US Cities on Screen: NYC
New York, New York, it’s a helluva town, crooned Frank Sinatra and his sailor buddies. But their beloved NY no longer exists. At least, not like it did in 1949. Which is why we’re lucky that the city's ever-changing, ever-evolving face has been captured and chronicled in the movies. Anyone curious to see the city’s ghosts – how the Lower East Side looked pre-gentrification, how the Twin Towers loomed over everything – need look no further than the films of Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, et al. To watch these movies now is to fall in love with NYC all over again. Grab your “I ♥ NY tees”. Here’s our picks for the city on celluloid.
Travis Bickle’s yellow cab enters the frame. Plumes of smoke rise from the sewers. Moody jazz pulsates on the soundtrack as the lights from Times Square twinkle in puddles on the sidewalk. The scene is set for Scorsese’s sleazy 70s classic about a Vietnam vet cabbie on a mission to stand up “against the scum”. Watching it now, the NYC backdrop looms large. That endlessly romanticized NY, with its tawdry Times Square lined with porno theatres and guys in washed-out army jackets looking for cheap thrills. Taxi Driver is now as notable for its marked lack of artisan coffee shops as it is De Niro’s Mohawk.
Requiem for a Dream
Way before Darren Aronofsky melted your mind with the WTF-laden mother!, he made Requiem for a Dream. Again, twisted and trippy. He films intense close-ups of dilating pupils, needles and chemicals, as his teen characters descend further and further into a dark, drug-addled abyss. Born in Brooklyn, Aronofsky filmed most of the movie around the Coney Island boardwalk, right by the old Thunderbolt Rollercoaster that was demolished shortly after production. Fun fact: it was the same rollercoaster that young Alvy Singer lived under in Annie Hall.
Raising Victor Vargas
Peter Sollett’s 2003 coming-of-ager follows Victor, a Dominican teen growing up on the Lower East Side. He’s got an attitude, a wife-beater, and fancies himself a ladies’ man. But when he meets Judie, his softer side comes out. This is arguably the Lower East Side’s last great outing on the big screen before gentrification came along and transformed it into something, well, unrecognisable. Raising Victor Vargas is an NYC gem to treasure.
Do the Right Thing
No one captured Brooklyn in the 80s like Spike Lee. His sun-drenched 1989 classic was set on a single street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where hate and bigotry boil to the surface during one of the hottest days of the year. Lee had kids play in the spray from fire hydrants and painted walls fire truck-red to make the tension in the streets palpable. And cutting through all the noise was Public Enemy’s timeless banger “Fight The Power”, blasting from Radio Raheem’s boombox. Yep, this movie has iconic written all over it.
See 90s NYC through the gritty lens of intrepid photographer Larry Clark. His in-the-street doc style lays bare the daily exploits of a group of NY street skaters, as they roll blunts in Washington Square Park, have unprotected sex, and break into swimming pools at night to go skinny-dipping. Fun fact: that very NY swimming pool, with the famous Keith Haring mural on the wall, was also used by Scorsese in Raging Bull.
Gimme the Loot
You might think Adam Leon’s 2012 indie was shot in 1995, and I’d forgive you. Its characters dress like the cast of Kids; its soundtrack is stuffed with hip-hop bangers; and it’s shot in a grainy, timeless doc style. Add to that, you never see the modern billboards in Downtown (it was mostly shot in the Eastchester area), Gimme the Loot is an ode to the era of Nas and Biggie, wrapped in a teen drama about two graffiti artists trying to make a name for themselves.
Walter Hill’s cult classic ushers you through the gangland of 70s NYC. In this crime underworld, we follow Coney Island’s hometown heroes, The Warriors. They’ve been framed for the murder of a gang leader in the Bronx, and now they’re trying to get home. To get there, they must raise their dukes to rollerbladers in dungarees and baseball bat-wielding hoodlums. This is a world in which being hard means donning a leather waistcoat over your bare chest or dressing like one of the Village People. “Can you dig it?”
Legendary painter Jean-Michel Basquiat was only 19 when he played the lead in Downtown 81, Edo Bertoglio’s movie about a day in the life of a young NYC artist. Shot between 1980-81, it’s a fascinating time capsule of the early 80s Downtown arts scene, where painting, hip-hop, post-punk and new wave music were blowing people’s minds all over. It’s also fascinating to see the then little-known Basquiat struggle in an art scene he would later practically own with Warhol. Keep your eyes peeled for Debbie Harry as a bag lady, too.
Man Push Cart
When you see Anne Hathaway in an NY rom-com and you see her stroll through Downtown to grab a coffee from a street vendor, do you ever think: What if this movie was about the guy serving the coffee? What’s his life like? Well, this movie is kind of the answer to that question. It follows a former Pakistani rock star who sells coffee and bagels. It’s a simple story. Like NYC’s answer to Bicycle Thieves, it shows the other side of the city, the marginalised, those who exist in the background of Woody Allen movies.
Bronx-born director Kenneth Lonergan weaves multiple plot threads into one gigantic post-9/11 patchwork drama. In it, Anna Paquin plays a 17-year-old Manhattanite who witnesses a bus driver accidentally run over a woman. The teen has a restless curiosity, the death only a side story in her messy adolescence. It’s more about her relationship with her parents, her teachers, and her uncertainty about, well, everything. One of the best NY movies of the 21st century, for sure.