Architecture and the City in Movies

A Mexican colleague, Hector Quiroz Rothe, has sent me an annotated list of movies which in various ways relate to architecture and the city. The list is compiled for a course which Hector teaches at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Hopefully, the list can be inspirational in the work with architecture and design – or on a saturday evening at the movie rental store…

If anyone has suggestions for other movies that relate to the topic, I will be glad to receive them for inclusion in the list.

Hector Quiroz Rothe writes:

To make a choice of films to be watched and analyzed during the course was not easy considering authors, cities, styles, periods in cinema history, the offer in Mexico, personal judgment and student’s discernment. Some selected films were clearly related with specific contents, but most of them embrace different subjects and could be analyzed from different perspectives. This is a merit of every art work which forced me to be more flexible with the course program going back and forth every session. The final choice included complete and selected sequences of the following films:


Berlin, Symphony of a Great City (Walter Ruttman, Germany, 1927) A masterpiece of documentary film that shows one day of Berlin’s life during the Republic of Weimar period.

Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, Russia, 1929) The representative work of the avant-garde kino-eye movement. Visual experiment and pedagogical device used for the socialist utopia.

Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, USA, 1983) An amazing collage of images with ambiguous sense. An evident praise to technology an modern urban life or a warning of environmental disasters seen 20 years after.

Baraka (Ron Fricke, USA, 1992) The photographer of Koyaanisqatsi presents his personal view of modern societies. Breathtaking images of sacred cities and modern metropoles from all over the world.

Suite Habana (Fernando Perez, Cuba, 2004) A documented tribute to Havana and it’s inhabitants under the actual “special economic period”. The narrative principle of a day in the life of a city appears once again.

Science fiction movies

Metropolis (Fritz Lang, Germany, 1927) The classical film from the expressionist German movement where are found the essential conventions for science fiction cinema. The city as a monster or a distorted environment with a clear spatial segregation: the underground world for the poor and skyscrapers for the elite.

Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, USA, 1982) A premonitory film that shows a disturbing future about androids trying to survive in global LA, sometime in the XXIst century.

Brazil (Terry Gillian, UK, 1985) Presents a surrealistic view of the future (or already present) society. The city under the control of crazy bureaucrats and heroic terrorists.

Locations and tribute to a city

Manhattan (Woody Allen, USA, 1979). One of the director’s masterpieces with celebrated opening sequence of Manhattan skyline. Unforgettable characters deeply attached to their city. At the same time, Manhattan became the protagonist as in many of Allen’s other films.

Roma (Federico Fellini, Italy, 1973) From the director of “La dolce vita”, “La Strada” and “The Nights of Cabiria”. A personal homage to the eternal city. Psychedelic and surrealistic episodes based on his childhood and youth memories.

The Bicycle Thief (Vitorio de Sica, Italy, 1948) A representative work of the Italian neorealist group. Low budget films, social conscious and filmed locations reduced the frontier between fiction and documentary. It is considered a historic document of postwar times in Italy.

Breathless (Jean Luc Godard, France, 1960) Also a director masterpiece and a founding movie of the French New Wave. Celebrated black and white images from Paris, existentialism, jazzy soundtrack and icon actors.

The 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut, 1959) Another classic film from the French New Wave. The adventures of a lonely teenager through the streets of downtown Paris.

Faraway so Close (Wim Wenders, Germany, 1993) The sequel of “The Wings of Desire” (1987). The angels in a black and white world wander through the streets trying to save human souls after the fall of Berlin’s wall.

For the urban stereotypes in American cinema

Singles (Cameron Crowe, USA, 1992) A basic comedy featured by a transport planner, an environment activist and a mediocre rock star, all young and single looking for romance. A humorous portrayal of Seattle in the nineties.

Leaving Las Vegas (Mike Figgis, USA, 1995), neon lights, casinos, alcohol, prostitution… Mythical Las Vegas is the set of a tragic love story between decadent characters.

Frankie and Johnny (Garry Marshall, USA, 1991) An exemplary opening sequence presenting all the conventions of urban life resumed in New York streets. In spite of solitude and violence in the Big Apple there’s still a place for love and hope.

American Beauty (Samuel Mendes, USA, 1999) Goes deep in the neurotic relationships of common families living behind the beautiful facades of middle class suburbs.

Completed with a foreigner’s perspective

Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, USA, 1984) This road movie from the desert to LA and Houston shows the American landscape through the eyes of this laureate German director, author of “Alice in the cities” (1974).

The End of Violence (Wim Wenders, USA, 1996) LA streets surveyed by thousands of video cameras to guarantee security. Crossroads stories between a kidnapped Hollywood producer, a police detective, a young actress wannabe, the controller of the system and his latino maid.

Urban spaces in different contexts: The suburbs

Dog Days (Ulrich Seidl, Austria, 2001) An unknown image of historical Vienna. The freeways, parking lots and supermarkets of European suburbs are also the location for rude characters and violent human relationships.

Hate (Mathieu Kasovitz, France, 1995) The working class suburbs explodes in riots. The protagonists suffer the social and spatial segregation of a modern housing complex transformed in ghetto.

Barrio (Fernando León, Spain, 1998) Three working class teenagers spent their summer holidays dreaming over a freeway bridge and joking in the surrounding wasteland of a housing project in Madrid.

About slums, favelas and shanty towns

City of God (Fernando Meirelles, Brasil, 2003) Shows the spatial and social transformation of a favela in Rio. It focuses on the daily violence between the gangs that control the neighborhood.

The Rose Seller (Victor Gaviria, Colombia, 1998) Describes the crude world of the children living in the streets of Medellin. With a documentary aesthetics follows a group of children during the Christmas days.

The urban Heritage

Lovers on the Bridge (Leos Carax, France, 1991) A great example of scenic art. The unique docks of downtown Paris, the Seine river included, recreated in studio to back the story of two homeless performing some spectacular sequences.

Amelie (Jean Pierre Jeunet, France, 2000) All the tools of fiction films to fulfill the imaginaries of the city of love. Paris, as we all dream it.

Steam: The Turkish Bath (Ferzan Ozpetek, Turkey, 2000) An Italian designer discovers the charm of Istanbul. Falling in love with the city he decides to save his heritage against a local developer.

Shower (Zhanf Yang, China, 2002) The old public bath is going to be demolished after a urban renovation project in a Beijing neighborhood. An homage to community’s life centered in this traditional place.

Beyond the Clouds (Michelangelo Antonioni, France, Italy, 1999) A film director wanders through European cities imaging characters and stories to be filmed in wonderful historic sets.

Strawberry and Chocolate (Tomas Gutierrez, Cuba, 1993) A critical gay artist living in Old Havana makes a dogmatic Marxist student discover the values of Cuban art and culture hidden by the official discourse. A call for a great historic city that is falling down.

About Mexico City in movies from the “Golden Era”

The Young and the Damned or Los Olvidados (Luis Buñuel, Mexico, 1950) This masterpiece shows the misery of shanty towns during the “Mexican economic miracle” period. It was censored by the Mexican government at the time because of its crude realism, something improper in commercial films at the time.

Ascent to Heaven or Mexican Bus Ride (Luis Buñuel, Mexico, 1953) The great Spanish director exiled in Mexico makes in this original comedy a portrait of Mexico city in the fifties. It shows places and characters already disappeared making it a historical document.

Las Caifanes (Juan Ibañez, México, 1966) The influence of the French New Wave appears in this Mexican film that tells a night encounter between a bourgeois couple and a group of brats wandering through Mexico city.

Other recent Mexican films that were used during the course but are not easy to find outside of the country:

Lolo (1991) The misadventures of a young worker accused of a murder, filmed on locations of Mexico city.

De la calle (2001) A dramatic version of the street children world. Locations in the Historic District.

Todo el poder (2000) A great opening shot of Mexico city, remains a conventional middle class comedy about the explosive increase of delinquency that affects Mexican society.

El jardin del eden (1994) A work from Maria Novaro, filmaker and sociologist in mythical Tijuana.

Perfume de Violetas (2003) About school violence in a popular neighborhood.

Japon (2003) A remarkable opening sequence presenting the evasion of the protagonist from the crowded Mexico city.

El mago (2004) The director recovers sincerely in a contemporary version the characters of popular Mexican cinema he admires.

Temporada de patos (2004) Shot entirely inside a middle class apartment, tells the Sunday evening of three shaggy teenagers and a pizza boy. The city is present in the soundtrack and in careful reference shots.

This list can be enlarged, but during the semester and in this track we have reasonable limitations of time, so I just want to mention some outstanding films that can be missed:

Salaam Bombay (Mira Nair, India, 1988), Night on Earth (Jim Jarmush, USA, 1991) Naked (Mike Leigh, UK, 1993), Raining Stones (Ken Loach, UK, 1993), Lisbon Story (Wim Wenders, Germany, 1995), Falling Angels (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 1996), Central do Brazil (Walter Sales, Brazil, 1998), Our Lady of the Assassins (Barbet Schroeder, Colombia, 2000), The Town is Quiet (France, Robert Gediguian, 2000), Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, USA, 2003), After Midnight (Davide Ferrario, Italy, 2004), Code 46 (Michael Winterbottom, UK, 2005)


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