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10 Movies and TV Shows Where the Location is a Star

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Across the globe and across generations, these are stories with settings as important as any character with dialogue.

Holland

Amsterdam as seen in “The Tale of Kat & Dog”

Courtesy The Tale of Kat & Dog: A Holland Cool Movie

Editor’s note: This article is presented in partnership with the Holland Marketing Alliance and their award-winning “Holland. The Original Cool” travel series. You can watch their new short film, “The Tale of Kat & Dog: A Holland Cool Movie,” below.

Film and television are windows into places across the globe, but even the most lifelike depictions can’t incorporate all the intangibles. Give it a story, and a city, town, state, or country can represent the characters’ deepest wishes and anxieties. They invite the audience to go beyond the landmarks and skylines to uncover the emotional reward beneath.

We were inspired by the ground-level perspective of “The Tale of Kat & Dog,” which takes a dog’s-eye view of Amsterdam that goes beyond the usual passerby B-roll:

Below, we’ve gathered a few more of those standout places that meant more to their stories than just a shooting location.

Paris in “Funny Face”

The City of Lights has a rich cinematic tradition, but few films capture the mix of tourist disconnect and genuine romance of Paris better than Stanley Donen’s 1957 musical. Glossy at times and lush throughout, Paris becomes the hub of reinvention for a shy shopkeeper who’s swept  into the world of fashion. “Bonjour, Paris!” the song that signals the fashion magazine crew’s arrival in the city, is a gleeful embrace of a tourist perspective, infatuated with all the cultural verve not afforded to American metropolises. There’s more to Paris than the Eiffel Tower, but this gets at why the city looms so large in the global imagination.

Mayberry, North Carolina in “The Andy Griffith Show”

 

From its initial airings through its syndication run, the Mayberry of “The Andy Griffith Show” has become a go-to pop culture conception of small-town Americana. From Andy and Barney’s courthouse home base to the one-of-everything string of stores, shops, and schools that lined its streets, the town was also a model for bringing that tight-knit community sensibility to a ’60s TV show backlot. The idea that one officer could be involved in every significant weekly exploit within the city limits didn’t seem so much a TV constraint as it was a natural extension of what the town represented. It helped prove that a self-contained, self-sufficient TV town didn’t have to be the exclusive purview of the Old West or science-fiction.

West Berlin in “Wings of Desire”

Wim Wenders’ Palme d’Or-winning “Paris, Texas” hovered above the empty streets and urban twilight glow of the American South. Three years later, Wenders brought that graceful touch to his home country, this time from an angel’s perspective. As main character Damiel considers forsaking his perch above West Berlin to pursue a life on Earth, he’s drawn by his love for a woman. Damiel’s feelings continue to drive him through the city (aided by one of the greatest cameos in cinema), offering Wenders a chance to engage with Berlin’s present. But “Wings of Desire” is also mindful of the past, showing how a land that offers enough treasure for an angel to take corporeal form can’t be removed from its history.

Los Angeles in “Collateral”


On-screen, there are few better ways to gauge a city than from the back seat. Some might point to “Heat” as Michael Mann’s Los Angeles magnum opus, but there’s something about the way “Collateral” drives around the city at night that captures its true nature. “Collateral” brings its hitman antagonist Vincent (Tom Cruise) out of the city’s seedy underbelly and plops him onto various forms of transportation across highways and side streets. Unlike other LA-set movies and shows that conveniently compress the map to subvert time constraints (looking at you, “24”), “Collateral” indulges the city’s expanse. There’s plenty to fill your time in Los Angeles, but this shows how important it is to know how to get around.

Dillon, Texas in “Friday Night Lights”

“FNL” was as compelling for its off-the-field drama as it was for its in-game action, and the show’s masterful first season drew much of its strength from the full tapestry of the Texas town. Buddy Garrity’s car dealership, Jason Street’s recovery hospital — heck, even the future locations for clandestine shovel murders felt like distinct places that helped bolster the show’s pivotal emotional threads. Like so many cities where the morale of fall weekends wax and wane with gridiron success and failure, the Dillon Panthers and the community were inextricably linked. The biggest testament to Dillon’s place in the show’s DNA? While the show remained a creative success when its focus moved to another locale for later seasons, losing the blue-and-yellow-laden town almost felt like losing a friend.

Hiroshima, Japan in “Hiroshima mon amour”

The Japanese city of the title isn’t the only  location in Alain Resnais’ 1959 classic. But through the eyes of a foreigner (Emmanuelle Riva) and her lover (Eiji Hokada), Hiroshima’s tragic past becomes the epicenter for memories that span decades and continents. Those two characters are only known as “Her” and “Him,” while the faraway city that somehow entwines them has a name and with it added reverence. As Resnais incorporates formal approaches to documenting the time before  and after the city’s bombing, “Hiroshima mon amour” is a reminder that a city’s identity is defined both by those living and those lost.

Pawnee, Indiana in “Parks and Recreation”

“Parks and Recreation” found a nobility in public service that stemmed from its appreciation of the town itself. Some of the show’s best episodes were built on accepting characters despite their faults. Whenever the show ventured back to an ill-fated town hall, it was Leslie Knope doing the same for the city she shepherded. The town of Pawnee didn’t have a spotless history, but the drive to preserve its best qualities always reflected a specific pride in the potential of its future. (And it made those showdowns with Eagleton that much sweeter.)

St. Petersburg, Florida in “Spring Breakers”

Harmony Korine may have taken some creative liberties when he turned this Florida city into a tropical destination beset by a hallucinatory mix of neon swimwear and Skrillex. As a stand-in for an angsty teenage paradise, it’s a mighty pure distillation. Stories of high school and college students coming to grips with family expectations can happen anywhere. But there’s something about the way this central foursome faces those challenges in harsh sunlight in full view of the Atlantic Ocean that makes their surroundings a cautionary dreamscape. Once the sun goes down and things take a turn for the sinister, it forces these girls to confront the fact that those enticing illusions are fated to end.

Laketop, New Zealand in “Top of the Lake”

One of the most significant works of TV’s Streaming Era, Garth Jones and Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake” benefits immensely from a stunning control of tone and atmosphere. Featuring strong performances by the stellar cast (Elisabeth Moss, Holly Hunter, Peter Mullan et al.), the series’ first run of episodes was deeply rooted in its New Zealand setting. The search for a missing child, led by Moss’ Detective Robin Griffin, travels across forests, plains, and lonely highways, viewed through the eyes of someone who’s all too familiar with the town’s traumatic past. As the investigation dredges up painful memories, they’re set against excursions into the natural wonder just beyond the town’s edges. The series delivered a potent mix of hope, anger, and an ethereal sense of self-discovery that only this backdrop could offer.

New York City in “They Came Together”

What better way to honor the concept of location-as-character than the movie that not only joked about it, but included it at the bottom of its poster? One of the best parts about David Wain’s satire is that it not only skewers the well-worn path of rom-coms, but also takes aim at the oversimplified way that movies approach “the big city.” In acknowledging that these quirky love stories seem to bring together the same two kinds of people, it’s also shows how (like other major world cities on this list) there’s a separate idea of New York that’s the stuff of romantic fantasies, from the opening overhead shots of Central Park to the whimsical contrasting pastels. Meet-cutes can happen anywhere, but the movies give a certain currency to ones that happen on a carefully controlled public walkway.

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