With Memorial Day weekend on the horizon, many in the financial services industry will finally get a chance to relax. The sprint of tax season is over. The debt ceiling crisis will be there to fret about on Tuesday. Summer is about to begin. Why not take a break from working in the world of finance by immersing yourself in the eleven best finance films of all time?
That’s right; there’s no need to ever stop thinking about work, even when you are relaxing.
While we’re still in an era where people are writing movies instead of AI, these 11 classic films capture the drama, humor, and emotional resonance of finance and investing.
The Best Finance Films
Trading Places remains as satirically sharp as it was when it was released in 1983. One of the few finance films to actually inspire real life legislation, Trading Places featured ground-breaking and justifiably award-winning performances from its two male leads, Murphy and Aykroyd. The secret star of the film, though, was Jamie Lee Curtis. Her portrayal of Ophelia was a revelation, a performance truly ahead of its time. Despite the movie coming out at a time when sex workers were often portrayed as victims of trafficking or forced to do sex work due to trauma, abuse, or addiction, Ophelia is entirely about making money. For her, it’s simply a job. This surprisingly progressive exploration of sex work is right at home in a film also grappling with racism.
VettaFi financial futurist Dave Nadig wrote, “Trading Places is possibly the finest and most nuanced criticism of capitalism ever put to screen, but you’d never know that because it’s a comedy. From the extremely progressive takes on homelessness and sex work to the surprisingly intricate insider-trading narrative, it calls into question the whole fabric of modern U.S. capitalism. As someone just a few years younger than Eddie Murphy, I can also tell you it’s a shockingly accurate portrayal of “club culture” at the time. It really is a snooty, aggressively white, ivy-league kind of club culture.”
VettaFi’s resident Margin Call expert James Comtois wrote, “J.C. Chandor’s 2011 film portrays the night the global financial crisis began in earnest from the perspective of a fictional Lehman Brothers-like investment bank. A great post-mortem of a historic economic collapse brought about by turning excessive greed into business-as-usual. Plus, it’s a fun and quietly intense office thriller. After authorizing a fire sale of all its toxic assets (which is to say, virtually all of them), the company’s CEO says: ‘It’s all just the same thing over and over. We can’t help ourselves. And you and I can’t control it, or stop it, or even slow it. Or even ever-so-slightly alter it. We just react.'”
Go Long on The Big Short
VettaFi’s resident film critic, Aaron Neuwirth, weighed in on The Big Short. Aaron wrote, “What better way to depict the time leading up to the 2007 housing market crash than by delivering an ensemble comedy based around several real business figures that knew enough to figure out the best ways to make lots of money and then bailing before it was too late. Director Adam McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph won an Oscar for adapting Michael Lewis’ non-fiction novel. This is an impressive task given how this film has to make the ideas of subprime mortgages and collateralized debt obligations understandable for audiences. Fortunately, in addition to the talents of Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, and Steve Carell, the occasional cutaways to various celebrities spelling out these different financial concepts is a clever touch in a film that is as frequently funny as it is knowingly tragic.”
Wall Street and its Wolves
Stone’s often blunt screed against the veneration of greed, money, and accumulation of wealth is a well-acted, well-put-together masterpiece. It may also be one of the most misunderstood films of all time (along with fellow 1987 alumnus Robocop.) Stone made stock trading and finance palpably exciting. It’s an intoxicating film, so it’s best paired with its admittedly less exciting follow-up, Money Never Sleeps. Issues aside, that sequel more successfully emphasizes that greed is not, in fact, good. VettaFi head of research Todd Rosenbluth said, “I watched Wall Street before college finals to get me pumped up. It made the investment world exciting and was also an interesting cautionary tale. Thankfully, I never ended up in jail. But I did become a financial advisor!”
Aaron Neuwirth had this to say about the modern finance movie classic: “Buried within Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-nominated depiction of excess and greed is a look at the dark side of Wall Street. Sure, a lot of comedy and debauchery emerges from a film that combines Jordan Belfort’s successful efforts to inflate a stock’s price to clients with his penchant for drugs, booze, and women. However, the film also serves as a compelling look at how rampant corruption and fraud can seriously affect Wall Street. No, despite the terrific effort put in by Leonardo DiCaprio to portray this man, Belfort’s actions are not something to look upon fondly, but his unique way of looking at how to sell someone a pen speaks a lot to how far one can get in the world of finance by simply using the art of spin and confidence.”
Where Business and Private Life Collide
Many would argue that Arbitrage only works because of Gere’s undeniably powerful performance. My counter to that criticism would be that Gere is in the movie. Saying something only works because of a quality it has is basically an admission that the thing works. And Arbitrage works. It is about someone making a series of decisions threatening to blow up their life. The alchemy of Arbitrage comes from how Gere transforms a hedge fund manager who breaks all sorts of laws into something of an everyman. One of the best films ever to explore the intersection of the personal and professional in financial services.
Wall Street’s indie kid brother from another mother, Boiler Room, structurally riffs on Stone’s classic. That said, it wraps up the story in a package that feels distinctly Gen-X. The scrappy, intoxicating script follows Giovanni Ribisi’s Seth Davis as he works to earn absurd amounts of money and, more importantly, the respect of his emotionally distant father. It’s a film that gets into the weeds about finance and trading in a way that doesn’t feel like forced exposition to those already steeped in the world of financial services and accessible to those on the outside.
Unusual Finance Films The Pack a Punch
Boots Riley’s unique satire Sorry to Bother You stars LaKeith Stanfield as Cassius “Cash” Green, who, desperate to make money as a telemarketer, discovers the power of using a “white voice” (voiced by David Cross.) It is a film that’s scathing, hilarious, and swinging for the fences at all times. Cassius’s corporate success puts him at odds with his former colleagues and friends. This friction drives a narrative that goes to some truly wild places. Sorry to Bother You isn’t directly about finance as an industry, but its surprisingly nuanced take on greed, corporate corruption, and the allure of wealth makes it a must-watch film.
Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore inspires a strong reaction from many, but with recent rumblings around a potential banking crisis, it is worth revisiting his 2010 film. The film has arguably aged to be better than it initially was, as the advantage of hindsight underscores many of the points Moore was trying to make.
This 1988 classic centers around an incredible, career-redefining performance as receptionist Tess McGill from Melanie Griffith. After her boss (Sigourney Weaver) steals her idea and takes all the credit, Tess decides to enact revenge. She initiates a massive deal with none other than Indiana Jones himself, Harrison Ford. With Ford, Griffith, and Weaver driving the plot, Working Girl is easily one of the greatest comedies of its day. Brisk and energetic as the film is, it’s a surprisingly thoughtful film that explores feminism, finance, and business in an elegant, nuanced fashion. (As an interesting sidebar, Weaver was nominated for an Oscar for this film and Gorillas in the Mist in the same year and is the first actor to lose out when double nominated.)
As tempted as I am to put Rogue Trader in the final slot (if only to make a Warhammer 40K joke by referencing the upcoming Owlcat video game), The Hudsucker Proxy undeniably belongs on this list. VettaFi editor-in-chief Lara Crigger wrote of the film, “The Hudsucker Proxy, my introduction to the wild world of Coen Brothers movies, deftly pokes fun at the politics that can motivate boards of directors. At the heart of its narrative is a stock scam scheme that makes nods to Mel Brooks’ 1967 gem The Producers (which, in my opinion, is the funniest movie ever made), and it features a cast of deeply charismatic characters played by deeply charismatic actors. I love, love, love this movie. Even if it is definitely not ‘you know, for kids.'”
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