Empires come, empires go. It's a tale as old as time and a fact of life: authoritarian leaders, dictators, and tyrants will rise and fall from their thrones, all the way from Ancient Rome to the Holocaust.
Here are my picks for the best movies about tyrannical dictators and totalitarian powers—both real and fictional—who rule with an iron fist and cause all sorts of strife because of it.
10. The Interview (2014)
Directed by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen
Starring James Franco, Seth Rogen, Randall Park
Action, Adventure, Comedy (1h 52m)
North Korea is known for being one of the strictest, most controlled nations on the planet. A truly Orwellian state where internet access is denied, haircuts are government-approved, and no one is allowed to leave.
The country's supreme leader, Kim Jong Un, is elevated to god-like status in North Korea, as is the entire Kim dynasty. Citizens are even expected to pray to them! The rest of the world, however, knows him as a Juche tyrant and proven murderer.
In a country that's under as much surveillance as North Korea is, it's no surprise that Kim Jong Un went as far as threatening terrorist attacks on any theater that showed The Interview, a political satire featuring Kim Jong Un played by Randall Park.
Seth Rogen and James Franco star as two journalists who bag an interview with the dictator, and though the film struggled to distribute, most people managed to home stream it for some laughs.
9. The Dictator (2012)
Directed by Larry Charles
Starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley
Comedy (1h 23m)
Like The Interview, The Dictator is a Western satire of a foreign oppressor. Although fictional, Admiral General Aladeen is a parody of various real leaders who follow the tyrannical stereotype, including Kim Jong Un, Muammar Gaddafi, Idi Amin, Fidel Castro, and Saddam Hussein.
Sacha Baron Cohen is an English comedian known for his caricatures like Ali G, Borat Sagdiyev, and Brüno Gehard. He often appears to unsuspecting strangers and interviewers in-character, leaving them confused and offended in the cringiest of ways.
In The Dictator, we see Cohen as the head of the fictional Republic of Wadiya. Aladeen is an antisemitic, womanizing man-child with too much power (and alcohol) in his hands.
Cohen, known in the film industry for his disruptive promotional stunts, was subsequently banned from attending the Oscars as Aladeen.
8. The Death of Stalin (2017)
Directed by Armando Iannucci
Starring Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor
Comedy, Drama, History (1h 47m)
Apparently, cinema can't get enough of political black comedies. That's certainly the case with The Death of Stalin, which is about the very real, very dangerous Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.
From his cult of personality to the Great Terror itself, Stalin remains one of the most prominent figures in modern history. He's responsible for approximately six million deaths, as well as transforming the USSR into a global superpower during the mid-1900s.
Following his death, the Council of Ministers must decide who's to take over the Kremlin. Naturally, being a group of middle-aged men who all feel qualified, it's everyone for themselves.
Set in 1953, The Death of Stalin is a funny, fictionalized account of the political chaos after Stalin's unexpected end. Armando Iannucci's film gives us a hilarious interpretation of the events.
7. Anthropoid (2016)
Directed by Sean Ellis
Starring Jamie Dornan, Cillian Murphy, Brian Caspe
Action, Biography, Drama (2h)
Adolf Hitler is usually the first name to come to mind when talking about dictators. There's a whole section of cinema dedicated to World War II, and within that, the Nazi Party. Sadly, we can't list them all here.
So, if I really could pick only one, I'd pick Anthropoid because it deals with high-ranking Nazi officials who worked directly with Hitler. Plus, it's a genuinely great—if difficult to watch at times—movie!
In Anthropoid, director Sean Ellis tells us the insane true story of Operation Anthropoid (which was then re-examined by Cédric Jimenez's The Man With the Iron Heart a year later).
Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan star as the exiled Czechoslovak soldiers who dared try to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the SS officer who basically orchestrated the whole Holocaust. Their bravery, safe to say, came at a huge cost.
6. Julius Caesar (1953)
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Starring Marlon Brando, James Mason, John Gielgud
Drama, History (2h)
William Shakespeare's 16th century play The Tragedy of Julius Caesar isn't entirely factual, but it is rooted in truth. Caesar was a tyrant of almost mythical status, a Roman emperor who turned Rome into the kingdom it's now known for and remembered as.
Julius Caesar depicts the build-up to his famous assassination in 44 BC. Other appointed leaders thought he'd grown too arrogant and corrupted by his power, so they swiftly cut short his road to tyranny.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Oscar-winning movie is a black-and-white dose of culture, highly faithful to the original play.
5. 1984 (1984)
Directed by Michael Radford
Starring John Hurt, Richard Burton, Suzanna Hamilton
Drama, Sci-Fi (1h 53m)
The totalitarian superpower in 1984 isn't ran by one individual. Instead, Oceania is ruled by an ominous, all-seeing figure called Big Brother, who occasionally attends rallies but is largely unseen.
Big Brother is more of a symbol than a person, used by the ruling party INGSOC to control everyone.
Based on George Orwell's 1949 novel, this is where the phrase "big brother is watching you" comes from, as the level of surveillance reaches all the way into people's minds via the Thought Police.
Oceania is apparently split into three states, all raging against each other in some faraway, nuclear world war. But it's the unrelenting propaganda that keeps Oceanians—split between the Inner Party, Outer Party, and Proletariat—under INGSOC's thumb.
1984 is the ultimate dystopian tale, with John Hurt leading the Michael Radford film adaptation as the Proletariat Winston Smith, who works in the Ministry of Truth rewriting history.
4. Schindler's List (1993)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley
Biography, Drama, History (3h 15m)
Schindler's List is one of the greatest Holocaust films ever made, so I'm picking it as my second entry under the rule of Adolf Hitler. Based on an incredible true story, Schindler's List is about a Nazi Party member who was actually... a good guy?
Oskar Schindler didn't agree with the Nazi's cruel ideologies, but instead of arguing against them and getting himself killed, he decided to use his position of influence for good.
As an industrial businessman, Oskar Schindler bribed and befriended other SS officers to get Jewish prisoners redirected to his factories, where they could receive better treatment and evade the gas chambers—as long as the sadistic Amon Göth didn't catch them.
Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes go head-to-head in this black-and-white tragedy, directed by Steven Spielberg. For similar movies, you should also check out 1997's Life Is Beautiful and 2002's The Pianist.
3. Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Starring Ivana Baquero, Ariadna Gil, Sergi López
Drama, Fantasy, War (1h 58m)
Pan's Labyrinth was marketed as a dark fantasy movie in which a young protagonist collides with various mythical creatures in the usual way. But instead of Mr. Tumnus or Griphook, it's a skin-melting, child-eating monster that Ofelia (played by Ivana Baquero) encounters.
Scary beasts aside—mostly played by Doug Jones, a frequent collaborator of Guillermo del Toro—Pan's Labyrinth isn't really a fairy tale at all. It's actually a war drama set in Francoist Spain.
Ofelia's stepfather Captain Vidal (played by Sergi López) is a psychopathic rebel-hunter who abuses his wife and daughter, making Ofelia yearn for escapism, which she finds in the labyrinth.
It's unclear whether Ofelia really does end up in a magical kingdom or if the whole thing is just imagined. Either way, Captain Vidal—a symbolic figure for Spanish dictator Francisco Franco—is at the core of the labyrinth's dark existence.
2. The Last King of Scotland (2006)
Directed by Kevin Macdonald
Starring James McAvoy, Forest Whitaker, Gillian Anderson
Biography, Drama, History (2h 3m)
Nicholas Garrigan (played by James McAvoy) is bored in Scotland, having graduated medical school with no future plans. So, naturally, he decides to leave and fly to Uganda.
Craving adventure and wanting to help others, he works at a missionary clinic and flirts with one of the owners. It seems like a great experience at first, until General Idi Amin's coup overthrows the president.
Chillingly portrayed by Forest Whitaker, Idi Amin was a real military dictator whom journalist Giles Foden wrote about in his 1998 novel of the same name.
When Amin hires Nicholas to be his personal physician, he seems both friendly and unhinged in equal measure. He's kind to Nicholas and partial to jokes, but ready to order genocide at any moment.
Kevin Macdonald directs this bloody political thriller with an expert eye, following Nicholas who finds himself without a passport and his life held in the palms of a megalomaniac.
1. The Great Dictator (1940)
Directed by Charlie Chaplin
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie
Comedy, Drama, War (2h 5m)
If there's one speech to go down as legendary in cinematic history, it'd have to be Charlie Chaplin's final scene in The Great Dictator.
A risky parody of Adolf Hitler—who was very much alive and dictating at the time of this film's release—The Great Dictator stars Chaplin in one of his few roles that don't see him as The Tramp.
The Tramp was Chaplin's signature persona: a well-meaning, down-on-his-luck hobo dressed in ill-fitted clothes. And although he does bare resemblance to the Jewish barber in The Great Dictator, Chaplin omitted The Tramp to focus on a more important political message.
In the film, Chaplin plays the fictional German fascist dictator Adenoid Hynkel (talk about on the nose...) and the barber who impersonates him, urging: "Soldiers! Don't fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!"