1. My Man Godfrey (1936)
No one's going to mistake this consummate screwball comedy for a protest film, but it makes no bones about putting class differences on the front burner right from the credits, which pan from the bright lights of an Art Deco Manhattan skyline to the city dump, home to its titular protagonist William Powell and other victims of the Depression. There, Powell first meets Carole Lombard, part of a high-spirited scavenger hunt whose items include a "forgotten man." Powell pushes Lombard's sister into a pile of ashes, then plays along long enough to call the high-society types "nitwits" for treating the poor like objects. Then the hilarious twists and turns kick in, but the film never loses sight of the fact that since 1929, the distance between Park Avenue and the dump has shrunk considerably.
2. The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946)
After World War II ended, many veterans were reticent about the horrors they'd witnessed. Some had been irrevocably changed physically or mentally by their experience; others had a difficult time getting back into the fold. By even broaching the subject, William Wyler's Oscar-winning The Best Years Of Our Lives was an act of courage, but more than that, it was a cathartic expression of feelings that had simmered under the surface of American life. In its story of three servicemen returning to small-town Boone City after the war—one having lost his hands, the others struggling to adjust to their jobs and changed families—Wyler's moving drama acknowledges that the process of coming home doesn't end with the ticker-tape parade.
3. Medium Cool (1969)
Few narrative films have the fortune, good or bad, to wind up in the middle of history, but it couldn't have taken cinematographer-turned-first-time-feature-director Haskell Wexler by surprise. He decided to shoot Medium Cool in Chicago in 1968 in part because of predictions that the protests and uprisings sweeping the world would hit the Democratic Convention that summer. The convention violence serves as the climax of a film that documents the volatile social climate of the day—racial unrest, social inequality, and a free-floating fed-up feeling—while critiquing the very process of capturing reality on film. The good vibes have given way to anger and discontent, and there's no solid ground on which to stand. It's 1968 boiled down to two hours.
4. Hearts And Minds (1974)
Decades before Fahrenheit 9/11 and An Inconvenient Truth, Peter Davis' controversial Vietnam essay Hearts And Minds proved that it was possible for a documentary to go from reporting news to becoming news. Davis' wide-ranging film explores the roots of American imperialism in Vietnam and the consequences for Americans and the Vietnamese alike, sketching a line between the excesses of the military-industrial complex and the winner-takes-all hyper-aggression of high-school football. Also like Fahrenheit and Truth, Hearts And Minds became a flashpoint in a culture war. After co-producer Bert Schneider read a "Greetings of friendship to all American people" from the North Vietnamese government during his acceptance speech for the film's Best Feature Documentary Oscar, his actions were denounced by Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, John Wayne, and other members of Hollywood's old guard.
5. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Though a decade removed from the McCarthy folly, America was still entrenched firmly enough in the Red Scare that John Frankenheimer's political thriller The Manchurian Candidate caused a major stir. The story concerns a Medal Of Honor winner who's captured and brainwashed during the Korean War. He returns home as a "sleeper agent," triggered into action through hypnotic suggestion and manipulated into assassinating a senatorial candidate who's running against a McCarthy-esque figure. The film's politics are a matter of some debate—though any reading that pegs it as anything other than a critique of McCarthyism faces an uphill battle—but it had the courage to ask previously taboo questions. Jonathan Demme's underrated 2004 remake cleverly updated the premise for the times by substituting corporations for Communism, speculating about who's really in control in the 21st century.
6. Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964)
Based on Peter George's novel Red Alert, Stanley Kubrick's devastating Cold War satire was initially intended to be a deadly serious cautionary tale about two nations on the brink of nuclear disaster. (Presumably, that movie would have looked a lot like Fail Safe, which was released by the same studio eight months later.) However, a short ways into the writing process, Kubrick and his collaborators started to see the bleak irony in concepts like Mutually Assured Destruction, an idea that the United States and the Soviet Union would never engage in nuclear warfare because both sides would be demolished. In the film, the arms race comes to its natural end with something called the "doomsday machine," a Soviet device that automatically retaliates a nuclear attack by basically destroying every living thing on the planet. The film reaches absurd heights in the War Room, when lunatics like George C. Scott's boorish general start throwing out sunny-day scenarios like one that would only leave 10 to 20 million Americans dead: "Now, I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed."
7. Gimme Shelter (1970)
The flip side to Woodstock, 1970's Gimme Shelter revealed the hangover that followed the hippie bacchanalia only four months earlier, and bought a decade to a grim conclusion. In December of 1969, an ill-planned free concert featuring Jefferson Airplane and the Rolling Stones was staged in front of 300,000 people at Altamont Speedway in California. Put in charge of security, the Hell's Angels spent much of their time brutalizing attendees. On top of that, bad acid circulated in the crowd, and the audience-reaction shots could be inserted into a George Romero movie without anyone telling the difference. The event reached its tragic end when a Hell's Angel guard stabbed a spectator, an incident replayed before an ashen Mick Jagger in the final scene.
8. The Parallax View (1974)
The Watergate scandal sparked a series of first-rate '70s thrillers, none better than The Parallax View, which hinted at a powerful new strain of disillusionment and paranoia about government's omnipresent reach and sinister intentions. Director Alan J. Pakula would tackle Watergate directly two years later with All The President's Men, but this fiction film allows for a more free-floating expression of conspiratorial dread. Warren Beatty stars as a journalist who pokes into a senator's assassination and soon gets immersed within the shadowy organization that orchestrated the killing. Beatty's infiltration of the group leads to the signature scene, in which he views a recruitment film filled with disturbing associations about American life. But more importantly, the film suggests that citizens no longer have control over their government and are doomed to suffer injustices under its thumb.
9. Do The Right Thing (1989)
Not long after white locals assaulted three African-American teenagers (and killed one) in the Howard Beach section of Queens, Spike Lee registered his disgust with Do The Right Thing, his landmark statement on race relations. The film itself was an historic event, drawing several short-sighted editorials that criticized Lee for inciting black people to riot, as his Right Thing character does. There were no post-screening riots, of course, but the film served as a litmus test for racial views in America, and based on the contradictory quotes from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X that appear when the screen fades to black, any conclusions Lee has to offer are pretty open-ended.
10. 25th Hour (2002)
Hollywood movies shot in New York around 9/11 went out of their way to avoid talking about the elephant in the room; several even digitally removed any footage of the Twin Towers. It was a missed opportunity to capture a moment in time that needed documentation apart from the nauseating replays on CNN. But New York is Spike Lee's town, and in one of those miracles of timing that can lead to great art, he bravely decided to put his broken city front and center in 25th Hour. The opening-credit sequence alone is as beautiful an elegy for 9/11 as anyone could possibly imagine, with Terence Blanchard's score swelling over a slow reveal of the Tribute In Light. A montage of Ground Zero itself comes in later on, but the film more subtly incorporates the tenor of the times into its story of a convicted drug dealer's last day in the city before he heads off to jail. The feelings evoked by his dilemma—of regret, of reckoning, of loss—are impossible to extract from those that haunt his native city.
11. Elephant (2003)
Gus Van Sant's rapturous, terrifying memorial to Columbine was criticized in some corners for moral vacuity and exploitation, because it really didn't add anything to the discussion on high-school violence. Yet it's valuable for that very reason: Rather than speculating about causes or solutions, or otherwise engaging in the facile politicking that followed in Columbine's wake, Van Sant provides a meditative space for viewers to contemplate this event on their own, just as he did with his previous film, Gerry. Elephant does the important service of wresting Columbine away from the pundits and artfully returning to what evolved into a not-so-ordinary day in high-school life. Van Sant doesn't bother with characterization, but he succeeds in simply acknowledging the existence of victims and perpetrators with dignity and without contrivance.