Adam Curtis picks 10 films that capture the mood of their times

Art may not be able to change the world, as Adam Curtis argues in our current cover interview feature, but sometimes it cuts to the quick of the feel of an era. Here he selects ten movies that do just that.

23 March 2021

By Adam Curtis

Sight and Sound
Adam Curtis

▶︎ Can’t Get You out of My Head (six episodes) is available on BBC iPlayer.

Sight & Sound has asked me to name some of the movies I think express the social and political mood of their time – above all, ones that captured that mood ahead of more traditional forms of reporting.

1. Starship Troopers

Paul Verhoeven, USA 1997

Starship Troopers (1997)

Strangely ahead of its time. The story of terrifying bugs from a remote desert on a faraway planet who mount a gigantic attack on the big cities. In response the humans send giant armies to kill the insects in the deserts of the remote planet. Not long after the film came the real attacks on the cities of America.

  • Available to stream on Amazon Prime, YouTube and Google Play

“The world is what we make it”: Adam Curtis in our April 2021 issue

In our April issue, Curtis tells us how we made our world, the better to try again. Plus Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, two new spy-thriller documentaries, a history of the ‘cursed film’, looking back at Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express – and forward to the future of Studio Ghibli.

Find out more and get a copy

2. Out of the Past

Jacques Tourneur, USA 1947

Jane Greer, Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas in Out of the Past (1947)

America had just fought the Good War. And a new society was going to be built in the West. But there was the lurking fear that maybe the ghosts from the past hadn’t gone away. Out of the Past captures that mood in a very powerful and oblique way. Films like The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956) addressed the same ideas but more obviously. Out of the Past does it with real imagination.

  • Available on Blu-ray and DVD

3. The Souvenir

Joanna Hogg, UK 2019

Honor Swinton Byrne and Tom Burke in The Souvenir (2018)

Joanna Hogg is like no other filmmaker in Britain. She chronicles the inner life of the social classes as they rise up and fall. In The Souvenir she captures that moment when one class and its confidence was collapsing – and the new individualism of the age was rising up. It’s a brilliant piece of reporting on what was really going on in the 1980s.

  • Available to stream on BFI Player

4. Imaginationland (South Park Season 11, Episode 11)

Trey Parker & Matt Stone, USA 2007

South Park Season 11, Episode 10: Imaginationland (2007)

This is a three-parter that expresses the thing that has been forgotten at a time when politics is dominated by utilitarian economics: that it is really imagination that changes the world. Kyle’s speech about how imaginary beings have changed the world more than real ones is fantastic.

  • Available to stream on Amazon Prime

5. Battlestar Galactica

Glen A. Larson & Ronald D. Moore, USA 2004-09

Battlestar Galactica (2004-09)

This series, put simply, is a powerful masterclass in how to build a new society when the people you are governing still have the fears and suspicions from the past lodged in their minds. And the emotional complexities that result.

  • On BBC iPlayer

6. Scream 2

Wes Craven, USA 1997

Neve Campbell and Courteney Cox in Scream 2 (1997)

It’s a great film. But it also expresses that moment when we all got trapped in a self-conscious feedback loop of referencing past culture and reworking it in an even more self-conscious way. Sampling was doing the same at the same time in music. I think we are all still in that trap.

  • Available to stream on Amazon Prime

7. Uncut Gems

Benny Safdie & Josh Safdie, USA 2019

Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems (2019)

I really like this movie not only because it is exciting, fantastically made and incredibly beautiful, but because it expresses that extreme pitch of high emotion that typifies our age. In a time when people’s feelings were given prominence – that has grown and grown into what social media companies call ‘high-arousal emotions’. Uncut Gems expresses the inner realism of our age.

  • Available on Netflix

8. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

Adam McKay, USA 2004

Paul Rudd, David Koechner, Christina Applegate, Steve Carell and Will Ferrell in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)

It’s a very, very funny film. But Anchorman also captures the weirdness of TV News. It is brilliant at portraying how strangely formal the whole TV News thing has become and how what it really is is the ritual of the modern age. Plus, it’s got a talking dog.

  • Available to Stream on Amazon Prime, YouTube and GooglePlay

9. Stalker

Andrei Tarkovsky, USSR 1979

Stalker (1979)

Nothing beats Stalker for creating mood. And quite frankly there isn’t much else in the near-three hours than the mood. But what that mood captures is that feeling that maybe there is something else around us that we can’t see. That maybe we are in the Zone – and every now and then we glimpse something that the accepted way of thinking can’t understand.

  • Available to stream on Curzon Home Cinema

10. Society

Brian Yuzna, USA 1989

Society (1989)

It’s absolutely disgusting. I’ve never managed to watch the end properly. But what it does is capture that growing fascination and fear of the human body that grew up in the 1980s. It’s something that David Cronenberg did in a cooler way, but Society goes for it full pelt. Way ahead of its time.

  • Available on Blu-ray from Arrow

Further reading

Uncut Gems review: the Safdie brothers hit the sweet spot with this manic thrill-ride

By Trevor Johnston

Uncut Gems review: the Safdie brothers hit the sweet spot with this manic thrill-ride

Home of the weak: Out of the Past and four ways of framing film noir

By Brad Stevens

Home of the weak: Out of the Past and four ways of framing film noir

The Souvenir first look: Joanna Hogg’s potent self-portrait as a young artist

By Simran Hans

The Souvenir first look: Joanna Hogg’s potent self-portrait as a young artist

Stalking the Stalker: Geoff Dyer on Tarkovsky

By Joshua Jelly-Schapiro

Stalking the Stalker: Geoff Dyer on Tarkovsky

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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