Retrospective Roundtable

Films Set in New York City

With the release of Ray Romano‘s directorial debut Somewhere in Queens later this month, we thought we’d turn to The City that Never Sleeps for April’s Retrospective Roundtable. Read our thoughts below on a number of films that could have only been set within New York City.

Rear Window (1954)

rear_windowOne of Alfred Hitchcock’s finest films, Rear Window takes place mostly within a single apartment, with views into numerous apartments of the complex through their windows. It is strange that photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart) would look into the other apartments – out of curiosity, out of boredom, out of lust even – but he is recovering from a broken leg and, in his view, has little else to do. Shortly after observing a couple fight, he notices the husband has been making mysterious late night trips in and out of the apartment and the wife is nowhere to be seen. This is enough to ignite Jeff’s curiosity and his inability to go to the apartment and investigate himself makes the mystery all the more tantalizing. Jeff’s detective friend isn’t convinced by Jeff’s proclamation of murder, but Jeff’s girlfriend (played by the immaculate Grace Kelly) and nurse believe he is on to something after observing firsthand strange happenings across the complex.

Rear Window is a film that could only be set in New York, the closeness of the apartment residents essential to the story. Gossip and preoccupation with what others are doing can prove to be a bonding experience as evidenced by Jeff’s romance taking a turn for the better after sleuthing with his girlfriend, though Hitchcock also takes the chance to commentate on the loss of privacy experienced by the close residents and critique that physical closeness is not akin to neighborliness. Rear Window is a dark portrayal of city life, but also showcases strength and resilience – almost immediately after the mystery is solved, the residents return to their joyous lives, closer for having this shared experience. – Alex Sitaras

Ghostbusters & Ghostbusters II (1984, 1989)

ghostbustersDuring the 1980s, New York City was going through a mixed bag of experiences – a boom on Wall Street, the Central Park jogger case, a strong real estate market, a rise in homelessness. Many films were produced in the city during the decade due to the relative ease of filming in New York, and the Big Apple looked to become fashionable once again.

Since the infancy of the film industry, many films have featured New York City’s many landmarks, but few films have prompted the creation of landmarks. However, the Ghostbusters films of the 1980s did just that, making a disused fire station their headquarters while using many other already notable landmarks, including the Statue of Liberty in the iconic scene using it as an animatronic machine in the second film. The Ghostbusters films of the 1980s almost certainly played their part in making New York City once again a fashionable city to visit and live in. When I was fortunate enough to go there, I visited Ghostbusters HQ as a homage. – Ian Floodgate

Hero (1992)

Geena Davis And Andy Garcia In 'Hero'In American movies, it is often difficult to portray how a large group of people may be feeling about some sort of national issue. The sheer size and the diversity of the population makes such a task a folly, unless a filmmaker focuses on one city that could be seen as a microcosm of the country’s concerns. More often than not, that microcosm is New York City as it is in this remake of Hail the Conquering Hero. Dustin Hoffman plays a petty criminal who manages to save a planeful of people while fleecing them of their credit cards and wallets. He is desperate to stay out of jail and keep in contact with his young son, so when Andy Garcia’s character takes the credit for the rescue, Hoffman’s stays silent.

Hero is a deeply cynical film, which is perhaps why it is not well-remembered today, yet the points that it makes about media sensationalism and how it flattens any complexity out of any individual still resonate. Seeing the whole city eat up the story that Geena Davis’ reporter has carefully tailored is alarming yet oddly comforting in that many people see New York City as a large community that will manage to band together when the story is compelling or urgent enough. New York City is also shot in an almost romanticized way, with a lot of soft lighting and minimization of some of the harsher features. Stephen Frears has firmly denied that he is any sort of auteur, but it is hard not to see this film as how a non-native filmmaker would see it – as a big, grandiose stage on which even the pettiest criminal can become the subject of a great American story. – Eugene Kang

9/11 (2002 documentary)

9_119/11 will forever be a part of New York City’s history. I remember that I had just started college in the UK in September 2001 and being present in class that day, witnessing the horrific scenes unfold on television. One of the earliest films released documenting the day was the Naudet Brothers film 9/11, and what’s astounding about it is they never set out to make a film about that day. The Naudet Brothers were initially making a documentary about an NYC Fire Department rookie’s journey to become a fully qualified firefighter. Filming that day ended up revolving around the fire station’s actions following the attacks on the World Trade Center. The two brothers are separated, and while one is witnessing the panic unfold on the streets, dust and debris engulfing them, the other is in one of the buildings watching the firefighters respond to the emergency and eventually the collapse of the skyscraper. The documentary is sombering in its matter-of-fact storytelling from the filmmakers as the day unfolds.

Uncut Gems (2019)

uncut_gemsThough much of Uncut Gems takes place in interiors, the pulsating energy of New York City can be felt even in those scenes. A city is the people that inhabit it, and few cities have that distinct feel that New York does when you meet a New Yorker. Adam Sandler’s Howard Ratner personifies that hustle and wiry energy that is often associated with that city. As a jeweler, Howard is in an extremely competitive business, so the New York hustle is amped up by a thousand. His motormouth and overbearing personality make him seem almost like the emcee welcoming you to Hell, but also you get how he can get his way when he turns up the charm.

Though the story feels intensely claustrophobic, as if we are stuck in the same room with this exhausting, aggravating man, Uncut Gems also provides interesting angles on larger societal concerns. Howard’s quest to constantly push his luck, first by trading a precious black opal for Kevin Garnett’s championship ring and then pawning the ring to place a bet on the game, and so on, is a perfect microcosm of irresponsible capitalism if there is such a thing. The Safdies also have a sharp eye for the different communities that make up New York. They get how intense the bond between people in the same ethnic group can be. Even someone as gleefully amoral as Howard still makes sure to observe Passover with his family. Yet that same intensity can spill into internal bloodshed, often metaphorical but also physical, as it does with Arno, his own brother-in-law to whom he owes a lot of money and can’t bother paying him back until he pushes his luck with it even further. The Safdies seem well-aware of the universality of their story with bookending shots of the inside of the gem that seems to mirror the cosmos but transitions into a view of Howard’s insides for very different reasons. But you can never take New York out of a true New Yorker, and the city’s influence in Uncut Gems is as palpable as an anal polyp or a bullet. – Eugene Kang

Tick, Tick, … Boom! (2021)

tick_tick_boomBeginning with an exuberant performance of ‘30/90’, a song lamenting the songwriter’s lack of accomplishment before turning 30, Tick, Tick, … Boom! starts with a bang. The song introduces us not only to Rent playwright Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield), but also to his perspective on the path his life has taken as a young playwright. Despite his obvious talent, Larson has doubts about his decision to pursue theatre and fears he is not making enough of his life. Tick, Tick, … Boom! takes us through Larson’s life, introducing us to his best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús), his girlfriend Susan (Alexandre Shipp), and friend Karessa (Vanessa Hudgens).

We see a house party at Larson’s Lower Manhattan apartment as well as his work at the now closed Moondance Diner. New York City is very much present within Tick, Tick, … Boom!, director Lin-Manuel Miranda portraying the city with nostalgia. Larson and Michael too become nostalgic for their childhood as they sing about attending White Plains High School where Larson recognizes his passion in musical theatre. Their song together also is unflinching in its acknowledgement of morality, affirming the path that their lives have taken, Michael choosing to quit acting and pursue a lucrative advertising career in light of his positive HIV diagnosis and Larson, seemingly not faced with looming mortality, remaining steadfast in his pursuit for a career in musical theatre. Of course, those familiar with Larson’s life know that he would die at the young age of 35 in 1996, never knowing that his musical Rent would be a smash hit, and Michael’s real-life counterpart Matt O’Grady is alive and well as of 2022.

What makes Tick, Tick, … Boom! an incredible film is its recognition of what it means to dedicate oneself fully to something. Larson did exactly that – music and theatre never left his mind, even when it probably should have. His pursuit of greatness enraptured him, and expressing himself through theatre was to him the ultimate purpose of his life. Many impactful men and women have shared this same dedication to their craft – Michael Jordan, Marie Curie, etc – and while it comes at a cost, Tick, Tick, … Boom! does a compelling job of expressing why this cost is more than worth it if one has that same driven mindset. And for those in the theatre, a lifetime of dedication and honing one’s craft is affirmed when their play is performed on Broadway in none other than New York City. Ask Tick, Tick, … Boom! director Lin-Manuel Miranda. He knows.

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