Last summer, I began a little project that I am going to try to finish today. That project? Decide for each city what is the best movie to represent it. I saved New York for last because, well, its pretty intimidating. I don’t claim to be an expert- I have only visited three times. What I know about New York has been almost entirely shaped by how I have seen it in the movies (or TV, but I’m not sure Welcome Back, Kotter is a good indication of what Brooklyn is like).
To recap, though, here are my picks for the cities I have looked at so far:
Los Angeles: Chinatown
San Francisco: Vertigo
Las Vegas: Casino
Chicago: The Blues Brothers
Washington DC: All the President’s Men
Miami: Miami Vice
Boston: The Departed
Also, before we continue, a reminder of the criteria.
- The movies have to actually have been shot in the city. It doesn’t count if Toronto doubles for, say, Seattle.
- The cities have to be called by their actual name. This disqualifiesThe Dark Knight (Gotham, not Chicago) and Superman(Metropolis, not New York).
- The city has to be more than a pretty back-drop- it either needs to figure into the plot or show that the maker’s had a reason for picking it as the setting.
- The movie has to take place in that city for most of the movie. This is why Swingers will not count as a Las Vegas movie.
OK… here we go. Oh, and I’m sure I am neglecting some really good ones. If you want, remind me what I forgot.
With New York, you almost have to categorize your choices. Do you look at each of the five boroughs separately? I tried that, and aside from Brooklyn and Manhattan, there weren’t a lot of choices that were unique to, say, Staten Island (at least that I have seen).
Or maybe by the directors who shoot primarily in New York? Well, you are talking mainly about Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, and Spike Lee. Those directors will be well-represented, but that would discount a host of other great New York movies. I guess there is no other way to do it than to just jump right in.
I love Scorsese movies, and most of them do take place in New York. But his best ones seem to be set inside the apartments and nightclubs rather than on the “mean streets,” so to speak (by the way, I haven’t seen Mean Streets– is it any good?). What I remember from Goodfellas, my favorite Scorsese movie and one that is set almost entirely in New York, is all interior shots. Now, I’m sure that isn’t true, and I haven’t seen it in a while, but I can’t say its the best New York movie. In terms of Scorsese, I think that Taxi Driver, which captures the seediness of 1970s New York, especially as De Niro cruises through Times Square, works a bit better. For that matter, so does Bringing Out the Dead, which no one would call Scorsese’s best movie, but does a nice job providing a map of Hell’s Kitchen.
I love the seediness of 1970s New York. I mentioned Taxi Driver, which is a great example of that sub-genre, and there are a whole slew of others to mention. How about the original The Taking of Pelham One Two Three? Walter Matthau was the lead in an action movie, which kind of tells you the type of New York the movie depicts- rumpled, faded, and chock-a-block full of character.
By the same token, The French Connection,Dog Day Afternoon, and Three Days of the Condor do a great job of making the city one of the characters. What I love about this era of New York is how dangerous it looks; trouble seems to be lurking on every corner, usually with a gold watch to sell you. Woody Allen, this ain’t.
But Woody shoots New York (at least Manhattan) maybe better than anyone. A good Woody Allen movie makes you want to live not only in New York, but in Woody Allen’s version of New York. Annie Hall, Hannah and her Sisters, and especially Manhattan make the city look more picaresque than possibly any other movies. The black and white of Manhattan lends the city an elegance that is tough to top. In 1989, Rob Reiner cribbed from Woody with When Harry Met Sally…, which is almost a travelogue of awesome New York parks, delis, stadiums, museums and apartments. If you want a fairly pretty visual brochure of New York, you could do worse than When Harry Met Sally….
What about the blockbusters set in New York? The Spiderman movies show a lot of the city, and Spiderman is certainly a New York superhero. But wasn’t it a little embarrassing in the first Spiderman when the New Yorkers start throwing rocks at Green Goblin, claiming “You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us!” The Incredible Hulk, usually relegated to the American Southwest, set its climax in downtown Harlem. It was a little difficult to pay attention to any of the scenery, since it took place at night and there were two giant monsters beating one another using police cars for boxing gloves, so…
More successful were Ghostbusters and Die Hard With a Vengeance. Opening Ghostbusters at Columbia University and moving on to the New York Public Library and Central Park for some of its key scenes really plants a flag in the city as the Ghostbuster’s playground. And in DHWAV, John McLane covers more of New York than possibly in any other movie. The fact that they turn this concept into a main plot point was pretty clever- at least, I thought so.
Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins is no sane person’s favorite New York movie. But since it was a wannabe blockbuster (hint- the Adventure never Continued…), I thought I would include it here. It had a great action sequence set on the then-under construction Statue of Liberty. Check out this clip at around the 6:00 mark.
Of all the Spike Lee movies set in New York, the best is 25th Hour, although Do the Right Thing is a contender. 25th Hour uses Ground Zero as a location and as a result, the effects of 9/11 hang over the characters in the movie throughout. Lee was the first one to acknowledge what that tragedy did on a small scale, to the people who actually live in the city. Because of this, New York is more than just a setting for the movie, it is essential to the storytelling.
So 25th Hour must be the definitive New York movie, right? It may be, but I am going in a different direction. For me, the New York movie that I keep coming back to is Godfather II, mainly the De Niro sequences. In Godfather II, we watch Don Corleone arriving in America after fleeing Sicily. We watch the steamer arrive in the New York Harbor, passing the Statue of Liberty, as the boatload of immigrants look on in awe. We see young Don Corleone go through the screening on Ellis Island, only to be quarantined for months because of smallpox.
We forget that the Godfather movies are essentially an immigrant story. New York was the destination for the majority of immigrants arriving in our country at the turn of the 20th century, and as a result, the city became the diverse cross-section of humanity that it is. The portions of Godfather II in which we see Don Corleone begin to amass his empire is really just a Horatio Alger story, one that played out only in New York during the early 1900s. It had to be New York; without that city, the Godfather saga could never have been told.
And that would have sucked.
Best New York Movie: The Godfather II