New York! A city so diverse and filled with the nuances of society, that it might be tough for a filmmaker not to be inspired. So while some filmmakers choose to make fiction set against the best spots of New York as its backdrop, some choose to make fascinating documentaries that show the reality of New York city through their lens.
And while we sit at home, we might have had enough of bingeing on Netflix. Or even if you’re venturing out into the new normal, you might be nostalgic for the past life of New York city, or maybe to know more about the city you love.
For times like these, there exist some fascinating documentaries that allow you to dive deep into the essence of New York city. Whether dark and gritty, or hopeful and beautiful, here are some of the best documentaries about New York to add to your watchlist.
1. New York: A Documentary Film
Director: Ric Burns
Year of release: 1999
New York: A Documentary Film is a seven part TV series that takes you through the history of New York since its very inception. And this series spans across 400 years and 400 square miles of complexity and diversity that makes New York the city it is.
So if you call yourself a history buff but are too distracted to read, get your bowl of snacks and munch away while you watch a fascinating documentary about New York’s history and how it became what it is now.
2. Bill Cunningham New York
Director: Richard Press
Year of release: 2010
So if you’re feeling low and don’t know what to do to get your spirits up, allow this fascinating documentary to be your saviour.
And naturally, Bill Cunningham New York is about Bill Cunningham, New York’s famed fashion photographer who found happiness in photographing New Yorkers and their everyday fashion!
Shot around his 80th birthday, this documentary follows Bill as he pedals around Manhattan on his bicycle, taking photographs of what people are wearing.
But it would be a mistake to think of this one as a fashion related documentary. Rather, Bill Cunningham New York is one of the best documentaries looking into the lives of New Yorkers and what makes them beautiful.
3. Man On Wire
Director: James Marsh
Year of release: 2008
Before the tragic 9/11 event, the World Trade Center’s twin towers were Phillipe Petit’s playground. And to be precise, a wire hanging between the edges of the towers was his playground.
This fascinating documentary is about how Petit was arrested and taken for psychological evaluation for dancing and dangling on the wire for around an hour. Indeed, Man on Wire encapsulates the epic feat of this extraordinary artist and the challenges he had to face for his crazy art practice.
4. Central Park
Director: Frederick Wiseman
Year of release: 1990
If you miss traversing the outdoors of NYC, Central Park is one of the best documentaries about New York you can watch. Wiseman captures the city’s hub and the happenings in it with an authenticity that comes naturally to New York and the people that live here. Watch people running, boating, skating, playing music, and picnicking in one of the iconic landmarks of New York.
Additionally, the other side of the park that’s given light to is how the New York City Parks Department deals with challenges. Namely, when maintaining and preserving the park to keep it open and accessible to the public.
5. Dark days
Director: Marc Singer
Year of release: 2000
Marc Singer to Interview magazine on his film Dark Days: I was already living in the tunnel for about three months, just helping people, and I’d made a lot of friends. I loved being there. One night we were sitting around the fire, there was a pretty good group, and we were laughing and Ralph, one of the guys, said, ‘” Man, somebody should be making a film about this stuff.” So I said, “Why don’t we do it?” If we made any money, it would get everybody out of the tunnel. At the same, they’d be the whole film crew. That way, they’d be getting themselves out of the tunnel, as well. But it was never my intention to be a filmmaker. It was the right timing, at the right place.
Although dark days has a dark plot and is about the darkness under the tunnels, this fascinating documentary about New York’s homeless is nothing short of inspirational.
And as Roger Ebert reviews: “Dark Days” is the portrait of men and a few women who stubbornly try to maintain some dignity in the face of personal disaster. You could call them homemakers.
6. The Cruise
Director: Bennett Miller
Year of release: 1998
So you’re tired of sitting at home, and wish to be a tourist in New York city again? Hop onto a ride on the Gray line bus company as Bennett Miller follows Timothy Levitch, nicknamed ‘Speed’, who was an eccentric New York City tour guide. This fascinating documentary follows Speed as he informs his audience about New York in a philosophical, yet odd manner.
7. The Wolfpack
Director: Crystal Moselle
Year of release: 2015
If you’re sitting at home complaining about the whole COVID situation keeping you indoors, this is one of the best NYC documentaries to make you stop.
The Wolfpack is the true story of six brothers who have spent their ENTIRE LIVES in lockdown!
After being locked away from society in lower east Manhattan by their father, they took solace in obsessively watching movies (much like we do now.) And because they were locked away for all their lives, they even recreated the films they loved, using homemade props and costumes.
And much like we hope to do soon, one of the brothers broke free, changing their lives thereon!
8. Stations of the Elevated
Director: Manfred Kirchheimer
Year of release: 1981
What does New York City look like to an outsider? Whether you’ve lived in the city your whole life, or have just moved here, or are planning to move to New York, there is so much to see, you might always feel like an outsider to the city, even when you call it your home.
And in the fascinating documentary Stations of the Elevated, Matthew Kirchheimer captures the beauty of New York from an outsider’s perspective. So embark on a beautiful journey through New York filled with art in the form of graffiti with this documentary!
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