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Top 10 New York Movie Oddities
There are a ton of films I watched growing up that have defined New York for me. Travis Bickle’s cab going through the steam on a sleazy 42nd Street, Manhattan’s monochrome skyline accentuated by the strains of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Dustin Hoffman’s "I’m walkin’ here!” from Midnight Cowboy, the Ghostbusters taking down a marshmallow sailor over on Central Park West, Harry dropping Sally off at Washington Sq Park, Robin Williams trying to get to Amanda Plumber among a sea of waltzing commuters in Grand Central Station in the sublime Fisher King and so on and so on.
There are plenty of blogs and lists out there that will rightfully sing the praises of these and other, famous, New York moments on film.
As I got older though, I discovered some New York films of the 80s that have a different sensibility to them. Genre films, grindhouse movies or gonzo filmmaking that used the run down and grimy corners of New York not to their detriment but as a back drop for weird and wonderful stories featuring a surprising cast of characters. I became familiar with filmmakers such as Bill Lustig, James Glickenhaus, Frank Henenlotter and Larry Cohen. So I wanted to put together a list that celebrated them and other oddball movies set in this fantastic city.
I probably love all the New York films you do, of course, but here are some that I think you should probably check out, if you haven’t already, that may not appear on many other, similar, lists.
Interestingly enough, John Heard and Daniel Stern would later work with Macaulay Culkin and he would prove a much harder foe to destroy.
On a side note I got to see C.H.U.D. out the back of the divey-est of dive bars, near the port authority bus terminal and spitting distance from 42nd street. It was a tremendously ‘authentic’ experience!
In the case of Basket Case, director Frank Henenlotter dreamt up a monster that looked like something he may have sneezed out during a particularly heinous case of the flu but which is meant to be the once conjoined twin brother of our lead protagonist, Duane Bradley (played by the unlikely named Kevin Van Hentenryck).
Belial, the evil twin beast, goes on a sexually frustrated rampage around the city while Duane holds up in the scummiest and seediest hotel that 42nd Street had to offer.
Starring the strange faced, mumbly anti-hero you can’t help but root for, Robert Ginty, The Exterminator is sort of an even grimier Taxi Driver but with all the tormented, inward philosophising taken out and replaced with flame thrower interrogation, leaving thugs to be eaten to death by rats and dropping a guy into a meat grinder.
Hot on Ginty’s trail is police detective, love machine and budget William Shatner, Christopher George. If only Ginty wore less distinctive, special made footwear they may never have figured out who The Exterminator was.
Hear me talk with the legend James Glickenhaus on The After Movie Diner Podcast
From the director of Cobra and Tombstone, George P. Cosmatos, this is a tense, repetitive but joyously mad 'man versus beast’ movie. In fact it hardly deviates from the rodent based, destructive mayhem, apart from a brief and unecessary affair with his secretary and an amazing dining room scene where Weller quotes endless, incredible rat facts to a startled room of stiff collars in his perfect, iconic drawl.
As one of the better films in the horror monster sub-genre of ‘rat movie’ the whole thing just becomes a bizarre, gonzo oddity with an ending that will leave you both bemused and applauding wildly.
Hear co-host Jon Wallace and myself talk about Of Unknown Origin on The After Movie Diner Podcast
Taimak plays Leroy Green, the highly trained, disciplined but nerdy kung fu fighter embroiled in a war he doesn’t want with the larger than life Sho’nuff (A.K.A "The Shogun of Harlem”) played by the heroically hammy Julius J. Carry III. One of them has to be the supreme master and old Sho and his army of similarly ludicrously attired hench-people will stop at nothing to find out who. The also mono-named Vanity plays the dancing diva with a heart of gold who falls for the naive Leroy.
Considering the Blaxploitation heyday was 10 years passed by the time this was released, it stands tall and virtually alone as a favourite for anyone who grew up in the 80s but especially young African Americans who would rarely see themselves depicted as a lead in a movie like this, at that time.
It has been touring throughout 2015 celebrating its 30th year and even got a fantastic Blu ray release.
Hear me talk about The Last Dragon and diverse, action cinema with creator of the Urban Action Showcase, Demetrius Angelo on The After Movie Diner Podcast
It has delicious subplots, a complicated but fantastically, cliche riddled back story for its villain and is filmed, very often completely guerrilla style, on the streets of New York, including during the St.Patrick’s Day parade!
It even has a cameo from Sam “For The Love Of The Game” Raimi and spawned two fantastically nutso sequels!
Hear me talk to Bill Lustig all about the Maniac Cop trilogy and his career on The After Movie Diner Podcast
You don’t get much cooler than the genre icon double act of Robert “The alligator slayer” Forster and Fred “The Hammer” Williamson going after a bunch of Che Guevara wannabes on the dangerous streets of the outer boroughs of the big apple.
Bill Lustig again directs and the ante is upped by not only featuring the, legitimately shocking, murder of Forster’s 8 yr old son but also by his wife leaving him. The judicial system is filled with corruption and villainy itself and so, with nowhere else to turn, Forster joins The Hammer’s neighbourhood crime stopping efforts to hunt down the people who destroyed his life an enact furious vengeance all over their stupid bodies.
Hear Dr.Action and me talk to Fred “The Hammer” Williamson about Vigilante and other films in his awesome career on The After Movie Diner Podcast
Based on a book, which I haven’t read, the movie features some hilarious dialogue, some really odd sight gags and a slightly dark sense of humour. It only falters when it attempts to become actually romantic, which it thankfully doesn’t do much (and even then with a knowing wink) but for the park bench dialogues between Grodin and Martin alone the film is worth its inclusion here.
This film is all over the place, action, New York Exploitation brilliance from its low key Central Park start through to its Sam Elliot hanging onto the wheels of a plane, gloriously implausible ending.
It doesn’t get better than the escape from a flea pit, movie theatre on the deuce and the ensuing motorbike and sidecar chase through a cardboard city by the river and ending with Sam Elliot making a car explode by shooting it a bit.
The movie is so utterly bonkers and fast paced you joyously throw your hands up and go along with the ride safe in the knowledge that you’re in the good hands of Elliot, Weller and Glickenhaus. This should’ve been a franchise.
Hear me talk with the legend James Glickenhaus on The After Movie Diner Podcast
Hear co-host Jon Wallace and me discuss Shakedown on The After Movie Diner Podcast
Michael Moriarty’s insanely well played, skittish piano player and a prehistoric, giant, flying, lizard god terrorise New York and only Shaft, Caine from Kung-Fu and an undercover mime can stop them!
Larry Cohen’s bonkers monster movie may be the very best film to ever come out of a premise like that. The acting from Moriarty should seriously win awards for the finest in all of Exploitation cinema and, considering the budget, the effects and location work are excellent.
Like all of Cohen’s work and, indeed a lot of the films on this list, there are comments and subplots throughout that either deal with city corruption or the crumbling society. None of these films are simple exploitation and all either have something to say about the times or are an incredible catalogue of the times when, some feel, New York City WAS New York City before Disney moved in.
I, personally, feel that you can still find corners of the city with dive bars, diners or where B Movies are playing and yeah you may have to look a little harder but the experience is still there to be had, for the most dedicated of fan. Also you can live that lifestyle with very little threat of being stabbed in the face, harassed by a sex worker or stuck with a hypodermic full of either disease or drugs. So, bonus! Come to New York!!
Read my full review of Q The Winged Serpent HERE
and hear Doug Tilley, Moe Porne and myself discuss the film on Drunk on VHS
So this whole 'Top 10 of New York movies' idea came from a conversation I was having with poet extraordinaire and guest blogger Kylie Goetz. So I invited her to present her list and she also managed to get another list from her co-worker Andrew Morgan.
Whittling it down wasn’t easy because there are so many New York movies and so many New York movie lists, I have chosen these simply as mine. I, of course, have left out many, many, many. It would be easier to name 100 than 10.
There maybe other iconic NY movies that are better made, better written and worthier films than the ones I picked but these are the ones that resonate with me.
My criteria was as follows:
- This one seems pretty obvious, but the action must predominantly take place somewhere in the five boroughs of NYC.
- The setting is integral to the story; it can’t be moved to Ft. Lauderdale and work just as well.
- There are some movies that are on everybody’s most iconic NY movie lists. I didn’t feel the need to repeat them. How could you leave out King Kong or Breakfast at Tiffany’s, you ask? I just did. Deal with it.
- I like it. (Dammit, it’s my top ten and while Coyote Ugly certainly fits my first two criteria, I’m not putting it on my freaking list.)
1. When Harry Met Sally - The Washington Square Arch, Katz’s, the Central Park Boathouse, not being able to catch a cab on NYE, lugging an xmas tree down the sidewalk, the Met’s Temple of Dendur, Billy Crystal and Bruno Kirby in too tight exercise pants speed walking in Central Park, I love all of it!
Also in my top 3 movies of movies. Possibly the greatest rom-com of all time.
2. Both Ghostbusters - I’m combining 1 and 2 under this because while the first is my preferred, the second has a stompy Lady Liberty and that’s pretty awesome. Also gooey rage sewers, that’s pretty New York.
3. Coming to America - It’s set in Jackson Heights. I live in Jackson Heights.
****It’s also very funny. In case you didn’t know.****
4. The Muppets Take Manhattan - Gregory Hines on skates in Central Park, Joan Rivers as a perfume counter salesgirl, diners and Broadway, frogs and dogs and bears and chickens and... and whatever!
This movie has everything.
5. The Clock - I definitely felt the need to include something older and I heart classic films. I considered more well-known choices like 42nd Street or On the Town, but I unabashedly love this movie. Joe Allen is a soldier with two days of leave and meets Judy Garland. She shows him around New York and they get married before he ships off for WWII. It’s sappy and I’m a big sap. Also, my folks have a similar story but in a different city and a different war. Pivotal scene and titular clock is at Grand Central.
6. Miracle on 34th Street - There’s a miracle and it’s on 34th Street. What else do you need?
7. Annie Hall - So, I debated this with someone… and while I agree that Manhattan might be considered more iconic and is freaking titled Manhattan; that movie creeps me out and Diane Keaton is fantastic, so I am sticking with Annie Hall.
8. Crocodile Dundee - This is one of my favorite outsider comes to the big city films. (May be biased as a half-Australian.)
9. Working Girl - Again, it certainly doesn’t need to be on anyone else’s NY movie list, and of course, the movie has flaws. Some people seriously hate it and, honestly, my favorite characters in this movie were always the secondary ones. But when I was a kid, nothing said New York to me more that Joan Cusack’s sneakers/heel shoe change and Carly Simon singing, “Let the River Run.” Also, Alec Baldwin at the height of his deliciousness.
10. Brighton Beach Memoirs - This was a bit of a toss-up for me. Neil Simon had to be on this list somewhere and Barefoot in the Park is very New York and also delightful but Brighton Beach Memoirs encapsulates growing up in the city in such a specific and amazing way – it won out.
Movies that would be on my larger list: Beat Street, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Scrooged, Do the Right Thing, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Apartment, 3 Days of the Condor, the rest of the Neil Simon movies… And still there’s Wall Street, Gangs of New York, Guys and Dolls, Arthur, Saturday Night Fever, etc., etc., etc., ad infinitum.
Kylie has an excellent 'word of the day' poetry blog where she writes a whole new poem every single day! It’s awesome. Check it out HERE
You can also follow her on Twitter to keep up with each poem and each word!
I echo all of the criteria elements suggested by Kylie’s list with the exception of these being films I like, not that anyone else will:
- Predominantly taking place in one of the five boroughs
- Setting integral to the story
- Not necessarily on everyone’s list
- I like it
2. American Psycho (2000) – what screams NYC more than white collar sociopathic murder, graphic sex, and a Huey Lewis soundtrack?
3. Wolf of Wall Street (2013) – there were certainly others before it, but this one nails it. Perfect balance of humor, drama, and wit showcasing the popular success/failure theme of Wall Street ambition.
4. Requiem for Dream (2000) – Coney Island isn’t all fun and sun. No better film explores the dark corners of the human psyche as driven by the influence of addiction.
5. The Godfather (1972) – the pioneer film of organized crime dramas and Italian immigrant influence on popular American culture.
6. RENT (2005) – the struggle is real.
7. Big (1988) – you only have to look like you’re old enough to make it here, no one ever said you have to act like it. This is basically my life philosophy.
8. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) – we all wonder about what’s really down under the manhole covers. This film seems like a reasonable suggestion. I must admit it doesn’t fully meet criteria B, but I get one freebie. It was an integral part of my youth.
9. Finding Forrester (2000) – subtle take on themes of race and friendship through the perspective of two writers facing adversity in different ways.
10. Friends with Benefits (2011) – had to include a NYC rom-com and well....Justin and Mila just do it for me a lot more than Tom and Meg.
Honorable Mentions: First Wives Club (1996), Ghost (1993), Cruel Intentions (1999), Harriet the Spy (1996), Inside Man (2006), The Squid and the Whale (2005), Black Swan (2010), Whiplash (2014), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), You’ve Got Mail (1998), Great Expectations (1998), Ghostbusters (1984)
*The only film I really wanted to include but wasn’t sure if it qualified based on the criteria outlined, was The Royal Tenenbaums. Parts of it were certainly filmed in NY and the setting certainly has NYC elements, I don’t think the location is ever actually confirmed in the film and some iconic landmarks are intentionally removed