1. Schizopolis (1996)
When it comes to the whole "lone sane guy in an office of neurotics" motif, Steven Soderbergh's 1996 experimental comedy Schizopolis doesn't bring a lot of fresh insight to the table. But it does convey that theme through scenes that veer from cartoonishly surreal to conspicuously symbolic. Soderbergh plays Fletcher Munson, an office drone employed by an L. Ron Hubbard-like self-help guru named T. Azimuth Schwitters. Before most of the bizarre situations occur—including Munson losing his distant wife to his dopplegänger, a dentist named Jeffrey Korchek—Soderbergh sets the tone with an eerie scene. After a hyperkinetic commute, Munson retreats to the office bathroom. On the toilet, he starts to masturbate while looking at his watch, suggesting one of two interpretations: Either he's worried about taking too long a break, or the corporate world's fetishism of time has turned weirdly erotic. After doing his business, he washes his hands and stares into the mirror—then starts contorting his face into a series of painfully exaggerated (and painful to watch) expressions. Is he practicing for the phony smiles and assurances he'll have to produce at work all day? Or is he desperately trying to remind himself what it was like to feel and express emotions? Either way, it's a harrowing scene, and one that sets up the inevitable punchline from his supervisor: "What have you been doing, Munson, jerking off all day?"
2. The Matrix (1999)
The Matrix certainly has more memorable sequences than Keanu Reeves' early panicked attempt to escape his office building, at the command of a strange voice on a cell phone he's just gotten in the mail. But there's something indelible about those early scenes, as Reeves deals with the first disconnects between the world of his depressing, generic little gray work cubicle, and the world where slick men in black grab him and make his mouth disappear. Audiences have already gotten a good sense that there's a lot of weirdness going on, but Reeves is only just finding out, and the escape-the-office scene is a clever tease, as Reeves almost makes it to safety, then loses his nerve.
3. The Incredibles (2004)
Another film that uses little gray cubicles (and the work that takes place in them) as a powerful metaphor for cloying mundanity, The Incredibles gives audiences a taste of a world full of superheroes and super-sized four-color conflict, then dumps its protagonist in a miserable, stultifying office job, where the closest he comes to saving humanity is helping little old ladies work around his company's bureaucracy. Eventually, the awful compromises of the business world prove so stressful for erstwhile superhero Mr. Incredible that he lives out the American dream by hucking his annoying yap-dog boss through a series of walls. Oh, if only more of us had super-strength and a superhero job to fall back on.
4. Local Hero (1983)
In Bill Forsyth's near-perfect example of the quirky British character-driven comedy, Peter Riegert plays a mid-level Houston oil executive whose supposed Scottish heritage (he's actually Hungarian, though his name is MacIntyre) wins him an important mission to a small Scottish town where his company hopes to start some major drilling. In an early scene in Texas, he pathetically strikes out when asking one of his co-workers on a date. Only 10 feet away from her, he still calls her on the phone from behind a glass partition in his office, showcasing his inability to connect with or relate to anyone in his hometown. It's a fleeting minor scene in a movie full of wonderful moments, but it's remarkable for the way it gets right to the heart of Riegert's character's lonely isolation in a funny and poignant way, in about 15 seconds.
5. Being John Malkovich (1999)
Even before John Cusack discovers the hole behind the filing cabinet that leads directly into John Malkovich's consciousness, the office scenes set on the seven-and-a-halfth floor of the Merton-Flemmer Building in the first big-screen success of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman are unforgettably bizarre. Perhaps the best of the bunch is Kaufman's weird send-up of employee-training videos, when new employee Cusack is made to watch a hilariously nonsensical film which "explains" the history of the building's unusual design via a ludicrous story about a sea captain who falls in love with a dwarf and promises to make a half-size floor in his new office building just for people her height.
6. The Apartment (1960)
Early in Billy Wilder's classic workplace dramedy The Apartment, a perfumed hussy asks her married lover who lives in the cozy love nest where they carry out their illicit trysts. "Some schnook who works in an office," he answers. The Apartment consequently traces Jack Lemmon's rise from a loser who doesn't even merit a name to a guy willing to stand up for himself. While higher-ups use his bachelor pad for adulterous romps, Lemmon bides his time at the office of his insurance company, a masterpiece of production design so vast and imposing that it looks like something out of a science-fiction film. To help create the sense that his cold, grey office stretches out into eternity, Wilder cast little people as extras and had them work at specially designed desks so the frame would be cluttered with a vast, endless sea of office drones. In one of the film's funniest scenes, Lemmon contracts a cold after sleeping in Central Park and has to cancel an executive's plan to use his home as a love nest for the evening. The ripple effects ricochet through the vast office building as other executives are forced to rearrange their schedules in kind. In this scene, the office building becomes a universe unto itself, a fragile corporate ecosystem where the effects of one sad drone sneezing can be felt throughout the executive washrooms.
7. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
Tim Robbins kicks off the second act of the Coen brothers' Mickey Rooney/screwball-comedy homage with an energetic demonstration of his invention (the hula hoop, as yet unnamed) for a curious boardroom full of executives. "It's fun, it's healthy, it's good exercise; kids'll just love it, and we put a little sand inside to make the whole experience more pleasant," he explains while pumping his hips non-erotically. The executives spend several edits slack-jawed before fulfilling their corporate oversight function. "Can more than one play?" "Is there an object?" "Are you supposed to make it fly off?" "How can you tell when you're done?" "Is there a larger model for the obese?" The ensuing montage of PR men working on a catchy moniker, injection-molding equipment extruding plastic dinguses, and accountants adding a hefty profit margin is one of the Coens' signature accomplishments, channeling the energy of the postwar cultural spirit through the choreography of the Industrial Revolution—you know, for kids.
8. Lost In America (1985)
Early in Lost In America, advertising wizard Albert Brooks strides into his office, confident that today is the day he'll finally catch that carrot-on-a-stick and get the big promotion he deserves. Like many in his generation, Brooks has gone from hippie to yuppie, abandoning the free-spirited rebellion of movies like Easy River for the stability of a fat paycheck and a luxury car with "Mercedes leather," a.k.a. "thick vinyl." But then his world comes crashing down: The boss tells Brooks he's "too creative" for the post, and should transfer to New York to work on the Ford account with a sniveling suit named Brad, who tries to win Brooks over with a jingle set to "New York, New York." ("This little town car / will drive you away…") The news sends Brooks into the sort of bridge-burning apoplectic fit that's bound to seize a man who's wasted eight years of his life, only to get a transfer he could have gotten "at any bus stop." As security escorts him from the building, he warns anyone who will listen, "Don't have lunch with this man! He'll tell you all about the future. I've seen the future: It's a bald-headed man from New York!"
9. American Psycho (2000)
In the '80s corporate world of American Psycho, status means everything, from who can score a reservation at the most exclusive restaurant to who has the nicest suit to who boasts the best haircut and smoothest skin. That razor's edge is where Patrick Bateman's sanity precariously rests. In a conference-room meeting with other young guns, Bateman (Christian Bale) starts to crack when the guys compare newly embossed business cards as if they were whipping out their cocks and dropping them on the table. Bateman confidently displays his new card (the coloring is "bone" and "the lettering is something called Silian Rail"), but the other cards are frighteningly elegant, one in "eggshell with Romalian type" and another in "Pale Nimbus" with raised lettering. And then comes a fourth, from his rival Paul Allen, catapulting him into cold-sweating madness: "Look at the subtle off-white coloring, the tasteful thickness of it. Oh my God, it even has a watermark." From that point on, there's no turning back from Huey Lewis and chainsaws.
10. Fear And Trembling (2003)
The fish-out-of-water tragicomedy Fear And Trembling takes place entirely in a Japanese office building, where naïve Belgian import Sylvie Testud, living out a childhood dream of working in Japan, lands her first job as a translator. After making a bad impression on her first day, and a series of cataclysmically stupid errors thereafter, she begins a steady downhill spiral that ultimately gets her downgraded from interpreter to janitor. There are plenty of memorable scenes along the way, notably when she takes on the job of updating everyone's desk and wall calendars, which she accomplishes with a great deal of unnecessary showboating, kung-fu moves, and "Banzai!"-ing. But she tops that when she finally has a nervous breakdown. Working late into the night on a simple busywork project that's nonetheless proved too stressful for her to manage, she slips into a dreamlike reverie. Shedding clothing, dancing on desks, and ultimately making herself a warm nest out of the office trash, she appears to be trying to completely sabotage herself and end her frustrating situation—especially when she's still curled up in her trash-womb for her co-workers to find come morning.
11. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
James Foley's screen adaptation of David Mamet's stage play Glengarry Glen Ross really should feel stagebound; it takes place almost entirely in a small office, only briefly following its cast of real-estate-flogging hucksters outside on sales trips and for interpersonal confrontations. But the sheer power of the all-star cast is so mesmerizing that the backdrop barely registers. Possibly the film's most memorable office scene (and certainly its most quotable) is the one written for the film version, where a smarmy, aggressive Alec Baldwin drops into the office to deliver a motivational speech composed entirely of insults, abuse, threats, and empty catchphrases. ("ABC. A, always; B, be; C, closing. Always be closing. Always be closing.") Then again, an argument could be made that the film's second 50 minutes, which take place entirely in one breathless, nervy office-interior sequence, comprise a single incredible scene.