I judge whether or not to plop down my hard-earned money for a movie ticket by a lot of things. Critical response, nah. The stars, the theme, more so. But often, I confess, I’m a sucker for the promise of great armchair tourism.
I thought of this the other day while in the grip of Oscar fever. Here, then, are my votes for the ten films that best portray some of the world’s great cities. In alphabetical order, just like the Academy Awards:
Before Sunrise. Director Richard Linklater’s boy-meets-girl story offers a surprising spin on an old saga. Two young strangers meet on a train, decide to stick together for the night, and explore Vienna until the wee hours. A talk-fest, yes, but Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy do the town in style, including taking a ride on the ferris wheel in the Prater.
Before Sunset. And then, ten years later, they find themselves together — in Paris. Near the opening, Delpy leads Hawke on a five minute continuously shot stroll through the streets surrounding Shakespeare & Company bookstore. If that doesn’t make you want to get on the next plane, nothing will.
Breakfast At Tiffany’s. From the iconic opening shot of Audrey Hepburn munching on a bagel outside of Tiffany’s on Fifth Avenue, to the closing scenes of her crying in the rain, trying to find “Cat,” Blake Edward’s depiction of New York is spot-on. Many lambasted this version of Truman Capote’s beautiful novella, but I’ve always enjoyed it, at the least, as a period piece.
Breathless. Jean Luc Godard’s nihiistic debut ushered in the French New Wave, and undoubtedly sealed my love for Paris. The image of Jean Paul Belmondo, hands in pocket, and Jean Seberg, in her New York Herald Tribune tee-shirt, sauntering down the Champs, is burned in my brain — and holds pride of place on my refrigerator.
La Dolce Vita. I’ll never really “get” this film, but Federico Fellini’s tour of a Rome beset by paparazzi — the term was coined by Fellini — neatly captures the times of its title. The Via Veneto and several Roman ruins make appearances, but it’s that dip in the Trevi Fountain that everyone remembers.
Lost in Translation. Sophia Coppola brilliantly portrays the overwhelmingness that is Tokyo, from its beeping traffic signals and overly solicitous white-collar workers, to its startling architecture and precious moments of solitude. Plus: the center of the movie revolves around the persistence sense of jet lag that accompanies any Western traveler to the Far East.
Manhattan. In later years, Woody Allen has mastered a sense of place in capturing London, Prague, and Barcelona. But, of course, New York City is his true stomping grounds. The opening monologue of this film delineates his love of the city — and the rest of its magical 90 minutes cements it.
Notting Hill. Screenwriter Richard Curtis, on the other hand, has mastered the art of inserting Hugh Grant into humorous situations in London. This one, directed by Roger Mitchell, has a floppy-haired bookshop owner — of a travel bookstore, which really exists in the neighborhood — meeting cute with a famous actress (Julia Roberts). Hilarity ensues, as does a picture-postcard tour of the neighborhood (including Portobello Road) and the rest of London’s high spots.
Rocky. Sylvester Stallone wrote, directed, and duh, starred in this Philadelphia story of a sad-sack boxer who finds himself battling for the heavyweight crown. Filmed on the streets of the then-grungy city, the film offers a nevertheless loving look at the urban spirit that defines the town. Classic shots, from a run through the Italian Market to (everyone’s favorite) a triumphant jog up, up, up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, abound.
Taxi Driver. Of course, Philly ’70s grit ain’t got nothing on New York’s nadir, and Martin Scorsese’s scorcher doesn’t pulll any punches. This is about as grim a look at a city as can be imagined, but in his surehanded depiction of its rotting core, Scorsese is declaring that attention must be paid to New York, and to all cities. Filmed around the time when a New York Daily News headline famously read: “Ford to City: Drop Dead,” it could be argued that this movie helped America realize that cities were in a bad way, and that they needed help.
Any other contenders? Post us a comment, or an email.