New York City is a dark and gritty place, at least in movies. It's basically the Batman Begins of metropolitan settlements. It seems like a disproportionate number of great movies about the city are all about criminals and cops shooting each other and bleeding all over the sidewalk. We explored these movies yesterday, in a list of the best New York crime movies.
That's why we came up with this second list, of great NYC films that don't revolve around brutal murder and criminal empires. Sure, there's still some crime here and there and even the occasional death in these twelve films, but they're still comedies, musicals, action-adventures, and romantic stories.
These are the 12 Greatest New York City Movies Of All Time (That Aren't About Crime!)
It seems like every Hollywood production that gets the chance to shoot in New York City can’t help but to include a scene in which the lead character wanders around Times Square. The ending of Captain America: The First Avenger had it, as did I Am Legend and Vanilla Sky. Even Friday The 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan featured a shot of Jason Voorhees admiring the pretty lights and mind-numbing advertisements.
But, for our money, nothing beats that epic shot of Michael Keaton pushing his way through the crowds in New York’s busiest street wearing nothing but his tighty-whiteys. Shot almost entirely within the St. James Theatre on Broadway, Birdman was one of the more polarizing Best Picture winners in recent memory, but that doesn’t keep it from being an instant classic of magical realism and visual splendor.
The extensive production of 2002’s legendary Spider-Man movie only shot two weeks worth of material in New York City, mostly brief exterior scenes with notable locations in the background. Regardless, the film is on the list for its prominent place in NYC’s post-9/11 history. After the infamous terrorist attack, parts of the production were retooled; shots with the Twin Towers had the buildings digitally removed, and other scenes were reshot.
One notable addition occurred during the climactic fight on the Queensborough Bridge: a scene where a mob of onlookers launch debris and insults at the Green Goblin for hurting their hometown hero, shouting, “You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us.” What could have been a corny-as-hell bit of patronizing drivel was accepted by the fans and the city as an empowering show of strength and support for a town that had been bloodied, but not beaten.
Robert Wise’s all-time classic is probably the most commonly cited entry point for lovers of musical theater. West Side Story retells the classic Romeo & Juliet tale with the setting updated to modern day (1961) Manhattan and the feuding families changed to racially divided street gangs. While only a single musical number ("Jet Song") and the prologue were actually shot on location on the streets of New York, West Side Story is still a definitive moment for The City That Never Sleeps.
It showed both the jolly promise of The American Dream, of immigrants believing they can make something of themselves in a land of opportunity, as well as the painful fact that society oppresses young people into believing that they are worthless and doomed to bitter failure, and the harsh reality of everyday racism that Latino-Americans and other ethnicities faced in 1961, and still do to this day.
How does one make a sequel to a surprise megahit? In the case of Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, the answer was to move the action from domestic suburbia to the untamable city, of course! Home Alone 2 utilized a handful of real NYC locations, from the Plaza Hotel to the inside of FAO Schwarz, the oldest toy store in the country, doubling for the fictional Duncan’s Toy Chest, although much of the film was shot in Chicago and Los Angeles.
However, there’s only one Central Park, the scariest place in the entire world to a twelve-year-old child, and the returning villains, the Wet Bandits, use the location to menace the young Kevin McCallister to great effect in this bigger and less novel rehash of the first film. Still, Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, and Daniel Stern are a perfectly cast trio and one never tires of their undeniable chemistry.
Cops, Firefighters, Paramedics, Ghostbusters. Envisioned by Dan Aykroyd as another branch of emergency services, the titular scientists-turned-public servants spend their workdays chasing down ectoplasmic terrors in the name of science and profit. From its thrilling cold open in the New York Public Library, to the Hook & Ladder Company 8 firehouse serving as their base of operations, the city features as a major character in this beloved comedy, as well as its somewhat less beloved sequel.
Sure, a handful of exteriors were actually shot in Los Angeles, but a cast featuring multiple members of Saturday Night Live's Not Ready For Primetime Players more than makes up the difference. Besides it had to be New York; in any other city, they'd call in the national guard, or maybe even nuke the city in response. When ghosts show up in New York City, someone figures out how to deal with it, then we get on with our lives, with casually spiteful indifference being the New Yorker's greatest weapon against adversity.
The Coen Brothers’ ode to the early 60s folk era, Inside Llewyn Davis features Poe Dameron and Kylo Ren singing a song together, and that’s just about all some of you need to know before slamming this movie right to the top of your Netflix Queue. Beyond that, however, it’s a tale of a talented musician trying to make his way with what he knows he has, and being too stubborn and headstrong to motivate himself into truly growing as a human being, a flaw which costs him in life, love, and his career.
But it’s also very funny and heartwarming! After all, it is a Coen Brothers joint. In their ever-presentmission to be as authentic as can be reasonably expected, the film is shot all over the East Village of Manhattan, which, despite being dressed up as its 1963 counterpart, is immediately recognizable to New Yorkers.
Breakfast at Tiffany's is a beloved snapshot of the glamorous side of New York City in the early 60s, minus two things, which we must immediately get out of the way. First, the great Mickey Rooney was terribly miscast as the face-palmingly offensive Japanese caricature, Mr. Yunioshi, and, second, George Peppard as the male lead is a total pill, especially when compared to his characterization in the original novella, in which he was Truman Capote's author avatar. He went from Capote-levels of gay down to The A-Team's Hannibal Smith. Talk about dissonant characterization!
Even taking into account those two weighty handicaps, Breakfast at Tiffany's is one of the most revered romantic comedies of all time, alongside Roman Holiday and It Happened One Night. Audrey Hepburn stars as Holly Golightly, a somewhat airheaded and easy-going young lady looking for love in the big city. Every romantic comedy aims for the heights Breakfast attains, but so very few even come close.
Martin Scorsese's surreal masterpiece is about the myriad characters and possibilities of evening in the city, told through one man's (Griffin Dunne) grueling quest to get home from work. Scorsese took an interest in the project in the midst of his crusade to find funding for his passion project, The Last Temptation of Christ. With layers upon layers of meanings and interpretations to unravel, this zany comedy/film noir is simply unlike anything else in Scorsese's portfolio, with tongue-in-cheek nods to Hitchcock's directing style and a moment-to-moment plot that entails a downright bizarre combination of non-sequitur scenarios which are improbable, but recognizable to anyone who's walked around SoHo at night.
And poor Griffin Dunne has them all converge on him in the span of one night. Griffin Dunne's Paul is more white collar than Scorsese's usual protagonists, but he displays a masterful stroke of New York gracefulness when, in the end (SPOILER), his adventure concludes with him sprawled on the sidewalk in front of his work building. At the end of his insane journey, and with nothing to show for it, he picks himself up, brushes himself off, and goes inside, to begin a new day as though nothing had ever happened.
Woody Allen’s mature breakthrough, Annie Hall is the film which beat Star Wars: A New Hope for the 1977 Best Picture Oscar. It’s also the film which cemented New York City as his playground of choice for the better part of his career, though various European destinations have occasionally taken its place.
A tale of a neurotic man with a love-hate relationship with love, Annie Hall is the first, best, and most enduring reason why Woody Allen is a beloved New York icon. The city is nice, but he knows that it’s the people who inhabit it that make any location special, scary, romantic, and creepy. It’s romantic and a comedy, but calling it a romantic comedy is selling Annie Hall short, to say the least, perhaps because, even more than any genre it might fit into, it is most identifiable as a New York City movie.
The ultimate modern slow-burn romance, all of the action in When Harry Met Sally is relayed via friendly chats about falling in and out of romance and the possibility of friends-turned-lovers ever being able to return to the state of “just friends.” Shot all across the picturesque setting of Manhattan, special mention has to go out to the apartment of Billy Crystal’s character and its gorgeous view of the Empire State Building.
When Harry Met Sally definitely has the DNA of Annie Hall coursing through its veins, with its neurotic nebbish male lead and unconventional approach to what could be a by-the-numbers romantic comedy. One important way in which this film outshines its spiritual predecessor is the way in which Meg Ryan’s Sally is treated as far more of an equal player in the film than Diane Keaton’s Annie, who, while complex in her own right, was always second fiddle to Woody Alan’s undisputed status as that film’s lead player.
Fun Fact: Katz’s Delicatessen, the site of the legendary “fake orgasm scene,” is really overpriced, even by New York City standards. Delicious, but way too expensive.
John Travolta's breakout role cast him as Tony Manero, a 19-year-old Brooklyn loser with dreams of moving to Staten Island. Tony, who is consumed by self-doubt and the desolation of being a nobody, is able to transcend his miserable life every Saturday when he dances at the 2001 Odyssey nightclub. Shot all over Brooklyn, Saturday Night Fever is unique in that it shows the lives of people just trying to get by in a time and place where a life of crime is the norm, rather than the exception, instead of just being about cops and killers.
Tony and his friends are undoubtedly juvenile delinquents, but the film is much more of a coming-of-age drama than anything else, about rising above your station, taking stock of your friends and family, and abandoning those which are holding you back. See also Staying Alive, the completely uncalled-for sequel, directed by Sylvester Stallone. It's not exactly a forgotten gem, but it is, to a certain degree, underrated.
While often compared to Annie Hall (romance, psychiatric analysis, Diane Keaton), Manhattan is even more bittersweet than its predecessor; the bitterness stings more than in Annie Hall, but on the other hand, the sweetness in Manhattan is that much more lovely, so it all evens out. Also, Manhattan takes great pride in its title setting and really swings for the fences in showcasing the sheer splendor of the city, all in glorious black and white, shot by the legendary Gordon Willis.
This is the city at its most romantic, the idealized version of reality that would seem a fantasy if it weren’t shot on location in the real places. While the debate will never end as to which Woody Allen opus is better, we’re placing Manhattan at the top of our list because of its unrivaled visual identity and pure passion for its locale.
“New York was his town, and it always would be.”
These are our picks, but what about yours? What did we forget? What other movies bring NYC to life? Let us know in the comments below!