“Marxist critique” and “listicle” don’t exactly go hand-in-hand, but immediately following Christmas, some of you might find yourselves feeling shellshocked by the month of excessive consuming you just endured (and likely to some extent enjoyed). What better way to remind yourselves of the troublesome makeup of this country — and many others — than through watching some particularly sharp critiques of the consumerist culture in which we all just rabidly partook? With such a wealth of examples of cinematic critiques of capitalism, it seems like due time for a list.
Foxcatcher (dir. Bennett Miller)
Foxcatcher turns the true story of multimillionaire John du Pont’s destructive “mentorship” of wrestler Mark Schultz into a frightening wage-gap allegory. Bored and sheltered by his own privilege, Steve Carrell’s du Pont takes Channing Tatum’s working class wrestler under his wing as his newest hobby. His easy dominance over the wrestler, and its toll on his spirit and family, seems to reflect the flaws in the institution of corporate charity, whereby an exploitative entity is redeemed — its shining, buyable image sustained — by its skewed affiliation with do-goodership.
Two Days, One Night (dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
The Dardenne brothers’ just-released Two Days, One Night presents a micro moral dilemma to a series of people: will they save a coworkers’ job if it’ll cost them their bonuses — bonuses that they, themselves, are relying on? Are they willing to collectively make themselves uncomfortable so as not to devastate one coworker? As Marion Cotillard’s Sandra is forced to go door to door and beg for her coworkers’ sacrifice, it becomes quickly clear that this particular instance is reflective of a larger political question about taxation.
The Wolf of Wall Street (dir. Martin Scorsese)
The Wolf of Wall Street may not be the best, and certainly isn’t the most subtle, film with an anti-capitalist message (and said message, it’s been argued, is undercut simply by belonging to a high budget Hollywood movie). But, for better or for worse, it became an emblem of a new wave of cinematic capitalist critique: the use of excess to critique excess, and an accelerationist participation in and heightening of a culture so as to expose its ugliness.
Cosmopolis (dir. David Cronenberg)
Critics were polarized about Cronenberg’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, whose plot sees a billionaire (Robert Pattinson) taking a limo across Manhattan to his barber, as activists wave rats in the streets in protest of wealth inequality. During his journey across town, the stock market seems to be self-destructing, with Pattinson’s character’s wealth diminishing by the second.
The Master (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
The Master, in its P.T. Anderson-ishly opaque way, looks into the rise of Scientology, and the reasons why 1950s America was the perfect incubator for it. The film shows how a lost American soul might, in having evaded the American dream, seek an alternative dream in the margins. It turns out, however, that this marginal American dream isn’t at all dissimilar in intent to that of the corporate American mainstream — the whole time, the film is foreshadowing the commodification of spiritual ideology.
The Social Network (dir. David Fincher)
In interesting contrast to the coke-and-boob bacchanalia of Wolf of Wall Street‘s depiction of corporate excess, The Social Network provides a less hedonistic, but equally frightening look at another realm of contemporary capitalism: the tech world. By the film’s end, it seems to posit that this all-encompassing surveillance device — Facebook, that is — to which we willingly and often happily contribute, was created because a little shit wanted to prove his wit and strut his power after being rejected by his crush. In the narrative of the film, all of our lives have, for better or for worse, been funneled into the alternate reality of Facebook because an ambitious nerd couldn’t get Rooney Mara. It shows both how a product can become a system of control, and how a system of control can stem from utterly petty self-interest.
There Will Be Blood (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
This one needs very little explaining: released in the midst of an oil-related war, the film mines America’s oil-thirsty roots and the violent lengths an archetypal large-scale entrepreneur will go to in order to dominate an industry. Given the political climate when the film was released, it was hard not to read the film’s title as applicable to the 2003 War in Iraq, and Daniel Day Lewis’ character as reflective of the likes of Halliburton.
Spirited Away (dir. Hayao Miyazaki)
Spirited Away‘s spirit world exists in a class-stratified bathhouse in industrializing, westernizing Japan. Here, laborers are slaves to Yubaba, the bejeweled proprietor; one such worker, Kamaji, who works in the boiler room in the depths of the bathhouse, has six arms to optimize his labor (which some have seen as a symbol both for the mechanization of labor to cut workers, as well as the exploitation working class bodies). For other characters, opulence abounds, but the desire for more is palpable: a No-Faced spirit wanders, offering gold to other spirits and swallowing them whole when they inevitably grasp for it.
The Corporation (dir. Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott)
This documentary is a meticulous exploration of the structure of the contemporary corporation; its frightening parallel study of psychology finds that corporations’ behavior mirrors DSM-IV ’s symptoms of psychopathy. The Washington Post’s Michael O’Sullivan wrote, “The central thesis of The Corporation is this: that business conglomerates have today grown so powerful and so insensitive to such issues as pollution of the biosphere and the reliance on sweat shops (to name but two of the more commonly cited costs of doing business in the global economy) that they have become, in a sense, Frankenstein’s monsters, threatening to destroy their makers, i.e., us.”
Demonlover (dir. Olivier Assayas)
Demonlover’s horrific take on global capitalism follows corporate representatives in their fight to control the economy of interactive 3-D anime porn. The film’s violence, freneticism, global scope and labyrinthine twists give way, in the final scene, to a peaceful picture of an American suburban household — a representation of the roots of, as well as the consuming of, globalized production. Here, on a computer, a teen gets to virtually inflict his own torture porn fantasy on some captive woman (who may turn out to have been a key character) in some undisclosed chamber, possibly somewhere across the world. He’s only half paying attention to this outsourced rape; he’s simultaneously doing his science homework.
Hoop Dreams (dir. Steve James)
The classic documentary follows two inner-city black teens who hope to make into into the NBA, and, in its 171 minutes, shows how our system’s ensuring of wealth immobility has rendered the American dream illusory, and how it has kept minority populations in the margins.
Naked (dir. Mike Leigh)
In Naked, Mike Leigh expresses the damage Thatcherite economics wrought on the working class in the early ’90s. As female characters are consistently violated by men representing the polar extremes of a wage gap — one a destitute vagabond, the other a corporate bigwig and proprietor — Leigh gives us a strange depiction of a society created by a malnourishing system with a proclivity for self-destruction.
Trading Places (dir. John Landis)
Though it’s undeniably a comedy, Trading Places had strong, dark political overtones. It’s similar, oddly, to Foxcatcher, in that its plot takes off when wealthy businessmen decide to manipulate peoples’ lives for sport. The film shows how easy it is to move from one set of class distinctions to the next when given the proper set of privileges — and how hard it is when those privileges are taken away. Not only does the movie draw on the sheer luck of privilege: by switching the roles of a white businessman and a homeless black man, it criticizes the racial polarity of the country’s economic breakdown.
Sweet Movie (dir. Dušan Makavejev)
In Sweet Movie (a film which was banned pretty ubiquitously for its portrayal of such niceties as penis captivus, coprophilia and emetophilia — look ’em up!), director Dušan Makavejev splits the film into two satirical narratives, one attacking capitalism and another attacking Soviet Communism. In the former, the winner of the Miss World pageant (she wins for being the “most virgin”) receives the prize of a marriage to a dairy industry tycoon, who sexually humiliates her. When she leaves his clutches, she’s subjected to more sexual humiliation from her family, then undergoes a journey to sexual liberation, which only leads to more humiliation, as she ultimately appears naked and covered in chocolate in a commercial. The other character, representing Communism, steers a piñata-like boat full of candy through Amsterdam, coaxing children onboard to help support her activist cause, then murdering them. The movie ties its politically polar satire together through the motif of sweetness, and the temptations of both political and consumerist indoctrination.
Weekend (dir. Jean-Luc Godard)
Weekend follows Corinne and Roland, a wealthy couple, on a journey through an exaggerated, violent societal underbelly to pick up Corinne’s dying fathers’ inheritance (if he isn’t willing to let them have it, they’ll kill him; they also happen to be planning to kill one another). On the road, they pass by carnage from car accidents, their reactions unsettlingly desensitized. When finally they get in a violent crash of their own, Corinne’s response is to lament the damage done to her Hermès handbag. Like the free market itself, Godard catapults both classes to hyperbolic extremes, and depicts the ensuing wreckage.
Metropolis (dir. Fritz Lang)
The crown jewel of effectively heavy-handed portraits of class disparity, Metropolis’ setting — yes, Metropolis — is an imaginary city where the working class lives underground, tending to machines that power the city, and being themselves reduced to mere machines, given their inhuman treatment and invisibility. The rulers, led by the city’s creator, tower above. The movie’s architectural representation of the wage gap surely inspired the likes of Snowpiercer, not to mention just about every other dystopian film.
Snowpiercer (dir. Bong Joon Ho)
Blue Jasmine (dir. Woody Allen)
American Psycho (dir. Mary Harron)
Fight Club (dir. David Fincher)
The Truman Show (dir. Peter Weir)
Falling Down (dir. Joel Schumacher)
Do the Right Thing (dir. Spike Lee)
Princess Mononoke (dir. Hayao Miyazaki)
Repo Man (dir. Alex Cox)
Wall Street (dir. Oliver Stone)
Reds (dir. Warren Beatty)
Network (dir. Sydney Lumet)
Tout Va Bien (dir. Jean-Luc Godard)
The Battle of Algiers (dir. Gillo Pontecorvo)
Modern Times (dir. Charlie Chaplin)