Hey, whaddya tink ya lookin’ at? I got somethin’ for ya to look at right here! Welcome to Brooklyn, which I’ve missed a little bit every day since I moved over the bridge to Manhattan 12 years ago. When I bunked in Park Slope (’86-’96), Brooklyn wasn’t quite as cool as it is now. Stroller-rolling yuppie mommies hadn’t yet swarmed over Park Slope, DUMBO was nothing but a scary warehouse district, there wasn’t a single hipster in Williamsburg, and the view out my window was of a vacant lot filled with trashed cars.
Today much has changed, and Brooklyn is livelier than ever, with new excitement all the way from Brooklyn Heights and a resurgent downtown to a Coney Island primed for billions of dollars of redevelopment. Even IKEA has arrived, for better or worse. This seems like a good time to take a quick survey of some favorite films from Brooklyn, the borough that gave us Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Spike Lee, and Barbra Streisand, just to name a few local talents. It’s a photogenic place, for sure, with lots of great stories that have been told over the years.
10. Sophie’s Choice
The huge and gorgeous old house that refugee Sophie and her friends live in doesn’t seem like it belongs in Brooklyn, but there it is, right in the middle of a gorgeous Midwood neighborhood. (It’s a great place to ride your bike.) Sophie falls ill in the art deco Brooklyn Public Library, and her tortured life ends in the borough, too. It’s a great evocation of postwar Brooklyn, when it was still surging as a city, white flight hadn’t yet occurred, and the Dodgers were still in town.
9. For Pete’s Sake
Barbra Streisand’s 1974 screwball comedy finds her starring as ‘Henry,’ a loving wife who wants to earn extra money to help out her cabbie hubby. Unfortunately, each scheme she tries gets her deeper into debt and trouble, most notably when she decides to sell her body via delightful madam Mrs. Cherry, played by the unforgettable Molly Picon. Henry’s final scheme finds her rustling cattle in a Winnebago, an adventure that culminates in a comical cattle drive through the streets of Brooklyn Heights. This film has what is probably moviedom’s only depiction of a real bull in a real china shop. Too funny. I miss this Streisand.
8. The Squid and the Whale
When the impossible husband (Jeff Daniels) separates from his wife (Laura Linney) and leaves his comfortable Park Slope brownstone for an apartment ‘on the other side of the park,’ Brooklynites know exactly what a precipitous plunge that is. Closely observed and finally detailed, this is a great Park Slope movie, and it rings true for me because my Park Slope landlord was a college professor, too!
7. She’s Gotta Have It
Remember when Spike Lee, the bard of Brooklyn, exploded onto the scene back in 1986 with this scrappy black-and-white comedy? The gorgeous but flighty Nola Darling juggles and torments two boyfriends over in Fort Greene while fending off the mosquito-like advances of the very annoying Mars Blackmon (played by Lee). How can we forget his memorable pickup line: ‘Please baby, please baby, please baby, baby baby please!’ (Say it five times fast for the full effect.) I saw this movie in Brooklyn when it first came out, and when I emerged from the theater, Spike was right there on the sidewalk checking out the size of the crowd.
6. Little Fugitive
Here’s a minor classic you’ve never seen. Seven-year-old Joey Norton’s older brother tricks Joey into thinking he’s killed him. Joey runs away in a panic to Coney Island and spends a couple of days hiding and soaking up the sights while big bro tries frantically to find him. Shot with minimal dialogue and ahead-of-its-time handheld immediacy, it’s a fascinating time capsule that captures the long-gone Coney of 1953. Absolutely compelling for movie buffs, urban historians, and Brooklyn fans.
5. Smoke/Blue in the Face
Park Slope resident and superstar highbrow novelist Paul Auster penned this homage to his neighborhood, setting much of it in Augie’s (Harvey Keitel) little cigar shop on the corner of 7th Ave. and 3rd St. My guess is that today the location is probably a Marc Jacobs boutique or a day spa, but the mid-’90s film feels utterly authentic, as an amiable cast of characters wanders in and out of the shop and Augie helps them sort out their lives. See Smoke along with its even looser and more improvisational sequel Blue in the Face.
4. Saturday Night Fever
Thirty years later you might not want to wear Tony Manero’s clothes, but wouldn’t you still like to be him, strutting down those Bay Ridge sidewalks and getting all the girls while the Bee Gees warble in the background? Brooklyn’s Verrazano Narrows Bridge looms ominously throughout and figures in the film’s tragic climax. Today the disco ain’t what it used to be, but those Italian roots still run deep in a neighborhood that will always resist change.
3. Dog Day Afternoon
‘Attica! Attica! Attica!’ This is the one Al Pacino movie in which his constant shouting doesn’t drive me absolutely batty. Like Network, which came out a year later, DDA is a prophetic and cynical movie about the ways in which media was destined take over our lives. The true story of a 1972 Brooklyn bank robbery that devolves into a hostage crisis, everyone involved suddenly wants to be a media star, even the robber himself, a bisexual who is committing the crime in order to get money for his lover’s sex change operation. Just imagine if Nancy Grace had been around to cover it live.
Carroll Gardens is home to the Cammareri Brothers Bakery, an actual location you can visit. It’ll bring back memories of the slightly insane Nicolas Cage baking away in the basement when Cher comes to visit with news of her engagement to his brother. The gorgeous Castorini family townhouse in Brooklyn Heights is another essential stop on any Brooklyn movie lover’s tour. Who can forget the vision of Cher leisurely kicking a can down her street the morning after her night of operatic passion with Manhattan’s towers highlighted across the river by a bright sunrise? Total Brooklyn for sure.
1. Do the Right Thing
On the hottest day of the hottest summer in memory, racial and ethnic tensions boil over on one Bedford-Stuyvesant block when Italian pizza shop owners, Korean deli managers, white gentrifiers, and African-Americans who have long claimed the ‘hood as their own come to verbal and physical blows with disastrous results. Not just the best Brooklyn movie of all time but one of the best New York City movies ever, this is Spike Lee at his peak as a writer, director, and actor. Watch it just once, and you’ll be able to unspool it frame-by-frame in your memory forever.
And also consider: Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, On the Waterfront, Straight Out of Brooklyn, Little Odessa, The Flamingo Kid, Spike of Bensonhurst, Went to Coney Island on a Mission From God Be Back by Five, Laws of Gravity, and the last ten minutes of The Warriors.