Feb 17, 2015 · 11 minutes

Of all of the digital activities that make up ever-greater percentages of our waking moments, browsing Netflix may be the worst. It wastes time and destroys relationships, as partners would often prefer to sit through two hours of a film that signals its awfulness within the first five minutes, rather than return to the nightmare of browsing through Netflix's wasteland of a homepage.

And so on the heels of our lists of the "Best Romantic Movies on Netflix" and the "Best Movies of the Decade So Far on Netflix," we're celebrating Presidents' Day with the best political movies you can stream right now.

Some of them are documentaries, and some of them are disturbing fictional reflections of our modern systems of governance. Some are explicitly political, concerning the various virtues and vices of elected officials, while others are more subtle -- yet no less powerful -- metaphors for modern and historical political philosophies. In any case, they're all much more thrilling than something you'd nod off to in civics class. And furthermore, the characters in these films -- even and especially the documentaries -- match Netflix's biggest political star, Frank Underwood, note for insidiousness note.

10. Mitt

Even if you believe Democrats make for better leaders, Republicans make for far better movie stars -- and movie villains. But unlike The Unknown Known, another documentary about a major Republican on this list, Mitt doesn't inspire hatred or disgust from the audience. This portrayal of Mitt Romney is flattering and folksy, suggesting that comments like his infamous "47-percent" soundbite are more political boneheadedness than some shocking betrayal of antipathy toward everyday Americans. The New York Times' Alessandra Stanley sums Mitt up perfectly in her review of the film: "Mr. Romney is likable in this depiction. But little in 'Mitt' suggests that he is also electable."

In this way, Mitt is a minor, modern tragedy about a man who is shocked that the rest of the world doesn't understand what's so self-evident to him: That Mitt Romney would do a fantastic job leading the free world. In his mind -- and who knows, maybe he's right and God is real and the Mormonism is the one true religion -- in his mind, Obama may be the hero America deserves, but Romney is the hero America needs. And yet despite these delusions of grandeur, Romney is no idiot. He knows the public isn't behind him, which adds a surprising amount of poignancy to his campaign struggles. Who would have thought it possible to feel bad for Mitt Romney?

If Mitt appears to gloss over some of the more unseemly elements of his campaign, it's only to create sympathy for an overwhelmingly unsympathetic character -- a man who to Democrats is a symbol of grotesque wealth and income inequality, and who to Republicans is an inept wet blanket incapable of competing at the highest levels of political gamesmanship.

9. Interview with the Assassin

It's easy to forget there was a time when employing "found footage" techniques, like the ones used in The Blair Witch Project, was a legitimate aesthetic choice rather than an excuse for studios to churn out remarkably inexpensive films that look like dogshit. So it is with Interview with the Assassin, the debut feature from Neil Burger (The Illusionist, Limitless). In this film, a television cameraman's elderly neighbor who is dying of cancer asks him to film a startling confession: That it was he who killed John F. Kennedy, not Lee Harvey Oswald.

Unsatisfied with a mere confession, the cameraman follows the assassin (played by Justified's Raymond J. Barry in a coolly terrifying performance) as he offers "proof" of his involvement in Kennedy's murder. Toward the end of the film, it devolves a bit into standard thriller territory, but for most of its brisk runtime, Interview with the Assassin is a clever and surprising conspiracy story, thrust into the realm of greatness by Barry's unforgettable performance.

8. Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

With the exception of Errol Morris, Alex Gibney is the world's greatest living documentarian. His films Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Taxi to the Dark Side expose, respectively, the greed and belligerence of the American empire as effectively as any modern work of journalism. But Client 9 is less a sweeping indictment of how Western political and corporate structures break down, and more a Greek tragedy worthy of Aeschylus -- or "House of Cards"'s Frank Underwood.

As governor of New York -- but particularly as the state's Attorney General -- Spitzer was a crusader of progressive causes, taking on white collar criminals including perpetrators of securities fraud; Business Insider's Henry Blodget was among the analysts caught in Spitzer's line of fire. These battles turned some very powerful enemies against him, and Gibney's film suggests that these power players were inpart responsible for bringing to light a prostitution scandal that ended up destroying Spitzer's political career and costing him the governor's seat.

But while that's an irresistible narrative -- and one the film gets a lot of mileage out of --  the downfall of Spitzer, like all tragic Greek heroes, is ultimately one of his own making.

7. Team America: World Police

Ten years before The Interview unwittingly became a symbol of Western subversion, a far edgier and funnier film skewered both North Korea and our own government's role in "policing" the rest of the world: Team America: World Police.

Coming just three years after 9/11, it's easy to forget how truly subversive it was in 2004 to release a mainstream film that was so harshly critical of American foreign policy -- even one that was populated by puppets. In the years that passed, this brainchild of South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone has lost a bit of its political edge, and yet it's still a brilliant spoof of action/thriller cliches in the tradition of Airplane! and The Naked Gun. Oh and it also features a sex scene that challenges every notion of good taste, just barely getting away with it because the scene stars puppets, not real people.

While Parker's and Stone's subversive bent may be largely employed in the service of dirty jokes, it's refreshing and rare to see envelope-pushing cinema smuggled into multiplexes across America's heartland.

6. The Conformist

Bernardo Bertolucci is one of history's greatest filmmakers, and in this early film he examines the psychology of Fascism through the story of an assassin tasked with killing his former professor. Scared and ashamed of his own homosexual experiences, the extremely distraught Marcello seeks a "normal" life above all else: a wife, children, and a house in a quiet neighborhood. The best way to do that, in his mind, is to deny his own nature and conform to society -- which makes him the perfect tool for Mussolini's Fascist regime.

Of course when Fascism suffers its inevitable defeat at the end of World War II, Marcello finds himself more alone than ever. As such, The Conformist is a tragic film about the dangers of shaping your entire personality around a political ideology -- a lesson many Americans in 2015 could stand to heed.

5. The Omen

Richard Donner's masterpiece The Omen is regularly mentioned in the canon of great horror cinema. But is it a political movie? The adopted father of the devil-child Damien is an American diplomat, and indeed the film's final scene has explicit political overtones. But I'd argue that beyond these surface nods its as sophisticated a commentary on politics as it is on the occult. Unseen forces -- in this case, Satan -- propel the father's career forward, all to better position Damien to take on a role in politics himself when the time comes. Journalists and historians try to expose the ascent, only to be murdered at the hands of conspirators, most of whom are average citizens caught up in the cult of the Devil's personality.

As a genre exercise in horror, The Omen is terrifyingly effective. But it's also a powerful allegory for the mistrust and disenfranchisement many Americans felt toward politicians in the 1970s. At that time, America had all but given up looking for a savior -- and after Richard Nixon, maybe the Antichrist wasn't so bad.

4. The Wind That Shakes the Barley

Many films have been made about the Irish Republican Army and the bloody political and military battles waged in the 20th century in Ireland. But none calculates the human cost of this violence like Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley. While nominally a war movie, the script also functions as an intellectually robust survey of the political and philosophical dynamics that informed this conflict. These high-minded and humane conversations are chillingly juxtaposed against the brutal guerrilla warfare and executions that became a part of everyday life for Irish countrymen.

Beyond being a great work of historical fiction, many viewed The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which paints Ireland's British occupiers as villains, as an allegory for our misguided invasion of Iraq. Some on the Right went so far as to liken Loach to Hitler's propagandist Leni Riefenstahl -- all because he had the supposed audacity to show the struggles of anti-British forces. But commentators like George Monbiot viewed the film differently, writing at the Guardian, "If we knew more about Ireland, we might never have invaded Iraq." Indeed, The Wind That Shakes the Barley accomplishes the highest ambitions of historical fiction, giving voice to the marginalized while using the past as a vessel for learning from our mistakes.

3. The Unknown Known

In the unforgettable 2003 documentary Fog of War, Errol Morris enters the troubled mind of Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense under Lyndon B. Johnson and one of the chief architects of the Vietnam War. In that film, Morris' questioning makes a few cracks in McNamara's hard exterior, though he never quite convinces his subject to atone for the death and destruction caused under his watch.

The subject of The Unknown Known, which is sort of a companion piece to Fog of War, is George W. Bush's Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield, and in Rumsfield he finds an even pricklier adversary. For 105 minutes, Rumsfield is frighteningly effective at evading and twisting the truth to defend his actions that led to the Second Iraq War, responding to legitimate questions with weird, mind-numbing Bush-era koans like, "All generalizations are false -- including this one."

Rumsfield never admits wrongdoing, but Morris lets the facts speak for themselves: Bush 2's Iraq War was an unmitigated quagmire that had little -- if anything -- to do with stopping terrorism after 9/11. Meanwhile, Rumsfield bobs and weaves with rhetorical cunning as if he's the Muhammad Ali of lying. He is uninterested in gauche dichotomies like "true" and "false" -- instead, the former Secretary of Defense revels in those shades of gray where reality is shaped by clever linguistics. This madness has become the go-to argumentative format for the American Right over the past decade. Considered another way, it places Rumsfield among the premiere postmodern poets of the 21st century, as the New York Times' A.O. Scott writes in his review of the film. But while postmodernists like Don DeLillo are great writers, you don't want them shaping and defending America's foreign policy.

2. In the Loop

Generally when we think of cheap political gamesmanship, we bemoan it as a cause of gridlock, inefficiencies, and wasted taxpayer dollars. But in Armando Iannucci's In the Loop it leads to something far more insidious: A US/UK-led invasion of a nation in the Middle East.

Americans may know Iannucci as the showrunner of HBO's acid-tongued comedy "Veep," though In the Loop proves his comedic and political chops have been fully-formed for years. The film is depressing -- nobody wants to be reminded of the Iraq War. But like all great satire, the bleaker the subject matter, the more hilarious the parody. And indeed, In the Loop turns one of modern Western history's biggest fuckups into fodder for one of the funniest movies of the young century.

Peter Capaldi's Malcolm Tucker is a terrifying imp of a man who makes symphonies out of profanity. ("Fuckity bye," he says in parting to one character). Tucker is just a lowly communications bureaucrat, but he holds more power over the fates of two potentially warring countries than generals, Congresspeople, members of Parliament, and arguably the Prime Minister. This is the dream of Western democracy, warped into a nightmare where a public relations spin doctor holds the lives of tens of thousands in his gremlin hands.

1. Election

1999 was a banner year for high school movies: Teenagers lined up in droves for Cruel Intentions, She's All That, and Varsity Blues in a kind of unified cultural devotion which for today's youth is generally directed at more fleeting frivolities like YouTube videos and Vine clips, not entire cinematic movements.

Buried within the pile of sexed-up teen flicks that year was Alexander Payne's brilliant satire Election. Starring Reese Witherspoon as the ultimate do-gooder Tracy Flick vying for the student body presidency, and Matthew Broderick as a teacher who -- for reasons not altogether pure -- wants to sabotage Flick's political ascent, Election is a black-hearted reflection of how our modern political system is just as petty and toxic as high school. Or, how high school is just as inevitably depressing and hierarchical as politics -- I'm not sure which is worse. In both environments, nothing ever changes, the savviest political players always end up on top, and the rest of America gets shoved in a proverbial locker. The least we can do is laugh about it.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]