Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Hey, things could be worse: 21 great films to put the recession in perspective

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

1. The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

It’s a powerful (and depressing) indicator of how much times have changed to look at the difference in the political and social climate now and when John Ford’s The Grapes Of Wrath was released. Back then, Ford’s movie was eagerly anticipated as a film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s incredibly successful novel of hard times amongst Okie migrant workers; the mood of the nation was unabashedly liberal, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt was seen as a national hero for his attempts to bring the nation out of the Depression through massive government intervention. Now, people actually hold protests against planned aid to the homeless and desperate, and right-wing pundits shamelessly claim that FDR prolonged the Depression. But while we’ve allowed our institutional memory to degrade, Ford’s masterful film hasn’t changed: a superb cast (led by a lean and hard-edged Henry Fonda as Tom Joad) and innovative camerawork from Gregg Toland based on the WPA photography of Walker Evans and others makes for one of the most moving and powerful portraits of American poverty ever committed to film. Hopefully, it won’t take another Great Depression to recover the truth about those bad times that Ford portrayed so elegantly.

2. Umberto D. (1952)

One of the purposes of the Italian neo-realist movement was to showcase poverty as harshly and honestly as possible, and Vittorio De Sica's masterpiece Umberto D. is arguably the purest expression of that purpose. Its story is simple to the point of non-existence: a retired civil servant, Umberto Ferrari (played by non-professional Carlo Battisti), struggles to make ends meet. His monthly pension can't cover his debts, and his landlady is promising eviction at the end of the month if he can't come up with the money he owes her for rent. The movie follows his attempts to raise the necessary cash, and, failing that, find a way to support himself and his beloved dog Flike. As with other neo-realist films, Umberto is episodic and, the final 10 minutes aside, largely low-key; it gets its power from its straightforward depiction of a decent man doing his best to get by in untenable circumstances. Anyone who's had to scrape by till their next paycheck can relate when Umberto is forced to sell his possessions for far less than they're worth; and there's a nightmarish familiarity to seeing him desperate enough to consider begging, but not so desperate as to give in completely. There's no moral here, and while things end cheerfully, nothing is resolved—Umberto and his dog have each other, and that's all they have. It doesn't get more honest than that.

3. - 4. Land Without Bread (1932) and Los Olvidados (1950)

With the semi-documentary short Land Without Bread and the semi-neo-realist feature Los Olvidados, director Luis Buñuel ventured to the global extremes of poverty and despair, but without losing his jaundiced and occasionally surreal view of human nature. In just 27 minutes, Land Without Bread both reveals the unrelenting squalor of Las Hurdes—a sterile mountainous region in Spain where generation after generation of starving, uneducated, and often horribly disfigured people are locked in a cycle of poverty—and sends up anthropological documentaries that condescend to their subjects. With these two seemingly conflicting goals, the movie would seem to be at cross purposes—indeed, Land Without Bread remains one of Buñuel’s most misunderstood and controversial efforts, and would be even if he didn’t have mountain goat tossed off a cliff to make a point—but its portrait of a condemned, criminally neglected people leave the deepest impression.

Los Olvidados, made during Buñuel’s time in Mexico, has the gritty, street-level, documentary-like look of Italian neo-realist cinema, but it’s tempered by the same pitiless skepticism that marks Land Without Bread. Buñuel follows a band of penniless street urchins in the slums of Mexico City, but he could never be accused of giving himself over to cheap sentimentality. After all, these kids attempt to rob a blind street musician. Failing that, they track him down, beat him up, and destroy his instruments. In Buñuel’s hands, their criminality implies a tragic loss of childhood innocence.


5. I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932)

Paul Muni plays a World War I veteran enduring and protesting the inhuman tortures of Southern prisons in this grim bit of Depression-era melodrama, based on a true story. Much of the movie is about Muni’s escape and his ill-fated attempt at becoming a success in business (undone by a shrewish, spendthrift wife), but the story is bracketed by portraits of extreme poverty, as the hero tries to hock his war medals, and lets his craving for hamburgers lead him into becoming an accomplice to an armed robbery. In the final scene, after another white-knuckle jailbreak, Muni runs into the woman he loves, and when she asks him how he’s getting by, he retreats into the shadows and hisses the film’s most famous line: “I steal!”

6. King Of The Hill (1993)

Based on A.E. Hotchner’s memoir, Steven Soderbergh’s third feature tends to get lumped into the wilderness between his breakthrough sex, lies, and videotape and his reemergence on the scene with Out Of Sight, but it’s one of his best films, a bittersweet chronicle of growing up in the Depression-era Midwest. Jesse Bradford stars as a boy in his early teens whose mother is committed to a sanatorium with tuberculosis and whose father tries to scrape together money as a traveling salesman, which sends him out of town for indeterminate swaths of time. That leaves Bradford to fend for himself at a transient hotel in St. Louis, where he encounters a gallery of colorful characters who care about him, but lack even the resources to take care of themselves. As the money runs out and his supplies dwindle, there’s a heartbreaking scene in which Bradford cuts out pictures of food from a magazine, lays them out on the table like a private Thanksgiving feast, and dines on paper.


7. Nobody Knows (2004)

Like King Of The Hill, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows is about children left to fend for themselves after their parents abandon them. But in Nobody Knows there are four kids, all squatting together in a ratty apartment, with a stack of cash that keeps dwindling. In the early going, the tiny tribe enjoys spending days on end playing videogames and eating junk food, but as the weeks and months wear on and they have to shed more and more of their possessions, their lives become dreary and dirty and uncomfortable, and they have to resort to scrounging (as surreptitiously as they can, so that they don’t inadvertently alert the authorities). In one of the movie’s most affecting scenes, the oldest brother makes a last-ditch effort to contact their mother, pumping coin after coin into a payphone and never making the connection. And that money’s just gone.


8. Stroszek (1977)

One of Werner Herzog’s strangest films, and probably his most depressing (it’s the movie Ian Curtis watched right before he hung himself, and no wonder), Stroszek manages to flip the standard narrative of an impoverished immigrant coming to America to build a fortune completely on its ear. Perpetually broke street musician Bruno Stroszek (played by perpetually broke street musician Bruno Schleinstein, for whom Herzog wrote the film) decides to move from Germany to Wisconsin with his prostitute girlfriend and elderly neighbor, but quickly finds out that the New World isn’t quite as welcoming as he’d imagined. He falls back into his bad habits, and soon enough his girl goes back to turning tricks just to make ends meet. It’s not long before she leaves him flat. Desperate and out of ideas, kicked off their land, and barely able to make sense of their surroundings, Bruno and his old friend rob a barber shop, and, well, it pretty much goes downhill from there. A morbid tonic to every scrappy-immigrant-makes-good story ever told, Stroszek is a deeply weird movie that nonetheless speaks to an altogether too common experience.

9. Workingman's Death (2005)

If the job market's got you down— and you have the time, money and capability to be looking at this—consider Michael Glawogger's documentary. With the tracking-shot virtuosity of Stanley Kubrick and an implacable eye for human cruelty and suffering, Glawogger profiles five of the world's worst jobs: the unsanitary mines of Ukraine are just a warm-up for men carrying sulfur down tiny ledges from Indonesian volcanoes. Bloodiest of all is the Nigerian meat-slaughtering market, where Glawogger glides through animals having their throats slit, with blood coming at the camera and running down the ground in every direction. And these jobs are always available and will never go away in places where even a humble grocery-store position simply isn't an option.

10. Rosetta (2002)

The Dardenne brothers, Luc and Jean-Pierre, have devoted themselves to chronicling the underclass in raw, handheld naturalistic docudramas like La Promesse, L’Enfant, and The Silence Of Lorna, but never with quite the urgent simplicity of their Palme D’Or-winning masterpiece Rosetta. Powered by a tenacious performance by non-actor Émilie Dequenne, the film takes place in the industrial wasteland of Seraing, Belgium, where the Dequenne’s eponymous character lives hand-to-mouth, trying to scrape together enough money to keep her trailer and tend to her alcoholic mother. She doesn’t take rejection well: When informed that she’s been laid off, she assaults her startled boss in a fit of rage and desperation, literally clinging to her job. Following her just over the shoulder as she scraps for survival, the Dardennes are so effective at defining the narrow parameters of her world that the wild-eyed Dequenne resembles something like a caged animal.


11. Dark Days (2000)

The subjects of Dark Days, Marc Singer’s documentary following a community of homeless people living in the tunnels underneath New York’s Penn Station, take pains to differentiate their dark, dank underground lifestyles from the indignity of living on the street. They paint and decorate the walls of their “homes,” use TVs and electric shavers plugged directly into city’s grid, and cook meatballs on a hotplate. But all the unexpected conveniences of the underworld cannot disguise the intense poverty that Singer’s gritty black-and-white film exposes. Rats scuttle underfoot, trains constantly shake the cardboard shantytown, and its residents pass the time hustling for food, money, or drugs and sharing the various horror stories that led them underground. The extent to which Singer’s subjects have internalized their poverty is striking—in an early sequence, an old-timer teases a young man who says he doesn’t think of himself as “homeless”—and the ingenuity and survival instincts on display throughout the tunnel community indicate a deep-set recognition that this could very well be as good as life gets. The film’s final scenes put an unexpectedly uplifting twist on the story of the underground-city-dwellers—after Amtrak runs them out of the tunnels, a homeless-advocacy group helps move them into Section-8 housing—but it doesn’t do much to dilute the stark images of absolute poverty that precede it.

12. The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu (2005)

Mr. Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) isn't feeling too good, so he calls the ambulance. During the lengthy, hour-plus wait, his neighbors lecture him about how he drinks too much and offer little in the aid of help. When the ambulance finally comes, he has to be shuttled from one hospital to another—a bloody traffic accident has pushed Bucharest's already over-taxed hospitals over capacity—so it's up to an ambulance attendant (Luminita Gheorghiu) to see that he's eventually taken in somewhere. He is, at the fourth hospital, by which point he's too raving and delirious to fill out the paperwork everyone insists he has to, and vital scans have to be bartered for personal favors. Cristi Puiu's film is a depressing, jolting, and often blackly funny look not just at a decaying medical infrastructure, but in the ways underpaid people's egos tend to destroy their professional competence; even seemingly competent staff refuse to perform their duties the moment they fear paperwork won't be processed or they think they're being disrespected. It's a cautionary tale not just about health care, but about employee morale.

13. Withnail & I (1987)

The title characters of Bruce Robinson’s bone-dry British comedy are impoverished by choice: they’re unemployed actors (played by Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann) living in a cold-water flat and spending their days bouncing from pub to pub, spending their utility money on booze. When things get so bad that they’re passing around a tube of vapor-rub to stay warm, Grant persuades his rich gay uncle Richard Griffiths to lend them his country cottage, in exchange for a free shot at the unwitting McGann. But when the two layabouts arrive in the sticks, they find their accommodations every bit as bare and chilly as home. Fortunately for them, Griffiths is on his way with food and heating supplies. Unfortunately for McGann, he’s ready for recompense.

14. Killer Of Sheep (1977)

Most movies about poverty concentrate on the extremes, showing people who are abandoned, jobless, and desperate. Charles Burnett’s Killer Of Sheep is about a working-class community in Watts where most of the people work from dawn to dusk, but still don’t have any money. In a series of loosely connected scenes, Burnett shows how something as mundane as a flat tire can ruin a family outing, how an attempt to buy a rusty car engine from a neighborhood pimp can go comically awry when the equipment isn’t properly secured, and howk with no toys to speak of, the kids in the neighborhood resort to rock fights.

15. Pather Panchali (1955)

The first of Satyajit Ray’s tremendous “Apu Trilogy” is the one that most expressly deals with the title character’s impoverished upbringing in a tiny Indian village. The trilogy is never saturated with despair; it’s as much about shifts in social class, the generation gap, and the coming of modernity as it is about wealth and poverty, and it maintains many elements of lightness and humor to leaven its serious moments. But there’s still plenty of insightful and unforgettable scenes, particularly in Pather Panchali, that illuminate the daily humiliations that come with being poor. Apu’s father, played by Kanu Banerjee, is a country priest (and would-be artist) who has been beaten into timidity by failure; he can barely bring himself to protest when his employers fail to pay him on time. His sister (Uma Dasgupta) steals food and trinkets the family can never afford, and his mother (Karuna Banerjee) silently bears the insults of neighbors who call her the mother of a thief. As in The Grapes of Wrath, the family eventually leaves their age-old home only when they literally cannot afford to stay, but at least the sequels bring a sense of hope.

16. Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)

There have certainly been no shortage of documentaries about poverty lately and, sad to say, there are likely to be a whole lot more. But in a sense, they’re all the heirs of Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County U.S.A. A filmed record of the Brookside Mine strike against the Duke Power Company in Harlan County, KY, it documents one of the last great labor struggles before the presidency of Ronald Reagan helped permanently cripple the union movement in the 1980s. Moving, stirring, and often shocking, the documentary shows to what lengths workers were willing to go in order to gain what amounted to extremely minor financial benefits, for what is likely the most dangerous work in America; it’s also a chilling reminder that anti-union violence is hardly a forgotten relic of the 1930s. Though explicitly pro-union, Harlan County U.S.A. isn’t sentimental in its treatment of the workers and their bitter struggle; it simply shows them striving for a tiny bit of dignity against wealthy forces they can barely fathom, and amongst poverty and despair that they may never escape. Kopple was allowed an unprecedented access to the lives of the miners and their families—and she almost paid a terrible price for the privilege.


17. Dogville (2003)

Lars von Trier’s particular genius is for taking the assumptions and implications of Hollywood filmmaking and pushing them to their logical extremes, forcing us to own up to the often-hidden realities behind the fantasy. So it was no surprise that when he took on a story of the Great Depression, he eschewed the obvious route of portraying poverty in such a way that the visceral imagery would do all of the emotional work for him. Instead, he made his impoverished Rocky Mountain village of Dogville a stripped-down, minimalist stage set, an elegant Negative Zone version of Our Town. Von Trier refuses to let the image do his talking; instead, he shows the impact of poverty and desperation through psychology. In his nightmarish vision of the Depression, the oppressed kick downward and the exploited become the exploiters at the first opportunity: Lying to themselves more in every scene, the denizens of Dogville treat Nicole Kidman’s fugitive gangster’s moll worse and worse, always under the guise of helping and protecting her. As is often the case with poverty-stricken communities, in the end there is no justice, only a cycle of cruelty and vengeance.

18. Grave Of The Fireflies (1988)

During a recession, money is on everyone's minds; how much is left, how to make the most of it, and where to get more when it's all gone. But money is just a means to an end. Poverty is really about being unable to provide for the basic needs of life, and there are times when all the money in the world won't help. Set in Japan near the end of the Second World War, the animated film Grave Of The Fireflies centers on two children, Seita and his toddler sister, Setsuko. After their mother dies, Seita and Setsuko go to live with their aunt; but the aunt begrudges the effort to keep them, and the food they eat, and eventually Seita and Setsuko strike out on their own, setting up house in an unoccupied air shelter. There's money left in their mother's bank account, but as the war drags to a close, local supplies dwindle, until there's no one left to buy food from. Seita resorts to stealing, but is quickly caught and beaten, and despite the intervention of a sympathetic police officer, he and his sister gradually starve to death. It's bleak, uncompromising, and incredibly painful to watch; instead of distancing the audience, the animation lowers the viewer's guard, promising a happy ending that, as is obvious in the first five minutes, will never come.

19. Push: Based On The Novel By Sapphire (2009)

Lee Daniels’ Sundance favorite, due for a wider release later this year, follows Gabourney “Gabby” Sidibe, a morbidly obese black teenager in ‘80s New York whose life would have to improve considerably just to qualify as bleak. She’s pregnant with a second baby by her father, verbally and physically abused by her monstrous welfare-queen mother (Mo’Nique, in a revelatory performance), and, oh yeah, can’t read. Sibide lives in a pre-Giuliani hellscape of spiritual and financial poverty until an inspirational teacher (Paula Patton) plants a seed of hope. And you thought getting your latest 401K statement was depressing.


20. Man's Castle (1933)
Spencer Tracy meets a down-and-out Loretta Young and takes her to dinner at a restaurant. Then he announces—to both her and the maitre d's considerable surprise—that he can't pay for dinner and it's just shameful how the restaurant throws away food every day. With his proper dress clothes, Tracy can get by, but he actually lives in Central Park, in one of the innumerable Hoovervilles (makeshift shanty towns) that existed during the Great Depression. There actually was a Hooverville in Central Park from 1931-33 (landscaping projects were ongoing), but conventional realism isn't the aim of this typically swoony Frank Borzage film. Tracy looks out for Young— his odd jobs are enough to get her an oven—but he always seeks to resume his nomadic ways, literally getting distracted every time a train whistle blows. As a result, he tends to treat her very badly indeed. Whether or not that's due to the Depression making his life harder to live or just because he's a jerk is up for debate.

21. Mad Max (1979)

When people think of a world where the economic system has failed, gasoline is worth more than human life, and angry citizens have turned against each other, they don’t think of our world, they think of Mad Max. Thankfully, our world isn’t quite as bad as the post-apocalyptic wasteland depicted inGeorge Miller’s 1979 exploitation classic, where marauding gangs dressed in S&M gear engage in death-defying car chases and brazenly murder women and children. But while the specifics have been exaggerated in Mad Max the big picture still looks disconcertingly similar to our current reality. If people keep losing their homes, they really will have to take to the road and do whatever’s necessary to survive. Chains and leather gear can get expensive, though, so our real-life marauders will probably skip those.