There's a blog to be written about Greatest Films of All-Time about Workers and work themes but for now, lets look at those made or released in the last year. Whether set in a grocery store, amusement park or airplanes, there's a DVD for everyone to watch this Labor Day weekend.
In terms of feature films, there are 5 standouts. They are The Maid, Humble Pie, Adventureland, Extract, and Up in the Air. Of these, Up in the Air is the best known given its star George Clooney and its box-office receipts and Oscar run. And it is arguably the best in this particularly specific category of Best Worker Voice Film, due in part to its uncanny timing connected to today's economy. And its use of actual people who had been laid off playing people who had been laid off was original, poignant, and sad all at once.
But there's more. While the Chilean film, The Maid centers on the story of a maid trying to hold on to her position after having served a family for 23 years, it also shows the level of dependence that family has relied on her "work" which goes much beyond daily domestic chores. You might say for Humble Pie, with the leading man at 400 pounds and set in a grocery store, that "if you like Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, and Napoleon Dynamite, you'll love this" but only if you had a 30-second elevator pitch to make. Or in this case, a short blog. You could also try the same cheap trick about Adventureland by calling it a Judd Apatow-esque film set in an amusement park but that would undercut the originality of this story, the workers, and the unique workplace where they find themselves. And I don't want Martin Starr to cringe.
If you like good, entertaining documentary, there are lots of good choices from the last year. Capitalism: A Love Story, Yes Men Fix the World, The Philospher Kings, Parking Lot Movie, and Floored all do a great job of either reflecting workers voices and experiences or channeling them with the equivalent of a 2-ton, 20,000 watt megaphone. Like Up in the Air, Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story was the heavyweight in this category, clearly the favorite of a loose-knit jury I polled, and worth seeing to get your juices flowing about the state we're in and some idea about getting out of it.
But some space is needed to highlight Yes Men Fix the World. Not only is it entertaining and daring as the Yes Men go undercover, including on BBC, goofing on all manner of corporations. But they also manage to champion some genuine causes like Bhopal, post-Katrina New Orleans and more. And perhaps most importantly, they give its audience the sense that "maybe I could go do something like that too". And what better inspiration for the masses of unemployed and stomped-on workers than that.
As a special mention, notice should be given to a film project that was not quite a film or a TV show: The People Speak. Based on the book by Howard Zinn, and eventually developed into a docu-mini series on the History Channel, it features a large and diverse number of actors from Matt Damon to Marisa Tomei, Kerry Washington, Josh Brolin and Danny Glover. With producer Chris Moore, I've tracked its development over the years into the product that aired back in January 2010 (now on DVD as well). The reading by Marisa Tomei of Harriet Hanson Robinson's recound of the Lowell, MA factory strike is worth the price alone for thoughtful reflection about why we have Labor Day in the first place.