"The Manchurian Candidate" (1962, 2004)
Quite a difference 50 years makes. Or, perhaps, none at all. Both the 1962 and 2004 adaptations of the Richard Condon novel detail the conspiracy of a shadow group in its attempts to take over the U.S. presidency through a brainwashed soldier-turned-VP candidate. All that changes is the motive. The John Frankenheimer-directed version with Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury, as the scheming (and incestuous) mother from Hell, makes Communists the bad guys — a logical villain given the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the film’s release during the Cold War boiling point of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Jonathan Demme-directed version with Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber and Meryl Streep, however, has a sinister corporation doing the dirty work in a post-9/11 world. While Frankenheimer’s “Manchurian Candidate” is by far the better film, Demme’s take is actually more relevant to the current state of American politics, with its tsunami of corporate money and racially tinged drama. In recent years, the concept of the Manchurian Candidate has become even more ripe (or rotted), as a certain fanatical segment of the American public has accused our first black president, Barack Obama, of being a stooge for Muslim interests. (One could also argue — from either side — that former Governor Mitt Romney’s multitude of contradictory policy statements makes his candidacy equally suspect, depending on one’s ideological bent.) However it’s viewed, the story is a gripping, if extreme, example of the lengths to which the corrupt will go to attain power — whether on a global scale, or right at one’s own dinner table. [Jay A. Fernandez]

"Medium Cool" (1969)
Haskell Wexler's  groundbreaking docudrama takes place during the upheaval of the 1968 election season, delivering a canny diatribe on the ills of media manipulation. The great Robert Forster stars as a hustling TV cameraman disinterested in politics until he meets the widow of a soldier who died during the Vietnam war. In the stunning climax, Wexler mixes real and staged footage based around the Democratic National Convention as well as the infamous riots surrounding it. By humanizing the enablers of mass media, Wexler crafts a powerful cautionary tale about the need to push beyond the dominant sources of information to grasp for truth in politics (and beyond them). The movie's themes are more potent today than ever before. [Eric Kohn]

"Milk" and"The Times of Harvey Milk" (2008, 1984)
While both Gus Van Sant's and Rob Epstein's takes on the story of slain San Francisco politican Harvey Milk cover more than his ground-breaking election, it's certainly a big part of the story.  After unsuccessfully running for office three times, Milk became the first openly gay man to serve public office when he was elected as a city supervisor in 1977. His grassroots campaign is depicted significantly in both films, as is the incredible energy and optimism Milk displayed throughout his political career (and ability to get things done, he got a civil rights bill that outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation made into law, amonhg other things). Even with his story's tragic end (he was assassinated by fellow Supervisor Dan White), Harvey Milk offers something important in the midst of an election that has left a lot of folks feeling relatively unhopeful no matter who they're voting for: Change can happen, and one man truly can make a difference. [Peter Knegt]