What makes a great New York City movie? Not just a movie set in New York — there are plenty of those. We’re talking about a great New York City movie that transcends establishing shots and dodgy accents to immortalize something distinct about this place. The anxious pace of a weekday commute, the philharmonic overlapping of sidewalk talk, the sweaty jockeying for position on any square foot. Great New York City movies find beauty in the rot of Times Square and ugliness in the penthouses of Central Park West. Many reflect the perilous reality of living in Brooklyn today and the Bronx yesterday; others, the urbane fantasy. The best do both. In assembling this list of the greatest New York movies, we laid down a few ground rules: in the interest of fairness, a director could only be represented twice on the list; any selection had to take place mostly in New York City (even if it wasn’t shot in New York City); and, most important, it had to feel deliberately set in one of the five boroughs. Not just in any big city, but here.
25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002)
Spike Lee’s masterpiece is already the greatest 9/11 movie, but it also happens to be the greatest New York movie. At the time of its release, the film came under fire from some who felt that its topicality was tacked on — that 9/11 and its aftermath had little to do with screenwriter David Benioff’s 2000 novel about a drug dealer’s last day of freedom before heading to prison. Oh, how wrong they were. By featuring images of the broken city, the film draws a direct parallel with the doomed fate of its protagonist, Monty Brogan (Edward Norton). And it captures the agonizing shriek of a society that’s reached its breaking point during an unforgettable monologue, delivered to a bathroom mirror, in which Monty shouts expletives at the city’s ethnic and social enclaves, finishing up by blasting his friends, family, and himself. The whole film is about self-loathing, but at junctures like these, Lee makes the self-loathing civilizational. However, he finds grace and cohesion, which is what makes this the great New York movie, too. (Monty’s blistering monologue even recalls the extended direct-to-camera tirades of Lee’s other masterpiece on this list.) For all the intimate rawness of their hatred, such scenes actually create an overall sense of community, reminding us that New Yorkers are connected and unified by their rage and frustration. (Watching these scenes in a midtown theater in 2002 was a downright levitational experience.) As if to underline this very point, Lee brings back images of the people Monty raged against at the very end, smiling warmly at his bloodied face — and directly into the camera, at us — as he drives past them on his way to prison. It is a deeply moving moment of solidarity that, on one level, goes beyond mere victimhood to acknowledge that maybe what 9/11 did was remind us that we were each broken in our own way. On another level, it establishes that Monty’s tale is just one of many stories in the naked city, just another life lived among the eternal crowd.
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