The Sights, Sounds & Smells Of New York City In 10 Great Films

New York native Neal Damiano takes a look at 10 of his most loved movies to exude the sights, sounds and smells of his hometown inc. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, After Hours, Annie Hall & Times Square…

10. Breakfast At Tiffany’s (Edwards, 1961)

Audrey Hepburn, New York, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Top 10 FilmsAudrey Hepburn is incredibly engaging as Holly Golightly, a real phony, who’s conflicted between schmoozing with the New York party set and settling down with her homebody neighbor George Peppard. She brings peace, comfort and, tranquility to the distinguished men in their suits. The smell of expensive leather wallets and sparkling jewelry entice Holly’s taste for this lifestyle. Tiffany’s in the heart of New York, gives her the delusional feeling of belonging to the elite society.

Iconic Piece of New York: Tiffany’s flagship New York store

Tiffany's flagship New York store, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Top 10 Films,Photo Credit: Merry Days

9. The Warriors (Hill, 1979)

Michael Beck, The Warriors, cult classic,Walter Hill’s gritty, urban cult classic displays the seedy side of New York in the 70s. Over run by street gangs taking over Manhattan, The Warriors are just trying to get home to Coney Island after a rival gang accuses them of killing the prophetic leader of the biggest gang in New York. As they make their way through enemy territory we see the city becoming more rundown and violent as they get closer to home. New York somewhat acts like an ally, helping them battle rival gangs and getting from one point to the next. Will the Warriors get home to see the light of day, only with time and the city on their side.

Iconic Piece of New York: Subway

New York SubwayPhoto Credit: Adam E. Moreira

8. Forever Lulu (Kollek, 1987)

Great New York movies, Forever Lulu,In this quirky comedy, a young German woman named Elaine Hines (Hanna Schygulla) moves to New York City with hopes of becoming a writer. Elaine becomes involved in a mystery and falls in with a group of mobsters who lead her through a series of crazy adventures. The story is just so New York to me, filmed throughout Manhattan. Often accused of copying Desperately Seeking Susan it does have a similar storyline, however, New York icon Debbie Harry appears in a cameo. One can’t get more New York than that.

Iconic Piece of New York: Lower East Side

Lower East Side, New York

7. King of New York (Ferrara, 1990)

King of New York, Christopher Walken, With King of New York, Abel Ferrara directed one of the greatest gangster films set in the city. Christopher Walken stars as the ruthless crime-lord Frank White, released from prison to take the streets of New York back. What I found fascinating about King Of New York is the unique storyline. The first of its kind to have mixed races and nationalities together, instead of fighting each other. Frank White exudes the charisma that matches perfectly with New York and the city represents him well. The famous Plaza Hotel is his home, fit for a king and throughout the film there’s no denying Frank White is the King of New York.

Iconic Piece of New York: Plaza Hotel

The Plaza Hotel, New York

6. Desperately Seeking Susan (Seidelman, 1985)

Desperately Seeking Susan, Top 10 Films, Rosanna Arquette plays a bored New Jersey housewife entertained by reading the personal ads of a wild free-spirited woman named Susan, played by Madonna. Arquette decides to seek out Susan in downtown New York in hopes of living the adventurous life but ends up being mistaken for Susan and finds herself on the run from the mob. I loved this film because it’s so New York, from the new wave clothes and music to the downtown punk rockers inhabiting the underground clubs in Greenwich Village. It blends romance, mystery, amnesia, and mobsters all together in a quirky way. Director Susan Seidelman created an offbeat comedy using the city so well.

Iconic Piece of New York: Greenwich Village

Greenwich Village, New York

5. Times Square (Moyle, 1980)

Two runaways, one privileged and one homeless; together they create a friendship and face the streets of New York. With the help of a local radio DJ (Tim Curry), the two girls get their message across to the youth. What I particularly love about this film is it shows a pre-Disney-like New York we no longer see. Again, we see the punk rockers, new wavers, and bums flooding the sidewalks of Times Square as if it is their own playground. Times Square was a very seedy and dangerous place at the time this movie was made and the film displays this beautifully.

Iconic Piece of New York: Times Square

Times Square, Film

4. Do The Right Thing (Lee, 1989)

Do The Right Thing, Film, Spike LeeSpike Lee’s emotional look at racial tensions in Brooklyn, NY. A white run pizza parlor in Bed Stuy becomes the center of a violent conflict on a hot summer day. When the owner refuses to hang pictures of black historical figures on the wall of his place, tempers flare and emotions run wild culminating in an all out race war. The film really depicted what was going on at the time in the heart of Brooklyn. You can’t get more New York than Spike Lee (with the exception of Woody Allen) and I feel it’s his best film because of the realism and intense story. Filmed in Brooklyn and evident through the entire film the city is always there.

Iconic Piece of New York: Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn

Bedford-Stuyvesant, Do The Right Thing, New York, Top 10 Films, Photo Credit: New York 101

3. Annie Hall (Allen, 1977)

Woody Allen, New York Films, Annie Hall, Top 10 Films, Woody Allen is New York and most of his films take place there. Annie Hall is no exception based off of Allen’s real realtionship with co-star Diane Keaton. It’s a romantic comedy set in Manhattan and has all the classic New York neurotic mannerisms that Allen does so well. Annie’s character is the perfect metaphor for New York; everything distinctive about her is trademark city.

Iconic Piece of New York: East 66 between 2nd & 3rd Avenues

East 66 Street, New York, Annie Hall, Photo Credit: Movie Tourist (Right)

2. Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976)

Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver features Robert De NiroTaxi’s are almost as iconic to New York City as the Yankees’ baseball cap and although cabbies are picking people up on a constant basis, they often can feel alienated and lonely. Nothing portrays this alienation more so than Martin Scorsese’s urban nightmare in Taxi Driver. Robert De Niro portrays Travis Bickle, a loner war vet who takes a job driving a taxicab on the graveyard shift due to insomnia. Travis drives around the city aimlessly night after night staring at the pimps, hookers, drug dealers, and bums, finally descending into madness. Scorsese shows a side of New York we no longer see. A visual seedy underground of people living on the edge and the bright lights burn as fast as the people living here. He manages to make New York City Travis’s only companion and enemy at the same time. It is in my top 10 films of all time list.

Iconic Piece of New York: Yellow Taxi

Yellow Cabs, Taxi Driver, New York,

1. After Hours (Scorsese, 1985)

Griffen Dunne, After Hours, Top 10 Films, New York, To me no other film displays New York quite like After Hours. Griffin Dunne stars as Paul Hackett, a bored word processor whose chance meeting with a girl named Dorothy (Rosanna Arquette) takes him on a ride through a night of accidental death, mobs, and mistaken identity. Dunne’s adventure leads him to every part of the city and encounters all sorts of quirky people, their individual fears, desires and motivations an intrinsic part of New York life. A somewhat modern take on The Wizard of Oz set in New York City, Hackett is just trying to get home. He starts out in Manhattan and ends up running for his life in Soho. We see a few New York landmarks along the way, for example, the Moondance Diner and the Emerald Pub. And who can forget the Mohawk club scene, absolutely hysterical. It’s mostly the vibe of the film that’s so New York, from the quirky characters to the trendy hairstyles and clothes. I can’t help but smile when I watch After Hours and it always makes me want to hop on a train and spend a night in the city.

Iconic Piece of New York: Moondance Diner

Moondance Diner, New York,Photo Credit: James Estrin/The New York Times

Written and compiled by Neal Damiano.

What films best exude the qualities, diversity, cultures, quirks, history and lifestyle of New York City? What film directors best capture the New York “spirit”? Let us know…

About the Author
Neal Damiano calls himself “an unhip film geek” who mixes his passion for movies with an enthusiasm for travel, music and journalism.

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  1. Callum Reply

    Great top 10 Neal. You’ve captured the city so perfectly with these films. I love your choices – some good offbeat cults hits with some more recognisable greats.

  2. Gascong Reply

    nice work, love new york city and the movies they make there.

  3. Liza Reply

    Ah…love this Neal! 😉

    So many great movies from this great city!

  4. Dee Dee Reply

    As a New Yorker I’ve seen and loved so many movies shot in and around the city. Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, quite rightly get the attention, but I think Oliver Stone (Wall Street) and John Badham (Saturday Night Fever) deserve just as much praise. However, it’s great to see Times Square on your list, Neal. It’s one of my favorites.

  5. Roger That Reply

    Great read Neal! How about Gordon Parks’ classic 1971 film Shaft for consideration?

  6. Marina Caitlin Watts Reply

    When Harry Met Sally, Manhattan, Elf, The Adjustment Bureau!

  7. Shane Reply

    Dog Day Afternoon, The French Connection, The Apartment.

  8. Kost Reply

    Three Days of the Condor

  9. Clayton Walter Reply

    Annie Hall

  10. aman Reply

    taxi driver and only taxi driver!!

  11. Greig Forbes Reply

    Some variety off the top of my head: Dog Day Afternoon, Q The Winged Serpent, Crossing Delancey, Sweet Smell of Success.

  12. Karlton Reply

    I have a soft spot for Moonstruck & When Harry Met Sally.

  13. Mette Reply

    Moonstruck and Léon are great.

  14. Joe Tingley Reply

    Mean Streets, Do the Right Thing

  15. Ted Saydalavong Reply

    Taxi Driver, The French Connection, The Taking of Pelham 123 (the original version), Wall Street, Die Hard 3, The Fisher King.

  16. Andrew Davies Reply

    Goodfellas, Manhattan, Whiplash, The Apartment, Sweet Smell of Success, Spider-Man 2.

  17. Neal Damiano Reply

    Intentions: films that display the city throughout, not just filmed there.

    Thanks for the read.

  18. Anna Caig Reply

    An Affair To Remember

  19. Ben Howard Reply

    Ghostbusters, The Apartment, Men In Black, When Harry Met Sally, Kramer Vs. Kramer, Big

  20. CineGirl Reply

    I think, for me, one of the greatest films to represent New York has to be Working Girl. You have this strong performance from Melanie Griffith that makes you want to root for her yet she’s vulnerable despite an inner strength. But it’s all about that yuppie mentality and the difficulties of a woman’s place in this man’s world. To break those boundaries is typical of New York, a place that sets the trends, breaks them, and starts new ones for the world to follow.

  21. Carey Watson Reply

    Here’s one my favourite NY films and it’s mostly forgotten http://t.co/TA0KQGi7yo

  22. Anna Reply

    Manhattan, Sweet Smell of Success, The Apartment

  23. Neal Damiano Reply

    Working girl I could somewhat see….but some of the suggestions here. (Some didn’t get it) I tried something new.

  24. Michael Ewins Reply

    One of my favourite New York films is also my favourite American film of 2014, PERSON TO PERSON: https://t.co/J4jnJoPuJI

  25. gregor Reply

    Brill top 10 Neal. I get you, great idea for a list, and some wonderfully unique selections – Desperately Seeking Susan and After Hours are perfect. Think people need to get away from the obvious ones like Manhattan!

  26. Dan Reply

    One of the most pleasurable top 10s I’ve read in a while, Neal. New York really lends itself to be photographed so it’s unsurprising that it has been the setting for so many great films. Whether it’s the Christmas tree in a film like Home Alone 2 or the glorious black and white of Woody Allen’s Manhattan, the city exudes a quality you don’t find elsewhere.

    As After Hours is one of my all-time favourite films I’m so glad to see it top the list. Scorsese captured the city in a different light but it was removed from the likes of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver that captured a sort of subculture. Here we see a city in all its quirky, idiosyncratic and strangely diverse glory and it has that brilliant Alice in Wonderful down-the-rabbit-hole feel about it that I absolutely adore.

    I’m eager to watch all these films once again and would insist: if you haven’t seen After Hours yet, CHECK IT OUT!!!

  27. Neal Damiano Reply

    Thank you, everyone!!

    Dan, thank you for your kind words, very well put and exactly wanted I wanted to exude here with the list. Thanks for posting.

    Again I appreciate everyone who reads and gives feedback on my lists, always. I don’t mean to sound snobbish. Like they say ” No one quite sees your vision, like yourself at best.”

  28. ruth Reply

    Great selections Neal! I love NYC in Nora Ephron movies, esp. You’ve Got Mail.

  29. Jacob Brunt Reply

    Wonderful celebration of New York City through the movies made there! I want to visit so much!

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