We’re not talking about the twenty best movies set in New York, and we’re not talking about the twenty best movies where New York comes-up in conversation. We’re not talking about postcards or props. These twenty movies earned their places on the list because New York contributes to their look, feel, sound, dialogue, and development. These twenty movies show as much about The City as they show about their characters and plots. In each film, New York deserves recognition as the best supporting actor. You may dispute the rankings, but you cannot dispute the twenty movies’ reliance on New York for much of their distinction.
20. The Warriors
“The Warriors” depends on New York exactly as Homer’s Odyssey depends on the Mediterranean. In “The Warriors,” the nine gang members framed for the murder of Luther, the great gang peace-maker, must make their way all the way across The City with all the rival gangs and all the law enforcement agencies gunning for them. In the same way that all epics require their heroes to descend into hell, “The Warriors” demands its heroes work their way through hostile territories and “foreign” landscapes all the way back to the comfort and sanctuary of their home turf, Coney Island. “The Warriors” tops the list because in it The City and movie’s plot are inseparable, indistinguishable.
19. King of New York
In screenwriters’ imaginations and on the big screen, New York wages gang warfare and intense love with equal skill, style, and grace. Just as the Grateful Dead sang, “New York, they got the ways and means…” Carefully considered, high-powered gangsters are New York’s royalty. Politicians and Wall Streeters work for them—their courtiers and knights. In his day, Al Pacino brought the intensity; now, Christopher Walken brings the style. No surprise “King of New York” makes everybody’s top ten list of gangster movies. Just as the Yankees dominate baseball, Walken and his crew own the crime world. Same principle. Same standards.
18. When Harry Met Sally
New York consistently ranks #1 among the world’s most romantic cities, but New York romance comes with a ginormous price tag. In the 1980’s, New York probably spawned more yuppies than anywhere else on Earth. Harry and Sally, consummate New York yuppies, represent everything characteristic of young urban professionals across America, but they show adaptations unique to New York. They can afford an upscale New York romance. If it weren’t for New York, “When Harry Met Sally” would forfeit its romance and degenerate into simple “dating.” Where’s the drama in that?
17. The Taking of Pelham 123
A 2009 remake, despite its all-star cast, tanked at the box office. The critical difference? In 1974, Peter Stone’s adaptation of the novel from which the story derives managed to capture New York’s wise-cracking cynicism not only in its dialogue but also in its mood and tone. Also characteristic of New York, the 1974 film frequently blurred the distinctions between good guys and bad guys, suggesting they share a fundamental attitude and simply were drafted by different teams.
16. West Side Story
“When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way”—not to be confused with L.A.’s vatos y chollos, not to be mistaken for any random collection of thugs and hooligans who call themselves a gang. “Turf wars” make sense in New York, because ethnicity, culture, language, and religion defined New York’s neighborhoods in the 1960’s. The gangs actually had turf for which to fight. The Jets and Sharks did not invent gang violence, but they did elevate it to an art form.
15. Do the Right Thing
Characteristic of Spike Lee films, “Do the Right Thing” comes with a message…or two. New York does gangster and romance really well; ethnic diversity and racial harmony not so much. New York’s distinctive culture and cuisine derive from The City’s radical racial and ethnic mix; but, contrary to the textbook myth of a “great melting pot,” New York is an ethnic mosaic or patchwork quilt. In New York, races more frequently collide than harmonize, and the black dilemma becomes every race’s dilemma: Does “doing the right thing” mean rising to Martin Luther King’s idealism, or does it mean agreeing with Malcolm X that violence may be oppressed minorities’ only self-defense? An instant “literary” and classroom classic, Lee’s movie numbered among the first to dramatize the tension and competition not only between blacks and whites but also among all distinctive ethnic groups. And nowhere does that tension exist and occasionally erupt in violence more than in New York.
14. Glengarry Glen Ross
Not a whole lot of action in this movie but a whole lot of powerful dialogue—no surprise Mamet won a Pulitzer Prize for the story in its play form. Total surprise that Alec Baldwin did not win an academy award for his brilliant portrayal of the real estate firm’s consummate closer. The movie comes in seventh on this list for thematic purposes. The movie’s values are universally corporate; it’s slogans are deliciously trite. But at the peak moment of his “sales talk,” Alec Baldwin reveals what distinguishes New York gangsters, New York lovers, New York entrepreneurs, and all of New York’s elite. At the peak moment of his speech, Baldwin pulls out a pair of brass balls. Work back up to the top of the list and see just how well the anatomical detail makes all the difference.
13. A Bronx Tale
Every unique characteristic of the Bronx determines every conflict in this movie. Every detail of every scene is vintage Bronx—as it must be not only for authenticity but also for poignancy. Dialect and mannerisms show characteristic Bronx aggressiveness. Racial and ethnic attitudes factionalize the neighborhood, and the main character gets trapped in his, own racism when he falls in love with a black girl. The crime boss’s glamour and wealth contrast with the working man’s honesty and ethics. The hero’s issues are the neighborhood’s issues—totally appropriate and wonderfully literary. De Niro later told Larry King he always considered The City one of the main characters in his film.
12. Wall Street
Probably more relevant now than in its own time, “Wall Street” capitalized not only on Michael Douglas’s particular gift for representing all things aloof and arrogant but also The City’s capacity for serving-up all things expensive in its own distinctive style. Could anyone proclaim the goodness of greed anywhere except New York?
11. Mean Streets
The movie that established Martin Scorsese as an official member of the movie-making elite. Dark, brooding, intense, and frighteningly violent, the movie represents a great first draft of “Taxi Driver.” New York streets despise poverty, anonymity, and powerlessness—everything that makes them “mean.”
The Corleones pioneered them, and the Goodfellas perfected the strategy, tactics, and techniques of crime family business and combat. You just cannot find sophisticated corruption and criminal activity like you find it in New York. Nowhere else did the leading crime families gain such complete control of labor unions, politics, and government. Nowhere else, did cocaine gain such tremendous popularity. And nowhere else did your pedigree ultimately determine whether or not you became a “made man.” No New York, no Goodfellas.
9. King Kong 1933
Even if they do not know the entire story, people recognize the icon: The mighty ape holds tender, fragile Faye Rey in his gigantic palm as he scales the Empire State Building. The tallest building in the world at the time the movie debuted, The Empire State serves as the scale by which the audience measures Kong’s size and power. Strong enough to ascend the building like a little play structure, Kong nevertheless tenderly cradles his captive. No other building or backdrop could substitute.
8. Hannah and Her Sisters
In his review, Roger Ebert first asserts “Hannah and Her Sisters” is the best movie Woody Allen ever made. Then, Ebert adeptly summarizes, the movie shows two years in the complicated lives of “New Yorkers who labor in Manhattan’s two sexiest industries, art and money.” Whether or not Ebert captured the film’s essence, her certainly captured The City’s. The oxymoron “sexy industry” says it all.
C’mon, the movie derives from a true story. You cannot move it to Sheboygan and preserve its grit, guts, sophisticated vulgarity, and exquisitely fine line between the good guys and bad guys. That, and Al Pacino is pretty much synonymous with all things cops and robbers in New York.
6. Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Holly Gollightly goes to Tifany’s to soothe her “mean reds.” In Holly Gollightly’s distinctive lexicon, if sadness is “the blues,” then anxiety must be “the mean reds.” In the cool and calm of Tiffany’s, she draws peace, comfort and consolation from the nice men in their proper suits, the smell of alligator wallets, gold, silver, and platinum. Tiffany’s provides her with sanctuary and moratorium; and she wholeheartedly believes she “belongs” there. Hollywood gave the story a happy ending the book withheld, making the book more satisfying and plausible. Think of the book and its film adaptation as New York’s ultimate answer to Thackeray’s caustic satire of London society in Vanity Fair. Think of Holly as New York’s reprise of Becky Sharp.
5. The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II
Although Chicago rightfully earned its distinction as Mobster Capital USA, the second city’s bad boys have no pedigrees. The New York crime families have style and élan characteristic of New York, but more importantly, they can trace their roots and breeding back to solid Sicilian stock. Sicilian culture, Americanized in New York’s “Little Italy,” influences how the families do business and wage war. Nothing in the movies more clearly shows the family’s rise to power and prestige than their move from a tenement in Little Italy to their waterfront suburban compound.
Frankly, the story would have seemed more plausible and slightly more satiric if the writers had set it in Los Angeles, where convoluted relationships and obsessions with “stuff” are the norm. The film becomes quintessentially New York in its dedication to Gershwin’s music and its exquisite black-and-white cinematography. Woody himself agreed the film is about New York, and few films so perfectly capture The City in their imagery. In fact, several “stills” culled from the movie have become classics of modern photographic art.
3. Rosemary’s Baby
By historical coincidence or quirk, this film, too, seems as relevant now as more than thirty years ago when it debuted. The film goes into the record books as Roman Polanski’s first American feature and into the history books as an eerie premonition of Polanski’s wife’s murder by the Manson Family just a year after its release. Critics agree the run-down gothic apartment building, steeped in rumors and legends about witchcraft, not only provides the setting but also becomes the catalyst for the drama’s action. The film goes out of its way to allegorize the eternal conflict of good and evil, and dialogue constantly suggests that New York—like Heaven in Paradise Lost—is the battlefield on which angels and demons fight.
2. Annie Hall
This one is almost too simple, too painfully obvious. Annie Hall, her character and her story, provide the perfect metaphor for New York. Of course, Woody planned it. Everything distinctive about Annie is everything distinctive about The City.
1. Taxi Driver
“Are you lookin’ at me?” New York somehow reconciles diametric opposites: the world’s most powerful people share the streets with the world’s poorest, most alienated and oppressed. One-named stars—Madonna, Britney, Cher—share the streets with people so perfectly anonymous no one could distinguish one from another in a line-up. Cab drivers are as generic and commonplace as the yellow paint on their cabs, and nothing heinously invades their space like looking at them. Unique to New York, the city’s cabdrivers traffic in anonymity. In New York math, anonymity squared equals repressed rage, the negative charge in New York’s electricity. The story simply would not happen anywhere else.Read also