A-List: Best Boston Movies

By J. Don Birnam

October 1, 2015

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We have covered the best movies about The Big Apple, as well as the best movies about Los Angeles. But with the Oscars season poised to shine a Spotlight and performing a Black Mass on Beantown, today we look at the best movies about Boston.

Research for this column revealed that, while movies about our two largest cities have been around since the dawn of the genre, the Boston movie is a much more recent phenomenon. Not only that, but the Boston movie has a very specific genre in almost all of its incantations: a crime movie. One could argue that Boston crime movie is a genre in and of itself today, but I have not found many of these films going back more than 15 or 20 years. (If you know of others, Tweet me here and let me know!).

Thus, while it turns out that Los Angeles movies were dark, noir-esque, and somber (surprisingly) and that New York movies were unexpectedly poetic and romantic (both the opposite of the stereotypes I have in my head about those cities), the Boston cliché fits the mold. Boston, the cradle of our Revolution and one of our most beautiful cities, is nevertheless a place with a dark underworld of crime and vice that manifests itself in film. Perhaps it helps that talented artists with Boston roots (think Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) have emerged to make movies about their hometown.

The rules will be the same as for the L.A. and NYC columns: the movie has to be primarily set in or about Boston. A passing glance or reference is not enough. This unfortunately disqualifies some good movies that have critical scenes in Boston, for example the X-Men sequel X2, or the fantastic War of the Worlds. I’ve also in the past discussed my adoration for the Aaron Sorkin baseball drama Moneyball, but the scenes in Boston are too attenuated to really make it a movie about Boston.


As for honorable mentions, I’ll list two: Good Will Hunting and The Town. I know it’s controversial, but I’ve never found much love for Hunting’s somewhat trite story of a misunderstood-genius who gets the girls with the help of quirky professor story. It was in some ways a reprise of Dead Poet’s Society and in others the same story as the latter drama A Beautiful Mind. I never find much inspiration in those stories without taking anything away from their performance. And The Town is a fantastic movie, a Best Picture nominee, no less, but when it comes to Ben Affleck-directed films, it is elsewhere that you will find my pick.

Oh, and one final thing: do not expect to see the horrific Fever Pitch on the list. Yeah, what could be more Boston than a movie about the 2004 ALCS and Red Sox season? But even typing those words hurts, so let’s leave it at that.

5. The Verdict (1982)

The oldest movie about Boston that I could find was Sydney Lumet’s courtroom drama The Verdict. I’ve spoken about this movie in the past as a courtroom drama. But the Paul Newman vehicle is also a good Boston movie because it pits two infamous factions of Boston society against each other - the legal establishment against the religious and political machine. In scenes that presage the upcoming Oscar contender Spotlight, Newman’s boozy, washed-up attorney has to confront the Catholic Church herself in his quest for redemption and good. But, like Spotlight and most other movies about Boston, redemption comes at a price and is never ultimately achieved. The well has been so poisoned by the evil you are pursuing that you inevitably get infected yourself - if not by stooping to their amorality to stop them, then simply by being around them. In the process of becoming a hero, the savior is destroyed. That is the story of The Verdict. That is the story of Spotlight. That is the story of Boston.

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