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10 best movies set in NYC, ranked

Two people walk in Central Park in When Harry Met Sally.
Columbia

New York is a city that moves at 24 frames per second. Some of the greatest directors — Coppola, Kubrick, Scorsese, Cassavetes, Spike Lee — were born there, and they came to understand the world through its ever-changing, light-saturated, fragmented landscape.

It stands to reason that films set in New York, or made to celebrate that city, are among the greatest ever made. Herein is a highly subjective list of 10 of the best, with directors limited to one entry each on this list.

10. Taxi Driver (1976)

Travis Bickle at work in Taxi Driver.
Columbia Pictures

No list of New York films would be complete without an entry from the poet laureate of the city’s underbelly, Martin Scorsese. And the tale of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), an itinerant cabbie whose repulsion for urban rot feeds a fascistic pathology, is a perfect corollary for New York’s deeply complicated relationship with crime and poverty.

The first of screenwriter Paul Schrader’s “Man in a Room” trilogy, Taxi Driver gets to the heart of the isolation of the studio-apartment, night-job experience – so it’s no surprise that the film’s most iconic scene is Bickle reduced to talking to himself in the mirror.

9. Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Sidney Falco desperately searches the papers for items he's attempted to place in Sweet Smell of Success.
United Artists

New York is a city where surfaces matter, and where the PR agent might be the most powerful string-puller of all, a wannabe PR man like Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is nonetheless reduced to begging for scraps from ultra-powerful columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) – a fictionalized version of the very real 1930s to 1950s commentator Walter Winchell.

A throwback to an era when New York newspapers and New York radio shows made public opinion, Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success, with its rat-a-tat Clifford Odets/Ernest Lehman script, thrums with the rhythm of the ambitious – but unavoidably pathetic – urban striver.

8. The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974)

Robert Shaw's "Mr. Blue" threatens a train conductor in The Taking of Pelham 123.
MGM/United Artists

The greatest subway movie ever made, Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham 123 is a heist flick extraordinaire. Robert Shaw’s masked thugs hijack a downtown train and demand a million dollars in ransom, as the hero of the picture, Walter Matthau’s transit cop, negotiates from above.

No New Yorker will ever look at the third rail the same way again after he watches Pelham for the first time, not least because of its propulsive jazz score by David Shire and structurally perfect script by Peter Stone – both of whom were primarily writers of Broadway musicals.

7. All About Eve (1950)

Three people talk in All About Eve.
20th Century Fox

In a showcase of New York themes, the Broadway theater, unique in its cultural centrality, must take center stage. And no film has ever taken as cruel and as gorgeous a sideways glance at Broadway as Joseph Mankiewicz’s All About Eve, recipient of an all-time-record 14 Oscar nominations upon its release (it has since been tied by Titanic and La la Land).

Bette Davis stars as an aging theatrical star who is slowly supplanted in fame and relevance by Anne Baxter’s fan-turned-nemesis. It’s a story that has been retold a thousand times since, but no one’s ever beaten the original.

6. The Apartment (1960)

The employees of Consolidated Life of New York at work in The Apartment.
United Artists

Apartment buildings, with their disparate worlds in close coexistence, make for great stories – think of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, High-Rise, or Ghostbusters. The Upper West Side walkup of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment is no exception.  Jack Lemmon’s C.C. Baxter, desk jockey and people-pleaser, has that New York dream – a killer apartment.

And his superiors at his gargantuan insurance company have no compunctions about making use of it as a locale for their romantic assignations. Wilder’s wide-lens cinematography gets to the heart of corporate New York’s dehumanizing sprawl – the floor where Lemmon works could be two miles wide.

5. Rear Window (1954)

L.B. Jeffries laid up in his courtyard apartment in Rear Window.
Paramount Pictures

This is another apartment building story, in which New York neighbors’ uncomfortable proximity is taken to its logical extreme. Alfred Hitchcock builds a corner of Greenwich Village on a Hollywood backlot for his story of magazine photographer L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart), whose courtyard apartment has a perfect view of a murder being committed across the way.

The inspiration for countless rip-offs like Sliver, Rear Window gets to another fundamental of the New York experience – life in a crowded environment invariably means you’re too often on public display. That it also exists in parallel to the voyeurism of the film-going experience is a delightful bonus.

4. When Harry Met Sally… (1989)

Harry and Sally in the Temple of Dendur at the Met in When Harry Met Sally.
Castle Rock

When Harry Met Sally… is the total ideal of a romantic comedy, so pitch-perfect that it has come to seem a capstone and finale to the genre’s period of relevance. Rob Reiner’s camerawork revels openly in street-level tourism, winding among the orange trees of Central Park’s fall and the awe-inspiring Temple of Dendur at the Met, getting it so definitively right that any attempt to include New York as a “third main character” in a rom-com now comes across as cliché.

Harry and Sally’s is a romance driven not only by neurosis, which goes with New York like mustard with pastrami, but also by a bizarre truth of the New York experience – however big the place is, one keeps running into the same people.

3. Annie Hall (1977)

Alvy and Annie on an Upper East Side roof in Annie Hall.
United Artists

Meet When Harry Met Sally’s more downbeat predecessor. Woody Allen’s Best Picture winner places itself firmly on the Upper East Side of Manhattan – the tennis bubble under the 59th Street Bridge, the now-defunct Beekman Theater, the water tower-dotted East 60s.  Its characters are mouthy grouches, bad drivers, and defensive jokers – classic Knickerbocker types. Allen’s Alvy Singer even becomes physically ill when forced to leave New York to attend an awards ceremony in Los Angeles.

Most of all, Annie Hall is nostalgic at its heart, remembering the restaurants, bookstores, and galleries that were the background of a bygone romantic relationship even as those places have been torn down and replaced with newer, uglier buildings.

2. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Richie Tenenbaum with his father Royal as his future stepfather, Henry, and adopted sister, Margot, look on, in The Royal Tenenbaums.
Touchstone Pictures

Inspired in part by an iconic New Yorker cover that posits New York as the center of the world and everything else as ancillary, Wes Anderson’s one venture into the Big Apple is a triumph of on-location shooting.

Making use of gorgeous exteriors in Hamilton Heights and Harlem, but specifically avoiding iconic New York backgrounds (in one scene, Kumar Pallana’s character is carefully positioned to block the Statue of Liberty), Anderson creates a visual experience designed almost specifically to appeal to New Yorkers themselves, with their acute allergies both to cliché and to over-touristed spots. If its ruptured “family of geniuses” bears an uncanny resemblance to J.D. Salinger’s immortal Glass family, also of Upper Manhattan, so much the better.

1. Network (1976)

Diana Christensen at work in Network.
MGM

Acerbic, hyper-literate, and mad as hell, Paddy Chayefsky’s magnificent satire of the television news industry (then as now based in New York City) is a master’s thesis in celluloid. Decrying the same 1970s-era rises in crime and unrest as its fellow 1976 release Taxi Driver, Network captures a bankrupt city on an ideological precipice. Our “hero,” anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch), is a veteran of Edward R. Murrow’s CBS news team whose high-minded, intellectual TV milieu has been supplanted by the vapidity of “the tube.”

Among the ice caves of corporate high-rises and the careful falsity of faux-cozy news studios, in bullpens that smell of cigarette smoke through the screen and streets washed with fading neon, director Sidney Lumet paints a picture of a New York that has been beaten badly, but insists on living on – if only through the transformative art it produces and inspires.

James Feinberg
James Feinberg is a writer and journalist who has written for the Broadway Journal and NBC's The Blacklist.
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