The Five Best Urban Films Of All Time

City landscapes have formed the backbone of many iconic films. Here we count down the very best...
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Different cities and urban locations can dramatically alter the feel or tone of any movie, so much so that the built environment almost acts as a character in and of itself. Would Michael Mann’s Heat feel the same somewhere other than the maze-like streets of Los Angeles? Could you imagine Plan B’s recent Ill Manors outside of London? Simply put, on screen the city comes to life. These five films use their urban environment expertly, allowing it to inform the characters’ behaviour throughout, providing on one hand a safe haven, and on the other a claustrophobic prison.

5. Trainspotting

Danny Boyle’s tour-de-force still to this day manages to distil the nineties into 94 adrenaline fuelled, drug addled, alcohol soaked minutes. A brilliant adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s original novel, Boyle turns Renton, Spud, Sick Boy and the rest of the gang into a group of desperate anti-heroes, skulking round the nooks and crannies of Edinburgh, trying to escape from themselves. Madly enough, the film was criticised in some circles for glamorising heroin use. Anyone who’s seen the scene with the baby crawling up the wall will tell you that the actuality is anything but glamorous. To this day Trainspotting is, alongside Shallow Grave, Boyle’s finest work.

4. Do The Right Thing

A Brooklyn block on the hottest day of the year is the scene for Spike Lee’s ferociously rhythmic tale of race relations in the 1980s. Lee peppers the block with a multitude of characters from various different ethnic backgrounds, in doing so almost creating a microcosm of American society, setting it alongside a fiercely rhythmic hip-hop soundtrack that bursts into life in the opening frames with Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power”. The repeated use of slam-poetry-style monologues from the characters which punctuate the film throughout further intensify this focus on the sound and feel of the urban environment. A hugely entertaining and deeply challenging film, and one that is still relevant to this day.

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3. City Of God

This docudrama broke huge ground upon its 2002 release and gained huge plaudits for its use of non-professional actors and its highlighting of genuine social issues in the Brazillian favelas in which it is shot. Yet, on the surface the story is a simple one, the tale of two friends growing up in a violent neighbourhood whose paths differ as they get older, one becoming a drug dealer, the other attempting to escape his surroundings to become a photographer. The fact that real street-kids were cast as oppose to trained actors lends the film a genuine authenticity which can be felt in every scene.

2. American History X

Tony Kaye’s story of American neo-nazis is at times a hugely uncomfortable watch, and yet perversely, it commands your attention throughout its two hour running time. Again shining a light on an ugly section of American society that often goes unreported, Kaye pulls no punches in showing the extreme violence and brutality of his characters, with a marquee performance from Edward Norton at the centre of it.

1. La Haine

La Haine, or Hate, is surely one of the most groundbreaking films of the nineties and one that perfectly encapsulates the struggles of the working classes living on the outskirts of Paris, in the suburban “banlieue”. Rather than cast his environment as dour, dull and lifeless, director Mathieu Kassovitz injects energy and kinesis into every frame with a combination of inventive framing, fluid camera work and a hip-hop soundtrack heavily influenced by the aforementioned Do The Right Thing. The film will have you on the edge of your seat from start to finish, with one of the most enduring climaxes in cinematic history.

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