In many ways, Selma and American Sniper could not be more different. One tells the story of a violent turning point in Martin Luther King Jr.'s peaceful campaign for civil rights in the 1960s. The other zeroes in on a war-addicted sharpshooter killing his way across Iraq after the 2003 invasion.
But the two films — both nominated for best picture honors at Sunday night's Oscars — have more in common than might be apparent at first blush: To start, they are box-office hits whose ascendance as historical commentaries have been aided by notes of timely cultural controversy. More importantly, they tell deeply political stories in which the best and worst of America share a frame and, in large portions of American Sniper, a single increasingly unhinged character.
This union of the political and personal — and the blurring of those lines — is at the core of effective and meaningful storytelling. Indeed, some of the most politically relevant films of this generation don't feature a president in crisis or even a city councilman facing a tough zoning vote. What follows is a countdown of the genre-bending movies that most influenced the way our generation thinks about politics:
19. The Birdcage (1996), directed by Mike Nichols
The daughter of a Republican senator and son of a gay Miami nightclub owner (and his partner) are getting married. But before that can happen, the families get together for a tense dinner party.
"I've seen this all before. Aristotle Onassis was like this. And all of the French. Especially Mitterand. And the English. Not Margaret Thatcher, of course. But you can't tell me John Major doesn't have something on the side."
What we learned: Family is about love and nothing else.
18. Black Sheep (1996), directed by Penelope Spheeris
Chris Farley is the ne'er-do-well younger brother of a political candidate. As his shenanigans threaten to sink the campaign, he and a young aide set about making it right.
"That's one small step for man! One giant ... I have a dream!"
What we learned: Politicians will sometimes try to manipulate the media to win office.
17. Election (1999), directed by Alexander Payne
A high school teacher tries to undermine a perhaps slightly overzealous young pupil's campaign for student body president.
"You see, I believe in the voters. They understand that elections aren't just popularity contests. They know this country was built by people just like me who work very hard and don't have everything handed to them on a silver spoon. Not like some rich kids who everybody likes because their fathers own Metzler Cement and give them trucks on their 16th birthday and throw them big parties all the time."
What we learned: The conventions of national politics look even more ridiculous when they're mimicked by high school students.
16. Dave (1993), directed by Ivan Reitman
After the president suffers a stroke in the heat of (extramarital) passion, the Secret Service brings in a lookalike to handle public events with the boss in a coma. But when the president is implicated in a scandal, the tables are turned and "Dave," a regular guy, gets a shot at running the country.
"I was a shoe salesman. Not very happy about it. One day, my wife says to me, 'Why don't you try running for office? You know, you talk about it all the time. Why don't you just go do it?' So I tell my boss I have a dentist appointment, and go down to the registrar of voters on my lunch break ... next thing I know I'm a councilman."
What we learned: Never underestimate the power of political engagement.
15. The Contender (2000), directed by Rod Lurie
A second-term Democratic president wants to replace his dead vice president with a female senator. But the Republican congressman leading the confirmation hearings is determined to smear her and sink the nomination.
"Principles only mean something if you stick by them when they're inconvenient. If I ever did answer the questions... you know, even to exonerate myself ... that would mean that it was okay for them to have been asked in the first place ... and it isn't."
What we learned: It's really, really difficult for women in politics.
14. Wag the Dog (1997), directed by Barry Levinson
As an election approaches and a sex scandal looms, a shady presidential spin doctor hires a movie producer to concoct a phony war with Albania. There's even a "grassroots" campaign to bring home a soldier caught behind enemy lines. Their goal: distract voters from the president's sexual shenanigans.
"Well, if Kissinger can win the Peace Prize, I wouldn't be surprised to wake up and find out I'd won the Preakness."
What we learned: Just because it's on the TV, doesn't make it true. (Note: The movie was released just before President Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky was exposed. When Clinton subsequently bombed alleged terror targets in Afghanistan and Sudan, Americans couldn't help but wonder.)
13. Zero Dark Thirty (2012), directed by Kathryn Bigelow
This is the story of America's decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden. But was the juice worth the squeeze? In the film, detainees spill crucial information after being tortured for days and months on end.
"Can I be honest with you? I am bad fucking news. I'm not your friend. I'm not gonna help you. I'm gonna break you. Any questions?"
What we learned: Sometimes the means — in this case, "enhanced interrogation tactics" — do not justify the ends. Even if torture did play some role in helping us find bin Laden, does that make it OK?
12. There Will Be Blood (2007), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
A miner strikes it rich drilling for oil in the early 20th century American West. But first he must do business with the people who own the land that holds the oil. Deals are made, crimes are committed and families are made and broken. The American dream, realized, begins to spiral into a nightmare.
"Drainage! Drainage, Eli, you boy. Drained dry. I'm so sorry. Here, if you have a milkshake, and I have a milkshake, and I have a straw. There it is, that's a straw, you see? Watch it. Now, my straw reaches across the room and starts to drink your milkshake. I ... drink ... your ... milkshake!"
What we learned: More than hard work or anything else, there is a nation built on violence — against each other and the land.
11. Trading Places (1983), directed by John Landis
A wealthy white stock broker and a homeless black man are made to swap lives at the whim of pair of millionaire brothers who want to settle a bet. Soon enough, the hustler is thriving in the boardroom and, stripped of his privilege, the businessman is doing what it takes to make it on the street.
"One minute you're up half a million in soybeans and the next, boom, your kids don't go to college and they've repossessed your Bentley. Are you with me?"
What we learned: No one makes it entirely on their own. With opportunity, anything is possible.
10. Clueless (1995), directed by Amy Heckerling
The apparently shallow daughter of a wealthy Los Angeles lawyer takes on the task of making over a clumsy classmate. When the project turns into a roaring success, she is forced to think a little more deeply about how she wants to use her considerable social power.
"Sometimes you have to show a little skin. This reminds boys of being naked, and then they think of sex."
What we learned: For young women, especially, you don't have to sound like a lawyer to outsmart a whole room of them.
9. Bob Roberts (1992), directed by Tim Robbins
A folk singer with shadowy political backers is running for senate, making his name with clever lines like, "Some people will have ... some simply will not ... But they'll complain and complain and complain and complain and complain" and "the times they are a-changin' back."
"Yes, we rely heavily on those fat government contracts, to make these useless weapons of mass destruction. And even though we have been indicted and convicted for fraud several times, you don't hear too much about our bad side, because, well, we own our own news division."
What we learned: How achingly backward 1980s economic and social policy had become, especially when channeled through the voice of a bizarro Bob Dylan figure.
8. 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006), directed by Corneliu Porumboiu
A small Romanian town marks the anniversary of the fall of the dictator Nicolae Ceau?escu by questioning its own role in the revolution. Were they brave leaders or passive followers — and what is the price of remembering?
"Is it a revolution if people took to the streets ... after the fact?"
What we learned: Be careful with your history, because progress cannot take root in dishonest soil.
7. No Country for Old Men (2007), directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
A West Texas man stumbles upon a drug deal gone deadly wrong and a tainted fortune in a gym bag. What follows is a kind of detective story, as the local sheriff tries to protect the in-over-his-head man and his family from the dark force coming to reclaim its riches.
"You can't stop what's coming."
What we learned: Terrible things can happen for reasons we will never entirely understand. It's up to us to decide how to live in that kind of world.
6. Dirty Dancing (1987), directed by Emile Ardolino
It might be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the cult classic, but the only reason "Baby" got started dancing was a botched abortion that sidelined Patrick Swayze's original dance partner. Set a decade before Roe v. Wade, we see the perils of a world where abortions were the province of shadowy, unregulated practitioners.
"Nobody puts Baby in a corner!"
What we learned: So much! Baby's wealthy family doesn't want her dancing with the lower class Swayze character, so they put her in "a corner." But more importantly, we see in the context of an otherwise light and romantic film the dangers of cutting women off from safe and legal abortions.
5. Primary Colors (1998), directed by Mike Nichols
This fictional retelling of Clinton's first presidential campaign takes us from the early primaries to the cusp of the White House with a few speed bumps along the way. To wit: the candidate's numerous affairs, a (potential) lovechild, weird and disappearing loyalties and a whole lot of good old boys' blubbering about their mommas.
"We can do incredible things. We can change this country. I'm gonna win this thing. Look me in the eye, Henry, and tell me that you don't want to be a part of it."
What we learned: A lot, we thought, about Clinton. But more, about the weird rush of politics and that we make caricatures of our political leaders at our peril.
4. In the Loop (2009), directed by Armando Iannucci
A precursor to director and writer Armando Iannucci's beloved VEEP, this is the story of a low-level British parliamentarian who, with a silly comment to the press, has (maybe) just provided war-hungry U.S. officials the pretext for war in some distant land. When the British politician and his aides arrive in the states to clean up their mess, it becomes quite apparent that no one, from the White House on down, is interested in matters of life and death; they're more concerned with "who leaked Liza Weld's PWIP-PIP paper to the BBC!"
"Climbing the mountain of conflict"? You sounded like a Nazi Julie Andrews!"
What we learned: How shallow, ambitious and, more pointedly, dumb the people driving our politics can be. Not every scandal is Watergate and sometimes "following the money" is less valuable than tracking a mid-level bureaucrat's career path.
3. Do the Right Thing (1989), directed by Spike Lee
Lee's masterpiece is set in racially divided Brooklyn a hot summer day in the late 1980s. The simmering surreality builds for two hours before reaching a deadly crescendo with eerie notes of what would happen 25 years later on a sidewalk in Staten Island, when Eric Garner was choked by a white policeman and soon after died.
"My people, my people, what can I say; say what I can. I saw it but didn't believe it; I didn't believe what I saw. Are we gonna live together? Together are we gonna live?"
What we learned: That the politics of race are not just for politicians — they are all around us every day. And if we don't look up and deal with them, nothing will ever get better.
2. Margin Call (2011), directed by J.C. Chandor
The story of the 2008 financial collapse as told through the eleventh hour machinations of a big Wall Street firm that sees the disaster on the horizon. From the top executive down to the recent grad-turned-associate, we see how easy, perhaps inevitable, for these economic and social dominos to start falling.
"If you really want to do this with your life you have to believe that you're necessary. And you are. People want to live like this in their cars and their big fucking houses that they can't even pay for? Then you're necessary. The only reason they all get to continue living like kings is because we've got our fingers on the scales in their favor. I take my hand off and the whole world gets really fucking fair really fucking quickly and nobody actually wants that. They say they do but they don't. They want what we have to give them, but they also want to play innocent and pretend they have no idea where it came from. That's more hypocrisy than I'm willing to swallow."
What we learned: Though it might be more comfortable to rage against greedy bankers, it might be more helpful to consider our own role in the system and what crimes, in the pursuit of a comfortable life, we are willing to ignore.
1. Syriana (2005), directed by Stephen Gaghan
If Yeats were asked to adapt his poem "The Second Coming" for the screen, this is pretty much where he'd end up.
The perfect movie for its time — the bloody depths of President George W. Bush's global war on terror — and increasing in stature with every passing year. In 2005, the joke about Syriana was that you needed to sit through it two or three times to get a handle on what exactly was happening. The irony now, a decade on, is that once you do figure out the names and relationships, the experience remains mostly the same. No mercy, no escape.
"I used to think there's something wrong here. Now I know there's something wrong here."
What we learned: Connection is not the same thing as communication. Many of the most important questions in our lives will be answered by people we don't know and forces we might never understand.