In our ever-changing cities, as neighbors and neighborhoods move and evolve, it’s challenging to capture the fleeting moments and small stories that make urban life so dynamic.
Film, in many ways, can be the perfect medium for urban nostalgia. People and places, frozen in time, capture life in the moment.
Curbed asked film critics and our fellow editors to chime in on their favorite movies about cities.
This list includes picks as diverse as the cities they celebrate. There are documentaries and shorts showcasing city life; science fictions and dystopias imagining our sometimes-bleak urban future; and cinematic classics-turned-totems for the places we live and love.
“There are 8 million stories in the Naked City,” goes a famous line from a film noir of the same name included in this list; it sums up our approach. City life can feel both maddeningly specific in its challenges and universally uplifting in its joys. Here are some of our favorite examples of urban stories on screen.
1. LA Story
Like the longest punchline for the tiredest tropes that plague Los Angeles, LA Story somehow manages pack every LA stereotype—no one notices the earthquakes! He’s a bored weatherman! They drive to the house next door!—into a single movie. In the end, however, this is really a love letter to the oft-ridiculed city, and no one writes it better than Steve Martin. —Alissa Walker, urbanism editor, Curbed (A.W.)
2. Before Sunrise (1995)
Before Sunrise shows off Vienna in a way that makes it feel lived in: as Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) walk and talk their way through the city at night, we get to see its restaurants and bars, its streets and parks. We follow them as they explore the town and get to feel it alongside them, as young people falling in love with each other against the backdrop of a vibrant city and its culture. It’s a marvelous reflection on how cities have our memories imprinted upon them—and shape our own remembrances. —Alissa Wilkinson, critic, Vox
3. Wings of Desire (1987)
Wim Wenders’s meditation on loneliness and the city finds literal angels watching over a gray and divided Berlin. Visible only to each other, they roam the streets listening to the thoughts of distressed citizens, intervening when they can. One of them, Damiel, falls in love with a trapeze artist and chooses to become mortal, experiencing life as a human for the first time. —Lauren Ro
4. In Bruges (2008)
A tale of two Dublin hitmen hiding out in a romantic, medieval city manages to make the titular Belgian city shine without becoming a glossy travelogue (the way Colin Farrell’s character mocks American tourists makes that clear). The city’s winding canals become a fitting backdrop to this remarkably deep black comedy. —Patrick Sisson
5. City of God (2002)
The City of God makes devils of everyone. In a tale of children turned gangsters in the favelas outside Rio de Janeiro, even the purest souls fall prey to the alluring power of the city’s drug trade. The film’s breathtaking cinematography makes it impossible to turn your eyes away, even when the casual brutality and heartbreaking loss warrant it. —Jeff Andrews, data reporter, Curbed
6. Paterson (2016)
A relaxed Jim Jarmusch joint places Adam Driver behind the wheel of a bus, an observer of urban life and rhapsodic poet constantly at work. The quiet film juxtaposes Driver’s words with snapshot of passengers and passing street scenes, a meditation on an artist’s inner life and the beauty of watching life pass by on mass transit. —P.S.
7. 8 Mile (2002)
Eminem’s star turn as up-and-coming rapper Rabbit offers a thinly veiled autobiography, as well as an authentic glimpse of Detroit, since the movie was filmed throughout the city. Hip-hop fans not only know one of the city’s most important streets, a dividing line between the city and suburbs, and shorthand for racial inequality, but have a sense of the landscape and determination inherent in the city that hustles harder. —P.S.
8. Philadelphia (1993)
Jonathan Demme’s vital film about HIV, AIDS, and discrimination may have revolved around performances by Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington. But the city itself played a key role. A beautiful backdrop for a poignant story of battling injustice, and a city defined by monuments to democracy and equality, Demme said Philadelphia helped show “the good, the bad and the ugly” of America. —P.S.
9. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
This John Hughes ditch-day fantasy is arguably one of the most enjoyable movies made about Chicago. And while it’s a love letter to so many signature experiences—Wrigley Field, the Art Institute, posing as the Sausage King of Chicago and singing “Danke Schoen” in a parade—it’s also about as pure an expression of the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure cultural magic of exploring a city as you’ll find on film. —P.S.
10. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Is Danny Boyle’s film, set in Mumbai, a look at “the real India,” as the protagonist Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) says in one scene, or poverty porn? The movie tells Jamal’s life story through flashbacks while he’s a contestant on India’s version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The show’s producers can’t believe a member of Mumbai’s impoverished lowest caste is smart enough to make it all the way to the final question, but his life experiences—running through the city’s labyrinthine streets, train hopping, hustling, trespassing in unfinished buildings, working as a tea server at a call center—have afforded him all the knowledge he needs. Of course, this Hollywood-meets-Bollywood movie takes artistic license, but the scenes of India’s frenetic cities and emerald countrysides are captivating. —Diana Budds, story producer, Curbed
11. Ten (2002)
A simple premise—dashboard cams, an ever-present cab driver, and 10 interrelated road trips—achieves relevance in the hands of celebrated Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. As scenes of Tehran scroll by, this series of backseat confessionals coalesce, offering insight into life in contemporary Iran. —P.S.
12. The Departed (2006)
It’s been more than a decade since The Departed racked up best picture and best director Oscars, but the film remains the finest one set in Boston in the 21st century (sorry, Spotlight). Martin Scorsese’s suspenseful portrait of two moles, one for the mob (Matt Damon) and the other for the Massachusetts State Police (Leonardo DiCaprio), luxuriated in the city’s waterfront, skyline, and architecture like no other movie since at least 2001. Even its accents were spot-on Boston without lapsing into parody (an easy thing to do). Heck, the Red Line, the Western Hemisphere’s oldest subway route, got a cameo!
—Tom Acitelli, editor, Curbed Boston
13. Do the Right Thing (1989)
Spike Lee’s masterpiece is many things: a prescient look at gentrification and police violence, an exploration of America’s simmering racial tensions, a visual and auditory joy. It’s also a tight-knit picture of life on a single Brooklyn street in the summer, showing and celebrating the interconnectedness of urban life. —P.S.
14. Spotlight (2015)
Spotlight has (rightfully) been labeled a great journalism movie: It’s full of reporters doing the actual work of reporting, from making phone calls to knocking on doors to persisting with sources who are slow to open up. But it’s also a great city movie. The story the Globe reporters put together is inextricable from Boston, and their reporting takes place amid the life of the city. Bonus points for Liev Schreiber as Marty Baron looking out moodily over the city. —Sara Polsky, features editor, Curbed
15. Amores Perros (2000)
A series of interrelated stories revolv a life-changing car crash, Amores Perros found Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu break out with his own brand of high-velocity filmmaking. From the explosive opening car chase through episodic looks at Mexico City’s different social classes, Inarritu offers a kinetic, gritty view of fragmented metropolis. —P.S.
16. Wendy and Lucy (2008)
This is a very sad, very quiet film about a woman and her dog and running out of options. Ringing endorsement! Wendy (Michelle Williams) is en route to Alaska, but her car breaks down in Portland. Without the money to leave, she walks, she sits, she searches, and we see the edges of the city through her experience, cut off from the comfort of interiors, of shopping, of the kinds of grand public spaces that often characterize urban film. The most beautiful place in the movie is a grassy suburban backyard. —Alexandra Lange, architecture critic, Curbed
17. Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
Playing Ben, a despondent drunk who shuffles through dives and prostitutes and quite literally drowns himself in booze, Nicholas Cage doesn’t exactly do the tourism bureau proud. But this dark, deeply felt look at the city and its underbelly creates a kind of jazzy Vegas noir, looking beyond the bright neon to dig into every crevice, no matter how unseemly. —P.S.
18. Oslo, August 31 (2011)
A sympathetic portrait of a single day in a recovering addict’s life, this film showcases the powerful pull of place and memories. As Anders, played by Anders Danielsen Lie, traverses his hometown fresh out of rehab, stray moments on the street and flashbacks to the past illustrate both his love for Oslo and his despair and depression at feeling out of place in the only home he’s ever known. —P.S.
19. Blade Runner (1982)
The foundation for many sci-fi cityscapes, Blade Runner’s vision of future Los Angeles—dense blocks, corporate temples, and a neon-drenched skyline literally belching flames—is iconic, marrying stunning visuals with Vaneglis’s score. While it’s clear 2019 won’t look anything like the movie predicts, especially the flying car part, the portrait it paints of a grim, crowded city still resonates as a cautionary tale. —P.S.
20. Metropolis (1927)
In Fritz Lang’s science fiction epic, workers toil underground to ensure that the gleaming city above them, which is ruled by wealthy and callous industrialists—and characterized by towers and a robust system of futuristic transportation—runs smoothly. The influence of the Bauhaus, Cubist, Futurist, and Art Deco movements on the production design is strong, and delightful to behold. —Lauren Ro, associate editor, Curbed
21. Black Panther (2018)
The brilliance and infectious popularity of Black Panther lies in its imagining a nation free of racist, sexist animus—and, for urban planning and architecture nerds, envisioning what its capital city would look like. And what a vision: vibrant street life; clean-energy, efficient mass transit; inventive skyscrapers that reference the traditional architecture of Mali, Nigeria, and elsewhere on the African continent. Even if superhero movies aren’t your thing, this is one to watch for its vivid depiction of what a city could be. It’s foreign but familiar, a dream just beyond the veil of reality. —Asad Syrkett, deputy editor, Curbed
22. Minority Report (2002)
Sci-fi author Philip K. Dick certainly had a prescient view of urbanism in the 21st century. In this short story-turned-Spielberg blockbuster, the D.C. metro area has achieved a fragile peace due to PreCrime, a program that predicts when criminals will act. Along with futuristic transportation and personalized advertising, the film’s depiction of an ever-present surveillance state is rapidly becoming less a fantasy, and more a civic and civil rights emergency. —P.S.
23. Back to the Future II (1989)
For all the low-hanging fruit to be plucked when talking about what this film got wrong about the future, take a moment to consider what it got right. The future is flooded with superfluous, sometimes-working technology that solves problems that don’t exist; movie theaters show mostly the Nth sequels to a series that should have been extinguished long ago; the Marlins somehow won not one but two World Series; personal voice assistants still sound just as choppy and wooden as they did in the 1980s; and in the grand scheme of things, much is the same as it always was. Think, McFly, think! —J.A.
24. Brazil (1985)
Named after Ary Barroso’s “Aquarela do Brasil,” the film’s theme song, Terry Gilliam’s 1985 farce follows a low-level government worker in a totalitarian future world that doesn’t quite function as seamlessly as it should. Still, the look of the place is “fully and brilliantly realized,” as A.O. Scott of the New York Times noted. “Gilliam draws on elements of film noir, German expressionism, International Style architectural modernism, and infuses everything with his own quirky energy.” —L.R.
25. The Warriors (1979)
Gritty 1970s New York City never looked grittier than in The Warriors, the 1979 movie loosely based on a real-life gang war. The story starts in a Bronx park at dusk, where a meeting to establish peace between the city’s gangs is taking place. A leader is shot, and a member of the Coney Island gang the Warriors is the suspected perpetrator. Their lives in jeopardy, the Warriors attempt to make it all the way back from Van Cortlandt Park to home turf over 25 miles away at Brooklyn’s southernmost end. They brave the graffiti-emblazoned subway, evade police officers, hide in a graveyard, and are chased down rainy and dark streets before finally striding past the iconic Wonder Wheel at dawn. For those nostalgic for pre-Starbucks, pre-sanitized New York, this film delivers. —D.B.
26. Her (2013)
The dense, digitally altered skyline of a future Los Angeles is almost a character in Spike Jonze’s techno-dystopian world—although some of the film was shot in Singapore—but it’s the scenes of Joaquin Phoenix using LA’s transit system to go to work, to the beach, and even to a snowy cabin in the mountains that truly fuel urbanist fantasies. The experience is completed when Phoenix passes by a local rail map designed by Geoff McFetridge (with many geographic liberties taken) that proclaims LA’s transit runs “From the Summit to the Sea.” Hey, Angelenos can dream. —A.W.
27. Alphaville (1965)
Paris stands in for the titular city, a dystopia set in the future, to which secret agent Lemmy Caution has been dispatched to destroy its creator and the computer, Alpha 60, that does his bidding. In Jean-Luc Godard’s take on a tyrannical sci-fi reality, modern high-rises and urban streets look sinister—and so familiar. —L.R.
28. The Truman Show (1998)
Released before both social media saturation and reality television’s rise altered American culture, this story of a man trapped inside a TV show offered incredible foreshadowing. Shot in Seaside, Florida, a model town on the Gulf Coast built upon New Urbanism principles, it also showed how potentially creepy polished, over-produced faux-urban design could become. The director actually chose the town because it “looked fake.” —P.S.
29. Star Wars (1977)
Whether you’re interested in a CGI cityscape (Coruscant in the prequels) or a look at how municipalities work behind the scenes (Death Star trash compactor, anyone?), the Star Wars universe has something for every niche urbanist interest. (And that’s not even counting the inspiration it may have given real-world architects and developers.) —S.P.
30. Akira (1988)
An ’80s anime classic, Akira takes place in post World War II Neo Tokyo, boasting a sprawling skyline some have said draws inspiration from Japan’s modern Metabolist architects. Elaborate scenes, especially those depicting motorcycles sprinting through the city, show off a detailed imagining of a future metropolis. —P.S.
31. Robocop (1987)
Like the human cop hiding behind the titular, gun-toting cyborg lawmen, Robocop is actually a shrewd social satire hiding behind a violent, pulpy sci-fi story. The story of a mechanized cop seeking justice is a time capsule of late-’80s urban American paranoia, touching on crime, segregation, and corporatization, forces still shaping our cities today. —P.S.
32. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
This Technicolor extravaganza stars an angelic Judy Garland on the journey of her life. She’s flung from a tornado-spun house in Kansas to a journey toward the Emerald City with a motley cohort in tow, and it’s clear that the so-called Promised Land is actually just a very well-planned urban center. —L.R.
33. The Fifth Element (1997)
A madcap creation from the mind of director Luc Besson, this eye-catching, futuristic love story begins by zeroing in on the everyday life of a cab driver, circa 2259 (maybe Uber doesn’t become profitable). A blond Bruce Willis offers a pedestrian look at the future of high-tech urban living: a cramped micro-apartment that blends the worst parts of Amazon Alexa and the Nakagin Capsule Hotel, and flying cars criss-crossing skyscraper canyons hundreds of stories tall. —P.S.
34. High-Rise (2016)
Composed of delicious polished, textured, and board-formed concrete; a rooftop g
arden; spacious balconies; shag carpets; dusty-pink accent walls; and conversation pits, the tower in High-Rise—director Ben Wheatley’s 2016 movie adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s classic dystopian novel—is a paean to postwar design. It’s also a nightmarish vision of social engineering through architecture. Watch the building, and its inhabitants, spiral into chaos in this thrilling cautionary tale about architects’ good intentions. —D.B.
35. Manhattan (1979)
In Woody Allen’s Manhattan, sophisticated socialites scour New York City’s most famous borough in search of high art and life’s meaning. With booming Gershwin symphonies played over black-and-white film, Manhattan seems to fancy itself a reflection of some foregone golden era of New York City, but, especially given the accusations against Allen, the film ends up portraying the city that never sleeps instead at its most insufferable. —J.A.
36. Metropolitan (1990)
If you love Gossip Girl and ’90s nostalgia, Metropolitan is for you. Set in the world of cushy Upper East Side apartments and exclusive co-ops, the movie follows a group of friends as they navigate a parody of a world of debutante balls, cocktail parties, and love triangles. —Robert Khederian, engagement editor, Curbed
37. Chinatown (1974)
In one of LA neo-noir’s crowning achievements, private eye J.J. “Jake” Gittes thought he got an easy assignment when he was hired to investigate a Los Angeles water department official for adultery. But what he uncovers in the underbelly of Los Angeles is a web of deceit, corruption, and murder that he can never unsee, even when his colleagues urge him, in the film’s famous last line, to “forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.” —J.A.
38. Slacker (1991)
Richard Linklater’s breakout film follows a day in the lives of an eccentric collection of burnouts, bums, and misfits in Austin, Texas, before tech bros and music festivals made the city a nationwide destination. The film gives voice to politically marginalized conspiracists, obsessive collectors of useless things, and the bohemian hipsters who laid the groundwork for the Austin we know today. —J.A.
39. Chungking Express (1994)
With an unforgettable soundtrack that, in essence, makes the film one great music video, Wong Kar Wai’s fevered take on longing and missed connections, set on the streets of Hong Kong, haunts as much as it arouses. —L.R.
40. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Set in the months leading up to the 1904 World’s Fair, Meet Me in St. Louis is lush with period detail: stately Victorian architecture, clanging trolley rides, and the construction of magnificent pavilions for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. But it’s also about the excitement of St. Louis readying itself for the global spotlight—an excitement that’s tarnished when Judy Garland’s father announces the family’s imminent move to New York City. The film ends as the fair begins, the family decides not to leave for New York, and St. Louis embraces its future as a world-class city. —A.W.
41. The Apartment (1960)
In Billy Wilder’s cynical, big-city romantic comedy, which revolves around a company, office trysts, and the drive to ascend the corporate ladder, the setting shapes and colors how characters interact with each other. The best picture winner presents midcentury Manhattan in myriad dimensions, from the rows of desks in a massive modernist office tower to the titular flat to a lonely Christmas Eve spent in a bar without family. —P.S.
42. The Naked City (1948)
This rather ordinary police procedural focused on the murder of a model rises to the status of classic due to its commitment to filming on site in New York. The postwar city pulses and breathes in the background, a true presence beyond the gritty and generalized narrative. It’s a document of downtown; famous photographer Weegee was even hired as consultant and helped shape its style. —P.S.
43. The Big City (1963)
Satyajit Ray’s powerful story of a housewife turned door-to-door saleswoman in ’50s India hinges on actress Madhabi Mukherjee’s amazing turn as Arati. But her struggle to play against cultural expectations, sell to the city’s nouveau riche, and succeed as the family breadwinner becomes more powerful with Calcutta as a backdrop. The city’s energy, desperation, and drive create an ideal set for Arati’s struggle. —P.S.
44. Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)
Alain Resnais’s first feature follows the end of an affair between a Japanese architect and a French actress filming an antiwar movie in postwar Hiroshima. A meditation on memory and the ravages of war, the film also lingers on images of the rebuilt city to creating a haunting portrait of modernity and its discontents. —L.R.
45. Taxi Driver (1976)
Robert De Niro’s depiction of paranoid cab driver Travis Bickle captures New York City on the verge of a breakdown. Bickle’s late-night drives through the seedier sides of Manhattan show how the city itself feeds his breakdown. The stench and filth that seem to emanate from the screen were actually present, due to a garbage strike during the stifling summer when the movie was filmed, adding an extra dose of realism. —P.S
46. Killer of Sheep (1978)
Considered one of the greatest films by an African-American director, Killer of Sheep depicts the everyday of life of a black community living in the Watts district of Los Angeles as seen through the eyes of Stan, a family man employed at the local slaughterhouse. Charles Burnett wrote, directed, produced, and shot this masterpiece as his thesis film at the University of California, Los Angeles, but it wasn’t released until 2007 due to music licensing issues. —L.R.
47. The Last Hurrah (1958)
Supposedly based on the life of Boston mayor James Curley, this John Ford film celebrates a classic American archetype: the big-city machine mayor. Spencer Tracy’s portrayal of fictional Irish-American political boss Frank Skeffington mounting his last campaign rings true to the experience of many involved in the messy realities of 20th-century urban politics. —P.S.
48. Walking the Streets of Moscow (1964)
Released during the height of the Cold War, this effervescent romantic comedy about a Siberian writer visiting the capital has become a classic. The uplifting story showcases lively Moscow street life—the main characters meet on the city subway system—and the saccharine theme song is still a sentimental Russian favorite. —P.S.
49. La Notte (1961)
Michelangelo Antonioni’s drama finds an unhappily married bourgeois couple sulking through the streets, parties, and nightclubs of postwar Milan. Is it the stark and isolating modern architecture of the city that makes their existence so bleak? —L.R.
50. Man with a Movie Camera (1929)
Considered one of the greatest documentaries ever made, Dziga Vertov’s ode to Soviet Russia is alive with kinetic energy and the frenzy of a modernizing world. Scenes of everyday life are imbued with an avant-garde quality thanks to Vertov’s experimental editing, cutting, and camerawork. —L.R.
51. Tokyo Story (1953)
Yasujiro Ozu’s masterpiece follows an aging couple as they travel to postwar Tokyo to visit their adult children, who barely have time for them. A movie about growing old and growing apart, it is also about navigating modernity, the changing cityscape, and, of course, the often isolating nature of interiors. Come for the heart-rending family drama, stay for the impeccable mise en scene. —L.R.
52. Don’t Look Now (1973)
Venice never looked more evil than in Nicolas Roeg’s thriller about an American architect and his British wife mourning the death of their daughter. The couple move to the ancient city, where he takes a job restoring an old church. But soon, a supernatural presence begins to thwart them at each turn, lurking in every darkened canal and echoing bridge. —L.R.
53. Annie Hall (1977)
This rumination on dating in New York City in the 1970s follows the life cycle of the relationship between established comedian Alvy Singer and aspiring singer Annie Hall. The happy couple does all the things happy couples in New York do—people-watching in the park, seeing arthouse movies, mingling with other artists. But as things turn sour, Alvy’s relationship with Annie begins to resemble New York itself. He desperately tries to keep things the same in a city that’s constantly changing, and in the end, all he’s left with is urban decay while his love flees for sunny Los Angeles. —J.A.
54. Amadeus (1984)
Never mind that the events depicted in Milos Forman’s Oscar-sweeping film are heavily fictionalized, the story of the rivalry between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri features one of the most dazzling, decadent depictions of 18th-century Vienna. Although, perhaps true to form, it should be noted that much of the film was shot in Prague. —A.W.
55. Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
It’s hard to find a more idyllic portrayal of New York City in the ’60s than Breakfast at Tiffany’s—from the opening scene of a sleepy Fifth Avenue to Audrey Hepburn’s pausing at the Seagram Building, then just three years old, to reflect on her love of New York. It’s not hard to feel that same love for the city along with her. —R.K.
56. The Third Man (1949)
The streets of Vienna come alive in light and shadow in Carol Reed’s noir (with a script by Graham Greene) about an American pulp novelist who travels to the capital city on the invitation of his childhood friend—only to discover that he was killed just hours before his arrival. The jaunty zither score will stay with you forever. —L.R.
57. Auntie Mame (1958)
The only thing more notorious than Auntie Mame’s parties might be her ever-changing apartment on Beekman Place. At every pivotal point in the story, her apartment gets a makeover. One minute it’s filled with sleek furniture in soft pastels (that don’t seem too far off from what’s trending today), the next it’s a study in traditional American interior design. —R.K.
58. A Room With a View (1985)
A film that celebrates the beauty of Florence, including a beautiful shot of the Duomo, A Room With a View was a high point in the fruitful series of Merchant-Ivory collaborations, movies that featured English performers as pale and proper as porcelain delivering dignified dialogue in gorgeous settings. —P.S.
59. La Dolce Vita (1960)
Marcello Mastroianni plays a disillusioned gossip-rag journalist on a wild romp through the cafes and parties of a dazzling Rome in Federico Fellini’s masterpiece on the sacred and profane in postwar Italian society. —L.R.
60. Style Wars (1983)
An early introduction to hip-hop that hit the film world with the force of a spray-painted subway car, Style Wars documented a cultural awakening that arose, phoenix-like, from disinvested and forgotten corners of New York City. At a time when billion-dollar startups adorn their offices with graffiti murals and rap dominates the music world, revisiting the art form’s origin story shows how truly local creativity created a global movement. —P.S.
61. Bill Cunningham New York (2010)
As the title asserts, the late photographer was the quintessential New Yorker: He rode a bike, he lived in Carnegie Hall, he worked at the New York Times, and he practically invented street photography by capturing his neighbors who possessed an outsized sense of style. At the heart of this poignant documentary is the idea that cities are about people—it doesn’t matter if they’re on the runway or in the crosswalk. —A.W.
62. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (2011)
When the notorious St. Louis public housing complex was dramatically imploded in 1976, the city celebrated the destruction of what had become a dangerous, blighted site. Some critics blamed Pruitt-Igoe’s architecture on its downfall; the dense, modernist towers, designed by World Trade Center architect Minoru Yamasaki, were starkly different from the surrounding blocks. But as the film demonstrates, it wasn’t the structure that doomed this postwar housing experiment, like so many similar developments of this era, to failure. —A.W.
63. Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003)
Thom Anderson’s masterpiece is made up of over 200 clips from other films, all of which represent, or misrepresent, Los Angeles in some way. After a decade-long copyright battle, the recently remastered documentary—now a legally tight example of fair use— is available to stream in all its 170-minute glory. —A.W.
64. When the Levees Broke (2006)
Spike Lee’s epic, wrenching, jazz-soaked story of how a 21st-century American city was left to fend for itself after natural and man-made disasters says a lot about the failures of will, policy, and politicians. It’s also an indictment of our country’s infrastructure failures, both in terms of physical construction as well as the civic threads that should bind us all together in such tragic circumstances. —P.S.
65. My Winnipeg (2007)
Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin created this hallucinatory “docu-fantasy” about his hometown. While the film’s grip on reality is loose, its storytelling and sense of place are delightful. Blending film techniques from the black-and-white era of cinema with a mythologist’s flair for tall tales, Maddin creates a fantastical tour of a city that exists mostly in his own head. —P.S.
66. The Land of Many Palaces (2014)
This documentary on China’s unfolding urban migration, a government initiative to bring hundreds of millions of rural residents into gleaming new mega-cities, shows the scale of this unprecedented shift. Filmmakers follow government attempts to get farmers to relocated to Ordos, a state-of-the-art, centrally planned metropolis near Mongolia that stands as a sparsely inhabited ghost city, patiently waiting for residents to arrive. —P.S.
67. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1979)
William H. Whyte’s look at the everyday activity of public space plays like an early nature documentary. By filming interactions in New York City’s parks and plazas, Whyte and his team brought data and analysis to bear on how planners shape our urban environment. It may seem quaint now, but this film, and the research that informed it, revolutionized how we design urban space. —P.S.
68. Notebook on Cities and Clothes (1989)
What does it mean to live in a city? What does it mean to wear clothes? What does it mean to have an identity? What does it mean to capture an image? Wenders attempts to answer these questions and more in this documentary about Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto. —L.R.
69. Human Scale (2012)
A series of case studies looking at the challenges, and successes, of pedestrian-first urban design, this documentary offers a master class in the ideas and ideals of influential urbanist Jan Gehl, and those who, like him, toil to build livable, human-centered cities. —P.S.
70. Daybreak Express (1953)
Master documentarian D.A. Pennebaker’s first film is a jazzy, five-minute tribute to the Third Avenue elevated train in Manhattan and the Bronx, which was demolished shortly after filming. As Pennebaker put it, “I wanted to make a film about this filthy, noisy train and its packed-in passengers that would look beautiful, like John Sloan’s New York City paintings, and I wanted it to go with my Duke Ellington record Daybreak Express.” —L.R.
71. Vertigo (1958)
Design geeks may know Vertigo best for its Saul Bass poster and credits, which dramatize the psychological dislocation of protagonist Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) through dizzying spirals. But the film’s cat-and-mouse plot also provides a period tour of San Francisco and Pacific Coast landmarks, looking very sleepy, including the Golden Gate Bridge, the Legion of Honor, and Mission San Juan Bautista, suggesting that geography is destiny, and sightseeing may be deadly. —A.L.
72. Powers of Ten (1977)
Design power couple Ray and Charles Eames wanted this short film to leave viewers with a “gut feeling” about time and space. Beginning with a overhead shot of a couple picnicking in Chicago’s Grant Park, zooming out into the stratosphere, then drilling down to subatomic level, this simple, perfectly executed idea offers a powerful lesson about our place in the city and universe, decades before Google Earth. —P.S.
73. Koyaanisqatsi (1982)
A visual meditation on the environment without narrative or characters, this experimental documentary captures our planet spinning out of balance. Driven by a pulsating Philip Glass score, the film contrasts the natural world with tense, frantic, time-lapse shots of urban life, what director Godfrey Reggio called “the beauty and the beast.” —P.S.
74. Run Lola Run (1998)
The setup—Lola must find a replacement for the money her boyfriend, a small-time thief, left on the train in 20 minutes or he’ll be killed—goes off like a starting gun, sending the red-haired runner sprinting across Berlin. Touching on themes of free will and chance, it’s a gripping, kinetic film (and a great argument for a walkable/runnable neighborhood). —P.S.
75. Ikiru (1952)
A faceless Tokyo civil servant, who has spent decades doing little else than shuffling papers, suddenly confronts his mortality due to an unexpected cancer diagnosis. To explain director Akira Kurosawa’s masterful closing shot would ruin its impact, but it underlines both the power of hope and the potential to enact change in the face of bureaucratic impotence. —P.S.
76. Playtime (1967)
There aren’t many popular films in which the modernization of the city is the primary subject, rather than a leitmotif or theme, but Jacques Tati’s Playtime is one. The film effectively broke him, because he insisted on filming in 70 millimeter and built his own virtual International Style metropolis on the outskirts of Paris. Its magic is that, as much as it is a satire of the placeless regimentation of modernity, it is presented with a sense of bemused charm rather than outrage, and its chief lesson seems to be that the entropic forces of humanity will adjust, and adjust to, any environment. —Mark Lamster, architecture critic, Dallas Morning News
77. Rear Window (1954)
A deft examination of urban voyeurism, this Alfred Hitchcock thriller features James Stewart as an injured photographer who, while recovering, gets too invested in spying on his neighbors. Artful pacing and suspense combine to make a masterpiece, as does the incredible set, an entire Manhattan courtyard recreated in a Hollywood lot. —P.S.
78. The Fountainhead (1949)
Ayn Rand’s individualist manifesto makes a compelling presence on screen, thanks to both Gary Cooper’s performance as an unbending architectural genius amid meeker men, and the sleek German Expressionist set design. Many architects in real life have played the part of a spoiled and self-righteous creative genius; this film just does tortured artist with better production value. —P.S.
79. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
While this profanity-laced drama offers an indictment of the American workplace in general, plenty of scorn is reserved for the real estate world in which it takes place. From the cynical view of customers to Alec Baldwin’s legendary “Always Be Closing” pep talk, it’s clear the salesmen fighting for their jobs have only hollow victories ahead. Forget the great leads from Mitch and Murray; the game is already tilted out of their favor. —P.S.
80. Columbus (2017)
Crisp writing and budding romance animate this subtle film, but the star attraction is the architecture. Set in Columbus, Indiana, the “Midwest Mecca of architecture,” the debut feature from writer-director Kogonada takes full advantage of the incredible modernist buildings sprinkled throughout this small town. —P.S.
81. The Money Pit (1986)
Before there was HGTV, there was Tom Hanks laughing maniacally at a clawfoot bathtub falling through the floor of a dilapidated Colonial Revival mansion. It’s Fixer Upper—if Fixer Upper were funny on purpose. —A.W.
82. 500 Days of Summer (2009)
When the Los Angeles Conservancy—an architectural preservation nonprofit—designs a 12-stop walking tour around a movie, you know the film is going to be filled with ravishing buildings. Much of 500 Days of Summer, a 2009 indie rom com starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, takes place in Downtown LA during the area’s transition from forgotten civic center to trendy destination. Spy some of city’s finest architectural landmarks as backdrops in this wrenching love story. —D.B.
83. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
The original “greedy developer,” Mr. Potter plots to decimate the picturesque town of Bedford Falls with shady foreclosure deals and predatory lending practices. Thank goodness George Bailey was born to stop him. —A.W.
84. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)
Starring Cary Grant at his charming, comedic best, this postwar tale of an urban sophisticate hamstrung by the challenges of building a dream home in the country has timeless lessons for today’s flippers and HGTV fans. Every housing fantasy can quickly spoil without enough funding or experience. —P.S.
85. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)
In a PG-rated take on classic LA noir, cartoon characters are real and star in live-action pictures filmed in a Hollywood-esque section of Los Angeles called Toontown. In searching for the real murderer of a studio boss, a private detective discovers the crime was part of a larger scheme by a corrupt judge that would raze Toontown to the ground. Even worse, it would dismantle public transportation to make way for a new form of transit that Los Angeles today is all too familiar with: the freeway. —J.A.
86. April and the Extraordinary World (2015)
In this animated adventure film, our orphan scientist heroine must save the planet from war and air pollution against the backdrop of a series of resplendent 19th-century buildings and vehicles, all powered by steam and coal. Paris, the City of Lights, becomes instead a clanky, janky city of darkness, with zeppelins, a double Eiffel Tower, and a home inside the head of a giant statue. —A.L.
87. Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
While on the surface, Wreck-It Ralph is a hilarious cartoon about overcoming your limitations (and wallowing in vintage video-game aesthetics), the 2012 Disney film is set in a universe in which zoning is destiny: live in Niceland, the brick apartment building under the watch of Fix-It Felix; play in Sugar Rush, a racetrack made of candy; work in Hero’s Duty, fighting off the bugs from 9 to 5. When the title character wants to escape his repetitive fate, hijinks ensue. —A.L.
88. Wall-E (2008)
One of Pixar’s greatest cartoons, Wall-E manages to be a both a wordless love story and science fiction social commentary. That’s commendable range for the main character, a solar-powered trash compactor. Even more impressive, the film manages to be a parable about conserving planetary resources and the potentially tragic outcomes of over-reliance on smart home technology. —P.S.
89. Big Hero 6 (2014)
Animators used San Francisco’s real-world property data to create this digital world of 83,000 buildings and 23 neighborhoods, each with street-view accurate detail down to the location of lamp posts. Then, to nod to the original Big Hero comic, which was set in Tokyo, the city was overlaid with a mashup of American and Japanese signage, culture, and architectural influences to make the metropolis of “San Fransokyo.” Watch closely: The resulting film—the first collaboration by Marvel and Disney—might have more urban Easter eggs than any other movie in history. —A.W.
90. The Incredibles (2004)
Pixar’s buoyant tale of a super-family facing a new arch-nemesis together has its own architectural narrative hiding in the background, a subtle take on postwar American urbanism. The story’s two contrasting time periods showcase alternative lifestyles and architecture; an immediate postwar period of neighborhood row houses and Art Deco downtowns, as well as a later, suburban-oriented era of modernist ranches, suburbia, and bland corporate cubicles. —P.S.
91. The Blues Brothers (1980)
Despite the film’s goofy narrative—blues-singing brothers, played by Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, throw a benefit concert to save the orphanage that raised them—this comedy is dead serious about music, driving, and Chicago. From the epic chase scene that winds through Lower Wacker Drive to set pieces on the formerly bustling Maxwell Street, The Blues Brothers offers one of the best driving tours of the Windy City. Just don’t try it with your own car. —P.S.
92. Collateral (2004)
Michael Mann’s neo-noir romp through Los Angeles dazzles, even if a contract killer, played by Tom Cruise, is calling the shots. Jamie Foxx plays a hardworking cab driver who gets roped into being his chauffeur for the night. What would have happened if Uber were around? —L.R.
93. Nightcrawler (2014)
Jake Gyllenhaal plays a deranged stringer in Los Angeles who keeps his ear to a police scanner and his eyes on the prize, filming scenes of accidents and crime, the bloodier the better, to sell to a local TV news station. Night in LA never looked so sinister. —L.R.
94. C’était un rendez-vous (1976)
One of cinema’s greatest cars never actually appears on screen. In French director Claude Lelouch’s high-octane short, audiences see Paris through the director’s bumper-mounted camera, careening around the city without making a single stop. Depending on your perspective, it’s either a thrilling celebration of automotive muscle, or a terrifying demonstration of the danger of being a pedestrian in a car-centric city. —P.S.
95. Speed (1994)
At a time when most of the world didn’t even know Los Angeles had a public transit system, here comes a summer blockbuster that takes place almost entirely on one of the city’s buses. Plus, this film is multimodal! The final scenes were the very first to be shot on LA’s brand-new Red Line subway—something else most viewers probably thought was fiction. —A.W.
96. Rififi (1955)
Made by Jules Dassin, a blacklisted American director in exile, this classic caper features a legendary heist sequence that takes place over more than 30 nearly silent minutes. This noir gem revels in the underbelly of Paris, showing a Montmartre brimming with thugs puffing away on Gauloises. —P.S.
97. Blow-Up (1966)
Antonioni’s first English-language film is about “the dazzle and the madness of London today”—or in the ’60s—and it’s certainly a wild romp through the swingin’ city at a time when the world was changing. As for what it’s about: A fashion photographer unwittingly captures a murder scene and is awakened to a new reality. —L.R.
98. The French Connection (1971)
This film nearly swept the Oscars, winning best picture and best actor for Gene Hackman, among other awards, but the story of a hardboiled narc trying to intercept a monster heroin deal on the streets of ’70s New York City is perhaps secondary to its climax, a car chase that has a Pontiac LeMans gunning after an elevated train (currently the D and B trains) in Brooklyn. It’s considered one of cinema’s greatest car chase sequences for good reason. —L.R.
99. Bullitt (1968)
Actor Steve McQueen is lionized for this film’s chase scene, which finds him flying through San Francisco in a Ford Mustang Fastback, soaring over and slamming into the city’s hills (and losing a few auto parts in the process). While that sequence has become legendary, this detective flick does an admirable job of showcasing its location, offering a time capsule of ’68 San Francisco. —P.S.
100. The Bourne Supremacy (2004)
Spy movies, especially Bond films, have always celebrated globe-trotting and glamour. But the second Bourne flick, a visual roller coaster propelled by masterful hand-held camerawork, brings extra verve to fistfights and shootouts in bustling cities. Hopscotching between Berlin, New York, Moscow, and Goa, India, it’s a tense, rapid-fire film mirroring the mental state of its the fugitive spy. —P.S.
101. Gomorrah (2008)
Based on a best-selling chronicle about the foot soldiers of the Neapolitan mafia, this graphic, gray story shows crime and corruption seeping into the surroundings. Tenements, apartment blocks, and industrial sites in and around Naples, shown with a documentarian’s detachment, become a hellish, other world. —P.S.