(Bloomberg) — Hollywood movies have always demanded a villain, and the man with the money has been an easy target from the days of It’s a Wonderful Life through to Wall Street, American Psycho, and The Big Short.
But themes of financial malfeasance and class struggle are more prominent in movies this year, at least if the offerings at the Toronto International Film Festival are any indication. Steven Soderbergh’s anticipated The Laundromat (Sept. 27), starring Meryl Streep and Gary Oldman, is a fictionalized dive into the global tax-evasion schemes that became known as the Panama Papers.
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Greed (Sept. 7) is a mockumentary-style farce starring Steve Coogan as a billionaire retail tycoon named Sir Richard “Greedy” McCreadie—a thinly disguised portrayal of Topshop honcho Sir Philip Green—as he prepares to celebrate his 60th birthday with his plutocrat friends on the Greek island of Mykonos.
The documentary Red Penguins gives an inside look at the corruption behind the resurrection of Russia’s Red Army hockey team after the Cold War and its ill-fated partnership with the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins.
Made in Bangladesh follows exploited workers in the South Asian country. Even the main character in Joker, out on Oct. 4, gets beaten up by a gang of drunken stockbrokers.
The starkest portrait of economic warfare at the festival, though, comes courtesy of Parasite (Oct. 11), a film from South Korean director Bong Joon-ho that won the Palme d’Or when it debuted in Cannes earlier this year. It follows a struggling family’s cunning efforts to inculcate themselves into the home of a wealthy executive. “Rich people are really gullible,” says its patriarch early in the film. They may not be the only ones.
But the film that will resonate most on Wall Street, judging by the audience reaction in Toronto, is Hustlers (Friday, Sept. 13). Starring Jennifer Lopez and Crazy Rich Asians star Constance Wu as exotic dancers trying to stay afloat in post-recession New York, the film follows the duo’s scheme to rip off Wall Street types by luring men then drugging them and stealing their money.
It’s a flashy look at themes of control, female empowerment, and greed on Wall Street that inspects the moral ambiguities of the business world. As the savvy and charismatic Ramona, Lopez muses that the country can be seen as a metaphorical strip club: “You got people tossing the money, and people doing the dance.”
Inspired by a 2015 New York Magazine article, the film doesn’t sugarcoat the severity of these misdeeds, and it doesn’t shy away from the personal and legal consequences for the women. Instead, director and co-writer Lorene Scafaria navigates the thin line between the economic justice and abject depravity.
Without condoning their actions, it shows the women as such human and identifiable characters that it’s hard not to cheer for them, much as audiences once rooted for the anti-heroes in the 1991 classic Thelma & Louise when they started killing bad men. “We gotta start thinking like these Wall Street guys,” says Lopez’s Ramona. “This game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.”
Here are the other movies we’re keeping an eye on:
Walt Disney’s Frozen sequel (Nov. 22) and the finale to its Star Wars trilogy (Dec. 20) will dominate the quarter. The industry in general will be looking to these major franchise releases to rejuvenate box office sales, which so far lag last year’s record by more than 6%.
Other franchises that have a lot riding is the return of Terminator (Nov. 1) after the last effort to revive it flopped. The star-filled adaptation of Cats (Dec. 20), whose trailer earlier this year polarized fans, is widely anticipated for curiosity’s sake, as much as any nostalgia for the long-running musical.
Some big releases will also likely be in contention for Hollywood’s top honors. Warner Bros.’ Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix, is an origin story of the comic character as a loner rejected by society. The R-rated tale is being glorified for Phoenix’s performance and criticized for reveling in the violence of a disaffected, straight, white man who is bullied.
Netflix, again, is demonstrating how the the rise of streaming has rocked the industry. The service’s biggest bet is the $159 million gangster flick The Irishman (Nov. 27), which—hard to believe—unites Robert de Niro, Martin Scorsese, and Al Pacino for the first time. Its other big contender is Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (Dec. 6), featuring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson in a tale of divorce.
A remake of Little Women (Dec. 25) is stacked with some of Hollywood’s hottest young actors, including Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet, and it is directed by Greta Gerwig, who was nominated for her last feature, Ladybird. Renee Zellweger received one of the longest ovations in Toronto for her role in Judy (Sept. 27), a biopic that focuses on Judy Garland’s final concerts.
Reviewers have been hard on previews of The Goldfinch (Sept. 13), but the Pulitzer Prize-winning tale is bound to give cinematographer Roger Deakins, nominated for his work on The Shawshank Redemption and Skyfall, a run at his second Academy Award. He will also likely be in contention for Sam Mendes’s 1917 (Dec. 25), staffed with such acting royals as Colin Firth.
Other films expected to contend are Harriet (Nov. 1), the story of abolitionist and erstwhile $20 bill candidate Harriet Tubman, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Dec. 6), a period love story between a bride to be and the woman hired to paint her.
Michael B. Jordan’s Just Mercy (Dec. 25) is the first movie to implement an inclusion rider for casting and hiring. Based on the memoir of social justice activist Bryan Stevenson, it follows the real-life case of Walter McMillian, a black man imprisoned for the murder of a white woman in 1986, despite evidence proving otherwise.
— With assistance from Natalie Wong.