There are a ton of movies set in New York – in fact, has there ever been a city as widely visited in film history? Probably not. But with a city that is so often on the big (and small) screen, it’s remarkable how often filmmakers mischaracterize it.
For one thing, movies that take place in New York are often shot not in New York but in Toronto. While these cities are similar in some aspects, they’re just not the same. And, hey, do filmmakers realize that New York City contains five boroughs, not just Manhattan?
New York isn’t always well-represented on screen. But for every misrepresentation in movies set in New York, there’s an accurate, valuable one. So, if you’ve been to the city (or are planning to visit), check out some of our picks for a little movie marathon that will take you through the Big Apple.
What’s more New York than random film footage meshed together? The number of amateur filmmakers in NYC is staggering (and, yes, sometimes annoying). But, hey, a found footage horror movie set in Manhattan? Please, sign us up.
Following not just one, but six narratives of different New Yorkers as they run about the city attempting to escape an otherworldly threat, this is an exploration of the city without glamour or pretense.
“Spider-Man 2” (2004)
Something that is slightly amiss about the newer Spider-Man movies is how they tend to characterize New Yorkers. This city is not one where people go out of their way to talk to you or are blindly trusting. Most of the time, people within the city aren’t very nice, period – but that’s the charm of New York, baby.
But, Sam Rami’s “Spider-Man 2" gets it right. The fact that city dwellers don’t seem all that impressed by Spider-Man? That checks out. However, when it really matters, Peter Parker has his fellow New Yorkers to count on. Doc Oc is the best Spider-Man villain, too. Easily one of the most recognizable among movies set in New York, this one is a must-watch.
“Shiva Baby” (2021)
Although the majority of Emma Selgiman’s writing and directorial debut film takes place on a single Brooklyn property, it’s still a New York movie if there ever was one. Telling the story of a young woman who encounters her sugar daddy and her ex-girlfriend at a shiva in Brooklyn, there’s a lot of tension as well as a lot of laughs in this one. And bagels might as well have gotten top billing, considering how often people are seen eating them during the runtime, which is also very accurate of New York City.
“Do the Right Thing” (1989)
Fun fact: a few years ago, the street in Brooklyn where this Spike Lee movie takes place (Bedford-Stuyvesant St) was renamed in honor of this film – it’s now officially named Do the Right Thing Way. The film itself is about the social tensions of one Brooklyn neighborhood boiling over on the hottest day of the year. As a native New Yorker (and NYU alumni), Lee tries to capture how New York operates as a city, Brooklyn especially (before the boom in gentrification that this borough is currently experiencing).
Alright, this is a weird one. But, hey, this is a weird city. Also known as “Andy Warhol’s Flesh,” this movie directed by Paul Morrissey follows a male hustler as he encounters clients and client-adjacent New Yorkers to make money to pay for his girlfriend’s abortion. It’s a cult classic, exploring the physical city of New York and the strange yet engaging inner lives of Manhattan residents.
Frequently, the silver screen focuses on the New Yorkers (specifically Manhattanites) who come from means. Think “Wolf of Wall Street” and “Miracle on 34th Street.” Yeah, New York is the best city in the world, sure. But it’s not just for Upper East Siders. And, with Andy Warhol involved as a producer, there’s much artistic value in this film’s production, as well as within the way its story unfolds.
“Paris Is Burning” (1990)
The only documentary on this list, it’s kind of impossible for “Paris Is Burning” to be fictitious in its representation of The City That Never Sleeps. Still, it’s surprising how disingenuous some docs can be in how they depict certain subjects. “Paris,” though, is nuanced in its examination of New York’s drag community throughout the 1980s.
This piece of American queer culture remains influential in LGBTQ+ rhetoric to this day. It’s mad how a relatively small group of people in a single city can make waves like this, proving just how compelling the subcultures within this city are – and showing that there’s no such thing as not belonging somewhere among its 8 million residents.
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