The 20 best NYC movies of all time

We salute the city's finest onscreen moments.

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  • 20. SUPER FLY (1972)
    Not only the pimped-out pinnacle of blaxploitation cinema but the genre's baaaadest soundtrack, courtesy of Mr. Curtis Mayfield. (Here's where his brilliant "Pusherman" debuts.) We will always love and mourn Ron O'Neal, who expresses the hustler's code succinctly: "You don't own me, pig, and no motherfucker tells me when I can split."

  • 19. LITTLE FUGITIVE (1953)
    A seven-year-old boy runs away to Coney Island in this black-and-white slice of life codirected by Ray Ashley, Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin, which may be the best cinematic record of the hazy boardwalk in existence. There's little dialogue to speak of; just the sights, sounds and smells of summer. If you've grooved on any number of French New Wave or child's-eye Iranian films, give praise to the big daddy.

  • 18. AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000)
    Director Mary Harron flattered Bret Easton Ellis’s notorious novel by investing it with a deeper conception of yuppie evil (brilliantly conveyed by Christian Bale), and by filling the margins with humorous ’80s details: a chic parade of designer Tribeca restaurants and neon-laden nightclubs. A slick critique of coked-up consumption, Harron’s vision is our most recent film worth a damn.

  • 17. SUPERMAN (1978)
    Accept no remakes. Here's the gold-standard origin film, which unwittingly captures a pungent Koch-era New York in all its glory. We dare you not to get a lump in your throat when Christopher Reeve soars past Battery Park and the old skyline. That image alone merits the movie's placement on any reputable NYC list; the rest of the film offers at least a dozen more.

  • 16. KLUTE (1971)
    Is it possible for a high-class call girl living in the West 40s to be a symbol of second-wave feminism in its heyday? Absolutely, when that woman is played by Jane Fonda in Alan J. Pakula's thriller. Although her shag could have walked away with the Oscar, Fonda took the statue (her first) for her indelible, volatile mix of impenetrable steeliness and near-pathological vulnerability---the ultimate New Yorker.

  • 15. WILD STYLE (1983)
    Ladies and gentlemen, the South Bronx is...breaking! And popping, locking, tagging and rhyming. Grandmaster Flash, Lee Quinones, Fab Five Freddy, the Rocksteady Crew and Double Trouble (best lyric: "We love to make love to the jolly females") star as themselves---or their alter egos---in Charlie Ahearn's seminal hip-hop movie.

  • 14. STYLE WARS (1983)
    The Rosetta stone of early hip-hop culture, Henry Chalfant and Tony Silver's documentary about the city's burgeoning break-dancing, graffiti and rap-music scenes captures the birth of the kool in a way that its fictional counterparts (see No. 15) only hint at. More than two decades later, this look at New York street culture before it moved from underground to multimillion dollar industry still keeps it on and on until the break of dawn.

  • 13. SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION (1993)
    You play the game with Kevin Bacon; why not watch the film? Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing make ideal NYC art snobs in Fred Schepisi's excellent adaptation of the John Guare play, filled with pitch-perfect details: swank UES apartments, a visit to the Strand Bookstore, a stolen kiss in a Central Park buggy.

  • 12. HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986)
    Very likely Woody's best balance of nebbishment and nourishment, this romantic comedy immortalizes a trove of NYC experiences that are, heartbreakingly, no more: Bobby Short cooing at the Carlyle Club; punk bands squalling at CBGB; intellectuals flirting at the old Pageant Books. (Sorry, Woody fans: No Annie Hall here. Too much L.A.)

  • 11. THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE (1974)
    Suffer from claustrophobia or IRT freak-outs? Then Joseph Sargent's original thriller about the hijacking of a 6 train is just the sort of shock therapy you need. If it's too much for your nervous system, just revel in the fantastic cast of cranks and crazies, led by Walter Matthau's grumpy transit cop and Robert Shaw's suave psycho ringleader.

  • 10. THE NAKED CITY (1948)
    Jules Dassin's realistic crime drama wasn't the first to use actual NYC locations as backdrops, but his docu-noir certainly popularized the notion that corners like 57th and Lexington look much more authentic than studio back lots. You can also thank this story (one of 8 million, according to the opening voiceover) for every New York--based TV cop show of the past 40 years.

  • 9. ON THE TOWN (1949)
    "The Bronx is up and the Battery's down," sing Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly (who codirected with Stanley Donen) and Jules Munshin, as three sailors on leave in NYC for 24 hours. Rarely has the city seemed so full of possibility.

  • 8. SHADOWS (1959)
    Where else but NYC would the watershed movie of American independent cinema be shot? John Cassavetes's debut ambles along with neurotic beats through MoMA, drifts in and out of smoky nightclubs and their denziens' heads, and watches as cityfolk fall in love with (and betray) each other.

  • 7. MANHATTAN (1979)
    It's a clich to refer to the Woodster's dramedy as a valentine to his hometown, but c'mon: How else could you describe this gorgeous tribute to the skylines and city dwellers of New York? "Chapter One: He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved.... He adored Manhattan. He idolized it all out of proportion." Take that, Brooklyn!

  • 6. ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968)
    As gothic as Gotham gets, Roman Polanski's horror classic captures a certain kind of big-bad-city nervousness---the kind that involves being a young Mia Farrow impregnated by Satan. Forever, it would turn the elegant Dakota building into a looming beacon of evil.

  • 5. TAXI DRIVER (1976)
    Steam rises from manholes, Bernard Herrmann's score jacks up the tension, and "God's lonely man" rolls on into his midnight madness. Scorsese and Robert De Niro forever altered the landscape of cinematic meltdowns with this, their first masterpiece. It pulses with the authentic grit of NYC's mid-'70s mean streets, a playground for delusional saviors and greasy pimps alike. Wanna-be presidential assassin John Hinckley Jr. may have been taking too many notes---but that only adds to the film's cult status.

  • 4. DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975)
    Park Slope is burning in Sidney Lumet's scorching heister, based on the true story of a colossally botched bank robbery. Never more ablaze, Al Pacino (who first worked with Lumet in the terrific NYC cop film Serpico) has the noblest of intentions for orchestrating the holdup: to pay for his boyfriend's sex-change operation. The following year, Lumet would direct another NYC classic about delusions of grandeur: Network.

  • 3. AFTER HOURS (1985)
    Martin Scorsese's "minor" downtown-after-dark comedy offered up some nice lessons for '80s New York newbies: Stay out of Soho (or at least away from Spring Street's boho lofts) once the sun goes down; hold on to your money whenever you take a taxi south of 14th Street; and never trust the city's punk clubgoers or ice-cream-truck drivers. Even more so than Taxi Driver (that's right, we said it!), this Scorsese picture exemplifies Gotham as a nightmarish wonderland.

  • 2. SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957)
    Broadway has never seemed as seductively menacing as it does in Alexander Mackendrick's bitter farce about a venomous gossip columnist, his soulless lackey and the wreckage left in their wake. Times Square becomes a monochromatic monstrosity full of harsh lights, sad-sack lunch counters and nonstop noise; the luxe interiors of 21 and the Elysian Room double nicely for Dante's ninth circle of Hell. The fact that the city's notorious showbiz vultures haven't mellowed---if anything, they've become exponentially worse---only makes this vision of New Yorkers behaving badly all the more chilling.

  • 1. DO THE RIGHT THING (1989)
    Hello, Brooklyn! Spike Lee and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson transform Bedford-Stuyvesant into an outer-borough version of Gauguin's Tahiti: Every block, bodega and trash-talking B-boy suddenly becomes part of a colorful, expressionistic landscape that somehow feels hyperreal. Made as a direct response to the Howard Beach incident, Spike's story about New York's racial melting pot coming to a boil encompasses Brooklyn in full: the mix of ethnicity and classes, stoop culture and gentrification, pride and anger...in short, the overall volatility of the modern urban experience. All this, and Rosie Perez dancing to Public Enemy's "Fight the Power." How many movies can claim that fact, Jack?

20. SUPER FLY (1972)
Not only the pimped-out pinnacle of blaxploitation cinema but the genre's baaaadest soundtrack, courtesy of Mr. Curtis Mayfield. (Here's where his brilliant "Pusherman" debuts.) We will always love and mourn Ron O'Neal, who expresses the hustler's code succinctly: "You don't own me, pig, and no motherfucker tells me when I can split."

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Michael Davidson
Michael Davidson

The top 100 NYC movies should really include a gem by Francis Ford Coppola, "You're A Big Boy Now" which stars Karen Black, Tony Bill, Elizabeth Hartman, Geraldine Page, Julie Harris and Rip Torn, with a score by The Lovin Spoonful. It's a coming of age comedy lovingly shot all over 1960's Manhattan. I especially love the final 42nd Street sequence with those salted pretzels coming out of the oven.