Cities on the Screen: The Best New York Films

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Hollywood is the factory, but New York is the stage. For a movie lover, the city is less a place than a genre in itself. A New York movie is first and foremost a New York movie, even if you could call it a romance or a thriller. Like a singer performing an old jazz standard, great movies set in town take the same basic tune – yellow cabs and brownstones, the skyline and the chaos below – and make it their own.

Watching movies in New York itself is a mirror business. At least once I stepped out of a Manhattan movie theater onto the same street where the movie I just saw had its last scene. (You remember the end credits and get coffee.) But here are a dozen films that will get you to New York, wherever you really are. It could be a hundred, I know. We come to the others in the sequels.

After business hours

Where to see: Available to stream Amazon Prime, iTunes and Youtube

New York by night, 80s style: Griffin Dunne and Rosanna Arquette in

New York by night, 80s style: Griffin Dunne and Rosanna Arquette in “After Hours” (1985) © Allstar Picture Library / Alamy

The temptation is to fill this piece with films by Martin Scorsese from Little Italy. But I choose one with due respect for taxi driver and the rest. Wildly underestimated, After business hours (1985) – a black screwdriver comedy set over a single night – is also an express ticket to downtown Manhattan in the 1980s. The film finds an unhappy office worker (Griffin Dunne) on a date that turns into an odyssey of life and death. But an odyssey in one place – a SoHo that is still filled with artist lofts and dive bars.

Midnight Cowboy

Where to see: Amazon Prime, iTunes and Youtube

Everybody's Walkin ': Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman step in

Everybody’s Walkin ‘: Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman stride through the streets of New York in “Midnight Cowboy” © AF Archive / Alamy

Perhaps not exactly the city tourism authorities’ favorite film when it came out in 1969, director John Schlesinger’s plaintive buddy film was set in several New Yorks. Deluxe Park Avenue, a hip Andy Warhol-style underground and, on the bittersweet, a sad layer of doomed hustlers – they all shared the screen. Take a look at it and you’ll never hear John Barry’s wistful theme song again without seeing Dustin Hoffman as Ratso Rizzo claiming “I’m walkin ‘here!” On a crosswalk. A New Yorker was speaking.

Do the right thing

Where to see: Amazon Prime, iTunes and Youtube

Spike Lee's 'Do the Right Thing' brought Bed-Stuy to the big screen

Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” brought Bed-Stuy to the big screen © Moviestore / Entertainment Pictures via ZUMA Press / Alamy

A journey from Manhattan across the Brooklyn Bridge takes you to Bedford-Stuyvesant, the setting of Spike Lee’s early masterpiece. Like Scorsese, Lee grew up in New York and often returned to the city for subjects, and it was here that he made the definitive study of a heatwave, both literally and otherwise – an electric vision of culture clash and community, youth, old age, Music, politics, love, hate and everything in between are still as important as they were when it was released in 1989.

Man on the wire

Where to see: Amazon Prime, iTunes and Youtube

High wire act: fun ambulist Philippe Petit walks between the twin towers

High wire act: Funambulist Philippe Petit walks between the twin towers © Jean-Louis Blondeau / Polaris / eyevine

Beyond breathtaking – if touched by melancholy – the documentary film Man on the wire is made by an outsider to the city, British director James Marsh, through another, Philippe Petit. The latter came to New York in 1974 as a French high-wire artist with an unbelievable plan – to throw a tightrope between the Twin Towers and to commit the result. You’d expect the movie to be an adrenaline rush – it is – but the surprise is how strangely calm it can be.

Taking Pelham one two three

Where to see: Amazon Prime, iTunes and Youtube

The original version of the New York subway thriller

The original 1974 version of the New York subway thriller “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three”, remade in 2009 © APL Archive / Alamy

That glorious crime thriller, filmed that same year, went underground instead. You can’t hope to visit New York through movies without taking the subway, and here is the masterfully clammy story of a hijacked 6 train that comes to rest under 28th Street. The thin blue line of the transit police is played by Walter Matthau, his accent is a local marvel, made in the Lower East Side.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Where to see: Amazon Prime and iTunes

Audrey Hepburn in

Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” the opening scene of which was filmed in the jeweler’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue © Allstar Picture Library / Alamy

As is often the case with great New York films, the interior is from Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) was a Hollywood creation filmed on the stages of the Paramount grounds. But interiors are overrated. Were the real locations – especially Fifth Avenue’s flagship, Tiffany & Co – timeless? Or did the film make them so? When Audrey Hepburn looked into the jeweler’s window in the opening scene, she was accompanied from off by hundreds of curious New Yorkers – they watched a shop front become a landmark of the cinema.

Uncut gemstones

Where to see: Netflix

Adam Sandler as a jeweler with gambling problems in Uncut Gems from 2019, set in the Diamond District of Manhattan

Adam Sandler as a jeweler with gambling problems in “Uncut Gems” from 2019, which is set in the Diamond District of Manhattan © Netflix / AF Archive / Alamy

Just a few blocks south of Tiffany’s is a different New York than Holly Golightly’s high society. Another type of film, too. The Diamond District on West 47th Street is a place of rough buying and selling, a unique place that has become the backdrop to the hustle and bustle Uncut gemstones (2019). The continuous story of a jeweler with a gambling addiction. It’s not just Midtown places that bring you to New York. It’s also the pitch the movie plays on – a crazy, cacophonic, irresistible rush hour of a movie.

Saturday Night Fever

Where to see: Amazon Prime, iTunes and Youtube

John Travolta under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge in

John Travolta under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge in “Saturday Night Fever” © TCD / Alamy

Another Brooklyn story, the 1977 film that starred John Travolta is sometimes viewed as the fun glitter ball of a movie. The white suit, the dance floor brace – everything is there. But it’s not quite what that reputation suggests. A gritty tale of Catholic guilt and frustration in a cul-de-sac that also gives us a version of the city that rarely makes it on screen – an outskirts tour of Bay Ridge and the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge.

Frances Ha

Where to see: Amazon Prime, iTunes and Youtube

Greta Gerwig (left) in a 'Frances Ha' scene filmed in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village

Greta Gerwig (left) in a scene from “Frances Ha” in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village © Photo 12 / Alamy

Generations of New Yorkers have found that staying in town during difficult times can be a Herculean task. Indeed, the financially strained heroine of Noah Baumbach’s lively comedy Frances Ha (2012) – played by co-author Greta Gerwig – jumps out completely for a short time (to Paris). And yet she returns, still defeated. The film makes hay with the eternal stuff of being young and late with the rent in Prospect Heights and Chinatown.

Desperately looking for Susan

Where to see: Amazon Prime and iTunes

Madonna in Battery Park in

Madonna in Battery Park in 1985’s “Desperately Seeking Susan” © TCD / Alamy

So many films and none of them is in a New York movie theater. Let’s correct the oversight with Desperately looking for Susan, a charming ’80s indie romcom born at the intersection of the city’s post-punk and clubland scenes, with key moments filmed at the now defunct Bleecker Street Cinema. The film was a surprise hit due to the sudden fame of its co-star Madonna. She’s good at it, I swear. The summoning of Greenwich Village and Battery Park is even better.

Killer kiss

Where to see: Amazon Prime and iTunes

Stanley Kubrick did in his early work

Stanley Kubrick recorded the “wasteland hinterland” of Brooklyn in his early work “Killer’s Kiss” © Granger Historical Archive / Alamy

Not every great director who grew up in New York has made endless films there. Like Spike Lee and Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick grew up in the city. Unlike them, he only made New York films at the end of his career. The threatening Eyes wide closed was his last – was among his first Killer kiss (1955), a fast and dirty box noir that is also a living snapshot of Kubrick’s hometown. The young maestro shoots guerrilla-style filming without permission, recording hectic Times Square, the fine arts splendor of the original Pennsylvania Station (demolished in 1963) and Dumbo’s warehouse backcountry, ghostly under the Manhattan Bridge.

Summer of the soul

Where to see: Disney +

Sly Stone at the Harlem Cultural Festival 1969, as in

Sly Stone appears at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, as in “Summer of Soul” © courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios

And finally, the youngest film on the list, which actually dates from 1969. That was the year of the first and only Harlem Cultural Festival, a rolling inner-city festival of black music. The film, made to capture the event, remained dusty and forgotten until a belated release in 2021. The performances are fascinating – I defy anyone who moves through Sly and the Family Stones up-and-coming “Everyday People” – but the headline is Harlem itself. One Sunday when the music was playing, man walked on the moon. Not an easy task, but a minor miracle compared to Harlem.

Danny Leigh is the FT’s film critic

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