Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.
It’s been a busy week and with my other obligations taking up a lot of extra time, I found myself struggling to come up with a topic for this week. My original idea for this list was to populate it with Oscar-nominated films released in January. However, the more I dug into the list, the more flaws and inconsistencies I found. Unfortunately, release date information is less bountiful in decades past, so some of the films I had put on my list were showing dates contrary to my original research. As such, I had to abandon the list because of the absolute nightmare it would be to verify the release windows of over 100 films.
Next, I thought about shifting that focus to Oscar nominees born in January. However, with 351 names on the list, narrowing down to 5 was an impossible task. So, that left me with only one idea…
On January 20, 2021, Joseph R. Biden took office as the 46th President of the United States of America. On this historic occasion, and the sheer joy the end of a four-year experiment in ego and selfishness has brought, I thought I would look at my favorite films about the political process. Politics have been a common theme for filmmakers since the early days of cinema, most notably biopics. Abraham Lincoln himself has been portrayed on the big screen numerous times with the earliest being a 1908 moving picture called The Reprieve: An Episode in the Life of Abraham Lincoln. Walter Huston, Henry Fonda, Raymond Massey, F. Murray Abraham, and Daniel Day-Lewis are but a handful of the names of those who’ve portrayed him.
With the momentous events of yesterday being felt for some time, my five favorite political films have also been a defining part of our cultural heritage. Of course, there will be films left off the list. All the President’s Men is all about the scandal surrounding the break-in at the Watergate Hotel, but follows the newspapermen who exposed it rather than the political act itself. The same is true of films like JFK, The Post, and myriad others.
I also eliminated films dealing with politics in other nations such as The Queen, In the Loop, and Gandhi. Narrowing to just five was still very difficult and a lot of great movies got left by the wayside. I also decided not to go with obvious choices like Citizen Kane, Lincoln, or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
What is most interesting about my final five is that all of these films were released in 1962 or 1964. Maybe there’s a simple reason for why that decade was one of the best for films about politics or perhaps it’s because it happened to be a politically tumultuous period made all the more alarming by the 1963 assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Whatever the reason, I’d like to highlight the three films I almost included before digging into the ones I finally decided on.
Two of the three films were about Richard Millhouse Nixon, the disgraced former president who resigned his office out of fear that he would be impeached and removed from office by congress. There are many factors of that particular event that bear some striking resemblance to the presidency that is just expiring, but it’s best not to dwell on that for now. The two films were very different. Nixon was one of the last great films Oliver Stone ever directed with superb performances from Anthony Hopkins as Nixon, Joan Allen as his beleaguered wife Pat (who should have won an Oscar for her performance), and Paul Sorvino as Henry Kissinger (who should have at least been nominated). The other is Frost/Nixon, one of Ron Howard’s absolute best films with Frank Langella in a towering and unparalleled performance as Nixon as he’s interviewed by celebrated British interviewer David Frost, a near-equal performance by Michael Sheen. If I had to choose between these two, Howard’s film would probably win because it was more riveting while being little more than a two-man conversation.
The other film I nearly placed on this list was Gus Van Sant’s brilliant narrative drama about the rise to prominence of gay icon Harvey Milk, a pioneer in California politics, who was the first openly gay man elected to a political office. It also details his later assassination. Sean Penn is terrific, but Josh Brolin and Diego Luna steal the show.
With all of that said, here are my five favorites, a combination of traditional dramas, thrillers, and a palate cleanser of a satire.
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