Michael Moore rubs people the wrong way. Everyone from all over the political spectrum claim he’s one-sided, anti-American and a liar, while some film critics find his methods representative of the worst types of agenda-based movie-making. He’s arguably responsible for the wave of some of the worst transparently biased issue documentaries of the past three decades—but he’s not a hack, and he’s not often wrong.
Cutting his teeth in the newspaper business for over a decade, Moore is a bonafide journalist, and though some of his films lean a little bit too far in the direction of outright propaganda, he knows how to find compelling and important subject matter. While some of his films haven’t aged well, trapped in the staid time capsule of the Bush era, others have taken on new resonance in the last decade as America enters a period of careful self-reflection.
With the recent release of Where To Invade Next, we thought it a good time to re-evaluate Moore’s filmography, both for its initial impact and continued cultural relevance. And then we decided to go ahead and rank them from worst to best, because that’s what being an American is all about.
Box Office: N/A (free download)
Does George W. Bush Show Up? The entire documentary is a plea to replace Bush with John Kerry, so rest assured, Moore has found every possible sound bite to highlight Bush’s inelegant manner of speech.
Stunts Pulled as Political Statements: They’re small in the grand scheme of his career as a cinematic prankster, but Moore promises to give a “Hellraiser” scholarship to the student who causes the most trouble for Cal State San Marcos, a school which cancels his appearance after criticism. He also gives a free bag of ramen and pair of underwear to any young person who promises to vote for the first time.
Moore’s 2008 lecture circuit documentary (a re-edit of Captain Mike Across America, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2007) about galvanizing young people to vote in the 2004 election is more likely to be remembered for its radical distribution method than its content, but it’s nonetheless a fascinating curio in demonstrating how clashing partisanship played out before the internet empowered people of all stripes to scream their opinions at each other with caps lock. This is about as padded as a Moore film can be, with the director bringing out his talking points with crushing familiarity, and inviting a parade of guests who offer little more than stripped-down, politically charged folk songs or solemn calls for justice.
Without a main focus other than the impending election, much of the run-time is instead devoted to questions of free speech as Moore’s speaking occasions are boycotted by prominent conservatives and questioned by local journalists. Moore’s pitiless in his skewering of the media bending over backwards to sanitize politics, but it all just feels turgid. Whether it’s simply the changing times or Moore’s own endearingly goopy persona, it’s hard to view a white-bread satirist like Moore as a true subversive or radical no matter how hard the film tries. Still, the 2004 election attracted more than 21 million voters, and it serves as an inspiring thematic presage to the voter turnout for later presidents like Barack Obama.
Box Office: $163,971
Does George W. Bush Show Up? Nope
Stunts Pulled as Political Statements: The whole film is one giant stunt.
Moore’s only foray into fiction, Canadian Bacon is a mess with a dispiriting comedic hit ratio, but it’s admirable for its sheer battiness and willingness to poke sleeping giants like propaganda and the profit margins of war time.
Alan Alda plays The President, an idealistic leader during peace-time whose approval ratings are in a perpetual sag. On a routine scheduled appearance to a weapons factory that’s closing, he’s nearly killed by a mishap and his approval rating bumps by almost 20 points. Heartened, The President soon tries to orchestrate violence by any means necessary, even begging Russia to start another Cold War. When he’s rebuffed, The President begins a smear campaign against Canada by engineering a fake attack care of people dressed up like Canadians. Chaos ensues: Soon citizens are fortifying their local bars with rifle lookouts, and planning hostile takeovers of Canada. Like Armando Iannucci’s sensibility scripted by the Tommy Boy writers, Canadian Bacon finds Moore working with a bullseye of a subject—but he has no sense of when to go broad and when to hone in on a subject for coherency. Then again, not many films would make room for both Close Encounters of the Third Kind dick jokes and visual gags about the entirety of Canada being run by two elderly people. Plus, it has the unfortunate distinction of being John Candy’s last film.
Box Office: $222,446,882
Does George W. Bush Show Up? Oh yes.
Stunts Pulled as Political Statements: Moore asks congressman to enlist their children in the military, and reads the PATRIOT Act over a loudspeaker.
Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore’s conspiratorial ode to former President Bush’s network of collusion, hasn’t aged particularly well. Told with acidic solemnity, the whole documentary feels petty by the end of the first hour, even as Moore finds wells of comedy for the converted with endless footage of Bush playing golf instead of attending to his presidential duties, or looking universally clueless. But despite its agitprop leanings, it’s also a pretty good example of one-sided journalism as Moore and his team dig into clerical foxholes, pulling out questionable nuggets at every turn about the Bush family’s friendliness with the Bin Laden dynasty and the “war president”’s two-faced treatment of the military.
It all verges a bit into Islamophobia in its immovably pessimistic view of the events surrounding 9/11, but Moore is very much on the right side of history. And even as the film seems both vacuum-sealed and shaggy, the events of 9/11 were certainly shrouded in secrecy. It wasn’t until January of last year that the final remaining 28 pages surrounding the commission report were redacted, nearly 11 years after the original publication of the report, and the repercussions of the PATRIOT Act are still felt after the whistleblowing of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, or even after the more casually indefensible scandal around the surveillance of Muslim groups in New York has come to light.
Box Office: $17,436,509
Does George W. Bush Show Up? Yes, he’s the resident fear monger who urges people to support the American economy to their last dying breath.
Stunts Pulled as Political Statements: Our director puts crime scene tape around the entirety of Wall Street, attempting to make a citizens’ arrest of CEOs from Bank of America, Citigroup, and others.
Capitalism: A Love Story’s best joke happens in its first minute: The opening credits appear over b-roll of bank robberies. For Moore, the fat cats of Wall Street are no different than common stick-up men.
A dissection of the rot spreading throughout America’s financial system, the film is unusually despairing for a Moore joint. Hopelessness hangs over the film as Moore views the destruction caused by malicious financial institutions and the vultures who picked at the pieces. It’s the disintegration of humanity—the Jonas Salks of the world have been replaced by serial opportunists like Martin Shkreli, and America’s economy has become one giant roulette table with the same players over and over. There’s no tinkling piano interlude at the end about America’s potential, and short of putting together a moving, syrupy montage of a successful sit-down strike in Chicago, Moore acts like he’s convinced the future is on a crash course with disaster. In the end there is just a sharp cut to black, and Moore saying, “I can’t really do this anymore.”
Capitalism: A Love Story doesn’t often work, but it does feel ahead of the curve in predicting the swell of anger towards our bedrock institutions, a microcosm of the most central issues in this election cycle.
Box Office: $720,074
Does George W. Bush Show Up? This is one of the few Moore films where the answer is no, although daddy dearest, George H.W. Bush, is featured in some archival footage.
Stunts Pulled as Political Statements: Throughout his travels, Moore stops at a number of infamous companies, including Payday, Leaf and Johnson Controls, to bestow them with custom-made “Downsizer of the Year” awards. He also offers two tickets to Indonesia to Nike CEO Philip Knight to visit the sweatshops where they’re making his shoes.
Moore’s second full-length, The Big One, is easily the most off-the-cuff and informal of any of his films, even going so far as to bring camera operators into the frame, and making jokes that have no bearing on the main narrative. As such, there’s a scraggly, manic energy that propels it forward, even when it’s just content to be a hang-out kind of film.
Following him on his nationwide book tour after the publication of best-seller Downsize This, Moore refuses to let a higher-profile persona get in the way of his ongoing search for justice for disenfranchised Americans. Along the way, he meets unionizing workers and shuttered factory employees, annoying various media escorts to no end. The lack of central conceit makes this one hard to really hold together, but there’s no doubt that Moore really cares what every single person has to say. Moore always has an agenda when the cameras are on, but that doesn’t change that he’s talking to human beings who are going through real problems.
Box Office: N/A
Does George W. Bush Show Up? Yes, but only for a brief cameo.
Stunts Pulled as Political Statements: Moore plants American flags in foreign countries. That’s about it.
Where To Invade Next works like a Frankenstein’s Monster of Moore’s favorite themes, making it a nice, if redundant, stroll down memory lane. As Moore travels from country to country with the express purpose of stealing their “best parts,” familiar issues like universal healthcare and affordable education become Exhibits A through Z about how to make America a better place. Released at a time when America, steeped in toxic cynicism, is in a stranglehold with race, violence and poverty, Where To Invade Next still retains its relevance even when it’s actively slight—or just plain bad.
Filled with winking, easy jokes which skirt racist stereotypes and beset by a fluffy glibness, the film often hobbles itself with its own intentions instead of letting the undeniably powerful subtext breathe. Still, as compared to previous Moore entries: Change doesn’t seem quite so impossible. In the last decade, America has made small but necessary strides in LGBT rights, gun control, mental illness awareness and the fundamental dignity of human beings. Who’s to say we can’t keep going?
Box Office: $36,088,109
Does George W. Bush Show Up? Yes, in the first minute
Stunts Pulled as Political Statements: Moore attempts to bring 9/11 responders to Guantanamo Bay…settling for Cuba.
A survey of America’s byzantine, self-involved health care system, it’s tempting to call Sicko Moore’s most prescient film in the wake of the implementation of Obamacare. While some of the issues depicted have been addressed—the term “pre-existing condition” is no longer a death knell—there’s still much to be said about the differing philosophies towards preventative care and well-being in other more progressive countries. Even now, the possibility of a free hospital visit or extended maternal leave sound more like the end of a punchline to the average American than a realistic standard. But there’s no doubt that Moore is itching at a genuine point when he speaks to Europeans who explain over and over how they fought for their rights, or hears politicians say things like “If you can find money to kill people, you can find money to help them.” It all ends with a climax in Cuba that reinforces Moore’s favorite points about how countries treat their best and worst. America doesn’t do so well with that test.
Box Office: $58,008,423
Does George W. Bush Show Up? Yes
Stunts Pulled as Political Statements: Moore visits Charlton Heston. He also returns bullets from Columbine survivors to K-Mart.
Despite being released more than a decade ago, Moore’s excellent 2002 gun culture tirade could have easily been released this year. And while bits about opening a bank account and getting a free gun, or buying bullets at the barber may feel naively cute to any person who lives in a red state with a large hunting population, Bowling For Columbine isn’t in the business of simply demonizing guns. Moore even admits he’s a life-long member of the NRA. Rather, it attempts to rake an entire culture over the coal—decades on, America is still not listening to what troubled kids have to say, or how to tamp down on its rampant fear of everyone.
Box Office: $7,706,368
Does George W. Bush Show Up? No, but his father does.
Stunts Pulled as Political Statements: Moore ambushes Roger Smith at shareholder event, and shadows a Sheriff Deputy as he evicts Flint families form their homes.
Moore’s Sundance smash is still the peak of his filmography, and one of the most influential documentaries ever made. But it’s also a useful encapsulation of his most irritating and effective filmmaking techniques, especially before his explicit sentimentalism found a way to blunt his later agendas. Roger & Me is a poison-penned letter to Flint, Michigan’s former life force, General Motors, after they cut nearly 30,000 workers due to downsizing, and it seethes with righteous, guttural anger for the downfall of Moore’s hometown. Focusing only on Michigan, there’s not a single wasted frame as Moore hones in on the microscopic repercussions for every resident, from mental breakdowns caused by Beach Boys songs to evictions on Christmas Eve. Even Moore’s failed mission to talk to GM CEO Roger Smith about the closings becomes its own form of poetic irony as Moore surveys the absurdity of trying to survive in a place where the rich continually see the effects of their decisions, but can’t help but lecture the poor about the bootstraps myth of the American dream.