Far from filler of a time capsule, these films consider the state of our world, the progress (or inertia) of our global society, and perhaps where we are headed. Though many such films are made each year, mostly for awards fodder, few really have a useful perspective and force you to meditate upon where you stand and what the future will bring.
Chop Shop – Any of Ramin Bahrani’s films would make this list, but this is his most tightly focused and genuinely moving, with one of the few child characters in the cinema that has the feel of reality. Each day is a dawn to dusk hustle, and sleep or entertainment can occur only if time allows. Alejandro Polanco turns in a punishing and raw performance as a young street hustler who persuades drivers to use his employer’s chop shop, and is willing to sell anything to build up his savings and realize his dream of owning his own food cart. It doesn’t sound like much, but for a child who has nothing, and no future prospect of anything beyond a daily grind of poverty, this dream is as vast as an empire. Bahrani deserves credit for creating a bleak film that resonates with the viewer regardless of their background, with a thin veneer of hope. This is above all about the survival instinct within us all, and the daily failures and tragedies offset by the occasional small victory that political philosophies and media soundbites fail to grasp. An involving film about those who live every day on the edge, with nobody there to catch them if they fall.
4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days – Though set in Romania in 1987, this story could take place anywhere that reproductive rights are not guaranteed. Avoiding political statements was a wise move for any film about abortion. Those involved – the protagonist, her pregnant friend, and the abortionist – are risking their lives to serve this need. Regardless of your stance on the issue, there will always be women who will require termination of their unborn child, and going to back-alley specialists need not be the price for society’s lack of understanding. 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days eschews grandstanding in favor of going through those excruciating moments necessary to have an abortion in a nation that has made them illegal, pure and simple. The people present are not lionized or damned in the process. At the end, they are just people forced by circumstances to what they must.
Burma VJ / Control Room – A splendid double feature of documentaries that present a scathing indictment of modern commercial news, though neither really intend to. Burma VJ presents the work of reckless citizens who desire a free media so badly that they risk (and subsequently lose) their lives to create one in the hopelessly backward and closed nation of Burma. While spineless news readers in democratic societies collect fat paychecks for telling viewers what they already know and avoid news snippets that could upset their corporate owners, the journalists of Burma VJ truly understand what freedom means, and its cost. Control Room tells the story of the widely reviled reporters of Al-Jazeera, all of whom are a smidge baffled about the attention they have received. Former Defense Secretery Donald Rumsfeld sneered that these people were the voice of Al-Qaeda, despite that most of them were former BBC employees, and often were still British citizens. Ironically, they made just as many enemies in the Arab world for speaking truth to power on both sides of the ocean, and for utterly failing to edit out the footage that would piss people off. While journalists from the west embedded themselves in the rectum of the military and passed on whatever they were told as sterling fact, these guys brought raw video of the fighting in Iraq, and the atrocities committed by both sides. One Al-Jazeera reporter was killed by an American pilot in an event contemptuously dismissed by the Bush cabinet as ‘unavoidable’; no less hateful an act than the murder of Daniel Pearl. Celebrate these people while you can, for their days of operation outside the bounds of corporate media are numbered.
An Inconvenient Truth – Al Gore became the target of a smear campaign involving his extracurricular consulting activities and the size of his house, among other irrelevant points after this documentary became a hit. The data is there, and it has become quite clear to those who still maintain a measure of respect for information that the climate is changing to a warmer and less stable one on average. Though the Earth has had profound swings in temperature before, these changes occurred over hundreds of millions of years, enabling the flora and fauna to adapt. Humankind has created a true mess on slow boil since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, and the planet is not prepared for such a change over only a couple hundred years. Even if you hate polar bears, bear in mind that nearly every major city on the planet has an ocean port, and if these are underwater, it could be disruptive to business. We take for granted that the economy will remain stable forever, but if we change the planet so it sustains a significantly smaller population, exactly why are we being so cavalier about it?
Kinsey – another period piece that remains strikingly relevant, this biopic about the revolutionary researcher who removed the veil of shame from human sexual behavior takes a close look at this flawed but essential man. It is easy to take for granted our current understanding about sex, but before Alfred Kinsey, our laws were shockingly regressive and our knowledge of sex based entirely upon the whims of the clergy. And Kinsey was no genius, nor did he unravel any impossible puzzles; he simply collected data about what people did or felt sexually, and published it. Period. Consider Alfred Kinsey our patron saint on the unassailable value of data, and how it can cause a seismic shift in how we view ourselves. So why is this still relevant? Even today, conservatives consider his work among the most dangerous ever, and would so dearly desire to bury it forever and return to those halcyon dark ages of religion-based views about sex. Before Kinsey published his masterworks Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Female, people actually believed that masturbation was psychologically devastating, homosexuality was a psychiatric disease, and that there was only one sexual act that could be termed normal. He did not just add to human knowledge, he made life more tolerable.
Munich – In the age of the superpowers, between the decline of the American empire and the rise of the Chinese one, global wars are a thing of the past. Not that we are in an era of peace – our conflicts are now smoldering, dominated by geographic disputes and low-tech attacks that have left entire regions in chaos. Though economic issues drive the majority of these contentions, the self-renewing fuel that provides a steady burn is that of retribution. Regardless of your take on Israeli-Palestinian relations, if you were to find an actual reason for the most recent rocket attack or reactionary return salvo, it would rest with revenge for the last attack. Under the guise of a thriller, Spielberg has crafted an immaculate film that quickly becomes lost in the fog of reprisals. War justifies itself under such circumstances, and arguing right or wrong simply does not apply anymore. Most crucial to this masterpiece is the intuitive sense that ultimately the direction of vengeance cannot be predicted as the cycle of retribution removes itself from any party’s control.
Taxi to the Dark Side – On the surface, this is one of those hated liberal screeds against the policies of the Bush administration, but this is taking an exceedingly narrow view. Taxi To The Dark Side is about the compromise of the United States Constitution by those charged with defending it. Beginning with profiled kidnappings of suspects of terror attacks in the Middle East and moving to operations on United States territory, legality was forever shed as anyone vaguely suspected of doing… something… could be put in a hole forever and tortured until they confessed to the predetermined script placed before them. No oversight, no legal precedent, no structure to the metastasis of the power of the executive branch except that which ambition provides. And if you think about it, it did not take a great deal to spur this abandonment of law and order. Three thousand Americans dead is a blip on any graph, and pales next to the importance and uniqueness of the document that formed the cornerstone of our system. Even the ramifications of this has been lost on most Americans, who have the attitude that as long as they are not the ones in the naked pyramid, then such actions just don’t matter. 9/11 was a turning point in more ways than we have realized.
The Class – The teacher who wrote this winner of the Palm D’Or was also cast as the teacher in this essential film about the state of our education system. Though based in Paris, it could have been filmed anywhere. As the quality of education for the lower classes continues to decline as it does all over the world, and the cultural melange of the world’s largest cities becomes increasingly complex, it will be the classrooms where the fuse is allowed to continue burning. Rooms of education represent the place of greatest potential for understanding, teaching, and most of all learning about one another. But since they are really just holding pens for disaffected youth who are only learning their relative irrelevance to a system that does not want them, the classroom becomes a cauldron. Overtly, The Class deals with France’s identity crisis as immigrants from the Middle East and Africa floods the shores of Europe. The children are rude and ignorant, and the teacher utterly fails to reach them, whether due to their insolence or his inability to understand them does not matter. The Class, as with all universal films, deals in a simple way with innumerable subjects regarding discontinuities. Generational, ethnic, informational, gender-based, and economic gaps abound; in The Class you see a microcosm of our society, and the direction it is heading will not be easy to predict.
The Corporation – One of the most depressing films ever crafted, The Corporation takes an exhaustive look at the birth of the modern corporation, and the insidious way it rules every aspect of our lives. Starting with an obscure law that allows an organization to classify itself as an individual, we see how such arcane definitions allow corporations to take on an identity of their own and thus deflect responsibility from those who run the business and make the money. When executives are caught fudging numbers or breaking the law, they can always hide behind the opaque wall of the corporate structure and proclaim ignorance. The corporation itself can be to blame, and so culpability is passed on to shareholders, and from there blame is diluted until it no longer exists. This is how Union Carbide, Chevron, and Halliburton manage to continue chugging along despite being the cause of untold amounts of suffering the world over. When the Supreme Court redefined a corporation as a person, elevating property rights to the same level as human rights, the battle was over before a single shot was fired. Nobody is to blame, you see, unless you cannot afford the shield of incorporation. Then you are just an individual who goes to prison. The Corporation leaves you feeling utterly helpless by its end, detailing the creation of a system from which there is no escape.
Traffic – equal to the classic miniseries Traffik, this film concerns the drug trade and the sheer magnitude of the odds the Drug Enforcement Administration is fighting against. While agents patrol the borders, risk their lives to intercept less than 5% of the drugs imported into the United States, and send hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and weaponry to Columbia to combat drug lords, the people of this country pay handsomely to keep the supply coming. You will find few subjects better to demonstrate the cognitive dissonance between a nation’s elected officials and citizens. Equal parts entertainment and cautionary tale, Traffic dramatizes the schizophrenic approach to the drug trade and the impossibility of continuing to fight it.
IOUSA – The end of American exceptionalism is about to strike us full in the face not due to a conflict, but from the overwhelming size of the national debt. As it mushrooms, the United States approaches the point where tax revenues will be less than the interest payments on the American debt amassed since George W. Bush entered the White House. Reagan-era conservatives argued that this did not matter, and they may have been right before other nations aspired to superpower status. The policy of deficit spending while cutting taxes is a sure winner for incumbents, and poison to pragmatists who understand the danger of allowing other nations to own the debt of your country. If you are in the mood for a horror story, look no further than this adroit and straightforward documentary that will detail just how much time the United States has left before it will simply be owned outright by foreign interests.
Jesus Camp / The Education of Shelby Knox – No matter how many exposes, lost elections, or awareness of their insinuation into the political power structure, religious fanatics are here to stay in democratic society. And they have no interest in democracy, equality, or egalitarian ideals – they want an irreversible slide into theocratic institutions. There will be no bargaining, no reasoning with these people, as per the definition of ‘fanatic’. They want power, and their foot soldiers are the next generation. Easily led and indoctrinated, the children of fanatics are being born and bred to become political organizers, and best you believe they will be working overtime. The children of Jesus Camp are sad cases in victims of child abuse, taught to be deathly afraid of every waking moment in their worship of a just and loving God who hates their fucking guts. Consider it fair warning. The Education of Shelby Knox makes a interesting, though similarly heartbreaking companion piece in the extraordinary struggle of one Texas girl to bring sex education to her school. Read that sentence again, because their school actually teaches that abstinence is all there is, and sex simply isn’t an option. That her town has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the nation is ignored completely by the town leaders. Just a nice example of the social conservatives’ penchant for inventing whatever reality works for their insane beliefs. That Shelby Knox made it out of that town with her sanity intact is a testament to the strength of the human spirit, but woe to those children left behind, breeding copiously to provide additional fodder for the bible warriors and the army recruiters.
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room – No list of films about the most disposable decade ever would be complete without this cross section of conservative economic theory crossbred with American entitlement. These assholes not only perpetrated a massive scam – Ken Lay and the rest of his cronies truly believed that they had unearned wealth coming to them. Though the cries for their heads were sang around the world, don’t believe for a second that the board of directors of this fake Fortune 500 company was anything but a hero to the populace… until they got caught. Nobody gets this rich without ripping people off. From doctoring books to lend the appearance of vague but opulent success to manufacturing an energy crisis in California for profit, this is the true manifestation of the free market when unfettered by pesky regulators. Naturally, once the perpetrators were caught and prosecuted, everyone learned their lesson that when the books look too good to be true, they probably are. Well, until the next hot trend of housing subprime loans and fake financial products hit the streets.
Dirty Pretty Things – an instant classic the year it was released, Dirty Pretty Things took an unflinching look at the difficult, compromised lives of illegal immigrants living invisibly in the shadows of their adopted nation. Performing tasks that natural citizens thought beneath them, they live dangerously, having nobody to turn to if exploited. The most extreme example of what an illegal immigrant will sell to get a green card is in the field of organ donation – give up one kidney and you have your freedom (if you survive the procedure), and someone lucky enough to have been born in the right place gets a working organ. And yes, this all happens in real life. The perfect blend of suspense, drama, and social commentary, Dirty Pretty Things is a snapshot in time. Extraordinary risks are taken to remain surviving each day, and there is no safety net beneath them.
Flow – A crushing and obliviously hopeful documentary about the drive to privatize the world’s fresh water supply, Flow addresses a subject that would once be thought ridiculous. Privatize the supply of water, that which fills the rivers and has always existed as a public trust? As it turns out, if you appoint the right judges and amass enough wealth, you can claim ownership and sell or lease rights to anything you want. In Bolivia, the grip of multinational water companies was so tight that peasants in rural areas would be threatened with prison if they put a bucket out in the rain. Even in the United States, companies that sell bottled water can simply purchase publicly owned lakes and rivers and suck them dry before a single legal claim is filed. And as one state Supreme Court judge ruled, a multinational corporation is immune to prosecution for these transgressions. As the population rises and the efforts to legally take water and other public assets gains ground, people will discover just how strong the sense of entitlement of the upper classes can be.