Type “New York movies” into a search engine and you will open up a cinematheque as vast and varied as the city itself, containing multitudes: crime stories; romantic comedies; tales of immigrant striving and racial conflict; of cruel poverty and impossible wealth; swooning musicals; acid-etched satires; dystopian fantasies.
But what if you wanted to just pick one: a single movie that the whole city could watch together? That is the idea — inspired and insane in the best Gotham tradition — behind One Film, One New York, an initiative of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment in which The New York Times is taking part. A few months ago, some of my colleagues and I sat down with the commissioner of film and media, Julie Menin, and some of her colleagues, and we left with an unusual and irresistible assignment. We were asked to select five movies that would be put to a vote. The winner would then be shown on a single evening in parks and movie theaters in every borough.
This kind of thing has been done with books before, in cities across the nation. This year, New Yorkers chose Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah” as their common reading assignment, selecting it from a list that included works by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Junot Díaz, Paul Beatty and Betty Smith. Great choices, all. Surely it would be simple enough to find films that could appeal as widely and variously as those books.
It wasn’t simple at all. At times it was painful. Having spent the spring selecting the 25 best films of the 21st century, my fellow critic Manohla Dargis and I spent the first part of the summer in another round of list-making. It was fascinating to sift through the history of New York onscreen, to winnow and balance the list, to share favorites and argue about choices. The only real constraint was that the selections had to be appropriate for an all-ages audience in a public park — not necessarily G-rated (not much in New York is G-rated), but also not too graphic or hard-edged. No “Midnight Cowboy” or “Taxi Driver” or “Do the Right Thing,” in other words, great as those movies are.
The five we settled on are guaranteed to provoke second-guessing. That’s inevitable, and part of the fun. No selection will ever be definitive or exhaustive, but I think we succeeded in representing something of the stylistic, demographic and storytelling range of the city on film, and also in bringing attention to some wonderful movies that are not as well known as they should be.
Instead of “Mean Streets” — or “The Wolf of Wall Street” or “After Hours” or “Raging Bull” or “The Age of Innocence” — we picked Mr. Scorsese’s “New York, New York” (1977), starring Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro as star-crossed musicians making their way through the city’s show-business demimonde in the years after World War II. The nostalgia of Mr. Scorsese’s vision of that era in the city is edged with cynicism, but his tribute to the creativity of the moment is as heartfelt and exuberant as “On the Town,” Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s 1949 musical.
Spike Lee’s “Crooklyn” (1994), sighs with a different kind of nostalgia, for the brownstone-lined streets of Brooklyn in the 1970s, an era lovingly created in the film’s script, production design and costumes. “Desperately Seeking Susan,” Susan Seidelman’s 1985 adventure into the bohemia of Lower Manhattan, will make New Yorkers of a certain Gen-X vintage a bit misty-eyed, as younger viewers marvel at a downtown innocent of Starbucks, Whole Foods and celebrity chefs. Madonna is in it, too, in the midst of her rise from pop curiosity to cultural juggernaut.
“The Wedding Banquet,” Ang Lee’s gentle and shrewd 1993 pre-gay-marriage comedy of gay marriage, celebrates the capacity of the city to absorb people from different cultures, with different values, and to nudge them into a rough and complicated state of harmony. Like the other four films, it both captures a particular moment of New York history and distills something permanent and essential about this place.
Voting continues through Aug. 31 at nyc.gov/onefilmny. The winning film will be shown on Sept. 13. There will be plenty to argue about.
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