New York City: a place where hard-boiled detectives take on crime in a dingy apartment two blocks down from a couple falling in love in Central Park. From the dense, cultural meccas of the burrows to Times Square: New York has been fictionalized so frequently in American cinema that it has become real in the minds of those around the world that have experienced it at the theater. Subway cars, taxis, crowded sidewalks, skyscrapers, and bridges play host to so many of Hollywood’s most iconic stories, from Gotham to Metropolis.
This fictionalized movie-city has a life of its own. As the real New York was the gateway to immigration, the movie-New York is a gateway to American culture. The movies show us American big business that takes place in the crowded interior offices of skyscrapers. The movies contribute to the reputation of crime that is thought to be lurking near every dark alley and windy rooftop. Stunning romance, car chases. In many cases, iconic scenes set in New York City were actually manufactured in Hollywood, California – as if the real New York was torn down and rebuilt across the country. Does this lessen the impact of “King Kong” or “Rear Window”? Is there a difference between shooting in the real or fictional city?
Whether you’re from London, Mexico, or Australia, there exists a universal understanding of what goes on in America’s quintessential city, thanks to the portrayal of NYC in film. This list hopes to explore the very best portrayals of New York City in the history of cinema. There may be films of an overall higher quality set in New York that don’t appear on this list, but the simple location is not enough. The ineffable life of the city is what we’re after here. These are great films that capture the lives and experiences of many through the stories of few.
10. THE WARRIORS (1979)
Director: Walter Hill
Starring: Michael Beck, David Patrick Kelly, James Remar, and Deborah Van Valkenburgh
Walter Hill’s cult sensation becomes campier by the year as we distance ourselves from the fiercely 80’s aesthetic, but its fantastical, hyper-violent portrait of the American urban wasteland in 1979 is an endearing, retro classic. The graffiti-ridden subway cars and vacant nighttime streets of New York City establish the distinct atmosphere of this fantasy-city that pits rival gangs against each other in a world where anyone who’s anyone is in a gang. Hill’s vision was later fully fulfilled with the inclusion of comic book panels to every major chapter of the film. Can you dig it?
9. CLOVERFIELD (2008)
Director: Matt Reeves
Starring: Michael Stahl-David, T.J. Miller, Lizzy Caplan, Mike Vogel, and Jessica Lucas
While “Cloverfield” hasn’t quite become the definitive American monster movie that producer J.J. Abrams hoped it would be, this wildly chaotic “found footage” monster flick embraces the fear of the unknown to provoke the audience’s curiosity and tense anticipation. When an attack by an unrevealed force begins to destroy Manhattan, a group of friends take to the streets with a video camera and attempt to survive in the crossfire of the military’s counterattacks. Their desperate sprint for survival takes them into subway tunnels and up a nearly toppled skyscraper in a series of thrilling set pieces.
While the big monster that’s only glimpsed briefly for much of the film is an ultimately disappointing reveal, the cinéma vérité technique paired with the high budget visual effects and production design take the characters through an apocalyptic New York City that feels real and scary.
8. THE CROWD (1928)
Director: King Vidor
Starring: James Murray, Eleanor Boardman, Bert Roach
King Vidor’s “The Crowd” is an astonishing late silent era film that takes the risk of telling a story about the common man at a time when the movies were largely about the extraordinary. John Sims comes to New York City to make a go at the American dream and quickly discovers he’s unable to stand apart from the crowd. In endless rows of desks after desks at his office job, he’s just one man among many until he wins a contest and a large cash prize.
King Vidor, clearly influenced by German cinematography, uses a number of visual techniques here that would likely still shock moviegoers unfamiliar with the sophistication of the silent age. Miniature sets are used to achieve impossible shots, and the framing of John amongst a crowd of people is a visual motif that’s returned to all the way to the film’s brilliant final shot. Vidor was in an important position at the time due to the everyman being ignored in motion pictures. It was his challenge to convey the desperation, tragedy, and struggle that come along with the American dream – a challenge he no doubt succeeded in.
7. NICK AND NORAH’S INFINITE PLAYLIST (2008)
Director: Peter Sollett
Starring: Michael Cera, Kat Dennings
Here’s a film that in many ways doesn’t fit in with the rest, but finds its place on this list thanks to its indisputably magical mood. “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” has Michael Cera at his best as Nick – a shy, straightedge bassist recovering from a rough breakup when he meets the like-minded and oft-underestimated Norah (Kat Dennings). The couple spends an unforgettable night in the Lower East Side getting to know each other and chasing down an epic, rumored, middle-of-the-night secret show by their favorite band.
As the title would suggest, an outstanding indie-rock soundtrack compliments the on-the-go momentum of Nick and Norah’s one long night. The “best city in the world” moniker really makes sense here, this is the city we could only be lucky enough to experience a night or two of in our youth.
6. THE NAKED CITY (1948)
Director: Jules Dassin
Starring: Barry Fitzgerald, Howard Duff, and Dorothy Hart
The so-called golden age of Hollywood kept feature films out of New York City for decades, opting instead to re-create the city in Los Angeles on backlots and sound stages. Massive classics like “Dead End” and Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” were set firmly in the Big Apple yet remained constructed on the West Coast. How special it must have been, then, to first watching the opening of Jules Dassin’s 1948 film noir “The Naked City,” during which the real New York comes into view from a helicopter shot as producer Mark Hellinger introduces the film: “…It’s a bit different than most films you’ve ever seen. As you see, we’re flying over an island, a city. A particular city. And this is a story of a number of people, and a story, also, of the city itself. It was not photographed in a studio.”
Indeed, influenced by the Italian neorealist movement that sought cinematic truth, “The Naked City” was shot on-location in New York City in over 100 locations – interior and exterior – and features regular citizens as extras in many shots. The production of the film was a major event; the film crew was followed around and frequently attracted large crowds. “The Naked City” helped bring Hollywood back to New York where it hadn’t visited since the 1920’s, and the use of real locations makes all the difference in this story of murder, deceit, and urban detective work.
5. SHAME (2011)
Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan
Steve McQueen’s polarizing exploration of sex addiction (notable for reaching theatres with an NC-17 rating) is dark, heavy, and disquieting. Michael Fassbender stuns as Brandon – an early 30’s advertising exec with an impressive, sterile Manhattan condo and a predatory obsession with sex. The subject matter is particularly contemporary (sex addiction having only recently become a widely discussed issue), and thus this portrayal of New York City feels distinctly modern as well.
Desaturated tonality and beautiful, simple photography paint McQueen’s New York as an isolating prison of temptation and dispassion. It may not be something you’ll want to watch more than once, but like most “one-timers,” it’s an important exercise of uncompromising filmmaking, and contains at least two outstanding scenes (Carey Mulligan’s performance of “New York, New York” is one of the best scenes of the decade).
4. THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971)
Director: William Friedkin
Starring: Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey, Roy Scheider, Tony Lo Bianco, Marcel Bozzuffi
Is there a more brilliant chase sequence in existence than that of Gene Hackman weaving his way through traffic after an elevated train with the bad guy on it? The accidental crashes, outstanding coverage of the chase, and intense edit all contribute to one essentially un-beatable scene. The rest of “The French Connection,” directed by William Friedkin (“The Exorcist”, “Killer Joe”) and shot in Manhattan and Brooklyn tells the story of a pair of detectives that discover a drug smuggling operation with international ties to France. The 70’s style: cars, clothing, and music, is irresistible, and the city itself is as essential as the chase sequences to the film’s wild success that included the Academy Award for Best Picture.
3. MANHATTAN (1979)
Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Michael Murphy, Mariel Hemingway
If “The French Connection” had the definitive chase sequence, no doubt that Woody Allen’s masterpiece “Manhattan” contains the end-all romantic photography of New York City – compliments of legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis (“The Godfather”, “Annie Hall”). Black and white images at the extra-wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio capture the life of the city in a way that will never be recreated.
Woody Allen’s Isaac character is as neurotic as ever here, but markedly more self-aware. Isaac and the city have one of the best relationships in cinema history. He wanders, complains, and kisses his way through it with the high-school aged Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) and his best friend’s mistress Mary (Diane Keaton). The pièce de résistance opening prologue that features a montage of Manhattan set to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” may be the most iconic sequence in the film, but the rest of the story features the city in great detail as well. As we follow Isaac and the women in his life, we watch them interact in their apartments and the city at large. Isaac shares a carriage ride through Central Park with Tracy, and visits the Museum of Modern Art with Mary. The film’s merging of city identity with plot advancement culminates in the famous shot of the Queensboro Bridge.
2. TAXI DRIVER (1976)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Albert Brooks, Harvey Keitel
Martin Scorsese has certainly filmed his share of New York, but never quite like in Taxi Driver. We see the world through the eyes of the volatile Travis Bickle – a mentally unstable Vietnam vet that gets a job as a taxi driver on the night shift in New York City. From his driver’s seat, Travis observes the worst of the city: “All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” He meets a pair of very different women that make him feel something – a just cause for the acts of violence he feels urged to commit.
Scorsese captured the seedy undercurrent of the city with atmospheric run-and-gun shooting from the backseat of Travis’s taxicab. The thick atmosphere feels very much tied to Scorsese’s at-the-time inexperience as a director – the low budget, high style look would have been overproduced by anyone else with a decent chunk of change in the budget. And to overproduce “Taxi Driver” would be to castrate it of Robert De Niro’s formidable performance and unnerving mood. Scorsese’s New York isn’t a place you want to be a tourist in, and the portrayal is all the better for it.
1. DO THE RIGHT THING (1989)
Director: Spike Lee
Starring: Danny Aiello, Spike Lee, Ossie Davis, Giancarlo Esposito, Richard Edson, Ruby Dee, John Turturro, John Savage
The supreme New York movie of the 80’s, Spike Lee’s hugely important “Do the Right Thing” confronts race issues while telling a personal, dramatic, and funny story about Mookie – a guy that’s just trying to get by walking pizzas around the neighborhood for Sal’s Pizza when a heat wave threatens to boil the hate and racism of a multi-racial neighborhood to an outburst of violence.
Lee’s vision of the local residents of a Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood is a memorable and stylized portrayal of urban neighborhood life and racial tension. Huge swathes of vibrant red and orange paint dominate the brick walls of the neighborhood – furthering the viewer’s understanding of the heat wave. “Do the Right Thing” is everything a portrayal of a city should be – it brings the city to life and uses it geographically, thematically, and emotionally to deeply embed itself into the plot and characters. It couldn’t have taken place anywhere else; in 1989 it was one of the best films of the decade and it holds up to this day.
Honorable Mention: Midnight Cowboy, Sweet Smell of Success, The Apartment
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