With its soaring skyscrapers, unique character, scenic variety, and plethora of famous landmarks, New York is a sight to behold, and has provided the backdrop for countless movies. In 1901, one of the earliest American films, What Happened on Twenty-Third Street, New York, was made there. Today, movie-making is a billion-dollar industry in the Big Apple, which is regarded as one of the most popular filming destinations in the world.
With this list, we present some of the best films set in New York City. From romantic comedies to gritty thrillers, cult classics, and literary adaptations, every movie you’ll find below can help you virtually explore one of the most vibrant cities around.
1. Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Even those who have never seen Saturday Night Fever will likely recognize the iconic poster image that helped define this late-’70s classic, which features a white-suited John Travolta at a discotheque, his legs parted and one arm pointed skyward. Shot entirely in Brooklyn, the flick catapulted Travolta (who trained for nine months to prepare for his role) to mega stardom. It was one of the first productions to utilize Steadicam technology, and the aforementioned iconic pose was actually a brilliant bit of improvisation by the star.
2. Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)
This mid-’80s comedy-drama gave Madonna her first major screen role, starring alongside Rosanna Arquette and Aidan Quinn in a tangled tale of mobsters and stolen earrings. Madonna recorded a song with the same title as the movie, but it was eventually ditched in favor of “Into the Groove,” which became a worldwide hit and made Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. A very different line-up was considered before the final cast was cemented, which you can read about here.
3. She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
Director Spike Lee’s first feature-length film—which he also wrote, produced, and edited—was shot in just 12 days, with no money available for retakes. In fact, Lee was so hard up at the time that he reportedly saved up the cast’s empty soda cans to claim the recycling money. Similar to Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, the movie was filmed entirely in black and white, save for one scene in color—a possible homage to Scorsese himself. In 2017, Lee adapted the film into a series, which ran for two seasons on Netflix. You can read about another Lee classic, Do The Right Thing, here.
4. West Side Story (1961)
West Side Story won a whopping 10 Academy Awards and became one of the highest-grossing films of 1961. Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood starred in the fantastic tale of rival gangs and forbidden romance, which was loosely based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Rumor has it that Elvis Presley was originally approached to star as Tony, but his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, reportedly turned down the opportunity.
5. The Age of Innocence (1993)
In 1980, co-writer Jay Cocks gave his friend Martin Scorsese a copy of Edith Wharton’s 1920, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel on which this film is based. It took Scorsese seven years to get around to reading it, and took another six for his classic adaptation to appear on the screen. Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder star, with cameos by the director’s real-life mother and father, the latter of whom sadly passed before the movie was released. The Age Of Innocence was nominated for five Academy Awards, but only won for Best Costume Design.
6. The French Connection (1971)
William Friedkin directed this police thriller, in which Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider offer up definitive performances as cops Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo, respectively. The roles were based on real-life detectives Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, who also advised on-set. Prior to filming, Hackman and Scheider spent a month patrolling with Egan and Grosso, with many elements in the movie drawn from actual events. The film scooped up five Academy Awards, and has become equally legendary for the stories behind its making.
7. Frances Ha (2012)
This delightful comedy-drama was directed by Noah Baumbach and co-written by Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, who also stars as the titular heroine. Shot in black and white using a consumer-grade camera, it follows a struggling dancer in the Big Apple whose life is thrown into chaos when her best friend moves away. Gerwig did not intend to act in the movie, but was persuaded by Baumbach and ended up appearing in every scene. Frances’s parents are played by Gerwig’s real-life parents, Gordon and Christine.
8. Crossing Delancey (1988)
This romantic comedy, based on a play by Susan Sandler (who also wrote the movie script) is probably the best-known work by director Joan Micklin Silver. The plot follows Isabelle Grossman (played by Amy Irving), a bookstore employee who finds her traditional Jewish upbringing challenged by the appearance of author Anton Maes (Jeroen Krabbé). Reizl Bozyk plays Isabelle’s grandmother, Bubbe; a leading actress in Yiddish theatre, this was Bozyk’s only English-language film. Watch out for an early screen appearance by character actor Reg E. Cathey, who would go on to appear in countless beloved TV shows including Law and Order, The Wire, and House of Cards.
9. The Warriors (1979)
This cult-classic follows a fictional street gang’s dangerous journey from the Bronx back to their home turf in Coney Island. Based on Sol Yurick’s 1965 graphic novel of the same name, this is one of those midnight movies whose reputation has grown over the years, in part thanks to its fantastic, electro-rock-funk soundtrack. President Ronald Reagan was reportedly a big fan, calling lead actor Michael Beck to say how much he had enjoyed a private screening at Camp David. The much-quoted “Warriors, come out to play” line was improvised by David Patrick Kelly, who plays Luther, and was based on an intimidating neighbor of his.
10. Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)
Director Blake Edwards’s enduring romantic comedy has entertained and moved audiences for decades, but it wasn’t all easy sailing for star Audrey Hepburn, whose dislike of Danish pastries made the famous opening scene a trial for her. Hepburn also had to deal with a notoriously bad-tempered feline, though she did get to sing one of the best-loved songs of all time, “Moon River,” which composer Henry Mancini and lyricist Johnny Mercer wrote specifically for her. The film (an adaptation of Truman Capote’s novella of the same name) later won two Academy Awards and five Grammy awards.
11. Ghostbusters (1984)
Director-producer Ivan Reitman and lead actors Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Sigourney Weaver, and Bill Murray hit comedy gold with this beloved supernatural adventure. Almost none of the scenes followed the script, with the majority of Murray’s lines, in particular, being improvised. Musician Ray Parker Jr. wrote the now-iconic theme song in just two and a half days, inspired by—of all things—a commercial for a drain company. (Parker Jr. was later sued by fellow musician Huey Lewis over similarities to the latter’s song, “I Want a New Drug.”)
Looking for a new movie to watch, or at least a movie that’s new to you? Mental Floss’s new book, The Curious Movie Buff: A Miscellany of Fantastic Films from the Past 50 Years, offers behind-the-scenes details and amazing facts about some of the greatest movies of the past half-century. And it’s available now at your favorite place to buy books, or online right here.