Few cities capture the American imagination quite like New York, which explains why so many great films are set here. Time Out New York recently took on the estimable task of ranking the 100 best New York movies of all time, and we’re fans of just about everything they selected. But our most beloved films about the city will always have to do with its ever-changing countercultures, and although TONY included a handful of excellent examples (Paris Is Burning, Smithereens, Wild Style, etc.), we can’t help adding to the list. After the jump, we round up 10 classic New York counterculture movies, some of which may well be too campy, silly, or niche to belong on a “100 best” list, but all of which we consider required viewing.
The Panic in Needle Park (1971)
It was his performance as Michael Corleone in The Godfather that made Al Pacino famous, but it was this role that put him on Francis Ford Coppola’s radar in the first place. This dark and gritty drama, which takes place on the Upper West Side long before it was the pricey neighborhood we know today, follows a junkie named Bobby (Pacino) as he drags Kitty (Helen Reeves), who’s hopelessly in love with him, along on a journey to the depths of addiction. Joan Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, wrote the screenplay.
Times Square (1980)
One of many great late-’70s/early-’80s punksploitation movies, Times Square is the story of two teen-girl mental hospital escapees who form a band called The Sleez Sisters and seize New York City’s airwaves. This alone would be enough material for a counterculture classic, but director Allan Moyle cemented its cult appeal by casting Tim Curry as Johnny LaGuardia, a DJ who facilitates their rise to fame. Unfortunately, the DVD of Times Square is out of print, but thanks to the wonders of YouTube, you can watch the entire thing for free.
I Shot Andy Warhol (1996)
Time Out placed director Mary Harron’s perfect adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ yuppie satire American Psycho at #26 on their list, and we’re not going to argue with that. But that doesn’t mean we should overlook this earlier film, about one of the strangest and most divisive countercultural figures of the ’60s — not Andy Warhol but Valerie Solanas, author of the radical feminist SCUM Manifesto and the woman famous for putting a bullet in the decade’s most important pop artist. Aside from its fascinating story, I Shot Andy Warhol is worth watching for some excellent against-type performance, from Lili Taylor as Solanas to Stephen Dorff as transgender Warhol superstar Candy Darling to Jared Harris (yes, Mad Men‘s Lane Pryce) wearing Warhol’s iconic white wig.
Ciao! Manhattan (1972)
Speaking of the Warhol crowd, Ciao! Manhattan is another powerful reflection on those people and that era. A lightly fictionalized cinema verité-style film that contrasts Edie Sedgwick’s glamorous life in ’60s New York with her dark, lonely, drug-addled final days, it both exploits and condemns The Factory’s destructive culture of fame.
Blank City (2010)
New York’s late-’70s music scene has been documented to death, but Céline Danhier’s documentary Blank City focuses on the rarely explored underground film movement that accompanied the rise of No Wave bands like Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, The Contortions, and DNA. If you love those musicians but aren’t familiar with the work of filmmakers such as Vivienne Dick, Nick Zedd, and Scott B and Beth B, then you’ll want to watch this doc with a notepad ready, so you can jot down the names of all the directors and movies you’ll need to see. While many of those may be difficult to track down, Blank City is actually streaming on Netflix.
Party Monster (2003)
After the hippies and the punks and the New Wavers came the Club Kids — a tiny late-’80s/early-’90s subculture of young debutantes and deadbeats who threw wild, elaborate, and bizarre parties under the influence of just about every drug in the Merck Manual. Adapted from James St. James’ true-crime memoir Disco Bloodbath, Party Monster is the highly stylized account of drug dealer Angel Melendez’s death at the hands of his friend Michael Alig, King of the Club Kids. Real-life tragedy aside, the movie is notable both for its amazing costumes and sets and Macaulay Culkin’s and Seth Green’s camped-up performances as Alig and St. James.
Putney Swope (1969)
Here’s one for the radicals — Putney Swope, Robert Downey Sr.’s surreal satire of the advertising industry in particular and American race relations in general. The film’s titular hero is the only black executive at a Madison Avenue ad agency, who, through the racism of his colleagues, is accidentally elected chairman of the board. Things change in a big way as soon as he comes to power, as the company is renamed Truth and Soul, Inc., Putney refuses to sell products like tobacco and war toys, and the US government takes his subversive agenda as an act of revolution.
Slaves of New York (1989)
Before there was Girls, there was Slaves of New York, an entertaining flop adapted from Tama Janowitz’s short story collection of the same name. It’s about a broke aspiring hat designer named Eleanor who can’t leave her crappy artist boyfriend, Stash, because she can’t afford to find a place of her own. Apparently staying together for the apartment isn’t a particularly recent phenomenon.
Party Girl (1995)
What happens when an unrepentant party girl is forced to work in a library to pay back the godmother who bailed her out of jail after she was arrested for throwing a rave at her loft apartment? The library gets a whole lot more fashionable, the godmother doesn’t know what hit her, and Parker Posey gets one of the funniest, most charismatic roles of her career. Not only is Party Girl thoroughly enjoyable viewing, but it also provides an excellent comic snapshot of the mid-’90s New York party scene.
Despite all grumbling to the contrary, New York City counterculture didn’t die with the soaring rents of 21st-century Manhattan. Set in Brooklyn, John Cameron Mitchell’s gleefully explicit Shortbus follows an ensemble cast as they expand their artistic and sexual horizons at a weekly salon hosted by the one and only Justin Vivian Bond. It’s a love letter to real sex and real relationships in a real city, featuring cameos by a whole host of local legends, from JD Samson and Jonathan Caouette to Murray Hill and Dirty Martini.