Downtown Week: The 15 Greatest NYC Films!
Worlds Greatest Movies
Yo, dudes! Ahem. I’ll bet you’re enjoying Downtown Week, ain’t ya? And, why not; after all, you’ve never seen anyone wear a T-shirt with ‘I Hate New York’ written on it, have you?
Part of the allure of the Big Apple is that it’s such a cinematic city. I really can’t think of another place that has been so frequently and so lovingly captured on celluloid. Walking around the place you often feel like you’ve wandered onto a humongous film set!
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the 15 greatest NYC films. I’ve decided to judge these films as much for their “New Yorkieness” as for their overall quality, so grab a Nathan’s hot dog and enjoy!
Why 15? Who wants to know, buddy?
15. The Warriors (Walter Hill, 1979)
I’ll be straight with you, kids. I’ve got a bit of a love/hate thing going on with The Warriors. On the one hand, I can’t help but find it ever-so-slightly tiresome (it’s just one protracted fight sequence after another, is it not?) and as knuckle-headed as anything else this side of Star Wars. On the other hand, however, it’s vision of a semi-futuristic NYC overrun by tribalistic street gangs is occassionally enthralling; the foreboding opening shot of a subway train snaking past Coney Island’s famous Wonder Wheel, being a case in point.
14. Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman, 1984)
Quite possibly most 80s kids’ first introduction to New York on screen, and a real treat from a time when mainstream films still managed to be both witty and spectaculor (see also Gremlins and Raiders of the Lost Ark). King Kong atop the Empire State Building may be more famous, but for folk of my generation the only monster on the rampage through Downtown Manhattan that matters is the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man!
13. Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979)
Again, another film I can’t claim to be the BIGGEST fan of, and I’d be surprised if there weren’t a few other people out there who find Woodsy’s in-film relationship with a 17-year-old schoolgirl a little bit, well, ewww. The famous opening montage of Manhattan itself, however, accompanied by George Gershwin’s evocative ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, is Allen’s finest moment as a “pure” filmmaker, and an unforgettable tribute to his beloved hometown.
12. The Naked City (Jules Dassin, 1948)
Rather unsurprisingly, the city known to many as “Gotham” always made a great location for Film Noir, and while The Naked City is far from the genre’s finest hour, it’s the one in which New York looms largest, near-title character as it is. While the plot is a little muddled and limp, the pulp verite shooting-style still looks electric, and a thrilling climax on the Williamsburg Bridge is well worth hanging around for.
11. Q: The Winged Serpent (Larry Cohen, 1982)
An unfairly overlooked film from an unfairly overlooked director, Q is a brilliantly written, tautly directed mini-horror-masterpiece which sees a deadly, ancient dragon picking off New Yorkers for it’s dinner. Imagine Jaws remoulded with the Manhattan skyline doubling for the deep blue sea, throw in a pair of fine performances from Michael Moriarty (jive-talking crim) and the late David Carradine (tough-talking cop), and off you fly!
10. Permanent Vacation (Jim Jarmusch, 1980)
The once near-immpossible to get hold of debut feature from Jim Jarmusch, this is scuzzy and meandering even by his standards. But then, if you don’t like that sort of thing, what are you doing watching a Jim Jarmusch film? A big noise on the NYC hipster scene at the turn of the 70s, this is a vivid snapshot of those times from a truly unique director.
9. Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)
What stay in New York would be complete without a trip to the Dakota Building? A breathtaking, neo-gothic apartment complex, the Dakota served both as the setting for Rosemary’s Baby, and the scene of John Lennon’s murder… Erm. Golly, Rosemary’s Baby is a great film, and the New York high-life has never been rendered in quite such a terrifying fashion as fashionable fawn Mia Farrow finds herself impregnated by the bloody devil himself! Imagine that as a storyline on Sex and The City!
8. Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969)
Next time you find yourself being harassed by the parping horn of an in-coming NYC taxi, please don’t forget to smack both hands down on it’s bonnet and bellow “HEY! I’M WALKING HERE!” a la Dustin Hoffman’s would-be pimp Ratso Rizzo in a famous (improvised!) scene from Midnight Cowboy. Furthermore, should you happen across a happening party with various members of the Warhol Factory crew, as Rizzo and his naive charge Joe Buck (Jon Voight) do here, then award yourself some extra NYC brownie points.
7. Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)
While not quite as fully Film Noir-y as The Naked City (there is a distinct lack of “broads” and guns, for starters), Sweet Smell of Success nevertheless does a better job of capturing post-war New York at it’s jazzy, smokey, dangerous best. Burt Lancaster is at the top of his game as the unscrupulous press columnist out to ruin his sister’s beau, and Tony Curtis is equally impressive as the conniving talent agent who hits the seedy clubs and dive-bars to dig up the dirt.
6. Smithereens (Susan Seidelman, 1982)
While Jim Jarmusch’s post-punk New York was a low-key, comic, and existential playground, future Desperately Seeking Susan director Seidelman had a more wary view of the same scene. That’s not to say Smithereens isn’t charming or witty (it’s both!), but it definitely bears the mark of a cautionary tale as a directionless punkette finds herself in a pickle following an attempt to piggyback to fame via a low-rent rock star played by original punk Richard Hell.
5. Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet, 1975)
In which Al Pacino plays a bank robber, engaged in an fastly unravelling hold-up on a sweltering Brooklyn afternoon in the hope of being able to raise enough funds to finance his gay lover’s sex change operation. It’s certainly a synopsis that makes you go “uh?”, and Dog Day Afternoon is a sassy, oddball delight from start to finish. Sure, most of the action is bank-bound and we don’t get to see too much of the city outside, but this corking ensemble piece is charged with enough electric Noo Yoik dialogue to light up Shea Stadium.
4. Johnny Suede (Tom DiCillo, 1991)
It’s those New York hipsters again, and although this lot are of an early-90s vintage, we soon see that they’ve not really tidied the place up much since the days of Siedelman and Jarmusch. Around the run-down environs of Williamsburg stalks 50s throwback Johnny Suede, searching in vain for fame and fortune, but forced to work by day as a painter and decorator in trendy local art galleries. DiCillo’s film is possibly the best film made yet about NYC trendies, thanks in no small part to the obvious glee it takes in pin-pricking their painfully affected personas, while still retaining enough heart to hope for their ultimate happiness.
3. Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973)
“You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets.” And not just any old streets, but the Mean Streets of New York. Look, you know it and I know it, Martin Scorsese (not Woody Allen, not Spike Lee) is NYC’s greatest celluloid poet. I could have put almost every one of the great man’s films on here (barring such non-Big Apple-based efforts as Casino, naturally), but it wouldn’t have been fair on everyone else. Mean Streets does deserve an extra-special mention, however, set as it is in the Little Italy locales of Scorsese’s own childhood.
2. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Joseph Sargent, 1974)
The story of a band of robber’s audacious attempt to “steal” a subway train, this is similar to Dog Day Afternoon in that it’s a New York film in which we get to see very little of the city’s streets. But since we get to spend most of our time down in the subway, kinda quite literally the “core” of the Big Apple, this white-knuckle thrill-ride of a film more than makes up for what we don’t get to see above ground. Also like Dog Day Afternoon, the authentic New York dialogue is hilarious and highly quotable, with practically every conversation an argument. “Put your pants on, Al. We’re goin’ Downtown!”
1. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)
Ok, so it’s that man Scorsese again, but how could it not be? The first time I ever went to New York, I watched Taxi Driver mere hours before my flight to get me in the mood. And although it is admittedly a rather sour view of the city, Taxi Driver is the ultimate New York film. I can’t think of the city without picture Travis Bickle’s taxi gliding through a cloud of steam. Then there’s Bernard Hermann’s eerie, dreamy score, which is in turn both unsettlingly relentless and moodily romantic… Very much like New York itself.