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Love Letter to New York City

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New York of Today
New York Confidential
David Holzman's Diary
Metropolitan
Sudden Manhattan
The Gods of Times Square
Blank City
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Offering a richly textured, multi-cultural cinematic canvas infused with an incomparable energy, New York has lent its iconic backdrop to hundreds, if not thousands, of films for more than a century. It seems as if New York and filmmakers are perpetually engaged in a symbiotic relationship — a love affair perhaps? The city has played muse to countless filmmakers, inspiring them to make movies that embolden dreamers the world over to seek success and happiness in the city that never sleeps, and bring with them new stories waiting to be told.

Films set in New York are as diverse as the residents who call the city home; a given year may see a dark crime drama released alongside a selection of romantic comedies plus a handful of indies thrown in for good measure. As history has shown, the city possesses a bottomless well of material for telling compelling cinematic stories.

New York of Today

(1910)

Produced by the Edison Manufacturing Company for foreign consumption, New York of Today depicts the city in all its turn-of-the-century glory. Follow a couple (presumably tourists) on a whirlwind sightseeing tour of New York, stopping at one marvelous destination after another (with less glamorous detours into Chinatown and the “ghetto”). What they, and in turn we, see is a bustling metropolis of business and culture. Several notable landmarks are singled out, including Coney Island and the Flatiron Building, but the joy of this nickelodeon short lies not only with the architecture. Pay close attention to the people milling about in the background, going about their daily lives, for a glimpse into what urban life was like at the time.

New York Confidential

(1955) directed by Russell Rouse, 88 minutes

“New York City, the heart of the financial world, the greatest port on the face of the earth. But here also is the nerve center of an organization that controls crime throughout the country.” So opens this dark crime saga from Warner Brothers that plunges us into the seedy underworld of “the nation’s wealthiest public enemies,” a world where business is inevitably personal. Mob boss Charlie Lupo (Broderick Crawford) heads a powerful crime syndicate, doling out hits on enemies, politicians and anyone else who gets in the way of his shady dealings, much to the chagrin of his resentful daughter Kathy (an assured performance from Anne Bancroft). Throw a cold-blooded hitman from Chicago (Richard Conte) and a squealing politician into the mix, and it isn’t long before the mob’s carefully controlled operation comes crashing down like a house of cards.

David Holzman's Diary

(1967) directed by Jim McBride, 73 minutes

Presented as an artist’s personal exploration of his life on 16mm, David Holzman’s Diary is a singular, prophetic work of cinéma vérité filmmaking. A fictitious creation from the minds of Jim McBride and L.M. Kit Carson, David Holzman is a neurotic filmmaker determined to sort out the truth of his existence by “getting it all down” on film. Carrying his camera with him as he floats aimlessly around his Upper West Side neighborhood (annoying his neighbors, friends and girlfriend Penny in the process), Holzman gets not closer to discerning the truth he’s searching for, slipping instead into antisocial, voyeuristic and self-destructive behavior. An inspiration to countless filmmakers from Brian De Palma (“When I got my first 8mm sound camera I’d carry it around like David Holzman and try to film everything I did”) to Lena Dunham (who wondered if it was “every filmmaker’s best-kept secret influence”), David Holzman’s Diary lives on as a biting satire of the struggling New York artists of mid-1960s New York, but also as a lasting statement on the successes and limitations of film for capturing the true nature of life.

Metropolitan

(1990) directed by Whit Stillman, 98 minutes

Watching the young New Yorkers navigate debutante season in Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan is akin to observing foreign organisms in a petri dish. In the director’s debut film, a skeptical outsider with socialist leanings is thrown in with the precocious, silver-spooned scions of New York’s elite and ruffles a few feathers. A wry look at the bygone era of New York “deb” parties, Metropolitan comes to life thanks to Stillman’s razor sharp dialogue, which garnered him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

Sudden Manhattan

(1997) directed by Adrienne Shelly, 80 minutes

A down on her luck New Yorker who may or may not have witnessed a murder, hapless and hopeless Donna is a bundle of frayed nerves, jumbled thoughts and paranoid hallucinations. Unable to differentiate between reality and fantasy, Donna spirals into an existential crisis of epic proportions. Writer/director/star Adrienne Shelley paints a darkly comic picture of New York, but within this tale of heightened unreality exists a universal story of loneliness, isolation and the search for happiness. Like Woody Allen with a twist, Shelley’s distinct voice and anarchic humor shine through making this idiosyncratic indie a delight to watch.

The Gods of Times Square

(1999) directed by Richard Sandler, 114 minutes

If you’ve ventured into Times Square recently you may not recognize much of the footage in this colorful documentary, such has been the transformation of the Great White Way over the past few decades. Gone are many of the characters—street performers, grifters, religious zealots, philosophers—that once haunted the neighborhood, casualties of gentrification, government coercion and the whims of the city’s real estate market. Shot in the early 1990s, The Gods of Times Square captures New York as it was not so long ago, a gritty microcosm that wasn’t always pretty but reflected a truth and authenticity that has largely disappeared.

Blank City

(2011) directed by Céline Danhier, 95 minutes

Blank City takes as its subject the era of New York City history in the late ’70s and early ’80s when a group of young renegade filmmakers were putting forth completely original experimental works. Influenced by New Wave music, DIY punk aesthetics and the underground art world centered in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the “No Wave” cinema movement was both a continuation of previous established indie film conventions (extensive use of improvisation, cross-medium collaborations, non-existent budgets) and a daring foray into new territory. Looking back on this exciting period of uninhibited creative expression, directors Jim Jarmusch, Steve Buscemi, Susan Seidelman and other members of the No Wave scene share their personal stories, offering a glimpse into what it was like at the cutting edge of independent filmmaking three decades ago.