20. “Meet John Doe” (1941)
The creative cinematic marriage of Frank Capra and his screenwriter Robert Riskin ended in divorce after “Meet John Doe,” and it’s perhaps not too difficult to see why: it’s not top-rate Capra, though still certainly good enough to make the cut here. With her journalistic career on the skids, Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) pens a pseudonymous farewell letter under the by-line “John Doe,” and has her creation spout missives about the dreariness of contemporary existence — “I protest the state of civilization” — and concludes the column by declaring Doe intends to kill himself on Christmas Eve. Roping in a bumpkin who dreams of being a baseball player (Gary Cooper), Stanwyck’s wily scheme sprouts legs after a platitudinous radio speech made up of treacly homilies (“Wake up, John Doe. You’re the hope of the world!”) and we’re asked to believe a spontaneous political movement is born overnight; ready-made to be destroyed by the very people who created it. With Walter Brennan screaming about “healots” throughout the entire film’s running time, Cooper’s “yokel appeal” — indicative of what critic Richard Corliss dubbed a streak of “rube psychosis” in Capra’s work — is key to the entire duplicitous shebang. But the ethical quandary is bunk (why should the people invest in a folk hero invented by a journalist, and a careerist one to boot?), even if the intent is admirable. “Meet John Doe” is a worthwhile film which, like Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole” after it, harkens back to a mythical age of journalism where reporters were expected to adhere to a set of ethical editorial standards. But it’s also an inescapably flawed one too.
19. “All The King’s Men” (1949)
Southern politics are a whole ball game onto themselves, and no movie has ever captured that better than “All The King’s Men,” Robert Rossen’s 1949 adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s best-selling novel. Like the book, it’s a thinly-veiled portrait of controversial and colorful Louisiana governor Huey Long (here, called Willie Stark and played by Broderick Crawford, who won one of the film’s three Oscars, along with Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress for Mercedes McCambridge), who rises from humble beginnings to become an anti-establishment, renegade politician and eventual governor of the state, before meeting an abrupt end via assassination. Stark is a complex, fully-rounded character, someone who becomes increasingly despotic over time but remains a charming and charismatic figure — the show does more in two hours than “House Of Cards” has managed in 40. Some of the plotting is a little contrived and melodramatic, but Rossen softens the bluntness with a dark, noirish feel that, like much about the film, gives it the impression of a southern-fried take on “Citizen Kane.” Just stick with the original, rather than Steve Zaillian’s starry but lumbering 2006 remake, which is led by one of Sean Penn’s worst performances.
18. “Weiner” (2016)
You might be familiar with the story of Anthony Weiner: a fast-rising star of the Democratic Party and popular, long-serving Congressman who twice ran for mayor of New York, only to self-destruct after a series of scandals involving him sexting strangers. The second of those campaigns is documented in “Weiner,” which tracks his would-be comeback in 2013, and the film has only become more hot-button in the few months since it opened, given the FBI’s investigation into Weiner’s sending explicit photos to a 15-year-old, and the incident’s recent impact on the presidential campaign. Aside from that, it’s one of the most compelling and brilliantly made portraits of ego, hubris and self-immolation ever made. Directed by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg (Kriegman was a former aide to Weiner, hence the astonishing access they were granted), the doc plays somewhat like a real-life cross between “Veep” and “The Good Wife,” in which Weiner is simply unable to stop himself from imploding even as he comes across as an undeniably talented, even compassionate politician, while his wife Huma Abedin (one of Hillary Clinton’s top aides) is one of the great screen characters of the year: loyal, long-suffering and yet also fiery. Kriegman and Steinberg have a perfect sense of when to give their subjects enough rope and when to ask them the tough questions, as well as a truly cinematic eye for framing and detail.
17. “In The Loop” (2009)
Writer/director Armando Iannucci’s scathing political satire, loosely based on/spun-off of his BBC television series “The Thick of It,” brings a jet-black, fast-paced comic sensibility to the screen of a kind that’s rarely seen in American political satire. While “In the Loop” is apocryphal, it’s impossible to not draw comparisons to recent political events in its story of the march to war, shown through the eyes of a hapless British minister (Tom Hollander), his staff, and the U.S. politicos trying to forestall conflict. We don’t see the highest government officials, but we see the people who work behind the scenes where everyone is looking to gain an edge for their next career hurdle. Semantics is everything in this world. This is a sapid, smart, dark and mean-spirited comedy with a pitch-perfect cast, but the film truly belongs to Peter Capaldi (“Local Hero”) as Malcolm Tucker (the only returning character from “The Thick of It”), giving such a believable performance you’d swear he was this guy in real life, not a fantastic satirical creation. Every individual he comes across falls in his wake of mean-spirited barbs. The rest of the cast is top-notch as well; each inhabits fully-realized characters, and more importantly avoid any semblance of caricature, which would’ve happened in the hands of less-capable filmmakers. Iannucci’s back on big screens next year with “The Death Of Stalin,” and we couldn’t be more excited.
16. “The Best Man” (1964)
Generally speaking, party conventions tend to serve as coronations for presidential candidates in the past several decades, rather than photo-finishes; the outcome of the nomination for either major party’s candidate hasn’t been in doubt at that point since Ronald Reagan nearly unseated Gerald Ford at the 1976 Republican National Convention. But at one time, the conventions were home to backroom deals and breakneck negotiations, and no film better embodies that than “The Best Man.” An adaptation of Gore Vidal’s 1960s play helmed by Franklin J. Schaffner, the film features two presidential candidates, intellectual William Russell (Henry Fonda) and the brash, Kennedy-esque Joe Cantwell (Cliff Robertson), who are courting a dying ex-President (the Oscar-nominated Lee Tracy) for his endorsement, one that is sure to clinch the nomination. Recently revived on Broadway, it’s an enjoyably nasty little dogfight of a movie, the two candidates seemingly prepared to go to any lengths to slander their opponent, and Vidal’s zippy, acerbic script has no end of memorable exchanges. It risks feeling a little stagy in places, but Haskell Wexler’s typically excellent camerawork mostly staves that off, while never letting the focus drift from the excellent performances. Indeed, Robertson has rarely had a better showcase, and it’s one of Fonda’s most interesting pre-“Once Upon A Time In The West” subversions of his persona, coming hot on the heels of the thematically similar “Advise and Consent,” and in the same year as another presidential role, in Sidney Lumet’s “Fail-Safe.”