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"Inside Job" (2010)
Charles H. Ferguson's compelling documentary won the 2010 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and provides an extremely detailed timeline of the financial collapse, starting with its roots in the 1980s and following its rise and fall through the subsequent years. Ferguson splits the narrative into five separate chapters, ranging from "The Crisis" to "Accountability" and "Where Are We Now," and he makes sure narrator Matt Damon never turns the insider jargon into indecipherable nonsense. While the all-encompassing approach risks turning the crisis into a list of monotonous bullet points, Ferguson is really intent on showing just how systematic the whole collapse was, and his rigid storytelling helps push this ideal tenfold. Plus, there's nothing more maddening than watching the top executives of the companies responsible for the collapse walk away with their unharmed, and it turns the film into not just a lesson on what exactly happened, but also a wake up call to ensure the people who did it never get away with it again.
"The Queen of Versailles" (2012)
While some films about the financial collapse provide an insiders view of what the hell went wrong, Lauren Greenfield's eye-opening "The Queen of Versailles" takes a different approach by focusing on what of its most unusual and bizarre victims. In what at times resembles the wackiest reality show you've ever seen, the documentary centers on Jackie and David Siegel, owners of Westgate Resorts, as they build their dream mansion and model it after the famous French palace. Westgate had thrived for years on the back of the housing bubble, so when the market finally collapsed, it left the family struggling to survive...and finish their $100 million dollar home. The rage and envy one feels over their absurd wealth eventually turns into sorrow and pity for their fleeting (and warped) normalcy, and the doc is perhaps the strangest and emotional look at the financial crisis from the outside.
"The Flaw" (2011)
Instead of creating an all-access look at the financial crisis and its consequences, David Sington's creatively approaches the causes using a variety of arresting aesthetic choices, from entertaining cartoons and archive clips to gripping testimonials from some of the participants in the housing market collapse. The director locates the fatal flaw of the financial crisis in the growing inequality of the American population throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In these decades, wealth accumulated in the richest 1% of the population, forcing the middle class to compromise itself and head in to debt in order maintain its standard of living. Watching Sington track the causes of the crisis is a shocking affair, mainly because the signs were on the wall for so long and no one ever saw them. Interspersing talking head interviews with top economists like Robert Shiller and Joseph Stiglitz, Sington guarantees you'll never miss a warning sign again.
"Capitalism: A Love Story" (2009)
While not the most critically beloved Michael Moore documentary, "Capitalism: A Love Story" still does an efficient job at detailing the reasons for the financial collapse, and it was one of the first documentaries ever released to tackle this subject matter with this much insight, passion and anger. While recalling just exactly what happened during the crisis brings up many of the same talking points that "Inside Job" covers, Moore's efforts become singular when he targets the current U.S. economical model and explains how the solutions created in order to fix the crisis are essentially just prolonging the disaster. In this way, "Capitalism: A Love Story" becomes a scathing inditement of a broken system that refuses to fix itself.
"American Casino" (2009)
Leslie Cockburn's "American Casino" takes a look at the subprime mortgage crisis and how greedy lending practices of major mortgage banks led to economic fallout for millions of Americans. While Cockburn can't really make the nitty-gritty details of collapse seem as accessible as Ferguson and Moore do in "Inside Job" and "Capitalism: A Love Story," respectively, she absolutely succeeds in putting a human face on the issue, interviewing victims of the banks' petty schemes and showing just how damaging the crisis is for the people it screwed over. Any time it shines on a light on the people, "American Casino" is a crippling experience.
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