by Jason Koenigsberg
New York City is near and dear to my heart. It is close to where I grew up and is one of my favorite places to be. No other city in the world has the same majestic feel as New York City. Some of the greatest movies of all time have been set in the City that Never Sleeps and some of the most prolific and legendary filmmakers have made a career with stories that take place in The Big Apple.
Here are the best New York City movies and they are ranked on how they capture New York City on film, not necessarily in the order that they are the best films. These are all films that capture the mystique and aura as well as griminess and filth of the biggest city in the United States. They needed to have indelible images of the city that are ingrained in our minds. These are important films that capture New York from different eras in history and films that candidly depict all of its different angles.
Before we get to the top 10 Best New York City Movies, here are the ones that just missed the cut in no particular order:
Die Hard with a Vengeance-The 3rd Die Hard picture and the first one where we get to see John McClane on his home turf. The action sequences are copious and spectacular, some of the best to ever take place in the five boroughs, it’s still not as amazing as the first Die Hard.
The Godfather Part II-The definitive film to capture New York City’s Ellis Island experience. Many immigrants have stated the scene of Vito Corleone arriving and seeing the Statue of Liberty as an image from their own memory bank. However, this Best Picture winner also takes place in Lake Tahoe, Italy, Cuba and Florida, it would be unfair to put it in the top 10.
Goodfellas-Possibly the best movie of all time and definitely one of the greatest movies to ever take place in New York City. It does not have any iconic New York landmarks or images of Manhattan, the majority of the picture takes place in Brooklyn and Queens. It still deserves to be mentioned because it captures the New York attitude with its characters probably better than any other film.
Coming to America-A hilarious comedy about finding love and learning the meaning of hard work in the city where so many have done exactly that. It also helps that it’s Eddie Murphy’s funniest film and one that can be enjoyed repeatedly no matter how many times you have seen it.
Big-A brilliant comic fantasy that makes New York City the biggest playground for the world’s biggest and luckiest kid. Captures so many great Big Apple landmarks, none memorable than the iconic scene with Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia dancing on the giant keyboard in F.A.O. Schwarz.
Saturday Night Fever-One of the best movies to capture New York City at the height of the disco era in the late 1970’s. It also does a great job depicting the glamour and style of the City as well as the tragedy and sadness it harbors.
Do The Right Thing-Spike Lee’s film depicts the working class Bedford-Stuyvesant Brooklyn neighborhood on the hottest day of the summer. Controversially tackles racism as blends comedy with tragedy and captures a side of New York that needs to be seen and discussed more often with intelligence and urgency.
A Bronx Tale-A great recreation of growing up in a working class household in early 1960’s New York, a great achievement of writing and acting for Chazz Palminteri and one of the greatest performances from Robert DeNiro in his directorial debut. Both these native New Yorkers brought their own experiences to make this an authentic experience.
Night Falls on Manhattan-Probably the least well-known title on this list, but it is one of the best pictures ever made about police corruption and the justice system in New York City as well as some of the most glorious shots of the city. One of the best films about New York City in the 1990’s during the Giuliani era before everything changed after 9/11. Sidney Lumet made most of his films in New York City and many of them are police procedurals or courtroom dramas, this is both and one of the most underrated films of his illustrious career that includes 12 Angry Men, The Pawnbroker, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network and many other great films that take place in The Big Apple.
Annie Hall-Woody Allen’s filmography is filled with so many great New York City movies I could make a list of 20 movies just directed by him. But I want to diversify and this 1977 best picture winner is a comedic masterpiece at the same time a great romance about his love with New York City.
And now The Top 10 Best New York City Movies of All Time
Gangs of New York (2002) directed by Martin Scorsese
The only film that depicts the infamous New York City draft riots and the Five Points under the grip of corrupt political Boss William Tweed, is also one of the best films about how New York City evolved as a refuge for immigrants and developed into one of the most powerful cities in the world. One of Scorsese’s greatest achievements, the sets are phenomenal but it is number ten on the list because it was all shot in Cinecitta, Italy and not in the five boroughs. Check out this clip of the films finale, a loving tribute to the strength of New York City.
The Warriors (1979) directed by Walter Hill
The Odyssey by Homer retold as a street gang needs to get back to their home turf and avoid enemy gangs who are out for blood. It is a silly picture at times but few movies have captured the City in such a simultaneously realistic and surreal light at the same time. The costumes and the music create a New York fantasy, but the location filming and subway rides feel as real as they do in any movie. A unique style and briskly entertaining picture make this an unlikely New York classic. Accompanied by a stellar soundtrack and the best usage of the New York subway system on film, check out all the great shots of the city in the clip below.
Midnight Cowboy (1969) directed by John Schlesinger
“I’m walking here!” that line alone yelled by Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo captures New York City better than just about any other movie quote, I came very close to putting John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man (1976) on this list. Midnight Cowboy is a great story about desperate men coming to the city searching to improve their fortunes and start a new and exciting life, something millions of others have tried to do. The controversial drama won the Academy Award for best picture and deserved it, one of the best depictions of the seedy side of New York.
25th Hour (2002) directed by Spike Lee
Much like Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Sidney Lumet, it was very hard selecting which Spike Lee film (or films) should be on this list. 25th Hour may not be his best film or one of his most well known, but it is without a doubt the best film about New York City recovering in the aftermath of 9/11. Many films have been made about the terrorist attacks from 2001, however most of them are either patronizing or misguided. On the surface the plot has nothing to do with 9/11 but because of expert direction by Spike Lee it transcends the plot and the characters. This film captures a very different New York City than everything that had come before it and shows a New York City that was hurting and will never be the same. The opening credits below explain through images and Terence Blanchard’s dramatic score exactly what the film is really about.
Wall Street (1987) directed by Oliver Stone
25th Hour depicted New York City post 9/11 better than any other film, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street depicts New York City during the “me-decade” of the 1980’s better than any other film. A masterpiece about making it in America, being an underdog and trying desperately to be something that you are not, its illustrations of class mobility in this country and how difficult it really is to make it in America are better than any other film. Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is Good” speech and the montage of decorating an upscale apartment to “This Must be the Place” by the Talking Heads are moments to savor.
Manhattan (1979) directed by Woody Allen
Picking one Woody Allen movie for this list was practically an exercise in futility. It was like choosing the best song by The Beatles. I went with his classic comedy-drama that is as much a love story between its characters as it is a love story between the filmmaker and New York City. The clip below shows Gordon Willis’ glorious black and white cinematography edited perfectly to “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin is even accompanied by Woody Allen’s own narration about how he romanticizes the city. This opening montage plays like its own perfect little movie. I used to come home from class when I was in college, put the DVD in and just watch the opening scene over and over, you can watch it if you click below.
Once Upon a Time in America (1984) directed by Sergio Leone
A great directors final masterpiece is one of the most unique epics in motion picture history and it all takes place in New York City. It accurately captures a time where both New York and the rest of the country were in flux experiencing growing pains and dramatic cultural transitions as the nations identity was changing with the massive waves of new immigrants becoming American citizens and trying to find their way in the United States. Most of these immigrants started off their American journey in the streets of New York and this film documents how boyhood friends (Robert DeNiro and James Woods) tried to find success in their new homeland. Featuring some of the best sets, costumes and cinematography capturing a lost time in American history, Once Upon a Time in America illustrates the history of New York City unlike any other picture.
King Kong (1933) directed by Merian C. Cooper
Forget the 1976 remake and Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake that showed off state of the art special effects for three hours, the original is still the grandest of all the giant ape sagas clocking in at only 93 minutes. Capturing New York in all of its authentic early twentieth century glory. A classic film in every regard but especially perfect for this list because of the way it juxtaposed the great beast against technology and the massive prowess of the Empire State Building right after it was first built. The first Kong is still King. Watch King Kong ascend the New York skyline in the clip below.
Taxi Driver (1976) directed by Martin Scorsese
No motion picture captured the dark and gritty side of New York City in the pre-Giuliani and pre-Ed Kotch era better than Martin Scorsese’s phenomenal groundbreaking Taxi Driver. DeNiro, as Travis Bickle, gives one of his very best performances as a man who “would not take it anymore”. Not only is this a masterpiece of New York cinema, this is one of the best portrayals of America in the post-Vietnam era and the closest anyone has come to adapting Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye”. The New York Travis Bickle drove around at night no longer exists, but thanks to the medium of film we have it captured and documented of what the city looked like at one of its darkest points in its history. Rather than show a clip from Taxi Driver here is a fantastic montage of Martin Scorsese’s pictures, most of which take place in New York City.
And the #1 best New York City movie is…
Ghost Busters (1984) directed by Ivan Reitman
The perfect New York movie, I cannot think of a better film that captures the essence of the Big Apple better than Ghost Busters. The characters, the dialogue, the attitude, its all very hard for me to believe that its director Ivan Reitman was born in Czechoslovakia then moved to Canada and its writers Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd are from Chicago and Canada respectively. Other than Sigourney Weaver none of the principal actors hail from the New York, which makes this film even more impressive and we have to give major kudos to all the actors in its talented cast. So many iconic shots of the city and the people from the opening scene at the New York City Public Library to Ernie Hudson shouting out “I love this town!” right before the end credits and that catchy theme song play this film is as much a love letter to the city as any Woody Allen picture. The script made New York a vital part to the plot where it is impossible to imagine Ghost Busters taking place anywhere else. It just celebrated it’s 30th anniversary, check out the re-release trailer below.