Top 5 Films Set in Philadelphia

By February 1, 2018Main, Screenwriting 101

It’s Super Bowl Week! And for those of you outside of Southeastern Pennsylvania and the Northeastern United States, that probably doesn’t mean much. But still, odds are you cinephiles have friends, family, a television set or social feed that’s spending the entirety of this week talking about the Eagles, the Patriots, Tom Brady and someone named Nick Foles.

To honor the most watched annual spectacle on Earth, we’ve put together some film-centric pieces to get film fans ready for the big game. Today, we honor NFC Champions Philadelphia Eagles with the top 5 films set in Philadelphia.

Before we dive in, there are a surprisingly low number of films that take place entirely in the City of Brotherly Love. Despite being sandwiched between our nation’s largest city and our nation’s largest capital, Philly is still our fifth largest city. It has given the world Grace Kelly, Dick Clark, Sidney Lumet, Will Smith, Kevin Hart and Bradley Cooper… and yet, The Cradle of Liberty feels somewhat underrepresented on the big screen.

I digress, let’s proceed to the list…

Honorable Mention

I wanted to put Silver Linings Playbook on this list. Truly. It was the rare film to be nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and all four acting categories but I just couldn’t do it. If I could put the darkly comic first half of that film on this list, I would. But at the halfway point, it abandoned all of its strengths in favor of a formulaic rom-com centered around a dance competition. Plus, Robert De Niro REFUSING to speak in an authentic Philadelphia accent is, as Philadelphians would say, “harr-ible.”

I swear I have a list this time…

#5. Trading Places (1983)

You thought this took place in New York. Nope, Philly. Go ahead, look it up. The 1980s reimagining of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper managed to catch lightning in a bottle with Eddie Murphy’s performance. To say he steals the show would be an understatement. But beneath the laughs and performances, though, is a deeply sincere screenplay facing racism, classism, wealth disparity and, yes, white privilege in a way that feels ahead of its time even in 2018. And the disparity between Philadelphia’s urban working class and mainline ruling class serves as the source of the conflict.

#4. Twelve Monkeys (1995)

Watching a Terry Gilliam film is equally likely to entrance you into the magical world of his creation or make you want to peel your skin off in maddening awkward frustration with little in between. Regardless of your feelings toward the 1995 time-travel dystopian thriller, no one can deny how impressive and effective the surreal depiction of Philadelphia is in the film. Serving as a stand-in for the diseased society that Bruce Willis’ James Cole travels back in time to save everyone from, Philadelphia comes to life in a vibrant yet terrifying way.

#3. The Sixth Sense (1999)

Written and directed by homegrown talent M. Night Shyamalan, it is devastating to think that this meticulously crafted supernatural thriller has been reduced to punchlines and clichés over the years. Yes, Haley Joel Osment sees dead people. Yes, Bruce Willis is dead the whole movie (sorry for the spoilers, you had 19 years). People remember the shocking ending, but you owe it to yourself to go back and watch the amazing character work the script explores between both mother and son and husband and wife. Rather than using the gimmick of seeing deceased souls for cheap thrills, Shyamalan explores something much deeper.

It is hard to imagine another city serving quite so fittingly as the backdrop for a story of history, ghosts and loss. Philadelphia’s eighteenth-century Georgian homes, cavernous churches, and reappropriated historical buildings all add extra strain on Cole’s ability to see those who have died.

#2. The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Okay, so the plot of this film could have been easily transferred to a wealthy suburb of any major US city and the entire thing was filmed in Culver City, but still, have you seen this script?! To say nothing of the cast that included Katherine Hepburn, James Stewart and Carey Grant, the script is the gold standard of witty romantic comedies. Don’t believe me? Here are some quotes:

Tracy Lord: I’m going crazy. I’m standing here solidly on my own two hands and I’m going crazy.

Macauley Connor: Champagne’s funny stuff. I’m used to whiskey. Whiskey is a slap on the back and champagne’s heavy mist before my eyes.

C.K. Dexter Haven: The moon is also a goddess, chaste and virginal.

Tracy Lord: Oh, stop using those foul words.

Macauley Connor: Doggone it, C.K. Dexter Haven! Either I’m gonna sock you or you’re gonna sock me.

C.K. Dexter Haven: Shall we toss a coin?

Alright, fine, I’ll stop. But seriously go see this film if you haven’t yet. It’s the emblematic gem of writing a script so smart, so funny and so interesting that three of the best actors of all time are dying to bring the words to life.

Plus, you know, it’s set in Philadelphia.

1. Rocky (1976)

Believe me, I tried to justify making another movie number one, but it can’t be done. Nothing was even close. To call Rocky and Philadelphia synonymous with one another doesn’t really tell the whole story. To this day, Philadelphia has a statue of Rocky (a fictional character) played by Sylvester Stallone (originally from New York, though he did go to high school in Philly) on the steps of their art museum.

Rocky Balboa, an aspiring boxer from South Philadelphia, is chosen as a sacrificial lamb for the heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed, who is looking for a gimmicky opponent in Philadelphia to coincide with the bicentennial. And there, the setting and the protagonist become inseparable. Rocky does not aspire to beat Apollo Creed; he knows he cannot. He does not aspire to achieve fame or glory… he just wants dignity and respect. He wants to be taken seriously by those who doubt him. He wants to impress the girl he has a crush on at the local pet shop. If he is to be the punching bag for the celebrity champion, he wants to go down swinging and make his friends, family and city proud of him along the way.

To think that story could have worked in New York or Boston or Los Angeles is to not grasp the mentality of Philadelphia. The entire attitude and way of life of the city is a character in the film as much as Rocky, Adrian, Mick and Apollo are. And if you think being dismissed as underdogs to the heavily-favored marquee champion isn’t an experience that resonates with Philadelphians, well then, you need to read up on Super Bowl LII…

Coming tomorrow, Top 5 films set in New England but NOT Boston…


Tom Dever writes for The Script Lab.

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