Hollywood loves a picture-perfect home as a backdrop to the stories it tells. However, in many cases, the home itself can become a character in the movie — especially when financial or personal reversals enter into the picture.
Here are 12 must-see movies that focus on the the complexities of homeownership and the real estate industry (in descending order from most recent).
1. Downton Abbey (2019)
Still out in theatres, don’t miss your opportunity to see a movie where the house is the star of the show. Whether you loved the TV version or just want to see what all the fuss is about, seeing the extraordinary Highclere Castle on the big screen is an aesthetic treat.
When the King and Queen of England decide to take a royal tour of the Yorkshire countryside, their visit brings them to Downton Abbey. In a time where people were starting to leave domestic service and many private estates were no longer operational or financially viable, the race is on to make sure that Downton is ready in time for the royal retinue. It’s a fascinating glimpse into a world of gracious living and refinement that has, for all intents and purposes, disappeared.
2. Arizona (2018)
A disturbing offering in the post-2008 crisis genre, Arizona is a movie by Danny McBride, writer and star of shows like Eastbound and Down, Vice Principals, and HBO’s recent The Righteous Gemstones. McBride plays an enraged homeowner who violently confronts his real estate agent after watching his home plummet in value. He ends up murdering her broker and taking the agent and her young daughter hostage in his increasingly desperate attempts to cover up his crime.
In light of the prevalence of violence against agents, this film could be triggering for some viewers. In addition, violence against women played for laughs, along with McBride’s gleeful turn as a gun-hoarding violent attacker makes this a controversial addition to the canon of real estate films.
3. The Open House (2018)
A high-intensity thriller set in a remote mountain community brings teenager Logan Wallace (Dylan Minnette) and his mother Naomi (Piercey Dalton) to housesit in a relative’s opulent home after it has been put on the market for sale. From the moment they hit town, however, they encounter a cast of creepy locals and disturbing incidents, all seemingly tied to the weekly open houses hosted by the real estate company.
If you’ve ever been a bit creeped out while sitting an open house or wondered who’s wandering through your latest listing, you’ll surely find your pulse pounding as you watch this disturbing horror movie. It may just make you a little more cautious before your next Sunday afternoon showing.
4. The Big Short (2015)
Based on Michael Lewis’s book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, this film chronicles the complex and convoluted financial machinations that led to the global financial crisis and the real estate meltdown of 2008. It uses a star-studded cast and a breakdown of the fourth wall to explain complex financial instruments and concepts in an easy-to-understand fashion.
Be warned: This film will make you angry, but it will also make you smarter about the ways that large trends can be identified and understood. After all, at the heart of the narrative are analysts who identified the coming crash early and profited from it, even as all of the so-called experts were still promising unlimited upsides.
5. The Queen of Versailles (2012)
This exceptional documentary tells the story of the start and stop of construction of a 90,000-square-foot mansion by Florida billionaire David Siegel, owner of the timeshare company Westgate Resorts, and his wife, Jackie. As the global financial crisis worsens in 2008, the bottom falls out of the easy financing that Siegel’s business depends on — and puts on hold planning for their massive new home.
You’ll be fascinated at both the excess and empathy of Jackie Siegel, the titular queen, as she mourns the delays and possible loss of her mansion while caring for her huge family and for the Westgate employees laid off from her husband’s company. Having come from a humble background, she is no entitled socialite. She knows what it is to do without, and it is fascinating to watch her attempts to economize in the face of market realities of which she seems only partially aware.
6. Larry Crowne (2011)
Another entry in the rash of movies created in response to the 2008 housing crisis, Larry Crowne (played winningly by Tom Hanks) tells the story of a hard-working Navy veteran who is underwater on his mortgage following a divorce, only to be swamped by an unexpected layoff at the big-box retailer where he has worked for years.
Although much of the action centers on Crowne’s return to school to prepare for a new job, there is a fascinating subplot focused on his growing understanding of personal finance and economic realities that impacts his decision-making regarding his home. It will give you new insights into the heartbreaking choices people have to make when an economic or personal reversal forces them to let go of their real estate dreams.
7. I Love You, Man (2009)
If you are looking for a feel-good comedy that will make you proud to be a real estate agent, this is one of the best. Starring Paul Rudd as a newly engaged real estate agent who is looking to break into the LA luxury scene with a listing for the Lou Ferrigno estate, I Love You, Man is filled with winking references to open houses, marketing strategies, and the challenges of working with upscale clients and unscrupulous colleagues.
If you’re always looking for great marketing ideas, you’ll have a lot to choose from here. Everything from billboards to fancy buffets to urinal cakes becomes a sale pitch opportunity for Rudd and his fellow LA agents. The question of how to market and brand oneself — and how other people perceive us both personally and professionally — is central to the humor and the heart of the story.
8. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
No list is complete without this look at the seedier side of real estate sales. Based on David Mamet’s Pulitzer-prize-winning play, which was, in turn, based on his personal experiences working in an New York City real estate office, the film explores a high-pressure Brooklyn sales environment presided over by Alec Baldwin at his terrifying best whose iconic delivery of his catchphrase “A.B.C.: Always Be Closing” is just one of the memorable moments in this star-studded film.
Filled with explorations of both the overwhelming pressure of the sales environment and the effects of toxic masculinity in driving bad behavior, this film is sure to provide food for thought. It’s worth watching just to see the powerhouse cast, including Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris and Baldwin at the height of their powers.
9. Pacific Heights (1990)
If you’ve ever been fascinated by those stories of squatters who use the legal system to manipulate their way into months of free real estate, you’ll love the twists and turns of Pacific Heights.
Starring Melanie Griffith and Matthew Modine as an overextended couple trying to leverage a San Francisco home into an investment property, director John Schlesinger builds suspense and tension with the help of his antagonist, a totally creepy Michael Keaton as a prospective tenant named Carter.
Film critic Roger Ebert called Pacific Heights “a horror film for yuppies,” and when you consider the dire consequences for the main characters that description rings true. The film is especially notable for its complex view of how unscrupulous bad actors can use the legal system to their own nefarious ends.
10. Baby Boom (1987)
This hilarious saga of Diane Keaton as a Wall Street “Tiger Lady” turned reluctant adoptive mother is a reliably entertaining romp, but you may have forgotten the country home at the center of much of the action. For anyone who has ever bought a dream house only to have it turn into a financial nightmare, this storyline will certainly resonate.
When Keaton’s character moves to Vermont and spends her money on a beautiful but flawed farmhouse as winter weather moves in, you’ll feel her pain when everything from the roof to the furnace needs to be replaced. It’s a good reminder of the important role a home inspector plays on your real estate dream team.
11. The Money Pit (1986)
Produced by Steven Spielberg, directed by Richard Benjamin, and starring the impossibly charming couple of Tom Hanks and Shelley Long, this oldie-but-a-goodie has become synonymous with bad real estate deals and shady contractors who are perpetually just “two weeks” away from completion.
Based on the 1948 classic Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, the screwball comedy is a cautionary tale about what happens when a deal sounds too good to be true.
The real-life home, which recently sold for $3.5 million, is located in Oyster Bay, New York, and was, according to the homeowners, a case of life imitating art as it had fallen into significant disrepair before they bought it in 2002. They recently sold it for $3.5 million — a loss of almost $4 million when taking into account its purchase price and repair bill.
12. Grey Gardens (1975) and (2009)
At the other end of the aesthetic spectrum is Grey Gardens, the East Hampton manse belonging to Big Edie and Little Edie Beale, the cousins of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Whether you choose the 1975 documentary or the beautifully detailed 2009 biopic, you’re sure to be equally fascinated and horrified by the decline of this once great home and wealthy family.
After a divorce, Big Edie Beale and her daughter Little Edie languish in the faded splendor of Grey Gardens as it crumbles around them. You’ll experience not just their frequent fights with neighbors and the municipal powers-that-be, but the mental and emotional decline that leads the women to refuse to leave their home even in the face of the most harrowing conditions. It’s a complex story, and one which you will never forget.
Motherless Brooklyn (2019)
In theaters now, set against the backdrop of 1950s New York, this is a cautionary tale of what happens when local people fight the powers that be and big-money interests determined to develop and gentrify an NYC neighborhood.
The story centers on private investigator Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) and features powerhouse performances by the likes of Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin and Willem Dafoe.
If you are interested in the sometimes shady machinations that go on behind the scenes as developers and politicians carve up whole neighborhoods, this is sure to capture your imagination. It will make you question everything, including how major decisions get made — and who profits from them.
What did we miss? Shout out your fave flicks in the comments section below.
Christy Murdock Edgar is a Realtor, freelance writer, coach and consultant with Writing Real Estate. She is also a Florida Realtors faculty member. Follow Writing Real Estate on Facebook, Twitter, Instagr