We are in a golden age for money movies. One of the lingering effects of the financial crisis and the Great Recession has been huge interest on the part of Hollywood to explore just what the heck happened. There have been enlightening documentaries (Inside Job), fictionalized accounts of what might have gone down on the eve of economic disaster (Margin Call), and dramatized versions of the events and characters that, shockingly, were all too real (The Big Short, The Wolf of Wall Street).
It makes sense that Hollywood is hot on Wall Street stories right now. The recent flurry of finance movies is not unlike what happened after the Vietnam War: The best movies dealing with the subject, like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, were made a few years later, when events could be viewed with perspective and filmmakers had a prayer of making sense of the chaos that transpired.
Clearly, Hollywood’s fascination with money and finance remains high—the latest example being the May 13 opening of Money Monster, starring George Clooney as a bombastic, stock-picking TV host obviously based on Jim Cramer, who is confronted by an irate average Joe who lost everything thanks to awful investing advice.
The release of Money Monster, along with the rash of films about money and finance in general, got us thinking: What’s the greatest money movie ever? To begin answering that question, we had to first ask: Just what is a money movie?
To be considered as one of our Best Money Movies, we decided that the film must feature a finance industry worker as a central character, or money must be absolutely central to the plot, and it must offer important lessons on money, including all the good and bad it can bring. We gave extra points for being realistic to the worlds of finance, banking, and sales, and more points for educating the layman about how Wall Street and corporate America truly operate.
Also, it must simply be a smart, entertaining, provocative, all-in-all good movie. Anything with a rating below 75% at Rotten Tomatoes was eliminated, meaning that potential nominees like American Psycho, Boiler Room, The Pursuit of Happyness, The Hudsucker Proxy, and Indecent Proposal are out. (Not like we were really considering the latter, but you get the idea.) Meanwhile, to keep our list manageable, we weeded out films that seemed to belong in a slightly different category. For example, 9 to 5, Office Space, and The Devil Wears Prada seemed to fit more squarely under the rubric of Career Movies, not Money Movies. We felt documentaries were part of a different discussion as well, so you won’t find them below either.
And hey, at the end of the day it’s our list and we get to make up the rules!
What we need you to do, though, is help us name the best of the best. Please vote for what you consider the Best Money Movie ever, and by all means tell us what’s so great about your top pick. Yes, you can tell us where we got it wrong, too, and make your case for an overlooked gem in the comments on our poll page, on Facebook, or Twitter using #BestMoneyMovies.
Here are the nominees…
The Big Short
On one level, we at MONEY are huge fans of The Big Short simply because it had the guts to dip into the weeds and explain the housing collapse and financial crisis in a way that everyday Americans can understand, without dumbing things down too much. Perhaps more importantly, because the film—directed by absurdist comedy veteran Adam McKay of Anchorman and Talladega Nights fame—is so genuinely funny and entertaining people actually bought tickets and had the opportunity to absorb the wonky lessons.
OK, so Citizen Kane, regularly named the best film in history, isn’t really about money—not entirely anyway. And the title character makes his fortune not in banking or finance but as a media tycoon. But the film is so masterfully handled by star, writer, and director Orson Welles, and the lessons about the failure of money and power to bring true happiness are so poignant and powerful, that it deserves to be in the Best Money Movies conversation.
You might assume that a movie named after an insurance term would be torturously boring. But Woody Allen called this riveting, twisted 1944 classic about adultery, murder, and greed “one of my all-time favorite films,” and the “best movie” ever made by the brilliant Billy Wilder. It also got five stars from Roger Ebert and was named by TIME as one of the top 100 movies of all time.
Glengarry Glen Ross
Anyone with a long career in sales can probably quote parts of the iconic speech given by Alec Baldwin’s hard-ass character to motivate a group of real estate salesmen in this David Mamet-penned film featuring an all-time A-list ensemble cast that includes Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, and Kevin Spacey. In the profane, insulting monologue, we learn that “coffee’s for closers only,” and that salesmen must “ABC: Always Be Closing.” In the movie as a whole, we learn a lot more—about ethics, human nature, and the frightening lengths people will go to during desperate times.
It's a Wonderful Life
Technically, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) isn’t really the “richest man in town” like his brother says in the crowning feel-good moment of the ultimate feel-good Christmas movie. That title of course belongs to Mr. Potter, the greedy old banking counterpart to George, the civic-minded head of the local mom-and-pop Bailey Building and Loan. But by sacrificing for one’s family, putting people over profits, and always doing the right thing, George becomes the most invaluable citizen in Bedford Falls. And he’s easily the most beloved banker in movie history.
Lost in America
At some point, every workaday employee dreams of ditching the rat race and all the pressures of keeping up with the Joneses. In the hilarious hands of director, star, and co-writer Albert Brooks, we see how this fantasy plays out for a high-paid advertising executive and his wife. They trade in their cushy Los Angeles yuppie existence for wanderings in a Winnebago, and let’s just say that the road gets pretty bumpy.
Described by New Yorker critic David Denby as “easily the best Wall Street movie ever made,” Margin Call takes place on the brink of the 2008 financial crisis, telling the story of an unnamed investment firm that may or may not have been inspired by Lehman Brothers. What’s most memorable, beyond the top-notch cast featuring Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore, and Zachary Quinto, is how quickly so many of the characters hop on board with the idea of selling worthless investments—”the biggest bag of odorous excrement ever assembled in the history of capitalism,” as noted in the movie—to their unsuspecting clients.
In this 2011 film, based on the Michael Lewis book, the underdog Oakland Athletics take Major League Baseball by storm thanks to the revolutionary data analytics strategies of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt). The approach, which downplays “going with your gut” in favor of data that’s boring but yields key results (hitters with high on-base percentages get your team more runs), offers great lessons on value investing, improving workplace efficiencies, and simply getting the most bang for the buck with your purchases.
It’s hard to imagine a nostalgic dramedy about a pair of rival aluminum siding salesmen in 1960s Baltimore getting the green light from a Hollywood studio nowadays. But we’re glad that Barry Levinson was able to create one of the most honest and accurate portrayals of working in sales back in 1987. And we’re even happier that the delightful Richard Dreyfuss and Danny DeVito were cast in the two leading roles.
A streetwise con man (Eddie Murphy) and a mistreated upper-crust commodities trader (Dan Aykroyd) team up to make millions and take revenge on the greedy brokerage firm owners who toyed with their lives. The stars are so likable and funny, and the rich executives getting their comeuppance are so cartoonishly stingy and loathsome, that no one really minds that the heroes engage in fraud and insider trading.
Depending on your point of view (and, probably, where you personally earn a paycheck), this film either condemned or celebrated the height of 1980s Wall Street greed—which is famously classified as “good” by Michael Douglas’s iconic, highly quotable Gordon Gekko character. Either way, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street epitomized the era, and it has been more influential than any other film in shaping the world’s view of the financial industry.
The Wolf of Wall Street
This is certainly the crudest of our nominees, featuring dwarf tossing, public masturbation, and an astounding amount of cocaine, Quaaludes, nudity, and cursing—with the f bomb dropped at a record-setting pace of nearly three times per minute. It’s also arguable that by glorifying the debauchery of a bunch of amoral jerks, The Wolf of Wall Street star Leonardo DiCaprio and director Martin Scorsese were themselves conned by Jordan Belfort, the film’s titular scam artist eventually convicted of stock fraud. Still, the movie is mesmerizing in car crash can’t-look-away fashion. And if nothing else, it sure makes you think twice about who is handling your investments.