12 Criminally Underrated New York Movies

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The “New York movie” — shot on location, pulsing with the heartbeat of a city, capturing with documentary-like attentiveness a snapshot of a city in constant evolution — is a popular topic for movie list-makers, and over the past few months, we’ve seen both Time Out New York’s exhaustive top 100 and Complex’s briefer top 50. They’re both good lists, and filled with terrific films; they also don’t offer much in the way of surprises, since the NYC movie canon has been so firmly established that it becomes less a question of what will be on it than what order they’ll choose for the usual suspects (Taxi Driver, Manhattan, Sweet Smell of Success, etc). Again, all great movies. But we thought it might be fun to point you in the direction of a few of our favorite New York flicks that didn’t make either list — just in case you’ve already worked your way through those 100-plus titles, or would like to check out something a little further off the beaten path. You’ll find our top dozen after the jump.

Mo’ Better Blues

Any list of New York flicks is bound to be chock full of Spike Lee; the quintessential Brooklynite has given us such iconic New York flicks as 25th Hour, Summer of Sam, and (of course) Do the Right Thing. Mo’ Better was his follow-up to the latter, and as such, was bound to suffer some in comparison — but we’ve always had affection for this seemingly autobiographical portrait of a talented young artist, and its portrait of the New York jazz scene is fascinating. Plus, the image of Denzel Washington blowing his trumpet on the Brooklyn Bridge is one of the sexiest in the star’s entire filmography.

Prince of the City/ Q&A/ Night Falls on Manhattan

Sidney Lumet is another New York-based director who made countless contributions to the city’s cinema landscape: Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network, just to name the obvious ones. But his trilogy of Gotham police corruption stories is just as laudable: tough, complex, unforgiving, and often uncomfortably close to the real stories of the more morally flexible among the boys in blue. Prince was released in 1981, Q&A in 1990, and Night Falls in 1996, allowing us to check in over the course of 15 years; taken together, they provide a Michael Apted-style look at how, no matter the cosmetic improvements, some things in the city never change.

Quick Change

The lionization of Bill Murray has somehow, inexplicably, not reached back to this terrific 1990 comedy, in which Murray not only starred, but co-directed with screenwriter Howard Franklin (adapting Jay Cronley’s novel). It begins as a comic riff on Dog Day Afternoon, with Murray and accomplices Geena Davis and Randy Quaid pulling off a daring bank robbery rather effortlessly. The catch is that they can’t get the hell out of New York — they can’t even get to the damn airport. What sounds like a one-joke premise is spun masterfully into a poison-penned letter to big city apathy and obstruction, and to the kind of weirdo urban nightmare that Scorsese did so well in the more widely loved After Hours.

Blast of Silence

This one’s rep is on the rise, thanks to its addition to the Criterion Collection in 2008 — its first time on home video. A low-budget marvel from 1961, Allen Baron’s tight little B-movie is the hard-boiled tale of a hired killer on the move in the city. The tough-talking third-person voice-over narration by Waldo Salt (who penned the screenplays for Midnight Cowboy and Serpico, among others) is tasty enough to bite off and chew, and the supporting performance of Larry Tucker as Big Ralph is so off-kilter and bizarre that you can’t take your eyes off the big, disgusting lug. A dark, nasty, unforgettable treasure.

Born to Win

This 1971 comedy/drama somehow fell into the public domain, and is consequently a perennial find in the 99-cent DVD bins. That’s the smartest movie buck you’ll spend; this is a stark, scuzzy, and often very funny portrait of smack hustlers in early-’70s NYC, less grim than Panic in Needle Park, but traveling in the same circles. George Segal is a revelation in the lead (particularly if you only know him from his recent, cuddly sitcom work), and a young Robert De Niro is electrifying in a key supporting role.

Variety

Director Bette Gordon (and cinematographers Tom DiCillo and John Foster) didn’t realize it at the time, but their film has survived as a representation of the seedier Times Square of the early ’80s — the picture has a rough, grimy, inhabited quality, while the scenery and the minimalist style are compelling enough that we forgive the film its occasional clunkiness. It tells the story of a young woman (Sandy McLeod) who goes to work at the ticket booth of a porno theater, and ends up coming face to face with her own hang-ups and voyeurism. It’s also worth seeing for the work of a preposterously young Luis Guzman, making his second film appearance; he’s as energetic as ever, and the film gets a shot of adrenaline every time he turns up. Another bonus: a young Will Patton — with hair!

The Window

Rear Window is one of our favorite New York thrillers — even if Hitchcock shot the NY-set film entirely on the Paramount lot, as was his custom. But another, earlier film also adapted a similar short story by Cornell Woolrich (who penned “It Had to Be Murder,” which formed the basis of Rear Window), and was shot in the city to boot: The Window, based on Woolrich’s “The Boy Cried Murder.” It’s basically a kid version of Rear Window (in other words, it’s Disturbia, circa 1949), with a young boy (Bobby Driscoll) witnessing a murder from his fire escape, and having trouble convincing any of the adults in his life that he’s not crying wolf. Driscoll is obnoxious but endearing, and the picture is crisp and involving, with a genuinely suspenseful climax.

The Wrong Man

We noted above that Hitch usually shot in the confines of a studio, preferring the control of those environs to the difficulty of location shooting. But he occasionally broke that rule — as he did in 1956, when he adapted the true story of Christopher Balestrero into this underrated, low-key drama. Perhaps due to the “based on a true story” construct, Hitchcock shoots the film with fewer frills and a more direct style, and the results are intriguing. He doesn’t have to amp up the drama for us — in a quietly disturbing sequence like Fonda’s visits to the scenes of his purported crimes, the straightforward (almost documentary-style) photography is a snug fit, and reminds us that Hitchcock was (contrary to reputation) a director of enormous tact and self-control. In some ways, it’s like a police procedural 40 years before its time — an embryo for the Gotham mainstay Law and Order.

The Cameraman

As with Hitchcock, Buster Keaton has been so thoroughly celebrated that it’s hard to classify much of his filmography as “underrated.” But because it came at the beginning of a contract with MGM that would ultimately prove his creative undoing, Buster’s 1928 comedy The Cameraman tends to get the shaft, which is a shame. It’s a warm and funny picture, filled the ingenious stunt-work and rooting-interest romance of his best works, and though a mixture of New York and Los Angeles locations create the film’s version of New York, it beautifully captures the bustle of the ’20s-era Big Apple.

Carlito’s Way

Brian DePalma’s 1993 gangster drama is often compared unfavorably to Scarface, his previous collaboration with star Al Pacino and producer Martin Bregman — which is totally inexplicable, since Carlito is approximately 12 times the better movie. DePalma recreates the mid-’70s NYC nightclub and discotheque scene for this tale of a reformed wiseguy trying to go straight, and it pulses with love for the city, in all its sleazy glory. And good luck ever visiting Grand Central again without remembering Carlito’s climactic chase and shoot-out, a virtuoso sequence that juices up on the filmmaker’s slick, relentless energy.

Those are our favorite New York movies that don’t get any love — what are yours? Let us know in the comments!