This list is composed of the top five most populated U.S. cities. Each has had countless films take place in their city landscape, but in the following films the settings serve a purpose far greater than simply a location. It’s as if the city itself is a character in each one of the films. This list is by no means definitive, and there will most likely be casualties in order to fulfill my own subjective opinion. Some of the following directors set out with the intention of creating somewhat of a love letter to these cities, while others just happened to capture such distinctive and accurate representations of the cities they were shooting.
5) Philadelphia: Blow Out (1981)
After coming off the success of Dressed to Kill (1980), Brian De Palma made my personal favorite of his works, Blow Out (a straightforward nod to Antonioni’s Blow-Up ). John Travolta stars as Jack, a movie sound recorder who accidentally captures a car accident that turns out to not be an accident at all. Philadelphia is an unavoidable presence in Blow Out. Whether Jack is in the backwoods recording owls, or making a thrilling trek across center city, the city is captured in a completely exceptional way. De Palma was most likely able to capture Philadelphia so well throughout the film due to his having grown up there.
Honorable Mentions: Philadelphia (1993), Rocky (1976).
4) Houston: Tarnation (2003)
Jonathan Caouette compiled VHS tapes, photographs, voicemails, and Super 8 footage to depict his unstable childhood growing up with his mentally ill mother, Renee. Much of the movie takes place in Houston, and Caouette’s composite filmmaking technique conveys a much more subjective look at his life, and the city he spent a lot of his life. It never idealizes or aggrandizes the city, instead it shows an ordinary kid with a completely unordinary life, with Houston serving as a more stable backdrop to his tumultuous life.
Honorable Mentions: Tree of Life (2011), Boyhood (2014), Rushmore (1998).
3) Chicago: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
The classic teen comedy starring Matthew Broderick and Alan Ruck is without a doubt John Hughes’s love letter to Chicago. He has been quoted saying that he didn’t want to just highlight Chicago’s rich aesthetic (the then Sears Tower is featured, as is the Art Institute of Chicago), but also the city’s spirit. Ferris and his friends skip school and run rampant across the city for the day, taking advantage of all that Chicago has to offer. The city itself is integral to Ferris’s day of leisure and debauchery.
Honorable Mentions: Hoop Dreams (1994), High Fidelity (2002).
2) Los Angeles: Magnolia (1999)
Paul Thomas Anderson, having grown up in California, often depicts Los Angeles as a depraved city. In the face of that, he still manages to find a layer of true heart and a caring environment for his corrupted characters. Magnolia is large in scope, weaving together multiple stories and characters, who all collide and connect in different ways. Show business (from T.V hosts to public speaking) is represented all too realistically, as is the complete disconnect between people physically close. In this darkly funny and depressing film, L.A. is not necessarily at its best, but it seeps through the narrative and remains a key essence of the film.
Honorable Mentions: Short Cuts (1993), Blade Runner (1982), Chinatown (1974).
1) New York: TIE: Taxi Driver (1976) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968).
It was a very hard to chose just one for this category. I wanted to make it a three-way tie with Sex and the City: The Movie (2008), but I thought it would clutter the final category. (I hope I got at least an eye roll out of that “joke.”) Really though, choosing between Polanski and Scorsese proved itself to be impossible. In Taxi Driver, the film oozes Manhattan’s seedy, yet undeniable allure. As Travis (Robert De Niro) cruises around the city, it’s hard to not get swept up in the smooth jazz and shocking underbelly of the city. Rosemary’s Baby, on the other hand, portrays a slightly more threatening version of the city. What may seem like an exciting new home at first for Rosemary and Guy (Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes) quickly becomes a cold, alienating, demonic place. The city’s presence is constant, and the infamous Dakota building seems just as much a character in the film as Rosemary herself.
Honorable Mentions: Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979).
Author: Catherine Haas
Catherine Haas is a native Philadelphian who received her master’s in film history from Columbia University. She is a freelance film programmer, writer, and an avid pug enthusiast.