It’s a joke at this point to call New York a character in a movie. That’s because many in the past would sincerely assert that New York City was, in fact, a character in their film or TV show. Having said that, there have indeed been a ton of movies that take place in the five boroughs and, if we are being totally honest, sometimes New York does, in fact, feel like something akin to a character in the film. Wherever they take place in America’s most populous city, these are the 25 films set in New York City we think are the best.
“Dog Day Afternoon” has real ‘70s New York vibes to it. The film is based on a real bank robbery that took place in Brooklyn and stars Al Pacino in one of his best roles. Sidney Lumet’s movie got several Oscar nominations and is considered a modern classic to this day.
“Dog Day Afternoon” was nominated for Best Picture, but “The French Connection” won it. The movie is about the NYPD looking to take down the drug trade, led by Gene Hackman as “Popeye” Doyle, a classic ‘70s antihero. There’s a famous chase seen in the movie that gives you a real look through the city of New York, adding to the vibe of the movie.
Now, the New York of “Gangs of New York” is not anything we can recognize. The Martin Scorsese epic is set during the Civil War, so it’s a historical film. Still, it has “New York” in the title, so it’s definitely a New York film. It’s also a really good movie.
Yes, it’s “Ghostbusters II” that has the Statue of Liberty coming alive, but that movie is pretty mediocre. “Ghostbusters,” on the other hand, is a stone-cold comedy classic. The movie still has a New York feel to it anyway. After all, Venkman, Ray, and Egon are all working at Columbia when the movie begins. And all those hot dog carts are great for Slimer.
New York in the ‘60s was the hub of the folk scene, and that’s where “Inside Llewyn Davis” primarily takes place. While Oscar Isaac’s misanthropic crooner spends some time outside of the city, the film is mostly ensconced in a New York winter of a bygone era. It’s not a love letter to the city, though. The Coen Brothers don’t do love letters.
Before she was a beloved, rising director, Greta Gerwig was acting and cowriting Noah Baumbach films. “Frances Ha” is her breakout performance, and it’s a view of New York through the eyes of a younger – but not necessarily “young” anymore – woman trying to figure out her life in the big city. It’s funny, touching, and shot beautifully in black and white.
The dude climbs the Empire State Building! How could we not include “King Kong” in a list of New York movies? It’s one of the first iconic movies set in the city, and also a triumph of special effects for the era. Kong astride the Empire State Building as planes buzz around him is truly a seminal moment in film history.
There are movies about criminals in New York and young people in the big city, but what about a movie about a guy in his thirties whose just a working-class person living a relatively normal life? That’s what “Marty” is about, with Ernest Borgnine in the starring role. While the stakes may seem low, “Marty” won Best Picture, so clearly the story of a butcher in the Bronx struck a chord with people.
Where else but New York could a secret organization monitor alien life on planet Earth? And where else could a bunch of aliens live among us basically undetected? That’s part of the underlying humor in the sci-fi comedy “Men in Black.” The Mets also make an appearance. Naturally, it doesn’t go well for them.
Before he was Batman or even Beetlejuice, Michael Keaton had his breakout role in the Ron Howard comedy “Night Shift.” Henry Winkler costars as a former Wall Street broker who quits that stressful life to take a seemingly quiet job at a New York morgue. Then Keaton’s character gets the bright idea to use the morgue to run an escort service. Keaton is a delight, and it’s also interesting to see Winkler in a starring role in a film.
The New York-ness of “The Other Guys” begins with the fact Mark Wahlberg’s character has been busted to desk duty for accidentally shooting Derek Jeter. Just as important is the fact that the city is such an epicenter for finance. The humor in “The Other Guys” comes from Will Ferrell and Wahlberg playing opposites who are partnered together, but one of the underlying themes is that the villains aren’t the boisterous ones, but the slick and amoral rich people.
You can probably figure out the plot of “The Out-of-Towners” just by the title. Based on a Neil Simon play, the movie is about a couple from a small town in Ohio having misadventures in the Big Apple. They remade the movie with Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn, but this version stars Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis as the couple.
“Moonstruck” feels like a lived-in version of New York. Maybe that’s because it’s focused on ethnic neighborhoods, particularly Italian neighborhoods. Cher won an Oscar for the film, and Nicolas Cage gives his traditional insane performance, but in a way that does not overshadow the movie.
OK, so this Jackie Chan action film was largely shot in Vancouver, not New York. Nevertheless, it’s called “Rumble in the Bronx.” Chan being a fish out of water in the city, and the country is vital to the storytelling. Even if it was shot thousands of miles away, “Rumble in the Bronx” still counts for our purposes.
The summer can really get to you in a city like New York. It can get so hot, and the humidity is unbearable. It feels oppressive, and you might find yourself on your last nerve. This is vital to the atmosphere in Spike Lee’s breakout film. What’s also vital? The diverse – but ever-changing – makeup of New York, and specifically Brooklyn of the time. Lee tackles racial divides head-on, and this one New York neighborhood is the perfect place for that.
Spider-Man is a New York superhero through and through. The fact he’s from Queens is indelible to his character. Personally, our favorite of the Spider-Men so far has been Tom Holland, but “Spider-Man: Far from Home” mostly takes place in Europe. “Homecoming,” on the other hand is very much a New York film and a great step into the Marvel world for our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
Talk about misanthropic films. Tony Curtis plays a press agent trying to sweat out every dime in Manhattan. He’s a loathsome fellow. However, he’s practically a saint compared to Burt Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker. Hunsecker has a nationally-syndicated column that can make or break celebrities, and he knows it. “Sweet Smell of Success” is vicious in its depiction of celebrity, the press, and life in New York.
Do not bother with the remake, even though it stars Denzel Washington. “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” is a gripping thriller loaded with ‘70s flair. Walter Matthau is perfect as the transit cop who is in charge of trying to stop some criminals who have taken a New York subway train hostage for ransom.
When people talk about how sleazy and dangerous New York City was in the ‘70s, they are thinking of the city embodied by “Taxi Driver.” It’s the perfect city for Travis Bickle to live in. Robert De Niro is iconic as a Vietnam vet floating through life with dangerous, violent intent. Martin Scorsese knows a thing or two about capturing New York on film, which is why he’s on this list a few times.
“They Came Together” is a delightful parody of romantic comedies that clearly is made by people who appreciate the genre. Casting Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd as the main couple was certainly a small idea. The film earns its place on this list because it literally calls out the “New York is like a character in the story” motif.
One of the films being parodied by “They Came Together?” That would be “You’ve Got Mail.” You know how it goes. Two people who don’t like each other finally fall for one another. In this case, it’s because they’ve been chatting over email anonymously not knowing that they were talking to one another. It’s a bit dated now, as anything involving AOL is, but it still has Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.
“Working Girl” is a very ‘80s movie – and not just the shoulder pads – but also a very New York movie. It’s about a woman striving to rise up the ranks of a big New York company while also falling for Harrison Ford. While Ford hasn’t made many romantic comedies, he works in this one, and so do Melanie Griffith and Sigourney Weaver.
“Romeo and Juliet” takes place in Verona, Italy, but this musical adaptation of the story of star-crossed lovers takes place in New York. They dance in the streets and sing out of windows of high-rise apartments. If you don’t like musicals “West Side Story” may not be for you, but it won Best Picture so you know it’s for a lot of people.
Henry Hill always wanted to be a gangster, and he got to do it. New York was a good city to do it in, and this film goes all over the city. A lot of it feels suburban, but the Copacabana and the JFK airport are both involved, and those are both New York City landmarks. Many consider “Goodfellas” one of the best films ever, so not including it on this list would be egregious.
Yes, we are winding up this list with a fourth Scorsese movie. The man has earned it. Nobody has chronicled New York more, or better, on film. Also, how could we not include a movie called “New York, New York,” especially with Liza Minnelli belting out the title song? It’s the quintessential New York song, and that alone earns Marty’s film a spot to end this list.