Most of us learn about New York City from the movies. Unless we're raised there, we see things like Times Square on a screen before we do so in real life; it feels like so many of the images we associate in our minds with the Big Apple come from film. So many of my formative movie experiences center around the city that never sleeps from my musical-loving mother regularly playing “On the Town” (in which the song “New York, New York” is about as catchy as can be) to catching “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Do the Right Thing” as a teenager.
Jason Bailey captures this aspect of our shared history brilliantly in his phenomenal Fun City Cinema: New York City and the Movies That Made It, on shelves and available online today. With a foreword by our very own Matt Zoller Seitz, this is one of the most essential film books of 2021, a stunningly thorough document of film history that brims with both remarkable detail and deep passion for both writing and cinema. It’s a must-own.
Where does one begin to detail the history of New York movies? Bailey makes the very smart decision to focus on one film per decade, using those as centerpieces while more briefly highlighting other films alongside them. And before one even reads a word, they could probably argue about the choices. With dozens of films released set in New York City every year, how do you possibly choose a single entry for each decade? Those formative films I mentioned in the intro? None of them made the cut. And yet Bailey makes his case for each of the ten iconic films, which are “The Jazz Singer,” “King Kong,” “The Naked City,” “Sweet Smell of Success,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “Taxi Driver,” “Wall Street,” “Kids,” “25th Hour,” and “Frances Ha.”
For all ten films, Bailey goes deep, researching the production of each film, doing interviews with creatives, and providing hundreds of stills in the 350-page volume. This is a coffee table tome in structure and size, but it’s no mere art book of previously available material. It’s a meticulously organized piece of work that would be hundreds of pages of text in a traditional size, striking a perfect balance between information and art.
Each section also includes a collection of other films in a “Now Showing” section, given briefer, one-page analysis about their connection to NYC history. For example, the 2010s spotlight “Tiny Furniture,” “Shame,” “Pariah,” and “Uncut Gems.” After brilliantly detailing how “25th Hour” came to inarguably be one of the essential NYC films of the new millennium, Bailey makes an interesting choice to include “Vanilla Sky,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and “Man Push Cart” to fill out the 2000s. What's missing may at first throw people off, but it all makes sense after you read it. The volume also includes a ton of interviews with filmmakers like Noah Baumbach, Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Greta Gerwig, Walter Hill, and many, many more.
What emerges from Fun City Cinema is something that will satisfy historians, film lovers, and those who identity as both—a reminder of how film doesn’t exist in a vacuum and can not only be influenced by where it is produced but chronicle the history of that place. Bailey dug into the records of the city as much as he did the production of these films. I’ve always been fascinated by how environment impacts art, and this book is one of the best yet on that subject. Go get a copy so he can do Los Angeles and Chicago too.