10 Best Documentaries About New York City

New York City is often romanticized in the movies. These films show us the real Big Apple.

new york documentaries

The 51st New York Film Festival begins this Friday, and ahead of our coverage of the event, it would seem appropriate to list some of our most anticipated titles. But there really aren’t a lot of docs at NYFF, and what is there we are excited about entirely. Maybe some films are higher up than others (At Berkeley), but all together we are looking forward to every single nonfiction offering at this year’s fest. That includes some non-docs, too, such as Paul Greengrass’s opening night entry Captain Phillips.

In place of a NYFF preview, I thought it would be fun to still tie in this week’s list to the event by celebrating New York in nonfiction cinema. The city has been on my mind anyway, as I just visited over the weekend for the first time since moving away almost two years ago, and also thanks to Robert’s initial Shots From the Canon piece on News From Home. In that post, he reminds us of how almost all movies shot in NYC wind up being documentaries of a kind, capturing the place and its people and culture at points in time and offering a cinematic record of its history from the turn of the 20th century’s actuality films (like these) up through this year’s Now You See Me, among others.

The following ten titles, though, are more truly documentaries, in part because I don’t need to be filling a Nonfics feature with such various fiction titles as King Kong and Quick Change. Each one of these docs does a phenomenal job of telling and/or showing us a lot about New York, and whether you’ve been there or not or love it or not, they should all impart on you an appreciation for the Big Apple via their distinct approaches to the subject.

10. The Cruise (Bennett Miller, 1998)

What better place to begin than with a film about a Manhattan tour guide? In this debut from the future director of Capote, Moneyball, and the upcoming Foxcatcher, we meet Timothy “Speed” Levitch, a poet and philosopher who was hosting tourists on double-decker Gray Line buses. When we follow along with him at work, we get a one-of-a-kind history of the city, sometimes with creative license and always with colorful verbiage (ironic since the doc itself is black and white). And when he’s off the bus he goes off on his deeper ideas, like that of the “anti-cruise.” There are a number of brilliant moments in the film, one of my favorites being when Levitch maddeningly describes New York as a “ludicrous” “explosion” and “experiment” that “can not last,” before pointing out a new Ann Taylor store, as seen excerpted in the trailer below.

9. Dark Days (Marc Singer, 2000)

A film about the city beneath the city, this documentary reveals the homes of the homeless in the abandoned tunnels of Manhattan. And no New Yorker who saw it could think the same about the island (or the rest of the boroughs) again. I doubt I was the only one who thought this, but it was particularly interesting to watch after wondering what Giuliani had done with the majority of the homeless while cleaning up the city in the ’90s. Watch the first 10 minutes below.

8. Manhatta (Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand, 1921)

This city symphony film might seem at first like just a montage of actuality bits — commuters on a ferry here, construction workers atop a building there — with Walt Whitman’s words providing more feeling than context in the intertitles spread throughout. It’s more an abstract impression of an industrial metropolis on the rise and on the move, through the eyes of a painter (Sheeler) and a photographer (Strand). And boy was it a place of steam and smokestack beauty nearly a century ago. Watch the full film below.

7. Paris Is Burning (Jennie Livingston, 1990)

Like Dark Days, this film spotlights a side of New York that’s rarely seen by the majority of its 8-million citizens (not counting all those commuting from the suburbs), and it’s important for cinema to capture these cultural nooks and crannies of a city that’s all about cultural nooks and crannies. A time capsule and a dated piece of curiosity (note: we don’t think dated is a bad word here at Nonfics), Paris is Burning takes us inside the African American and Latino drag ball culture of the 1980s in Harlem. And it’s even more fabulous than you can possibly imagine. The name of our podcast, The Realness, was inspired by this doc, as you can see in the clip below.

6. Brooklyn Bridge (Ken Burns, 1981)

A classic example of the Burns style, also his debut feature (a rather short one, especially for him, however) and his immediate breakout as it earned him the first of his two Oscar nominations. I love the story the filmmaker tells of the woman attending the premiere at the Brooklyn Museum who insisted that the doc featured motion picture footage of the landmark’s construction. It’s like the legend of the people jumping out of the way of the Lumiere’s train arriving at La Ciotat. Burns gave us a new sort of visual history starting with this film, which is based on David McCullough’s book The Great Bridge and also narrated by the author. While it was later sort of supplanted in importance by another documentary noted below, it should never be forgotten.

5. Central Park (Frederick Wiseman, 1990)

Cited as one of the most accessible of Wiseman’s films, I like to try to get people to see it by selling it as a making-of documentary about New York Stories, specifically Francis Ford Coppola’s segment. Of course, it’s more than seven times the length of that short, and there’s only a tiny bit featuring a behind the scenes look at that production. Actually, I recommend it for what it is: a three-hour portrait of New York’s man-made natural oasis as seen by one of the great masters of documentary cinema. For many of us, it’s hard to leave Central Park once we’re inside, especially if we’re people watchers, and so it turns out that three hours is actually not long enough. There is no trailer or clips online so I’m sharing a still below.


4. Man on Wire (James Marsh, 2008)

On the surface, you may see a movie about a French high-wire artist whose dream was to walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. And yes, it’s primarily a biographical portrait of that remarkable man, Philippe Petit, and his unbelievable achievement on August 7, 1974. And it’s a glorious tribute to the fallen buildings. But it’s also with some subtlety the greatest documentary about what was lost on 9/11, both structurally and as a society. It wouldn’t be as great without all the archival records of Petit’s acts nor his captivating charm as a storyteller. It’s also funny to think of how a French daredevil and a British director gave us one of the best New York movies. But then, few of the titles on this list were made by natives of the city.

3. On the Bowery (Lionel Rogosin, 1956)

An honest to goodness time machine. More than most documentaries, this one feels like I’m stepping into the past and sitting right beside the guys at the bar in the Bowery. It’s the crisp black and white cinematography and the genuine roughness of the subject’s faces. The funny thing is that On the Bowery is docufiction, meaning it’s mostly staged and plotted while still being a fairly accurate neorealist portrait of legitimately poor souls living on Skid Row. If all “fiction” was so immersive and true, I’d have a site called Fics instead.

2. Welfare (Frederick Wiseman, 1975)

My favorite Wiseman movie is this nearly three-hour visit to a welfare office. It could kind of be set anywhere, I suppose, and it isn’t too identifiably a New York film, but it was shot in downtown Brooklyn. The many characters we meet working within the bureaucratic Hellhole or trying to maneuver through the system are New Yorkers, for the most part. And what characters they are, some of the most memorable in all nonfiction cinema as far as I’m concerned. And in contrast with those in On the Bowery, there’s something sort of unreal about the people here even though they’re definitely real. Maybe it’s that I want to believe the world of Welfare is all a dream. At times it renders Terry Gilliam’s Brazil a lot less funny due to how similar its satire is to what we see here. With no trailer or clips online, check out New Yorker critic Richard Brody’s short video essay below.

1. New York: A Documentary Film (Ric Burns, 1999/2003)

I’m pretty sure that I have dreams about my life in New York City that are narrated by David Ogden Stiers and scored by Brian Keane. Or I’ve just watched episodes of this eight-part, 600-minute epic history so often and at times fallen asleep and napped with it playing in the background that it’s just so embedded into my subconscious. Fortunately that doesn’t mean that I’ve retained every bit of its exhaustive story of the city since Henry Hudson’s contact with it through to the 9/11 attacks (the latter being in the later-added eighth episode aired in 2003), so I have a good excuse to keep revisiting it other than I love hearing Stiers and McCullough and Robert Caro and Pete Hammill and Craig Steven Wilder and Margo Jefferson and the others talk about a place with so much significance to myself and a place so rich with significance to the entire world. Check out the first 13 minutes below if you’re okay getting hooked.

Honorable Mentions: Block Party; I Like Killing Flies; Bill Cunningham New York; Every Little Step; Crazy Love; Cropsey; First Position and Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That!

This list was originally published on September 26, 2013.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.