5 “MUST-SEE” Movies about New York

“If you love someone, send him to New York, for it is heaven. If you hate someone, send him to New York, for it is hell,” wrote Cao Guilin, author of the Chinese novel “A Native of Beijing in New York,” which was adapted into an epic TV show co-directed by Zheng Xiaolong and Feng Xiaogang in the early 1990s.

a native of beijing in ny

People all over China have remembered this line, long before many of them set foot on the land of America, in search of their American dreams.

So have I.

In the winter of 2011, I visited New York (as a tourist) for the first time. I hated it. I thought I was in hell. It was dirty, noisy, packed with other tourists not knowing where they were heading. It still is. But there’s something about the city you don’t learn to appreciate until you become a resident. For me, that was not until the summer of 2014.

E. B. White has fully captured the spirit of the city when he called New York a land that no one should come to live “unless he is willing to be lucky.” Tourists probably don’t consider visiting New York as a lucky thing; they just come and go. But for those who live in the city in quest of something — anything, a willingness to be lucky leads to risks, adventures, and ultimately success, or failure.

Below are five movies that I think have explained and encapsulated the spirit of New York. They were also mentioned in my weekly film podcast episode 20 & 21.

1. West Side Story (1961)

Adapted into a film from a 1957 broadway musical of the same name, “West Side Story” tells a love story of two youngsters from rival gangs on the upper west side, while vividly depicting the tension between their families and friends.

Jerome Robbins’ choreography, along with Leonard Bernstein’s dazzling score, has elevated the film to an extremely entertaining level while initiating thought-provoking conversations about violence, race, gender issues in the 1960s. The film also underscores qualities that are needed in order to make the city a world destination: second-to-none diversity brought by immigrants from every corner of the earth, and their tolerance of each other’s cultures and beliefs.

2. The Cruise (1998, Documentary)

A documentary by Bennett Miller (director of “Capote” and “Foxcatcher”) about a New York tourist guide named Timothy “Speed” Levitch, “The Cruise” exudes a sense of romance not commonly seen in travel documentaries.

I’ve heard people describing New York as a “dream place,” “sweet home” or “land of opportunities.” But Speed, narrator of this documentary, calls New York his wife. He speaks of the city’s neighborhoods as if they were his own backyards. He talks about the history of New York’s century-old buildings, bustling blocks important figures used to wander around, sculptures on the Brooklyn Bridge that are easily neglected by busy New Yorkers. He knows the unknown. He believes it is these kinds of unknown that’s really making the city a treasure.

Watch this documentary, and you will discover a New York that has never been known to you.

3. New York in the Fifties (2001, Documentary)

nyc in the 50s

Courtesy of IMDb.

This is not a typical must-see film about New York. If I have to describe it with full honesty, I’d associate some of its narrative with “boring.” But I’m recommending it anyways for it brings valuable first-person accounts of life in New York in the fifties. I find myself amused, surprised and touched by the encounters of those rising poets, journalists, writers and artists at the time.

Spoiler alert: one of my favorites is when they talk about the alcohol culture in the 1950s, and how drinking tables once used by some of the most prominent intellectuals become an iconic place for others to meet and talk.

4. While We’re Young (2015)

Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, “While We’re Young” tells the encounter of a middle-aged couple with a carefree young couple in New York. After hanging out with the young couple, the older couple start ditching their old friends in search of energies and life passion that are only found in those youngsters. But the story is more than pure friendship or middle-age epiphany. It is close to the end of film that the old couple begin to realize they’ve been manipulated.

What’s the ending? Did they forgive or did they fight back? I will leave it for you to explore. For me, this is one of a kind film that invites its audience to come inside the lives of its characters, and once you do enter their lives, you find yourself switching roles constantly — sometimes you’re the old, good and caring guy, and sometimes you’re the selfish young guy who is always looking out for opportunities and taking advantage of other’s generosity. On the one hand, the film is about how to survive and succeed in a city full of competitions like New York, but on the other hand, it’s about learning to be understanding and compassionate.

5. Taxi Driver (1976)

Probably one of the best films of all time, Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” depicts New York’s ugliness and darkness through the portrait of an ex-Marine who is also a night cab driver and a killer. Under Scorsese’s lens, New York has been a brutally depressing city that sees endless urban violence and nightmares. But the real tension comes not from the city dwellers’ interactions with each other, but from the main character (Travis Bickle as portrayed by Robert De Niro) within.

It is in such a film that you get to understand how a city’s spirit (good or bad or both) affects a person so deeply that he decides to kill, and why his conduct of killing is deemed not a crime but a kind of heroism in such a place where everybody is too busy to care about others.

Above are just some of my favorite films about New York City. What’s on your list? Feel free to share and comment down below or on Facebook! Also a movie fan? Be sure to check out my weekly film podcast (in Mandarin) on iTunes.

Anita Xu

Anita Xu

You can contact Anita Xu at anitaxu@