10 Movies Where The City Is Practically A Character


From Lost In Translation to La Dolce Vita and Midnight In Paris, these movies are as much about the city as they are about the characters.

A movie’s setting is as important as its characters, affecting mood, atmosphere, and symbolizing their internal struggles. When taken to its further extent as the following movies do, the cities their characters inhabit become allies or enemies that the characters seemingly hang out with or must overcome.

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One of the great qualities of movies that fit this classification is that they span the full spectrum of genres, from superhero movies, science fiction, world cinema, and everything in between. These movies defy genre. Their fundamental principle is that their settings are the key to unlocking an understanding of their characters.

10 Batman Returns – Gotham City

Tim Burton’s macabre design of Gotham City reflects the strangeness of its cast of outsiders. Burton appropriately set the movie during Christmas, adding a bittersweetness to the creepy loneliness of its dark alleyways, sewers, and the characters who occupy them. Released in 1992, the movie features peak Micheal Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Danny DeVito.

9 Blade Runner – Los Angeles

In a film about a detective on a manhunt for prototypical humans that have defected against the government who created them, surreal futurism fills every frame of the movie. Los Angeles is unrecognizable in its perpetually rain-soaked cyberpunk aesthetic.

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It’s this unity of technological advancement and urban decay that establishes the city as a character. Its atmosphere shapes the skepticism, rebellious spirit, and underground movements of the characters.

8 City of God – Rio de Janeiro

Centering on the character of Rocket, he simultaneously documents the lives of and is enfolded in the criminal underground of Rio’s notorious favelas.

The setting functions as a lawless frontier that villainously absorbs those who cannot escape it, turning them into agents of evil or victims of it.

7 In The Mood For Love – Hong Kong

2001’s popular and critically acclaimed romance drama from director Wong Kar-wai uses Hong Kong’s population density to foreground the anonymity and loneliness of city life.

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Numerous establishing shots of skyrises create a hopeless sense of being a stranger among many people, shrinking the characters as they stand under the city’s towering concrete shadows. Yet the serendipity that unites the characters overcomes the faceless existence that saturates the busy streets.

6 La Dolce Vita – Rome

Released in 1960, La Dolce Vita is one of the most famous movies to deal with the dangers of hedonistic excess. Rome is the urban playground for the characters who organize their lives according to the pleasure principle.

As the main character, Marcello Rubini, proves, underneath the superficial beauty of the city’s nightlife, a rotting spiritlessness festers, infecting the city’s unwitting inhabitants, and bringing them long term unhappiness under the veil of temporary satisfaction.

5 Lost In Translation – Tokyo

The most lauded movie from director Sofia Coppola, this 2001 romantic drama pairs a middle-aged Bill Murray and blooming twenty-year-old Scarlett Johansson.

The unfamiliarity of the colorful city and alienating effects of culture shock brings the unlikely couple together. Tokyo features in the movie from the perspective of an outsider, and its impenetrability and other-worldliness, establish the dreamy and morose atmosphere that acts upon the mood of the characters.

4 Manhattan – New York City

There is perhaps no picture of the Manhattan bridge that is more iconic of New York City than the definitive shot coming out of Woody Allen’s 1979 love letter to his beloved home city. Shot in high contrast black and white, the choice of cinematography gives the city a sense of age and timelessness.

This historicism suggests New York has catered to a mid-life crisis similar to Isaac’s before, and that if he keeps faith with the hectic ebb and flow pace of life in the Big Apple, then everything will work out.

3 Midnight In Paris – Paris

Woody Allen’s nostalgia for cities that have affected his literary-minded countrymen prevails again in 2011’s historical fantasy Midnight in Paris. Gil is an American writer visiting Paris, who during one of his late-night walks retracing the steps of his literary idols, discovers a carriage that transports him back in time to the Jazz Age.

The spirit of that time and its ties to America’s expatriate literary community, most notably Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, gives Paris the familiarity and personality of an old friend that Gil has the fanciful privilege of discovering.

2 Taxi Driver – New York City

Of all the movies that present their settings as an integral, almost living entity, that affects change in the characters, none had established the city as an adversary until 1976’s Taxi Driver. According to Travis Bickle, “All the animals come out at night,” and he develops a disgust towards them.

The city’s depravity and criminality form the nemesis that creates the movie’s central conflict and pushes the plot forward. Bickle styles himself as a vigilante who stages a crusade against New York’s nightcrawlers.

1 Wings Of Desire – Berlin

A moment in history never to be replicated, Wim Wender’s 1987 Wings of Desire is an elegiac God’s eye view of Berlin, a city and its population still visibly wearing the scars of its tumultuous past.

The devastation of historical memory plagues the minds of the movie’s characters who navigate their way through urban wastelands left over from the war. Loss and trauma in the characters can be seen in the ruins that form like a pox over the city, sharing in the lingering pain of its residents.

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Updated: January 8, 2021 — 1:00 am

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