An evolving filmography about power

An evolving filmography about power

November 16, 2021

Originally published at notes on cinema

James McMahon

I have been fortunate enough to teach university classes on politics and film. I am certain few students in these classes could guess how stressful it was to assemble a list of films for each semester. The films I showed in class or assigned as homework have to touch on political issues, but they also have to be quality films. I did not want a political issue to be the subtext of a film, as too much subtext would require a pre-screening lecture on why the film is being shown. But I also worried that some political films could be too pedantic, which risks students getting the point of the film early and then growing bored of watching to the end.

I was reminded of this stress when a forum post about cinema appeared on It was asking for films that would speak about power in society, and the post was inspired by the list of novels recommended by Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler. Nitzan and Bichler are two political economists whose research has been very influential in my study of the Hollywood film business. Moreover, they have championed inter-disciplinary approaches to the study of capitalism. Good cinema, like good literature, can look at power in society without being limited by disciplinary barriers or one-sided perspectives.

Below is a list of films that, in one way or another, look at power in society. I’m recommending them in the style of the course I taught. They can be recommended without a lot of preamble on why they speak about power.

Title Director Year Runtime
Ace in the Hole Billy Wilder 1951 111
Ali, Fear Eats the Soul Rainer Werner Fassbinder 1974 93
Army of Shadows Jean-Pierre Melville 1969 145
Badlands Terrence Malick 1973 93
Bamboozled Spike Lee 2000 135
Barton Fink Joel Coen 1991 117
Battle of Algiers, The Gillo Pontecorvo 1966 120
Beau Travail Claire Denis 1999 90
Belle de Jour Luis Buñuel 1967 101
Black Girl Ousmane Sembène 1966 55
Black Narcissus Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger 1947 101
Blue Velvet David Lynch 1986 120
Caché Michael Haneke 2005 118
Carlos Olivier Assayas 2010 338
Chinatown Roman Polanski 1974 131
Come and See Elem Klimov 1985 142
Daisies Věra Chytilová 1966 76
Death Race 2000 Paul Bertel 1975 82
Do The Right Thing Spike Lee 1989 120
Dogtooth Yorgos Lanthimos 2009 97
Dry White Season, A Euzhan Palcy 1989 107
Eating Raoul Paul Bertel 1982 83
Executioner, The Luis García Berlanga 1963 90
Firemen’s Ball, The Miloš Forman 1967 73
Four Lions Chris Morris 2010 97
Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Peter Yates 1973 102
Germany, Year Zero Roberto Rossellini 1948 78
Godfather Part II, The Francis Ford Coppola 1974 200
Godfather, The Francis Ford Coppola 1972 177
Heaven’s Gate Michael Cimino 1980 219
Hunger Steve McQueen 2008 96
La Haine Mathieu Kassovitz 1995 98
Last Emperor, The Bernardo Bertolucci 1987 163
Leopard, The Luchino Visconti 1963 185
Magnificent Ambersons, The Orson Welles 1942 88
Man Push Cart Ramin Bahrani 2005 87
McCabe & Mrs. Miller Robert Altman 1971 121
Medium Cool Haskell Wexler 1969 110
Modern Times Charlie Chaplin 1936 87
My Beautiful Laundrette Stephen Frears 1985 97
Naked Mike Leigh 1993 131
New World, The Terrence Malick 2005 150
Night of the Living Dead George A. Romero 1968 96
No Country for Old Men Joel Coen and Ethan Coen 2007 122
Player, The Robert Altman 1992 124
Repo Man Alex Cox 1984 92
Rome, Open City Roberto Rossellini 1945 105
Smooth Talk Joyce Chopra 1985 91
Sullivan’s Travels Preston Sturges 1941 94
Sátántangó Bela Tarr 1994 439
There Will Be Blood Paul Thomas Anderson 2007 158
Thin Red Line, The Terrence Malick 1998 170
Touch of Sin Jia Zhangke 2013 130
Tree of Life, The Terrence Malick 2011 139
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me David Lynch 1992 134
Two Days, One Night Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne 2014 95
Wages of Fear, The Henri-Georges Clouzot 1953 148
White Ribbon, The Michael Haneke 2009 144
Wind That Shakes the Barley, The Ken Loach 2006 126
Working Girls Lizzie Borden 1986 93
Z Costa-Gavras 1969 127
Zéro de conduite Jean Vigo 1933 44