Films on Work

Waging a Living

Documentary 2004 NR 85 minutes. This thought-provoking documentary tests the mantra “get a job” to see whether low-wage jobholders — otherwise known as the “working poor” — can pull themselves and their families out of poverty. Filmed in California, New York and New Jersey over a three-year period, the film tracks the ups and downs of four ethnically diverse Americans living below the poverty line as they face a persistent struggle to make ends meet.See Full Review

See also: The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio.

Inequality for All

Documentary 2013 PG 1hr 30m. Former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich makes a compelling case about the serious crisis the U.S. faces due to the widening economic gap. This film is entertaining, but it also educates. This is one of the best documentaries I have seen in years.

Commanding Heights:
The Battle for the World Economy

Documentary 2002 NR 360 minutes. Based on the best-selling book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw, this three-part PBS documentary series is the story of how the new global economy was born. It traces the rise of free markets during the last century, as well as the process of globalization. There are three segments – 1. “The Battle of Ideas” (primarily between Capitalism and Communism);  2. “The Agony of Reform” (after the end of Communism)  3. “The New Rules of the Game” (of Globalization). See Full Review

Death by China

Documentary 2012 NR 1hr 19m. This frank documentary chronicles the growing power and global ambitions of China, and concludes that its strength threatens America’s own future. Starting with the agreement in 2001 which allowed China into the World Trade Organization, this movie recounts trends to the present. This is an excellent, frank look at China’s unethical business practices since joining the WTO. It makes some valid points about the negative effects that our trade agreements with China have had. Much of the film is about the manner in which multi-national corporations headquartered in the US exploited free trade agreements for their own short term interests, at the expense of the greater good for the US economy. The documentary makes it clear that the multinationals coupled with their successful lobbying groups have made it easier to move our manufacturing to China.  See Full Review

Last Train Home

Documentary 2009 NR 90 minutes. Documentarian Lixin Fan follows a couple who, like 130 million other Chinese peasants, left their rural village for work in the city, leaving their children to be raised by grandparents, returning only once a year on an arduous 1,000-mile journey.

The Company Men

Drama 2010 R 1hr 44m.  This indie drama stars Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Costner, and Ben Affleck as a successful businessman who comes face-to-face with America’s downsizing epidemic when he loses his job and is forced to take a construction gig. What happens when the American dream turns into a nightmare? What do you tell your wife, kids, friends, former colleagues when you are collecting unemployment? Written, directed and produced by John Wells. See Full Review

College, Inc.

Documentary Frontline 2010 NR 60 minutes. Uncovering the truth about for-profit colleges and universities, this Frontline episode investigates the schools’ powerful recruitment methods, convenient online curriculum, connections to Wall Street and astronomical revenues. Through interviews with former students, employees and education experts, this program questions whether such institutions of higher learning improve the lives of their graduates or simply saddle them with debt. The business of higher education is booming. It’s a $400 billion industry fueled by taxpayer money. But what are students getting out of the deal? Critics say a worthless degree and a mountain of debt. Investors insist they’re innovators, widening access to education. Frontline follows the money to uncover how Wall Street and a new breed of for-profit universities are transforming the way we think about college in America.

The Other Side of Immigration

Documentary 2009 NR 55 minutes. Contemporary immigration issues between the United States and Mexico receive careful study in this documentary, which uses extensive interviews to outline the experiences and perspectives of ordinary citizens in the Mexican countryside. In examining the economic factors prompting Mexicans to seek work in the United States and the social pressures that result, the film presents an affecting look at a complex political and moral issue.

It Was a Wonderful Life

Documentary 1993 NR 84 minutes. They’re clean, educated, articulate and rarely receive public assistance. But following a divorce, job loss or a long illness, a growing number of middle-class women are forced to live out of their cars. Directed by Michèle Ohayon (Colors Straight Up) and narrated by Jodie Foster, It Was a Wonderful Life chronicles the hardships and triumphs of six “hidden homeless” women as they struggle to survive, one day at a time.

The Retirement Gamble

Documentary Frontline 2013 April 23. The 401(k) was never designed with the middle class in mind, and may now be leaving a generation of Baby Boomers without enough to avoid poverty. Retirement is big business in America, but is the system costing workers and retirees more than what they’re getting in return? Most Americans are unaware of the fees they are paying for their 401(k)’s, but over a lifetime, such charges can cost an ordinary American more than $109,000. Most financial planners would say you need about $1 million to ensure a decent retirement, but “absolutely almost no one is there right now.  Link to View This FRONTLINE Story for Free (Listed by Date 2013 April 23):

Can You Afford to Retire?

Documentary Frontline 2006. The acclaimed PBS public affairs series investigates the looming financial catastrophe facing the baby boom generation — a group blessed with a long life expectancy but bedeviled by shrinking incomes. The erosion of traditional pillars of retirement income — Social Security, lifetime pensions and 401(k) plans — has many boomers working well into their retirement years, a trend that could eventually threaten the whole economy. See Full Review

Retirement Revolution
The New Reality!

Documentary 2009 TV-PG 90 minutes. Hosted by Paula Zahn, this helpful PBS special addresses the financial issues facing millions of older Americans following the economic crash of 2008, exploring ways to survive on less money and to increase income. Zahn talks to experts and those who’ve been affected by the crisis, offering advice on handling money, dealing with health issues and Medicare, considering a second career and much more.

Say Goodbye To Granddad’s Retirement!

Documentary 2008 NR. Financial planner Tony Walker’s documentary paints a sobering picture of the modern economy, contrasting the pensions and retirement plans of decades past with the uncertain future that likely awaits people entering the workforce today. The film explains why few people now spend their entire careers at one company, how this has shifted the burden of funding retirement from employers to employees and what young people can do to plan for the future.

The American Ruling Class

Documentary 2005 NR 89 minutes. This inventive, mildly fictionalized documentary follows noted editor Lewis Lapham as he introduces two Ivy League graduates to America’s elite in an effort to examine the role of class and moneyed privilege in American democracy. With stops at the Pentagon, posh Manhattan parties and more, Lapham encounters luminaries — including James Baker III and Walter Cronkite — who each share their perspectives on America’s ruling class.

A Matter of Sex
(The Willmar 8)

Docudrama 1984 TV-14 1hr36m. After watching male workers pad their salaries with high-paying promotions, disgruntled female bank tellers stage a protest for union rights. A Matter of Sex is a labor-management drama that demonstrates the blinkered sexism and routine chauvinism in a small-town Minnesota bank in the late 1970s. It is so sad that women, just 30 years ago, were met with such discrimination in the workplace. This should be a must see movie for all.  See Full Review


Mad Men

Drama 2007-2012 TV-14 5 Seasons.Set in 1960s New York, this series takes a peek inside an ad agency in an era when the cutthroat business had a glamorous lure. When the cigarette smoke clears and the martinis are set down, at the center of it all is womanizing ad man Don Draper.

The Improv:
50 Years Behind the Brick Wall

Documentary 2013 TV-MA 58m. Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Kathy Griffin and other comic greats pay tribute to the legendary stand-up stage venue founded in 1963 by Budd Friedman. It is very interesting to hear famous comics tell how they paid their dues in the business. The great comedians make their craft look easy because now, after years of practice and dedication, they are accomplished. I also enjoyed the archival footage of famous successful people in the earliest days of their career’s and development, You can really see how and why these people went into entertainment and comedy — even unrehearsed things off the top of their head are funny and there are some really great moments with several of the comedians. They tell some insightful & witty coming of age stories here, and I realized the great comedians haven’t lost their humility. It is fun to watch! This is well worth a look, especially if you aspire to be a comedian. This is also an historic document.

That Guy… Who Was in That Thing

Documentary 2012 TV-14 1hr 18m. Sixteen male actors — who are highly recognizable but not stars — detail their ups and downs as they struggle to forge careers in Hollywood. It’s just a series of interviews with character actors talking about their work and, to a lesser extent, the nature of the industry. I enjoyed that the anecdotes about hardships and joys were kept succinct. Good pro and con inside look at what it’s like to be an actor as your chosen profession. Not boring, but not fascinating either. But it held my attention and made me glad I did not choose Hollywood as my employer, where the average actor earns only $5,000 yearly!


Docudrama 2011 PG-13 133 minutes. An all-star cast brings to life the true story of Billy Beane, a former jock turned general manager who uses unconventional methods to bring the best players to the Oakland A’s, a Major League Baseball team struggling against financial hardship.  As the manager of a small market franchise with a comparatively modest budget, Beane had to be creative and innovative in putting together a team…and he was. Beane is seen as a man who did what it took to save his cash-poor team from losing good players to the rich New York Yankees who could pay them more. When you have little cash to pay your players you must come up with a creative solution to keep your head above water. Beane’s creative solution was recruiting a geekish Yale economics major who handles player research with great with stats on every player. I love Jonah Hill as Pitt’s boy genius. The two of them embark on a path that is like swimming upstream. You feel you are very fortunate to be along for the ride to see cutting edge methods that begin to change the way the Good Old Boys have always done things before in baseball. Philip Seymour Hoffman is terrific as one of the Good Old Boys,the A’s head coach. Authorized by Major League Baseball and interspersed with actual game footage, this brilliant film takes you inside the locker room and the front office to meet actors playing real baseball figures, not the cereal-box caricatures. You’ll meet the tired old scouts, the pouting middle-aged manager, the bad-attitude stars, and the bench jockeys and scrubs fighting to hold on. This film is written with lots of great humor and had me laughing all the way through. Even if baseball is not your thing you will LOVE this film.

Big Rig

Documentary 2007 NR 1hr 35m.  Filmmaker Doug Pray journeys coast to coast to chronicle life on the road with America’s long-haul truck drivers in this engaging documentary, featuring candid interviews that reveal the drivers’ passions and colorful personalities. Driven by fierce independence, these unsung heroes of the highway will surprise and touch you with their wit and down-home wisdom. You’ll never look at an 18-wheeler in quite the same way again.

A Lawyer Walks into a Bar…

Documentary 2007 NR 84 minutes. Director Eric Chaikin’s insightful documentary explores the complexities of the U.S. legal system while tracing the journey of six prospective attorneys who are preparing for their fearsome bar exams. Chaikin talks with legal eagles Alan Dershowitz and Mark Lanier to help demystify the judicial process. In addition to high-profile lawyers, the film also features commentary from television’s Nancy Grace and comedian Eddie Griffin, among others.

The Devil’s Miner

Documentary 2005 NR 1hr 22m. Filmmakers Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani pan their cameras beneath the surface of Bolivia’s Cerro Rico silver mines, a place so dark, depressing and frightening that locals believe it’s the devil’s home. Chronicling the daily ordeal of 14-year-old breadwinner Basilio Vargas — who chews coca leaves on his way to work to numb his persistent, primordial terror — this somber documentary captures the hellish realities of fear.

Jerry Seinfeld

Documentary 2002 R 82 minutes. Honest — at times painfully so — and intimate, director Christian Charles’s documentary follows established comedian Jerry Seinfeld and up-and-comer Orny Adams as they navigate the highs and lows of the stand-up circuit. From writing and testing material to admiring the competition — including Chris Rock’s kudos for Bill Cosby — this engaging film looks at the details, insecurities and hard work involved in making people laugh.

Boiler Room

Drama 2000 R 120 minutes. Underground casino operator and college dropout Seth Davis (Giovanni Ribisi) becomes too involved in a sham New York brokerage firm and decides to go straight after his stern father (Ron Rifkin) rescinds all contact with him. Eager to make an honest living, win his father’s approval and the love of kindly Abbie (Nia Long), Seth risks everything when he turns his back on his greedy, hard-partying colleagues. Ben Affleck and Vin Diesel co-star.

Wall Street

Drama 1987 R 125 minutes. Enterprising stockbroker Bud Fox falls under the enticing spell of Gordon Gekko, an unscrupulous Wall Street arbitrageur. But when Gekko embroils his protégé in an insider-trading scheme, Fox develops a conscience and decides to turn the tables. See Full Review

A Matter of Sex
(The Willmar 8)

Docudrama 1984 TV-14 1hr36m. After watching male workers pad their salaries with high-paying promotions, disgruntled female bank tellers stage a protest for union rights. A Matter of Sex is a capable labor-management drama that demonstrates the blinkered sexism and routine chauvinism in a small-town Minnesota bank in the late 1970s. It is so sad that women, just 30 years ago, were met with such discrimination in the workplace. Yes, things have changed and for that, I am grateful…but, there is still a long way to go, in my opinion. Men wouldn’t tolerate being paid less money than a woman for doing the same job, and neither should a woman have to. This film shows that equality in the workforce is a much needed and deserved practice. The power of a small group of people standing united for a cause can set the foundation for equality for all. Do a little research and you’ll see the movie was very truthful to the real events. My mother was one of the Willmar 8 portrayed in this movie (Doris Boshart). I grew up on the picket line, spent two summers there with these women. It was quite a time in our small town. In this movie, Hollywood definitely took some liberties, but all in all it told the story pretty well. This is one of the best and most uplifting movies I have seen in a long time. It shows how a group of people can bond together for a common cause when it is important to them. What was really sad was how the town residents, even the priest were telling the ladies to take their place and quiet down. After 415 days on March 23 1979, the bank president resigned from the bank and they thought they won. But the labor board ruled against the women, mainly due to technical reasons and they weren’t entitled to back pay and could not have their jobs back. We all know that is bull. But the movie proved the point that losing the battle doesn’t mean that you lost the war. Somehow they win – even tho they ‘lose’. These women went on to empower all women workers in America. This should be a must see movie for all.

Harlan County, U.S.A.

Documentary 1976 PG 103 minutes. Director Barbara Kopple’s film about the 1973 coal miners’ strike in Harlan County, Ky., won a Best Documentary Oscar and was selected for the National Film Registry. Highlighting the struggles of families living in shacks with no indoor plumbing and enduring hazardous working conditions, the film details the conflict between the Eastover Mining Co. and the laborers determined to join the United Mine Workers of America.See Full Review


Documentary 1968 NR 90 minutes. Before delivering Gimme Shelter, cinema verité filmmakers Charlotte Zwerin and brothers Albert and David Maysles hatched this culturally significant documentary examining the utterly American profession of the traveling salesman. The film follows four reps of the Mid-American Bible Company as they peddle gold-embossed versions of “the Word” to families with little interest in fancy scriptures, providing a searing portrait of life on the road.


Thriller 2014  R 117 min.  When a driven man desperate for work muscles into the world of L.A. crime journalism, he blurs the line between observer and participant to become the star of his own story. The film tells the story of Lou Bloom, a freelance videographer who covers the crime world in LA for a local news station and ruthless editor played by Rene Russo. Before long Bloom’s demented job overtakes his life, making him colder and colder the deeper he goes. The film plays like a twisted bloody version of Network with satirical wit. Jake Gyllenhaal is fantastic in this film. Lou Bloom is a role that he is completely submerged in as he oozes through every frame while our dislike for Bloom intensifies throughout the film. What this film does best is make us wonder what he is willing to do next, and his actions get sick and shocking. Bloom is a depraved individual, but Jake Gyllenhaal pulls off the tricky task of making the audience care about a character that is truly unlikeable — and does so with not one false note. It is mesmerizing to see. The cinematography also is top notch, and makes it hard for you to peel your eyes from the screen. If you take the slick look of Drive and the satirical wit of Network, you get Nightcrawler. This film is a genius first film for writer/director Dan Gilroy, someone to watch after this brilliant film filled with raw velocity. It is darkly comedic, surprisingly disturbing, and brilliantly acted. I highly recommend it. (Review adapted from IMDB.)

Design Is One:
Lella & Massimo Vignelli

Documentary 2012 NR 1hr19m.  As artists and visual architects, husband and wife Massimo and Lella Vignelli have been producing unique and groundbreaking work as brand designers.  The film gives a wonderful overview of the Vignellis and their work, a good introduction for someone unaware of the Vignellis.  I was impressed that their catalog of work was so broad — the depth of their design that spans 50 years is mind-boggling.  After watching this doc, I feel I know them and how they think.  Great documentary. Well worth watching.  Loved every minute of this exceptional film.  I also recommend the movie Helvetica if you love design.

The Architect and The Painter

Documentary 2011 NR.  This documentary tells the story of the husband-and-wife team of Charles and Ray Eames, widely considered America’s most important designers.  A fascinating close view of both personalities.  Unafraid to reveal the charisma, humanity and obsessions.  For once a film that also sheds light on the dark side of an artistic relationship and work; instead of always putting people like this on a pedestal. i.e. leading the perfect, flawless, unattainable, artistic life.  Great documentary.  Very enjoyable and very informative.  If you like to watch documentaries about talented and unusual people – the odds are good you will like watching this documentary on the Eames.

How Much Does Your Building Weigh,
Mr. Foster?

Documentary 2010 NR 1hr 19m. The wide-ranging and inspiring career of prominent English architect Norman Foster is profiled in this intriguing documentary. It’s just a joy to watch. The best part of this excellent documentary is the cinematography of beautiful architecture, brought to life with slow-moving video cameras, time-lapse photography, special lighting effects, and a perfect musical background of sweet-but-sad, minimalist piano. The cinematography is astounding (the segment about the Millau viaduct at the beginning is magical– a gorgeous bridge magically captured on film). It shows a bit of how the architecture profession works, which is interesting. The man himself in the interviews reveals himself to be both inspiring and a little egotistical, which is of course to be expected. His work stands on its own, though, and this film showcases it in all its glory. I definitely recommend it for anyone who likes architecture.

Antonio Gaudi

Documentary 1984 NR 72 minutes. The great innovator of the Spanish art nouveau movement, architect and sculptor Antonio Gaudi left an indelible mark on artists Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali — and on the city of Barcelona, where the bulk of Gaudi’s distinctive work still stands. Using minimal narration in this astonishing documentary, Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara guides viewers through the achievements of the playful, Gothic surrealist.

Xanadu Foam Houses

The Xanadu Houses were a series of experimental homes built to showcase novel construction and design techniques. This architectural project began in 1969 when Bob Masters, an early pioneer of houses built of rigid insulation, built a home for himself in Aspen Colorado using inflatable balloons sprayed with polyurethane foam to demonstrate that houses could be built directly out of a waterproof insulation material in beautiful curvilinear forms, thereby eliminating the necessity of first building a square structure of wood on which to attach insulation and waterproofing. The same methods were later used to build the Xanadu houses as a series of show homes in the United States, the first in Wisconsin Dells and the second one near Disney World in Florida, which became popular tourist attractions during the 1980s with each attracting 100,000 visitors per year. (Bob Masters is also the author of several books, including Roget’s II Thesaurus, and is the author of this website Must-See-Movies.) An interview with Bob Masters about this new architecture and building technology can be seen at:

Buckminster Fuller:
The Lost Interviews

Documentary 2005 NR 2 discs. With dozens of honorary degrees under his belt, thinker, inventor and scientist Buckminster Fuller (of geodesic dome fame, among other feats) has always been able to make his research relevant in the modern world. In this fascinating documentary, get to know Fuller as he discusses his approach to his work and to the world at large — a world that’s rapidly changing from a tangible, textual place to one governed by computer chips and electronics.

Frank Lloyd Wright

Documentary 1998 NR 153 minutes. Often touted as the most influential and important American architect of all time, Frank Lloyd Wright is the subject of this acclaimed documentary by award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns (Baseball, The Civil War). Rare footage and illuminating interviews, along with an in-depth look at Wright’s body of work from his 92 years, come together to bring his unforgettable — and frequently turbulent — story to life.

Bulletproof Salesman

Documentary 2008 NR 1hr9m. This film examines how a successful German war profiteer earns money when violence increases and soldiers’ lives are threatened, by selling armored cars in war zones.  Although most of the film takes place in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has much more to do with the art of selling than the art of war. In fact, the movie is structured as a series of “lessons” on what makes a good salesperson, lessons such as: “Trust the customer and they will trust you.” And if this doesn’t sound like it would make a for a very entertaining movie, watch how Mr. Cloer applies that message when the product being sold is an armored vehicle and the customer is a sheik who lives in a war zone. Although he is supplying a required service that would be done by someone else anyway (like Blackwater, which gets some well-deserved criticism in the film), it’s understandable that his detached disposition and matter-of-fact way of speaking may turn some people off. But that shouldn’t take away from the quality of the movie itself, which is exciting, intriguing, and easily one of the best documentaries I’ve seen.

IL Posto
(meaning The Job)

Drama 1961 NR 93 minutes. This Italian drama mines the rich possibilities in the life of a recently graduated man who sets out to land a job in Milan. Starting on the bottom rung of the corporate ladder as a messenger in an industrial conglomerate, he still aims for the top. Anybody who has a job should see Il Posto. The workplace is seen through the fresh eyes of a young man as he gets his first job. Much that he sees mystifies him. One old man waiting for the end bell every day actually retired six months ago, but still comes in to the office every day pathetically. Set in the fifties when getting a job meant having the same one for life, providing a life of security but also death-in-life. Older men grown grotesque from sitting for years at desks in rows in windowless bleak offices, waiting to move up when someone dies.

The Bicycle Thief

Drama 1948 NR 89 minutes.  Poverty-stricken Antonio needs his bicycle to do his new job. But the same day he buys it back from a pawnshop, someone steals it, prompting him to search the city in vain with his young son.

La Terra Trema
(The Earth Trembles)

Drama 1948 NR 154 minutes.  Cast with real Sicilian locals as villagers, director Luchino Visconti’s haunting film presents a wrenching study of a family struggling to find happiness against the backdrop of Sicily’s fishing community. The townsfolk’s’ lives undergo dramatic changes when they plot to overthrow the greedy wholesalers depriving them of a decent living. But against the odds, they still enjoy love, laughter and friendship within their close-knit community.

The Grapes of Wrath

Drama 1940 NR 128 minutes. Tom Joad, a Depression-era everyman, leads his poor family on a harrowing journey from Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl to the promised land of California in this adaptation of John Steinbeck’s classic novel. See Full Review

The Champagne Safari

Documentary 1995 NR 1hr 34m. In 1934, plucky industrialist Charles Bedaux bankrolled an outrageously extravagant expedition across northern Canada, from his fortune made as an efficiency consultant to the major corporations to speed up and increase worker productivity – until the workers rebelled. Footage from the failed journey offers a glimpse of the enigmatic adventurer, who was later revealed to be a Nazi collaborator.

Man of Aran

Documentary 1934 NR 77 minutes.  Director Robert Flaherty’s first sound film is a brilliant dramatized documentary about the Herculean struggles of a community living on the remote and almost completely barren island of Aran, off the Irish coast. Before crops can be grown here, the soil has to be collected from rock crevices and mixed with seaweed. Flaherty also wrote the screenplay, and the film was named Best Picture of the Year (1934) by the National Board of Review.

Henry Ford

Documentary American Experience 2013 TV-PG 1hr 52m. Henry Ford paints a fascinating portrait of a farm boy who rose from obscurity to become the most influential American innovator of the 20th century.


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