If it’s Tuesday, this must be Election Day in a year when democracy itself is on the ballot. It’s a moment that Jefferson Smith – the naive but idealistic young senator played by Jimmy Stewart – could have appreciated in the Oscar-winning 1939 classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” from director Frank Capra. It tops the list of 25 movies that this Gold Derby editor singles out as exemplary staples of the political genre over the past 80-plus years. Most originated on the big screen, but a few were made-for-TV (well, made for HBO, anyway, which for years peddled itself as being “not TV”).
Why bring this to you today? Think of it as a distraction tactic at a time when so many of us are overloaded with anxiety over an especially consequential election that will determine control of Congress. The list features biopics (“Lincoln,” “Milk” and “Malcolm X”), satires (“Dr. Strangelove,” “Election,” “Bulworth,” “Wag the Dog,” “Being There” and “Bob Roberts”), historical dramas (“Recount,” “Selma” “Game Change” and “Darkest Hour”) and journalism hybrid thrillers (“All the President’s Men,” “The Post” and “Good Night, and Good Luck”) as well as fictitious allegories (“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “The Candidate,” “The American President,” “All the King’s Men” and “The Manchurian Candidate”).
Watch any of these tonight instead of election returns and it may well help to put your mind briefly at ease.
Or then again, maybe not.
25. BOB ROBERTS (1992) Starring, written by and directed by Tim Robbins, co-starring Giancarlo Esposito, Alan Rickman, Gore Vidal
A satirical mockumentary that casts Robbins, in a role that earned him a Golden Globe nomination, as a folk singer-turned-conservative Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. The film pokes fun at everything Americans hold dear, particularly family values. Thirty years ago, “Bob Roberts” played as gloriously over the top; today, it instead feels prescient. The superb cast also features John Cusack, Peter Gallagher, Susan Sarandon and James Spader.
24. GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK (2005) Starring David Strathairn, Patricia Clarkson, Jeff Daniels, Frank Langella and Robert Downey Jr., directed by George Clooney, written by Clooney and Grant Heslov
A straight-ahead historical drama starring Strathairn as the crusading veteran TV newsman Edward R. Murrow and his role in bringing down the Communist-hunting Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. It’s powerfully acted and beautifully shot in black-and-white. It was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, Directing, Screenplay and for Strathairn’s performance.
23. MILK (2008) Starring Sean Penn, Josh Brolin and Victor Garber, directed by Gus Van Sant, written by Dustin Lance Black
Penn won an Oscar for his performance as Harvey Milk, the gay rights activist and first openly gay person to be elected to public office in the state of California and who was assassinated by San Francisco City Supervisor Dan White (Brolin). It was one of Penn’s greatest performances, and the story was made urgent and compelling in Black’s script (which also took home an Academy Award. The film earned eight Oscar noms in all, winning two.
22. MALCOLM X (1992) Starring Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett and Delroy Lindo, directed by Spike Lee, written by Arnold Perl and Lee from the book “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” by Malcolm X and Alex Haley
A virtuoso performance by Washington as the civil rights movement leader earned the actor an Academy Award nomination in a powerful biopic that dramatizes key events in X’s life, with Lee helming with a sure hand. Bassett lends riveting support as Malcolm’s wife Betty Shabazz. The movie also earned an Oscar nom for Ruth E. Carter’s costume design.
21. ALL THE KING’S MEN (1949) Starring Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Joanne Dru and Mercedes McCambridge, written and directed by Robert Rossen from the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1946 novel by Robert Penn Warren
Inspired by the rise of Louisiana Governor Huey Long in the 1930s, the film focuses on the rise and fall of a fictitious politician named Willie Stark (Crawford) who fights the establishment and embraces his own corrupt impulses while aiming for the top. “All the King’s Men” carries a world-weary power whose timeless quality remains relevant in today’s political quagmire. It resonated with academy voters, winning Oscars for Best Picture as well as for the lead work of Crawford and McCambridge’s support.
20. ELECTION (1999) Starring Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon and Chris Klein, directed by Alexander Payne, written by Payne and Jim Taylor from the novel of the same name by Tom Perrotta
A bravura dark comedy that perfectly casts Broderick as a Nebraska high school social studies teacher who looks to get even with a senior student he despises (played by Witherspoon) by sabotaging a student government election she’s running in. The insanity ratchets up until all hell has officially broken loose, and then some. It’s essentially today’s politics in microcosm. Payne’s and Taylor’s script earned them an Oscar nomination.
19. GAME CHANGE (2012) Starring Julianne Moore, Ed Harris, Woody Harrelson, Peter MacNicol, Jamey Sheridan and Sarah Paulson, directed by Jay Roach, written by Danny Strong from the book by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann
In adapting the book screenwriter Strong does a masterful job in telling the story of John McCain’s 2008 Presidential campaign and decision to pick Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. Exceptional casting takes over from there, with Harris and Moore doing extraordinary work bringing the whole mess home as McCain and Palin, respectively. The film hauled in a dozen Primetime Emmy nominations, winning for Best TV Movie as well as Roach’s direction and Strong’s writing, Moore’s performance and casting.
18. JFK (1991) Starring Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman and Jack Lemmon, directed by Oliver Stone, written by Stone and Zachary Sklar from books by Jim Garrison and Jim Marrs
Can it really be more than 30 years since “JFK” was released? This political thriller whose assassination story we all think we know pulsates with energy and purpose in co-writer/director Stone’s vision. It’s told from the POV of former New Orleans DA Jim Garrison (played by Costner) An eight-time Academy Award nominee (including for Best Picture and Director) that won two: for cinematography and editing.
17. FROST/NIXON (2008) Starring Frank Langella, Michael Sheen and Kevin Bacon, directed by Ron Howard, written by Peter Morgan from his own stage play
Langella is the disgraced former President Richard Nixon and Sheen is British TV journalist David Frost in this riveting retelling of their 1977 series of television interviews, adapted by Peter Morgan from his play. It was to be Nixon’s first and only direct addressing of the Watergate scandal that forced his resignation from office in 1974. Nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Screenplay and Langella’s magnetic performance in the lead.
16. THE POST (2017) Starring Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Matthew Rhys and Bruce Greenwood, directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer
A true political thriller and period piece that surrounds the attempts by the Washington Post to publish the Pentagon Papers – the classified documents that tell the story of U.S. Government involvement in the Vietnam – in 1971 following an expose’ in the New York Times. Director Spielberg surrounds himself with a spectacular heavyweight cast headed by Streep as Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham and Hanks as editor Ben Bradlee. Both Streep and the film itself were nominated for Oscars.
15. BEING THERE (1979) Starring Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas, Jack Warden, Richard Dysart, Richard Basehart, Ruth Attaway and David Clennon, directed by Hal Ashby, written by Jerzy Kosinski from his own novel
One of the great satirical political films ever made, “Being There” finds Sellers at the very top of his game portraying a gardener on the autistic spectrum before such a term was invented who, through a series of improbably circumstances, rises to the pinnacle of Washington politics. Until recent years, it looked like preposterous fantasy. Now, we know better. Sellers was nominated at the Oscars for Lead Actor, and Douglas took home the supporting actor Academy Award for his work as tycoon Benjamin Rand.
14. LINCOLN (2012) Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook and Tommy Lee Jones, directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Tony Kushner in part from the book by Doris Kearns Goodwin
An intense and compelling biopic from Spielberg that tells the story of our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, and his efforts in 1865 to pass a constitutional amendment to ban slavery as the Civil War continues to rage. In the Kushner screenplay based on the Goodwin book, it’s a race against time. Day-Lewis won the Oscar for his portrayal of Lincoln, and the film also won for its production design. “Lincoln” received a dozen Academy Award noms in all.
13. WAG THE DOG (1997) Starring Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Anne Heche, Woody Harrelson, Denis Leary, Willie Nelson, Andrea Martin and Kirsten Dunst, directed by Barry Levinson, written by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet from the book by Larry Beinhart
With the President of the United States caught literally and figuratively with his pants down in the days leading up to the next election, an advisor enlists the aid of a Hollywood producer and a spin doctor to trigger a war in Albania that the Prez can step in to stop in this fictitious scenario. It’s the birth of the term “wag the dog,” and this film in a masterwork of cynicism as guided by director Levinson. Hoffman and the adapted screenplay were nominated for Oscars.
12. THE CANDIDATE (1972) Starring Robert Redford, Peter Boyle, Melvyn Douglas, Don Porter, directed by Michael Ritchie, written by Jeremy Larner
In this political drama with significant attitude and wisdom, a young and handsome California lawyer named Bill McKay (Redford) is recruited to be the sacrificial lamb in a Senate race against an unbeatable incumbent. Then it all goes horribly right in Larner’s screenplay. Larner was a speechwriter for Senator Eugene McCarthy who penned the script during McCarthy’s 1968 Presidential campaign and wound up winning an Oscar for it. The film was also nominated for Best S0und.
11. BULWORTH (1998) Starring Warren Beatty, Halle Berry, Kimberly Deauna Adams and Christine Baranski, directed by Beatty, written by Beatty and Jeremy Pikser
In this very dark satire that he also wrote and directed, Beatty portrays Senator Jay Bulworth, a man who has had it with life and puts out a contract on his own life so his daughter can collect on a $10 million life insurance policy. What could possibly go wrong? Everything! “Bulworth” is one of the most cynically brilliant features ever made, but clearly not for everyone. It landed Beatty and co-writer Larner an Academy Award nomination for their original screenplay.
10. VICE (2018) Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Alison Pill, Eddie Marsan, Justin Kirk and LisaGay Hamilton, written and directed by Adam McKay
Christian Bale is a very convincing-looking Vice President Dick Cheney in this fast-moving, mocking and cheeky biographical seriocomic feature that charts Cheney’s rise in the George W. Bush administration to an historic level of power. Writer-director McKay isn’t shy about showing where his own political leanings fall, but that doesn’t detract from a gripping viewing experience. “Vice” garnered eight Oscar nominations (including for Bale) and won for its make-up.
9. SELMA (2014) Starring David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Wilkinson, Giovanni Ribisi, directed by Ava DuVernay, written by Paul Webb
A film that tells the inspiring true story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in the violent battle for equal voting rights in 11965. Oyelowo is a charismatic wonder in the lead as King, Wilkinson is superb as President Lyndon Johnson, and Oprah lends potent support. “Selma” was nominated only for Best Picture and Original Song, winning the latter.
8. A FACE IN THE CROWD (1957) Starring Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Anthony Franciosa, Walter Matthau and Lee Remick, directed by Elia Kazan, written by Budd Schulberg
Donald Trump‘s rise to the Presidency and to a position as the heart and soul of the Republican Party makes “A Face in the Crowd” seem prophetic, telling the tale of a cornpone drifter who becomes a TV star and a political kingmaker. Griffith’s stellar work in the lead feels like alchemy, and Trump could have been following its script beat by beat. Credit Kazan’s impeccable direction. The 1957 film received no Oscar or Golden Globe love, which seems criminal in hindsight.
7. THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT (1995) Starring Michael Douglas, Annette Bening, Martin Sheen, Michael J. Fox, Anna Deavere Smith, David Paymer, Richard Dreyfuss and Wendie Malick, directed by Rob Reiner, written by Aaron Sorkin
Director Reiner and writer Sorkin bring a masterly touch to this film that beautifully blends the personal with the political, telling the story of a widowed President of the U.S. (Douglas) who dates and falls in love with a firebrand environmental lobbyist (Bening) who makes it clear from the get-go she’s not impressed or intimidated by him. Exceptional, realistic dialogue and a keen understanding of the political process make this a must-see. Oscar-nominated for its musical score but nothing else.
6. RECOUNT (2008) Starring Kevin Spacey, Bob Balaban, Ed Begley Jr., Laura Dern, John Hurt, Denis Leary, Bruce McGill and Tom Wilkinson, directed by Jay Roach, written by Danny Strong
An HBO telepic with a midas touch, “Recount” plays as either a reassuring depiction of the political process working or a gross miscarriage of political justice, depending on which side of the political aisle one falls on. Regardless, it’s a gripping dramatization of the 2000 Presidential Election and the battle to recount Florida’s razor-thin vote, bolstered by a terrific script from Strong and a brilliant cast headed by Spacey. It pulled in 11 Primetime Emmy nominations and won three: for top TV Movie as well as direction and editing.
5. DARKEST HOUR (2017) Starring Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn, Ronald Pickup, directed by Joe Wright, written by Anthony McCarten
It doesn’t get much more compelling that a film where the fate of mankind itself hangs in the balance. That’s “Darkest Hour,” which takes us back to May 1940 and the decision of new Prime Minister Winston Churchill to either negotiate an agreement with German Chancellor Adolf Hitler or fight his Nazi regime. It makes for searing drama, with Oldman and Thomas doing stellar work as Mr. and Mrs. Churchill. Nominated fore six Academy Awards, the film won for Best Makeup and Hairstyling and for Oldman’s work in the lead.
4. THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962) Starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury, Henry Silva, James Gregory, directed by John Frankenheimer, written by George Axelrod from the novel by Richard Condon
In one of the truly great political thrillers in cinematic history, an American soldier is brainwashed during the Korean War into being the unwitting assassin as part of an international conspiracy. If it sounds like the Deep State before the handle even existed, you’d be right, making “The Manchurian Candidate” roughly 60 years ahead of its time. Sinatra and Harvey lead a stellar cast that also features perhaps the greatest, scariest performance of the late Lansbury’s incomparable career. Lansbury and the film’s editing received Academy Award noms.
3. DR. STRANGELOVE (1964) Starring Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens, Peter Bull, James Earl Jones and Tracy Reed, directed by Stanley Kubrick, written by Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George fromthe book “Red Alert” by George
Arguably director Kubrick’s most enduring masterpiece, “Dr. Strangelove” mines biting satire from a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union and the threat of mutual annihilation. The presence of a phenomenal cast led by Sellers and Scott served to elevate the film in ’64 and helps it hold up better than it has any right to in 2022, just a few years after President Trump controlled America’s nuclear arsenal. Kubrick received three Academy Award noms for the film (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay), while Sellers was honored with a nom for Best Actor.
2. ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976) Starring Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Robards, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Jane Alexander, Hal Holbrook, Meredith Baxter and Ned Beatty, directed by Alan J. Pakula, written by William Goldman from the book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
Still the greatest film about journalism (and, by extension, politics) ever made, the movie – based on the Woodward and Bernstein book of the same name – pulse-poundingly follows the Washington Post reporters’ investigation of Watergate to the top of the White House, peeling back the layers of the greatest detective story of our time like an onion. The movie blended impeccable direction with Goldman’s skillful adaptation and two brilliant actors working at the top of their game. It cashed in four of its eight Oscar nominations: for Robards’ supporting performance and Goldman’s adapted screenplay as well as for art direction (the re-creation of the Post newsroom) and sound (those clacking typewriters).
1. MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939) Starring Jimmy Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Guy Kibbee, Thomas Mitchell, Eugene Pallette and Beulah Bondi, directed by Frank Capra, written by Sidney Buchman and Lewis R. Foster (story)
A true classic from way back in 1939 that serves to restore our faith in mankind and a system stacked against honesty and integrity, “Mr. Smith G0oes to Washington” is considered one of the greatest films ever made. It stars Stewart as a U.S. Senator who takes on a corrupt system against all odds and energetically engages in punishing filibusters that go on for seeming days. It’s simply exceptional filmmaking from director Capra. The film landed 11 Academy Award nominations, winning for screenplay.
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