Holidays in the City: On Film
Our favorite films set during NYC’s most loved season along with a few notable locations you can still visit today.
Without a doubt, the holiday season is among the best times to visit New York City. Maybe it’s because this is a city that thrives on events—dining, parties, concerts, shows—all a good excuse to up the ante when the holidays are upon us. Or, maybe it’s because this is a city built on its street culture—made all the more impressive when doused in a good measure of glittering lights. Or is it simply the impression that a quintessential NYC lifestyle involves a cold-weather jacket, hot coffee in hand, and a winter street-walking scene?
Undeniably, some of the best films set in New York City take place during the wintertime and for good reason. The city comes alive during the holidays. With that in mind, we’d like to explore some of our favorite films set during NYC’s most loved season along with a few notable locations you can still visit today.
Metropolitan (1990), dir. Walt Stillman
Walt Stillman’s first film, Metropolitan, follows the lives of some of Manhattan’s wealthy young socialites during the debutante season taking place over Christmas break. While the film itself is not so much about the holidays, the presence of the season is inherent at the various parties and events they attend. There’s something to the combination of obvious cold weather, party ensembles and the city backdrop that feels deeply cozy, all while these young Upper East Siders discuss philosophy and ponder the social scene they occupy.
Set in a time “not so long ago”, Stillman originally wanted to set the film in pre-Woodstock era NYC. But with the financial constraints of a largely self-financed film, he settled for incorporating as many relics of the past as he could (watch out for some checkered cabs!) in an attempt to make the film feel as timeless as he could. The presence of some of NYC’s most iconic locations—The Plaza Hotel or the Waldorf-Astoria New York, for example—gives the film a sense of agelessness. At this point, The Plaza or the Waldorf are almost as eternal as the city itself.
Moonstruck (1987), dir. Norman Jewison
A romantic comedy with several Oscars to back up its appeal, Moonstruck is another film where the holiday season isn’t the focus but exists so prominently in the background of its characters’ lives that it feels like a holiday movie. Set in Brooklyn, the film follows Loretta (Cher), an Italian-American widow, who falls in love with her fiance’s younger brother, Ronny (Nicolas Cage). (Fortunately for the fashion-hungry among us, the holiday season in which the film is set means Cher’s Academy Award-winning performance sees the actress donning some seriously chic winter jackets.)
Filmed partially in Toronto, Moonstruck is set in Brooklyn Heights. And while a lot of the street scenes are sneakily Canadian, the house in which Loretta lives does exist and is actually located in Dumbo. However, if you have even the vaguest love of opera, the more exciting Moonstruck-inspired venture would be to make like Loretta and Ronny and attend La Boheme at the Metropolitan Opera House in your best holiday attire.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999), dir. Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut, follows Bill, a wealthy Manhattan doctor as he embarks on a dream-like journey through an erotic underworld following a disturbing confession from his wife. Married in real life at the time, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman worked for 15 months on the film with Kubrick—holding the Guinness World Record for the longest continuous film shoot at 400 straight days. Sadly, Kubrick died just six days after screening his cut to Warner Brothers.
With such meticulous direction from one of the most influential directors of all time, it’s no coincidence that Eyes Wide Shut takes place during NYC’s Christmas season. In the book that inspired the film (Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Story) the events take place in Vienna and the main characters are Jewish. But, for Kubrick, the story had to unfold with well-to-do all-American capitalists at the helm—and what better setting than with NYC’s fanciest during the holiday season!
In fact, Eyes Wide Shut begins at a Christmas party, setting a visual tone that will permeate the entire film: hazy, glitzy Christmas lights glitter in the background of nearly every scene. The film’s cinematographer, Larry Smith (who had first worked with Kubrick as a gaffer on Barry Lyndon—a film famously lit primarily with candlelight), utilized practical sources to light Eyes Wide Shut including Christmas trees and their twinkling lights.
While not a key theme by any stretch, the presence of the holidays is a crucial element in the effectiveness of the film. The familiar coziness of the season provides a crucial contrast to the dark worlds and subjects the film’s protagonist delves into on his journey. And importantly, the cold streets of NYC in the wintertime play a huge role in Cruise’s odyssey. However, despite the film’s crucial NYC setting, Kubrick’s fear of flying kept him in England where a detailed recreation of Greenwich Village was erected in such authenticity that a crew was sent to Manhattan in order to measure the street widths for accuracy. While it might be impossible to visit any one location used for this film, supposedly real New York City street footage was projected behind Cruise during his street walking scenes—making a Greenwich Village night walk a worthy alternative.
When Harry Met Sally (1989), dir. Rob Reiner
Another holiday film not about holidays, When Harry Met Sally is a film about a man and woman grappling over whether or not their friendship “will ever strictly be platonic”—all over a 12-year period. While the film’s events take place over a variety of seasons, the movie clearly features the main characters at Christmastime twice—with the film’s very-romantic culmination occurring during a New Year’s Eve party. With the holiday season ever-present onscreen, it’s hard not to associate the film with this time of year.
More importantly, it’s hard not to associate the film with New York. The film’s most iconic scene takes place at the Lower East Side’s Katz’s Delicatessen where Meg Ryan supposedly demonstrated her fake orgasms to Billy Crystal for hours. Today, Katz’s Deli still hangs a sign above the table reading “Where Harry met Sally… hope you have what she had!”
Carol (2015), dir. Todd Haynes
Set in 1950s NYC during the holiday season, Carol (based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel of the same name) tells the story of Therese, an aspiring photographer, as she develops an intimate relationship with Carol, an older woman going through a difficult divorce. Critically acclaimed, Carol is not only ranked by the British Film Institute as the best LGBT film of all time but also as one of the greatest films of the 21st century by the BBC.
Aside from those undeniable titles, there is an argument to be made for Carol being one of the best holiday films as well. In fact, the fateful meeting of Carol and Therese occurs during some routine holiday shopping. The iconography of Manhattan’s old department stores is undisputed and to see this amplified during the holidays adds a certain boost to the already romantic setting. Christmas is so present in the film—“Santa Bells” plays peacefully in the background of the snowy New York streets, shop workers wear Santa hats. There’s an added coziness to this that adds to the intimacy of its characters.
While the city itself plays such a big part in the film, Todd Haynes actually shot most of the film in Cincinnati for budgetary reasons. However, if you wanted to recreate some of that 50s-inspired Gotham magic, there are plenty of spots left in the city that call to mind the era. To start, try sipping a martini at The Campbell, a bar and lounge in Grand Central Terminal previously used as the office of American financier John W. Campbell in the ’20s. Or, get yourself over to the original NYC department store Bloomingdale’s which has been standing on 59th and Lexington since 1886.
200 Cigarettes (1999), dir. Risa Bramon Garcia
Okay, so this one didn’t make the critically-acclaimed lists but there is something about this famously “unstreamable” film that has ensured its status as a cult classic with the soundtrack to match—the movie contains 49 songs, featuring everyone from Blondie to Elvis Costello. Taking place over a single night on New Year’s Eve in early ’80s New York, it’s hard not to view 200 Cigarettes as a holiday film.
The plot follows several groups of friends en route to a NYE party as they navigate the city’s (thankfully) pre-digital setting. There is something to watching the characters find their way to a party without a smartphone that is almost as comforting as imagining what it would be like to live on those not-yet-gentrified streets.
While sadly some of the locations used in the film (Gem Spa, Odessa, Leshkos) have closed their doors, you can still access that fake-80s energy at the still-standing Ace Bar or even Milon, an Indian restaurant conveniently covered eternally in Christmas lights and gift-wrapped walls. Holidays or not, we’re here for it.
WORDS Hillary Sproul