Perhaps you are heading to the beach this Labor Day weekend? Perhaps you aren’t, because man was not meant to risk death and swim in Earth’s vast oceans? Either way, you might find yourself sitting around looking at your Netflix options and wondering what to watch. Never fear, for I have assembled a quick list of work-themed films available on Netflix (and other streaming services) that you can use to program your own private, Netflix mini-film festival. Because what better way to celebrate Labor Day than to watch movies about work?
Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
A recent addition to Netflix’s catalogue, Zodiac is the story of the failed investigation into the Zodiac killings in San Francisco in the 1970s. “Failed” is the key word. This is a movie about procedure, often painstakingly detailing the work done by the police and journalists on the case. The characters swirl seemingly closer and closer to a solution but never quite get there. It remains David Fincher’s best film, a portrait of obsession and paranoia that marries form and content in a genius if maddening way.
Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford, 1939)
Options for John Ford films on Netflix are very limited (an issue I plan to write about in the near future), though The Grapes of Wrath, which is also available, would seem like the obvious choice for this list. Nevertheless Young Mr. Lincoln, while not be about “work” in the same obvious way as Grapes of Wrath, is, like Zodiac, a film about process and investigation. If the crimes of Fincher’s film destroy the men who work on it, Lincoln’s defense of some innocent country folk in a murder trial does the opposite and builds the future president into the man he needs to be. Last year’s Lincoln, also about procedure and legacy, is a direct response to this one in many ways. (Spielberg seems to be going through a John Ford phase at the moment.) Henry Fonda as Lincoln deserves at least half of Day-Lewis’s Oscar.
Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2011)
I’ve written about this one before, but seriously, you need to watch it if you haven’t. It was the most fun film of last year, even if in some ways the most depressing. (Actually, I suppose that honor goes to Amour.) Work as life. Reality as performance. It’s an ode to cinema, too, but even more so it’s about the power of the imaginative to shape our selves, for good or ill.
Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)
Our third film about a crime. One of the classic noirs, and the pre-eminent example of a film where a man attempts to escape a hated job by using said job as part of a scam. In this case, that job is selling insurance, and the scam involves Fred MacMurray helping Barbara Stanwyck bump off her husband. It all falls apart, of course, but in glorious fashion thanks to Edward G. Robinson. You can’t con your way out of your job; your job will get you in the end.
Strike (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)
What is Labor Day without some good old-fashioned workers’ revolt? This story about a factory strike doesn’t match the formal brilliance and emotional crescendos of Eisenstein’s Potemkin, made later that year, but it still includes some great sequences, such as the factory riot and subsequent crackdown. (That poor baby.) A more obviously didactic film than Potemkin, it also includes a more honest ending: the workers slaughtered, literally, like cattle. Like Double Indemnity, probably not a film worth emulating in the office.
Barton Fink (The Coen Brothers, 1991)
The lesson of a number of these films seem to be: work will make you crazy. Perhaps there is no better example than Barton Fink, written by the Coen Brothers when they were stuck in an epic writers’ block while working on Miller’s Crossing. Part satire of Hollywood, part allegory of the Holocaust, and part dramatization of the egomania and neuroses brought on by the creative process, it remains one of the Coens’ weirder creations. It’s buoyed, however, by some fabulous performances, especially John Goodman as the friendly traveling salesman cum Satan. “I will show you the life of the mind.” Indeed. Back to work…