New York movies: The 100 best films set in New York City

From King Kong's spire down to the scummiest subway tunnel, TONY ranks the definitive list of the 100 best New York movies: crime dramas, romantic comedies, documentaries and more.

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  • New York movies: On the Town (1949)

  • New York movies: Escape from New York (1981)

  • New York movies: Shadows (1959)

  • New York movies: King Kong (1933)

  • New York movies: Do the Right Thing (1989)

  • New York movies: Manhattan (1979)

  • New York movies: Rosemary's Baby (1968)

  • New York movies: Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

  • New York movies: Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

  • New York movies: Taxi Driver (1976)

New York movies: On the Town (1949)

10

On the Town (1949)

There are few more exuberant evocations of a visit to NYC than Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s adaptation of Leonard Bernstein’s musical, in which a trio of sailors (Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin) spend their shore leave out and about, romancing three different women. They sing, dance, flirt and even fit in a visit to the Empire State Building, with the stakes no higher than having a great time before they head back to sea. The film’s sheer, frantic joy finds time for the still-useful directional advice that “the Bronx is up, but the Battery’s down.”—Alison Willmore

 

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9

Escape from New York (1981)

In the not-too-distant future (of 1997), the isle of Manhattan has become a maximum-security prison, home to mohawked killers, slick con artists, gun-toting femmes fatales and other assorted crazies. John Carpenter’s gorgeously grimy thriller posits a memorably dystopian Big Apple: The spectacular opening shot—a slow rise up and over the prison wall—is like a WELCOME TO NY! postcard from an alternate universe (a young fella named James Cameron was one of the background-matte painters). Our eye-patch-sporting antihero, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell, the epitome of sneering manliness), uses the Twin Towers as a landing platform for his glider—an unintentionally loaded image. The New York Public Library and Grand Central Terminal are villains’ trash-strewn headquarters. And all the bridges are mined! Scene by scene, Carpenter satirizes the de rigueur fears of a crime-plagued NYC—which is funny considering the film was mostly shot in St. Louis.—Keith Uhlich

 

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8

Shadows (1959)

Raw, intimate and spontaneous in a way that’s authentic to the city’s unpredictable rhythms, John Cassavetes’s jazz-steeped portrait of human relationships is a time capsule of Beat Generation urbanites, as well as the epitome of New York’s scrappy ethos—the template for modern independent filmmaking. This interracial drama was conceived, performed and directed in a studied but freestyle manner that grew out of the Method workshop the rogue Cassavetes had founded in his midtwenties. Bankrolled by family, friends and donations, and lensed largely in the auteur’s own apartment (as well as Times Square, Central Park and downtown), the project was a run-and-gun affair shot on weekends and without permits. It exudes a vitality and candor that still inspire. You don’t have Mean Streets without it, let alone the careers of Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee and Lena Dunham.—Stephen Garrett

 

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7

King Kong (1933)

Any list of New York films has to include one of the most famous images of the city ever committed to celluloid: the giant stop-motion ape beating his chest atop the Empire State Building and swiping at the biplanes that have come to take him down. King Kong’s tragic end at the top of the tower holds up remarkably well almost eight decades later, not just because of the practical special effects (which impart a dreamlike reality of their own), but because he’s far from the only visitor to have met his downfall in the city that never sleeps. It is, of course, a jungle out there.—Alison Willmore

 

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6

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Placing his thumb firmly on a contemporary sore spot, Spike Lee turned up the heat on New York’s melting pot and watched things boil over. Outraged over the 1986 Howard Beach incident, Lee responded with a 360-degree look at what happens when tempers flare and breaking points are reached. Spike’s magnum opus also doubles as a vivid expressionistic portrait of his native Brooklyn, playing out in a Bed-Stuy neighborhood as colorful as any Gauguin painting: Every stoop philosopher, prophet of antigentrification rage, nosy matriarch and beat-box-loving B-boy gets his or her moment in the spotlight. In short, Do the Right Thing captures the modern urban experience in a nutshell, a movie that threatens to tear itself apart. And that’s the double truth, Ruth.—David Fear

 

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5

Manhattan (1979)

When you walk daily through crowded streets and rub elbows with fellow agitated citizens, it’s easy to take the titular borough for granted. Woody Allen’s love sonnet to the city he calls home reminds you what a gorgeous, grand sight this island really is from the moment that Gershwin-scored opening kicks in: the fish markets and basketball courts, the Fifth Avenue boutiques and Broadway theaters, the high-rise dwellers and lowlifes. “He adored New York,” says Allen’s nasal narrator. “He idolized it all out of proportion.” By the end of that celebrated montage, every viewer is equally dazed and drawn into the filmmaker’s vision—an everyday NYC transformed into a bustling dream metropolis straight out of the movies.—David Fear

 

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4

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Released at a time when horror mostly meant Vincent Price in a goofy cape, Roman Polanski’s realistic supernatural drama was a transfusion of thick, urbane blood. Much of the movie’s revolutionary impact should be credited to the city itself: The Dakota looms menacingly, every bit the Gothic pile as any Transylvanian vampire’s mansion. A young couple, played by Mia Farrow (in a fashion-forward NYC pixie cut) and John Cassavetes, moves in—they’re recognizable enough. But in another one of the film’s clever subversions, the perennial lovable but nosy neighbor (Ruth Gordon) hides an evil intent. Weird obstetricians, mysterious night noises and even Farrow’s improvised stroll into actual oncoming traffic add up to a bustling nightmare that’s spawned many a Black Swan since.—Joshua Rothkopf

 

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3

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Al Pacino heads a stellar ensemble cast in Sidney Lumet’s tense, unbearably moving tale of a first-time crook whose plan to rob a Brooklyn bank (at 450 Avenue P) goes spectacularly awry. Though primarily confined to a single location, the film is filled to brimming with distinctly New York characters: John Cazale as a spaced-out partner in crime; Chris Sarandon as a fragile transsexual; Charles Durning as a frazzled police detective. At the center of it all is Pacino’s Sonny Wortzik, who alternates between cocky displays of street-theater bravado (his famous “Attica!” speech) and devastating moments of walls-are-closing-in introspection (the character’s lengthy phone conversations with his ex-wife and current lover are acting master classes). You can see the film’s influence in multifaceted heist movies like Reservoir Dogs and Heat (also starring Pacino), but nothing matches Dog Day’s earthy, unsentimental vision.—Keith Uhlich

 

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2

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Deliciously lethal—like a “cookie full of arsenic”—this film adaptation of Ernest Lehman’s venomous novella about a megalomaniacal gossip columnist (Burt Lancaster) and a parasitic press agent (Tony Curtis) reveals New York’s fickle heart to be less candy-colored than bloody and pumping. Inspired by much-feared newspaperman Walter Winchell, the towering drama encapsulates the show-business spin that once went down after-hours in the booths of the ‘21’ Club and the upper floors of the Brill Building. British-born director Alexander Mackendrick brings a removed anthropologist’s eye to the city’s milieu, while cinematographer James Wong Howe bestows a shimmering noir palette on every authentic location. But it’s adapting screenwriter Clifford Odets’s syncopated symphony of improbably expressionistic dialogue that really lingers: Talk fast enough in this city and anything will sound persuasive.—Stephen Garrett

 

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1

Taxi Driver (1976)

And so we arrive at the big daddy—the movie you quote into the mirror when you’re feeling fed up (“You talking to me?”), the film that always leaps to mind when a cab pulls through the late-night steam of a manhole cover to take you on a ride to hell. The project almost went to Hitchcock-obsessed Brian De Palma, deemed unsuitable. Instead, with great serendipity, the intense, young director of Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese, and his soft-spoken star, Robert De Niro, were attached. Nothing less than magic was captured during that difficult summer shoot, plagued by beastly heat and a Manhattan garbage strike. Travis Bickle, our cracked hero, cruises through unruly Greenwich Village and the unpredictable streets of Hell’s Kitchen. The story may be all in his head: a deranged man’s dream of vanilla romance with Cybill Shepherd, unchecked fury at political impotence and the compulsive urge to right every wrong, no matter how slight. Because Taxi Driver is so pungent and real, it tops our NYC list. Because it speaks to the lonely devil in all of us, it tops any list.—Joshua Rothkopf

 

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Users say

159 comments
Brad
Brad

An Unmarried Woman and Light Sleeper should be on this list!

charlottebartlett
charlottebartlett

"The World of Henry Orient" in which two preppy private school girls stalk their crush - an increasingly irate concert pianist played by Peter Sellers - all over mid-60s midtown.

Greg
Greg

Lets not forget the Billy Wilder classic, The Apartment.

Carrie
Carrie

Autumn in New York and Llittle Manhattan are two of my picks.

Mary Nell
Mary Nell

"Moscow on the Hudson" - Robin Williams as a Russian saxaphonist defector, with Maria Conchita Alonso, a Bloomingdales counter girl, and friends - early 1980s East Village and beyond, immigrants' story, romantic comedy, valentine to NYC, filled with the ups, downs, and ups of living here and being from somewhere else.

Adam
Adam

I completely agree with CyCC, "Moonstruck" should go without saying... And what about "Working Girl"? That movie should definitely have cracked the top 100.

Igor
Igor

Several of these movies could have been located in some other city without much change. But Prince of the City couldn't have been made in, or about, any other city. How can it not make the list?

Bocephus
Bocephus

"Juice" if it hasn't been mentioned is deserving of a mention. "Party Monster" really has to be able to crack the Top 100 at least. Club kids? Limelight? That's as 'New York' as New York got in the late 80s/early 90s.

denjski
denjski

"Street Scene" 1931 directed by King Vidor.....a one block stretch in the NYC, from dawn to night.."Dead End" 1936...shows life in NYC during the Depression and what it took to survive....Bogart is in this as a supporting role, he plsys a gangster who comes back to the neighborhood and finds his girl friend a hooker, hard to make clear in 1936 film censorship.....he is finally killed by Joel Mcrea, an other neighborhood kid who came back trying to make is as an architect

CyCC
CyCC

and btw, Taxi Driver may be a brilliant film but it does not summarize or even remotely encapsulate a particularly NY experience. This film is really about any city that exists the periphery of a normal city. These people and these situations come out at night, when it's dark, when everyone has gone home. And it happens everywhere. Even in the so called "nicer" cities. And btw, even if you ARE a 12 year old hooker, there aren't very many vets/cab drivers who are looking to liberate you. What you have in Taxi Driver is a story that's an extraordinary AMERICAN story about a wartorn, disoriented, displaced vet in need of such an extreme episode of such outrageous vengeance and violence, it gives him a justifiable and bloodsoaked gateway back to the living, to the norm.

CyCC
CyCC

How can you have a list about NY movies and not even list Moonstruck?

Alan
Alan

I watched "Saturday Night Fever" last night on DVD. I first saw the film when I was in college and in my 20s. I am now 53 and still love this film. It has aged well and I saw it through much diferent eyes at age 53 than I did in college. A terrific story with a terrfic John Travolta.

Mike
Mike

Serpico? Pope of Greenwich Village? Basketball Diaries? Marathon Man? A Bronx Story? Get outta here!

Blake
Blake

No Die Hard 3????

Jim
Jim

Awesome list but my only complaint is that Rent isn't included. Even though it was mainly shot in San Francisco the movie captures New York and especially Alphabet city in a unique way. Also Nick and Nora's infinite playlist captures NY city nightlife extremely well

STELLA
STELLA

so sweet and interesting

Nawfel
Nawfel

I think that Vanilla Sky should have a place in the classement, New York had a great influence on the movie.

Edward Stratton
Edward Stratton

There were some good choices on this list, but I was very disappointed by the low placement of "Requiem for a Dream" and complete lack of "The Basketball Diaries." Nobody sees the gritty nature of New York City like a heroin addict. And where exactly is "Se7en"? Tisk, tisk, although it's hard to do it right when you're making a list about the world's most iconic city.

John Bengtson
John Bengtson

For what is is worth, nearly all of The Crowd, aside from some preliminary establishing shots, was filmed in Los Angeles. Harold Lloyd's Speedy (1928) (Number 65) has dozens more NYC settings. You can read about Lloyd filming Speedy in New York in my book Silent Visions, and on my blog SilentLocations.Wordpress.com

LennyH
LennyH

Godfather #41 What planet are you guys from?

Renata
Renata

I'd have liked to have seen "13 Conversations About One Thing" on this list. It had the bad luck of coming out when 9/11 tore the city apart.

Dave
Dave

New Jack City with Wesley Snipes, Ice T & Judd Nelson comes to mind as a great movie filmed in NYC!!!

Hannes
Hannes

How could you dare and ignore DIE HARD 3? Isn't this a typical movie for Manhattan? I love the scene with John McClane and Zeus meeting the first time in Harlem while John is carrying his "I hate ..." board! Reconsider, please!

Matthew
Matthew

Arthur (the original) and Moonstruck should definitely both be on that list as they are both great movies that are about specific cultures within NYC.

Marc Hutzler
Marc Hutzler

Terrible that three movies didn't make the great movies of New York ... Meet John Doe, The Seven-Ups, and Quick Change. All three have great true to New York scenes! None of which ever show scenes where you can tell they shot any of it in Hollywood!

travis
travis

scent of a woman, where is it ? who ranked this list? this is beyond trash. I dont want to live on this planet anymore.

Bill Cushing
Bill Cushing

Most of htese were pretty good choices, but picking the 1976 King Kong is a real letdown. Aside from the promise shown by a young actress named Jessica Lange in that rotten movie, that one was inexcusable. Thank the lord Peter Jackson revived the franchise with his later version.

Pammy
Pammy

What about "Night Shift"?!

Mike
Mike

Oh my goodness this is a crime against humanity. Manhattan should at LEAST be number two. The city is such a big part of that story there is no question that it is the most iconic New York City movie of the 20th Century.

Greg W. Locke
Greg W. Locke

I've seen most of these movies. Good list. A few things bug me (Man Push Cart over Chop Shop? No Royal Tenenbaums? Spider-Man 2? Half Nelson? ATCW Documentary?) My biggest issue, however, is that Die Hard with a Vengeance isn't included. Sure, it's not high brow cinema art, but it's a spectacle, it's fun, and it shows more of the 90s NYC than any other movie I've seen. And, IMO, it's one of the all-time great action films. Also, how about The Cruise?!!?!!?!!?!? Classic NYC romance in such an interesting way.

Jamie
Jamie

i kinda liked "Bright Lights, Big City"...also, "Cloverfield"?

Wonderboy
Wonderboy

whoever things there are 24 movies that are set in NY that are better than Goodfellas has serious issues...

Dave
Dave

Is this supposed to represent the best movies filmed in New York, or movies that best exemplify New York. If it's the latter, a pair Adam Sandler movies, "Big Daddy," and "Mr. Deeds" would qualify.

Richard
Richard

"A Thousand Clowns" should be on this list. It's a classic!

Branden Sword
Branden Sword

Pardon me for putting a period rather than a question mark after "41" in my previous comment.

Branden Sword
Branden Sword

Unbelievable. How does "The Godfather" land at 41. Top 5, if not #1.

James
James

And no "Panic in Needle Park." The more I look at this list, the more flaws I see. Expected, though, from JR. Can't Time Out find people who know more about film?

James
James

"The Hunger?" Does the author even realize that most of that film was shot in London because it was too expensive to shoot the whole thing here? Certainly films like "The Hospital" and "Beat Street" are more deserving of this list. I pretty much don't read anything JR writes or reviews, but figured I would check out as something as simple as a list.

SouthPA
SouthPA

What about "The Front" from 1976?

Cole
Cole

No Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, or Synecdoche, New York. Pretty much everything by Charlie Kaufman should be on this list.

Alan
Alan

What about Die Hard With A Vengeance or Spiderman?

tony
tony

No "I am Legend" hmmm

mike
mike

an affair to remember should be on this list................how could you miss this......

Anthony
Anthony

This list is a joke. No Gangs of New York? And the 1974 King Kong, not the last one?? Please...