When filmmakers feature various American cities in their movies, it is inevitable some of the cities’ traits are reflected on screen—there’s also a chance they chose the city that best matched the spirit of their film.
Giggster highlighted significant films shot in 15 of the biggest U.S. cities to showcase the different perspectives on the landscape, views into different corners of the city’s culture, how a city can be disguised or changed for production, and more.
American cities have distinctly different characteristics. The hustle and bustle of New York City, for example, differs dramatically from sunny and laid-back Los Angeles, despite both being major cities that attract creatives and power brokers.
Meanwhile, cities in the South, which are famous for a slower pace of life, stand in stark contrast to those in the Southwest, which still retain some of their cowboy qualities, and are uniquely situated amid mountains and deserts.
Read on for a look at 15 major American cities in film. Cities are listed alphabetically, and the movies listed are just a sampling.
- Movies: “Borat,” “Prisoners,” “Black Panther”
Atlanta has been the scene of an incredibly diverse slate of films, especially “Black Panther” and “Borat,” the first of which is set abroad and the second of which is distinctly American. The common denominator? The action and intrigue in each movie.
And with Atlanta’s towering skyscrapers and network of freeways, it’s no wonder the city is the backdrop to so many action-oriented films.
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- Movies: “Slacker,” “Office Space,” “Song to Song”
Austin is the perfect combination of wild and urban. Its location in Texas gives it cowboy roots, while as a hub of technology and creativity, it has real city bona fides. This blend of culture is reflected in many films.
For example, the cult classic “Office Space” is technically centered on a typical straight-laced workplace, but the rebellion that ensues within the office is all Wild West.
- Movies: “The Departed,” “Good Will Hunting,” “The Verdict”
Boston is a hub of venture capital. But many movies shot in the city depict a very different reality.
Boston is often shown to be a predominantly working-class and Catholic city in films, such as “The Departed.” This may be because one of the most salient areas of Bostonian history is that of the city’s Irish population, which swelled in the 19th century with émigrés from Europe.
- Movies: “North by Northwest,” “The Dark Knight,” “The Sting”
Chicago was once heavily depicted as a haven for the mafia in movies such as “Scarface” and “Little Caesar.” And the ominous pall continued as the 20th century progressed. For example, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most legendary (and terrifying) movies—“North by Northwest”—was filmed in the city.
Despite Chicago being a vibrant and bustling city, the dark mood has remained in cinema. More recently, this has included “The Dark Knight” trilogy, which takes place in a menacing, crime-ridden city.
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- Movies: “Vanishing Point,” “Die Hard 2,” “About Schmidt”
Denver has a relatively unique topography in America. It is an urban center with wilderness right beyond its borders, including mountains. It is also firmly in the Mountain West, which has made it a magnet for movies set in the heyday of the cowboy era and westward expansion.
This includes the Clint Eastwood movie “Every Which Way But Loose.” In the film, Eastwood can be seen walking down one of the city’s major thoroughfares, with neon and honky-tonk bars evoking the feel of the American West.
- Movies: “Detroit,” “Out of Sight,” “Only Lovers Left Alive”
One of the most prominent instances of violence in real-life Detroit came in the summer of 1967 when mass protests erupted in the city against police violence, which was met with even more violence. These events and others like them have evoked a city riven by violence and animosity in films, including “8 Mile” and “Detroit.” Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit” depicted this explicitly with her rendering of the 1967 riots, which showed the city in flames.
- Movies: “Reality Bites,” “Independence Day,” “Rushmore”
Texas has a reputation for being a hotbed of Americana and patriotism. So it’s no surprise that many movies that take America as their subject have used Houston as a base.
Among these is the blockbuster hit “Independence Day.” The film depicts a race against the clock to save the world before the Fourth of July weekend from a group of evil extraterrestrials. Houston provided the perfect backdrop for a group of swaggering astronaut-cowboys to plot and execute their mission to save the country.
- Movies: “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” “Chinatown,” “Mulholland Drive”
As the epicenter of the American film industry, it’s no surprise many movies are shot in Los Angeles, particularly those about the film industry. Among these was Quentin Tarintino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
This film, along with many others, including “Mulholland Drive,” makes liberal use of the city’s iconography and topography. For example, the famous Hollywood sign appears in countless movies set in the city.
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- Movies: “Romeo + Juliet,” “Miami Vice,” “Thunderball”
Miami holds a place in the popular imagination as a city of sun, lust, parties, and late nights. This has manifested itself in a number of films, which take place in very different eras. “Miami Vice,” for example, depicts the city during modern times as a haven for drug traffickers.
This same vibe led director Baz Luhrmann to choose to set his modern-day retelling of “Romeo + Juliet” in Miami. The blood-soaked, star-crossed, highly dramatic tale found its natural home in the city, just as “Miami Vice” had, for showcasing a similar spirit to the city.
- Movies: “Young Adult,” “Purple Rain,” “A Simple Plan”
Minneapolis is famously cold. Much of the city’s winters can easily be spent below zero degrees, and thriving in them is not for the faint of heart. Many films set in Minneapolis grapple with this reality.
Among the most famous is “Fargo,” which features plenty of snow, ice, frostbite, and the famous Minnesotan accent. The Coen brothers’ film was mainly shot in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, although some filming had to take place in North Dakota due to a mild winter.
- Movies: “Goodfellas,” “Once Upon a Time in America,” “Uncut Gems”
New York City is all about the hustle. You have to be tough and savvy to make it, and many films set in the city tell stories of people doing just that. Perhaps one of the most heart-pounding tales is Adam Sandler’s “Uncut Gems.” The film features a jeweler who is awash in debts and trying to pull off a high-wire act to survive in the city.
The same spirit of competition pervades many other movies set in the Big Apple, from “The Gangs of New York” to “Wall Street.”
- Movies: “Real Life,” “Psycho,” “Little Miss Sunshine”
Phoenix’s urban core is surrounded by deserts and mountains. This has made it a natural choice for films that seem somewhat otherworldly and removed from the American norm.
Among these is the beloved comedy “Little Miss Sunshine,” which follows a family whose father is obsessed with self-improvement and development. One of his most outrageous quests leads him to the Arizona desert, where he heads to a hotel to confront a guru whose methods have failed him.
- Movies: “All About Eve,” “American Graffiti,” “The Game”
San Francisco is a famous counterculture mecca. It also has globally recognizable locations like the Golden Gate Bridge, which make it a draw for filmmakers. The drama of the city’s steep hills and its proximity to the water also adds to the allure.
One particularly dramatic film sets San Francisco apart from New York City. Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” features a fallen socialite who flees from New York to San Francisco to rebuild herself amid such a distinctly different city on the other side of the country.
- Movies: “Kimi,” “The Ring,” “10 Things I Hate About You”
Films set in and around Seattle tend to take advantage of the stunning evergreens and water. The iconic Space Needle is also a draw for filmmakers.
Among the most notable films featuring the Space Needle is one featuring another iconic figure: Elvis Presley. “It Happened At the World’s Fair” was released in 1963 just after Seattle hosted the World’s Fair and also showcases shots of the newly constructed observation tower.
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- Movies: “Broadcast News,” “A Few Good Men,” “Minority Report”
Washington, D.C. is the seat of American politics. The city is best known for housing all three branches of the American government and being a magnet for those interested in the political system—countless movies set in the city have plots centered around politics.
Many, such as “A Few Good Men” and “All The President’s Men,” feature the White House and Supreme Court in background shots. Newspapers, too, reign supreme in many films set in the nation’s capital, as the tensions between politicians and reporters looking to expose them animate the plots.