Monday, September 17, 2007

Talking points

For the 40th anniversary issue of Cineaste editors were asked to pick their favorite political films from 1967-2007. The lists make for interesting reading--how did I, of all people, forget about Dawn of the Dead? Mine was, however, the most "pop," or at least the most home-bound in terms of country.

Left off, however, were the explanations for each entry. We were asked to pick a Top 10, then add 10 more if we wanted. And so I did. Rationales follow.

"In the absence of any definition of "political"--the defining of which would probably be quite political in itself, as everyone has his or her own idea of how it might be applied to cinema--I ranged somewhat freely, and mostly on American soil. (I'll rely on the votes of others to take us from my homeland security.) But there are some old faithfuls in the mix, many right at the top.

The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1967). The Pentagon favorite—but how closely was the brass paying attention?—is as relevant and urgent today as it was 20 and 40 years ago.

Z (Costa-Gavras, 1969). The top political thriller.

The Battle of Chile (Patricio Guzman, 1977) and Chile: Obstinate Memory (Guzman, 1997). Bookends—a brutal power play as it unfolds, and the event as it is remembered (or half-remembered) across the generations.

Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore, 2004). Love it or hate it, it shouted its way into the international conversation on Iraq. Will it endure 20 years from now? Three years later, anyway, people are still arguing about it.

Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989). Beyond the race-baiting headlines and attendant sensationalism, a moving, truthful, and frequently funny film.

Dead Man Walking (Tim Robbins, 1995). A terrifically even-handed film about the incendiary subject of the death penalty, limpidly acted, written, and directed.

Salvador (Oliver Stone, 1986). Lively, angry, saddening, and for me Stone’s best film, if not his best-known.

The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988). Jesus Christ! Going on opening day in Chicago, and seated in a theater surrounded by phalanxes of angry protesters and police, was quite an experience. And the movie was solid, too, not that it could ever live up to the hysteria the religious right generated on its behalf.

Land and Freedom (Ken Loach, 1995). The Spanish Civil War, splendidly recalled and personalized.

Loose Change (Dylan Avery, 2006). Whether or not you believe its alternative theories about 9/11--I’m still skeptical--a fascinating study in alternative distribution as the YouTube generation ventures into politics, which may be its ultimate importance.

And Ten More…

Burn! (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1969). Pontecorvo on slavery and the colonial mindset, and a valuable, overlooked film.

The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974). Another film that becomes more and more timely and prescient as snooping into our private lives becomes commonplace.

Ulzana's Raid (Robert Aldrich, 1972). The best of the films of its period to examine the Vietnam War through the prism of tortured Native American history, because it does so subtly (rare for its director) as a lean and muscular western.

Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993). A divisive film, but no argument from me as to the merit of the historical reclamation project it inspired.

Blow Out (Brian De Palma, 1981). The most artfully made of the many assassination, American-style pictures to flow from the Kennedy era.

Under Fire (Roger Spottiswoode, 1983). Like Salvador, drawn from the headlines of its time, and grippingly fictionalized.

The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987). The difficulties of living a neutered and apolitical life, however grand the surroundings. The director’s cut is vastly preferred.

Over the Edge (Jonathan Kaplan, 1979). Stifled adolescents explode in negligent, dead-end suburbia. An HBO staple in its day, the film really got us high schoolers agitated…but we behaved ourselves, handing “The Man” and the forces of conformity another victory.

A Fistful of Dynamite (Sergio Leone, 1972). The making of a freedom fighter/terrorist, and the most engaged of Leone’s high-firepower westerns.

RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987). Sci-fi satire, sure. But consider its scenario, of a war on terror that directly benefits its corporate contractors, whose soldiers are sent poorly equipped into battle as fodder for the machine. Still laughing?

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