It’s hard to imagine a more cinematic metropolis than New York City. It’s a place that we believe we have detailed knowledge of even if we’ve never been there or, in my case, have gone as a tourist but have never had the intimacy with it that one gets from the movies. On my first visit, I told myself to not expect it to be like the movies (or Sex and the City, for that matter). It’s a real place and not a film set, and upon arrival, greeted by buildings that even a city boy was shocked at, and the verdant beauty of a park bigger than Monaco, I was surprised and delighted to discover that, to paraphrase Quentin Crisp, it’s more like the movies (and Sex and the City) than you could possibly imagine.
The metropolitan city that now boasts almost nine million inhabits in its five boroughs began its colonized, European history as a Dutch trading post in the 1620s, then towards the end of the seventeenth century came under English control and was renamed for James II of England, then the Duke of York. By the early twentieth century, it had established itself as the definition of urbanity, Manhattan alone a tiny island teeming with immigrant masses struggling to get ahead of the places they left behind, and millionaire tycoons crowding the island with the race to build the biggest skyscraper.
Movies, which began to gain ground as popular entertainment around the same time, found in New York the perfect backdrop against which to play all manner of narratives to the mostly non-English speaking masses who flocked to watch them. Before the studios moved out west, the centre of film production was in New Jersey and New York was a handy drive away for on-location photography, but even after the industry moved to California because of all the cheap land available to the fledgling studios, the memory of the Big Apple did not fade. Stories of flappers gone wild in the jazz age were usually set in Manhattan, later the Depression-era escapist musicals and gangster pictures played out on skilled recreations on Hollywood studio lots before movies like Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s On the Town and Jules Dassin’s The Naked City made on-location photography fashionable in the late forties. Dassin’s film also sparked the popularity of true crime films and the now banal stereotype of the concrete jungle became the perfect setting for the kitchen-sink stage adaptations that would dominate the 1950s. Today, New York means all of these things to us and more, but one thing it will always be is uniquely New York. Los Angeles is handier for filming because it can be turned into anywhere in the world, but New York must always play itself.
The Criterion Channel has dared its devoted viewers to swallow whole their massive New York Stories collection, a series of more than sixty films that covers all decades, numerous genres and perspectives of the city both harshly realistic and gloriously fantastical. A true, complete retrospective of New York films would be impossible but it’s still worth pointing out that this collection is heavy on stories about the cracks in the pavement, and could have benefited from more lighter fare that points a rosier, if exceptional picture, notably Woody Allen’s entire filmography, Nora Ephron’s nineties rom-coms or Kramer Vs. Kramer (which doesn’t paint a rosy picture, but does feature miserable people in fabulous, upper-middle-class earth tones). And only one Scorsese, Criterion? That said, there’s more than enough to please and more than a few films worth cherishing as time capsules if for no other reason.
I had the pleasure of That Shelf contributors Colin Biggs and Marko Djurdjic joining me to review the entire collection. Reviews are by Bil Antoniou except where noted.
MUST-SEE NEW YORK FILMS
The Crowd (King Vidor, 1928)
Likely King Vidor’s masterpiece, this film’s protagonist is born on the fourth of July and is raised with an awareness of his promise to do great things, but after joining the masses who get married and struggle to provide for their own, must change his perspective on his personal values. The images of the city teeming with masses of people just like him fill one with a sense of beauty, profundity and dread all at once.
Speedy (Ted Wilde, 1928)
A series of brilliant sequences are enhanced by flawless sight gags in one of Harold Lloyd’s most popular comedies (right behind Safety Last). He plays a baseball fanatic who can’t keep a job but it makes no difference to his lady love, with whom he spends a day at Coney Island. Her grandfather is the last of the horse-drawn trolley drivers who is trying to avoid the modernizing influence of the new railways systems, a loose plot foundation from which the couple’s adventures spring.
On the Bowery (Lionel Rogosin, 1956)
Rogosin turns his camera on transient lives and daily struggle in what was, at the time, a part of Manhattan well known for its roughness. Ray Salyer and Gorman Hendricks were plucked out of the crowd by the director to play out a few scripted scenes but are otherwise observed in their real lives, getting the odd job for a day, spending the profits at the bar and their nights often sleeping on the street. Lest it be thought that this is a soul-stirring plea for tolerance or charity, Rogosin presents these hard lives without manipulation and never allows the crowds of characters to whom he gives detailed and considerate close-ups to ever fade into the background.
The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)
Colin Biggs: C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is a small name in a huge New York insurance company. Desperate to escape the never-ending row of desks and land a corner office, he will do anything to climb the corporate ladder, so he resorts to using his apartment as a haven for executives and their mistresses. Baxter’s bosses often leave him problems to deal with after, but his supervisor Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) takes the cake when Baxter finds an unconscious Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) in his bed. Billy Wilder, a master of tones, juggles a rom-com filled with loneliness, infidelity, and suicide without leaving the audience feeling maudlin or smug. The dialogue and plot are brilliantly set up, with the audience basking in the rewards of the Lemmon, MacLaine, and MacMurray triptych knocking every scene out of the park. Its genius lies in Wilder’s ability to present two fronts: romantic comedy and a scathing indictment of the corporate world that puts C.C. and Fran together. The film is as relevant today as it ever was.
The Incident (Larry Peerce, 1967) and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Joseph Sargent, 1974)
Marko Djurdjic: While most “New York stories” happen in the streets and apartments of the five Burroughs, the city’s underground is just as important to its image as any building populating its skyline. In Peerce’s The Incident and Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, the subway becomes the site of violence and menace, where allegories of authority, corruption, and bureaucracy take shape. The people in power—the politicians, those who run the subway’s daily operations, the hijackers—take a cruel and often perverse pleasure in controlling, interrogating and/or threatening the passengers aboard these trains. While the films display some moments of reprieve (Pelham‘s employment of Walter Matthau as New York City Transit Police lieutenant Zack Garber is particularly effective in lightening the subterranean mood), the suffocating anxiety that came with living in New York during this period is made abundantly—and brutally—clear. While The Incident boasts a simple premise, its execution is relentless. Cold and misanthropic, the film’s bleak cinematography creates an improvisational documentary feel, while its noirish approach produces an omnipresent menace that permeates every grotesque frame. Nauseating and visceral, your entire body will feel The Incident: your blood, your stomach, they’ll churn, and you’ll feel soaked in bile. The film’s poignant final scene illustrates the ambivalence—even indifference—we display when it comes to acts of injustice, and serves as a stark reminder that we are all terrible in our own ways, it’s just always easier to recognize in someone else. Influencing remakes and ripoff artists (coughcough*Tarantino*cough) since its release, Pelham may be the only “thrill ride” that takes place entirely in a stalled vehicle. Sargent’s assured filmmaking and methodical blocking give the film a photographic quality, every frame feeling like a crime scene photograph come to life. The performances are beyond top notch (with particularly stellar turns from Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, and Martin Balsam…as if that’s surprising), as is Owen Roizman’s characteristically gritty cinematography. Simultaneously funny, tense, and grim, it is a violent, relentless exploration of city bureaucracy, sexual and racial politics, and the crumbling infrastructure of New York as a city, as an idea, and as a global symbol of progress and cool.
The Queen (Frank Simon, 1968)
A thrilling documentary and one of the best indulgences in this collection. Fearless Sabrina (Jack Doroshow) takes us through the experience of a national drag competition comprised of candidates from around the country. In seventy very short minutes, we get interviews with the participants, rehearsal footage of their fabulous dance numbers and ample views of the event itself, which isn’t complete without the unsparing commentary by none other than Crystal LaBeija after the winner has been crowned. Recently restored and looking pristine, this film is not to be missed.
The Panic In Needle Park (Jerry Schatzberg, 1971)
Al Pacino appears in his first lead role in this surprisingly tender look at two lovers who are undone by heroin addiction. Kitty Winn won Best Actress at Cannes for her charismatic portrayal of a young woman who is drawn to the drug by her relationship with Pacino, and before long is working the streets to keep up her habit while he is in and out of trouble with the law. Jerry Schatzberg doesn’t refrain from portraying the worst aspects of their life on the Upper West Side, but he also never loses touch with their sexy chemistry and reminds us constantly that they are humans who deserve our sympathy.
Sisters (Brian De Palma, 1973)
Before Carrie gave him his major breakthrough, de Palma got his first widespread notice for this outstanding horror film about conjoined twins, both played by a riveting Margot Kidder, who were successfully separated by surgery but have also split more than just physically. Nosy reporter Jennifer Salt believes she witnesses one of them commit a murder and is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, delving into the sisters’ history and discovering some pretty intense secrets. The primitive makeup effects don’t dampen the film’s most chilling moments, and its discoveries are a delight.
My Dinner With Andre (Louis Malle, 1981)
A film that has become a handy reference for high-art cinema jokes but is still every bit as good as you’ve heard it is. Wallace Shawn meets actor and theatre director Andre Gregory for dinner, both of them playing fictional versions of themselves as Shawn is entranced by the tales that Gregory shares with him about mystical eastern European communes and, eventually, the meaning of a life (in time for the cheque to arrive). Daring and experimental, and still richly entertaining.
Variety (Bette Gordon, 1983)
Gordon’s masterful drama has thankfully been restored and rediscovered so many years after never gotten its proper due, starring a magnificent Sandy McLeod as a woman who takes a job working the box office of a porn theatre. Spending her breaks smoking in the lobby, she becomes fascinated with the world of through-the-looking-glass sexuality up on screen, at the same time becoming fixated on a well-to-do gentleman who is a frequent customer at the theatre and who she believes might work for the mob. Gordon explores her character and this world without ever resorting to teaching her a lesson through a degrading experience, nor does she reassure our prim sensibilities with any simplistic platitudes about empowerment and agency: we don’t know if McLeod knows what’s good for her, and it’s none of our business if she does. This is one of the finest and most intelligent films in this collection.
Los Sures (Diego Echevarria, 1984)
The short running time is at odds with the grand effect of this nearly forgotten documentary that has thankfully been saved by a very successful restoration and release. Los Sures is the poorest neighbourhood in New York City. It’s part of Williamsburg and Echevarria’s camera gets intimate knowledge of its residents, who add detail and humanity to the stereotypes you expect to see. The man stripping cars to sell parts illegally has a loving wife and child that he’s trying to support, the woman on welfare with five kids keeps an immaculate house and is making sure her children are educated properly. They’re just some of the people we meet in this sometimes funny, sometimes deeply moving and always thoroughly enlightening work.
Old Enough (Marisa Silver, 1984)
A superb coming-of-age tale that beautifully captures the main character’s fascination with an older teenage girl as she is herself on the brink of puberty. Lonnie lives with her well-to-do parents in their fancy Manhattan brownstone and makes friends with the handyman’s daughter from around the corner, skipping day camp to spend the hot New York summer days with her and her wild, sexy teenage brother instead. Silver’s observations of class divisions are razor-sharp and subtle, and the richness of her characterizations, sympathetic to all their hard edges, goes straight to the heart.
Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch, 1984)
Jarmusch’s second feature deservedly made him a cult favourite, his offbeat characterizations and spare but mesmerizing visuals still provide a great deal of pleasure that hasn’t dated at all. John Lurie is upset when his aunt tells him his cousin Eszter Balint is coming from Hungary to spend ten days with him in New York. They watch a few football games in his squalid apartment before she heads to Cleveland to live with her aunt, then he goes out there with Richard Edson and they enjoy the snowy wilds of the Midwest before driving to Florida to spend their money betting at the track. The random moves that the plot makes are almost absurd but in a comically inspired manner that always feels fresh and spontaneous.
After Hours (Martin Scorsese, 1985)
Marko Djurdjic: Martin Scorsese is pretty damn punk, and so is this film. Awash in downtown paranoia, the film’s elliptical, cryptic narrative follows Paul Hackett (played inimitably by Griffin Dunne), a data entry drone who meets Marcy Franklin (Rosanna Arquette) at a diner…and proceeds to have one hell of a night. After taking a cab to Marcy’s (and losing his only $20 after it blows out the window), Paul enters the unwelcoming depths of Lower Manhattan, where Scorsese’s vision of a New York populated by a cast of fringe characters—artists, bartenders, irritated wait staff, perma-fried burglars, and a whole lotta pissed off neighbours—takes life. Mashing yuppie mobility with downtown sleaze, Joseph Minion’s script wraps the strange with the corporate, creating an absurdist, hellish mosaic of 80s New York. The film won Scorsese the best director award at Cannes, and has developed a cult following for its very un-Scorsese atmosphere and themes, including its screwball energy, and it is my favourite of his films. Watch it after a looooong night out, and it’ll make total sense (trust me…probably).
Moonstruck (Norman Jewison, 1987)
Colin Biggs Cher struts away with Norman Jewison’s film about love and family, an impressive feat considering that her co-star is a young, flamboyant Nicolas Cage. Mask and Silkwood won her some acclaim but with Moonstruck she took off as an actress by giving a transformative performance that made her a star everywhere. She plays Loretta, a widow engaged to a man she doesn’t love, tasked with convincing her fiance’s brother to attend the wedding, but, in one of many farces that occur in the film, she falls in love with Ronny (Cage) instead. Meanwhile, her father is having an affair, and her mother (Olympia Dukakis) knows all about it. Hopelessly romantic while also proving love can be messy, this is a classic built on oddities. Nicolas Cage belts out lines like “I lost my hand, I lost my bride. Johnny has his hand, Johnny has his bride!” and no one even blinks. In its truest sense of telling a New York story, no one behaves reasonably, but they are true to themselves. When the film renders a dazzling NYC world of love, magic feels real, if just for two hours.
Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)
Colin Biggs: “There’s no end in sight to this heatwave.” Condensing all of humanity to a few small blocks in New York City, Do the Right Thing attempts to tackle life’s biggest issues but more profoundly illuminates our communities. Samuel L. Jackson’s Love Daddy narrates the events of Bed Stuy and its inhabitants while Sal’s pizzeria takes center stage. “The Wall” in Sal’s pizzeria consists only of Italian-American celebrities, but the people that eat at Sal’s are Black, and they aren’t represented in a single photo. Sal refuses to heed Buggin Out’s request for Black representation, while Mookie (Spike Lee) just tries to stay out of the way and make a buck in the meantime. What follows is heartwrenching, maddening, and despairing in ways that aren’t new but don’t seem to be going anywhere either. The riveting ending inspires discussion that needs to happen in every household. Sadly, not enough has changed in the 27 years since the film’s release, the anger of the film echoes in the passage of time.
Metropolitan (Whit Stillman, 1990)
Whit Stillman‘s exciting debut earned him an Oscar nomination for writing, a witty and incisive portrait of the young scions of the old money set. Taking place during debutante season, a group of friends have lofty grass-is-greener conversations about socialism interrupted by a newcomer with a simpler background (Edward Clements), who confuses their own sense of privilege and wins the heart of the lovely Carolyn Farina. The limits of Stillman’s very small budget shows in the costumes and sets but he employs these limits to his advantage, forcing your attention on the intelligent dialogue which the characters use to navigate their way through relationship stakes that sometimes feel like all-out warfare.
Paris Is Burning (Jennie Livingston, 1990)
The spiritual if not actual follow-up to The Queen covers ballroom culture in the late eighties, with the legendary Pepper LaBeija and Dorian Corey guiding us through the excitement of the drag competition that the contestants, marginalized outside of this world and legitimized within it, do their best to win. For some it’s the first step towards much bigger dreams, which director Livingston does a beautiful job of capturing in between the opportunities to enlighten us on the meaning of terms like “mopping” and “reading”. Long before ball culture went mainstream with RuPaul’s Drag Race, this highly acclaimed film welcomed us to love its participants like family by making us feel that we were being loved back, and considering how many of them are no longer with us since it was released, it’s a tribute to their legacy as well.
Dark Days (Marc Singer, 2000)
This astonishing documentary takes us under Pennsylvania Station and into the empty Amtrak tunnels occupied by a number of homeless people who have taken refuge from the weather and struggle above the surface. Director Singer was himself a resident of this community and was donated equipment and film stock to make a honest and poignant film that gets up close to the lives of the various figures we meet, the cruelties of life that brought them to their living situation and the moments of beauty and humour that find in a very dark place. A remarkable accomplishment.
Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2013)
Baumbach’s best film after Squid and the Whale is this endlessly charming comedy that also launched the behind-the-scenes career of co-writer Greta Gerwig. She stars as a woman whose estrangement from her best friend forces her to realize that, despite being well into adulthood, she hasn’t found her footing as an individual yet. Shot with a spontaneous monochrome beauty reminiscent of the spirit of the Nouvelle Vague, the film’s cruel humour (including a very funny weekend in Paris) never pits you against its dazzling heroine, whose travails in wanting to succeed in so unforgiving a city is sympathetic and admirable even when she lacks the wisdom to know what she’s up against.
The Hottest August (Brett Story, 2019)
This almost metaphysical exploration of the cinema’s most fascinating city looks to capture not just New York’s citizens and sites, but its very soul, and feels like it succeeds in doing so. Story takes her camera from Manhattan to the outer boroughs and asks various people who have just lived through Hurricane Sandy and the divisiveness of Trump’s election how they feel about the future. The answers are situated within images of intense, enigmatic beauty.
WORTHY NEW YORK STORIES
The Naked City (Jules Dassin, 1948)
Marko Djurdjic: After a department store employee is murdered in her apartment, two police officers—one young, one old, each most certainly representing the changing landscape of New York’s social and cultural classes—must solve her murder, which takes them on a seedy mission through some of Manhattan’s most exclusive circles, as well as some of its lowest. From the outset, the narration in Jules Dessin’s The Naked City tells us that this picture will be filmed not on stages, but on location on the streets of New York, in its apartments, stores, and precincts. Here, the naked city breathes hard, hot, and beautiful, and this authenticity works in favour of the film’s themes. While the tone fluctuates, causing some inconsistencies in mood and intention, the film’s sprawling, nerve-wracking finale—a chase through tiny boarding apartments, crumbling debris strewn backyards, and the teeming, crowded streets of New York itself—is a testament to impeccable framing, pacing, and editing. As the film ends, the narration tells us that this is but one story in a city full of ‘em (8 million, to be exact), each one more audacious and brilliant and mystifying than the last. So go get lost in this one, and in the 60 or so others on this list. There’s a New York story out there for everyone.
Little Fugitive (Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin, Raymond Abrashkin, 1953)
A film considered a forerunner to the French New Wave, this independent milestone is shot on 35mm cameras with an entirely post-dubbed soundtrack but gets all its slickness from tight direction and highly charismatic performances from its leads. Little Joey is tricked by his older brother Lennie into thinking he has killed him as a way to get him to leave the older kids alone, and runs away from his crime by spending a day at Coney Island, indulging in every ride and snack that the park has to offer. The joyful humour is never without a tinge of melancholy at its corners, brought to life beautifully by Richie Andrusco’s highly sympathetic performance.
The Garment Jungle (Vincent Sherman, 1957)
The story of labour organization in a city overwhelmed by immigrants who came to find work and a better life is folded with impressive ease into an exciting thriller narrative, in which Lee J. Cobb plays a garment manufacturer who pays shady hoods to threaten the union reps who come to his shop and try to woo his workers. Kerwin Mathews plays his golden-boy son who returns from an education abroad and comes to work for his dad only to find out that he’s the son of the bad guy and must align himself with the ideals of inspired union leader Robert Loggia and his very hot wife Gia Scala. A daring film to make in the ’50s, considering that it pushes some very left-wing idealism not long after the worst injustices of the Red Scare era, but one which plays it safe by doing the typical Hollywood move of reaffirming us that the system is fine, it’s the bad apples who need to go. Performances and dialogue are top-flight.
West Side Story (Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins, 1961)
The musical that you’ll often hear people who don’t like musicals say is their one exception, this film version of Robbins’ eternally successful Broadway musical sets Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet on the Upper West Side, in which gangs of white and Puerto Rican kids are at war for reasons known only to them. Natalie Wood and Tony Beymer play the star-crossed lovers from opposing sides who find each other and fall in love but are held back by their circumstances. Film versions of stage musicals rarely capture the heat of the live experience and feel canned, but the choreography and music adaptation is exciting and vibrant here, in many of the numbers you’re sure you can see the sweat on the dancers’ bodies as they fight against prejudices they only understand emotionally. The film would have done better to stick to the more expressionist stuff and have us believe that inner-city gang members can do jackknife ballet moves, instead of trying to justify it with any attempts at realism through overly extended dramatic footage, but the good far outweighs the dull here. Winner of ten Academy Awards, the second-biggest haul of any film in Oscar history.
Putney Swope (Robert Downey, Sr., 1969)
Laughs abound in this delicious satire, in which the token black man (Arnold Johnson) on an advertising agency’s board is made chairman when his colleagues accidentally vote for him in an effort to avoid honouring their enemies. He fires everyone and hires his Black power colleagues to avoid the corporate evils of the advertising world but, as his power grows, finds himself giving into the moral compromises that come with leadership. Unlike most satires that feel like a single joke spread out over a movie, this one is always clever and witty, blessed with great performances and gorgeous cinematography.
The Out of Towners (Arthur Hiller, 1970)
New York City is an unfriendly host to an Ohio couple (Jack Lemmon, Sandy Dennis) who are flying there for a job interview that could mean a huge promotion for him. Things go wrong from the start, beginning with a fog-enshrouded city that forces them to land in Boston, followed by lost luggage, a crowded commuter train, a hurricane-level rainstorm, muggings, hotels with no vacancies, sleeping in Central Park and run-ins with cops, robbers and anti-Cuba demonstrators. Lemmon’s character is an obnoxious angerball who threatens to alienate the audience with his maniacal fury, but Neil Simon’s brilliant script and Arthur Hiller’s fast-paced direction never give you a moment to breathe and as the situations become more outlandish and the characters more desperate, the proceedings induce more sympathetic laughs.
Super Fly (Gordon Parks, Jr, 1972)
Parks, Jr made his directorial debut with this very successful indie hit, one of the most popular films of the blaxploitation craze of the era and one of the most controversial (the NAACP wanted the film burned). Ron O’Neal is terrific as a cocaine dealer who longs to pull off a big score and get away from the short life-expectancy of his chosen career, but must outwit the mob and the New York City police in order to do so. Parks added a lot of non-narrative scenes of walking the streets of the city to bring the film up to a full feature length and, in doing so, created a gorgeous time capsule of the era’s fashions and storefronts that might even be more entertaining than the barely noticeable plot. Curtis Mayfield’s Grammy-nominated soundtrack sold even better than the movie did.
News From Home (Chantal Akerman, 1976)
Akerman has relocated to New York City when she makes this meditative work, shooting long, static shots all over the city, on the surface and below, while over the soundtrack she reads the letters she has been receiving from her concerned mother. The messages received are full of love and concern but with an ambivalence that her mother, a Holocaust survivor, feels about her daughter being so far away and not communicating often enough. The images of an impersonal urban wasteland comment ironically on the personal narration, plus from our current vantage point act as a fascinating time capsule of the city in this period. For some this will be a devastating bore, for others a rapturously personal experience (for most it will be both).
Town Bloody Hall (Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker, 1979)
Marko Djurdjic: Employing the same “direct cinema” approach as his musical documentaries (including the Dylan tour doc Dont Look Back (1967), and the remarkably blitzed out Monterey Pop (1968)), D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’s Town Bloody Hall attempts an unbiased documentation of a debate at The Town Hall in Midtown Manhattan between Norman Mailer, the then-enfant terrible of the publishing world, and four prominent feminist advocates/activists: Jacqueline Ceballos, Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston, and Diana Trilling. Released eight years after the event itself, Hegedus and Pennebaker show New York’s intellectual community as a cacophonous, hilarious and intense (albeit rather homogenous) conglomeration of people, ideas and emotions. Perpetually stuck in institutional spaces and drenched in privilege, the filmmakers both skewer and celebrate the self-absorption of the learnéd, representing a niche New York population founded in exclusion. The streets of New York itself are actively—and ironically—shunned by the filmmakers: there are no landmarks, no famous intersections, no boroughs or pizza joints or subways. Nothing real. Instead, this is a film about ideas, about the sorts of intellectually masturbatory happenings that have always been pervasive behind New York’s closed doors. Town Bloody Hall is simultaneously irritating, funny, and condescending, and that’s exactly the point: so is New York.
Smithereens (Susan Seidelman, 1982)
Susan Berman is the picture of ’80s cool, traipsing about Manhattan in high top sneakers and fishnet sneakers trying to break into the music business. She has a relationship with a connected cad to achieve her goals, ignoring the sweet handsome lug from Montana who has just come to New York City and is living in his van. Seidelman’s plotting won’t rewrite your ideas of great stories, but the vibrant manner in which she captures the downtown scene of the time in this movie (and in Desperately Seeking Susan a few years later) makes for unforgettable viewing. Chris Noth makes a brief appearance as a rentboy, Seidelman would later direct him in the pilot of a little show called Sex and the City.
King of New York (Abel Ferrara, 1990)
Colin Biggs: Abel Ferrera begins his film by ushering the titular King of New York from his red carpet–a prison gate–to the back of a regal limousine. Once inside, the camera lingers on Frank’s (Christopher Walken) distinctive face as he surveys his kingdom that sprawls all across the cityscape. Unlike other crime bosses, Frank relishes climbing down from his tower to get his hands dirty. The film made stars out of its large ensemble (Wesley Snipes, David Caruso, Laurence Fishburne, Giancarlo Esposito, Steve Buscemi, Theresa Randle, etc.), but it is Walken’s movie; as a man who lost all the glee of gangster life and dealing with the impending doom, Frank is one of the more complicated characters gangster cinema offers, a fascinating study of contradictions played out in one of the most schizoid cities on Earth. Frank’s philanthropy, well-intentioned as it may be, is built on the back of exploited classes, while the moral authority of the police is consistently undone by bloodlust and only the guilty know where they stand on the moral spectrum.
Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (Alan Rudolph, 1994)
Rudolph’s circular narrative style has never found a better subject than the sharpest wit of the Algonquin Round table, Dorothy Parker (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Told in flashback from her later days working in the cold austerity of the Hollywood studio system, the film’s New York past (shot in Montreal) feels like warm memories on film, in which Parker and her literary friends (which involves a who’s who of indie actors at the time, plus a young Gwyneth Paltrow) create literary classics between swigs of the rotgut being brewed in the bathtub. For some, Leigh’s interpretation of the character is a grand work of electrifying art, for others it’s an irritating over-determination of the character’s arch manner. Either way, there’s no film like this one and that is its greatest value.
The DayTrippers (Greg Mottola, 1996)
After her husband (Stanley Tucci) leaves for work in the morning, Hope Davis finds a love note written to him by someone else and is distraught to learn that he might be cheating on her. She decides to drive into the city and confront him about it, along the way picking up her father and mother (Pat McNamara, Anne Meara), her sister (Parker Posey) and her sister’s boyfriend (Liev Schreiber), treating us to a delightful comedy of complicated family dynamics on her lengthy trek from Long Island to Manhattan to get the bottom of what might be wrong in her marriage. Indie films in the nineties were overwhelmed with gimmicky plots (right down to surprise twist endings, including here), but few of them are suffused with the charm of characterization and strong writing that this one possesses.
Downtown 81 (Edo Bertoglio, 2000) and Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (Tamra Davis, 2010)
Marko Djurdjic: Taking place over a 24-hour period, Downtown 81 features Basquiat’s only acting role (not counting his part as the DJ in Blondie’s “Rapture” video) and tells a verité story of a struggling, homeless painter (Basquiat) wandering the streets of downtown New York. The bombed-out landscape of the Lower East Side—a character in itself—plays the part of a city alive with art, music and drugs. Throughout the film, Basquiat’s poetic, obtuse narration permeates the soundtrack, but unfortunately, with the original audio lost years before the film’s release, the voice we hear isn’t Basquiat’s at all, but that of hip-hop artist Saul Williams, who provided all of Basquiat’s lines. The improvisational, atonal approach—to the music and the filmmaking—complements the fractured uncertainty of Basquiat’s artistic downtown existence, and the film’s jazzy editing style and self-referential nature leave a distinct impression, one that is, much like the artist’s works, simultaneously naïve yet assured. Conversely, The Radiant Child is a formulaic love letter to the fallen painter, a talking head-and-archival-footage documentary that traces Basquiat’s life from childhood to death. What makes the film interesting, however, is the reverence with which this young artist’s life is treated. He was not only beloved, but truly loved by his peers, his contemporaries, and his friends. His tragic passing at the age of 27 points to the pressures of fame, and the demands of patrons, and thankfully, the film neither romanticize his drug use, nor glorifies his premature death. While his intense, meticulous images celebrating Blackness, authenticity, and humour have now been plastered on shirts, vases, and handbags, his legacy can’t be diminished by rampant consumerism: Jean-Michel is way too cool for that. If you’re still skeptical, watch these two films and see for yourself why.
Brother To Brother (Rodney Evans, 2004)
Anthony Mackie is terrific as a Black gay man struggling for both internal and external acceptance who befriends an aged, fictionalized Bruce Nugent, and from him learns tales of life in the Harlem renaissance of the ’20s. In flashback, Nugent hangs with the likes of Zora Neal Hurston and Langston Hughes; in the present, Mackie strikes up a love affair with a college student that could help him put his fears to rest. The ending is abrupt and the low budget means that the period scenes can’t be as rich as they deserve to be, but it’s a unique experience and a very enjoyable one.
Man Push Cart (Ramin Bahrani, 2005)
Bahrani’s second feature film was a breakthrough for the talented filmmaker, covering the daily life of a man who was a rock star in Pakistan but is now selling coffee and donuts from a cart on a New York city corner. Told with no sentiment but plenty of sharp clarity, we spend time with Ahmad Razvi’s quiet intensity as he allows himself to be patronized by a slick businessman from Lahore, insulted by his in-laws and eventually beaten down by the Big Apple in his attempt to get just that little bit ahead. A marvelous film blessed with sympathy and an almost sacred feel for the essential.
ONLY FOR THE CURIOUS
The Clock (Vincente Minnelli, 1945)
Judy Garland’s only non-musical film during her tenure at MGM is also one several collaborations with then-husband Minnelli, who elicits one of her most endearing performances. She and Robert Walker meet, have a whirlwind romance and get married in very quick succession thanks to the pressures of his being on a short leave from serving in the war. Manhattan is a city of endless possibilities in which they are brought together by as much random circumstance as separates them, and as recreated on studio sets, the city is beautiful even at its most unforgiving.
An Affair to Remember (Leo McCarey, 1957)
McCarey remakes his own 1939 romantic classic Love Affair, this time extending the length and shooting it in queasily bright Cinemascope, resulting in one of filmdom’s most popular romances. Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr meet on a steamship heading for the Big Apple and have a forbidden love affair that they must keep under wraps, agreeing to meet in six months after landing at the top of the Empire State Building. If you’ve seen Sleepless In Seattle, or talked to just about anyone, you know what happens, and while it’s shamelessly manipulative and twee (the original is much better), the stars really make it worth your time. The best moments are an elegant interlude involving a visit to Cathleen Nesbitt on the Riviera, in which you’re too emotionally overwhelmed to ignore the fact that Cary Grant couldn’t possibly have a grandmother at this stage in his life. Remade again in 1994 with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening.
Shadows (John Cassavetes, 1958)
Cassavetes makes his directorial debut with this spontaneous character study focused on Lelia Goldoni and Anthony Ray’s love affair. They meet and develop a connection that is tested when he realizes that he didn’t know that the light-skinned young woman is African-American. Populated with actors from Cassavetes’ acting collective, the film addresses its story’s issues in a subtle manner that never descends into simplistic lecturing, though the inclusion of white actors in blackface dates it today.
Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One (William Greaves, 1968)
Greaves takes crew to Central Park and trains one camera on two actors performing a scene he has created, its subject the breakup of a marriage, while his other cameras are pointed at the crew and the onlooking crowd. These are blended together along with scenes of the crew arguing in post-production to pin down not an object of creation but the act of creating itself, examining the meaning of direction and exploring the line between fiction and documentary. It’s highly experimental and theoretical, but not without its delightful moments of discovery.
Born to Win (Ivan Passer, 1971)
George Segal plays a heroin addict who, despite his tattoo from which this film gets his title, is always fated to lose. Trying to make some money robbing a safe goes very poorly in the film’s opening, trying to outwit the drug kingpin (Hector Elizondo) who is now the companion of his ex-wife (Paula Prentiss) fails every time he tries, and even his attempt to steal a car goes awry when the owner of it (Karen Black) catches him red-handed. Thankfully she thinks he’s cute and starts up a romance with our hapless hero, who spends this entire film getting himself into more ridiculous trouble that he must then figure a way out of. As in his later Cutter’s Way, director Passer isn’t interested in plot twists that lead anywhere, his cynical view of life is one in which no schemes pay off and no happy endings are anywhere to be found. The performances make this one easy to watch though for many it will not be at all satisfying.
God Told Me To (Larry Cohen, 1976)
A series of mass murders plague New York City, and when nabbed the culprits tell the cops that it was the good Lord who instructed them to do it. Tony Lo Bianco investigates and discovers that all of them were influenced by a strange friend with long blond hair and a persuasive manner, and in search for him ends up learning things about alien inseminations and virgin births that are connected to his own mysterious origins. A cult favourite for a very good reason, this shocker from Larry It’s Alive Cohen starts out a masterpiece, the early scenes of violence and mayhem are exciting and the mystery it creates is fascinating, but once the story decides it’s about the main character’s personal journey it loses all of its joyful sense of the uncanny and leaves too many questions unanswered.
Eyes of Laura Mars (Irvin Kershner, 1978)
The glamour of New York’s punkish downtown arts scene is captured by classy photographer Faye Dunaway’s camera, but her artistic vision becomes a source of terror when a serial killer begins stalking victims and stabbing them in the eyes. Dunaway knows when the murderer makes their every move because her own vision is taken over by their perspective as the gruesome crimes are committed, before beginning to realize that the villain is coming after her for the big finish. Supporting cast members Rene Auberjonois and Tommy Lee Jones lend terrific support to Dunaway’s high-calibre performance, but the movie lets her down in its last third when it follows a series of stylish and scary sequences with a rather tepid conclusion.
Stations of the Elevated (Manfred Kirchheimer, 1981)
An hour of images of New York City subway trains doesn’t sound like a trip to cinema paradise, but Kirchheimer’s intelligent art project has a soothing and amusing effect. His camera takes what is often written off as the perfect symbol of urban blight, graffiti, and turns it into the brightening addition to the public transit vehicles as they move across the screen, encouraging a sense of motion and pace with his use of relatively quick cuts. As with many of the films in this collection, it also works as a potent time capsule of a very specific aspect of the city at the time.
Five Corners (Tony Bill, 1987)
John Patrick Shanley pays tribute to the Bronx of his youth with his ensemble drama released the same year as his Oscar-winning Moonstruck. Sociopathic bully John Turturro is released from prison and returns to his old neighbourhood to look up Jodie Foster, with whom he is still obsessed despite having been sent away for attempting to rape her. She’s afraid for her safety and asks her friend Tim Robbins to help her stay safe, but he is preoccupied with his plans to go to Mississippi to be a Civil Rights Activist. The balance of comedy (including a subplot about four guys and gals who go on some fun adventures involving pill-popping and riding elevators) and upsetting drama isn’t exactly right but it’s not at all wrong, and the cast boasts a rich array of performances from magnificent actors, among the best of them Kathleen Chalfant as Robbins’ concerned mother.
Sidewalk Stories (Charles Lane, 1989)
Lane pays tribute to Chaplin with his quasi-remake of The Kid, taking the lead role as a poor street artist who witness a man’s murder. The man was walking his toddler at the time and Lane takes over her care, having no idea how to find her mother and shacking up with her in his make-shift shack in an abandoned building. He later makes the acquaintance of a kindly store owner who takes pity on him and eventually falls in love with him, their relationship making up the bulk of charm in this overlong but often very funny silent movie shot in black and white with no intertitles.
Just Another Girl On The IRT (Leslie Harris, 1992)
Ariyan A. Johnson makes an exciting debut as a young woman growing up in the Brooklyn projects who is determined to get everything right about her life that everyone around her, she believes, has gotten wrong. On track to graduate high school with honours and go to medical school, she is heedless of the advice of her teachers and parents because her confrontational manner is something she believes is her greatest asset, but when she gets pregnant and refuses to accept responsibility for making a decision about it, she learns the hard way that life doesn’t always care about your grand plans for success. Harris has created a terrific character who is admirable, challenging and frustrating, making it easy to forgive the more dated aspects of the movie (like the first person narration to camera and bad sound design).
Mr. Jealousy (Noah Baumbach, 1997)
Eric Stoltz has been burned in love enough times that he is overwhelmed by jealousy in his relationship with Annabella Sciorra, which doesn’t improve when he learns that her ex-boyfriend (Chris Eigeman) has become a successful novelist. Unable to help himself, Stoltz joins Eigeman’s therapy group incognito in order to size up the competition, while his friends Carlos Jacott and Marianne Jean-Baptiste are engaged and have to deal with their own pre-wedding jitters. Baumbach’s light follow-up to Kicking and Screaming is still avoiding the depths he’d later plunge in The Squid and the Whale, but he offers up a witty and pleasurable comedy with a terrific cast.
Chop Shop (Ramin Bahrani, 2007)
A worthy companion piece to Man Push Cart and something of a remake, focusing on a struggling character being left behind in the frantic forward motion of New York City (and who also sells porn DVDs on the street). This time it’s a pre-teen boy who gets work at a junkyard in Willets Point and saves his money to buy a food truck that will give him and his sister a better life. Bahrani once again shows the live of a striver without exploiting their misery, though Alejandro Polanco isn’t nearly as captivating in the lead as Ahmad Razvi was, and the unspoken atmosphere around the character isn’t as intoxicating.
The Angel Levine (Jan Kadar, 1970)
Struggling senior citizen Zero Mostel can barely pay for the medicine to take care of his bedridden wife (Ida Kaminska) and isn’t comforted when he comes home and finds Harry Belafonte sitting in his kitchen with the news that he’s his guardian angel. Belafonte says that he is there to help the ailing couple but Mostel, who has turned his back on god for all the difficulties that have been visited upon him, continues to resist the message when Kaminska miraculously gets out of bed. Superb performances are the best element of Oscar winner Jan Kadar’s Hollywood debut, but the story isn’t very interesting and the connection that brings the two main characters together is too haphazard and offers few rewards by the end. Gloria Foster, best known as the Oracle in The Matrix, is superb in a supporting role as Belafonte’s frustrated girlfriend.
Little Murders (Alan Arkin, 1971)
Jules Feiffer adapts his absurdist play lampooning the breakdown of post-JFK assassination America, in which emotionally staid photographer Elliott Gould is romanced by high-strung interior decorator Marcia Rodd, who can’t enjoy her relationship with him without pushing him to be as emotionally volatile as her. In a city where being beaten up by a gang or shot by a random sniper is a daily occurrence, New Yorkers find themselves driven to absolute insanity by the pressures of the demands of urban living. Arkin directs for the first time and makes an appearance as a monologuing detective in a film whose stage origins are most painfully obvious in its refusal to move anywhere beyond its main concept, and what likely feels like enlightening allegory on stage comes across as a boring lecture on screen.
Ciao Manhattan (John Palmer, David Weisman, 1972)
Edie Sedgwick makes her final on-screen appearance as a fictional version of herself, sitting in her California mansion with a young man she picked up hitch-hiking and describing her past life as a promising superstar in the Warhol Factory. New York is a state of mind in this listless essay collage that has likely been constructed around whatever available footage of Sedgwick the filmmakers could take before her untimely demise, and what should have been a perceptive glimpse into the tragedy of a bright young thing who lived too fast and died too young feels exploitative whenever it isn’t painfully boring. Sedgwick looks ill the entire time and it’s uncomfortable to watch.
Permanent Vacation (Jim Jarmusch, 1980)
Jarmusch later disowned his directorial debut and it’s easy to see why, other than the visual pleasure of how beautifully he captures the urban jungle with his usual sense of spare, enchanted beauty, it’s a very long seventy minute experience. Chris Parker visits his institutionalized mother, resolves matters with his girlfriend and hangs out in alleyways and rundown buildings where he meets a war veteran, a musician and an unhinged woman with whom he interacts. The pleasure of Jarmusch’s offbeat but never unsympathetic characterizations is already here, the narrative strength would follow not far behind.
Rhythm Thief (Matthew Harrison, 1994)
Jason Andrews plays a street vendor who sells bootleg tapes on the sidewalk before going home to his bare apartment with only a mattress on the floor. He is having a sexual fling with one woman while avoiding the old girlfriend who has come to town looking for him, then steps into big trouble when a rock band whose music he has been secretly taping comes to teach him a very violent lesson. Shot in grimy, primitive black and white, quickly on a tiny budget, this grimy indie has a great deal of spirit but is only mildly captivating.
Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011)
A film whose post-production process was a legendary debacle, including a years-delayed release until Thelma Schoonmaker helped a beleaguered Lonergan complete a theatrical cut (a longer version was released in home formats and is included in this collection). For its fans, the film’s troubled history is part of what makes it a misunderstood masterpiece, for the rest of us it’s an outsized and unwieldy exercise in self-indulgence, about a suspiciously articulate, wholly unappealing teenager (played in a desperate performance by Anna Paquin) whose casual attitude towards life’s moral conflicts is set ablaze when she witness a traffic accident that pins Allison Janney under a bus. Scenes involving J. Smith Cameron and Jeannie Berlin are highlights, but it takes three hours for Paquin to find out that good things happen to bad people in a world that doesn’t care, followed by an ending in which characters rediscover their love for each other while watching opera.