How many of us have had our dreams and ambitions ignited by what we’ve seen on screen? If there’s anywhere you’ve lived, are living, or are hoping to live one day, there’s a good chance that that desire was first felt when you saw that particular city romanticised on the silver screen for the first time. While the oversaturation of some cities in theatres, on TV and in video games has to a certain extent made them a little too popular, there’s no denying the magical effect that good cinematography can have in making a city come to life, and become a character of its own in any story. With that in mind, let’s step back and think about which cities make the best setting, not because they’re easy to film in, but because their appearance, personality and undeniably unique and electric atmosphere mean that they can make any story gripping. Here’s a round-up of the best cinematic cities in the world, for any genre.
I can already hear some of you groaning. There’s no denying that the Big Apple has had more than it’s fair share of exposure across every platform imaginable over the last century, and as a result has continued to be the primary magnet for dreamers and adventurers the world over, a place where the entire planet has congregated to experience their own little slice of what it means to be a New Yorker. This glittering image is of course influenced by the lofty depictions of the city in iconic films such as Manhattan, Sex and the City, Wall Street and Rent, all of which sell a different version of the city to different kinds of people. While depictions of NYC (or more specifically, the central borough of Manhattan) have undoubtedly manufactured an impression of the city that does not necessarily resemble reality, it’s important to remember why it is that so many directors, writers and performers continue to choose New York as their favoured backdrop to this very day.
In the visual arts, appearance is everything, and the dramatic architecture, bright lights and even the natural beauty of New York City make it an obvious choice for those looking to tell an engaging story. Most importantly, aside from the endless list of iconic, world-famous landmarks which make NYC a great place to stage a dramatic climax, the physical beauty of the city is varied enough to appeal to any filmmaker. If you’re wanting to set your story amongst edgy urban grit, then the graffiti-strewn tenements of the Lower East Side or the railway lines of Queens are a perfect place to do it. If you’re looking for a backdrop of shimmering wealth and Gatsby-esque glamour, then the shining palace of the Upper East Side, the corporate sleek of Wall Street, or the Gilded Age mansions on Long Island are there for you. New York has something for everyone, and the way the sunset hits the fabled streets of Downtown on a summer evening have inspired enough stories and scripts to fill the NY Public Library several times over.
For any good story, the weight of history is a crucial consideration when choosing where to set your film. You want somewhere that the audience can associate with the great events of world history, where the streets themselves are soaked with the authority of being witness to people, events and developments which the entire world knows about and sees as important. Just as importantly you need a city that is beautiful, colourful, bursting with life and of course, irresistibly sexy. Unsurprisingly, the Italian capital Rome ticks all of these boxes, with the added bonus of being home to the spiritual home of Western civilisation, the Vatican (although filming is very rarely allowed in that particular enclave).
Rather than the universally-watched Hollywood blockbusters that New York has played home to, Rome is the emperor of the art-house. A dizzying number of massively acclaimed cult and contemporary indies have been filmed on the ancient streets of Roma, including Fellini’s timeless classic La Dolce Vita, apparent Oscar magnet La Grande Bellezza, and Woody Allen’s quirky, delicate comedy To Rome with Love, which arguably makes the most use of the stunning visual beauty of some of Rome’s lesser-known corners. The tangible energy to be found on Rome’s streets, in part due to the vivacity and chaos in which the locals tend to revel in, means that Rome has a distinct feeling of “anything can happen here”, which is why so many filmmakers are drawn to it. And this cultural Mecca is not purely the reserve of the small-time directors, as there’s definitely no shortage of big-name films that have chosen Rome as the perfect place to tell their story. The infinitely re-watchable Audrey Hepburn film Roman Holiday is the one that almost certainly put Rome on the map of filmmakers everywhere, while box office record-breakers such as Spectre, Ben Hur, Angels and Demons and even the surprisingly good Lizzie McGuire Movie have all made very effective use of the ancient temples, dramatic porticos, breezy palm trees and elegant gardens of this ancient and iconic city.
Arguably the capital of the world right now and somewhere where more films and hit TV shows are being filmed than ever before, the UK capital London has so much value as a living film set that it’s hard to know where to even begin. Putting aside the massive concentration of acting talent and legacy as the home of Shakespeare’s plays, London perfectly combines the cinematic charm of an ancient city with the high energy and diversity of a modern cosmopolitan megacity. Whether you’re wanting to film a Shakespearean epic, Dickensian period drama, or a futuristic nail-biter in the vein of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, London will provide. There’s no shortage of iconic and game-changing film scenes that have been filmed somewhere in London, whether they’re from murder mysteries, romantic comedies, political thrillers or balls-to-the-wall action shoot ’em ups.
Unique to the other cities featured here, London has an incredibly rich legacy as a film set for a number of sports films, owing partly to England’s (and the U.K.’s) acclaimed and world-famous sporting prowess, and the fact that London itself is home to no fewer than five premier league football clubs (that’s soccer to us guys). From brutal boxing box office smash Jawbone, to the footy epic The Damned United, to the racing thriller Chariots of Fire, if there’s any sporting film you can possibly think of, chances are there’s a London connection there somewhere. London is a global city of sport, where fans of any team or game can see the best of the best on their home turf, and if you ever find yourself in town, you won’t have to look far to find a massive array of sporting events, and with sports betting from Sportsbet, you can take part in the action yourself, wherever you are. The sporting venues of the capital themselves have played host to an endless number of iconic and critically acclaimed scenes, from the imposing Wimbledon Greyhound Stadium (most famously filmed in the Carey Mulligan film An Education), to the naturally-beautiful training ground that is Hampstead Heath, every corner of this amazing city is touched with cinematic greatness.
London is also a great supporting character in any film. The modern reputation of the city as a manic, fast-paced melting pot where you have to hustle to survive means that any scene shot in contemporary London is always brimming with energy and anticipation. The well-known history of the city that is familiar with audiences across the globe means that the city’s elegant streets and beautiful buildings are always happy to lend some weight and authenticity to any period film looking to tell an important historical story. When it comes to living film sets, it’s impossible to top London.
This one definitely tops the list for being the most painfully obvious choice you could include in a piece like this, but whether or not you turn your nose up at Hollywood blockbusters, the sprawling City of Angels is so much more than just the global epicentre of the trillion dollar film industry. While virtually every world-famous film in history would’ve been shot, written or produced in Los Angeles at some point, critics tend to overlook the magic of the city itself, and the importance it has played as an enthralling backdrop and plot device in so many of our most beloved films. While the city was initially earmarked as the epicentre of American film back in the 1920s due largely to the flat landscape which was perfect for epic-scale movie lots and city-sized studios like MGM and Warner Bros., it was also chosen for the stunning natural diversity which made the city an incredibly versatile place to film. While you have the gleaming Art Deco towers of Downtown and the shimmering neon lights of Hollywood Boulevard, budding filmmaking trailblazers such as the legendary Howard Hughes were quick to notice the natural diversity of the Los Angeles area. With the white sandy beaches of the California coast, the rugged mountain terrain of the Hills, the lush green forest of Yosemite, and the merciless desert landscapes, there’s hardly any type of film that can’t be shot in L.A.
Beyond the amazing scenery, the lifestyle, pace and energy of Los Angeles mean that many filmmakers, rather than pretending the city is somewhere else, have embraced it for what it is and made L.A. a crucial component of the story. Whether it’s David Lynch immortalising the bizarre inhabitants of the Hollywood Hills, Curtis Hanson depicting the seedy glamour of Downtown in L.A. Confidential, or Steve Martin relentlessly satirizing the unreal lives of Hollywood’s elite in L.A. Story, millions of people around the globe are now deeply familiar with the reality of life in Los Angeles, and are either enchanted or repulsed by it. Los Angeles more than any other city has made a deep impression on the people who have made their careers there, and the appetite audiences have for watching artists confront the other-worldly and at times hilariously-synthetic world of L.A. is insatiable.
What better way to round off than with the City of Lights? There’s no one who isn’t familiar with Paris, and even a passing glimpse at the myriad films that have glorified the ornate boulevards and iconic monuments of this global city will explain why Paris is the ultimate cinematic city. Paris has long enjoyed a reputation as the most beautiful city on Earth, which is why filmmakers flock there for the opportunity to film among the best backdrops around. Undoubtedly, Paris’s thing is romance, and the vast majority of heavy-hitting films shot there deal with love, with the undeniably romantic atmosphere and breathtakingly beautiful architecture being the perfect complement to a whirlwind love affair, slapstick romantic comedy, or scandalous drama. From the Oscar-winning hit Amelie to the thigh-raising Moulin Rouge, and the utterly enchanting Midnight in Paris, it’s incredibly clear that anyone wishing to tackle the greatest subject of all will find all the inspiration and atmosphere they could possibly want in the appropriately nicknamed City of Love.
It’s important to note that Paris has done a lot more than serve as a delectable bit of set dressing in its long cinematic history, with the everyday dramas and quirky reality of life in the city also being the subject of countless films. The recent art-house smash hit Girlhood documents the reality of life for those Parisians living beyond the gilded centre, in the tower blocks of the city outskirts, while recent award winners such as Personal Shopper and Young and Beautiful tell an almost satirical story of what the city expects of Parisians, and the extreme contrasts than can be found on the fairytale streets. Above all, Paris stands for inspiration and creativity, which is why it can always be counted on to help you make a great film.