If you asked me, it was a good year for films with a social conscience. In the spirit of end-of-the-year lists, here are five of my favorites from 2012. I hope you’ll share yours with us in the comments too.
1. Lincoln, dir. Steven Spielberg
I’m of the opinion that Lincoln is Steven Spielberg’s best film, and that sends it right to the top of any year’s list. Sure, the screenwriter, Tony Kushner, is a friend of my family’s, but I’d think this highly of the film even if I didn’t have a connection to it. With its astounding lead performances from Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field; equally strong work from the supporting cast (including James Spader, Gloria Reuben, Jared Harris, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Hal Holbrook, to name just a few of the standouts); and otherwise pitch-perfect production, the film magnificently evokes the world of the 16th U.S. President. In telling the story of the passage of the 13th Amendment, Spielberg and Kushner acknowledge that, yes, politics is ugly business. At the same time, they try to show us that sometimes–on rare occasions–the things that can be ugliest about it (compromise, insincerity, gamesmanship, bean-counting, rule-breaking…) can also actually be great acts of selflessness and sacrifice for the noblest of ends as well. While being clear-eyed and critical, Lincoln also seeks to give us renewed hope in the democratic process. For me, it worked beautifully and its impact was gigantic.
2. The Invisible War, dir. Kirby Dick
Zero Dark Thirty is the film about the U.S. military that everybody is talking about, but maybe the one they should be talking about is Dick’s brilliant, thoroughgoing, raging documentary about the staggering epidemic of rape within our armed forces. “Today, a woman serving in Iraq or Afghanistan is more likely to be raped by a fellow service member than to be killed in the line of fire,” the film tells us. It also reveals that there have been nearly 100,000 sexual assaults in the military since 2006, and 86% of those are not reported. With testimonials, archival footage, and other film resources, Dick brings these unacceptable facts to heartbreaking, infuriating life. Do not miss this — it is a film that must be seen.
3. Lost Angels: Skid Row is My Home, dir. Thomas Q. Napper
An incredibly powerful documentary about the fifty square blocks of downtown Los Angeles that our controversial former police chief William J. Bratton not-so-controversially called “the worst situation in America.” Wisely focusing on the lives of a small handful of current and former residents of its streets, the film gets into your heart as well as your head (the statistical data is presented in ways that connect with the experiences on film, making it all stick and unsettle the viewer). A deeply affecting and necessary peek into a place many dare not look.
4. The Dark Knight Rises, dir. Christopher Nolan
Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities gets run through the grinder of Nolan’s reinvented (and highly relevant) Gotham City, with Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton ingeniously combined within the character(s) of Bruce Wayne/Batman. Exhilarating, jolting, insanely ambitious, and every bit as uncomfortably prophetic about economic oppression as its mighty predecessor was about the “War on Terror.”
5. Argo, dir. Ben Affleck
Affleck’s third directorial effort has a perfect first twenty minutes, several remarkable performances (including his own), unbearable suspense, and tremendous wit. And that’s just the beginning of its many virtues! As thoughtful as it is entertaining, this drama about a recently declassified aspect of the Iranian hostage crisis is also a moving little meditation on our responsibility to and for others.