14 Stories That Celebrate America's Beating Heart: New York City
New York City. Where do we even start? It’s America’s beating heart of culture, home to eight million ethnically diverse inhabitants, many of the most important institutions in the world, and the former entryway for immigrants who came to the country from all around the world. Sure, coffee here can cost $6 and the daily grind can kick your ass, but it’s also where opportunities are infinite and the sheer number of options — for anything — boggles the mind. Nowhere else in the world will make you feel this alive.
New York is also home to Topic, so we are especially fond of this city that never sleeps. It never ceases to amaze and inspire us, and judging by the number of shows and movies that have been set in here, we’re not alone. With so many residents from all different backgrounds, the city is a veritable treasure trove of stories waiting to be discovered. At Topic, we have a vast range of stories that celebrate New York and its people, from the vibrant hip-hop culture to the grittier neighborhoods, and even the city’s underrated natural wonders. Here are 14 titles to check out if you love New York as much as we do.
Using 16mm archival footage and a soundtrack of jazz, soul, and ambient noise, this documentary weaves together images of New York’s vibrant subway street art and urban landscapes to wordlessly tell the story of 1970s New York and the birth of hip-hop culture. Graffiti has always fought back against the stigma that it’s nothing more than vandalism, but this film effortlessly makes it look like an artform. And knowing how much the city has changed since then (the MTA is definitely not as charming anymore), this doc is a precious snapshot of a New York City that no longer exists.
By night he’s a vigilante superhero fighting crime, by day he’s fighting an equally pervasive problem: gentrification. Comedian Wyatt Cenac, a former “Daily Show” correspondent, plays a version of himself living in Brooklyn and facing off against parents who bring babies to bars, artisanal mustard shops driving up neighborhood rent prices, and overly chatty yoga class attendees. If you’ve been to Bushwick or Gowanus lately, then you’ll have seen, with your own eyes, the effects of gentrification and whole blocks of buildings turned into beer gardens and craft cocktail bars? Gasp!
In the film’s current day, Dito is a successful writer in LA, played by Robert Downey Jr., but he returns to his childhood neighborhood in Queens when his father falls ill. Based on director Dito Montiel’s memoir of the same title, the film recounts his experience growing up on the tough side of Astoria. The story is intercut with flashbacks to the summer of 1986, when young Dito, played by Shia LeBoeuf, was coming of age under the influence of various volatile figures, who he later recognizes as his “saints.” It’s the ultimate gritty summer in the city movie, like “The Sandlot,” except with inner-city kids, and baseball is replaced by hustling.
The documentation of hip-hop’s heyday can be largely credited to one man: Jamel Shabazz. In the ‘80s, he scoured the streets and subways of New York to document urban culture, culminating in his photography book “Back in the Days,” which is widely considered to be a visual genesis of hip-hop. Featuring icons like Fab 5 Freddy and DJ Bobbito Garcia, the documentary sees Shabazz snapping breakdancing battles, subway commuters, and endless era-defining street style, dominated by Kangol hats and Adidas tracksuits. Life was good back in the days.
In “Everybody Street,” we meet the people who might know New York City the best: street photographers. Featuring notable photogs like Jill Freedman, Bruce Davidson, Joel Meyerowitz, Martha Cooper, and our friend, Jamel, Cheryl Dunn’s documentary captures their process of capturing everyday moments in New York. They travel deep into the bowels of the city, snapping everything from intense police arrests, to flashing grandmas in Brighton Beach, and drug users shooting up in front of the camera. In a city with infinite stories, each photo is a story worth telling.
When you think of birdwatching, your first thought is probably not “cool city activity.” Avid bird enthusiast Jason Ward redefines the hobby by bringing it into an urban context, taking viewers to Central Park, Prospect Park, Harlem, and other cities across the U.S. to check out different bird species. The way he talks about birds makes it sound far more exciting than the birdwatching of your grandparents’ generation, making it approachable for younger people, people of color, and urban residents — which is great because the more people who care about birds the more who will advocate for saving them.
7. Bronx Gothic
“I’m asking you to see the brown body.” Andrew Rossi’s (“Page One: Inside The New York Times”) documentary is a daring portrait of writer and performer Okwui Okpokwasili and her creative process for her one-woman show “Bronx Gothic,” which is about “inhabiting the body of a brown girl in a world that privileges whiteness.” Based on her own childhood, the show tells the story of two Black girls growing up in the Bronx using music, comedy, drama, and Okpokwasili’s startling, physically demanding dance movements. Like the audience seen in the film, viewers won't be able to tear their eyes away from her body, and that’s exactly what she wants.
In a never-before-seen interview, viewers are taken through the life and work of one of the most prolific directors in film history, and one of the biggest champions of New York City. Known for iconic New York movies like “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Serpico,” and “Network,” Lumet strongly preferred the Big Apple over Tinseltown for his film sets, saying, “New York is filled with reality; Hollywood is a fantasyland.” Somebody should have crowned Lumet the king of New York, or at least the king of keepin’ it real.
9. Dark Days
Mark Singer’s documentary takes viewers into a part of New York City the vast majority of its residents never see: underground. For most New Yorkers, the pitch-black underground subway tracks and tunnels are a treacherous and terrifying place, but for this community of homeless individuals, it’s refuge. They escaped life above, where kids and cops could harass them at any time, to find solitude and peace below. Seeing how these track dwellers fight to survive, siphoning electricity and water from the Amtrak station above, is both heartbreaking and a testament to the human spirit.
10. James White
The intimate story of a mother and son who need each other in remarkable ways. Christopher Abbot delivers a stirring performance as the titular character, who struggles with self-destructive behavior as his mother, masterfully played by Cynthia Nixon, deals with terminal illness. It’s a quiet story that assertively explores the universal experience that is loss. Ron Livingston and Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi co-star.
Film is not the only medium that is heavily influenced by New York City. Countless authors have set their stories in the city, including Jonathan Lethem, who’s most well-known fiction works include “The Fortress of Solitude” and “Motherless Brooklyn,” which was adapted into a film last year starring Edward Norton. This documentary explores the various cultural forces that have influenced Lethem, set against the landscape of New York City and greater America. There’s a reason why aspiring writers flock to this city to start their careers — it’s a source of never-ending inspiration.
12. New York Doll
Is there a more New York band than New York Dolls? The glam punk band practically defined the 1970s punk scene on New York’s Lower East Side and East Village, where artists and revelry seekers bumped shoulders with Debbie Harry and Joey Ramone at CBGB. In this documentary, we follow bassist Arthur Kane and glimpse into his post-Dolls life, when he wrestled with alcoholism and drug addiction, and eventually joined the Church of Latter Day Saints. The film also follows Kane’s reunion with two surviving members of the Dolls as they rehearse for a comeback concert in London. Now if they would only reopen CBGB...
13. No Impact Man
Can you overhaul your life to leave no impact on the environment? What would that entail, especially in a city like New York? In this documentary, one family shows us as they trade in their consumerist Fifth Avenue lifestyle for one year of no-impact living. Led by dad Colin, the family struggle to adapt to their new minimalist way of life, which cuts out electricity, eating meat, clothes shopping, riding subways and taxis, and taking the elevator to their ninth floor apartment. Though they nearly go insane on multiple occasions, their attempt to leave no impact on the environment ends up leaving an unexpected impact on them as a family.
Channeling his eclectic style, “Wild Combination” pieces together Arthur Russell’s life through archival footage, excerpts of musical compositions, and interviews. The musician started out as a classically trained cellist, but began foraying into more avant-garde sounds after spending his teenage years with a Buddhist group in San Francisco. Ultimately, he became a staple in New York City’s dance scene, helping to define disco and electronic music in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The documentary not only paints a vivid portrait of the musician, but also the sociocultural landscape of Manhattan’s subculture during the early AIDS era.