We live in strange and confusing times. Every day brings with it an avalanche of new information, most of it more anxiety-inducing than the last. To help you make sense of the world we're living in, here are 12 films that break down major topics from the gig economy to fascism:
Jojo Betzler is 10 years old, as cute as a button, and is best friends with Adolf Hitler. Despite being packaged as a dramatic comedy, Taika Waititi's Jojo Rabbit is all about blind nationalism. As a member of the Nazi youth wing, Betzler's been heavily indoctrinated, but when he finds a young Jewish girl seeking shelter at his house, he's be forced to consider whether his political affiliations outweigh his moral compass. It's a question that's more timely than ever.
If there's a film that represents TRP-hungry news broadcasts best, Sidney Lumet's Network fits the bill a bit too perfectly. In the film, when Peter Finch's character Howard Beale goes on a frenzied spiel saying, "I'm mad as hell!" mid-air, the ratings of his news agency soar to unprecedented levels. To maintain this feat, the agency would much rather employ a ranting madman than report actual news. This political satire, in many ways, shows us how corrupt media is and can be.
Both the tragedy and the beauty of Ava DuVernay's powerful mini-series based on the five African-American male "suspects" in the 1989 Central Park Jogger case is that it's always relevant despite the specificity of its time. Today, in light of the Black Lives Matter movement and the continued police brutality in America – the latest being the shooting of Breonna Taylor by LMPD officers in her own apartment – When They See Us acquires an almost academic divinity. The four episodes are not just poignant, profound works of art but also the ultimate grassroots word on the whys of racial discrimination in a world where minorities are routinely punished for being provoked.
If you dial down The Office's zaniness and screwy tone, you get Office Space. The film is a magnified look at the cogs in a large capitalist industry, whose duties and responsibilities are based on the whims of their superiors. Ron Livingston's and Jennifer Aniston's characters illustrate how the everyday person buckles under the demands of capitalism. This dark comedy remains increasingly relevant today by depicting how workplaces expect their employees to behave like machines instead of humans.
Anubav Sinha's Mulk encapsulates how one's religion can be weaponized against them overnight. It follows Murad Ali Mohammed (Rishi Kapoor), who has amicable relationship with Hindu neighbours in Varanasi. That quickly changes when his nephew is found to a terrorist. The walls of his house are spray painted with hate messages such as 'Go back to Pakistan'. Despite him being unaware of, and later condemning, his nephew's actions, the neighbours he's known for decades now ostracize him. This 'othering' of people with different religious beliefs is particularly resonant.
What if there was a pandemic, but with a supernatural angle? Similarly, what if there was an ancient strain of vampirism (let loose in an airplane) that threatened to infect an entire city, and in turn, the world? The Strain, created by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, based on graphic novels written by them, marries the pandemic thriller and the vampire film in a thrilling, entertaining fashion. Del Toro's vision permeates everything in this series, from the emotional pull generated from the personal lives of the characters to the almost scientific, biological way of looking at monster design to the superb pilot episode, directed by the maestro himself.
In the aftermath of the 2008 recession, Ricky (Kris Hitchen) gets a contract job delivering parcels but it slowly becomes apparent to what extent the system's designed to exploit workers and minimize their salaries. Ricky's ordered to buy a van with his own savings, penalized for late deliveries, and in a crushing scene, fined when his package scanner gets damaged after he's assaulted during a brutal robbery. By humanizing the otherwise-faceless people who work daily-wage delivery jobs, director Ken Loach exposes their inhumane working conditions.
Jay Roach's Bombshell, which Quartz called the 'first great film about the Me Too movement', is useful to help understand how cultures of silence and complicity enable abuses of power in the workplace to remain unchecked. An account of the women at Fox News who took down founder Roger Ailes for sexual harassment, it features a heartbreaking scene in which a subordinate (Margot Robbie) is asked to expose herself to him. Her colleague doesn't commiserate with her in the aftermath of the incident, instead, she asks to be excluded from the conversation.
The Wachowskis-written film based on Alan Moore and David Lloyd's graphic novel was called a "dystopian political action" film in 2005. Yet, its nowness – especially in democracies like India – is indisputable. The plot revolves around a masked vigilante who single-handedly takes on the United Kingdom's neo-fascist totalitarian regime by spreading terror in their ranks and triggering a movement. In one of the film's most haunting scenes, a famous media personality is picked up, Nazi-style, from his own house at the dead of night for poking fun at the prime minister in his latest show. Others are executed or jailed for speaking up. In another, a bleak and angry London's citizens – all wearing Guy Fawkes masks – rise and take to the streets to protest against the brutal administration.
If an apocalyptic pandemic and some financial turmoil weren't bad enough, Indians have to also deal with a border standoff with the most powerful country in the world. With each passing day, we wake up to news of clashes, shots being fired, the PLA marching forward and of peace talks proving futile. Home invasion dramas, at a time like this, are not such a great idea but they best capture one of many many phobias we're all dealing with now. Of these, Michael Haneke's Funny Games is particularly nerve-wracking because uninvited guests are not exactly something we can even process at the moment. Rich, powerful enemies with a smile on their faces…how much creepier can it get?
Four friends from Kolkata drive to a nearby forest for a break. Thus begins Satyajit Ray's intensely compassionate study of the "other", in a film filled with instances of other-ing. City vs forest. Men vs women. Urban folk vs tribals. This film was made before Twitter invaded our lives and began to shape our consciousness – so, seen from today, what's remarkable about it is that it says being educated is no guarantee that you know the world. Had this film been made today, we might say that having a keyboard or reading a few online articles is no guarantee that you know the world outside your own, the "other" world. Ray's drama is an eye-opener that a little openness and humility go a long way.
It's important to think about Rabindra Dharmaraj's slum-set drama, today, as the migrant crisis keeps playing on… and on. Smita Patil's character comes to Mumbai with her son, and thus begins the unending cycle (see that title again) of urban poverty, where you end up doing anything just to ensure you live to see another day. Maybe the lack of 24×7 media, back then, blinded some of us to how "real" all of this is, but today, there's no excuse. Shashi Kapoor was famously miffed about the film, because wife Jennifer – a contender for the National Award for Best Actress for 36, Chowringhee Lane – lost to Smita, who was just "soaping her armpits". But that is actually the point: that she is "soaping her armpits" in full view of the camera, and the microcosmic world around her. Privacy is a luxury these people cannot afford.