Top Ten Films that take place in New York

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10. I AM LEGEND (2007) A desolate New York shelters Robert Neville (Will Smith) as the last survivor after the destruction and spread of a man made virus that destroys humanity. The setup is pure sci-fi fare. Neville, immune to the virus, roams the land in search of survivors, but comes across mutants of the plague, who hunt him. Barricading himself in his Greenwich Village home, Neville keeps to his laboratory, desperate in finding a vaccine cure. The film is well-constructed, although defies some logic (what is the point to a vaccine if humanity has already been annihilated?) Director Francis Lawrence aptly generates a sense of suspense with the mutants and the special effects are worth mentioning. The most amazing part of this film is how effective Lawrence and Smith are at creating a sense of true companionship between Neville and his dog, Sam. Theirs is a brilliant example of an unorthodox duo can emote as much emotion, conversation, and humor as any other cinematic duo, and garners I Am Legend worth a viewing solely for that accomplishment alone.

9. BREAKFAST AT TIFFANYS (1961) Many iconic films take place in New York, but few films are able to leave such an impression on New York. Breakfast at Tiffany’s breaks the mold, and made the city, synonymous with the jewelry store, Tiffany’s, located on Fifth Avenue. Blake Edwards directs Audrey Hepburn in the most identifiable role of her career, in this fine adaptation of Truman Capote’s story. Holly Golightly (Hepburn) is a free-spirited escort of the wealthy. She meets struggling writer Paul Varjack (George Peppard) and they take on the film’s central struggle between happiness, poverty and the New York habit of trading up your social standing. Edwards constructs a film that is heavy in its fantasy, sealed in Hepburn’s performance of the Oscar gold, “Moon River” (composed by Henry Mancini). Lastly, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is bold in its subject matter. For a film made in the early 1960’s, besides Hepburn’s provocative outfits, there are a number of scripted lines oozing with sexual innuendo.

8. GHOSTBUSTERS (1984) Ivan Reitman (and writers Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis) struck gold with this version of a spooked out Manhattan. The genius of this film is two-fold. One, it is a special-effects blockbuster (and for its time, and even today, is quite successful for that) and two, the script/dialogue is slick, sardonic, and performed by comedy greats Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, and Dan Aykroyd. The film is about a trio of eccentric New York City parapsychologists who capture ghosts for a living. The supernatural comedy balanced sheer goofiness with irony and American cynicism to great results. Rarely do special effects serve the film’s story. Most often actors are treated as pawns to horrific earthquakes, alien invasions and oversized robots. But the mastery of this film (and franchise) is that the effects are only in place to serve the storyline and it’s the actors who shine through. Plus, who could resist the invention of Slimer?

7. SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977) This film epitomizes what all New Yorkers live for – Saturday night. Brooklyn’s Tony Manero (can I say, played by a dashing John Travolta?) and his pals escape their dreary day jobs by dancing their hearts out every Saturday night at the local disco, 2001 Osyssey. This film is disco and is the Bee Gees, and put both on the pop culture map. John Badham’s style lures us on the dance floor, and delivers all the love and cruelty that undoubtedly exists there. Under the bright lights and dazzling dance sequences (especially Travolta’s solo done in one uncut shot) the film is really a strong a character portrait of Travolta’s conflicted Tony Manero. Manero is lives under the pressure of his family, friends and the females in his life. Audiences are able to empathize and idolize such a character for his desire to overcome his life’s obstacles, beautifully symbolized with Badham’s symbolism of Verrazano Narrows Bridge connecting the upper and lower New York bays.

6. SERPICO (1973) Being a cop in New York is one of the hardest jobs in the world, one made excruciatingly apparent in Sidney Lumet’s gritty cop drama Serpico. Al Pacino plays Frank Serpico, a man recounting his lone battle with the brutality and corruption of the New York police department. No one can stress the brilliance of Pacino’s performance. The man is intense and in nearly every scene of the film. He flawlessly transforms from a fresh police cadet to an exhausted and cynical veteran. Lumet’s directorial instincts are sharp as the contrasts in pace, lighting and sound mirror Serpico’s outrage and obsession. Although the film is light on action sequences, the screen stays illuminated with the visceral psychological pressures Serpico undergoes as he exposes the city’s dirty cops.

5. WHEN HARRY MET SALLY (1989) Sure, one might attribute the modern New York love story to Sex and the City, or even Pretty Woman, but one trip to Katz Deli will remind viewers that when it comes to neurotic New Yorkers trying to fall in love, Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) take first place. Rob Reiner revitalized this dying genre in part with his stars and Nora Ephron’s fabulous script. The chemistry between Crystal and Ryan is palpable. Crystal’s dry performance of Harry simultaneously makes him intolerable and likeable, while Ryan bubbly personality radiates in Sally’s upbeat and quirky demeanor. Ephron’s a master in pitting polar opposites together and through their charming interactions, eventual falling in love. When Harry Met Sally offers the answer to the age-old question, can men and women can ever just be friends? Lastly, one should note that Reiner aced the casting criteria again with the clips of elderly couples recalling how they met. Viewers easily forget they are watching actors perform from script, and believe they are witnessing real couples recount their stories. Rom-coms (done right) are lovely, timeless and box office gold.

4. WALLSTREET (1987) – New York’s adrenaline fueled finance industry is perfectly personified in this Oliver Stone film with millionaire chameleon Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) tutoring a young and naïve Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen).  Gekko, a Wall Street shark, lures Fox with the Manhattan dream of ultimate power and wealth. Fox is so hungry to emulate Gekko’s “desirable” life that he sacrifices his sanity and eventual liberty (and isn’t that part of the true American dream?) Stone is successful in capturing the energy of Wall Street and delivering an accessible story to his viewers as he filters trade lingo and stock exploitation down to its core – greed. And everything else (sex, possessions, family) is treated secondary to money. Few characters in recent film history are able to exemplify the Machiavellian philosophies as well as Douglas’ Gekko. Douglas is utterly convincing as the ruthless Wall Street prince. His performance alone is worth a viewing, and its theme is ever relevant in lieu of today’s financial climate.

3. DO THE RIGHT THING (1989) New York is branded as the largest melting pot in the world, and on the hottest day of the summer, in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy community, we see the effects of what all that heat can do. Spike Lee’s third film pours over the issue of race, and uniquely handles the issue with in an unbiased manner, allowing viewers to remarkable to find sympathy with each and every character. It is amazing how Lee is able to connect with viewers and force them to ponder what “doing the right thing” truly means. The film was controversial and a huge box office success with such memorable characters as Mookie (Lee himself), Sal, Mother Sister, Radio Raheem, Mister Senor Love Daddy, etc. Besides being able to anticipate what the misunderstandings, suspicions and bad luck will amount to by the film’s climax; viewers are able to witness a stylistic tale through the vision of a very confident young filmmaker. Lee balances joy and sorrow with vivid color, music, humor, and experimental close-ups. He breaks away from the realism and builds tension with two slow motion sequences involving the way people view one another, imbedding his message within the medium.

2. TAXI DRIVER (1976) One of his earliest, and to some arguably his best, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver captures a different type of New York experience, one of loneliness and danger. Travis Bickle (a captivating Robert De Niro) is a Vietnam vet; a cab driver disgusted by the moral decay around him (hence his preference to working nights). His focus is steadfast in saving child prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster). The film’s focus, however, is one of a person failing to connect, and in desperate need to do so. Bickle is the ultimate alienated character, bringing us to the film’s most famous line “You talkin’ to me?” which Bickle asks his own reflection in a mirror. Misery draws Bickle to Iris’ pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel) and what ensues is one of cinema’s unmatched bloodbaths. Stylistically related to Scorsese’s Mean Streets (and a film that should also be on such a list) Scorsese once again employs his trademark slow-motion techniques, point-of-view shots, and close-ups to illustrate Bickle’s interior state, and effectively does so, without the use of much dialogue. The film ends on a more emotional, non-literal note, where reality and fantasy are forever blurred.

1. ANNIE HALL (1977) The top spot should be for Woody Allen himself, period, but if one had to narrow down the love affair between this director and New York City to one film, that would have to be Annie Hall (although I’m still cringing that Manhattan and Hannah and her Sisters are being left off this list L). Although the screen shares its time with Los Angeles, the attitude of the film is purely and completely New York and one that belongs to Allen himself. Alvy (Woody Allen) takes his overanxious, underachieving, New York intellectual persona to new dimension. Allen is preoccupied with examining one’s personality, and he does this through his relationship with the delightful Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). Allen spares nothing from analysis in this love story and does so with comic genius, split screens, direct-to-camera narration, and subtitles to show what men and women are really thinking. The dialogue is continuously witty and sharp, and for good measure Allen throws in a few slapstick gags for laughs. This is quintessential Allen, and quintessential New York. (Interesting side note: Annie Hall’s radical style was influenced by Keaton’s personal wardrobe).

3 Comments
  1. Peter says

    Why is I Am Legend on that list? Awful choice.

  2. Tim says

    Great list. Obviously hard to whittle down. I was thinking of a little movie called Manhattan as well.

    1. Ricky says

      I was thinking the exact same thing.

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