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Essential Movies Set in New York City to Stream Right Now

By AFAR Editors

Apr 17, 2020

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Remember NYC? (And phones with cords?) These films will remind you of the beautiful, infuriating, and funny city until you can visit again.

Courtesy of MGM

Remember NYC? (And phones with cords?) These films will remind you of the beautiful, infuriating, and funny city until you can visit again.

Wishing you could get a taste of the Big Apple? Watching these movies about NYC can take you there, if only on screen.

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The nightly news footage of the empty streets of New York City may remind you of apocalyptic sci-fi films, but don’t despair. The feisty city you love will bounce back and be open for business again soon.

To remind us of better times in Gotham, we’ve rounded up some of our favorite films, from pieces by classic observers of New York like directors Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese to flicks starring quirky heroines (Audrey Hepburn, Meg Ryan) and tough guys (Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel), as well as a few that celebrate the city itself, from the breezy Coney Island boardwalk to the glittering spire of the Empire State Building.

Whether you prefer musicals, gangsters, romance, or dramas, we’ve got your New York film fix until you can get back to visit yourself.

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Watch It: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes 

A vivid slice of a single summer day in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, this urgent movie jumps between goofy hilarity (most of which derives from director Spike Lee’s character, Mookie) and a tension that bubbles just under the surface, occasionally erupting in anger, fear, and racism. Some of the events that take place over the course of this long, hot day are based on a racist dynamic still in place in our time, which is profoundly depressing, but watching this energetic Brooklyn, with Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” pumping out of Radio Raheem’s boom box, and Rosie Perez dancing on a brownstone stoop, you will also get a big taste of a particular time and place.—Ann Shields, Managing editor travel guides 

When Harry Met Sally (1989)

Watch It: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes 

This beloved rom-com reads like an amalgam of many of my favorite New York things: Central Park in the fall, the Temple of Dendur at the Met, brownstones on the Upper West Side, Washington Square early in the morning, and yes, Katz’s. —Katherine LaGrave, Digital features editor

A dance routine on the observation deck of the Empire State Building? Sinatra tap-dancing? Sign me up.

On the Town (1949) 

Watch ItAmazon,  Google Play, iTunes

Three sailors get shore leave for 24 hours in NYC; the guys, including Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, want to see the sights, especially gals, like Ann Miller and Vera-Ellen. Highlights are songs Leonard Bernstein wrote for the original stage musical. You can’t not sing along to “New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town . . .”. —Pat Tompkins, Copy editor

Serendipity (2001)

Watch It: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes

Serendipity isn’t as well known as other New York–based rom-coms, but it absolutely should be. In it, Jonathan and Sara (played by John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale) have a meet-cute in Bloomingdale’s while holiday shopping and then spend the next few years wondering what happened to the other person. The movie bounces between New York and San Francisco, but scenes in the Big Apple—at places like the Waldorf Astoria, Central Park, and the Serendipity 3 ice cream parlor—are guaranteed to generate the warm-and-fuzzies. —K.L.G.

The French Connection (1971)

Watch It: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes 

In this police thriller, two NYPD detectives, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider), track French heroin dealers throughout the city. Two key scenes take place, naturally, on the subway. Popeye traces Charnier, the drug kingpin, onto a subway car in Manhattan only to be duped in a game of cat-and-mouse as the Frenchman hops on and off an idling car in a station. In arguably the best car chase scene ever captured on film, Popeye commandeers a brown Pontiac in Brooklyn to hunt down an assassin who has commandeered an entire subway train on the elevated tracks above. (According to IMDb, it was filmed without city permits, making the scene nearly as dangerous in real life as it seemed on celluloid.) This film earned five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actor for Hackman. —Lyndsey Matthews, Destination news editor

“West Side Story” is the musical even people who hate musicals will love.

West Side Story (1961) 

Watch It: Amazon, Google Play 

Tough streets of the city costar in this Broadway musical brought to the screen by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. This Romeo and Juliet in gangland, Jets vs. Sharks, features dynamic performances by Rita Moreno and George Chakiris dancing and singing now classic Bernstein/Sondheim songs. —P.T.

You’ve Got Mail (1998)

Watch It: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes

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Zabar’s! Barney Greengrass! Cafe Lalo! Gray’s Papaya! The Hudson River Greenway and Riverside Park: The heartwarming presence of all of these destinations is enough to take your mind off the fact that this movie is, uh, actually a dark commentary on capitalism destroying the independent shops and stores that make this city great.—K.L.

Mean Streets (1973) 

Watch It:  Amazon, Google Play, iTunes

The drumbeats of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” launch this early, low-budget gem by Martin Scorsese. With a young Robert De Niro (as a volatile punk) and Harvey Keitel (a small-time loan collector), Scorsese filmed in the Little Italy where he grew up. Lean and dynamic, the movie pulses with energy; it’s hard to imagine it set anywhere else.—P.T.

Laura (1944) 

Watch It: Amazon, Google Play

Who would want to kill beautiful, well-liked Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney)? That’s the task for NYC detective McPherson (Dana Andrews), who finds suspects among her playboy fiancé (Vincent Price), high-society mentor Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), and others. Soon the detective is falling in love with Laura, too. Then one night, everything he thought he knew about her changes. —P.T.

The Best of Everything (1959)

Watch It: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes

Based on the bestselling novel by Rona Jaffe, this 1950s drama (some might call it a melodrama) tells the story of three young women trying to make it in the big city. The opening credit sequence is a memorable love letter to Manhattan, as the camera pans over the iconic skyline and makes its way down to the street, crowded with stylish worker bees hurrying to Rockefeller Center. The three women, played by Hope Lange, Suzy Parker, and Diane Baker, live and work together (in book publishing), and though elements of the storyline might feel dated today, this movie was almost certainly an inspiration to the creators of Mad Men and Sex and the City.—Julia Cosgrove, Editor in chief

The filmmakers had to negotiate nightly with actual street gangs during the filming of “The Warriors.”

The Warriors (1979)

Watch It: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes

This terrific cult film shows New York during another kind of lockdown, a single night designated for street gangs to meet in the Bronx and discuss taking over the city. This is the 1970s NYC hellscape imagined by mild-mannered citizens outside the city: ruthless girl gangs, artsy freaks on roller skates knife-fighting in the subway, race-baiting mooks, and street poetry–spouting gang leaders with Homeric afros. An assassination during the war council is wrongly pinned on the Warriors, a Coney Island gang, and they set off on foot and by subway to return to the safety of their turf, as they’re chased by every other gang in the city. And the cops. The movie was shot entirely on location and at night over a hot summer. (After you’ve watched it, read the Village Voice story about the crazy filming process.)—A.S.  

Brooklyn (2015)

Watch It: Amazon, Google PlayiTunes 

Many movies set in New York City focus on its fast-paced energy and lively atmosphere, but the beautifully poignant Brooklyn leans into the fact that this city can be intensely lonely at times, especially for millions of immigrants who have left behind their families. Saoirse Ronan shines as a young Irish woman in 1950s Brooklyn who, despite landing a job and a spot in a women’s boarding house, deeply misses her family . . . until a charming Italian American man makes her appreciate her new home. The scene in which the new couple visit a vibrant Coney Island will make you long to stroll the boardwalk with cotton candy in hand. —Ciera Velarde, Newsletter engagement editor

Rear Window (1954)

Watch It: Amazon, iTunes, Google Play 

Alfred Hitchcock’s suspenseful thriller might be the ultimate quarantine film. Housebound with a broken leg in his Greenwich Village apartment, photographer L.B. Jeffries (played by James Stewart) spends his days and nights looking out his back windows and into the intimate lives of his archetypal downtown neighbors. Long studied in cinema classes as the preeminent film about film (and voyeurism), Rear Window is also the ultimate whodunit.—J.C.

The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

Watch It: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes

This movie about an assistant to a high-powered magazine editor definitely does not make me miss working in fashion, but I love the ground covered as Andy (Anne Hathaway) ping-pongs around the city: the Lower East Side, Upper East Side, Midtown, Chelsea, Central Park, the Upper West Side, Tribeca. Emily Blunt, as fashion assistant Emily Charlton, has never been better. —K.L. 

Center Stage (2000)

Watch It: Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Netflix

Called “the greatest dance movie ever made” in a breathless EW review, Center Stage is also one of the best movies set and filmed in New York City, a nostalgic snapshot of the city a year before 9/11. The film is about a college love triangle, a fierce ballet rivalry, and self-discovery in the big city. OK, it won’t win any awards for acting, but the professional dance sequences are truly soul-lifting. In one memorable NYC-enamored sequence, student lovers share a motorcycle ride over the East River, with the Brooklyn Bridge and Twin Towers in the distance, to a soundtrack of Mandy Moore’s “I Wanna Be With You.” With exuberant scenes in which the dance students enjoy a bowling night, a set-me-free salsa dancing evening, and a whooping limo ride through Times Square and downtown to catch the Staten Island ferry, Center Stage inspired many teen dreams of moving to NYC. Annie Fitzsimmons, Luxury travel + advisor editor  

After Hours (1985)

Watch It: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes

You can’t blame Scorsese for making another film about his hometown—the city famously has 8 million stories to tell. This tense and particularly funny one chronicles a desk-job-working young man’s journey through a single night downtown, during which meeting a date turns into a choose-your-own-adventure series of weird events. Like one of your I’m-not-wearing-any-pants nightmares, the anxiety-drenched story keeps rolling, with our hero Paul roaming down dark Soho streets chased by an ice cream truck, seeking solace and safety (and finding none). —A.S.

Truman Capote wrote the book but Audrey Hepburn made “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

Watch It: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes

Audrey Hepburn is the undisputed star of this film, playing Holly Golightly, a “socialite” searching for love—or at least, someone to finance it. The swankiest parts of the East Side are a considerable costar, though, thanks to shots of Holly’s apartment (East 71st Street and Lexington), the Bandshell at Central Park (66th to 72nd Streets), the grand New York Public Library (between 40th and 42nd Streets), and That Famous Scene at Tiffany’s flagship store, on Fifth Avenue and East 57th. Put on your pearls and press play. —K.L.

Moonstruck (1987)

Watch It: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes

Cher won an Oscar for her performance as the passionate, superstitious, big-haired Loretta, stuck in a love triangle with Johnny, her fiancé, and Ronny, his perpetually angry brother. Loretta lives in Brooklyn Heights, so much of the movie takes place in and around the neighborhood’s charming brownstones. You can see Loretta’s family house from Moonstruck (on the corner of Cranberry and Willow Streets) the next time you’re in the neighborhood. But until then, pour a glass of champagne with a sugar cube in it and lose yourself in the over-the-top antics of this Italian family. –C.V.

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)

Watch It: Amazon, HBO Now, iTunes, Google Play

In the world of Christmas movies, some would argue that the original Home Alone movie, set in a suburban Chicago home, is the better movie. But the New York at Christmastime picture the sequel paints informed nearly all of my childhood fantasies about NYC. Over-the-top toy stores? Check. Enormous Rockefeller Center Christmas tree? Done. Luxurious hotels with room-service ice cream sundae bars? Sign me up. Sure, Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) has rather sadistic methods of dealing with the bandits pursuing him, but in the end the city teaches him a valuable lesson about family. —L.M.

Gangs of New York (2002)

Watch It: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes

Herbert Asbury’s 1927 book about the Irish immigrant gangs living in the Five Points neighborhood of Manhattan’s Lower East Side provided all director Martin Scorsese needed to imagine this colorful and violent story of religious and race wars fomented and fought by corrupt cops and politicians, brutal killers, hard (and tender-hearted) women, and righteous men. The life-and-death drama is played out against a backdrop of Civil War–era Manhattan—the Draft Riots, Tammany Hall, unpaved streets, underground torch-lit hovels. Scorsese’s attention to detail and keen ear for authenticity spins such a fully-formed world that you may be surprised to find yourself in the modern world when it ends. —A.S.

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