Even if you're a casual movie fan, it's impossible to visit a major city and not conjure the memory of a favorite movie that was shot there. You walk into the main concourse of Grand Central Station in New York City, and it triggers a flood of cherished moments — "North by Northwest," "The Fisher King," "Carlito's Way" etc. You look up at the Empire State Building and see "King Kong!" You glance over to the Chrysler Building and there's Q, the Winged Serpent! Metropolises like the Big Apple are loaded with film history. But which movies own these towns? Let's trot around the globe to 76 different cities and attempt to determine which fictional films best exemplify their real-life setting.
No city on Earth has been more celebrated and denigrated in film than the Big Apple. It’s been romanticized all out of proportion, turned into a maximum security federal prison and clobbered by tsunamis. But if you’re looking for one movie that captures the street-level energy in all its multicultural glory (in one gorgeously shot Brooklyn block), you can’t do better than Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing," which finds African-Americans, Italian-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Koreans and John Savage (sporting a Larry Bird T-shirt) struggling to survive the hottest day of the year. Honorable mention: Mackendrick’s “Sweet Smell of Success," Allen’s “Manhattan," Kelly/Donen’s “On the Town” and Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver."
“Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water.” The utilities corruption that helped make Los Angeles a world capital is just the jumping-off point for this Robert Towne-scripted noir classic that delves into misdeeds of a far more personal and disturbing nature before its twisty narrative concludes (with one of the greatest final lines in film history). Honorable mentions: Mann’s “Heat”/”Collateral," Demy’s “Model Shop," Franklin’s “Devil in a Blue Dress," Fuqua’s “Training Day," Friedkin’s “To Live and Die in L.A.” and the Hughes’ “Menace II Society."
John Landis’ 1980 musical comedy is as much a celebration of the Windy City as it is the African-American art form it’s ever so slightly appropriating. Downtown, Jackson Park and Wrigley Field are among the locations visited (and occasionally demolished) by Jake and Elwood Blues, and it’s all set ecstatically to music from the greatest of the great, including Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, Cab Calloway and so on. Honorable mentions: Mann’s “Thief”, Hughes’ “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, De Palma’s “The Untouchables” and Schultz’s “Cooley High."
The city’s garish fixation on style and status is perfectly encapsulated in George Armitage’s darkly comedic adaptation of Charles Willeford’s crime novel. Alec Baldwin delivers a career-best performance as Junior, a sociopath who takes up with a good-hearted prostitute (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and tries to disappear behind the façade of suburban domesticity. Alas, all of his gains are ill-gotten, which draws the attention of surly Sgt. Hoke Moseley (Fred Ward), whose dentures Junior has stolen. Unlike many flashier Miami films, Armitage’s film flicks the dirt out from under the city’s impeccably manicured nails. Honorable mentions: De Palma’s “Scarface," Jenkins’ “Moonlight," McNaughton’s “Wild Things," Nichols’ “The Birdcage” and Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight."
The uncertain, dangling-by-your-fingertips life of a Detroit autoworker is grittily captured in Paul Schrader’s underrated debut film. The film’s three main characters (Harvey Keitel, Richard Pryor and Yaphet Kotto) are all in dire financial straits, which leads them to rob their own, highly corrupt union. Schrader forthrightly presents the late ‘70s squalor of the Motor City without wallowing in the poverty. It’s a city in steep decline, but it isn’t some bombed-out hellscape. Honorable mentions: Hanson’s “8 Mile," Mitchell’s “It Follows”, Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight” and Marks’s “Detroit 9000."
You were expecting “Country Strong?" Robert Altman’s expansive examination of the American dream as it was pursued, politically and artistically, in the mid-1970s. Given the conservative setting, the film gives viewers, then and now, an essential long view of a cultural mindset that might not make a lick of sense, but, tragically/hilariously/infuriatingly, still exists (though not so overwhelmingly in Nashville nowadays). Honorable mentions: Bogdanovich’s “The Thing Called Love," Apted’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and, uh, “Country Strong."
Ben Affleck’s adaptation of the fourth book in Dennis Lehane’s Kenzie-Gennaro mystery series is Boston deep to its bones — particularly Dorchester. It’s not flattering on the surface, but as the story hooks into you, it becomes the kind of brusquely affectionate portrait only a hometown kid could pull off (shaming Eastwood’s “Mystic River” in the process). Honorable mention: Yates’ “The Friends of Eddie Coyle," Affleck’s “The Town," Lumet’s “The Verdict”, McCarthy’s “Spotlight” and Scorsese’s “The Departed."
The "Mistake by the Lake" has become a more popular shooting destination over the years, primarily as a location stand-in for New York City and other more notable metropolises. Some of the more iconic Cleveland movies were largely shot elsewhere (e.g. “Major League” in Milwaukee), but Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s human and hilarious stroll through the life of comic book writer Harvey Pekar is a Northern Ohio product through and through. Honorable mentions: Schrader’s “Light of Day," Caple Jr.’s “The Land," Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise," Ferland’s “Telling Lies in America” and the Russos’ “Welcome to Collinwood."
If you want to get a sense of a city in a movie, following around a couple of reporters for a major paper is a damn good way to evoke the mood of the metropolis. Watching Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein relentlessly prowl the streets and restaurants and parking garages of the nation’s capital in pursuit of a truth that will ultimately bring down the President of the United States is as D.C., and American, as it gets. Honorable mention: Ashby’s “Being There," Friedkin’s “The Exorcist”, Brooks’ “Broadcast News," the Coens’ “Burn After Reading," Schumacher’s “D.C. Cab” and countless others.
To date, Donald Glover’s FX series “Atlanta” has shown off the bustling southern metropolis to grittier and more glamorous effect than any movie, but that may eventually change now that film production is exploding in the city (or was). If you’re looking for a true Atlanta movie, Chris Robinson’s flawed-but-entertaining, coming-of-age dramedy about four friends preparing for life after high school feels like a genuine, top-down depiction of the city. Honorable mentions: Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver," Burt Reynolds’ “Sharky’s Machine” and Story’s “Ride Along”.
Jim McBride’s sweaty, seedy “The Big Easy” would be the Nola film were it not for a clumsy third act that undoes the spell cast by the raucous soundtrack and the smoldering chemistry between Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin. That leaves us with ye olde “A Streetcar Named Desire," forever synonymous with the French Quarter via Elia Kazan’s masterful direction and Marlon Brando’s erotically charged/confused performance as Stanley Kowalski. Honorable mentions: Parker’s “Angel Heart," Jarmusch’s “Down by Law”, Jewison’s “The Cincinnati Kid”, Kazan’s “Panic in the Streets” and Wyler’s “Jezebel."
James Bridges’ rompin’, stompin’ redneck melodrama is as powerful an evocation of the early 1980s country music craze as you’re likely to find. Much of the film is set at Mickey Gilley’s legendary honky-tonk, which popularized electric bull riding and line dancing, and, according to the movie, featured at least one good teeth-rattling brawl every evening. The high-wattage star power of John Travolta and Debra Winger makes it sing. There may be a better Huston movie, but there’s not a more Houston movie. Honorable mentions: Altman’s “Brewster McCloud," Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore," Brooks’ “Terms of Endearment” and Forsyth’s “Local Hero."
There’s some seriously stiff competition here…for second place. Hitchcock’s mesmerizing thriller — considered by many to be the greatest film ever made — is a VistaVision dream of San Francisco. All that’s missing is an Alcatraz tour and a couple of Journey songs. Honorable mentions: Yates’ “Bullitt," Siegel’s “Dirty Harry”, Verhoeven’s “Basic Instinct," Hill’s “48 HRS.," Bogdanovich’s “What’s Up, Doc?” and Fincher’s “Zodiac." Among many, many others.
Scorsese’s Sin City epic is an unflinchingly thorough burrow into the sordid industry that keeps the desert metropolis ticking. That it’s also his most brutally violent film gives it the charge of a cautionary tale: Leave no markers lest you be left in an unmarked grave somewhere south of nowhere in the Mojave. This is how the sausage gets ground. Honorable mention: Sidney’s “Viva Las Vegas," Verhoeven’s “Showgirls," Figgis’ “Leaving Las Vegas," Brooks’ “Lost in America," Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s Eleven” and Levinson’s “Bugsy."
Another no-doubter. Though it was shot entirely in Hollywood, Vincente Minnelli’s Technicolor triumph is set in early 20th century St. Louis and remains one of the most indelible and moving family films of all time. Judy Garland’s renditions of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “The Trolley Song” belong to the firmament. This is utter perfection. Honorable mention: Soderbergh’s “King of the Hill," Mandoki’s “White Palace” and Hill’s “Trespass."
Brian De Palma’s paranoid thriller stars John Travolta as a low-budget movie sound man who becomes convinced he’s captured audio evidence of the assassination of a U.S. presidential candidate. The intrigue is set around the celebration of the fictional “Liberty Day," which leads the would-be assassin to cover up his tracks by posing as a serial killer obsessed with the Liberty Bell. It’s arguably De Palma’s finest work, which makes it better than “Rocky." Sorry. Honorable mention: “Rocky," Cukor’s “The Philadelphia Story," Landis’s“Trading Places," Gilliam’s “Twelve Monkeys," May’s “Mikey and Nicky” and Peter H. Hunt’s “1776."
The Emerald City has been surprisingly well-represented on the silver screen and not just because it’s an easy place to get weather! The Space Needle is the jewel of the city’s skyline, and in Alan J. Pakula’s paranoid thriller, it serves as the sinister setting for the assassination of a presidential candidate. Though the film’s action moves to Los Angeles for a while, the shattering finale takes place in the Seattle Coliseum. Honorable mention: Kloves’ “The Fabulous Baker Boys," Crowe’s “Say Anything…”/”Singles," Taurog’s “It Happened at the World’s Fair," Bell’s “American Heart” and, fine, Ephron’s “Sleepless in Seattle."
It's a coin toss to decide which Gus Van Sant masterpiece owns Rip City, and the winner is the filmmaker's indie classic about a quartet of junkies who stick up drug stores and hospitals to feed their pharmaceutical cravings. Portland's a lively, yet strangely washed-out town, and Van Sant hangs in the city's peculiar groove like none other. Honorable mention: GVS' "My Own Private Idaho," Gillespie's "I, Tonya," Craig's "The Edge of Seventeen" and Freedmen's "Kansas City Bomber."
The capital of Ontario has been one of the world capitals of filmmaking since the 1980s, serving as Hollywood studios’ budget-friendly substitute for several metropolises. But if you want Toronto shot properly as Toronto, you’ve got to go with a native. It’s a city with a great deal of charm, but there’s an icy impersonality to it as well, and that’s where David Cronenberg comes in with the emotionally bent twin gynecologists of “Dead Ringers." Honorable mention: Egoyan’s “Exotica," Edgar Wright’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," McKellar’s “Last Night”, Rozema’s “I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing," Polley’s “Take This Waltz” and Duke’s “The Silent Partner."
It feels like cheating to go with Denys Arcand’s celebrated (albeit awfully heavy handed) Christ allegory, but it’s still the film that springs to mind cinematically when you think of Montreal. The French-Canadian vibe of the city gives the film a slightly otherworldly vibe; it’s one of those towns where, as an outsider, you feel blissfully out of place. Honorable mention: Villeneuve’s “Incendies”/”Polytechnique," Arcand’s “The Barbarian Invasions”/”The Decline of the American Empire," Lauzon’s “Leolo” and Oz’s “The Score."
A blacklisted American filmmaker in London summoned up his rage and resentment to make one of the nastiest noirs of of the 1950s. Perhaps a non-Englander’s perspective is required to place this film above the numerous classics shot in this prominent world capital, but there is something about Dassin’s lensing of London as a city of granite and steel — a hard place with no give — that leaves you aching once the tawdry tale is finished. Honorable mention: Lean’s “Brief Encounter," Mackenzie’s “The Long Good Friday," Crichton’s “The Lavender Hill Mob," Cammell/Roeg’s “Performance," Leigh’s “Naked," Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead” and Boorman’s “Hope and Glory."
Wim Wenders’ ethereal masterpiece about angels listening to the hopes and laments of everyday Germans was released just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, but you walked out of the movie knowing something wonderfully epochal was about to happen. Wenders was in the perfect place at the perfect time to capture what that city meant to the world. It’s a vital time capsule, especially now. Honorable mention: Fassbinder’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz," Lang’s “M”, Edel’s “Christiane F.," Tykwer’s “Run, Lola, Run” and Wilder’s “One, Two, Three."
Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien’s opium-infused drama lingers in the candlelit confines of a Shanghai brothel in which wealthy clients seek transitory pleasure. As with many of Hou’s movies, the film avoids explicit conflict while searching for a deeper if somewhat mundane truth. You’ve got to give yourself over to the deliberate pace, but it’s a dazzling observant piece that tells you more about a time and place than being a typical historical drama. Honorable mention: Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun," Zhang Yimou’s “Shanghai Triad," Jet Li’s “Fist of Legend” and Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution”.
Chen Kaige’s sumptuous historical epic views China’s turbulent 20th century through the lives of two Peking Opera performers and largely leaves the political interpretation to the viewer, which is frustrating if you’re not willing to do a little additional reading to fill in the blanks. There’s tremendous sadness deep in the margins of this movie; just because Chen is painting in broad strokes doesn’t mean the film is devoid of nuance. Honorable mentions: Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor," Zhang Yuan’s “East Palace, West Palace," Xie Fei’s “Black Snow” and Wang Xiaoshuai’s “Beijing Bicycle."
An audacious François Truffaut placed his title card under the base of the Eiffel Tower at the opening of his debut feature, essentially placing the stamp on the city of his birth. Despite the magnificent efforts of his peers and acolytes, he’s owned it ever since. His Paris is viewed from the perspective of a neglected child; he has learned at an early age that he is alone in this world and seeks comfort in the seemingly boundless metropolis that surrounds him. Honorable mention: Godard’s “Breathless," Minnelli’s “An American in Paris," Tati’s “Playtime," Carné’s “Children of Paradise," Carax’s “The Lovers on the Bridge," Varda’s “Cléo from 5 to 7” and so on.
Yasujiro Ozu’s quietly devastating tale of two elderly parents visiting their children in Tokyo is obviously not the most popular film associated with this city (that would be “Godzilla” or “Lost in Translation”), but this humanist masterpiece — shot with such tremendous care and lack of ostentation — is the height of cinema. We’ll all be Shukishi watching boats pass on the river one day. Honorable mentions: lots of Ozu, Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” and “Stray Dog, Kiarostami’s “Like Someone in Love”, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Pulse” and Miike’s “Audition."
For such a grand city, there are very few great Moscow movies (it used to be impossible to shoot there without government approval; now, it's impossible to shoot there without getting shaken down by oligarchs), so let’s give it to the 1981 Academy Award winner for Best Picture. Vladimir Menshov's melodrama about three moderately ambitious young women who leave their small towns to find success in Moscow is hidebound to convention, and, given that it was shot during the pre-Glasnost era, careful in its depiction of Soviet society. But it does capture the flavor of the city better than any film before or since. Honorable mention: Georgiy Daneliya's "Walking the Streets of Moscow".
Nuri Bilge Ceylan, one of the most talented filmmakers on the planet, made his mark and then some with his 2002 masterpiece “Distant," a family drama about a provincial blue collar worker who freeloads on his relatively affluent cousin while looking for work in Istanbul. Sure, Istanbul has been shown off to more glamorous effect in films like “From Russia with Love," but sad to say, the city isn’t overrun with catfighting gypsies. Honorable mentions: Ceylan’s “Three Monkeys," Dassin’s “Topkapi," Akin’s “Head-On” and Foster/Welles’ “Journey into Fear."
The film industry is still trying to make heads or tails of Lynne Ramsay. Here’s an idea: Give her all the money. Her debut feature is set in a poverty-stricken section of Glasgow during a garbage strike, where children dream of a better life even though they’re well-aware they’re mired in never-ending misery. “Ratcatcher” is more fanciful than her later movies, but these fantastical elements slash deep; they’re go-nowhere dreams. Honorable mentions: Lean’s “Madeleine”, Forsyth’s “Comfort and Joy," Arnold’s “Red Road” and Mackendrick’s “The Maggie."
Hector Babenco made the first, scathingly realistic film about the child gangsters of the Brazilian favelas with “Pixote," but Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund brought the plight of these slums to the mainstream with their dazzlingly stylized, yet utterly horrific, “City of God." There are obviously uplifting stories to be told about Rio, but it’s hard to tell them with Bolsonaro in power at the moment. Honorable mention: Babenco’s “Pixote," Camus’ “Black Orpheus," Padilha’s “Elite Squad," Welles’ “It’s All True” and Franco’s “The Girl from Rio."
A giant of the Egyptian film industry, Youssef Chahine’s “Cairo Station” was a box office sensation in country and was well-received internationally. It’s a dark tale about a physically handicapped youngster (played by Chahine) who sells newspapers in the city’s train station. He quickly develops an intensely violent attraction to a co-worker, which leads to his death. Honorable mentions: Saleh’s underseen “The Nile Hilton Incident” and Gilbert’s 007 opus “The Spy Who Loved Me."
The South Korean film industry has produced some of the finest filmmakers working today (Kim Ki-duk, Chan Wook-park and Kim Jee-woon), but Bong Joon-ho, particularly with his latest film, “Parasite," is on a level unto himself. His eco-conscious giant monster movie, “The Host," is a superb showcase not just for Seoul but also for the human condition; it’s a hugely inspiring tale of a family pulling together in the midst of an unthinkable crisis. Honorable mentions: Chan’s “Oldboy” and Na Hong-jin’s “The Chaser”.
Peter Weir’s “The Year of Living Dangerously” is the best film set in Jakarta, but it was largely shot in the Philippines. Gareth Evans’ mayhem-laden action flicks, however, were shot in country, and they are all spectacular. “The Raid” is the tightest of the bunch, but it’s confined to one building. The balls-to-the-wall sequel wreaks havoc all over the city, never letting up once throughout its exhausting 150-minute runtime. Honorable mentions: the aforementioned films.
Luis Buñuel’s quasi-neorealist masterpiece is a brutally unsentimental depiction of poor children in Mexico City. This is not “Bicycle Thieves." There are no real moments of levity, and the kids are far from adorable. There are some moments of surrealistic invention, but for the most part Buñuel remains fixed on the bleak reality of slum life. It’s a vital, unshakable experience. Honorable mention: Cuarón’s “Roma," Iñárritu’s “Amores perros” and Scott’s “Man on Fire."
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s finest films, “Tropical Malady” and “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," are largely set in rural Thailand, but the second half of this dreamlike, if somewhat distant, effort moves to a hospital in the nation’s capital, where the filmmaker gently punctuates the mundane rhythms of modern living with understated moments of humor. Honorable mention: Refn’s “Only God Forgives," the Pangs’ “Bangkok Dangerous” (1999) and, from a much different era, Walter Lang’s “The King and I."
It would be wrong to select a Tehran-set film from anyone other the country’s greatest filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami. “Taste of Cherry," in which a man drives around the outskirts of the city looking for someone to bury him after he commits suicide (if he commits suicide), finds the filmmaker at his humane, unadorned best. Honorable mention: Farhadi’s “A Separation," Majidi’s “Children of Heaven” and Panahi’s “Taxi."
This densely populated global city’s filmmaking industry flourished throughout the second half of the t20th century, producing world-class producers and directors like the Shaw brothers, Raymond Chow, Tsui Hark, John Woo and Wong Kar-wai. Selecting one film that best represents this entire region is impossible, but you can’t go wrong with the full-throttle action extravaganza that is Woo’s “Hard Boiled.” (The hospital finale knocks it just slightly above “The Killer”.) Honorable mention: Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood for Love”, Lau Kar-leung/Jackie Chan’s “Drunken Master II”, Lo Wei/Bruce Lee’s “Fist of Fury” and Johnnie To’s “The Mission."
The most populous city in Australia has been home to some of the country’s cheeriest films, so let’s flip the script and go with Peter Weir’s eerie, ineffable thriller “The Last Wave," which finds a Sydney lawyer (Richard Chamberlain) contending with strange, potentially apocalyptic prophecies while defending a group of Aboriginals accused of murder. Honorable mention: Gillian Armstrong’s “Starstruck," Noyce’s “Newsfront," Beresford’s “Puberty Blues”, Harbutt’s “Stone” and Hogan’s “Muriel’s Wedding”.
You’re shocked, shocked, to find this is the signature film of Casablanca, aren’t you? It’s either this or the Marx Brothers’ “A Night in Casablanca." If you bop down the road to Marrakech or Tangier, the beloved film gets a little competition from Cronenberg’s “Naked Lunch” Welles’ “Mr. Arkadin” and May’s “Ishtar."
Hooray for Nollywood! The Nigerian film industry has been a cultural force for over 30 years, and the movies are more accessible than ever. There are dozens of films that could take this slot, but let’s go with Biyi Bandele’s big-hearted dramedy “Fifty”, in which four successful Lagos women deal with a variety of life complications as they pass or near the dreaded age of the title. Honorable mention: Chris Obi Rapu’s “Living in Bondage”, Izu Ojukwu’s “’76” and Jumoke Olatunde’s “Diary of a Lagos Girl."
Though it was mostly shot outside of the country, Raoul Peck’s biopic of the first Congolese prime minister captures a vital and ultimately tragic moment in the country’s history, which ends with the execution of Lumumba and the rise to power of the brutal dictator Joseph Mobutu. Honorable mention: Djo Tunda Wa Munga’s “Viva Riva!," Richie Smyth’s “The Siege of Jadotville” and Mwezé Ngangura/Benoît Lamy’s “Life is Beautiful."
Neill Blomkamp’s surprise sci-fi hit of 2009 posits an alternate South African history in which extraterrestrial “prawns” become oppressed refugees during the apartheid era. When one of the weapons manufacturers charged with relocating the prawns comes into contact with a liquid with transformative properties, he finds himself subject to the same prejudice — and worse — inflicted on the aliens. One day, there will be a definitive film on apartheid. Honorable mention: Hood’s “Tsotsi," Korda’s “Cry, the Beloved Country” and Menges’ “A World Apart."
Basically inaccessible to non-communist filmmakers for decades, this beautiful, once thriving city hasn’t been shown off nearly enough on the big screen; ergo, Mikhail Kalatozov’s Soviet-backed “I Am Cuba," with its dazzling technique that would later be mimicked by Paul Thomas Anderson in “Boogie Nights," remains the most definitive depiction of the Caribbean metropolis.
The prestigious Łódź Film School in Poland churned out some of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century (including Roman Polanski, Jerzy Skolimowski, Andrzej Wajda), but the Krzysztof Kieślowski was the head of the class. And when it comes to capturing the totality of life in Warsaw (or anywhere for that matter), no one has surpassed his 10-hour riff on the Ten Commandments, “Dekalog." Honorable mention: Wajda’s “Three Wars Films” trilogy and Lubitsch’s “To Be or Not to Be” (shot in Hollywood).
Věra Chytilová's rambunctious tale of two free-spirited Czechoslovakian women raising an absurdist ruckus all over Prague might be the crowning achievement of the country's briefly flourishing '60s cinema. Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová are iconic agents of chaos; they're not just rebelling against a patriarchal society and encroaching authoritarianism, but reality itself. It's a singular, liberating work that resonates anew given the world's alarming re-embrace of fascism. Honorable mention: Philip Kaufman's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being", Lado’s “Short Night of Glass Dolls” and, spiritually, Baumbach's "Kicking and Screaming."
If you can’t make it to Barcelona (or Madrid for that matter), watching Pedro Almodóvar’s “All About My Mother” is the next best thing. The filmmaker’s warmest, most accessible movie to that point plunges the viewer in the wide-ranging beauty of the city — and rewards a deep-tissue love for cinema and art in general — without becoming a greatest hits travelogue. Honorable mention: Antonioni’s “The Passenger”, Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and Stillman’s “Barcelona."
The Nazis were less than a year out of the city when Roberto Rossellini took to the streets to shoot this formative work of Italian neorealism. The locations are bombed out and real, the actors are almost entirely nonprofessional and the film’s depiction of fear in the face of authoritarian rule, where human decency is being trampled out of the country’s population, resonates deeply today. Honorable mention: De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves”/”Umberto D.”, Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita”/“Roma”, Pasolini’s “Mamma Roma” and Wyler’s “Roman Holiday."
Roddy Doyle’s trilogy of working-class comedies (“The Commitments”, “The Snapper” and “The Van”) get at the amiably scrappy spirit of this beautiful burg, but no film feels more quintessentially Irish than Jim Sheridan’s biopic of cerebral palsy-stricken artist Christy Brown in “My Left Foot." It’s a brawling, bawling family epic that makes you want to hoist a pint (and another…and maybe another) to your fellow humans. We’ve all got a little Irish in us, and that’s a blessed thing. Honorable mention: the aforementioned titles, Boorman’s “The General," Jordan’s “Michael Collins” and one of those John Carney movies if you’re into that kind of thing.
Director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene turn the Austrian capital into a chiaroscuro land of intrigue and betrayal, all of which builds to the zither-scored reveal of Orson Welles as the nefarious Harry Lime. In terms of lighting and use of locations, filmmakers have been chasing Reed’s grand achievement for over 60 years. Honorable mention: Forman’s “Amadeus," Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher," Pabst’s “The Joyless Street” and Marischka’s “Sissi."
There are two types of people in this world: Those who’ve never seen “Don’t Look Now” and those who spend their entire stay in Venice fretful that they’ll catch a glimpse of a little person in a red raincoat. If this sounds deranged, you need to sit down and watch one of the freakiest thrillers ever made posthaste. Honorable mention: Visconti’s “Senso”/”Death in Venice”, Lean’s “Summertime”, George Roy Hill’s “A Little Romance” and, all praise the hover-gondola, “Moonraker."
Okay, let’s do one more. If you’ve been eagerly awaiting the Bollywood entry on this list, there is a 100% chance you know waymore about Bollywood than I do. It’s an embarrassing blind spot for me, especially given that it’s the world’s number one producer of motion pictures. As the center of the country’s film industry, Mumbai has been well represented on the big screen. In terms of international recognition, the film most outsiders associate with the city is probably Mira Nair’s unflinching slice of neorealism (and very un-Bollywood), “Salaam Bombay!". The movie helped open the world’s eyes to the plight of the city’s impoverished children without succumbing to tidiness or sentimentality, and is, sadly, still relevant today. Honorable mention: rather than pretend to be any kind of authority, you tell me!
The Steel City has provided a vivid working-class backdrop for all kinds of films, but the city has never been shown off to more cinematic effect than in Curtis Hanson’s “Wonder Boys." Michael Chabon’s novel is set in the ‘burgh, as Hanson refused to shoot anywhere else. ”I realized that bridges are the visual theme of the movie,” the director told EW in 2000. “Each of the characters is trying to get from here to there.” The film drifts from the august halls of Carnegie Mellon to the beloved Allegheny West bar The Modern Café with a clear respect for the city and its diverse populace. Just be mindful of drunks looking to dent the hood of your car. Honorable mention: Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter," Denzel Washington’s “Fences," Lyne’s “Flashdance," Mottola’s “Adventureland” and of course, a huge chunk of George A. Romero’s filmography.
Barry Levinson and John Waters are the two favorite cinematic sons of Baltimore, Maryland, and they couldn’t be any different. Levinson’s movies — “Diner," “Tin Men," “Avalon” and “Liberty Heights” — are suffused with nostalgia for the ‘50s and ‘60s Baltimore of the filmmaker’s youth, but they’re too rough around the edges to be considered sentimental. Most of Waters’ oeuvre has a coarse exterior, but there’s a perverse warmth to the director’s depiction of the city’s outcasts and eccentrics. His unabashed love for this dingily decadent milieu, expressed most indelibly in his delightfully filthy “Pink Flamingos," defines Baltimore to this day. Honorable mention: your favorite Waters movie, Mamet’s “Homicide," Hitchcock’s “Marnie” and Kasdan’s “The Accidental Tourist."
If you’re looking for one shot to represent Phoenix, the obvious choice is Hitchcock’s opening pan over the city’s skyline in “Psycho." But if you want a movie that captures what it’s like to toil all day under the brutal Arizona sun, you’re not going to do any better than Robert Zemeckis’ uproarious black comedy, “Used Cars." Kurt Russell’s Rudy Russo is a gleefully unprincipled salesman with political ambitions who works up multiple schemes to outsell his cross-street rival Roy L. Fuchs (Jack Warden). The city’s use of the Maricopa County Courthouse and other landmarks gives the film an authentic Phoenix vibe. Honorable mention: Albert Brooks’s “Real Life," Joshua Logan’s “Bus Stop," Chris Eyre’s “Smoke Signals” and Forest Whitaker’s “Waiting to Exhale."
There have certainly been better films made about San Antonio, but the city’s signature film has to be the star-studded, John Wayne-directed epic that recounts the region’s signature historic event. This three-hour film about the Battle of the Alamo stars Wayne as Davy Crockett, Richard Widmark as Jim Bowie and Laurence Harvey as Col. William Barrett Travis, and while it’s way too long on patriotic speechifying, it does at least nail the defiant spirit of the men who perished in the siege. Honorable mention: Wellman’s “Wings," Flynn’s “Rolling Thunder" and Burton’s “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure."
The capital of Texas contains multitudes, but it is distinct due to the collection of weirdos and misfits who work in and/or wander about the city. Many of these eccentrics were filmed for posterity in Richard Linklater’s sui generis indie classic, which captures a late-‘80s/early-‘90s generational disaffectedness that would fire the decade’s alt-culture (be it music, movies, literature, etc.). Austin’s gotten bigger and more corporate over the last 30 years, but these people still exist on the fringes, which is why we can’t stop loving the city. Honorable mention: lots of Linklater (“Dazed and Confused," “Everybody Wants Some!!!” and “Boyhood”), Judge’s “Office Space," Tarantino’s “Death Proof” and Barrymore’s “Whip It."
Oaktown is exploding as a filmmaking destination, so it feels only right to pick one of the more recent films that celebrate the East Bay metropolis. Oakland-native Boots Riley evoked the city’s funky flavor with his shotgun-spray satire of tech bros, the gig economy, the coopting of hip-hop culture and many other topics. It’s a film that loves what the city can be but hates what it’s turning (or has turned) into. Honorable mention: Estrada’s “Blindspotting," Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station," Singleton’s “Poetic Justice," Campus’ “The Mack” and Donner’s “Inside Moves."
The Southern California metropolis has been staying classy every since Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) and the Channel 4 news team hit the big screen in the summer of 2004. Why, without Adam McKay’s comedy classic, we wouldn’t know that San Diego actually translates to English as “Whale’s Vagina." Who cares if almost all of the film was shot in Los Angeles? Maybe San Diegans do, in which case…would you prefer “Top Gun/" Honorable mention: Peyton Reed’s “Bring It On," Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” and Jeremy Jay Kronsberg’s “Going Ape."
Technically Kissimmee but close enough for our purposes, Sean Baker’s deeply observant drama depicts the existence of low-income families struggling to get by on the fringes of Disney World. These people’s lives are untouched by magic, but the kids find it anyway in their unstructured sense of play. Their future may be direly limited, but they are free now to do as they please, and there is a strange kind of joy in this (until there isn’t). Honorable mention: Randy Moore’s “Escape from Tomorrow," Jake Schreier’s “Paper Towns” and, um, Joe Alves’ “Jaws 3-D."
The home of The Ohio State University is officially the second most populous city in the Midwestern United States (after Chicago), but it has yet to spawn much in the way of memorable cinema. Head north to Mansfield, and you can visit the reformatory where much of “The Shawshank Redemption” was shot, but as for C-Bus, there’s the unrecognizable future version depicted in Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One," and the old Central High School that housed the production of Arthur Hiller’s so-so comedy “Teachers." The latter it is!
Lake Lure, North Carolina, is just close enough to Charlotte to consider giving this to “Dirty Dancing." But the Charlotte Motor Speedway is one of the city’s major attractions, and that’s where most of Tony Scott’s high-octane, low-wattage NASCAR drama, “Days of Thunder,” was shot. We respect Cole Trickle in this house. Honorable mention: Soderbergh’s “Logan Lucky," McKay’s “Talladega Nights," Clooney’s “Leatherheads” and Apted’s “Nell."
Orson Welles’ tragically truncated take on Booth Tarkington’s novel was shot entirely in Southern California, but its tale of a wealthy Indianapolis family’s fall from grace due to industrialization has a genuine Midwestern feel. Given that the Indiana city is home to one of the most prestigious auto races on the planet, you might think a racing movie would fill this slot, but, to date, the only notable Indianapolis 500 movie is the Paul Newman’s mediocre “Winning." Honorable mention: Josh Boone’s “The Fault in Our Stars," Spielberg’s largely rural “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and Wyler’s “The Desperate Hours."
It’s tough to find a “signature” film set in Denver proper, so let’s skedaddle to the suburbs for Jonathan Kaplan’s underrated drama about teenagers driven to criminality out of sheer boredom and the negligence of their parents. Kaplan shot most of the movie in the greater Denver cities of Greeley and Aurora, and he hits on an eerie sense of juvenile discontent that would explode in that area 20 years later. Honorable mention: Schatzberg’s “Scarecrow," Sarafian’s “Vanishing Point” and Fleder’s “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead."
If the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced “Glory Road," which is based on integrated Texas Western’s historic defeat of the all-white University of Kentucky’s college basketball team in 1966, had been just a notch above average, it would be the obvious choice here. Instead, we’ll take Sam Peckinpah’s very good adaptation of Jim Thompson’s crime novel classic, “The Getaway," which stars Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw as a pair of outlaw lovers on the run to Mexico. Honorable mention: Richardson’s “The Border," Steve Carver’s “Lone Wolf McQuade” and El Paso schlock auteur Harold P. Warren’s majestic “Manos: The Hands of Fate."
This is a tough call, but Craig Brewer’s “Hustle and Flow” pulsates with the swagger and power of Memphis hip-hop, whereas Jim Jarmusch’s “Mystery Train” plays an outsider’s droll celebration of the city’s rock 'n' roll charms. It’s an excellent film — one of Jarmusch’s best —but Brewer has a resident’s eye and ear for uncommon detail. Honorable mention: McBride’s “Great Balls of Fire," Pollack’s “The Firm," James Mangold’s “Walk the Line” and Iñárritu’s “21 Grams."
Oklahoma City is bigger, but Tulsa is more cinematic — in large part because one of the greatest YA novelists of the 20th century, S.E. Hinton, hails from the region. Francis Ford Coppola shot his adaptations of Hinton’s “The Outsiders” and “Rumble Fish” back-to-back in Tulsa, and they’re both excellent, but it’s the cast-under-a-blessed-sign former that stands out. Imagine living in this Oklahoma town while the likes of Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, Tom Cruise, Diane Lane, Rob Lowe, C. Thomas Howell and Ralph Macchio were kicking around. Honorable mention: Stuart Heisler’s “Tulsa," Tim Blake Nelson’s “Eye of God," Tim Hunter’s “Tex” and “Weird” Al Yankovic’s “UHF."
Though it’s a major disappointment in the storytelling department, Robert Altman’s “Kansas City” catches fire whenever it drops in on The Hey Hey Club, where we get to hear modern day greats like Joshua Redman, Christian McBride, Mark Whitfield and David Murray swing like they were born in the 1930s era. As the band roars, Harry Belafonte prowls the premises as a ruthless gangster who’s not about to yet younger grifters move in on his business. Honorable mention: Rian Johnson’s “Looper," Phil Karlson’s “Kansas City Confidential," Altman’s “The Delinquents” and Jerrold Freedman’s “Kansas City Bomber."
Writer-director Alexander Payne has spent a good chunk of his career chronicling life in and around his home state of Nebraska, and he smacked a satiric home run with this savage adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s celebrated novel. The boredom and petty scandal endemic to a smallish big city is on uproarious display in this classic about a high school student council election gone horribly awry. Honorable mention: Payne’s “Citizen Ruth” and “About Schmidt," Reitman’s “Up in the Air” and Lumet’s “Fail Safe."
We know Schlitz is the beer that made Milwaukee famous, but what is the film that best represents the brewing mecca? Though it might have been shot entirely in Los Angeles, Paul Feig’s blockbuster comedy “Bridesmaids” is probably the most notable film to be set (partially) in Milwaukee. If documentaries were eligible, this would be “American Movie” all the way. Honorable mention: Charles Stone III’s “Mr. 3000," David Jacobson’s “Dahmer," David Zucker’s “BASEketball” and, for its use of the since demolished County Stadium, “Major League."
Let’s be honest: Sacramento wouldn’t even be on this list were it not for Greta Gerwig’s transcendent comedy that draws from her experience of growing up in California’s state capital. Even if you’ve never set foot in Sacramento, you get a vivid sense of the city’s geography as well as its class divisions in a way that only a native could convey. It’s nostalgic without stooping to sentimentality and one of the most remarkably assured debut films of the last decade. Honorable mention: Buddy Van Horn’s “Pink Cadillac” apparently.
The Minneapolis-born genius was already a mainstream sensation due to heavy music video rotation on MTV, but he went supernova in the summer of 1984 with the release of his first feature film, which shows off Minneapolis’ live music scene via electrifying performances on the stage of the legendary First Avenue nightclub. Any city would be proud to claim this movie as its own. Honorable mention: Altman’s “A Prairie Home Companion," Reitman’s “Young Adult" and Herek’s “The Mighty Ducks."
The hometown of Steven Spielberg and Rod Serling should’ve produced more memorable films by now. Then again, the city’s reputation as an anti-free speech stronghold might be keeping Hollywood away. The town’s most notorious former resident by far is Larry Flynt, whose exploits via the hardcore pornographic magazine “Hustler” briefly landed him in an Ohio jail. Cincinnati doesn’t come off looking all that hot in this one, and, apologies to the artists working hard to shift its reputation, it really doesn’t deserve to. Honorable mention: Jodie Foster’s “Little Man Tate," Levinson’s “Rain Man” and Chelsom’s “The Mighty."
Alexander Payne knows Nebraska, and, judging from this touching dramedy starring George Clooney as a Honolulu attorney forced to confront troubling family secrets, Hawaii as well. Payne shoots the 50th state’s capital as a place where people actually live rather than a travelogue; where people actually live and suffer in this island paradise. Honorable mention (cheating to include nearby locations because the Honolulu pickings are slim): Zinnemann’s “From Here to Eternity," Taurog’s “Blue Hawaii" and Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love."
Edward Yang’s masterful family drama effortlessly shifts between three generations of the Taipei-dwelling Jian family as it contends with a series of triumphs and heartbreaks both big and small. The vast, brightly lit urban landscape offers a stark contrast to the seemingly mundane lives at its center, but we quickly respond to and empathize with each member of the Jian clan as if they’re close friends. This isn’t just the greatest film about Taipei; but it’s also one of the finest films about the human condition, period.
Shot in a single, Steadicam-enabled take, Alexander Sokurov’s “Russian Ark” drifts through the Winter Palace of Saint Petersburg’s gargantuan Hermitage Museum, giving viewers a bit of a history lesson while also allowing them to take in the jaw-dropping opulence of the palace. Though the film never quite transcends its trappings as a technical exercise, the ever-changing locations and dramatis personae are a wonder to behold. You leave the movie wanting to book the first flight to the city. Honorable mention: Czinner’s “The Rise of Catherine the Great," Loteanu’s “Anna Pavlova” and Pudovkin’s “The End of St. Petersburg."
There are bigger, more significant cities in Canada than Winnipeg, but none of them has received a tribute as bafflingly beautiful as this “docu-fantasia” from filmmaker Guy Maddin. The film presents the Manitoba town as a frigid dreamland — a place situated somewhere between reality and the subconscious. Aesthetically, it’s vintage Maddin, but it’s not as emotionally distant as most of his work. If ever a filmmaker has truly captured the soul of city, Maddin has done it here with his hometown. Honorable mention: "Phantom of the Paradise."
Jeremy Smith is a freelance entertainment writer and the author of "George Clooney: Anatomy of an Actor". His second book, "When It Was Cool", is due out in 2021.