What makes for a strong New York film? The highlights, like the city itself, are often unpredictable, a bit shabby around the edges, sometimes annoying but always compelling.
The Tribeca Festival, which runs from Wednesday through June 18, has loved this kind of work since its inception and has made it a point to celebrate the movies that take place in the backyard. This year there will be such a film, made by one of the founders of the festival.
“A Bronx Tale” (1993), Robert De Niro’s directorial debut, closes the festival with a 30th anniversary screening where Mr. De Niro and screenwriter and co-star Chazz Palminteri (born in the Bronx) will be in attendance. . The film shows a reverence for the neighborhood in which it is largely set, and Mr. De Niro brings a knowing look to the material.
As the festival prides itself on being a hometown, it’s an appropriate time to reflect on the memorable ways in which film has given prominence to New York City. Below, in alphabetical order, are 10 notable films that helped capture the city’s warts and all.
A kinetic example of the one-wild-night movie, this dark comedy from Martin Scorsese leads the charge on a tidal wave of late-night mishaps across SoHo. Griffin Dunne brings just the right level of measured pathos to office worker Paul Hackett, whose late-night journey begins with a near-disastrous cab ride and goes downhill from there. Anyone who stayed in New York late enough to know how weird things can get should be able to relate.
The story of this movie (written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze), about a puppeteer who finds a gateway to John Malkovich’s consciousness, is so original that it sometimes seems like it’s reinventing itself right before your very eyes. But beyond that, the movie does a great job of showing some of the city’s quirkier sides. The low ceiling of the seventh and a half floors of an office building, which you can only get to with good elevator timing and a crowbar, is a great visual gag that, in its own way, reflects the process of looking for affordable housing in the city: trial but above all error. The movie throws in a New Jersey Turnpike joke for good measure.
Be careful when it’s hot in the city. Spike Lee’s masterpiece uses a sweltering summer day to address the boiling racial tensions among the residents of Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. But as bleak as it can be, it’s also a love letter to the richness and brutality of personality that this city possesses. The character ensemble includes smooth-talking Mookie (Mr. Lee), scheming DJ columnist Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), daring Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), disgruntled pizzeria owner Sal (Danny Aiello) and a host of others who keep the film’s energy build up to a breaking point.
Speaking of summer heat, a sweaty, off-the-deep-end Al Pacino generates a lot of himself in this Sidney Lumet nerve rattle. Chaos finds its home in the character Sonny (Mr. Pacino), who robs a bank in Brooklyn, setting fire to the screen along the way. The actor has taken a beating over the years for giving too much in some of his performances (“hoo-ah”). But here is more precise enough. The city can certainly be a place to find spectacle, and Mr. Pacino works overtime to ensure it.
Jon M. Chu’s film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Broadway musical is both vibrant and gripping, from the songs to the captivating performances and overall sense of place. Using the Washington Heights neighborhood as a canvas, the film paints a breathtaking urban portrait through dynamically choreographed numbers and surreal fantasies. A Busby Berkeley-inspired scene at the city pool and a softer sequence in which two characters dance against the exterior walls of an apartment building depict the wonder lurking in the corners of the city.
There’s a darkly funny moment in Nicole Holofcener’s error comedy that I often think of: the main character Kate (Catherine Keener) sees a black man in a ski hat standing in front of a nice restaurant. Sensing that he must be homeless, she offers him her doggy bag. He tells her he is waiting for a table. Ms. Holofcener is excellent at painting these kinds of New York characters who think they’re doing the right thing, but often get it wrong. That tension between compassion and rights propels this thoughtful trait forward.
As rewarding as a place New York can be, it can also beat you. This is most evident in British director Steve McQueen’s story about a sex-obsessed urban dweller (Michael Fassbender). The movie’s melancholy about Manhattan is embodied in a slow, sad, but depressingly magical rendition of “New York, New York,” performed by Mr. Fassbender’s co-star, Carey Mulligan. Sometimes it helps to be a part of it if you can spend some time apart from it.
A double-sided Kandinsky and a multi-layered performance from Stockard Channing fuel this bitter tale of New York’s Upper East Side elites who are transformed by Paul (Will Smith), a young man who claims to be friends with their school-aged children. and the son of Sidney Poitier. It’s a sharp, satirical look at the ways wealth and class can damage relationships.
“All the animals come out at night,” says a disgusted Travis Bickle (Mr. De Niro) at the beginning of Mr. Scorsese’s film. What he sees as a bug really comes into play in this nightmare story by Paul Schrader that sends the city pulsating with irresistible vibrancy and vigor. Mr. De Niro is captivating as both our city guide and his conscience. And Bernard Herrmann’s score adds a majestic method to all the madness.
Starring Lee Quiñones (and a retrospective screening during the festival), this Charlie Ahearn film captures the pulsating soul of early 1980s New York, with lovingly graffiti-plastered subways and upbeat hip-hop beats. The party that closes the film is guaranteed to get you moving.