Essential Philadelphia movies
John G. Avildsen’s underdog epic didn’t just win Best Picture (and Best Director and Best Actor), it’s come to represent Philly in a way we just can’t shake. Like Sylvester Stallone’s bum boxer who doesn’t know when to quit, this city and this franchise always seem to have more fight in them than people give them credit for. Counting 2015’s Creed, the saga is now seven films deep and boasts more ups than downs, but nothing matches the visceral images of the low-budget original: sweat-suited Stallone gulping down raw eggs in his crappy Kenzo apartment, punching frozen sides of beef at the meat packing plant, running past burning barrels in the trash-strewn Italian Market, leaping into the air at the top of the Art Museum steps with a lopsided smile on his face like a beaten horse. Here’s to ugly losers who work their asses off.
Built almost entirely out of archival footage, Jason Osder’s powerful documentary recounts the city’s many run-ins with the radical organization MOVE, and the day in 1985 when a police helicopter dropped a bomb on the group’s West Philly rowhouse. Eleven members died, including six children, and more than 250 people were left homeless. Some of this doc’s most gripping moments come from 13-year-old survivor Birdie Africa, whose terse, half-whispered testimony speaks volumes. Many of our city’s recurring quagmires rear their heads in this doc—race, fear, poverty, cop culture—leaving the viewer haunted, devastated.
Man, something about Philly really works as a dystopian hellscape, especially in the hands of Terry Gilliam who wipes out most of humanity with a plague and then sends Bruce Willis back in time to find the cure. It’s a cunning and sometimes gruesome headscratcher that rewards the repeat viewer. Keep an eye out for some of the area’s most picturesque ruins, including a pre-rehabbed Eastern State Penitentiary, the soon-to-be-rehabbed Metropolitan Opera House and Camden’s infamous Oasis Motel (R.I.P.).
Though it would launch a thousand “why this is problematic” thinkpieces if it was made today, John Landis’ switcheroo comedy has a lot to offer modern audiences. For one thing, its portrayal of Philadelphia bankers and Main Line snobs offered rare glimpses into the city’s sinister high-society/old-money enclaves. For another, a lot of the jokes still land, thanks mostly to the performances of its Saturday Night Live alum stars Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd, as a streetwise con artist and a snooty junior exec, respectively, who get Prince-and-Paupered by racist Rittenhouse Square millionaires.
Brian De Palma turns early-’80s Philly into a noir playground, exploiting every long shadow and concrete façade to create a vibe that’s gritty and stylish at the same time. John Travolta plays a B-movie sound engineer whose mic pics up the sounds of a politician’s car crashing near Forbidden Drive. Soon he’s stuck in a web of romance (to Nancy Allen, who has appeared in a surprising number of Philly films), political intrigue and murder in the process. It’s Hitchcockian, brutal and really, really bleak. Oh and John Lithgow shines as the Liberty Bell Strangler.
Most documentaries about mysteries end with the narrator basically shrugging and saying, “but who can say for sure?” That’s not the case in Jon Foy’s fascinating exploration into the Toynbee Tiles. He and star/subject/Philly rocker Justin Duerr pretty much blow the case wide open in this doc, while also delving into the history and meaning behind the enigmatic pieces of street art that have been found all over the world but which seem to be found most often here in Philadelphia.
This suspense/thriller about a creepy kid who sees dead people launched local filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan’s career as a Hollywood director of note. It also introduced us to two of his most unshakable trademarks: his love for Philly and his love for plot twists. The latter has become something of an easy target, but anybody who tells you they saw this movie’s last-minute game changer coming is a liar and not your real friend.
The city gets top billing and a lot of screentime in Jonathan Demme’s heart-wrenching courtroom drama starring Tom Hanks as a gay man with AIDS suing the firm that fired him, and Denzel Washington as the hard-headed lawyer who defends him. Hanks won Best Actor, Bruce Springsteen won Best Original Song (for “Streets of Philadelphia”) and the film, though by no means perfect, helped bring HIV/AIDS into the national conversation at a time when Hollywood and the government were mostly silent.
Director Elaine May was born in Philadelphia, but this is no love letter to her hometown. Low-level mobsters/best friends Peter Falk and John Cassavetes wander Center City streets so empty, dirty and bleak you’d think there’d been a disaster. But no, that’s just Philly in the ’70s, and it’s a fitting backdrop for this dark, underrated drama. As for authenticity? Well, I ain’t never heard of no 14th Street, but I appreciate the unnecessary hostility shown by just about everybody in this film, right down to the 24-hour convenience store clerk, who is so surprised to get a customer he reaches for his gun. Feels like home.
Stallone got the Oscar nomination, but this is Michael B. Jordan’s movie. As heir to the Rocky franchise and the Apollo Creed legacy, the young actor shows depth and power inside the ring and out in a film that oozes with blood, sweat and tears. Lots of blood; Creed pulls no punches when it comes to the visceral, bone-rattling sport of boxing. The movie nails the Philly feel. too, with scenes at Johnny Brenda’s and Max's Steaks plus the big-screen debut/death knell of the word “jawn.”
This story of an Eagles fan recovering from a mental breakdown scored Oscar nominations for Best Picture and all four major acting awards, but only Jennifer Lawrence brought home the gold. Although the book had more of a Collingswood feel, the movie set up shop across the river, building scenes around local landmarks like Jeweler’s Row, Llanerch Diner and the Linc parking lot. For those of you keeping score at home, Philly-born actor Bradley Cooper has three Oscar noms, but no trophies yet.
Technically speaking, this is not a good movie, but the nostalgia is strong. Andrew McCarthy plays a hapless department store display artist and Kim Cattrall is the mannequin he loves—even though she only walks and talks when nobody else is around. James Spader tries to steal the mannequin. There’s lots of chase scenes around the slippery floors of Wanamaker’s. Meshach Taylor makes quips and sprays bad guys with a fire hose. A catchy Starship song comes on. It’s pretty dumb, and sooo ’80s, but it’s kind of great, too.
It sounds like a silly idea: Philly cop Harrison Ford goes undercover with the Amish to protect a kid who witnessed a murder (in a 30th Street Station bathroom) and ends up falling for hot, plain, widower mom Kelly McGillis. Their love is forbidden by the elders! The cop’s name is John Book!? Yeah, this Peter Weir thriller could’ve been a disaster, but it actually scored a Best Picture nomination. The city mouse/country mouse stuff is done rather tastefully and the performances are solid. Ford even got a Best Actor nom for beating up bad guys while wearing suspenders.
This isn’t The Philadelphia Experiment (that’s the one about about time-traveling sailors). The Philadelphia Story is a swooning Main Line rom-com starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Ruth Hussey and Jimmy Stewart—who took home a Best Actor award for his role. Fun fact number one: The Academy’s engraver apparently misspelled Philadelphia on the trophy. Fun fact number two: Hepburn’s character was based on real-life Radnor socialite Hope Montgomery Scott. Lame fact: They shot the film in Culver City, California.
M. Night Shyamalan’s got a thing for taking established genres and making them spooky. In the same way Unbreakable was an uncanny superhero movie without costumes, Signs is a creepy alien invasion movie sans flying saucers. Instead there’s just Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix and a couple over-serious kids in a Bucks County farmhouse, trying to wait out the martians by boarding up the windows and hiding in the basement. A bit agoraphobic, a lot claustrophobic and unsettlingly quiet, Signs succeeds by keeping it simple. The twist is beside the point.
Some 50 years after it was made, this 22-minute black-and-white documentary/dramatization of life in a North Philly gang still resonates and fascinates. The Jungle was written and directed by its teenage stars Charlie Davis, David Williams and Jimmy Robinson and other members of the 12th and Oxford Gang at the time.
She’s got split personality disorder and only speaks in rhyme. He’s a paranoid know-it-all who has a panic attack if somebody touches him. They meet in a school for teens with psych issues and weird sparks fly, leading to a dramatic denouement on the Art Museum steps. Pretty and quirky, this low-budget black-and-white love story became a surprise hit, and earned Oscar noms for screenwriter Eleanor Perry and director Frank Perry (her husband).
Shot on a small budget using mostly untested actors, writer/director/star Cheryl Dunye’s debut feature—the first ever narrative, feature-length film directed by a black lesbian—is still being watched and talked about today. Dunye plays a TLA Video clerk and aspiring filmmaker trying to navigate a new relationship (with Guinevere Turner) while investigating the uncredited actress she notices playing “mammy roles” in ’30s Hollywood movies. Keep an eye out for Toshi Reagon, Camille Paglia and other local notables.
No, they didn’t shoot any of it here, but it’s pretty cool that George Romero thought of us when he was filming the sequel to his original zombie classic. In this one, Philly SWAT cops and other survivors escape the city, pass through Pennsyltucky—where the gun-nut citizens seem to be enjoying the zombie apocalypse a bit too much—and hole up in a shopping mall while the undead lope around outside bleeding and moaning like it’s the morning after St. Paddy’s Day on South Street.
Based on the best-selling novel by ex-Inquirer columnist Jennifer Weiner, this comedy/family drama makes our city its playground, with scenes at the Jamaican Jerk Hut, Rittenhouse Square, Famous Fourth Street Deli and more. Funny and touching, In Her Shoes stars Cameron Diaz as a flighty party girl, Toni Collette as her squaresville sister and the always great Shirley MacLaine as the grandma they never knew about.
Look, I don’t feel like putting National Treasure or The Happening on this list, so let’s get weird with it. Based on Georges Bizet's 1875 opera Carmen, Robert Townsend’s fun-as-hell made-for-MTV musical gave Beyonce her first big acting role, as the titular seductress/aspiring actress. Bey and Philly cop Mekhi Phifer trade rhymes and verses alongside a killer cast of hip-hop notables including Mos Def, Wyclef Jean, Lil Bow Wow, Rah Digga and Da Brat (as the rapping narrator).
Tigre Hill’s documentary on the 2003 mayoral race between incumbent John Street and recurring Republican bridesmaid Sam Katz shows Philadelphia politics at its most face-palming. Hill lines up a couple dozen talking heads to discuss the importance of race in our elections and the prevalence of cronyism and corruption in a city where one party always wins. But this election was particularly bonkers. Beyond the big egos and the bluster, there’s the FBI listening device, the unexploded Molotov cocktail, the conspiracy theories, the rogues gallery of neighborhood loudmouths and the feeling City Hall is not a place for smart people.
Pour one out for the brainy, breathy and beauteous Bryn Mawr-born Jayne Mansfield, an actress who died before her time but left behind several memorable films. Written by Philly noir superstar David Goodis, this heist caper has the young Mansfield and a bunch of no-goodniks stealing jewels from a rich old Main Line psychic (say what?) and escaping to Atlantic City for a memorable showdown on Steel Pier. (P.S. Legendary local news anchor John Facenda makes a cameo.)
In this emotional, sometimes fascinating documentary, filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn travels the world to learn about the father he hardly knew, Philadelphia architect Louis Kahn. Along the way he finds that the man was an enigma even among those who knew him best. The tireless son interviews just about everybody you can imagine—from estranged relatives to contemporaries (like Frank Gehry and Edmund Bacon) to the guy who found his father dying in a Penn Station bathroom.
Not to be confused with Unbreakable or Limitless, Invincible is the one about Vince Papale, the South Philly bartender who, against all odds, got signed by the Eagles in the ’70s. Mark Wahlberg does a decent job dropping his dumb Boston accent for the more erudite Philadelphia articulation and makes you feel every cracked rib and busted shoulder. Yeah, it’s a cheesy Disney sports drama, but it’s also a true story about a regular guy living out every fan’s impossible dream.
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