7 must-see movies set in New York

From glittering skyscrapers to Brooklyn brownstones, no city looks as beautiful on screen.

by Douglas Greenwood
06 December 2021, 12:09pm

It’s a cliche now to call New York City a character in the movies in which it appears. In some, it’s seen as a holy destination; a place where dreams are made. In others, the sheer scale of its man-made, atmosphere-scraping topography is framed as foreboding. But for so many, it’s simply home; a backdrop to their own lives.

These movies each do that. They tell stories not about New York directly, but its people, as the surroundings bleed into the frames around each character, conversation and life event. From modern masterpieces to queer documentaries to indie classics, these are seven movies that use the greatest city in the world as their gorgeous backdrop.  

1. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2011)

Noah Baumbach’s pioneering of the mumblecore movie went semi-mainstream with the release of Frances Ha, a film that epitomises the NYC woman in her early 30s who hasn’t quite found her way yet. The eponymous character -- played by Noah’s partner, the Oscar-nominated director Greta Gerwig -- is on the edge of everything: living in New York without an apartment, and a job at a dance theatre company but isn’t really doing much dancing. Instead, it’s a freewheeling sense of optimism that helps her through, navigating life in a capitalist hellfire by saying ‘Fuck it’ and following her dreams regardless of how unattainable they seem.

2. Paris Is Burning (Jennie Livingston, 1991)

Queer 80s New York will forever be etched into our memories thanks to the stars of Jennie Livingston’s seminal documentary, Paris Is Burning. The 1991 movie, shot over several years, captured the downtown drag and ball scene in its heyday, highlighting not only the freeing nature of spaces cultivated by found families, but the dangers and implications of being openly queer in an era where homophobic, transphobic and racist policies coincided. In recent years, it’s come under fire for the way in which Jennie Livingston made her name off the back of the film, while the stars faded into oblivion. Many of the people featured in the film aren’t here anymore, but Paris Is Burning remains a testament to a lost New York culture. 

3. C’mon C’mon (Mike Mills, 2021)

Mike Mills’ latest movie, shot in lyrical black-and-white and produced by A24, is a film about America’s two coasts. Though the movie bounces between them both, it finds its real grounding in New York City. Led by Joaquin Phoenix, the film follows Johnny, a New York radio journalist working on a project that takes him across America’s states to interview children about their thoughts on the future. But a call from his sister drags him to California, where he meets his nephew Jesse for the first time, who he’s asked to look after for a while. Together, they take the journey back to NYC, and as they stroll through the autumnal paths of Central Park, the little revelations of life’s purpose bubble to the surface. 

4. Do The Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)

BedStuy in Brooklyn. The hottest day of the year. The Black residents of a city street come face-to-face with the Italian-American owners of a pizza shop, fired up by the sweltering heat in this landmark movie written, directed by and starring Spike Lee. Inspired by Hitchcock and police violence against Black folks in the US at the time, the movie unpicks the idea of New York as a city defined by Madison Avenue boutiques and the Upper West Side. It’s a city where real people live; a cultural and social epicentre. This movie, alongside his directorial debut She’s Gotta Have It, cemented Spike Lee’s position as a filmmaker closely tied to the New York borough. 

5. Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015)

Todd Haynes’ Carol always reminds us of a bygone era of New York. Therese Belivet, a shopworker and sometimes photographer, disillusioned by her hetero relationship, falls for wealthy housewife Carol Aird. Thus, a dangerous love affair begins that takes them across the country. But the film is at its most hypnotic in the moments spent in darkened, smoke-filled diners, tinsel-festooned department stores, and the leafy towns of the rich and famous upstate. 

6. Pariah (Dee Rees, 2011)

Executive produced by Spike Lee, Dee Rees’ debut feature is set in the Brooklyn streets Spike is so familiar with. But through Dee’s lens, what we see is a much more mellow look at life in New York. Told through the eyes of 17-year-old high school girl, Alike, it tells the story of her sexual awakening, and her reckoning with the idea of gender presentation. She falls for a girl, battles with her own definition of gay, and fights with her mother, who disapproves of the path she’s taking. It’s in this way that Pariah is important: we paint metropolitan cities as beacons of liberal ideals, where we can be whoever we want to be. Dee’s film captures the conflict at the heart of that, and proves city-livers may not be monolithic in their worldview.

7. Stepmom (Chris Columbus, 1998)

Now, for anyone who craves a bit of melodramatic 90s schlock every so often, look no further than the twee but touching Stepmom. Julia Roberts plays Isabel, a high-flying fashion photographer and the new woman in the life of a city attorney who’s trying to co-parent the children from his previous marriage with his ex-wife. That ex-wife, Jackie (played by Susan Sarandon), is simultaneously trying to hold on to her children as they meet their new stepmother while battling cancer. The film all takes place in a leafy autumn into winter, and captures New York at its most extravagant (think huge photo studios and office buildings) and comely (auburn and yellow leaves in Central Park; pretty brownstones; upstate, middle class mansions).

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