A Guide to the Best New York City Films Not Made by Scorsese, Allen, Friedkin or Spike Lee!

By James Kenney. Adapted from the an article published at WhatchaReading.com

Sure, people yap about great New York films all the time! The ones that reveal the city’s true character, its soul! The French Connection!  Manhattan! Dog Day Afternoon! Breakfast at Tiffany’s! Do The Right Thing!  Serpico! Taking of the Pelham 1,2,3! West Side Story! Wall Street!  All these are of course essential if you wish to immerse yourself in our cinematic city in all its color, energy, filth, paranoia and tension.  Even French Connection follow-up The Seven Ups, which had long been considered minor, has had a bit of a rebirth as it is indeed a wholly amazing and immersive document of long-gone 1970s New York City;  respect was paid with a stacked Blu-ray released in early 2018.

So my agenda today is to provide you with a curated extended visit to the Big Apple through several other New York based-and-shot films that you may not be as aware of, or never have gotten around to seeing, that will also plunge you into our fair city, its people, its violence, its energy, its anarchy, its heart and architecture and landscapes.  Here you have an entire autumns’s worth of potent viewing after a long day’s battle with the sweltering humidity (global warming joke, ladies and gents). Obviously there’s a lot out there I still didn’t  get to (Night of the Juggler, for example, has one of the best New York City-based car chases ever), but there’s always room for a follow-up article!

THEY ALL LAUGHED – I write about this film constantly, most recently here, but all lovers of New York City MUST immediately quit your jobs, stop walking your dogs or whatever and engage with Peter Bogdanovich’s indelible love letter to Manhattan, shot entirely on its streets and locations in a free manner never equaled by even the official filmmakers of New York, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Spike Lee.  Bogdanovich and his merry pranksters scamper around 5th Avenue, Times Square, the West Village and Wall Street like nobody’s business, utilizing few-to no-extras and generally just using the city’s citizens as a key part of its energy and atmosphere (Bogdanovich has often mentioned that he wasn’t concerned if someone in the background occasionally looked at the camera, as people in New York are “always looking at something”!)  All this, plus the film is an mostly unsung masterpiece, a witty arabesque about love and friendship and potential and regret.  Bill Teck’s wonderful, bittersweet documentary about the making of the film, ONE DAY SINCE YESTERDAY, is streaming on Netflix and available from Warner Archives DVD.

THE CRUISE– Bennet Miller’s witty documentary  has been midly neglected in the last 20 years (here’s a good relatively recent piece from one who remembers), despite director Miller’s emergence as a twice-Oscar-nominated fiction director.  The Cruise is a kind of “poetic documentary” about a  genuine New York character, Timothy “Speed” Levitch, who was a guide on one of the many tour buses that slow down traffic in Manhattan, and who makes a left turn in downtown feel like a spiritual odyssey.  He is a font of city knowledge with a genuinely unique perspective, and this black & white documentary captures some kind of oddball essence. He is still on twitter and still giving tours.

TAXMAN – A surprisingly entertaining straight-to-video action drama from journeyman producer/director Avi Lesher, this earns its status by Lesher using his connections to film all over the streets of New York, in locations oft-less travelled cinematically such as Brighton Beach Brooklyn, to tell its story of a taxman investigating crimes perpetrated by the Russian mob.  Additional points for giving Joe Pantoliano a rare and deserved lead.

OXYGEN– Director Richard Shepard has gone on to make some notable films (THE MATADOR with Pierce Brosnan is a personal favorite), but this early work is a perfect combination of low-budget energy and an anything-goes effort to get on screen his story of a psychopath who has abducted and buried alive a wealthy woman.  Featuring Queens’ own Adrien Brody pre-fame as the psychopath, Ferrara regular Paul Rodriguez driving on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (without a license(!), as Shepard tells us on the DVD commentary), and all sorts of New York City locations utilized –Shepard  stages a car chase just outside of Grand Central Station on Park Avenue, for goodness’ sake!  Way more compelling than its relative obscurity would infer.

DOWNTOWN 81 Edo Bertoglio’s snapshot of downtown village life circa 1981 features Jean-Michal Basquiat as a downtown drifter trying to sell his artwork and running into various local musicians and graffiti artists and such. A kind of indie fairy tale, featuring Deborah Harry in a key cameo, the film showcases an increasingly legendary artist and an increasingly legendary East Village landscape.  A curiowell worth seeking out.

COMBAT SHOCK —  Staten Island’s own Buddy Giavonazzo unleashes the anti They All Laughed, making Staten Island look like the 7th level of hell in this horror-drama about a PTSD-suffering war vet going mad, effective in its cringe-inducing detail.  It’s a hard film to describe without making it sound horrible, or unwatchable, but it’s anything but.  Severin has put out a wildly stacked special edition Blu-Ray  that you should gobble up while you have the chance.  Giavonazzo went on to make a few films in Berlin and elsewhere, but his Staten-Island based NO WAY OUT with Tim Roth, Deborah Unger and James Russo (who blocked me on twitter for not liking Trump, but I still love me some Russo) is also an interesting small drama.  But SHOCK really gets out on the mean, mean streets of the Island and provides some effectively despairing location footage of abandoned train trestles and near-dead Main Streets (gutted by the opening of the behemoth Staten Island Mall).

VIGILANTE  – William Lustig’s ode to the gritty, exploitative Italian cop films of the 70s has some great outer-borough location filming, using predominantly Long Island City, Williamsburg and Greenpoint for its tale of rape, murder and revenge, written by New York-based playwright Richard Vetere, who’s THIRD MIRACLE would have made this list if that film hadn’t shifted Vetere’s NY-based novel to a Chicago setting for the film.  Local acting legends like Steve James show up alongside Robert Foster and Fred Williamson, and the final car chase, with vehicles flying by curious Polish people on on McGuinness Boulevard, captures a lower-working-class lifestyle long gone from that part of Brooklyn.

THE INCIDENT  – Prior to PELHAM 1,2,3 came Larry Peerce’s harrowing story of psychopaths terrorizing passengers on a subway train, a longstanding New York urban nightmare.  A young Martin Sheen and a young Tony Musante (best known now for starring in Dario Argento’s debut flick, BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE) make both passengers and the audience miserable in this effective late 60s drama, capturing quite well the rot  and tension soon to be documented in films like LITTLE MURDERS and FRENCH CONNECTIONl.  This largely forgotten film has been recently issued on Blu Ray by Twilight Time and can be found here.

COMBINATION PLATTER  & SIAO YU —- Tony Chang’s COMBINATION PLATTER is an interesting indie drama from the 90s detailing the increasing Chinese emigration to Flushing New York at a (relatively) early stage in the community’s transformation.  A young Chinese waiter (and illegal immigrant) has an affair with a local Caucasian woman in a thoughtful, knowing drama.  Even more obscure is Sylvia Chang’s SIAO YU which I caught on a videotape rented by a Malaysian friend from a Chinatown store, featuring HILL STREET BLUES’s Daniel J. Travanti as a cranky landlord (and green-card spouse) to a recent Chinese immigrant to New York.  It was interesting to see Travanti do honest work in a film aimed solely at the Hong Kong/China market, and the film makes me nostalgic for the day when adventurous types would go into shady basement video stores in Flushing or Manhattan’s Chinatown and emerge with offbeat pearls like this.

GODSPELL THE BOOK OF LIFE – I love love love THE BOOK OF LIFE, Hal Hartley’s droll, absurd, and strangely hopeful rendition of the End of Days, occurring at the turn of the century from the 20th to the 21st, with Martin Donovan’s distracted, thoughtful Jesus one of the best representations I’ve seen, equaled by Thomas Jay Ryan (better known as Henry Fool)’s performance as Satan.  P.J. Harvey is along for the rider as Mary Magadelene, and the film is shot in a stylized video format that some might find distracting, but I find it unique and mesmerizing.  I wrote in some detail about Hartley’s brilliance in this discussion of his Henry Fool trilogyNo one talks much about GODSPELL anymore, but this retelling of the story of Christ with music shot predominantly in Central Park and Lincoln Center and such places is a fine film for kids, with a pleasant score, and some great New York City locations throughout.  I always end up watching the damn thing when I stumble across it somewhere.

HELL UP IN HARLEM The works of Larry Cohen – Which to choose?  Cohen, from around 1970 to 1990’s The Ambulance, was the king of low-budget, thought-provoking genre work shot without permits or common sense around New York City.  There wasn’t a location or an event (such as the St. Patrick’s Day parade) that he wouldn’t show up at with a camera and a cast member and proceed to make them do something quick before the cops chased them off.  Q!  The Stuff! God Told Me To!  I’m listing Hell Up in Harlem, his quickie sequel to the superior Black Caesar, only because it’s the least coherent and most crazily New York of his films.  It really feels like he’s making it up while it goes along, soit is hardly a classic, but the energy with which Williamson and company run from one iconic New York location to another just so the cast can beat and maim each other in front of them makes this, for me, the signature film representing Cohen’s New York obsession — even when he didn’t really have a film to shoot, he shot anyway (nothing I write can prepare you for the death-by-beach-umbrella impalement at Coney Island)!  Cohen’s oeuvre is ESSENTIAL to anyone who thinks they love New York cinema.

HAMLET– Michael Almederya’s modern update of HAMLET (with the original text) is a funny riff on the Great Dane, replacing Denmark’s kingdom with corporate machinations on the upper East Side.  Bill Murray’s Polonius must be seen, but Almederya’s imaginative, witty use of New York locations is what makes this a keeper.

CHIEF ZABU — The story of this recently unearthed, wonderfully unique film can be read here, but ZABU contains the single funniest New York City real estate scene I’ve ever seen, capturing the whole maddening experience of trying to rent an apartment in Manhattan in a 90 second, likely improvised rap by real estate agent Zack Norman.  The film, co directed by Norman and Neil Cohen, about a Donald Trumpesque real-estate developer with political ambitions, was mostly shot upstate and in Long Island, but the slyly cynical but not cruel humor has New York City written all over it.

SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK– Edward Burns puts in a genuine effort to provide a working class alternative to Woody Allen’s upper East Side ensemble pieces, featuring a welcome array of characters from different backgrounds and economic classes in a convincing story detailing the efforts to find love and a place in this city.  Agreeable and nicely shot, as Burns never tried to fake his New York locations despite low budgets, utilizing the local Union crews.  Support the Union label and catch up on Burns’ New York tales, with The Groomsmen and The Fitzgerald Family Christmas being some of his other lesser known winners.

4:44 LAST DAY ON EARTH and THE DRILLER KILLER– Abel Ferrara is the greatest New York filmmaker ever.  Don’t let the lurid cover art or title of Driller Killer throw you, it’s really a blackly comic exploration of the late 1970s Manhattan art and music scene, with the increasingly put upon protagonist (played by Ferrara) finally snapping and, yes, drilling a few people.  But it’s a great movie, and a great New York film, capturing seedy Union Square locations long before they were cleaned up.  4:44 Last Day on Earth is a largely overlooked recent film of his, tinged with his increasingly Buddhist beliefs, about a couple in the east village (near the Williamsburg Bridge) trying to live out the last day on Earth in peace and harmony.  Ferrara for all his personal theatrics and occasionally outrageous subject matter, is a graceful, humanist filmmaker, and 4:44 is filled with fascinating and sublime bits exploring how New Yorkers would act out their final hours on Earth.

CHUD  & WOLFENC.H.U.D. has a kind of bad rep, but it’s a weird sort of Larry Cohenesque genre film utilizing method-acting, Chekov-ready cast (the leads are John Heard, Daniel Stern, and Kim Greist, with John Goodman making an early appearance).  I find it kind of funny and involving, with its tale of underground dwellers coming up at night and abducting the city’s denizens a funny riff on an effectively paranoid urban legend.  Worth a look. Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen is more pretentious and bigger budgeted, but a rather damn good Werewolf story that works as a bit of a parable about gentrification with some great New York City footage, including a well-shot Battery Park massacre.

I LIKE IT LIKE THAT — Darnell Martin’s film about the trials and tribulations of a young Puerto Rican couple captures the day-to-day life of a huge part of the New York City population that is underrepresented in dramatic representations beyond gang members on Law & Order. Luckily, the film is really good, dealing thoughtfully with issues facing the community with humor and grace.  Martin has only directed a few films (and a decent amount of T.V.), but on the basis of this, she’s the real deal.

JUST ANOTHER GIRL ON THE I.R.T. Leslie Harris’ debut feature about an ambitious teen girl determined to escape the ghetto.  Shot quickly on a super low budget, this got a decent release as it was made at the height of the 1990s indie boom, a time fondly remembered for many of us.  Funny, raw, and convincing, Just Another Girl captures the frustrations facing pretty much the entire population of the city who hope to not be “Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.”  It’s time for a rediscovery of this film, which I haven’t heard much about lately.

One thought on “A Guide to the Best New York City Films Not Made by Scorsese, Allen, Friedkin or Spike Lee!

  1. I like what we see of New York in Whit Stillman’s ‘The Last Days of Disco’, one of my favourite films. The protagonists’ apartment on 89th Street is literally just around the corner from where my friend lives!


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