There are simply too many amazing films—thousands, really—that could occupy every slot on this list just as confidently as the ones that are here. So I chose great ones that, whether or not it was the authors’ intent, protest the way systems, traditions and institutions threaten to break or trap individuals. Some celebrate how people manage to hold onto themselves or each other during the assault. Others dramatize defeat (see numbers five, six, nine, and 10). This quality in movies is more desperately needed right now and more enduring over time than such film critic checklist items as technical virtuosity and screenplay structure. The vast majority of people who watch movies are the ones who bear the yoke, and last century’s problem was too many films made to satisfy those who wield the whip. We, the people, are still stuck in that false reality of virtual freedom, every time we turn on the TV, click through a corporate banner ad, or look up and see more billboard than sky.
10. The Good Shepherd (Robert De Niro, 2006). The Good Shepherd, Robert De Niro’s film about the early days of the C.I.A., bored many who were expecting a jaunty spy movie, but they missed how masterfully it lays out a horrifying secret of American history—and what that history implies for all of us who call ourselves American. It’s not surprising that this film arrived in the middle of a decade Ho’wood spent turning domestic spying, duplicity, torture and targeted killings into the onscreen equivalent of a theme park attraction. Antsy Americans, primed by shallow TV politics and movies that piped War-on-Terror imagery into frivolous James Bond-y material (the Bourne films, The Dark Knight), yawned at De Niro’s audacity. This quiet epic is more serious and dangerous than the film that critics often unfavorably compare it to, The Godfather.