New Orleans. The city of New Orleans. NOLA. Nawlins. There’s no place like New Orleans, no matter how you look at it. New Orleans is unlike any other city in the United States. When it comes to music, New Orleans is a city that’s alive and well in the streets as much as in the bars on Frenchman Street. Step outside the French Quarter and into Faubourg Tremé, and in Congo Square you may stand in the very spot where jazz was born – sparked by the drum rhythms of slaves granted their Sundays in the city’s most historic neighborhood.
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The French and Spanish were there, creating colonies, exchanging them, and building a slave-trafficking hub. While Bourbon Street’s yearly Mardi Gras celebrations make it impossible to get through the historic French Quarter during non-celebration times, the city has its own distinct language, cuisine, and religious traditions thanks to centuries of cross-cultural pollination.
As a result, it serves as a unique cinematic backdrop, creating a character of its own that cannot be replicated on studio backlots. We researched approximately 70 years of film depictions of New Orleans and came up with a list of the top ten.
1. Panic in the Streets (1950)
At midnight, the camera pans down Bourbon Street, past dive pubs lit up with neon. Stumbling through the rail yards, he just avoids a train before being hit in the chest by two slugs of gunfire. They have a suspicion that Jack Palance’s character, Blackie, brought something in, and they’re on the lookout for it. A public health officer in Richard Widmark’s office, on the other hand, believes it is pneumonic plague, which is “spread like a common cold.” In order to prevent the BigWheezy from spreading, 48 hours remain to discover the murdered man’s accomplices.
Palance & Co. have avoided immunization laws and law enforcement for years, yet the immigrant populations most likely to be affected by their defiance include Chinese chefs, Greek restaurant owners, and a man who lost his wife to the disease. When it comes to the final chase in On the Waterfront (1954), the location exteriors offer the color and believability he’d press even farther in the New Jersey docklands of On the Waterfront…
2. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Even though A Streetcar Named Desire and Panic in the Streets both presented New Orleans through a different lens, Kazan’s film version of Tennessee Williams’ Broadway classic couldn’t be more different than Panic in the Streets’ hard-anglednoir depiction of the city.
The majority of the film takes place at the apartment of Stanley and Stella(aaaaa!) Kowalski, hence Warner’s Burbank studio was used for the most of the production. But it is still regarded as one of the greatest New Orleans films, with the stifling humidity and Williams’ witty wordplay making it appear as if every word is laden with meaning. To deal with the terrible living circumstances of this sector of the Quarter, Kazan unleashes a stylistic frenzy that has never been seen before in his career in Panic in the Streets. No matter how over-the-top the direction may be, it’s up to the task of directing two of the most electrifying performances in American cinema in Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh.
3. Always for Pleasure (1978)
When you see street signs like “Joy,” “Felicity,” “Tchoupitoulas,” and “Tchoupitoulas,” you know you’ve stumbled into the hands of a director who wants to honor New Orleans in all its diversity. On this list, there is no greater statement of joy and house pride than in Always for Pleasure’s first 58 minutes. “I’m not going to wait til I’m laid out to have some fun in thestreet,” one resident says.
Les Blank’s documentary captures the local tradition of dancing through the community after a funeral, “to march real slow on the way [there] and cut up on the way back,” recalls local musical great Allen Toussaint. Crawfish, music, and food are all part of a street-level panorama in microcosm in New Orleans. On Amazon Prime, you can see the video for free, but you’ll need to book a plane ticket afterward.
4. Cat People (1982)
Irena (Nastassja Kinski), a newcomer to New Orleans, is advised to visit the French Quarter, where she is assured she will have a good time. Her favorite zoo is the Audubon Zoo (labeled as the New Orleans zoo in the film) because “I like to be near the animals,” she says. As soon as her change is complete, she’ll be naked in the woods, staring at a rabbit starter.
A ripely impressionistic recreation of the 1942 Jacques Tourneur masterwork from which it’s drawn, this voodoo-ridden, animalistic New Orleans is presented as a hotbed of animalistic impulses – “crazy, lyrical hooey,” claimed Schrader – a good site to loosen the shackles of sexual restraint. Heavily textured synth-pop by Giorgio Moroder sets the scene but it’s Ferdinando Scarfiotti’s production design that brings it all together. Because Schrader wants him to share a co-creative credit, it’s no surprise.
5. The Big Easy (1986)
To make a terrific New Orleans film, you need more than a soundtrack of Professor Longhair or The Dixie Cups. Jim McBride, the film’s director, goes out of his way to highlight the town’s distinct aura, ignoring genre standards to do things a little differently.
This is Nawlins darlin, the Big Easy! “, he tells his characters, with a laid-back style that pays off in the first hour. “Dancing is a way of life,” he says, only to give in to the commercial demands of the cop-thriller in the last act. Remy McSwain, the morally lax cop, is played by Dennis Quaid, who has a fruity Cajun accent, with Grace Zabriskie and John Goodman providing true local color. Title billing for a film that emphasizes character over action is a natural fit for The Big Easy.
6. Deja Vu (2006)
The Crescent City Bridge is crossed by a speeding automobile. When a ferry off the Canal Street pier is blown up, ATF agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington) is on the case to find the terrorist responsible. There is, however, no vehicle in front of him. A portable version of the Snow White program, a satellite-driven device that lets him see exactly 4.5 days into the past—live, exactly as it happened—is all that is visible to him.
One of Tony Scott’s most memorable set pieces is a fast-paced chase that takes place in two timelines at the same time. Deja Vu’s eerie take on the time travel film is propelled by seven satellite feeds combined together to create a 360-degree image of the city’s recent history. For all of its audacious conceit and attention to cinematic potential, it is one of the greatest thrillers in recent memory; its meticulous tech-noir surfaces precisely attuned to its human concern with fixing thepast.
7. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006)
Just like Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee has steadily built up a substantial body of work as both a documentary and narrative director. One of his best documentaries, a forensic account of Hurricane Katrina, is When the Levees Broke. Through interviews with storm survivors as well as on-the-ground film, Lee chronicles the events leading up to the government reaction’s severely inadequate response in this four-hour documentary.
Terence Blanchard’s melancholy score serves as the perfect accompaniment to Lee’s depiction of the early local responses: some inhabitants chose to flee, while others – particularly elderly locals who had lived through Hurricane Betsy in 1965 – chose to “weather the storm.” Lee A frightening watch as the rain falls; the second part of the film exposes government shortcomings, not the least of which is the hour-by-hour account. While working on If God Is Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise (2009), Lee returned to New Orleans four years later for another four-hour documentary on the city’s rebuilding efforts.
New Orleans has numerous nicknames, but after seeing this film, it’s impossible to forget that it’s also known as The City That CareForgot.
8. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
To account for the town’s strong association to death, New Orleans’ high water table requires that the dead be buried above ground in one of its numerous historic cemeteries, which helps explain the city’s reputation as a place of death. Screenwriter Eric Roth’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, titled “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” would make sense to relocate from Baltimore to New Orleans because of its heavy focus on mortality.
Before Katrina hits, a framing device takes us back to a celebration of the conclusion of the First World War and the birth of a holy fool, “Ugly as an old pot… I was born on that day… I was ugly as an old pot.” “With all the ailments of an elderly guy.”
Just as remarkable as the ageing/de-aging technology is the painstaking production design, which earned the film an Oscar for art direction along with makeup and FX.
9. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)
Werner Herzog’s debut American film, Stroszek (1977), is best remembered for its iconic scene of a dancing chicken at a roadside fairground. In spite of the passage of time, Herzog’s passion for animals remains unwavering. An alligator appears to wail silently as his friend becomes roadkill, and two iguanas get their own musical interlude to Eddie Miller’s ‘ReleaseMe,’ all while a goldfish is the topic of a poem.
According to Nicolas Cage’s homicide detective, “Everything I take is prescription except for heroin.” Herzog’s film, a remake in name only of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 classic, casts a sarcastic eye on his star as a stooped and troubled ruin of a man. Cage walks a tight line between bacchanal and modern Gomorrah, just like the city he lives in.
10. Treme (2010-13)
After five seasons of critically acclaimed work on the social, criminal, and political underbelly of Baltimore, David Simon, a former journalist, turned his attention to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans for his best work yet. Treme, which takes its name from the central Congo Square square where jazz was born, explores the racially diverse neighborhood over the course of four seasons.
It’s a series that’s brimming with local color and political incisiveness because of its Dickensian attention to the minutiae of the lives of its large ensemble of characters. Agnieszka Holland’s slow-burn rhythms, fueled by extended musical set-pieces and culinary attention, are laid out in the show’s pilot. The first episode alone included a second-line march, a funeral procession, and appearances by Kermit Ruffins (a series regular), as well as visits to well-known local spots like The SpottedCat.