It’s common to hear that all cinema, no matter how trivial, is political. Certainly Slavoj Žižek would make the argument: he has starred in two documentaries precisely about how ideology can be found in the most unlikely places on the big screen.
The year 2013 offered particularly good examples of the nebulous lines that demarcate political cinema—it was a year that reminded us that if some films will always carry political significance, many have it enhanced by context, by touching on a subject of particular import for the current moment.
The movies on this list tend to fall on a spectrum between those meant to spark anger, those meant to promote understanding, and those hoping to do both. What they share is a portrayal of hard times, hard decisions, and hard lives, and a belief that something’s gotta give.
10. Something in the Air
Olivier Assayas’s movie about youthful rebellion is characterized equally by wistfulness and a moderate outlook reflective of the director’s age. It’s that mix that makes it a great political document for our time, one that celebrates the freedom to choose several wrong paths before finding one that suits you.
9. La Camioneta
In La Camioneta, we find out that one third of Ermelindo Velázquez’s village in Guatemala has emigrated to the United States. And understandably so: Those remaining must deal with the bribes, threats, and deaths that are part of life in a country where gangs hold tremendous power. Mark Kendall’s documentary tracks the journey of a used American school bus bought by Ermelindo to use for public transportation in Quetzal City. The film’s strength comes from its understatement—only a few scenes are needed for us to see the violence Ermelindo and others like him face; the rest of the time is spent showing us how they live through it.
8. Shadow Dancer
When James Marsh’s Shadow Dancer begins—with an IRA member’s thwarted bombing of a London subway station—the movie seems like a tense thriller that happens to be set in politically turbulent times. But it’s a testament to Marsh and screenwriter Tom Bradby’s abilities that the movie turns into the year’s most astute depiction of the strains of commitment, whether those are to ideals, convictions, and politics or to family, friends and lovers.
7. The Act of Killing
A portrait of Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, two of the merciless killers behind the Indonesian government’s mass murder of political dissidents in the 1960s, turns into a document of Anwar’s particular self-denial. The movie’s stylized recreations of how they tortured and killed dissidents are chilling, but equally powerful are the scenes of Anwar watching himself on screen after, conscience very slowly but surely creeping up on him.
6. Fruitvale Station
Ryan Coogler’s telling of the twenty-four hours prior to Oscar Grant’s death at the hands of BART Police Officer in Oakland revolves around choices—those we make and those that get made for us. Michael B. Jordan’s portrayal of Grant is not completely idealized; Jordan’s ability to switch in an instant from tenderness to anger is alarming to watch. But the movie does show Grant shifting away from a life of crime, the point being of course that ultimately it doesn’t matter, that as a young black man in the United States, the final decision was ultimately made for him.
Claire Denis has given us this year’s most pessimistic vision of society, one defined by incest, depression, violence, and, most of all, a complete lack of justice for the privileged and wealthy. Bastards will make you sick to your stomach. But there’s no sadism in Denis’s approach. European art cinema regularly depicts the bleaker aspects of humanity, but the results are often cold and dispassionate. With Denis we get a howl of despair.
4. At Berkeley
Watching Frederick Wiseman’s four-hour documentary is the most educational movie-going experience you’ll have all year. In its depiction of life at the California university, the film covers everything from a class on Walden to current robotics research aiming to help paraplegics walk again. But the central dilemma in the film is the future of public education in the U.S. And as it pushes further into that topic the stakes becomes more philosophical though never less pressing, posing questions about our responsibilities as individuals to society at large, and what happens when that relationship becomes loosened, if not severed entirely.
3. A Touch of Sin
For a while it seemed that Jia Zhangke was going to accomplish the impossible and get his scathing critique of Chinese society shown in his home country. Recent news that censorship has prevailed is disappointing, though that does not take anything away from Jia’s accomplishment nor from what’s a more universal core in his film. That alienation leads to violence and a lack of choices pushes people to despair are realities that Western countries must confront as well.
Probably the most celebratory film on this list and understandably so: Pablo Larraín‘s No tells the story of how a brilliant advertising campaign helped turn the tide in Chile as it voted to end Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1988. But the film also features a striking and ambiguous final shot reflective of the worry that the simplistic, jingle-driven, sound bite-heavy advertising that restores democracy will later become a source of its degradation.
1. 12 Years a Slave
Steve McQueen’s film was criticized by some for not confronting the current racism in the U.S. and by others, like Frank Rich in New York, for preaching to a choir rather than attempting to convert those still stuck in 19th-century mindsets. But the film’s unflinching focus on Solomon Northup’s slavery, its recognition of different slave experiences, and, most of all, its lack of tidy resolution are where its political power lies. No film could singlehandedly put an end to racism, but 12 Years a Slave’s rage extends through the screen, hitting at the very fact that we still need one to try.
For the complete list of year-end lists on Keyframe, go to The Year in Film: 2013.
For the complete index of the films on these lists, go to 2013 Year in Review: Indexed.