Walking through a park (or any park!) on a great fall day, crammed into a table at an elegant old-style restaurant, or taking the Q train across the East River are just a few examples of how life in New York City can be disarmingly cinematic at its best. When it comes to movies, New York City has long served as a background for some of the most memorable, heartfelt, and witty scenes ever seen on the big screen.
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Whatever your favorite genre of film is, here’s a list of movies that will remind you why New York is simply the best location in the world.
1. On the Town (1949)
New York City is a lovely place to visit! Here we go with the show-stopping opening song from this golden age caper adapted from Broadway’s hit musical of the same name (originally from Jerome Robbins’s 1944 ballet Fancy Free). On the Town, starring Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin as three sailors on shore leave in New York City, was directed by Stanley Donen and Kelly.
2. West Side Story (1961)
West Side Story set a new standard for New York movies, from its artistic prologue (the colorblocked Saul Bass visuals, those bird’s-eye views, that irresistibly seductive Leonard Bernstein score!) to its savage end. Jerome Robbins (who also directed the original stage production) and Robert Wise (who also directed the original stage production) teamed up to create an epic—and enduringly compelling—urban romance on the Upper West Side.
3. The Group (1966)
While born in Philadelphia, filmmaker Sidney Lumet spent most of his life in New York City, where he grew up and created most of his films, including 12 Angry Men in 1957 and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead in 2007. Wedding guests dine at the exquisite old Brevoort Hotel early in The Group, his hilariously soapy adaptation of the 1963 novel by Mary McCarthy, before following the happy couple to the subway and gleefully throwing rice after them. Overall, it was the largest film production in the city’s history with a budget of $2.6 million and called for more than 50 sets on sound stages and over a thousand costumes—according to Maura Spiegel’s Sidney Lumet: A Life—”thirty-five locations.”
4. Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968)
While Symbiopsychotaxiplasm seems to be a love story about a couple’s marital difficulties, it is in fact about the breakdown of their relationship. It’s revealed that the film’s actors, story, and structure are unknown to the crew, and they discuss whether the director (Greaves, obviously portraying himself) is competent. The working title for their project is “Over the Cliff,” so it’s no surprise.
5. Three Days of the Condor (1975)
This sophisticated espionage thriller from director Sydney Pollack stars Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway. This is Redford in his mid-1970s prime, running around New York as a herringbone-blazer-wearing CIA researcher who finds his colleagues dead between coded calls from phone booths and run-ins with mustachioed assassins (see the late, great Max von Sydow). To your taste, is it a little dark? Also in 1967’s Barefoot in the Park, Jane Fonda and Barbra Streisand star; in 1973’s The Way We Were, directed by Pollack, with Streisand and Streisand.)
6. An Unmarried Woman (1978)
In Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman, a wealthy woman (Jill Clayburgh) reunites with an artist (Alan Bates) when her white-collar husband (Michael Murphy) moves out, there is an interesting uptown/downtown contrast at work. Ice skating in Rockefeller Center to making love on an empty SoHo side street, Clayburgh’s Erica is steadily carving out a life in Manhattan that is distinct from the East 60s aerie she lives in.
7. Moonstruck (1987)
Moonstruck, directed by Fiddler on the Roof’s Norman Jewison, has all the elements of a New York film: Cher, Nicolas Cage, dogs howling at night over the river, an emotional night at the opera, a nice meal between Olympia Dukakis and John Mahoney, and lots of crying, slapping, and unsentimental insight (“When you love somebody they drive you crazy because they know they can”).
8. Crossing Delancey (1988)
Isabelle “Izzy” Grossman (Amy Irving) is the single woman in love with a gorgeous European author (Jeroen Krabbé)—but her meddling grandmother is encouraging her toward the proprietor of a local pickle shop (Peter Riegert). Following Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends by a decade and predating Charles Herman-magnificent Wurmfeld’s Kissing Jessica Stein, it was one of the few obviously Jewish rom-coms of the era.
9. Working Girl (1988)
There is a secretary who is trying to climb the corporate ladder in this classic office comedy, starring Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford, and Sigourney Weaver. In addition, you may see Griffith’s legendary transition to Manhattan man-eater (“I’ve got the head for business and the body for sin”). Keep coming back for the crazy, proto-Balenciaga padded-shoulder jackets.
10. When Harry Met Sally (1989)
Ephron’s screenplay for When Harry Met Sally is a classic example of her ability to combine the witty and romantic in equal measure. Furthermore, it converted Katz’s Deli into a sort of pilgrimage place, while highlighting the stunning autumnal beauty of New York City. A walk in the park, fall, the notion of a walk in the park, and “the park” were all on Ephron’s list of things she’d miss most before she died in June 2012, about one year and a half before her death.
11. Goodfellas (1990)
His best-known works, from Mean Streets and Taxi Driver to The Age of Innocence and The Wolf of Wall Street, have rarely left New York City. A classic example of this genre is Goodfellas, starring Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Lorraine Bracco, and Robert De Niro. Much of the film was shot in Astoria, Queens, where the story revolves around a mobster and the enormous network of family and friends he maintains. He was born in Flushing, New York, where director Andrei Tarkovsky was raised.
12. Metropolitan (1990)
“Not so long ago,” according to the title board, is the setting for Whit Stillman’s cynically funny indie, which follows a group of affluent New York City college students (as well as one redheaded outsider from the Upper West Side) during the debutante ball season during their winter vacation. Even though it had the potential to be an insult to the uptown elite, this film ends up being an endearing look at adolescent anxiety, strip poker, and cross-faith romance on a snowy Park Avenue. “The Last Days of Disco,” starring Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale and directed by Stillman in 1998, is an excellent follow-up.”
13. The Prince of Tides (1991)
A big part of the film’s success is due to Nick Nolte’s eccentric, South Carolina-born Tom Wingo, who arrives in New York determined to despise it in Pat Conroy’s popular 1986 novel, The Prince of Tides. Dr. Susan Lowenstein (Barbra Streisand, the film’s director) is the psychiatrist who treats his sister, and he initially refuses to see her. However, as he grows to love her, he also begins to fall for the city where she works, which is both loud and unpleasant. On his way to the Rainbow Room and the Corner Bookstore on Madison and 93rd, Wingo would say his goodbyes to the busy Grand Central Station and play football.
14. Crooklyn (1994)
Inspired by the director’s own Brooklyn upbringing (and co-written by his sister Joie and brother Cinqué), Crooklyn was a personal and melancholy picture for Spike Lee. A young girl (Zelda Harris) and her family (Alfre Woodard and Delroy Lindo) live in a colorful, do-or-die Bed-Stuy neighborhood in the early 1970s.
15. Vanya on 42nd Street (1994)
Andre Gregory directed a group of performers in the early ’90s for several years to rehearse Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya without ever planning to put on a production of the play. It was a wonderful concept. Gregory came up with the notion of filming the pseudo-production after a while, and eventually got filmmaker Louis Malle (who had directed Shawn and Gregory in another Manhattan masterpiece, 1981’s My Dinner With Andre) on board. With no costumes or set in place, Malle would catch the actors at work in the majestic but deteriorating New Amsterdam Theatre on West 42nd Street.
16. Uptown Girls (2003)
It’s no surprise that Uptown Female include a number of well-known landmarks, such as the old Bendel’s shop, Christies, the Met and Cooper Hewitt museums (masquerading as a girls school), Sheep’s Meadow, Bow Bridge, and the Tea Party ride at Coney Island. As a cautionary tale, though, Ray’s hypochondria has taken on a new form.
17. Saving Face (2004)
Michelle Krusiec plays Wilhelmina “Wil” Pang, a New York City surgeon who must balance her relationship with her conservative mother (Joan Chen) and her relationship with her girlfriend, Vivian (Lynn Chen), who she is afraid to kiss in public. Saving Face is Alice Wu’s feature-length debut as a filmmaker. New York City is a beautiful backdrop for this poignant look at the lives of Chinese-Americans who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
18. Rent (2005)
At the end of the millenium, a community of artists, homeless people, heroin addicts, and individuals living with HIV/AIDS live in Alphabet City. Rent is a musical adaptation of Puccini’s La Bohème. There is something uniquely and grittily New York about the film, which reunited most of the stage production’s original cast, even if the songs like “Seasons of Love” and “I’ll Cover You” now sound like fairly standard musical-theater material.
19. Enchanted (2007)
The premise is fairly straightforward. But because his stepmother, Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon), would lose her throne if he married Giselle (Amy Adams), Edward, the prince of Andalasia (voiced by James Marsden), is forced to keep the young lovers apart by tossing her into a well that ends up at Times Square. To quote the movie trailer, “no other Disney tale has ever taken you to a land as strange and terrifying as ours,” but you see a full-scale musical number unfold near Bethesda Fountain and the pretty architecture in Morningside Heights, and New York doesn’t seem all that different from a magical or faraway land.
20. Frances Ha (2013)
Noah Baumbach’s picture, starring and co-written by Greta Gerwig, depicts New York City with all the intimacy, romance, and mystery that comes with finding your way there after college in a black and white format.
21. If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
From Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins comes If Beale Street Could Talk, based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name. Kiki Layne and Stephan James are at the helm of the film, which also features Brian Tyree Henry and Regina King (who won an Oscar for her performance).
22. On the Rocks (2020)
Sofia Coppola and Bill Murray reunited for On the Rocks, a father-daughter com-drama set in some of Manhattan’s most gorgeous spots: It’s a long list that includes Bemelmans, Indochine, and 21 Club. Filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic’s peak, when indoor dining was still banned, the film appeared at first like a period piece.) Laura Keane (Rashida Jones) is a novelist who suspects her husband (Marlon Wayans) is having an affair, and gets sucked into a reconnaissance mission organized by her caddish father (Marlon Wayans) (Murray).