While the movie industry calls Los Angeles home, there’s no city that’s been better showcased and paid tribute through the big screen than New York. From Times Square to the furthest reaches of the five boroughs, there’s no shortage of fascinating stories to be told about NYC, and filmmakers for over a century have taken advantage of this one-of-a-kind city as the ultimate backdrop. Here are just 5 outstanding examples of great films that helped to define New York City for audiences around the world.
The Naked City (1948)
Every great NYC film captures something about the city that words can’t describe, and the cinematography on display in The Naked City more than any other film does justice to the unique scenery of the Big Apple. This Academy Award-winning film turned 1940s New York into a film noir dreamscape, featuring real people and places shot with a documentarian’s eye. The story of a hard-boiled NYPD detective and a winding story of murder and deception, the film is most memorable for the on-location filming that captured a side of the city few Americans had previously observed.
All About Eve (1950)
The allure of Broadway is something that’s drawn hearts and minds to New York for decades, and no film inhabits that world quite like this story of Bette Davis as a star of the stage fighting to stay on top. As Margo Channing, she’s the toast of the city, but her place in the world is thrown into disarray when an ambitious young fan inserts herself into her life, ultimately attempting to snatch away her crown. Outside of the interpersonal drama, this movie uses the setting of the Theater District to full effect, showing that the bright lights don’t always illuminate the whole story. A tale of intrigue, yearning and competition, it couldn’t have happened anywhere but New York City.
The Warriors (1979)
This gangland exploitation flick contains equal parts grit and kitsch, capturing a long-gone New York City that many old-time residents were glad to see gone. The Warriors takes viewers on a treacherous subway ride from the Bronx to Coney Island, through the eyes of a tough but overmatched street gang eager to reclaim their home turf and clear their names after being wrongfully accused of a murder. They encounter an array of colorful but dangerous characters along the way, and the late-70s NYC locations mean much of the grime onscreen is the real thing. While most of us may not find ourselves caught up in the world of street violence, any New Yorker who’s taken a way-too-long subway ride can at least partially identify with the travails of the Warriors.
Even the toughest New Yorker needs a laugh sometimes. While many movies showcasing the city choose to focus on dramatic realism, sometimes NYC can be the perfect backdrop for a battle between a few average joes and the forces of galactic evil. In this laugh-a-minute ghost story from the mid-80s, there are only four men protecting the citizens of New York from a full-on paranormal invasion: the self-appointed Ghostbusters. From real locations like the Columbia University campus and the New York Public Library, to a confrontation with an interdimensional supervillain on the roof of 55 Central Park West, the Ghostbusters could have only come from one place. In a city where you never know what’s around the corner, we can all be thankful that these four are keeping us safe from paranormal dangers.
Paris is Burning (1991)
New York is a city of many subcultures: small movements bubbling beneath the surface that eventually grow to something no American can ignore. Back when this documentary was filmed in concert halls around Times Square and Harlem, LGBT rights weren’t on even most progressive citizens’ radar, and the ballroom culture featured in Paris Is Burning, a lifeline for many, was an obscurity to most. The film reveals a stunningly colorful world, where drag balls populated by mostly nonwhite gay performers and audiences were an underground phenomenon that would soon reach mainstream America. With Madonna copying their dance moves within a few years, and RuPaul’s Drag Race now in living rooms nationwide, this film captivatingly showcases the nascent stages of one of the most fascinating cultural movements that couldn’t have started anywhere but New York City.