“Choosing location is integral to the film: in essence, another character.” – Ridley Scott
The term ‘the city is, in itself a character’ in cinema is an overused one, particularly when people are talking about New York. Expressing the overt character of a city as a genuinely integral part of the film’s themes is certainly a valid observation, but that doesn’t mean it applies to every film set in that location. Taxi Driver, yes. Fast & Furious 8, no.
Though aside from embodying the themes of the film itself, sometimes films can perfectly capture the energy of the city in which they’re based, whether it’s the fast-paced high-life of London or the neon style of Hong Kong. Whether they’re capturing its wild beauty or the character of its people, these following ten films perfectly capture the essence of their location…
See the full list, below.
10 films that perfectly capture the city:
24 Hour Party People – Manchester (2002)
In setting up Factory Records in 1976, Tony Wilson’s impact on the history of Manchester’s music scene was set in stone, even if he didn’t know it at the time. Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People chronicles this journey, and pulses with electrical energy as well as a sense of humour that distinctly belongs in the north of England.
Typified by an overly confident, blunt and self-deprecating sense of humour, there was no better lead actor to take on the role than Steve Coogan who leads the line in a familiar, hilarious cocksure fashion. It is the capture of this ‘Mancunian’ personality, as well as in the energy, pace and exuberance of the city itself that this film succeeds so well. In more ways than one, it’s the perfect advertisement for Manchester.
Amores Perros – Mexico City (2000)
The vibrant spirit of Mexico City is deftly captured in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s groundbreaking debut feature Amores Perros following three interconnected stories involving loss, regret and the city’s harsh realities, each tied together by a car crash. For the Mexican people, Iñárritu had created an unprecedented piece of cinema, one which looked beyond the idea of individuals within a social hierarchy and showed them instead as human beings
Iñárritu used an experimental bleach-bypass technique on the film stock whilst in production which resulted in higher contrast and an aesthetic that would better capture the reality of Mexico City. The result creates vibrant surface energy that leaks down into the story, forming an infectious energy that well replicates life in the vigorous city.
Benda Bilili! – Kinshasa (2010)
Reflecting the beauty and energy of a part of the world that’s rarely filmed, Renaud Barret and Florent de La Tullaye’s music documentary Benda Bilili! follows the paraplegic street band of the same name as they record their first album and experience their first European tour. The streets of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are often dangerous and are visually sparse of infrastructure, but the people who inhabit this space wonderfully teem with life.
Both French directors followed the band for five years as they struggled on the decrepit streets of the city, but through the cracks in the concrete and the constant daily troubles, the beauty and energy of their music come to life. When they play people listen, dancing from around street corners to experience their music, whilst there isn’t much beauty in the rustic location, there is an inspiring allure to the people. And what’s a city without its people…
In The Mood For Love – Hong Kong (2000)
So tender, and so sensual, Kar-Wai Wong’s In the Mood for Love may well be one of the greatest love stories ever put to screen, it’s certainly the most seductive. Following two neighbours who drift through each other’s lives after they both suspect their spouses to be cheating on them, this tender love story is set to the backdrop of richly coloured Hong-Kong.
Capturing its warm glows and shadowed beauty, Hong Kong’s numerous skyscrapers shrink the characters as they walk the faceless streets of the city. Their story seems meaningless within the vast expanse of the city and its inhabitants, residing in the dark corners of bars and the comfort of their apartments. Though the ultimate serendipity that unites them seems so grand and meaningful that it expands beyond the great height of the buildings. In the Mood for Love is a vast love story that matches the scale of the city itself.
Fargo – Minneapolis (1996)
One of those films so good, and so cinematically important that it has become ubiquitous with the place that it was filmed, the Coen Brothers’ Fargo and Minneapolis now go hand-in-hand. Following the botched crime job of Jerry Lundegaard and his henchman, it is up to Marge Gunderson to get to the bottom of the case, in a starring role and career-best from Frances McDormand.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins captures the frosted city of Minneapolis excellently, from its vast country landscapes to its enclosed, cosy bedrooms. Evoking a striking sense of time and place, the Coen Brothers’ sharp script also manages to capture the gentle sensibilities of the quiet snowy community to a tee. Together with the cinematography you’ve got the living, breathing city of Minneapolis.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – Alice Springs/The ‘Outback’ (1994)
Granted, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert depicts not the life and bustle of a city, but that of the Australian ‘Outback’ and their final destination, Alice Springs. This road movie directed by Stephen Elliot tracks the adventures of two drag queens and a transexual as they take their act on tour across Australia, entertaining themselves and the masses along the way.
A compassionate, sweet and effortlessly funny film, Queen of the Desert presents LGBT issues way ahead of its time all whilst capturing the barren wastelands of the Australian Outback, and the strange quirks that are rolled within it. The image of Hugo Weaving’s Mitzi, Guy Pearce’s Felicia, and Terence Stamp’s Bernadette against the golden glow of the dusty Australian sun illustrates the country’s wonderfully outlandish humour perfectly.
Ten – Tehran (2002)
Abbas Kiarostami’s simple cinematic achievement, Ten follows the travels of a female taxi driver and ten interrelated road trips she encounters. Filmed almost entirely on two digital cameras facing both the driver and passenger, Kiarostami’s film has been championed for its technical proficiency as well as for its insight into the minds and lives of contemporary female lives in Tehran.
Scrolling through the beautiful streets of Tehran, you’ll want to glimpse out into the wider world before you realise the onboard conversations offering valuable insight into the contemporary values of the country are far more interesting. As passengers come and go, she discusses love, everyday hardships as well as the downfalls of the western world with a whole mix of non-professional actors each bringing a compelling honesty to their role.
Uncut Gems – New York (2019)
With wild, frenzied electricity Josh and Benny Safdie present a New York bustling with fury and excitement in this 21st-century thriller masterpiece. Stalking the movements of Adam Sandler’s scatty Howard Ratner, a jeweller with mounting debts to pay as he risks his life and finances to stay afloat, Uncut Gems pierces the retinas with an adrenaline rush born from the streets of New York.
An astonishing kinetic vitality fuels this romp around America’s busiest city, where directors Josh and Benny Safdie perfectly capture the city’s look and feel, all whilst sculpting characters that feel as if they’ve just walked off Diamond Jewelry Way. Adam Sandler is an eccentric American living on a constant knife-edge and loving every minute of it.
Wings of Desire – Berlin (1987)
Scars of a city and country still yet to heal from its tumultuous past are visibly laid to bare in Wim Wenders’ fantasy classic Wings of Desire. Navigating the skies of the German capital an angel oversees Berlin life with dreams of one day becoming human as they sort through the ruined urban wastelands and pain of the tormented inhabitants.
Wings of Desire may not represent a contemporary Berlin, but it does perfectly capture a post-war capital still reeling from its horrific involvement in WWII. This city and the people within it are in a period of significant transition, and as the architecture of a once ‘great’ city must be rebuilt from the rubble, so must the identities of its inhabitants. Wender’s film is a complicated, often beautiful study on identity, with the makeup of Berlin at the very heart of it.
Yi Yi – Taipei (2000)
This quiet and tender Taiwanese drama from director Edward Yang follows each member of a middle-class Taipei family as they seek happiness in their present lives by reconciling with ghosts of the past. Effortlessly shifting between three generations tracking each of their triumphs and heartaches, Yang’s film is a masterfully human tale.
Directly translating into “a one and a two”, the film’s title directly reflects the rhythm and tempo of the family’s life, facing each issue with measured grace. In comparison to the everyday troubles of our central characters, Taipei bubbles away in vast urban life, vibrant and multi-coloured. Cinematographer Wei-Han Yang captures Taiwanese life with such varying beauty, from the brutalist inner-city architecture to the green suburban areas on the outskirts, it’s the perfect tourist advertisement.