This is the fourteenth post in the “The Best Films Set In…” series. The setting can be a place (like Tokyo), a location (like the beach), or a time (like Winter). In these posts we’re going to pick our 5 favourite films that are set in that particular place/location/time and explain why we like them. In this edition Andrew Buckle looks at films set in a city which is home to the 76ers, Eagles, Flyers and Phillies – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Set in a post-apocalyptic Philadelphia in the year 2035, Bruce Willis stars as James Cole, a convict sent back to the 1990’s to collect information on a deadly virus that has contaminated the Earth’s surface and forced survivors to move underground. It is thought to have been released by a terrorist organization known as the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, potentially founded by Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt in one of his best roles), a patient at a Baltimore mental institution where Willis’ character finds himself hospitalised. Inspired by Chris Marker’s masterful 1962 short film La Jetee, this is Terry Gilliam (Brazil) at his most visually inventive and intellectually stimulating. The shifts between dimensions and the plot twists will likely confound audiences on a first look but this is one of the most engaging science fiction films of the 90’s.
Rocky (John G. Avildsen, 1976)
The rags to riches tale of Stallone’s club fighter and debt collector Rocky Balboa who is given a privileged shot at the world heavyweight championship. The winner of Best Picture in 1976 is perhaps the most iconic and distinctive Philadelphia film of all. The 72 stone steps before the entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art have become known as the ‘Rocky Steps’. Stallone, to the song ‘Gonna Fly Now’, runs up the steps and punches the air in celebration to end the training montage, one of the most inspiring moments in cinema. The streets of the Kensington neighborhood where Balboa lives and frequents have so much character, while his fight with Apollo Creed was shot on location at the now-destroyed Philadelphia Spectrum.
The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan, 1999)
Look, another film starring Bruce Willis. That was not intentional. Willis must be attracted to scripts set in Philadelphia. M. Night Shyamalan is a Philadelphia native so several of his films are shot around the city, including Unbreakable, The Village and The Happening. The film was a surprise hit in 1999 and I’m sure there are few strangers to the plot specifics. That surprise ending, incredibly not spoiled to me by anyone before I saw it in 2003 (ish), is still one of the best disguised out there. I get the sense that the location in The Sixth Sense is not meant to be distinctly…Philadelphia. Much of the film takes place around the historic Old City, but the anonymity of many of the locations adds to the film’s creepiness.
The Woodsman (Nicole Kassell, 2004)
The début feature from Nicole Kassell features arguably Kevin Bacon’s finest, and riskiest, performance. He stars as Walter, a convicted child molester, who returns home to Philadelphia after serving 12 years in prison. He discovers that his family has abandoned him and the apartment set up for him is across the street from an elementary school. He is encompassed by loneliness and isolation. He gets a job at a lumberyard and finds unexpected solace through a colleague there. But, he finds himself living in fear of being discovered and is hounded by a police officer waiting for his demons to reawaken. The subject matter is tough, but Bacon’s powerful, deeply humane performance carries the film along – making us care for Walter. Kassell’s honest and sensitive direction ignites insight into the tormented mind of such a person.
Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, 2012)
I have saved my personal favourite until the end. I adore this film. Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) has recently been released from a Baltimore mental health facility after an eight-month stint following a violent incident involving his wife. He returns to Philadelphia, now diagnosed with bipolar disorder, to live with his mother and father (Jackie Weaver and Robert De Niro), and hopes to resurrect his marriage. Pat decides to try anything to prove he is a new man. He runs daily, sees a therapist, and pays old friends a visit, while bonding with his father – a superstitious, undiagnosed OCD sufferer who has recently started up a bookmaking racket in the hopes of saving up enough money to build a restaurant – over his beloved Philadelphia Eagles. But, the biggest influence on Pat’s life is the beautiful Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow dealing with her own problems. Reciprocating favours, together they find sought after stability and discipline in their lives. It is Pat Sr’s devotion to the Eagles – and his desire to spend time with his son watching the games, believing him to be a good luck charm – that is one of the most unique and rewarding elements of this film. The Eagles and their success become entwined with the fates of the Pat, Tiffany and the Solitano family.
It is hard to find a film more connected to a symbol of the city of Philadelphia than this. While some there are some heartbreaking dramatic developments, this remains a genuinely funny crowd-pleaser that is brilliantly written, directed and performed and challenges the conventions of the genre it adopts. It remains realistic and optimistic while unashamedly embracing the flaws (the ‘crazy’) present in each of us.
Also shot and set (at least in part) in Philadelphia: Atlantic City, Trading Places, Philadelphia, The Philadelphia Story, Witness, 42, A History of Violence and The Master. Some of these I haven’t seen, others I felt didn’t involve the city enough to make the top list.
By Andrew Buckle