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Love Letter
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The world’s greatest cities on screen

Which film best represents your city? We asked a film curator to match the metropolis with the movie

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Written by
Phil de Semlyen
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Whichever city you call home, there’s likely to be a tonne of films that bring it to the screen in timeless style (and if you live in New York, double that). But for many, the city is more buzzy backdrop than lived-in metropolis – a character rather than a storyline in its own right.

But dig past When Harry Met Sally, Amélie, Notting Hill et al – great as they are – and you’ll find a few urban-set films that really nail the uniqueness of our cities. To celebrate ‘Return to the City’, a new season at London’s Barbican Cinema, we asked curator Alex Davidson to marry up 14 cities with 14 movies. Find out which movie really reflects what it’s like to live in your hometown.

The world’s greatest cities on screen

London – Gone Too Far (2014)
Photograph: FilmOne Distribution

London – Gone Too Far (2014)

‘South London teenager Yemi’s street cred takes a hit when his eccentric Nigerian brother comes to visit in Londoner Destiny Ekaragha’s fast and funny comedy. Based on Bola Agbaje’s play, the screenplay considers the complexities of Black British identities with great warmth and humour. Unlike mainstream movies that foreground tourist sites, its version of South London will be entirely recognisable to those who live there.’

🎬The 32 best London movies

Paris – Nationalité: Immigré (1975)
Photograph: MK2 Diffusion

Paris – Nationalité: Immigré (1975)

‘Sidney Sokhona’s satirical essay film, a ferocious critique of racism and marginalisation, shows a Paris far removed from the picture postcard clichés favoured by Hollywood. Filmed in the 1970s, a young man arrives in the city from Mauritania and immediately faces prejudice and struggles to find work and accommodation. Told at a time of great political turmoil, the film culminates in powerful footage of urban protest.’

🎬The best films set in Paris

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New York – Free Time (1960/2020)
Photograph: Grasshopper Film

New York – Free Time (1960/2020)

‘Footage of New York in the ‘50s comes alive in this evocative city symphony from celebrated filmmaker Manfred Kirchheimer. Meticulously restored and constructed 16mm black- and-white footage shows an intimate side to the city, capturing the in-between moments: kids playing stickball; window washers; Manhattanites reading newspapers on their stoops. It’s an invaluable time capsule, set to the stirring sounds of Ravel, Bach and jazz pianist Count Basie.’

🎬The 101 best films set in the Big Apple

Los Angeles – Killer of Sheep (1978)
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‘Los Angeles is one of the world’s most filmed cities, yet Charles Burnett’s film remains a one-of-a-kind depiction of urban working-class life. A number of quiet, beautifully observed vignettes reveal moments in the life of Stan (Henry G Sanders), a slaughterhouse worker who lives in the Watts district of the city. Evocative music and poetic imagery blend brilliantly, though Burnett never romanticises the challenging realities of living on the margins.’

🎬The best Los Angeles films of all time

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Sydney – The Boys (1998)
Photograph: Roadshow Entertainment

Sydney – The Boys (1998)

‘The suburbs of Sydney become a terrifying space of violent masculinity as a man, Brett (David Wenham), is released from jail and returns to the toxic environment of his family home, where his brothers’ vicious misogyny threaten to draw him to back to the dark side. Sydneysider Rowan Woods’ superb study in savagery and exclusion has tremendous performances from Wenham and Toni Collette as Brett’s girlfriend.’

Melbourne – Head On (1998)
Photograph: Peccadillo Pictures

Melbourne – Head On (1998)

Writer-director Ana Kokkinos’ explosive drama follows a day and a night in the life of a troubled gay Greek-Australian teenager in Melbourne, with an electrifying performance from lead actor Alex Dimitriades. He drifts through the city, with a drug-fuelled 24 hours of sex, drugs and partying culminating in an unexpected opportunity for romance. The queer and second-generation immigrant experiences in the sprawling mass of the city is potently depicted throughout.’

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Madrid – Labyrinth of Passion (1982)
Photograph: Alphaville

Madrid – Labyrinth of Passion (1982)

Pedro Almodóvar’s wildest comedy – and there is a lot of competition – is one of the key films of the Movida, the countercultural movement closely associated with Madrid that kicked off a few years after Franco’s death, as the end of dictatorship beckoned in an era of sexual liberation. Political correctness soon flies out the window in this wonderful mess of a movie, featuring nymphomaniac pop stars, gay terrorists and Almodóvar himself rapping about the joys of drugs.’

Barcelona – End of the Century (2019)
Photograph: Cine Tren

Barcelona – End of the Century (2019)

‘Two men hook up in a Barcelona Airbnb. It turns out the men may not be strangers, however, as Argentinian director Lucio Castro bounces our heroes back and forth in time, and the film becomes a weird, fascinating and very sexy, exploration of memory and possibility. Barcelona, never more beautiful, is the perfect backdrop to this unique, occasionally bonkers romance, that even makes dodgy dancing to Flock of Seagulls look cool.’

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Istanbul – Uzak (2002)
Photograph: Artificial Eye

Istanbul – Uzak (2002)

‘Nuri Bilge Ceylan is at his best as he shows the tense relationship between a photographer, who has managed to make a living in Istanbul, and his cousin, whom he reluctantly accommodates while the latter tries to find work on the ships. Despite its serious themes of urban malaise, loneliness and social inequality, there are welcome moments of humour in the film. Istanbul, meanwhile, is transformed by snowfall from a bustling metropolis into a stark symbol of the men’s lives.’

Toronto – I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987)
Photograph: Miramax

Toronto – I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987)

Patricia Rozema’s quirky lesbian sorta romantic comedy deftly satirises the Toronto art scene. Sheila McCarthy is a delight as a socially awkward photographer who falls for a charismatic art gallery owner (Paule Baillargeon) but discovers that she may not be all that she seems. It’s a unique queer film with some delightful fantasy sequences, including a scene where the main character flies over the city.’

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Boston – The Bostonians (1984)
Photograph: Almi Pictures

Boston – The Bostonians (1984)

‘Vanessa Redgrave gives her finest film performance as a feminist battling a conservative, chauvinist lawyer for the soul of a young woman in this underrated Merchant-Ivory adaptation of Henry James’ novel. Set in the 1880s and shot across a number of Boston locations, including Back Bay, the drama shows a city at an interesting point in its history, as the women’s suffrage movement began to win support.’

Lisbon – Lisbon Beat (2019)
Photograph: ICA

Lisbon – Lisbon Beat (2019)

‘This vibrant, powerful documentary from co-directors Rita Maia and Vasco Viana shows how Afro-Portuguese identities have shaped the music scenes of Lisbon. Each musician has a personal connection to Portugal’s diverse capital, as we learn stories from artists inspired by music from Angola, Cabo Verde, Guinea Bissau and São Tomé. The stories are riveting, the music fantastic.’

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Hong Kong – Fallen Angels (1995)
Photograph: Kino International

Hong Kong – Fallen Angels (1995)

Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels is a splendid, melancholic tale of loners seeking connection in the city, told almost entirely during the night hours. Hong Kong and the cinematography of frequent Wong Kar-wai collaborator Chris Doyle are always a perfect marriage, and the exhilarating motorcycle scenes through the neon-lit city roads are quite magical – the final sequence is poignant, romantic and unforgettable.’

🎬The best Hollywood movies set in Hong Kong

Tokyo – Love Letter (1953)
Photograph: Shintoho Film Distribution

Tokyo – Love Letter (1953)

‘Kinuyo Tanaka, best known for her acting work in classics such as The Life of Oharu, made this wonderful directorial feature set in post-war Tokyo. Masayuki Mori plays an emotionally repressed man who makes an unusual living: translating love letters from Japanese women to American GIs they met during the Occupation. Love Letter shows a city and its citizens still reckoning with the trauma of war and ultimately offers hope for the future.’

Free Time and Nationalité: Immigré are screening at Barbican Cinema One as part of Return to the City; Lisbon Beat is screening on Barbican Cinema On Demand as part of Chronic Youth 2021.

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