A-List: Five Best Movies About New York City
By J. Don Birnam
August 5, 2014
I recently had a chance to see Begin Again, by John Carney, who won an Oscar for Best Original Song back in 2007 for the move Once. While I enjoyed Once as a romantic epopee, there was something uncomfortably sentimental about its overall tone for me. Not so for Begin Again, starring a delightful Keira Knightley (the first time I’ve ever written that about her) and the reliable Mark Ruffalo. One of the many things I enjoyed about this touching and sincere movie was its New York City settings - from Central Park to Union Square to Brooklyn and Queens, the director made spectacular and effective use of the Big Apple. It’s always nice to recognize a movie’s setting, particularly when the movie is meant as a realistic life drama. But how often has one gone to the little obscure villas that are featured in movies like, say, Before Midnight or Vicky Cristina Barcelona? Not often. The thing with New York movies is that, at least for someone who has lived in the City, settings will be easier to recognize.
This was pretty much my line of thinking as I left the theater after Begin Again and then I thought (almost regretfully now): what are the best movies that feature New York City as a character, essentially? I say regretfully for two reasons: if you sit down and think about it, the list is impossibly long, and the task of winnowing it down to my artificially constructed five is nothing short of daunting. The second reason is that even defining when a movie is “about” New York or “features” New York is hard. Is Blue Jasmine, with its sharp commentary about certain pedantic segments of Northeastern society a movie that is, at least in part, about life in New York? Perhaps. But it can get tricky.
To make it somewhat easier, I adopted the following (still malleable and imprecise rule): if the movie makes notable use of New York City landmarks on more than passing occasion (so, a destruction scene in a disaster movie does not count), or, alternatively, if it explores the relationships of people vis-à-vis the City environments in which they are set, then it is eligible here. It is not enough that a movie be merely set in whole or in part New York City (think, for example, the Day After Tomorrow), it has to actually have something to say about the interaction between the city and its characters. Begin Again clearly classifies under the rules: the main project the characters embark upon involves recording set pieces in different places of the City. While none of the chosen scenarios is necessarily unique to the City, the City becomes a part of the story.
So, with one of the problems inherent in making this list somewhat tackled, let’s take on the bigger one: making the list itself. It took forever, and the list is necessarily imperfect. You will criticize me, rightly, for several omissions. This list could be 20 or 30 movies deep. Alas, I do have five clear favorites and in the end I was somewhat satisfied with my choices.