A caveat right up front: I am no expert on the east coast of our beautiful country. I have visited each of the cities below, but have I really spent good time there? Not really. Yes, I’ve spent more time than just an airport layover, but I don’t claim to be an expert of the various nooks, crannies, ins or outs of the the cities below.
Why the disclosure? Because I fear that I am going to give short thrift to some great movies that have used these (I’m sure) fine cities as their locale of choice. I probably know these cities more from the movies in which they appear than I do from first-hand experience. So when I am dealing with, say, Baltimore, I have a hard time moving out of the John Waters catalog (even then, I am no expert on John Waters movies, so…). I found myself wishing I could use The Wire for an example of Baltimore, since no work of popular fiction does a better job of presenting not only that city, but any city, warts and all.
But since this is about the greatest movies in film, The Wire doesn’t count. Maybe we’ll do a best TV cities at some future date. But for now?
As I said, John Waters has made his name shooting proudly in his hometown of Baltimore, MD. There are many to choose from: Crybaby, Polyester, Serial Mom, Pecker… But the one that I felt had the most to say about the era in which it took place, and therefore a stronger, albeit pretty stylized, version of Baltimore, was in Hairspray (the John Waters one, not the John Travolta/Zac Efron one). The body image stuff was all John Waters, but the racial segregation that he portrayed in it was a nice little snapshot of the dawn of the Civil Rights era- one that still receives a lot of screen time in the masterpiece that is The Wire. Not bad for a self-proclaimed arbiter of bad taste like Waters.
The other guy who uses Baltimore a lot is Barry Levinson. Avalon was a sweet chunk of ethnic nostalgia about immigrants settling there, but it was earlier in Diner that Levinson busted his Baltimore nut to greater effect. Again, I remember more the mood of the movie (again, one of nostalgia) than I do Baltimore landmark. I remember the cast- Guttenberg, Rourke, Reiser, and Bacon. I’m sure for people who grew up in Baltimore in the 1950’s felt that it did their city justice, so I will concur.
Best Baltimore Movie: Diner
Do you go with Philadelphia here? No, you don’t. As noble as that movie is, Tom Hanks could have had AIDS anywhere- he just happened to contract it in Philadelphia. So just because the title of the movie namechecks the city, it doesn’t get the win.
Not when one Rocky Balboa is out there, inspiring everyone by charging up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, using raw meat as heavy bags, and falling in love with mousy wallflowers. Rocky and its sequels show what is probably not a very accurate depiction of Philadelphia, but one of which that I am sure the city officials are proud.
I know this because when I visited, I of course went to those steps Rocky famously climbed. When I got there, there were all sorts of tourists reenacting the scene. There were fat guys, middle aged women, midgets, you name it, all running to the top and then raising their arms defiantly (this is actually shown in the end credits of the final Rocky movie, Rocky Balboa). There were even two bronzed footsteps at the top to let you know exactly where Rocky stood.
And yes, being the consumate tourist, I also ran the steps. I don’t care how it looked- I’m not going to miss the chance to run the Rocky steps.
Best Philadelphia Movie: Rocky
When taking a look at Boston movies, I discovered that most of my choices starred Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, or both. Did these guys corner the market on Boston movies? Do Boston movies get made without the participation of Affleck and Damon?
Well, yes they do. I saw Fever Pitch, a movie about Boston in so much as it is about the Boston Red Sox and its superfans. Not a Damon or an Affleck to be found, but you do get yourself a heavy dosage of Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore. You know what? As uncomfortable as Fallon makes me when I try to watch his talk show, he was good in this. I believed he was a Red Sox freak, which made me believe he existed in the actual city of Boston. I’m sure people who live in Boston could poke all sorts of holes in it (and in his performance), but to a non-expert such as myself, I bought it.
Also, the movie had the good timing to be filming when the Red Sox actually overcame their “curse” and go on and win the World Series. Fever Pitch, for that reason alone, earns a spot in the “Best Boston Movies” category.
Good Will Hunting shows the working class area of South Boston colliding with the academia of Harvard, where Gone Baby Gone mainly just shows the working class areas of the city. Both good movies, and both demonstrate an insider knowledge of the city (GWH written by Damon and Affleck, GBG written by Boston enthusiast Dennis Lehane and directed by Affleck). Lehane also wrote the novel Mystic River, which Clint Eastwood turned into a film about a working class tragedy and its ramifications.
These are all great movies, but my favorite is The Departed (hey, starring Matt Damon!). I love the opening narration, courtesy of Jack Nicholson, telling of the city’s bumpy history. I love the seediness of the bars and restaurants in which Nicholson’s character holds court juxtaposed against the steel towers in which the FBI and cops do their business.
The fact that this was directed by Martin Scorsese, known more for his knowledge of New York, makes it that much better. The Departed shows a Boston that I didn’t get a feel for while watching Cheers for 11 years.
Best Boston Movie: The Departed
This’ll be quick- Miami Vice? The Birdcage? Police Academy 5: Assignment: Miami Beach? Ace Ventura: Pet Detective? Maybe Miami just hasn’t been used all that well in movies, or I just don’t like Miami movies.
While I didn’t really like the movie, I suppose Miami Vice showed the coolest version of Miami. Michael Mann doesn’t traffic in ugly movies, and I’ll give him the style and panache he brought to the images in that movie. I still have no idea what the hell happened in it, but whatever.
Best Miami Movie: Miami Vice
I am going to skip over Dave, The American President, The Contender, and so on- and move on to the greatest DC movie of them all: All the President’s Men. While I love the other titles mentioned here, none compare to the breadth shown in ATPM. This is a movie about David and Goliath, only if David didn’t realize he was fighting Goliath until 2/3 through the fight.
You get a look at almost every corner of DC as Redford and Hoffman scrambled to make their case against… well, even they didn’t know. The fact that it is based on a true story and depicted the fall of a President from the ground floor on up make this not only one of the best uses of DC, but any city in any movie.
Best Washington DC Movie: All the President’s Men