May 13, 2009

Favorite cinematic New Yorks

I am going to move to New York City this September. Aside from a few visits, I have to admit that most of what I know about the city comes from movies. Unlike many other cities, both in the U.S. and worldwide, New York has the unique distinction of not really being cinematically pigeonholed (at least in American cinema). There is not just one New York on screen. Whereas LA is always slick and commercial, Chicago is always seedy, Boston is always teeming with blue-collar criminals, anywhere in Italy or France is always achingly romantic, and anywhere in urban Asia is always hustling and bustling, New York can be any number of things. Even though certain representations come up often, you can still hop onto Netflix and find a whole range of cinematic New Yorks, from the glamorous to the gritty. Below are some of my favorite versions of New York on screen. My criteria was basically that the location had to factor into the film - that it would change the feeling of the film if it took place somwhere else. The story couldn't be insulated from its environment. For example, even though Rear Window technically takes place in NYC, you probably wouldn't be able to tell because really it just takes place in one apartment. So that wouldn't count. Also, for the sake of focus, I'm keeping it limited to Manhattan - diving into the other boroughs is a whole other barrel of monkeys. (And the other boroughs are typically depicted in a more narrow light than Manhattan - i.e. you don't see too many fluffy romantic comedies set in the Bronx). Finally, note that this not a list of the best movies that are set in New York, but the best representations of New York on film. This list is by no means exhaustive; it is meant to spark discussion.

The Crowd (1927)
People often go to the big city to become somebody, but what if that doesn't work out? King Vidor's heartbreaking silent film exposes the lie of the American dream, and gives the audience a New York of
dead-end jobs at nameless companies and tiny apartments with fold-out beds. But it also gives us the classic ending where a huge crowd of New Yorkers escapes their troubles by laughing the night away in a movie theater. It's unflinching, but hopeful.

Gold Diggers of 1933 (um, 1933)
People tend to think during the Great Depression, culture was completely decimated and everyone was just sitting in a pile of dirt. While that was definitely true for a lot of people, it's often forgotten that there was still a lot of decadent glamour in the upper sets. There were still opulent spectacles on Broadway and in theaters. So this film gives an interesting dichotomy wherein the characters are devising ways to steal their neighbor's breakfast so as not to go hungry, but then hopping between sparkly roles on Broadway. This New York is glitzy but full of scrappy folks who want to entertain but also just want to eat.

On The Town (1949)
Three sailors are seeing New York for the first time, and the attractions are larger than life - from the Museum of Natural History to flashy 1940s nightclubs (by the way, can they bring those back?). But the real draw is the women - lustful, confident, brassy and unabashedly Manhattanite.

Guys and Dolls (1955)
Unlike the previous musical I mentioned, people are less starry-eyed in this city. This film depicts the lives of gamblers and criminals, but without danger and brutality. Gamblers are people too, and they have marital and job woes like the rest of us. Similarly, the head of a religious mission can't fill the seats anymore. Everyone has problems in this New York, but they solve them with dancing and love.

The Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Here's a New York full of backstabbers and huge egos. James Wong Howe's incredible black and white cinematography captures the city in all its grit and despair.

The French Connection (1971)
Because, ya know, sometimes you just gotta dress up like Santa to kick people's asses. There's the classic car chase, of course, but also a great dive bar with motown music, gritty cinematography and even grittier people.

Taxi Driver (1976)
Duh. Kid prostitutes and psychopaths, with dreamlike shots of driving down the dirty streets. An ode to the seedy unberbelly of the city, it still manages to be strangely lyrical while detailing the toll it can take on its denizens.

Manhattan (1979)
Even though this is technically a romantic dramedy, it's really more of a love letter to a city. Although that can be said of many Woody Allen films, it is probably most clear here, from the black and white cinematography to the opening voiceover with Gershwin to the iconic shot under the Queensborough Bridge.

When Harry Met Sally (1989)
A nice tour of a romantic New York through the seasons, and the film that immortalized Katz's Deli forever. Even if the Harry Connick Jr. soundtrack does get a bit cheesy...

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
This film came under criticism for, among other things, depicting New York unrealistically (it was in fact shot primarily in London). That's not the point. The whole film has a dreamlike quality, and an unsettling quality - things aren't supposed to be quite right. This is a New York where everyone has secrets, from benign to dangerous and disturbing. You also rarely see daylight, which adds to the creepy vibe.

Zoolander (2001)
Underground walk-offs hosted by David Bowie? Past-fixated hand models lurking in graveyards? Mugatu?! This is one zany city. Zany and awesome.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
This isn't real New York, this is Wes Anderson's New York - he even went so far as to have an actor stand directly in front of the Statue of Liberty in one shot, and have made-up addresses. But he makes it his quirky own, and I wouldn't doubt that people like this really exist in NY.

Spider-Man (2002) and sequels
Everything is bright and efficient here. Jonah Jameson runs a snappy newspaper, the pizzas better be delivered on time and Spidey always saves the day.

Igby Goes Down (2002)

Shows the bohemian side of the city, in a subtler and more realistic way than say, Rent.

25th Hour (2002)
The main character, Monty, delivers an infamous "fuck you" monologue to everything in the city you could think of, from the Korean grocers to the "Gordon Gekko wannabe motherfuckers" on Wall Street, which many viewers actually read as a kind of perverted love letter. In a way, the film is Spike Lee's Manhattan.

Sex and the City (2008)
Okay, so this is kind of cheating, because I didn't see the movie. But I did see every episode of the show, and I figure the movie had a similar thing going on. So yeah, it's kind of a fantasy, but that's what makes it so fabulous. And hey, maybe people really do wear Manolo Blahniks to the convenience store. Plus, most of the places they go are real, so it can't be totally made up. But it's pretty much the authority on Manhattan glamour.

Watchmen (2009)

The anti-Spiderman New York, if you will. It's an alternate, dystopian 1985, where Nixon is still the president and America won the Vietnam War. It's bleak as all hell, but still has the vividness of a graphic novel come to life. Plus it has a restaurant called the Gunga Diner, which is awesome.

What are your favorite cinematic New Yorks?

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