10 Movies That Capture the Essence of New York

What makes for a strong New York movie? The standouts are often, like the city itself, unpredictable, a little shabby around the edges, sometimes exasperating but always compelling.

The Tribeca Festival, which runs Wednesday to June 18, has loved this kind of work since its beginnings and has made it a point to celebrate the films set right in its backyard. This year will feature one such movie made by one of the festival’s founders.

“A Bronx Tale” (1993), the directing debut of Robert De Niro, will close the festival with a 30th anniversary screening that Mr. De Niro and the movie’s writer and co-star Chazz Palminteri (a Bronx native) are scheduled to attend. The film shows a reverence for the neighborhood in which much of it takes place, and Mr. De Niro brings a knowing eye to the material.

As the festival has prided itself on being a hometown one, it’s a fitting time to look back at the memorable ways cinema has given New York City a featured role. Below, in alphabetical order, are 10 noteworthy movies that have helped to capture the city’s warts and all.

A kinetic example of the one-wild-night movie, this dark comedy from Martin Scorsese carries its lead on a tidal wave of late-night mishaps through SoHo. Griffin Dunne brings just the right level of measured pathos to the office worker Paul Hackett, whose overnight journey kicks off with a near-calamitous cab ride and goes downhill from there. Anyone who has stayed out late enough in New York to know how weird things can get should be able to relate.

The narrative of this movie (written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze), about a puppeteer who finds a portal into John Malkovich’s consciousness, is so original that it sometimes feels like it is inventing itself in front of your eyes. But in addition, the film does a great job of showcasing some of the city’s quirkier sides. The low ceiling of an office building’s seventh-and-a-half floor, which one can only get to using good elevator timing and a crowbar, is a great visual gag that, in its own way, mirrors the process of trying to find affordable housing in the city: trial but mostly error. The film throws in a New Jersey Turnpike joke for good measure.

When it’s hot in the city, watch out. Spike Lee’s masterpiece uses a sweltering summer day to zero in on the boiling racial tensions between the residents of the Brooklyn neighborhood Bedford-Stuyvesant. But as bleak as it can be, it is also a love letter to the richness and brashness of personality this city holds. Its character ensemble includes the smooth-talking Mookie (Mr. Lee), the sly D.J.-chronicler Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), the bold Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), the disgruntled pizzeria owner Sal (Danny Aiello) and a host of others that keep the film’s energy building to a breaking point.

Speaking of summer heat, a sweaty, off-the-deep-end Al Pacino generates plenty of his own in this nerve rattler from Sidney Lumet. Chaos finds its home in the character Sonny (Mr. Pacino), who robs a Brooklyn bank and sets the screen afire along the way. The actor has taken hits for giving too much in some of his performances over the years (“hoo-ah”). But here, more is just enough. The city can certainly be a place to find spectacle, and Mr. Pacino is working overtime to provide it.

From its songs to its winsome performances and overall sense of place, Jon M. Chu’s film adaptation of the Broadway musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes is as alive as it is poignant. Using the neighborhood of Washington Heights as its canvas, the film paints a breathtaking city portrait through dynamically choreographed numbers and surreal flights of fancy. A Busby Berkeley-inspired scene at the city pool and a softer sequence that has two characters dancing right up the outer walls of an apartment building capture the wonder lurking around the city’s corners.

There’s a darkly funny moment in Nicole Holofcener’s comedy of errors that I often think about: The lead character Kate (Catherine Keener) sees a Black man in a ski cap standing outside a nice restaurant. Sensing he must be homeless, she offers him her doggie bag. He tells her he’s waiting for a table. Ms. Holofcener is excellent at painting New York characters like this who think they’re doing the right thing but are often getting it wrong. That tension between compassion and entitlement propels this thoughtful feature.

As rewarding of a place as New York can be, it can also beat you down. That comes across most apparently in the British director Steve McQueen’s tale of a sex-obsessed city dweller (Michael Fassbender). The film’s Manhattan melancholy is embodied in a slow, sad yet depressingly magical rendition of “New York, New York” performed by Mr. Fassbender’s co-star, Carey Mulligan. Sometimes being a part of it helps when you can spend some time apart from it.

A double-sided Kandinsky and a multilayered performance from Stockard Channing fuel this bitter tale of New York elites on the Upper East Side who are transformed by Paul (Will Smith), a young man who claims to be both friends with their college-age children and the son of Sidney Poitier. It’s a sharp, satirical look at the ways that wealth and class can bruise relationships.

“All the animals come out at night,” a disgusted Travis Bickle (Mr. De Niro) says early in Mr. Scorsese’s film. What he sees as a bug is really a feature in this nightmare story by Paul Schrader that makes the city pulse with an irresistible vibrancy and vigor. Mr. De Niro is captivating as both our city guide and its conscience. And Bernard Herrmann’s score brings a majestic method to all of the madness.

Featuring Lee Quiñones (and having a retrospective screening during the festival), this film from Charlie Ahearn captures the pulsating soul of early 1980s New York, with lovingly graffiti-plastered subway cars and joyful hip-hop beats. The party that closes out the film is just about guaranteed to get you moving.

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