Best New York movies
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.
Broadway has never seemed as seductively menacing as it does in Alexander Mackendrick's bitter farce about a venomous gossip columnist (Burt Lancaster), his soulless lackey (Tony Curtis) 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.
Park Slope is burning in Sidney Lumet's scorching heister, based on the true story of a colossally botched bank robbery. 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.
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.
It's a cliché 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, the Queensboro Bridge and the 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!
Spike Lee and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson transform an actual block of 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 class, stoop culture and gentrification, pride and anger. All this, and Rosie Perez dancing to Public Enemy's "Fight the Power." How many movies can claim that fact, Jack?
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.
Where else would the watershed movie of American independent cinema be shot but NYC? John Cassavetes's landmark debut ambles along with neurotic Beats through MoMA, drifts in and out of smoky nightclubs and their denizens' heads, and watches as cityfolk fall in love with (and betray) each other.
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.
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.”
The car chase in which Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle follows the D train through Bensonhurst is one of the all-time best for a reason: William Friedkin brilliantly captures the clammy-palmed madness of a high-speed pursuit through bustling, crowded neighborhoods that yield for no one.
It was the movie that took a New York nightclub subculture and turned it into a phenomenon, one Bee Gees song at a time. But this disco melodrama is really about the dream of breaking out of the outer boroughs, with Travolta’s well-coiffed, white-suited Bay Ridge mook standing in for every talented, stifled Brooklyn kid trying to stay alive.
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. This Scorsese picture exemplifies Gotham as a nightmarish wonderland almost as essentially as Taxi Driver.
Conceived at Max’s Kansas City and inspired by the Hotel Chelsea (where it was mostly shot), Andy Warhol’s three-and-a-half-hour underground opus was also an unlikely commercial hit, a split-screen endurance test of nonnarrative vignettes featuring the Pop artist’s menagerie of eccentric New York personalities—the cultural progenitors of histrionic reality TV.
The greater NYC skyline lingers in the backdrop like an unreachable dream in Elia Kazan’s bruising corruption drama, based on Malcolm Johnson’s articles for the late New York Sun. The Hoboken docks are so tough that, as one character says, they almost “ain’t part of America,” but are their own seemingly unchangeable kingdom.
Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer may be the movies’ most New York character, so much so that he grew up underneath a Coney Island roller coaster. Perceptively, his New Yorkness seems the reason for the demise of his relationship: As Annie tells him, “You’re like this island unto yourself.”
“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good,” goes the classic line (paraphrased from an actual Ivan Boesky speech), but the richness of Oliver Stone’s morality tale comes through with every scene. Here are dizzying office views and the watering holes (the ‘21’ Club, Tavern on the Green) of the ultrarich. Who can blame Charlie Sheen for buying an automatic sushi maker and selling out?
New York’s real and fictional gangs have garnered their share of screen time over the years, but no one has depicted the city’s “armies of the night” as colorfully as Walter Hill. Fleeing from the Bronx to their Coney Island home turf, the Warriors encounter cabals of hoods ranging from the terrifying (Gramercy Riffs) to the campy (Baseball Furies). It’s street warfare as costume party, where fashionable psychos come out and plaaa-aaay.
Suffer from claustrophobia or L-train freak-outs? Then Joseph Sargent's original thriller about the hijacking of a 6 subway 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.
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.
Can a hero survive NYC’s mean streets? Just barely, as Sidney Lumet’s crime classic—based on the tragic real story of uncorrupted cop Frank Serpico—depicts. Fulsome in his righteous rage, Al Pacino uncorked a signature performance, torn between do-gooder zeal and go-it-alone anxiety. Shooting in every borough except Staten Island, the film is a near-complete portrait of the city at its grimiest.
“You’re going out a youngster—but you’ve got to come back a star!” Has any line captured the zero-to-famous allure of the Great White Way better? This peerless backstage musical also gave us the title song (“where the underworld can meet the elite”) and a delirious Busby Berkeley–choreographed tribute to Broadway’s own boulevard of broken dreams.
A literary gigolo (George Peppard) and a high-class prostitute (Audrey Hepburn) are rudderless lovers in a town where lost souls are as common as Cracker Jack rings. Blake Edwards’s adaptation of Truman Capote’s novella (mostly shot on the Paramount lot but with key exteriors in NYC, including the famous Fifth Avenue jewelry store) uses its New York state of mind to infuse a staggeringly depressing story with irresistible charm.
An Irish-American kid (Ray Liotta) gets his hands bloody with Brooklyn’s Italian-American wiseguys, shaking down everything from small-fry operations to JFK cargo freight. Martin Scorsese’s exhilarating biopic is a harrowing tribute to those who’d rather snake through the kitchen of the Copacabana and pistol-whip neighbors than endure law-abiding life like a schnook.
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 one of the more recent NYC films worth a damn.
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.
Ping-ponging from a West 58th Street pussy-hound duplex to troubled Broadway show rehearsals and endless editing on his latest motion picture, Dexedrine-fueled director Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) makes extreme exhaustion look positively electric. Bob Fosse’s self-destructive film à clef proves it: Only in New York can workaholism be considered hedonistic.
A WWII soldier (Robert Walker) falls for city girl Judy Garland while on two-day leave, and he romances her in cathedral-size, extras-populated re-creations of Gotham landmarks such as Penn Station, Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Directed by Vincente Minnelli (and an uncredited Fred Zinnemann), this spellbinding romance is golden-age Hollywood at its finest.
Bombastic, wrenching and heartsick, Spike Lee’s drama remains the great post-9/11 love letter to New York City—filled with American flags and displaced rage—as seen by a drug dealer (Edward Norton) about to head to jail for seven years. He bids goodbye to the messy, wounded, wonderful chaos of the city with one last night out, surrounded by everyone close to him.
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.
The film that launched a thousand irritating knockoffs has lost none of its startling power over the years. Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, the Ronettes—what else do you want? How about a time capsule of the old Little Italy before it became a red-sauce tourist trap, a place of intimate power deals and dead-end desperation.
Sergio Leone’s epic mob drama recently received an upgrade, closer to its original 269-minute running time. Can it even be improved upon? The standout section remains Leone’s heartbreaking evocation of 1920s Jewish tenement life on the LES, starring a cast of kids. Wanna-be toughs roam cart-strewn streets, chow down on deli food and flirt with a preteen Jennifer Connelly.
The majority of this musical tour de force—a modern-day take on Romeo and Juliet—was shot on a soundstage. Yet it still has a fierce City That Never Sleeps flavor, helped in no small part by the stunning on-location opening sequence in which two rival gangs tussle their way from West 68th Street to 110th Street.
John Schlesinger’s Oscar-winning drama not only offers a glimpse of the forty-deuce at its sleazy height; it captures the desperation of the hustlers and con men trying to survive in a city where everybody talks at you and nobody hears a word you say. Also, you might want to get outta Dustin Hoffman’s way—he’s walkin’ here!
Never mind Michael Fassbender’s bollocks; the real nakedness in Steve McQueen’s portrait of a sex addict comes when our city’s pleasuredome facade is stripped away. It’s as much a portrait of post-9/11 NYC as it is of a broken man, encapsulated in a rendition of “New York, New York” that melds personal trauma and public anguish.
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 in Charlie Ahearn's seminal hip-hop movie.
From Harlem to midtown to Greenwich Village, no one seems to have a finger on the pulse of the city like Richard Roundtree’s impossibly badass private eye in Gordon Parks’s blaxploitation classic. He’s a man whose loyalty shifts from faction to faction but always seems to belong, quietly, to New York.
Every Christmas vacation, the university-age scions of Upper East Side aristocracy return home for a few ritualized weeks of debutante balls and “after-parties,” in Whit Stillman’s semiautobiographical debut. Part Great Gatsby riff and part scalpel-sharp satire of entitlement, Whit Stillman’s comedy about the “urban haute bourgeoisie” is one auspicious debut. See it with friends, then spend the evening talking shit about them behind their backs.
Long before he became the go-to imitation for comedians everywhere, Christopher Walken turned what could have been a stock mob boss role into a tour de force. Watch how he dances with his old lackeys at the Plaza Hotel, or the way he climbs into that cab at the film’s end to meet his maker in Times Square; it’s like watching a master class in screen acting.
Francis Ford Coppola’s film is the great myth of a shadow New York: an immigrant tale of assimilation pitted against the impulse to honor one’s dark roots. Its vision of the city is fittingly grounded in real locations, from Manhattan’s New York State Supreme Court steps to the Calvary Cemetery in Queens.
Disappointed by the post–Jim Henson Muppets output? Revisit the real deal: This is one of the better efforts from Kermit and friends, especially for Gothamites (locations include Sardi's, Central Park and the Empire State Building). The plot, you ask? See the title.
Hard to believe that a movie about two guys swapping anecdotes and ideologies over a meal could be this riveting, but it’s one of the best talking-heads film ever made. Andre Gregory’s New Age blatherings are a bit much, granted, but once Wallace Shawn fires up the back-and-forth, the patience starts paying off. Fact is, we New Yorkers have these kind of dinner conversations every night.
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.
Audiences were shocked by photographer-provocateur Larry Clark’s portrait of New York skate rats behaving badly (teenagers drinking and having sex? Who’d have thunk?), though anyone familiar with his early exhibits knew Clark had a knack for nailing youth culture’s nihilistic side. The filmmaker would descend into barely legal ogling in subsequent works, but his debut still packs a punch.
More jeremiad than satire, Sidney Lumet’s well-oiled production of Paddy Chayefsky’s prophetic masterpiece follows an amoral TV conglomerate that exploits a mentally ill news anchor by turning his low-rated national news show into whorehouse entertainment. This still-prescient vivisection of modern culture’s vapidity crackles with the nervous energy of midtown’s hothouse broadcasters.
A panoply of pornographic vignettes or a postmodern work of hormonal, hyperventilating art? Jack Smith’s masterful featurette still prompts hot-and-heavy debates, and its imagery still has the power to shock and thrill. It’s required viewing for anyone interested in the history of censorship, underground film and camp culture.
Romance blooms on the Bronx’s Arthur Avenue, as a coupla dogs—lonely butcher Marty (Ernest Borgnine) and plain schoolteacher Clara (Betsy Blair)—meet at the Stardust Ballroom and find love against the odds. Borough native-son Paddy Chayefsky nabbed a screenplay Oscar for this Best Picture winner, a beautiful homily to homeliness.
The Twin Towers loom in the clouds, as if dreamt up by French daredevil Philippe Petit, who, in 1974, illegally danced between them on a tightrope. Filled with jaw-dropping footage of NYC and paced like a ’70s-era heist film, James Marsh’s documentary tells the real-life tale, subtly reclaiming a lost landmark of imagination. Thrilling and profound, the movie reaches great heights.
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.
Soon enough, Madonna’s grungy downtownness would be buffed to a mainstream sheen. But here it is, captured for all eternity. The rom-com’s mystery meeting point is Battery Park, yet its more lovable locations include the bygone East Village thrift store Love Saves the Day (where the fought-over jacket is purchased) and Danceteria, a perfect place to get into the groove.
One of the last silent masterpieces, King Vidor’s melodrama, despite its cast-of-thousands title, focuses almost exclusively on the life of a married couple. The pair meets cute on Coney Island, falls in love, gets hitched but comes to reckon with tenement life and crushed dreams.
Histrionic bunny-boiling revenge overshadows what is an unusually well-located NYC psychothriller—from Michael Douglas’s Upper West Side domestic stronghold to Glenn Close’s Meatpacking District loft, a fitting spot for an illicit fling with a hot dish of crazy. Subtly, the hurtful nature of five-boroughs trysting is tweaked.
Truthfully, the city where it takes place is unspecified, but it’s impossible for us not to include Jim Jarmusch’s hip-hop fantasia, scored to the sinuous beats of Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA. Forest Whitaker cruises late-night streets in a stolen car, motivated by a solemn code of honor and capable of violent deeds.
After a casual run-in at Shakespeare & Co., an orgasmic conversation at Katz’s Deli and long walks through Central Park, a Jersey-born Jew (Billy Crystal) realizes the high-maintenance shiksa (Meg Ryan) he resented since college is actually his soulmate. Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter Nora Ephron capture Manhattan romance with splendiferous anxiety.
Robert Benton’s tale of a brutal custody battle is set during a specific, privileged era on the Upper East Side, the place to where upwardly mobile professionals aspired. It becomes Manhattan’s answer to the idyllic suburbs of other movies, beneath the surface of which lie all kinds of trouble.
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.
Kenneth Lonergan’s ragged masterpiece, haunted by personal and municipal trauma, showcases better than any film the flux of 8 million individual stories going at once. It also captures the way that a life-shaking, permanently altering experience for one teenager (the riveting Anna Paquin) can be just another glittering point in the kaleidoscope of the city.
Noah Baumbach’s razor-edged semiautobiographical dramedy is set in a 1980s Brooklyn intellectual community that’s since devoured half the borough. For its cathartic image (see title), the movie revisits a childhood memory likely shared by any impressionable museumgoer of a certain age.
Romantic dissatisfaction and a very Gothamite certainty that there’s always someone better out there shape Mike Nichols’s damning portrait of former college roommates (Art Garfunkel and Jack Nicholson). They navigate 25 years of shifting urban sexual mores but never find what they’re looking for.
This movie's reputation has soared since its release. Dustin Hoffman plays a down-on-his-luck NYC actor who lands a soap-opera role by posing as a prim Midwestern woman. Local landmarks include the National Video Center (now home to luxury apartments and the Signature Theatre) and the Russian Tea Room (where Hoffman reveals his ploy to his agent); even Andy Warhol makes an appearance.
Raoul Walsh’s silent tale of a poor kid who grows up into a criminal bigwig not only gave birth to the gangster movie, it was one of the few films to use actual New York City locations (specifically, the rough-and-tumble tenements of the Bowery) to add authenticity to its gritty rise-and-fall parable. It’s the first genuine NYC movie.
Best known for directing docs set in African jungles, Lionel Rogosin decided to turn his candid cameras on a concrete one: New York’s old Skid Row. His resulting documentary-narrative hybrid is an unflinching look at an urban no-man’s-land, along with some of its most destitute residents (one of whom died only weeks after the premiere).
Gordon Parks Jr.’s thriller is not only one of the pimped-out pinnacles of blaxploitation cinema but the genre's baaaadest soundtrack, courtesy of 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."
Silent icon Harold Lloyd epitomizes Gotham’s scrappy go-getters as Harold “Speedy” Swift, who fights to save the city’s last horsecar from merger-happy street rail men. Lloyd’s laffer also boasts thrilling on-location tours of a bygone New York—particularly when the multihyphenate takes Babe Ruth on a high-octane taxi ride to the Bronx’s Yankee Stadium.
Don’t worry—you’ll be seeing plenty more Woody on this list. This comedy, starring a transformed Mia Farrow as an Italian mob widow, deserves promotion from minor to major. Bookended by coffee klatches in the landmark Carnegie Deli, the b&w lark also touches down on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (Underdog float!).
“Looking head to toe, would you know?” Drag queens in Harlem and the Bronx form gay street gangs (and surrogate families) on the ball circuit, where outsize personalities like Venus Xtravaganza compete based on the “realness” of their mock-straight sartorial splendor. Jennie Livingston’s essential gender-reinvention documentary brilliantly extols the city’s outcast resilience.
A brutal NYC classic (one its star, Charles Bronson, had an uneasy time defending), this vigilante thriller crystallized the dangerous Beame-era Manhattan in the minds of millions. The pivotal scene goes down on a grungy subway car, where a furious Upper West Sider takes nickel-plated, .32-caliber vengeance on a pair of hapless muggers. Life would imitate art.
That early-’80s Soho vibe of big money invading bohemia is unintentionally preserved in this plotless tale of a poor but spunky young artist who wanders the streets of Manhattan (and the famous Mudd Club) looking for love, inspiration and his big break. Sounds like any other indie, except that the film’s hero is played by Jean-Michel Basquiat, the Warhol disciple who died in 1988 of an overdose.
Technically dazzling but emotionally brittle NYC dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) becomes Swan Lake’s prima ballerina, but repressed passions sabotage her sanity—until they become a font of inspiration. Darren Aronofsky turns Lincoln Center’s rarefied campus into a Grand Guignol of power, lust and ambition, all in the name of artistic perfection.
A spoiled Manhattan WASP (Beau Bridges) buys a Brooklyn tenement and learns some hard (but hilarious) life lessons from his primarily black tenants. Director Hal Ashby, making his feature debut, vividly captures the rough-and-tumble neighborhood that was Park Slope, long before it became stroller-mom central.
Junkie officer Harvey Keitel shakes down punks for stolen cash, sexually harasses teen drivers and just can’t understand why that raped nun forgives her attackers. Abel Ferrara’s incendiary look at a corrupt cop’s Catholic guilt is consummate art-house grindhouse, typifying New York’s wide appetite for cathartic highbrow cinema and Times Square raunch alike.
Darren Aronofsky’s unsparing adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s rough-edged tale of drug addiction finds seedy poetry in its Brooklyn locales: Brighton Beach has seldom seemed so hellishly sunbaked, Coney Island so unbearably decrepit and the Atlantic Ocean—an alluring nirvana—so entirely out of reach.
The Jazz Age comes to thrilling life in Alan Rudolph’s ensemble drama about caustic wit Dorothy Parker. Among the many triumphs of this lovingly detailed period piece are the sequences set at the Algonquin Hotel, where the gabsters gossip around the most famous table since King Arthur and his knights.
Taking her camera into Harlem’s streets, independent filmmaker Shirley Clarke (The Connection) turned a story about a tough kid looking to move up a local gang’s hierarchy into a vérité-like view of the neighborhood itself. Few films have captured the area (circa the mid-’60s) with such a keen journalistic eye.
Disparities of class and temperament are keenly observed in James Gray’s underseen NYC drama, starring a pre-freakout Joaquin Phoenix (never better) as a suicidal Brighton Beach bachelor living with his worried parents. With the arrival of an alluring neighbor with expensive tastes (Gwyneth Paltrow), the movie sets off for swanky midtown locations—and a cautionary shiska romance.
Once protested by the gay community, William Friedkin’s thriller serves as an unintended snapshot of a narrow slice of the pre-AIDS Village scene, with sequences filmed at the legendary leather club Hellfire. Al Pacino serves as the audience’s enigmatic window onto S&M culture, playing an undercover cop who may be repelled by (or drawn to) everything he’s seeing.
Josh and Benny Safdie, NYC’s most reliable filmmaking duo (also of 2014’s Heaven Knows What), upped their game with this instant crime classic, starring a totally transformed Robert Pattinson as an outer-borough schnook trying to spring his brother out of Rikers. Decision after decision, his Pacino-like character chooses the worst possible strategy and you cringe at his half-smart desperation.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s peerless backstage Broadway drama uses the bright lights of the Theater District to illuminate a Darwinian world of competition, insecurity and backstabbing—one in which the fan waiting in the alleyway for a chance to meet the star would just as eagerly devour her and take her place as the lead. Not much has changed.
A 12-year-old boy makes a wish and wakes up as 30-year-old Tom Hanks (though still with a child’s mind). Off to the big city he goes, where he turns a Grand Street apartment into a tween’s paradise (trampoline!) and, most memorably, plays “Heart and Soul” on a foot-operated keyboard at FAO Schwarz.
New York City becomes a bored housewife’s erotic playground in Brian De Palma’s funny, suspenseful chiller. A luscious Angie Dickinson wanders through the Metropolitan Museum in pursuit of a flirty stranger (a quickie in a cab follows). Later, inquisitive hooker Nancy Allen shares a too revealing lunch with übernerd Keith Gordon at WTC’s Windows on the World.
A pre-Lady Bird Greta Gerwig (who cowrote the screenplay with director Noah Baumbach) stars as an Ivy League grad who dreams of becoming a dancer, despite having two left feet in more ways than one. Like a lot of Baumbach characters, she’s stuck in the past and a little developmentally arrested—but charmingly so. The movie has come to feel like a generational stamp, as did Annie Hall.
The iconic Greenwich Village courtyard over which a convalescing Jimmy Stewart looks out and spots something he wasn’t meant to see perfectly encapsulates the subjective blindness that allows New Yorkers to lead parallel lives in such close quarters. Hitchcock’s thriller also captures what it takes to bring those imaginary boundaries crashing down.
The poverty chic of the early-’80s Lower East Side is romanticized these days, but Susan Seidelman’s drama drops its art-world-wanna-be heroine into an LES full of self-centered dilettantes, obnoxious opportunists and predatory perverts. It’s a snapshot of an era that doubles as its own epitaph, one that smashes hipster nostalgia into shards.
This sexy vampire tale takes place mostly in a ridiculous realm of spacious townhouses filled with smoke and coffins. But we include it for its opening scene alone: Bloodsuckers David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve prowl a sweaty, downtown nightclub for sweet young things, while Bauhaus pounds through its classic “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” It’s a goth NYC we remember with a tear.
The Bronx represents in Spike Lee’s ominous reconstruction of the 1977 David Berkowitz serial-killer panic, taking root in a city plagued by blackouts, racial tensions and—vividly rendered—a sweltering, inescapable heat. Lee imparts a hometown boy’s feel for pizzerias, hair salons and punk clubs (including the departed CBGB).
Dino De Laurentiis’s lascivious production infuses the animal magnetism of the 1933 original with a pervy sensibility (the overgrown primate literally fingers a visibly aroused Jessica Lange). And with a double phallus like the World Trade Center as a final setting, there’s no better city for a big ape to be a swinger.
Joan Micklin Silver’s tribute to Jewish-diaspora life in the 1890s makes you feel as if you’ve stepped through a time portal. Her black-and-white re-creations of the avenues where an insulated community tried to assimilate to its new home bridges the gap between New York’s history and its present—an immigrant song straight from our city’s heart.
Josh and Cornelia (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts, both terrific) are Gen Xers in a marriage cooled by stalling ambitions and a failure to join their friends’ baby parade. It’s sexless nights on the iPad until the unexpected affections of a much younger Bushwick couple energize their lives. One day, Noah Baumbach’s comedy will be considered a classic, for Adam Driver’s definitive portrayal of a millennial alone.
Set in the “very early 1980s,” Whit Stillman’s evocation of a dying Manhattan nightlife brings back the coke-laced dance palaces—including a club similar to Studio 54—and the desperation that would have the party go on forever. Another old-NYC gesture: Our young heroines, Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale, are up-and-coming editors at a publishing house. Today they’d be bloggers.
Filmed at the peak of Hollywood’s political paranoia, this CIA thriller captures a tense, spy-saturated NYC that would reappear in The Bourne Ultimatum. Choice local touches include Robert Redford’s clandestine office on 77th Street at Madison, a quiet Brooklyn Heights getaway (occupied by sultry Faye Dunaway) and a WTC window overlooking the intrigue.
Michael Almereyda transposes William Shakespeare’s seminal tragedy to the world of high finance as Ethan Hawke’s brooding prince goes up against his slick CEO stepfather. The modern-day setting—moving from grungy streets to antiseptic boardrooms and even that cylindrical mousetrap the Guggenheim—adds thematic heft to the greatest of all plays.
Indie filmmaker Ramin Bahrani provides an eloquent, empathetic backstory to a pushcart vendor so street-corner standard, he’s all but invisible to passersby. Bahrani explores the fictional man’s past as a Pakistani rock star and his lonely, lowly present in a New York that’s both beautiful and coolly indifferent to his Sisyphean struggle.
A case could be made that, of all the superheroes, Spidey is the one who is most identified with New York City. These are his canyons to swing through. (When Sam Raimi released his 2002 Spider-Man shortly after 9/11, scenes of civic pride brought many NYC viewers to tears.) Loaded with Brooklyn attitude, this more recent animated take is a worthy Oscar winner, boldly styled and fun.
Stanley Kubrick’s polarizing swan song takes place in a Manhattan of the mind, specifically the sexually frustrated brain stem of Tom Cruise’s upper-crust physician. The film’s fantasy Greenwich Village, populated by taunting fratboys, a hard-sell hooker and a Lolita-like teen is especially weird—and disquieting.
Larry Cohen’s sci-fi chiller about a detective investigating murderers who claim to be carrying out God’s will is the surreal B-side to Taxi Driver: a nightmare vision of the city’s repressed rage that starts with cameoing Andy Kaufman gunning down the St. Patrick’s Day parade and ends with our hero becoming what he was trying to stop.
Before he hooked up with Martin Scorsese, a little-known Robert De Niro made a couple of goofy, subversive little flicks with equally obscure director Brian De Palma. This no-budget black comedy captures porn-theater-era New York at its seediest. It also has jabs at downtown experimental theater: The “Be Black, Baby” sequence alone is worth the price of admission.
The specific New York City of 1991—somehow harsher and more wintry, and still, a place of cozy antiquarian bookstores and down-on-their-luck dreamers in overcoats—comes to life in this real-life tale of literary misadventure. No number of scenes shot in Julius’s warm bar, the whiskey flowing, can shake that restless mood. It’s atmosphere brewed to an expert degree of exactitude.
For their October 2004 Madison Square Garden concerts, the legendary Beastie Boys circulated 50 Minicams among the bumptious crowd, resulting in a kinetic, undeniably sloppy testament to fan-idol collaboration. This was crowdsourcing way ahead of the curve. We mourn you, Adam Yauch.
Recently name-checked in Jordan Peele’s Us, this schlock-horror Z flick articulates a primal NYC fear harbored by anyone who’s ever peered down a sewer grate: Who (or what) is living below? Not the homeless, not alligators, but cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers. As the poster of a shimmering Manhattan skyline warned, “They’re not staying down there, anymore!”