.

Masculinity vs Femininity

Gender doesn’t appear to matter within Woody’s group: they are all encapsulated in the skinhead movement (the style, music etc) regardless of their identification.

Anti-Nationalist and Anti-Thatcher

Combo represents nationalism and is portrayed as a bully and violent character etc and his gang are presented as poorly-educated followers searching for purpose/ a place in society. Combo’s monologue criticises political climate, repeated loud shrill oice of Thatcher on the radio throughout, anti-Thatcher graffiti etc all used to clearly indicate that Meadows is challenging Thatcher’s policies/approaches.

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The 25 Best Movies About Politics

James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Beulah Bondi, Guy Kibbee, Thomas Mitchell, and Eugene Pallette in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

1. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in All the President's Men (1976)

2. All the President's Men

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

3. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Orson Welles, Dorothy Comingore, and Ruth Warrick in Citizen Kane (1941)

4. Citizen Kane

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

5. The Manchurian Candidate

Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon in Election (1999)

6. Election

David Oyelowo in Selma (2014)

8. The Great McGinty

The War Room (1993)

9. The War Room

Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln (2012)

10. Lincoln

Being There (1979)

11. Being There

Advise & Consent (1962)

12. Advise & Consent

Tim Robbins in Bob Roberts (1992)

13. Bob Roberts

The Candidate (1972)

14. The Candidate

Seven Days in May (1964)

15. Seven Days in May

Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson in The Best Man (1964)

16. The Best Man

In the Loop (2009)

17. In the Loop

Weiner (2016)

19. All the King's Men

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in Meet John Doe (1941)

20. Meet John Doe

John Travolta, Emma Thompson, and Adrian Lester in Primary Colors (1998)

21. Primary Colors

Milk (2008)

23. Wag the Dog

George Clooney and Ryan Gosling in The Ides of March (2011)

24. The Ides of March

Bulworth (1998)

25. Bulworth

More to explore, recently viewed.

The Writing Center • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Film Analysis

What this handout is about.

This handout introduces film analysis and and offers strategies and resources for approaching film analysis assignments.

Writing the film analysis essay

Writing a film analysis requires you to consider the composition of the film—the individual parts and choices made that come together to create the finished piece. Film analysis goes beyond the analysis of the film as literature to include camera angles, lighting, set design, sound elements, costume choices, editing, etc. in making an argument. The first step to analyzing the film is to watch it with a plan.

Watching the film

First it’s important to watch the film carefully with a critical eye. Consider why you’ve been assigned to watch a film and write an analysis. How does this activity fit into the course? Why have you been assigned this particular film? What are you looking for in connection to the course content? Let’s practice with this clip from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Here are some tips on how to watch the clip critically, just as you would an entire film:

  • Give the clip your undivided attention at least once. Pay close attention to details and make observations that might start leading to bigger questions.
  • Watch the clip a second time. For this viewing, you will want to focus specifically on those elements of film analysis that your class has focused on, so review your course notes. For example, from whose perspective is this clip shot? What choices help convey that perspective? What is the overall tone, theme, or effect of this clip?
  • Take notes while you watch for the second time. Notes will help you keep track of what you noticed and when, if you include timestamps in your notes. Timestamps are vital for citing scenes from a film!

For more information on watching a film, check out the Learning Center’s handout on watching film analytically . For more resources on researching film, including glossaries of film terms, see UNC Library’s research guide on film & cinema .

Brainstorming ideas

Once you’ve watched the film twice, it’s time to brainstorm some ideas based on your notes. Brainstorming is a major step that helps develop and explore ideas. As you brainstorm, you may want to cluster your ideas around central topics or themes that emerge as you review your notes. Did you ask several questions about color? Were you curious about repeated images? Perhaps these are directions you can pursue.

If you’re writing an argumentative essay, you can use the connections that you develop while brainstorming to draft a thesis statement . Consider the assignment and prompt when formulating a thesis, as well as what kind of evidence you will present to support your claims. Your evidence could be dialogue, sound edits, cinematography decisions, etc. Much of how you make these decisions will depend on the type of film analysis you are conducting, an important decision covered in the next section.

After brainstorming, you can draft an outline of your film analysis using the same strategies that you would for other writing assignments. Here are a few more tips to keep in mind as you prepare for this stage of the assignment:

  • Make sure you understand the prompt and what you are being asked to do. Remember that this is ultimately an assignment, so your thesis should answer what the prompt asks. Check with your professor if you are unsure.
  • In most cases, the director’s name is used to talk about the film as a whole, for instance, “Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo .” However, some writers may want to include the names of other persons who helped to create the film, including the actors, the cinematographer, and the sound editor, among others.
  • When describing a sequence in a film, use the literary present. An example could be, “In Vertigo , Hitchcock employs techniques of observation to dramatize the act of detection.”
  • Finding a screenplay/script of the movie may be helpful and save you time when compiling citations. But keep in mind that there may be differences between the screenplay and the actual product (and these differences might be a topic of discussion!).
  • Go beyond describing basic film elements by articulating the significance of these elements in support of your particular position. For example, you may have an interpretation of the striking color green in Vertigo , but you would only mention this if it was relevant to your argument. For more help on using evidence effectively, see the section on “using evidence” in our evidence handout .

Also be sure to avoid confusing the terms shot, scene, and sequence. Remember, a shot ends every time the camera cuts; a scene can be composed of several related shots; and a sequence is a set of related scenes.

Different types of film analysis

As you consider your notes, outline, and general thesis about a film, the majority of your assignment will depend on what type of film analysis you are conducting. This section explores some of the different types of film analyses you may have been assigned to write.

Semiotic analysis

Semiotic analysis is the interpretation of signs and symbols, typically involving metaphors and analogies to both inanimate objects and characters within a film. Because symbols have several meanings, writers often need to determine what a particular symbol means in the film and in a broader cultural or historical context.

For instance, a writer could explore the symbolism of the flowers in Vertigo by connecting the images of them falling apart to the vulnerability of the heroine.

Here are a few other questions to consider for this type of analysis:

  • What objects or images are repeated throughout the film?
  • How does the director associate a character with small signs, such as certain colors, clothing, food, or language use?
  • How does a symbol or object relate to other symbols and objects, that is, what is the relationship between the film’s signs?

Many films are rich with symbolism, and it can be easy to get lost in the details. Remember to bring a semiotic analysis back around to answering the question “So what?” in your thesis.

Narrative analysis

Narrative analysis is an examination of the story elements, including narrative structure, character, and plot. This type of analysis considers the entirety of the film and the story it seeks to tell.

For example, you could take the same object from the previous example—the flowers—which meant one thing in a semiotic analysis, and ask instead about their narrative role. That is, you might analyze how Hitchcock introduces the flowers at the beginning of the film in order to return to them later to draw out the completion of the heroine’s character arc.

To create this type of analysis, you could consider questions like:

  • How does the film correspond to the Three-Act Structure: Act One: Setup; Act Two: Confrontation; and Act Three: Resolution?
  • What is the plot of the film? How does this plot differ from the narrative, that is, how the story is told? For example, are events presented out of order and to what effect?
  • Does the plot revolve around one character? Does the plot revolve around multiple characters? How do these characters develop across the film?

When writing a narrative analysis, take care not to spend too time on summarizing at the expense of your argument. See our handout on summarizing for more tips on making summary serve analysis.

Cultural/historical analysis

One of the most common types of analysis is the examination of a film’s relationship to its broader cultural, historical, or theoretical contexts. Whether films intentionally comment on their context or not, they are always a product of the culture or period in which they were created. By placing the film in a particular context, this type of analysis asks how the film models, challenges, or subverts different types of relations, whether historical, social, or even theoretical.

For example, the clip from Vertigo depicts a man observing a woman without her knowing it. You could examine how this aspect of the film addresses a midcentury social concern about observation, such as the sexual policing of women, or a political one, such as Cold War-era McCarthyism.

A few of the many questions you could ask in this vein include:

  • How does the film comment on, reinforce, or even critique social and political issues at the time it was released, including questions of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality?
  • How might a biographical understanding of the film’s creators and their historical moment affect the way you view the film?
  • How might a specific film theory, such as Queer Theory, Structuralist Theory, or Marxist Film Theory, provide a language or set of terms for articulating the attributes of the film?

Take advantage of class resources to explore possible approaches to cultural/historical film analyses, and find out whether you will be expected to do additional research into the film’s context.

Mise-en-scène analysis

A mise-en-scène analysis attends to how the filmmakers have arranged compositional elements in a film and specifically within a scene or even a single shot. This type of analysis organizes the individual elements of a scene to explore how they come together to produce meaning. You may focus on anything that adds meaning to the formal effect produced by a given scene, including: blocking, lighting, design, color, costume, as well as how these attributes work in conjunction with decisions related to sound, cinematography, and editing. For example, in the clip from Vertigo , a mise-en-scène analysis might ask how numerous elements, from lighting to camera angles, work together to present the viewer with the perspective of Jimmy Stewart’s character.

To conduct this type of analysis, you could ask:

  • What effects are created in a scene, and what is their purpose?
  • How does this scene represent the theme of the movie?
  • How does a scene work to express a broader point to the film’s plot?

This detailed approach to analyzing the formal elements of film can help you come up with concrete evidence for more general film analysis assignments.

Reviewing your draft

Once you have a draft, it’s helpful to get feedback on what you’ve written to see if your analysis holds together and you’ve conveyed your point. You may not necessarily need to find someone who has seen the film! Ask a writing coach, roommate, or family member to read over your draft and share key takeaways from what you have written so far.

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial . We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.

Aumont, Jacques, and Michel Marie. 1988. L’analyse Des Films . Paris: Nathan.

Media & Design Center. n.d. “Film and Cinema Research.” UNC University Libraries. Last updated February 10, 2021. https://guides.lib.unc.edu/filmresearch .

Oxford Royale Academy. n.d. “7 Ways to Watch Film.” Oxford Royale Academy. Accessed April 2021. https://www.oxford-royale.com/articles/7-ways-watch-films-critically/ .

You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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Is “Parasite” a Political Film? Essay (Movie Review)

The film “Parasite” directed by Bong Joon Ho (2019) is not a political but rather a social movie that explores the issue of class inequality. The inability of one family to live happily due to a constant lack of livelihood prompts its members to go to the trick and obtain good jobs through deception. Despite the fact that the plot of the film touches on the dominance of one class over another, this context is not related to politics and is associated with social and ethical ambiguities.

As an integral property, humanity fades into the background when the threat of the disclosure of a conspiracy hangs over the low-income family. Ho (2019) offers viewers to assess how quickly the situation can change if an interpersonal conflict becomes public and entails consequences for all interested parties. Therefore, social and moral-ethical issues of human relationships are raised in “Parasite” but not political ones.

Ho, B. J. (2019). Parasite [Film]. Barunson E&A.

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IvyPanda. (2022, July 17). Is “Parasite” a Political Film? https://ivypanda.com/essays/is-parasite-a-political-film/

"Is “Parasite” a Political Film?" IvyPanda , 17 July 2022, ivypanda.com/essays/is-parasite-a-political-film/.

IvyPanda . (2022) 'Is “Parasite” a Political Film'. 17 July.

IvyPanda . 2022. "Is “Parasite” a Political Film?" July 17, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/is-parasite-a-political-film/.

1. IvyPanda . "Is “Parasite” a Political Film?" July 17, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/is-parasite-a-political-film/.


IvyPanda . "Is “Parasite” a Political Film?" July 17, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/is-parasite-a-political-film/.

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In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Essay Film

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Essay Film by Yelizaveta Moss LAST REVIEWED: 24 March 2021 LAST MODIFIED: 24 March 2021 DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0216

The term “essay film” has become increasingly used in film criticism to describe a self-reflective and self-referential documentary cinema that blurs the lines between fiction and nonfiction. Scholars unanimously agree that the first published use of the term was by Richter in 1940. Also uncontested is that Andre Bazin, in 1958, was the first to analyze a film, which was Marker’s Letter from Siberia (1958), according to the essay form. The French New Wave created a popularization of short essay films, and German New Cinema saw a resurgence in essay films due to a broad interest in examining German history. But beyond these origins of the term, scholars deviate on what exactly constitutes an essay film and how to categorize essay films. Generally, scholars fall into two camps: those who find a literary genealogy to the essay film and those who find a documentary genealogy to the essay film. The most commonly cited essay filmmakers are French and German: Marker, Resnais, Godard, and Farocki. These filmmakers are singled out for their breadth of essay film projects, as opposed to filmmakers who have made an essay film but who specialize in other genres. Though essay films have been and are being produced outside of the West, scholarship specifically addressing essay films focuses largely on France and Germany, although Solanas and Getino’s theory of “Third Cinema” and approval of certain French essay films has produced some essay film scholarship on Latin America. But the gap in scholarship on global essay film remains, with hope of being bridged by some forthcoming work. Since the term “essay film” is used so sparingly for specific films and filmmakers, the scholarship on essay film tends to take the form of single articles or chapters in either film theory or documentary anthologies and journals. Some recent scholarship has pointed out the evolutionary quality of essay films, emphasizing their ability to change form and style as a response to conventional filmmaking practices. The most recent scholarship and conference papers on essay film have shifted from an emphasis on literary essay to an emphasis on technology, arguing that essay film has the potential in the 21st century to present technology as self-conscious and self-reflexive of its role in art.

Both anthologies dedicated entirely to essay film have been published in order to fill gaps in essay film scholarship. Biemann 2003 brings the discussion of essay film into the digital age by explicitly resisting traditional German and French film and literary theory. Papazian and Eades 2016 also resists European theory by explicitly showcasing work on postcolonial and transnational essay film.

Biemann, Ursula, ed. Stuff It: The Video Essay in the Digital Age . New York: Springer, 2003.

This anthology positions Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983) as the originator of the post-structuralist essay film. In opposition to German and French film and literary theory, Biemann discusses video essays with respect to non-linear and non-logical movement of thought and a range of new media in Internet, digital imaging, and art installation. In its resistance to the French/German theory influence on essay film, this anthology makes a concerted effort to include other theoretical influences, such as transnationalism, postcolonialism, and globalization.

Papazian, Elizabeth, and Caroline Eades, eds. The Essay Film: Dialogue, Politics, Utopia . London: Wallflower, 2016.

This forthcoming anthology bridges several gaps in 21st-century essay film scholarship: non-Western cinemas, popular cinema, and digital media.

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Italian Film Business Lashes Out at Political Delay

By Nick Vivarelli

Nick Vivarelli

International Correspondent

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"Parthenope" by Paolo Sorrentino. From left: Celeste Dalla Porta and Stefania Sandrelli.

Italy’s film industry is fighting to stay vibrant amid disruption caused both by politics and market forces. After reaping the rewards of a protracted growth spurt, local producers are facing a forced slowdown as the country’s right-wing government dithers with modifications they plan to make to several key regulations, most significantly to the country’s currently stalled tax incentives for film and TV production.

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In mere monetary terms, Italy’s culture minister Gennaro Sangiuliano has assured that the government plans to only shave off some €50 million from the 2024 tax credit pot that is expected to end up totalling about Euros 700 million ($744 million) this year. The problem is that it’s still unclear when this tax credit money will actually become available as the government – which appears to be divided on this crucial matter – continues to keep the industry on standby.

Italy’s motion picture association chief Francesco Rutelli has repeatedly underlined that the Italian industry is contending with fierce international competition from countries such as France, the U.K. and Spain, that, in various forms, are dishing out way more public funds for film production than Italy.

Among bones of contention holding things up is the fact that the right-wing government, installed in September 2022 wants to promote production of movies and TV series with a nationalistic narrative, so they are planning to allocate some €52 million ($55 million) of the tax credit pot for film and TV products about stories and characters “tied to Italy’s national identity,” as Sangiuliano has put it.

“Our film industry is growing, but within the international arena we are still small,” said producer Raffaella Leone, head of Leone Film Group — the production and distribution company founded by her father, spaghetti Western master Sergio Leone — speaking during a panel on Italy’s tax credit held in Ortigia, Sicily.

“As a producer, to have €52 million earmarked for products that highlight Italian characters is not what our country needs,” Leone added. “I think we need to make more movies for the international market, which doesn’t mean demeaning ourselves or losing our identity.”

Meanwhile, Italy’s top producers of the younger generation, Lorenzo Mieli and Mario Gianani, who are behind two films in this year’s Cannes competition – respectively Paolo Sorrentino’s “Parthenope” and Russian auteur Kirill Serebrennikov’s “Limonov” – have amicably parted ways with Fremantle and re-partnered on a new still unnamed shingle, details of which remain under wraps.

Then there is another new high-profile player called Be Water, active both in production and distribution, that has just entered the Italian industry arena. Former Warner Bros. Italy chief Barbara Salabè is on board as its president and Mattia Guerra, a former top exec at Lucky Red, is managing director.

Key titles on Be Water’s debut distribution slate are Paul Schrader’s Palme d’Or contender “Oh Canada,” Nicolas Cage horror movie “Longlegs,” directed by Osgood Perkins, and Victor Kossakovsky’s Berlin doc “Architecton.”

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Director Paul Schrader said on Saturday that he knew back in the late 1960s that he and contemporaries in the "New Hollywood" movement, several of whom are also at this year's Cannes Film Festival, were changing the industry forever.

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Guest Essay

The Deep, Tangled Roots of American Illiberalism

An illustration of a scene of mayhem with men in Colonial-era clothing fighting in a small room.

By Steven Hahn

Dr. Hahn is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian at New York University and the author, most recently, of “Illiberal America: a History.”

In a recent interview with Time, Donald Trump promised a second term of authoritarian power grabs, administrative cronyism, mass deportations of the undocumented, harassment of women over abortion, trade wars and vengeance brought upon his rivals and enemies, including President Biden. “If they said that a president doesn’t get immunity,” Mr. Trump told Time, “then Biden, I am sure, will be prosecuted for all of his crimes.”

Further evidence, it seems, of Mr. Trump’s efforts to construct a political world like no other in American history. But how unprecedented is it, really? That Mr. Trump continues to lead in polls should make plain that he and his MAGA movement are more than noxious weeds in otherwise liberal democratic soil.

Many of us have not wanted to see it that way. “This is not who we are as a nation,” one journalist exclaimed in what was a common response to the violence on Jan. 6, “and we must not let ourselves or others believe otherwise.” Mr. Biden has said much the same thing.

While it’s true that Mr. Trump was the first president to lose an election and attempt to stay in power, observers have come to recognize the need for a lengthier view of Trumpism. Even so, they are prone to imagining that there was a time not all that long ago when political “normalcy” prevailed. What they have failed to grasp is that American illiberalism is deeply rooted in our past and fed by practices, relationships and sensibilities that have been close to the surface, even when they haven’t exploded into view.

Illiberalism is generally seen as a backlash against modern liberal and progressive ideas and policies, especially those meant to protect the rights and advance the aspirations of groups long pushed to the margins of American political life. But in the United States, illiberalism is better understood as coherent sets of ideas that are related but also change over time.

This illiberalism celebrates hierarchies of gender, race and nationality; cultural homogeneity; Christian religious faith; the marking of internal as well as external enemies; patriarchal families; heterosexuality; the will of the community over the rule of law; and the use of political violence to achieve or maintain power. This illiberalism sank roots from the time of European settlement and spread out from villages and towns to the highest levels of government. In one form or another, it has shaped much of our history. Illiberalism has frequently been a stalking horse, if not in the winner’s circle. Hardly ever has it been roundly defeated.

A few examples may be illustrative. Although European colonization of North America has often been imagined as a sharp break from the ways of home countries, neo-feudal dreams inspired the making of Euro-American societies from the Carolinas up through the Hudson Valley, based as they were on landed estates and coerced labor, while the Puritan towns of New England, with their own hierarchies, demanded submission to the faith and harshly policed their members and potential intruders alike. The backcountry began to fill up with land-hungry settlers who generally formed ethnicity-based enclaves, eyed outsiders with suspicion and, with rare exceptions, hoped to rid their territory of Native peoples. Most of those who arrived in North America between the early 17th century and the time of the American Revolution were either enslaved or in servitude, and master-servant jurisprudence shaped labor relations well after slavery was abolished, a phenomenon that has been described as “belated feudalism.”

The anti-colonialism of the American Revolution was accompanied not only by warfare against Native peoples and rewards for enslavers, but also by a deeply ingrained anti-Catholicism, and hostility to Catholics remained a potent political force well into the 20th century. Monarchist solutions were bruited about during the writing of the Constitution and the first decade of the American Republic: John Adams thought that the country would move in such a direction and other leaders at the time, including Washington, Madison and Hamilton, wondered privately if a king would be necessary in the event a “republican remedy” failed.

The 1830s, commonly seen as the height of Jacksonian democracy, were racked by violent expulsions of Catholics , Mormons and abolitionists of both races, along with thousands of Native peoples dispossessed of their homelands and sent to “Indian Territory” west of the Mississippi.

The new democratic politics of the time was often marked by Election Day violence after campaigns suffused with military cadences, while elected officials usually required the support of elite patrons to guarantee the bonds they had to post. Even in state legislatures and Congress, weapons could be brandished and duels arranged; “bullies” enforced the wills of their allies.

When enslavers in the Southern states resorted to secession rather than risk their system under a Lincoln administration, they made clear that their Confederacy was built on the cornerstone of slavery and white supremacy. And although their crushing defeat brought abolition, the establishment of birthright citizenship (except for Native peoples), the political exclusion of Confederates, and the extension of voting rights to Black men — the results of one of the world’s great revolutions — it was not long before the revolution went into reverse.

The federal government soon allowed former Confederates and their white supporters to return to power, destroy Black political activism and, accompanied by lynchings (expressing the “will” of white communities), build the edifice of Jim Crow: segregation, political disfranchisement and a harsh labor regime. Already previewed in the pre-Civil War North, Jim Crow received the imprimatur of the Supreme Court and the administration of Woodrow Wilson .

Few Progressives of the early 20th century had much trouble with this. Segregation seemed a modern way to choreograph “race relations,” and disfranchisement resonated with their disenchantment with popular politics, whether it was powered by Black voters in the South or European immigrants in the North. Many Progressives were devotees of eugenics and other forms of social engineering, and they generally favored overseas imperialism; some began to envision the scaffolding of a corporate state — all anticipating the dark turns in Europe over the next decades.

The 1920s, in fact, saw fascist pulses coming from a number of directions in the United States and, as in Europe, targeting political radicals. Benito Mussolini won accolades in many American quarters. The lab where Josef Mengele worked received support from the Rockefeller Foundation. White Protestant fundamentalism reigned in towns and the countryside. And the Immigration Act of 1924 set limits on the number of newcomers, especially those from Southern and Eastern Europe, who were thought to be politically and culturally unassimilable.

Most worrisome, the Ku Klux Klan, energized by anti-Catholicism and antisemitism as well as anti-Black racism, marched brazenly in cities great and small. The Klan became a mass movement and wielded significant political power; it was crucial, for example , to the enforcement of Prohibition. Once the organization unraveled in the late 1920s, many Klansmen and women found their way to new fascist groups and the radical right more generally.

Sidelined by the Great Depression and New Deal, the illiberal right regained traction in the late 1930s, and during the 1950s won grass-roots support through vehement anti-Communism and opposition to the civil rights movement. As early as 1964, in a run for the Democratic presidential nomination, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama began to hone a rhetoric of white grievance and racial hostility that had appeal in the Midwest and Middle Atlantic, and Barry Goldwater’s campaign that year, despite its failure, put winds in the sails of the John Birch Society and Young Americans for Freedom.

Four years later, Wallace mobilized enough support as a third-party candidate to win five states. And in 1972, once again as a Democrat, Wallace racked up primary wins in both the North and the South before an assassination attempt forced him out of the race. Growing backlashes against school desegregation and feminism added further fuel to the fire on the right, paving the way for the conservative ascendancy of the 1980s.

By the early 1990s, the neo-Nazi and Klansman David Duke had won a seat in the Louisiana Legislature and nearly three-fifths of the white vote in campaigns for governor and senator. Pat Buchanan, seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 1992, called for “America First,” the fortification of the border (a “Buchanan fence”), and a culture war for the “soul” of America, while the National Rifle Association became a powerful force on the right and in the Republican Party.

When Mr. Trump questioned Barack Obama’s legitimacy to serve as president, a project that quickly became known as “birtherism,” he made use of a Reconstruction-era racist trope that rejected the legitimacy of Black political rights and power. In so doing, Mr. Trump began to cement a coalition of aggrieved white voters. They were ready to push back against the nation’s growing cultural diversity — embodied by Mr. Obama — and the challenges they saw to traditional hierarchies of family, gender and race. They had much on which to build.

Back in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, in “Democracy in America,” glimpsed the illiberal currents that already entangled the country’s politics. While he marveled at the “equality of conditions,” the fluidity of social life and the strength of republican institutions, he also worried about the “omnipotence of the majority.”

“What I find most repulsive in America is not the extreme freedom reigning there,” Tocqueville wrote, “but the shortage of guarantees against tyranny.” He pointed to communities “taking justice into their own hands,” and warned that “associations of plain citizens can compose very rich, influential, and powerful bodies, in other words, aristocratic bodies.” Lamenting their intellectual conformity, Tocqueville believed that if Americans ever gave up republican government, “they will pass rapidly on to despotism,” restricting “the sphere of political rights, taking some of them away in order to entrust them to a single man.”

The slide toward despotism that Tocqueville feared may be well underway, whatever the election’s outcome. Even if they try to fool themselves into thinking that Mr. Trump won’t follow through, millions of voters seem ready to entrust their rights to “a single man” who has announced his intent to use autocratic powers for retribution, repression, expulsion and misogyny.

Only by recognizing what we’re up against can we mount an effective campaign to protect our democracy, leaning on the important political struggles — abolitionism, antimonopoly, social democracy, human rights, civil rights, feminism — that have challenged illiberalism in the past and offer the vision and political pathways to guide us in the future.

Our biggest mistake would be to believe that we’re watching an exceptional departure in the country’s history. Because from the first, Mr. Trump has tapped into deep and ever-expanding illiberal roots. Illiberalism’s history is America’s history.

Steven Hahn is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian at New York University and the author, most recently, of “ Illiberal America: a History .”

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips . And here’s our email: [email protected] .

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Rudy Giuliani is served indictment papers at his own birthday party after mocking Arizona attorney general

Rudy Giuliani.

PHOENIX — Arizona’s Democratic Attorney General Kris Mayes on Friday announced that Rudy Giuliani had been served with the notice of his indictment on charges related to a conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election results in Arizona. 

The announcement came less than two hours after Giuliani taunted Mayes for failing to deliver his indictment in a social media post. The notice was served to Giuliani during his 80th birthday celebration in Palm Beach, Florida.  

In a now-deleted post on X, Giuliani taunted Arizona authorities. “If Arizona authorities can’t find me by tomorrow morning; 1. They must dismiss the indictment; 2. They must concede they can’t count votes,” Giuliani posted Friday night. Accompanying the message was a photo of Giuliani smiling with six others and balloons floating in the backdrop.

An hour and fourteen minutes later, Mayes responded to Giuliani ’s post writing, “The final defendant was served moments ago. @RudyGiuliani, nobody is above the law.”

Giuliani, 79, turns 80 on May 28th and was enjoying an early birthday celebration in Palm Beach on the night he was served, according to social media activity . By the end of the night, “Happy Birthday To You” wasn’t the only music the former New York City mayor had to face. 

The party was hosted by Caroline Wren, an advisor to Arizona Senate candidate Kari Lake.

Ted Goodman, a spokesperson for Giuliani, said the former was unperturbed by the birthday bash bust-up. “The mayor was unphased by the decision to try and embarrass him during his 80th birthday party. He enjoyed an incredible evening with hundreds of people who love him—from all walks of life—and we look forward to full vindication soon,” Goodman said in a statement to NBC News. 

Others indicted in the “fake electors” case are farther along in their legal proceedings. On Friday morning, Former Trump attorney John Eastman pleaded not guilty to charges related to a conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election results in Arizona. On Tuesday morning, eleven other defendants are slated to be arraigned. 

The Arizona “fake electors” scheme isn’t the only controversy Giuliani has faced in the wake of efforts to overturn the 2020 election. In December 2023, Giuliani was hit with a $148M verdict for defaming two Georgia election workers.

political films essay

Alex Tabet is a 2024 NBC News campaign embed.

political films essay

Vaughn Hillyard is a correspondent for NBC News. 


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