There are few cities, both in the United States or globally, that have appeared in as many movies as New York City. There’s just something about the location, its people, and their mix of cultures that makes the “Big Apple” the perfect place to tell a story, whether it be beloved romantic comedies drama, action, and even some light horror like Ghostbusters.
But, truth be told, there is a seemingly endless list of New York City movies going back to the early days of cinema, from classic silent films up to modern times, making it an arduous task to come up with a few titles to choose from. Worry not, though, for we have put together a list of movies almost as big as the city itself and where you can find them streaming or for purchase.
25th Hour (2002)
Spike Lee’s 2002 drama, 25th Hour, follows Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) as he spends his last night walking the streets of New York City before turning himself in to start a seven-year prison sentence. With his freedom quickly evaporating, the convicted drug dealer contemplates running away from it all.
One of the first movies to be shot in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, 25th Hour captures the fractured exterior of New York City and the nation as a whole. You can feel the hurt, loss, and confusion at any given point in the gripping drama and are immediately taken back to that strange period that has since become a distant memory.
West Side Story (1961)
Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise’s 1961 adaptation of the landmark Broadway musical, West Side Story tells a modern-day Romeo and Juliet story but instead of being set in 15th Century Verona, this takes place on the streets, alleys, and fire escapes of 1950s New York City, where the Jets and Sharks are constantly at one another’s throats.
There are few musicals, both those about New York City and in general, that are as beloved as West Side Story, a movie that has not only withstood the test of time, it has gotten better with each passing day. And, it’s hard to imagine Maria (Natalie Wood) and Tony (Richard Beymer) risking it all and falling for one another anywhere besides the Upper West Side.
Miracle On 34th Street (1947)
When the Santa hired to headline the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade shows up drunk, a man claiming to be the real Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) takes his place and becomes an immediate sensation in the retailer’s flagship store, where he enchants children and adults alike who can’t help but fall under his spell.
George Seaton’s 1947 Christmastime classic, Miracle on 34th Street, beautifully captures the mood of New York City in the height of the holiday season with its story, characters, and undeniable charm. You could argue it's just an extended ad for Macy’s, but few Christmas movies use some of the Big Apple’s biggest institutions so well.
When Harry Met Sally... (1989)
Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally… tells the story of Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) and Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) as they go from two college graduates who want nothing to do with one another to two young professionals madly in love with one another, even if they don’t want to admit it.
When Harry Met Sally… is one of those quintessential New York City movies, one of those timeless films that make you want to jump on a plane and fly to “The City That Never Sleeps” in hopes of finding all the locations of all those incredible scenes whether it be a diner, Washington Square Park, or even where the Meadowlands once stood.
Upon coming to the realization that no one wants to work with him, struggling New York actor Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) dresses up as a woman and creates the Dorothy Michaels persona. After getting a small part on a daytime soap opera, Dorothy becomes an overnight sensation thanks to her feisty attitude.
Sydney Pollack’s 1982 comedy, Tootsie, while mostly taking place in a TV studio, has some memorable New York City moments, including the iconic shot of Dustin Hoffman, dressed as Dorothy, walking through the streets of the Big Apple; a shot that has been recreated in movies like Elf.
The Godfather (1972)
Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather tells the story of the Corleone crime family over the course of more than a decade, with a primary focus on Vito (Marlon Brando) and his son and successor, Michael (Al Pacino), and how the two men change over the course of time.
Some of the most pivotal moments in The Godfather all take place in and around New York City. There’s the attempted hit on Don Vito Corleone, Paulie Gatto’s (Johny Martino) assassination with the Statue of Liberty in background, Michael Corleone killing a rival mob boss and crooked cop, and so on. It’s hard to imagine the movie without the city and the other way around.
Woody Allen plays Isaac Davis, a TV writer who finds himself unfulfilled in life, professionally, romantically, and personally. A lot of that changes when Isaac meets Mary Wilkie (Diane Keaton), a smart and opinionated writer who just so happens to be his best friend’s mistress.
There is no doubt about it, Manhattan is an unapologetic love letter to the city of New York. I mean the film’s opening, with its montage of beautiful shots of the city accompanied by “Rhapsody in Blue” and Woody Allen fumbling to start a book, tell you what the movie is about before we even meet a single character. Brilliant!
Frustrated with his size, 12-year-old Josh Baskin (David Moscow) makes a wish that turns him into a fully-grown adult (Tom Hanks) and sets off to make a new life in New York City. Little does he know, but being a child stuck in a man’s body will soon give him the upper-hand when he gets offered a job with a toy company.
One of the great things about Penny Marshall’s 1988 comedy, Big, is the way it captures what you would imagine it feels like to be a kid on your own in one of the busiest (and scariest) cities on the planet.
Trading Places (1983)
After becoming the pawns in a sinister game carried out by a pair of brothers in which they are forced to switch places, Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) and Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) team up, not to get even, but to get revenge.
Directed by John Landis, Trading Places has one of the most sinister Wall Street centric stories to come out in the 1980s (and that is saying something), but the performances by Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd turn it into not only one of the best New York movies but one of the greatest comedies of all time.
Ted Wilde’s 1928 silent film, Speedy, stars Harold Lloyd as Harold “Speedy” Swift, a young man so deeply devoted to his girlfriend he will do anything he can to stop the diabolical competitor of her family’s business from putting them out of business for good.
If you want to see what New York City was like in the years before the Great Depression, look no further than Speedy. The movie takes to us some of the most iconic landmarks of the city, including Yankee Stadium, where the hero has a run-in with Babe Ruth that is just something else.
The biggest and baddest ghosts the Big Apple has ever seen are on the loose, and the only people who can stop them are a group of failed scientists and an everyman just looking for a job.
It is hard to think of a movie that yells out “New York City” in the 1980s more than Ivan Reitman’s 1984 classic Ghostbusters. I mean, where else are you going to see a ghost in the confines of the New York Public Library, a demon-dog running through Central Park, or a marshmallow man walking the streets of New York?
Do The Right Thing (1989)
When a disagreement over whose picture should be on the wall of a Brooklyn pizzeria explodes into a massive ordeal, the entire neighborhood gets caught up in the racial and social tension that has been building up for years.
Spike Lee has always had his finger on the pulse of New York City, which is shockingly clear in his 1989 classic, Do the Right Thing, which is one of the best movies on Amazon. By not shying away from the problems affecting the city, Lee is able to paint an accurate picture of the area he knows and loves.
Taxi Driver (1976)
One of the best movies on Netflix, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver puts you in the passenger seat with one of the most deranged characters ever written, Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle. Mostly confined to his cab and decrepit apartment, Bickle slowly begins losing touch with reality.
New York City has its problems today, but nothing compared to the version of the city seen in Taxi Driver. This look back on a long-gone era (and city) is shockingly violent and doesn’t leave you hope, but there’s no denying its place in cinematic history.
All of these movies capture a different feeling or era of New York City and help those who have never visited the Big Apple get a glimpse at what life is like in the famous city. And, who knows, maybe that tradition will continue with some of the upcoming 2022 new movie releases.
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Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop barking at the mailman, or yelling about professional wrestling to his wife. If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.