Though Hollywood serves as the metonym for the American film industry, filmmakers have been drawn to the streets of New York City since the earliest days of cinema. Because of its countless representations on the silver screen, New York occupies a massive part of our cultural imagination, leading to a plethora of New York movies.
When you imagine becoming an actor, you picture working in a restaurant in Soho. When you imagine becoming a writer, you picture being unemployed in Brooklyn. And so on. We have all these New York pictures to thank for that.
These are the 50 best New York movies, the flicks shot on location that reveal something about the character of the place, and the people that call it home.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991)
Director: Michael Pressman
Starring: Paige Turco, Ernie Reyes, Jr.
NYC Neighborhoods Featured: Times Square
It lasts but a minute; however, the first sixty seconds of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze has done more for New York tourism than any other film featuring talking turtles. In those 60 seconds, the camera leaps around locations near Times Square for a montage that unites New Yorkers of every class, creed, and color through one of the Big Apple's most beloved products: the pizza slice. Yes, it's a goofy movie that only works now as a nostalgia machine for folks of a certain generation, but the opening pizza montage is golden, a cinematic shrine to the pie. If you saw it as a child, as this writer did, the idea was implanted in your soul that you would have to one day travel to NYC and eat pizza.
Director: Douglas Cheek
Starring: Daniel Stern, John Heard, John Goodman
NYC Neighborhoods Featured: Midtown
No, the acronym doesn't stand for some obscure city government agency, but rather for Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller. A film with such subject matter is not often a cinematic masterpiece, and this no exception. In true New York fashion, however, there is a weird social consciousness at work, as C.H.U.D. addresses the invisibility of those experiencing homelessness, the city's irresponsible disposal of waste, and the destructive nature of bureaucratic government. It's almost as though Michael Moore and Al Gore made a B-movie horror flick. Then again, it features Daniel Stern, of Home Alone and Bushwhacked, so adjust your expectations accordingly.
Director: William Lustig
Starring: Joe Spinell, Caroline Munro, Tom Savini
NYC Neighborhoods Featured: Upper West Side; Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn
There's something about New York that'll turn you into a sweating murderer with interesting hair and a fondness for looping and cracked internal monologues. Though it's a vastly different film from Taxi Driver, William Lustig's Maniac walks a similar path, depicting Manhattan as a filthy nightmare where the only possible reaction is violence. Joe Spinell, something like a less hirsute Ron Jeremy, plays the titular maniac, who scalps women and then nails their bloody scalps to the heads of department store mannequins he then sleeps with. Sometimes, if he's feeling pretty, he'll style the hair of the dead. Check out the very long build-up to a murder in the 59th Street subway station bathroom, back when the bathrooms were still open to the public. Spinell's character, Frank Zito, pursues a nurse into the station, where she seeks refuge in a bathroom stall.
King Kong (1933)
Director: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack
Starring: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot
NYC Neighborhoods Featured: Midtown
King Kong. Depending on how you watch the flick, it's either a morality tale, an uncommon love story, or a messy look at race in America. Featuring incredible special effects that still impress (despite the constantly shifting scale for Kong's size), this epic upped the ante for visuals, a true high-water mark. Though much of the film was filmed on sound stages, the shots of the city used during the climax came from real cameras pointed at Gotham. The image of Kong wrapped around the Empire State Building, fighting off prop planes, is one of the most iconic in film history.
After Hours (1985)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Griffin Dunne, Rosanna Arquette, Linda Fiorentino
NYC Neighborhoods Featured: Soho
After Hours is a weird entry in Scorsese's filmography, easily his kookiest (and how you react to that word is a good indicator of how you'll feel about the film). The film follows one night in the life of Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), a hapless guy working a drone job who becomes embroiled in increasingly farcical situations during a visit to Soho. Punks, plaster, burglary, and suicide all come into play at various points during his odyssey. None of today's boutiques or overpriced coffee shops can be seen in Scorsese's warped take on the artsy neighborhood in the mid-'80s.
Director: William Friedkin
Starring: Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen
NYC Neighborhoods Featured: Greenwich Village, Meatpacking District, Morningside Heights
When William Friedkin's thriller Cruising opened in February of 1980, LGBT rights groups weren't happy. They protested the film as it was shooting and they protested the release, afraid that it would spread violent misconceptions about the gay community. Cruising, which follows a young police cadet (played by Al Pacino) who goes undercover to track down a serial killer butchering patrons of gay leather clubs in NYC, is a mess. It's a gutless picture that mistakes ambiguity for complexity, never letting the viewer get close enough to Pacino's character to fully negotiate the questions of sexuality and identity the film superficially plays with. It's a severe mishandling of complicated material.
Though the ideas are undercooked, the film allows contemporary viewers to look inside famous gay BDSM nightclubs like the Meatpacking District's Hellfire Club. The club scenes were shot on location, with actual patrons as extras. Let Friedkin tell it: all he did was let the cameras roll. For that, and as an eye-opening look at how Hollywood once thought it acceptable to portray gay life, Cruising is essential.
The Chelsea Girls (1966)
Director: Andy Warhol and Paul Morrisey
Starring: Brigid Berlin, Randy Borscheidt, Ari Boulogne
NYC Neighborhoods Featured: Chelsea
Calling Warhol's Chelsea Girls a film is misleading. It's really numerous films clustered around a central location, the Chelsea Hotel (222 West 23rd St.), and the collection of Factory “superstars” who lived there. The film is presented in split screen, with the twelve vignettes (totaling over six hours of screen time) divided between the two, arriving at a final run time of 210 minutes. One side of the screen is photographed and (lightly) scripted as a meditation on darkness, while the other side focuses on light. For a taste of the Factory aesthetic and a look inside one of the most famous hotels in the city, you can do no better.
Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Director: John Badham
Starring: John Travolta, Karen Lynn Gorney, Barry Miller
NYC Neighborhoods Featured: Bay Ridge, Brooklyn; Bensonhurst, Brooklyn
Equal parts family tragedy and cult dance workout, a la Grease and Hairspray, Saturday Night Fever is both an affective narrative and a struck pose. John Travolta's Tony is a trapped Brooklyn youth who looks to dancing as his one-way ticket out of a hum-drum existence. A human peacock, he's more interested in his hair, clothes, and strut than the people around him, to the point that he's blind to romance, friendship, and family. Beyond the story, the soundtrack and incredibly choreographed dance sequences helped calcify disco's power outside of New York.
Man Push Cart (2005)
Director: Ramin Bahrani
Starring: Ahmad Razvi, Leticia Dolera, Charles Daniel Sandoval
NYC Neighborhoods Featured: Midtown
Any New Yorker who's spent any time waiting in line for hot dogs, coffee, or Halal at a food cart knows that the gentlemen who hustle on the sidewalks and street corners must have a story. Ramin Bahrani's 2005 film zeroes in Ahmad, a Pakistani immigrant with a food cart, and his friend Noemi, who runs a newspaper stand near Ahmad's post. Man Push Cart's look at this relationship provides a stark contrast to the high-dollar glitz and glamour that so many New York films aspire to.