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Do the Right Thing

The best movies set in NYC neighborhoods

Every classic NYC neighborhood, from fancy Manhattan to keepin’-it-real Queens, has a particular film that gets it right

By Joshua Rothkopf
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The lease is signed, you’ve laid down your fortune of a deposit, you’ve even bought new lamps. But don’t even think of calling yourself an old-school resident of your new digs until you consult our list of the best movies set in NYC neighborhoods. From Brooklyn’s cozy burghs to Manhattan’s enclaves and beyond, there’s a film that will show you how the locals really live.

Movies set in NYC neighborhoods

Bay Ridge

Movies

Saturday Night Fever (1977)

Inspired by a 1976 magazine article on nightlife subculture (since revealed to be fabricated), the king of disco films does a fine job of showcasing Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge—from John Travolta’s fancy feet pounding down the pavement, to actual dance clubs and a former White Castle in the area. Even the forlorn Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (a gateway to the paradise of Staten Island) becomes a key plot device.

Bedford-Stuyvesant

Movies Comedy

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Completely shot on location (a one-block span of Stuyvesant Avenue), Spike Lee’s race-relations powder keg is a vivid testament to Brooklyn’s north-central neighborhood, an area bejeweled with brownstones and character. (Lee’s production team painted it a lot more red than it really is.) Recently, the block was officially renamed Do the Right Thing Way.

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Brooklyn Heights

Movies Comedy

Moonstruck (1987)

“Snap out of it!” Cher tells us with a smack, but if you happen to live in classy, sedate Brooklyn Heights, you’ll be hypnotized. Falling in love, Cher strolls the Promenade in a daze. Her character lives among the Fruit Streets—Cranberry, to be specific. And the movie makes its way down Court Street, to where the real Italian groceries can be found.

Central Park

Movies

Portrait of Jennie (1948)

Plenty of movies have taken advantage of Central Park’s flair for romance, but William Dieterle’s metropolitan fairy tale—about an artist (Joseph Cotten) who’s enchanted by a curious young woman he meets near the ice rink on a winter afternoon—is one of the few to recognize the place’s inherent strangeness and epic sense of wonder.

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Coney Island

Movies Drama

Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Director Darren Aronofsky relocated the setting of this downbeat novel from central Brooklyn to Coney Island (with author Hubert Selby Jr.’s permission). We’re glad he did: The sight of a sleeping playland adds a layer of irony to this dark tale of the drug trade gobbling up young lives. A dream sequence takes us right onto the pier.

Elmhurst

Movies Comedy

Coming to America (1998)

What’s a pampered African prince (Eddie Murphy) to do when he wants to find a queen who will love him for his heart and not for his throne? Go to Queens, of course! Shot in the dead of winter, the film finds a lot to love about the borough, even transforming a massive McDonald’s (er, McDowell’s) into a place of endless possibility. But it still isn’t enough to pass up a palace in Zamunda.

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Greenpoint

Movies Comedy

Obvious Child (2014)

A comedy that struck a nerve because of its progressive approach to the topic of abortion, Gillian Robespierre’s feature debut—the story of a twentysomething stand-up (Jenny Slate) who’s only half-looking for Mr. Right—is deeply rooted in Brooklyn’s cozy north. Comedy clubs, apartments and bars are filled with the people for whom sarcasm is a lingua franca.

Ground Zero

Movies

25th Hour (2002)

Spike Lee’s ominous, guilt-ridden drama—about a group of friends who failed their jail-bound buddy (Edward Norton)—roams all over the city. But the real reason the movie is on this list is for its audacity in including shots of Ground Zero, seen from a Wall Streeter’s penthouse apartment. A post-9/11 classic, 25th Hour literalizes its characters' pit of despair in ways that would scare a more timid director.

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Harlem

Movies

The Pawnbroker (1964)

It may not be the most flattering portrait of East Harlem, but Sidney Lumet’s masterful morality play—about an aging Holocaust survivor (Rod Steiger) who tries to ignore the Puerto Rican kids who frequent his shop—is definitely one of the most vivid. Steiger’s broken character is just looking to bury himself someplace hopeless, but the upper stretches of Park Avenue are too full of life to accommodate anyone trying to hide from it.

Midtown

Movies Comedy

Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)

Sometimes a film only needs a few shots to become emblematic of an entire neighborhood. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which stars an iconic Audrey Hepburn as a fugitive Texan reborn through the illusion of Fifth Avenue glamor, was mostly filmed in Hollywood. But those opening images of Hepburn standing outside the titular jewelers after a night on the town have become shorthand for a whole world of aspirational elegance.

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Morningside Heights

Movies Comedy

Ghostbusters (1984)

On the occasion of the film’s 30th anniversary, director Ivan Reitman told us that he always viewed this supernatural comedy as a “distinctly New York film.” That sense of local attachment begins with Columbia University’s Morningside Heights, where, on the quad, Drs. Venkman (Bill Murray), Stanz (Dan Aykroyd) and Spengler (Harold Ramis) hatch their unusual idea for a business. Don’t go looking for an actual Department of Parapsychology—it doesn’t exist.

Park Slope

Movies

The Squid and the Whale (2005)

Before Park Slope was the baby-stroller capital of the universe, it was the site of the implosion of a marriage in Noah Baumbach’s savage autobiographical comedy. Told on the sidewalks of leafy streets and on the steps of a cavernous brownstone, Baumbach’s mercilessly honest trip down memory lane is a less-than-perfect ad for the neighborhood that provides its setting. Today, it seems like a much more appropriate place to start a family than to end one.

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Prospect Park South

Movies

Sophie's Choice (1982)

The house at 101 Rugby Road rises like a pink palace of dreams in this classic Meryl Streep drama—it’s still there, too, although it’s been repainted a far-less-fantastic gray. William Styron’s original novel presented ’50s Brooklyn through the eyes of a charmed Southerner. Much of that sun-dappled, gauzy vibe makes it to the screen, especially during the Prospect Park picnic scenes.

Riverside Park

Movies

The Warriors (1979)

Where do the gangs of Walter Hill’s NYC classic “come out to play-yay”? Riverside Park, of course (even though this location is supposed to be the Bronx). No matter: The movie captures Koch-era decrepitude with a thrilling completeness, from ancient IRT subway stops and the Hoyt-Schermerhorn “ghost” station, to Coney Island for a showdown.

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Soho

Movies Comedy

After Hours (1985)

A Kafkaesque tour through Soho as it was in the seedy days (and nights) before it gave way to aisles of chichi galleries and a flagship Apple Store, Martin Scorsese’s paranoid comedy follows the misadventures of a hapless yuppie (Griffin Dunne) who can’t seem to find his way out of the neighborhood. It’s hard to believe that Soho once looked like a desolate wasteland, and even harder to believe that it doesn’t anymore.

Times Square

Movies

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

The lights of New York City have never twinkled as bright as they do in this bitter noir about the feud between a desperate press agent (Tony Curtis) and the overbearing newspaper columnist (Burt Lancaster) who owns the night and everyone in it. Shot by genius cinematographer James Wong Howe, whose camera weaves through a glitteringly monochrome Times Square like a boxer looking to land a punch, the film makes Manhattan’s nerve center somehow seem both magical and indifferent all at once.

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Upper East Side

Movies Comedy

Metropolitan (1990)

Whit Stillman’s sophisticated rip on the self-described “urban haute bourgeoisie” is set during an eventful debutante ball season on the Upper East Side. The flirting keeps pace with the drinking and social anxiety, until a trip to J.G. Melon becomes all but necessary. There, some bitter wisdom from an aging prep makes matters even worse.

Upper West Side

Movies Drama

Heaven Knows What (2014)

Of all the fantasies shot on the Upper West Side (from West Side Story to You’ve Got Mail), we like Josh and Benny Safdie’s junkie drama the most for capturing the economic disparities of upper-middle-class comforts (Fairway, the Apple Store, etc.) colliding with the desperation of the homeless. Bonus points: The Safdies shoot in the same locations as did 1971’s The Panic in Needle Park.

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West Village

Movies Drama

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

One of those indelible character studies that captures a single person so perfectly while filling in every detail of the world around them, the Coen brothers’ ode to the Village folk scene of the early ’60s chronicles a week in the life of a hard-luck musician (Oscar Isaac) as he looks for his big break. Llewyn strums from one tip of the West Side to the other, but he belongs below 14th Street, either singing for his supper at the Gaslight or trying to talk his way out of girl trouble on a crowded bench in Washington Square Park.

Williamsburg

Movies Comedy

Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008)

This cute romance hits almost every indie venue in New York as it tries to keep up with two star-crossed teens (Michael Cera and Kat Dennings) searching for their favorite band’s secret show. Few films so vividly capture how the city can be a playground for kids who feel like they’re going to be young forever, and Nick & Norah never feels more in the moment than when it swings by Williamsburg’s Union Pool, where a generation of hipsters are waiting hopefully for the show of their lives.

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