New York City skyline aerial

In 2019, New York City opened its arms to about 67 million visitors. Needless to say, this year cannot begin to hold a candle to that number. Due to a second wave of coronavirus infections that’s currently making its way across the country—not to mention the new travel bans invoked to stop said wave—the perimeters of the Big Apple (sadly but necessarily) remain off limits for most tourists. For New Yorkers, Untapped New York’s tours have resumed with awesome new health and safety measures, and many of our tours are selling out fast!

Fortunately for the tourists, they don’t have to actually go to New York in order to experience it. The city has, after all, served as the setting of thousands upon thousands of movies. Of course, only a fraction of those films actually bother to portray what living there is like and, more importantly, only a fraction of that fraction do the city’s vibrant culture any justice. Frank Sinatra’s famous line, “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere,” very much dominates the popular imagination of New York as it exists inside the minds of passing tourists, incoming settlers, and born-and-bred natives alike. But while the city is certainly a site of limitless potential, it’s also a harbinger of untapped potential and systematic shortcoming. Despite their social significance, these troubling aspects are rarely touched upon by most Hollywood films. Luckily, there are those who dare to explore such things, and they are stronger for it. Here are nine films that do.

1. Do the Right Thing

Spike Lee’s most famous beloved motion picture to date, Do the Right Thing, takes place entirely in Brooklyn’s racially diverse Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Here, over the course of a single day, under the sweltering summer sun, tensions between the various occupants of this community heat up until they reach their boiling point. The result is not pretty, but that’s the point. In the span of a few hours, Lee sketches an entire ecosystem, one whose people and problems feel as real as anything you might find in the real world.

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7 thoughts on “A Film Buff’s Guide to NYC: 9 Films That Really Capture the City’s Culture

  1. The taking of Pelham 123/One Two Three. Die Hard with a Vengeance. You’ve Got Mail

  2. I just saw this gem:
    In 1970s New York, a jaded record exec (Bobby Cannavale) tries to resurrect his failing label and fractured personal life while keeping his finger on the pulse of the city’s new sound. Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, Terence Winter and Rich Cohen produce.

  3. Unbelievably poor choices. As though the films were chosen by a 19 – year old first year film student who hasn’t seen a film made before 1990.

    Just awful.

  4. I would want to add Spike Lee’s Inside Man. In it, Lee brings the city and all its wonderful people to joyful life with love and meticulous attention to detail. Although Lee didn’t write the script for this one, as its director he mines the city’s diversity in a way that only an insider can. So many scenes are little vignettes of New York life! The one in the police trailer where the characters debate the official name of Grand Central is a classic. And how can you not love Waris Ahluwalia’s cameo? All the exteriors are scouted and used to maximum effect–the cops hanging out at Cafe Bravo? Genius!!!

    And what about City Island? Such a terrific movie about residents of a part of the city I’m sure 95% of tourists have never even heard of. Andy Garcia is truly memorable as a prison guard with one of New Yorkers’ most time-honored life goals–being an actor.

    Finally, any list must include The French Connection. OK, it’s an obvious choice, but it’s a must for the no-holds-barred portrayal of the gritty place NYC was under Mayor Lindsay.

  5. “The World of Henry Orient” starring Peter Sellers is a classic ‘Baby Boomer’ era of the NYC of that time; full of the images and culture of an upscale Manhattan lifestyle. And very funny.

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