“The FedRev 100” is a personal top 100 films list from a progressive perspective, and on a weekly basis articles will be published revealing 10 films from the list at a time. Once all 100 titles have been revealed, the entire “FedRev 100″ will be published in list form with links back to the write-up articles, so readers will be able to scan the overall list, and then click on individual titles to read up on why each was selected. An in-depth explanation of the list’s criteria will be given when the entire list is revealed, but to briefly explain, the list is comprised of great films that uphold a progressive view of the world. The list is a blend of personal favorites with celebrated classics, as well as a few obscure gems that deserve greater exposure. Here is the The FedRev 100: films 61 to 70.
61. Chelovek s kino-apparatom [Man with a Movie Camera] (1929, D. Vertov)
It’s often goes without question that life in the Soviet Union was dull, miserable, and oppressive. Man with a Movie Camera almost single-handedly dispels this notion. It’s a wildly inventive documentary of Soviet life a mere 12 years following the 1917 revolution. The film focuses on urban life in several Soviet cities and ultimately illustrates that film can go anywhere and do anything. Vertov utilized double exposure, fast and slow motion, split screens, jump cuts, freeze frames, hidden cameras, and rapid editing to capture the excitement of socialist society. He also shows the film itself being shot by another cameraman, as well as the film’s own editing process. We even see shots of an audience watching footage from the film in an acknowledgement that the people of society are were part of the film-making process. Man with a Movie Camera is a radical film that strove to show the progress being made under socialism to bring a new world into being, and the avant-garde film itself is evidence of the artistry that was possible during that time. Man with a Movie Camera is thrilling 85 years later, both because of the sheer daring of its vision, and because it’s a window we can still look through to glimpse a new and better future.
Jules and Jim is one of the definitive films of the French New Wave. It focuses on a relationship between two male friends who each fall in love with the same woman, Catherine, who is impulsive and charismatic, sexy and sophisticated, emotional and intelligent. The film takes place over many years before and after World War I, which has a major impact on the trio because Jules is Austrian and Jim is French, causing them to fight on opposite sides of the war, each hoping not to kill the other. The film puts forward a very progressive view of romantic relationships. While both Jules and Jim love Catherine, neither feels like they own her, and certainly neither could control her even if they wanted to. Catherine is an independent woman. She knows herself and she does what she wants, whether that be dressing up like a man for fun, or jumping off a ledge into a river to get the attention of the Jules and Jim. Though there are complications, the three friends handle them with respect for each other and with unselfish consideration of the others’ happiness. Their entire saga is a subtle subversion of the dominant ideology governing romantic relationships, and even when their situation leads to despair or heartache, it’s handled on their own terms. This includes the tragic ending, which, without giving too much away, was a statement of protest; a refusal to allow the rise of fascism to determine their fate.
Directed by Wachowski disciple James McTeigue, V for Vendetta is definitive proof that radical films can be viable in the mainstream, having made $130 million worldwide. But more important than its box office success is the influence its had inspiring progressives of various stripes to mobilize against reactionary policies in the real world. V is the embodiment of an idea, a symbol of struggle against oppression, modeled after Guy Fawkes but capable of being taken up by anyone. The story centers around V, a masked vigilante who encourages the masses to rise up against the oppressive fascist regime ruling the UK, and Evey, a woman V takes under his wing and convinces to help him overthrow the government. The film hits all the right notes. The police are the real criminals, religious leaders are hypocritical child molesters, the surveillance state is depicted as an enemy of the people, the mainstream media helps spread lies, and the government uses torture and intentionally propagates fear of terrorism to legitimize their totalitarian regime. V for Vendetta is wildly entertaining, and it entertains while wearing its leftist politics on its sleeve, making it extremely socially significant.
Featuring perhaps Robin Williams’ best dramatic performance, Dead Poets Society is a film that celebrates the role of art in society, while also encouraging a rebellious attitude against convention and authority. The film centers around Todd Anderson, a student starting his first year at a conservative prep school. Todd is shy and insecure, but he quickly joins a group of friends after they invite him to be part of their study group. They then encounter Mr. Keating, the school’s new English teacher. Keating is charismatic and inspires his students to “seize the day.” He ignites in the boys a love for poetry and encourages them to see the world from new perspectives. Todd and the rest of his new group take Keating to heart and re-form the school’s underground “Dead Poets Society,” sneaking out late at night to read together in a cave off campus. Dead Poets Society is a near perfect film; a coming of age tale, but with a purposely limited scope, focusing on the importance of this particular moment in the boy’s lives. They can either follow the conservative path they’re supposed to, or follow Keating’s plea to “make your lives extraordinary.”
Despite failing to capture a wide audience upon its release, Children of Men will likely be remembered as one of the definitive films of the last decade. Not only is it a monumental technical and artistic achievement, featuring the brilliant cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, it also touches on a variety of social issues which blend into the fabric of the film. Children of Men takes place in the near future after humanity has ceased to be able to reproduce, and with no new generations to raise society has fallen into chaos with the knowledge that mankind will soon go extinct. A Nazi-like government clings to power with brutal crackdowns on illegal immigrants, and society has degenerated into an outright police state. Like The Battle of Algiers, the film utilizes a documentary/newsreel aesthetic, which allows for a subtle, yet powerful visual exposition, rather than a heavy-handed approach though dialogue. The audience becomes enveloped in the action as Theo, a civil servant, is convinced to help evacuate a woman who is inexplicably pregnant to a mythical safe-haven called the Human Project. While envisioning a bleak dystopian future, Children of Men ultimately has a positive view of the human spirit and shows a glimmer of hope for the future.
Based on the novel by Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road is a gut-punching story about the emptiness of contemporary society and the way people are conditioned to slowly give up on their dreams by being pressured into ever more comfortable circumstances. It’s a story about marriage and appearance vs. reality. On the outside, Frank and April Wheeler are the perfect American couple, but as the story unfolds the depths of their unhappiness is revealed. Frank takes the train to his corporate job in the city every day, and April is a housewife who stays home with the kids. Neither are happy with their repetitive suburban life and they form a plan to leave the U.S. to live in Paris as a last ditch effort to reclaim their lives and save their marriage. In addition to a powerful portrayal of women’s oppression, the film depicts the pressure of society to conform; when they tell their friends of their plan to leave they are met with disbelief and skepticism, illustrating the way conformity in society works. Their friends can’t tolerate the idea that they would take the initiative to seek a new way of life. Other factors also emerge to keep them trapped when Frank is offered a promotion and April discovers she’s pregnant. Revolutionary Road re-unites Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet who had previously starred together in Titanic, and the film is skillfully directed Sam Mendes, who adds a strong visual aesthetic to the blistering critique of society.
A brilliant atmospheric horror film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers has been the subject of analysis and interpretation for decades. It’s clear that this story about humans being replaced by alien “pod people” is saying something, but what? Some say that it’s an anti-communist allegory in which the slow, unnoticed takeover of pods represents the Red Scare. But while it does seem clear that McCarthyism is a central theme and that the film reflects the paranoia of the time, to say that the film is anti-communist is jumping to a simplistic, surface level conclusion. A more nuanced and thoughtful analysis suggests that what the film is really attacking is the social conformity to McCarthyism itself; a truly terrifying ideology in which those who refuse to conform to the dominant ideology are isolated and persecuted. Body Snatchers points a finger at those who conform and stand by as this kind of persecution takes place, denouncing it as an ultimate loss of humanity. The film is dark and suspenseful, following Dr. Miles Bennell as he and his girlfriend Becky try to avoid being discovered by the pods, as well as trying not to fall asleep, which triggers the transformation. The loss of consciousness is a perfect metaphor for the kind of mindless conformity to an oppressive ideology, because it takes a conscious effort to stand against a rising tide of fascism.
After the unprecedented worldwide success of Titanic it became fashionable to bash the film and belittle those who love it, but the reality is that it remains one of the most cherished Hollywood films of all-time. Titanic is an epic in which the most famous shipwreck in history serves as the backdrop for a story of forbidden love through which themes of class division are explored. Set in 1912, the ship is divided into separate areas for each class. Jack, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is in 3rd class, and Rose, played by Kate Winslet, is trapped in 1st. The narrative takes us all around the ship, allowing the audience to get familiar with several passengers in both the 1st and 3rd classes (the middle class doesn’t factor much in the story) before the fateful iceberg dooms the voyage across the Atlantic. The film celebrates the life and passion of the poor, and denounces the stifling attitude of the elite. For Rose, the story becomes not only one of survival, but one of escape, and Jack is her salvation. Titanic is also a visual marvel with such an emphasis on technical merit that it’s amazing the narrative was handled so well. James Cameron’s film is an example of Hollywood at its best.
Heavily influenced by Renoir’s classic The Rules of the Game, Altman’s Gosford Park is a modern take on the upstairs/downstairs narrative device, following an array of characters on both sides of a severe economic divide between the bourgeois elite and their servants. The film is set at an English country house where a group of aristocrats have gathered, along with their servants, for a hunting party. The film becomes a whodunit following a murder inside the house, and the mystery is explored from the points of view of both the wealthy guests and the servants. Gosford Park examines (and is highly critical of) the aristocracy’s exploitative dependency on a underclass. The film employs Altman’s signature free-flowing dialogue style in which characters speak over each other as people naturally do, and the camera glides smoothly around the huge manor. Unlike his later television series, Downton Abbey, which can perhaps be seen as an apology to the ruling class for Gosford Park, writer Julian Fellowes’ script spares no expense in its critique of the class structure. The house guests are portrayed as petty, cruel, oblivious, out of touch, and abusive of power, and the servants are depicted as victims with little hope of a better life under the aristocracy. By weaving together several narrative threads and cinematic devices, Altman created a masterpiece that is at once a dark comedy mocking the elite and a serious drama about the struggle of the working class under an oppressive system.
Julia is a story of friendship and courage between two women whose relationship is tested by the rise of fascism prior to World War II. The story centers around Lillian who is a struggling writer working on a play as she recalls memories of her childhood friend, Julia, who rebelled against her wealthy family to become a progressive radical. Over the years, as Julia became politically active, the friends see a lot less of each other. Lillian always keeps Julia in her thoughts, and they meet when they can, but the rise of fascism pulls them apart, but also brings them closer together. Lillian never fully understands Julia’s political ideology or why she risks so much to fight for her ideals, but when she is called to aid in an effort to resist the Nazis by smuggling funds into Germany on Julia’s behalf, she rises to the challenge. Julia is a charismatic figure, and despite only appearing on screen for a few minutes, Vanessa Redgrave’s performance is inspiring, making us want to see more of her, just as Lillian wishes to. Jane Fonda plays Lillian in this beautifully crafted film by Fred Zinnemann about the power of friendship to help us rise above our fears and to do more than we think we are capable in the face of great danger.