New York City may get all the glory — what NYC publication hasn’t listed its top ten best city pictures? — but there’s a whole rest of the state out there waiting for its own top ten list. As a former resident of Saratoga Springs, New York, I take pride in presenting the top ten Upstate New York movies. Please note: they’re ranked by regional relevance and feeling, not necessarily overall quality.
1. Buffalo ’66
Bruce Almighty may be the most popular movie ever set in Buffalo, NY, but Buffalo ’66 nails what you really need to know: the cold, the economic depression, the Bills, and related miseries. This darkly funny portrait of a near-broken Buffalo man, just out of prison and desperate to win approval from his insane parents (including his deeply committed Bills fan of a mother, played by Angelica Huston) is clearly the movie former Buffalo resident Vincent Gallo was born to make. I can’t wait for his take on Utica.
2. Nobody’s Fool
Robert Benton’s adaptation of a book by upstate novelist Richard Russo gets the feeling of a wintry, small, upstate town exactly right; the residents seem like real, no-frills people, not excessively quirky nor excessively charming — except the unsinkably charming Paul Newman, who nonetheless imbues the shiftless, petty Sully with gruff sadness.
3. Kicking and Screaming
Noah Baumbach’s musing on post-college life takes place in the fictional town of Munton, but was based on Baumbach’s experiences while (and after) attending Vassar College, located in Poughkeepsie, NY. The low-key tension between the sophisticated but aimless graduates and the townies (including the guy with the ‘I’d Rather Be Bow-Hunting’ bumper-sticker) is pitch perfect. Actually, the whole movie is.
4. The Last of the Mohicans
This French and Indian War story (based on the James Fenimore Cooper novel) doles out a bit of upstate pre-history. Michael Mann has made better movies, but none that feature ass-kicking in the Adirondacks.
5. Down to the Bone
Vera Farmiga’s searing performance anchors this ultra-depressing addiction movie, which wins its cred by basically being about a poor woman doing drugs while working at popular upstate supermarket chain Price Chopper.
6. Sleepy Hollow
Today, the locations of Sleepy Hollow are right around Westchester County — also known as the suburbs, not upstate proper. But during the movie’s time period, this was genuine wilderness, far from city’s sophistication and perfect for the folksy spookiness of Tim Burton’s take on the legend.
The big cities might have more concerts, venues, and hometown bands, but if you want the room to have a massive, historic music festival, you’ll have to go further north, where there are fields and stuff. Vindication for upstate!
Hey, an upstate-set movie with classy, talented mega-stars: Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep do Albany! Of course, the glamour factor is offset by Nicholson and Streep playing a couple of alcoholic, guilt-ridden drifters who call depression-era Albany home. I never said this was an uplifting subgenre.
9. Blowin’ Smoke (aka Freak Talks about Sex)
This barely-released movie is basically the same post-grad do-nothing story as Kicking and Screaming, right down to star slacker Josh Hamilton, only with more weed and less smarts. That said, it’s the rare movie actually set and shot in Syracuse, and its observations about running into former high-school classmates in bars and malls have the uncomfortable ring of truth.
Residents of Schenectady, Canton, or Corinth might actually resent this movie for referring to Westchester, home of Charles Xavier’s school for the gifted, as ‘upstate’ — and, come to think of it, so might Westchester residents who pride themselves on their near-metro lifestyles. But Wolverine and Rogue start out in Canada and wind up in Westchester, which clearly indicates that the X-Jet was flying along I-87 to get there, traversing the entire state of New York. Plus, the film’s snowy moments of character-driven melancholy, emphasized over destructive mega-action, fit the less busy areas of New York.