The best films show business at its worst

First published in the Financial Times on 20th November 2012.

In most cases the tycoons are wicked but they are also the most dynamic characters

Hollywood has always been the world capital of the film industry, and movies are the quintessential American art form. Moreover, the US cinema industry is a prime example of the free enterprise system in action, where winner-takes-all economic rules apply.

It is also one of the country’s leading exports – both culturally and financially. So it is only natural that many of the greatest films of all time have been about American capitalism.

Here are my top 10:

Up in the Air (2009): the tragicomic tale of a corporate hatchet man, brilliantly played by George Clooney, who flies around the country sacking people. The most poignant moments are in the closing sequence, when real people describe the agony of being fired.

Trading Places (1983): a brilliant comedy about commodity markets, with a virtuoso performance by Eddie Murphy. Both educational and full of great lines – especially from the evil Duke brothers.

Chinatown (1974): perhaps the finest film noir ever, and surely Roman Polanski and Jack Nicholson’s best work. It is roughly based on the true case of high-level corruption over water rights in Los Angeles in the 1930s.

The Social Network (2010): a dramatisation of Facebook’s creation. A searing reminder to entrepreneurs that the initial division of equity matters – and independent legal advice is crucial.

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992): a spectacular cast and a wonderful script, written by playwright David Mamet, make this easily the best fictional depiction of cold-call selling I have ever seen.

Inside Job (2010): a devastating documentary about the recent credit crisis and banking collapse. Matt Damon narrates, an excellent music score but a slightly weak ending.

Citizen Kane (1941): for many fans the best film ever. Orson Welles directed, co-wrote and starred as Kane. Astonishingly, he was only 26 at the time. An epic portrayal of a media mogul who had almost unlimited money and power, but still dies lonely and unhappy.

Working Girl (1988): a romantic comedy set in an investment bank. Mike Nichols directed Melanie Griffiths, who was never better.

The Godfather (1972): a Mafia tale that could symbolise the struggles within all family businesses. Both the film and its sequels have it all: superb scripts, cast and music. The film made Francis Ford Coppola’s reputation.

There Will Be Blood (2007): an unrelenting drama about a rapacious oil baron, played by Daniel Day-Lewis. A case study in how bad guys often win. Directed, written and co-produced by the talented auteur Paul Thomas Anderson.

It is surprising that almost all the entertaining movies about business focus on its dark side. In most cases, the tycoons are wicked – from Noah Cross played by John Huston in Chinatown to Charles Foster Kane played by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane to Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone in The Godfather. Maybe this jaundiced view reflects the experiences of Hollywood writers and directors with studio bosses.

Mind you, I have rarely been to a place more obsessed by money and business than Hollywood – and that includes the creative types, not just the financiers. The former just hide behind their agents. It feels a touch hypocritical that the town likes to bite the hand that feeds it so well.

Of course moving pictures are mostly fantasy. Real life is more mundane – even in the executive suite. And it is never as clear-cut as the narrative of a 90-minute screen story. Few of the pictures mentioned are morality tales, and several of the best, such as Citizen Kane or There Will Be Blood, leave questions unanswered. Arguably, the villains are often the most dynamic characters – like Williamson (Kevin Spacey) in Glengarry Glen Ross.

Does this rather negative image of capitalism in show business actually matter? Yes, because the media influences hearts and minds, and can make an impact on consumer support and government policy. Or perhaps I should just revise my taste in films?