When it comes to American cinema, New York City is far and away one of the most popular settings. It is a city that has inspired a lot of filmmakers. Its cultural diversity offers writers and directors an infinite number of stories to tell, themes to explore, and gifts their cinematographers with a visage that photographs beautifully – in both wide and close up, color or black and white.
This is not meant to be a list of simply the 25 best films that take place there, but a list of films that put New York City on display in specific, unique or memorable ways. Some of these films were made by Oscar-winning directors and featured A-list actors, but the uncredited star of each is the city in which they were set.
25. Gangs of New York
Martin Scorsese’s sprawling, semi-historical epic has its share of promoters and detractors. Like many films on this list, its New York is, in one way or another, an invention. Taking us back nearly 150 years to look at the early days of the city, its facade may look different, but Scorsese’s Old New York is plagued by all the same problems with race, class, corruption and violence.
The story is of a son (DiCaprio) who witnesses the death of his father, returning as an adult to seek revenge on the killer, played iconically by Daniel Day-Lewis. His father was an Irish immigrant who had gone to war (the opening and ending sequences are envisioned very much like a war film) with the “nativists,” men who have forgotten how few generations separate them from a similar boat.
The accuracy of its history may be questionable, but Scorsese is more interested in the feel of this bygone time and place. This is in many ways a symbolic New York, a parable of a city born in turmoil. These characters are less historical figures than stand-ins for where we came from, immigrants looking for a new identity in a world full of promise, finding that they would have to fight for it.
The New York of Woody Allen is at least partly a dream, inspired by real life. There is an undeniable majesty to his hometown’s skyline, and is even more unforgettable as shot by the inimitable Gordon Willis. The black and white compositions around the city that open the film are some of the most memorable glamour shots the city has ever had.
Manhattan is also a very good romantic comedy, dryer than his earlier comedies but still funny and loose. The romance focuses on an older man and a young girl, something that would mirror the controversies in the director’s real life, but the romance here is really between a man and his city. In his own words, “For some reason I’ve always had an irrational love for New York … the city is so full of chaos, and the chaos is, for many people, pleasurable.”
The NYPD is the largest civilian police force in the world, and the Serpico legend is part of a controversial history. Based on the true story of an honest cop fighting police corruption, Serpico becomes a pariah, his life in danger and running low on friends. Al Pacino’s performance is bigger than his work on The Godfather, less interior, full of fire. The portrait of police scandal reverberates in today’s climate, and its unshakeable moral confidence continues to ring true.
As good a film as it is (Sidney Lumet was nothing if not consistent), its greatest asset is that it serves as one hell of a time machine to 1970s New York. Lumet captures New York City comprehensively, reportedly shot in 104 locations in each of the boroughs (except Staten Island).
For a generation of kids across the country, this may be the film that informed a lot of the vision they had of New York City. There are now-classic sequences set in The New York Public Library, Columbia University, 55 Central Park West (a.k.a. “Spook Central”) and the famous fire station used as the Ghostbusters headquarters (the exterior, anyway; many of the interiors were shot in LA).
The climax sees the eponymous heroes saving the day, but not before accidentally conjuring the spirit of the bad guy into the body of a 100-foot incarnation of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. The gooey monster stomps down on the city like Godzilla, but we rest assured in the fact that in this version of New York, everything is going to turn out OK.
21. Midnight Cowboy
Joe Buck (Jon Voight) quits his job and leaves Texas for the big city. This isn’t the cliché of the aspiring superstar looking for fame, only to find misfortune — he comes to the city intending to be a male escort, and his naivety is his downfall.
Rejected, taken advantage of, he befriends Ratso (Dustin Hoffman), a sickly con man who initially rips him off before deciding they can help one another out. The city is unkind to both of them, and they are a sad pair of allies in a fight they are destined to lose. The famous “I’m walking here!” shot (an unrehearsed reaction by Hoffman to almost getting hit by a real cab) sums it up: this New York is agnostic, indifferent. If you get caught under its feet, you will be crushed.
20. West Side Story
A repurposed adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet,” this version moves the action to Manhattan, translating the Mantagues and the Capulets to the Jets and the Sharks. A family feud turns into a gang rivalry, the ball to a school dance, the balcony to a fire escape.
Where the families of the play are both wealthy, here they are both poor, and there is an added conflict for the Sharks, who are dealing with a much different social experience than the all-white Jets. The film acknowledges this bias when it portrays the differing approach the police take to them, and more directly in the song “America.”
Visually, this is a fictional New York, studio-lit and occasionally over-sanitized, but it is easy to forget how boldly it states its commentary, and how important the city’s role is in it.
Larry Clark’s look at aimless, wandering teens not only refuses to censor what life is like for them, but actively seeks to confront every parental fear of the mid 90s. These kids drink and get high to the extreme, have reckless sex and pay dire consequences for all their juvenile misdeeds.
It was a controversial film, to the point that the Weinsteins had to create a “disposable” production company to release the uncut NC-17 rated version theatrically. This is a confrontational movie, and the version of New York it presents us with is cold, but the naturalistic performances of the kids combined with the realism of its photography coerces you into keeping your eyes open, whether you like it or not.
18. Sweet Smell of Success
Alexander Mackendrick’s mean slice of New York’s underbelly is one of the most revered film noirs of all time. These characters are mean and vicious, and so is the world they live in. Sidney Falco, a press agent down on his luck, encapsulates the “loser” noir trope. He’s a man desperate for notoriety, and is willing to sink into the muck to get it. He is not a wholly unsympathetic character, at least compared to the newspaper mogul whose sister he falls for.
Cinematographer James Wong Howe frames the battle of wits in the lights and shadow of the city, underlined by a moody score from Elmer Bernstein, adding up to a New York that is relentless, and unlikely to dole out happy endings.