Pennsylvania is a massive state. I know, because as a child I would spend multiple days in the car every summer, trekking with my parents from Illinois to their hometowns in Pennsylvania’s northeastern corner—the Wyoming Valley, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area, the Coal Region, the hellhole, whatever you want to call it—the drive from one end of Pennsylvania to the other always seeming unbelievably long. This is partly because of ubiquitous road construction, and partly because the whole state felt eclectic to me, a sense that persisted once I grew up and settled in Pittsburgh. But despite the many regional differences spanning the Keystone State, there’s an intangible essence of Pennsylvania-ness that exists throughout, an essence also captured in the best of Pennsylvanian film.
Pennsylvania-ness is inextricable from American industry—coal and steel, smokestacks and mine shafts, boom and bust and recession and depression—which transformed Pennsylvania in many ways, perhaps most significantly by attracting millions of immigrants (largely from Eastern and Southern Europe) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These immigrant communities are widely recognizable in Pennsylvania today, with some areas still unofficially segregated by ethnicity.
Pennsylvania is also a major swing state, a complicated region for politicians to navigate—a microcosm, of sorts, of America in the past half-decade. Take the political, cultural and economic divide between the state’s urban centers—cosmopolitan Philadelphia and Pittsburgh (once the rustiest of the rust belt, now flush with tech money and rapidly gentrifying)—and its impoverished rural areas. See also the state’s still-profound grief (happily exploited by the Trump campaign) over the decline of blue-collar jobs, one that began with the devastating 1982 steel crash and continues to this day.
Then observe the diversity of Pennsylvania’s people and the sense of pride within those immigrant communities which, generations later, still remain close-knit and culturally vital. Born out of these factors is an essential aspect of Pennsylvania-ness: a hard-won sense of belonging, of a group of people who dug in their heels and stuck it out, with good humor, while things around them fell apart.
While this feeling of rooted-ness is central to the spirit of Pennsylvania, it also serves to exacerbate divisions among its people. In the Pennsylvanian films on this list, the impact of industry looms, as does this sense of division—between urban and rural, between working class and ruling class, between insular communities living side-by-side. Yes, Pennsylvania is a massive state, with so many people and so much difference churning within it. So many stories to tell. And so, it’s from a plethora of options that I’ve culled a list of 20 Pennsylvania-based films that, taken as a whole, just might shed some light on this tough, dirty, beautiful state. Grab a cheesesteak, some pierogies and a frosty Yuengling—gather ’round, yinz and youse.
(And for more in our growing United States of Film series, check here.)
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
M. Night Shyamalan is one of Pennsylvania’s most loyal filmmakers, having shot every single one of his films at least partially in the state. And while not all of them feel particularly connected to place, 2002’s Signs exudes Pennsylvania-ness. The film opens on a lonely farm in Bucks County, PA (actually Doylestown, just north of Philadelphia), where former Episcopalian priest Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) lives with his children (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin), his baseball-star-turned-gas-station-attendant brother (Joaquin Phoenix), and the shadow of his deceased wife, whose death in an accident months earlier prompted Graham’s crisis of faith. Strange things begin occurring on the farm: complex crop circles, footsteps on the roof, aggression from the family dogs. Soon, the family is in the middle of a full-blown, global alien invasion. Bucks County is a place where everyone knows each other, and business owners speak disdainfully of “city people,” but this is not the kind of story where a small town bands together. It’s far from a warm community, and in fact it feels empty, judgmental and ever so slightly off in that uncanny Twilight Zone-esque way. And like The Twilight Zone before it, Signs finds its horror not in the aliens themselves (who, as many complained at the time of the films’ release, are pretty lame) but in the deep, unmooring sorrow that’s swallowing this family whole—an enemy not so easily defeated.
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Blue Valentine is in some ways the anti-date movie: It follows a young couple, Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling), who meet, fall in love, hastily get married and then realize they don’t know each other at all, adopting a routine of silent, seething resentment that builds into a desperate bitterness. But it is still a love story, a heartbreaking and beautiful one, captured in career-best performances from Williams and Gosling and clever cinematography from Andrij Parekh, who shot the couple’s early relationship in Super 16mm, and their crumbling marriage in harsh digital. The setting of Honesdale, PA (just outside of Scranton) was chosen arbitrarily (Williams wanted to stay close to her Brooklyn home), but it fits the mood of the film perfectly. Honesdale represents rural coal country in an era of decline—it’s a place of quaint charm but limited opportunity. Stuck in a tiny house with bickering parents, Cindy sees an escape in Dean, a worldly and self-sufficient Brooklynite. But when Cindy becomes pregnant, the two repeat her parents’ bitter cycle and, both disappointed over dashed dreams, lash out with a jealousy and anger that destroys their fragile union. In light of the characters’ experiences, the setting appears charming in one scene (a blissful rendezvous outside a dress shop, where Gosling plays the ukulele) and bleak in another (a disastrous “date” in a tacky honeymoon suite).
Director: David O. Russell
As a romantic comedy, Silver Linings Playbook is a bit of a mess, but it deserves acclaim for its spot-on depiction of suburban Philadelphia. Shot in the historic suburbs of Upper Darby and Ridley Park, the film follows Pat (Bradley Cooper), fresh from a stint in a mental health facility and grappling with bipolar disorder while crashing with his Italian-American parents Dolores (Jacki Weaver) and Patrizio (Robert De Niro), an illegal bookmaker who gambles compulsively on—what else—the embattled Philadelphia Eagles. These larger-than-life characters are grounded by humble details, like their ’70s-style living room and their crabby snacks and homemades. While Silver Linings Playbook’s central focus is on Pat’s burgeoning relationship with young widow Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), its most potent element is its depiction of a dysfunctional family, particularly the relationship between a father and son both struggling with psychological issues. Pats Sr. and Jr. manipulate and infuriate each other, all the while relying on sports and superstition as a conduit. In fact, the film’s best scenes revolve around the Eagles: Pat and his brother brawl with Giants fans, faces and chests painted; Tiffany rattles off Eagles stats to prove to Patrizio that she’s “good juju.” Russell’s cacophonous directorial style can sometimes lapse too readily into chaos, but he finds a sweet spot with Silver Linings Playbook, a film about trying to sort out the tangled mess of family and mental illness until ultimately giving up, settling into a chair, and saying, “Fuck it, let’s watch football.”
Director: Michael Chapman
All the Right Moves depicts Pennsylvania steel country in “desperate 1983,” described in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as “a region hanging on by its fingernails.” Set in the fictional steel town of Ampipe and filmed in the real steel town of Johnstown (near Pittsburgh), the film stars a young Tom Cruise as Stefan “Stef” Djordjevic (described as “Serbian-American,” though this detail does not factor into the plot), a working-class kid who hopes that football will save him from the typical Ampipe life: working all day at the mill and drinking all night at the bar. All the Right Moves is almost elegiac, a film like a Bruce Springsteen song, as Stef’s buddies face down the end of high school, and with it, the crushing end of their glory days. Even the football scenes feel more like work than play, the team practicing under gray skies (and the hawk-like gaze of the coach played by Craig T. Nelson), in pouring rain and mud, with smokestacks in the distance belching out white pollution. Though the film’s ending is a bit too pat and happy for Stef himself, All the Right Moves is an authentic-seeming portrayal of life in western PA during the height of the region’s devastating economic recession, a fact that makes it still worth watching decades later.
Director: Tay Garnett
Another Steel City story, The Valley of Decision takes place in Pittsburgh in a more prosperous time (the late 19th century), when industry was rapidly growing, making mill owners richer and putting workers at greater risk of exploitation. In the film, Gregory Peck is Paul Scott, the wealthy son of a mill owner who falls in love with his father’s maid, Mary (Greer Garson, in an Oscar-nominated performance), an Irish immigrant. The lovers are star-crossed, however, not just because of their awkward master/servant relationship, but also because Mary’s father (Lionel Barrymore, at his most belligerent) has held a grudge against the Scott family ever since a serious mill accident left him confined to a wheelchair. Mary and Paul’s romance slowly blossoms against the ever-chaotic backdrop of the mill, where tensions between striking workers and the Scott family come to a head. The Valley of Decision captures the early days of the steel industry in Pennsylvania, and the complex relationships forged between immigrant workers and mill owners who were often immigrants themselves forced to navigate old grudges and friendships in the face of newfound wealth. It’s a lot to take on, and the film staggers a bit under its weight, but manages to make an impact. “Steel’s as much a part of us as the blood in our veins,” Paul declares, summing up a sentiment that simmered throughout Western Pennsylvania for over a century and, to some extent, still does.
Director: Tim Robbins
Watching Tim Robbins’ satirical 1992 mockumentary Bob Roberts in 2017 is a grim experience—not only because parts of the film feel startlingly prescient, but also because when Robbins thought he was taking things to absurd extremes, it turns out he was only scratching the surface. Robbins stars as the titular Roberts, a conservative candidate for Pennsylvania senate who wins over the electorate with his tendency to “shoot from the hip” and his ridiculous folk songs about family values, drug addicts and the evils of welfare. Of course, the straight-shooting image Roberts presents is a façade, one that conceals illegal and immoral dealings. Only one reporter (Giancarlo Esposito) has the guts to try and take him down—at his own peril. It’s an utterly cynical film, but Robbins’ critique of American politics as an inescapable cycle of corruption is still sharp and on point. This story is right at home in the battleground state of Pennsylvania, where some of the most contentious political battles (like 2016’s Senate race) have been waged. What might have felt too dark in the 1990s manages to hit pretty hard in 2017, though it may now bring you closer to tears than laughter.
Director: Greg Mottola
It can’t all be steel mill layoffs and dark political plots: Adventureland, one of the more lighthearted films on this list, is a pitch-perfect coming-of-age story. In the summer of 1987, twenty-somethings James (Jesse Eisenberg), Em (Kristen Stewart) and Joel (Martin Starr, who steals the movie) find each other in the purgatory of the Adventureland Amusement Park (actually Pittsburgh’s historic Kennywood), passing their days operating rides and un-winnable games when they’d rather be anywhere else. Writer-director Mottola’s success lies in his resistance to romanticizing his characters—Eisenberg’s James, in particular, is just as annoying and self-absorbed as a real 22-year-old Oberlin grad, and gets called on it. Likewise, the Pittsburgh of Adventureland is real, an insider’s city, not a city of landmarks. The film explores the day-to-day Pittsburgh of neighborhoods, of patchy, unruly yards, of dive bars, of wood-paneled basements in old brick houses teetering on strenuous hills. To these characters, it’s also a dead-end town from which escape is the best option, lest they wind up like Ryan Reynolds’ maintenance man Connell, committing adultery in his mother’s basement and bragging endlessly about meeting Lou Reed. “Your life must be utter shit, or you wouldn’t be here,” Joel observes to James at the beginning of the film. But Adventureland’s fondness for its city and its flawed characters shines through such self-deprecation.
Director: Adrian Lyne
Flashdance is by far the most popular film to celebrate the Steel City, a trendsetting hit in 1983 that’s still worth appreciating for its amusingly dated mix of music video, underdog story and romantic drama. Flashdance also pulls off the impressive feat of being both blatantly sexist (its leering, chopped-up body shots are obvious Laura Mulvey material) and feminist: Sure, the camera spends a good portion of the movie zoomed in on Alex’s (Jennifer Beals) gyrating hips, but it also captures her at her day job as a welder at the steel mill, certainly a rare occupation for an 18-year-old girl in 1983. As in so many of the films on this list, the Pittsburgh of Flashdance is one of faded glory: Its characters live in industrial spaces (like Alex’s proto-Bushwick apartment) and tiny townhouses, dance in seedy bars and encounter sleazy characters on its dimly lit streets. Similarly to The Valley of Decision, Flashdance revolves around the fundamentally unequal relationship between Alex and the wealthy owner of the mill that employs her, but Flashdance ultimately cares more about jazzercise than labor relations. The film skews into cliché a few too many times, but finds a gritty charm on the margins of its central story by shedding light on the roughest corners of the city and bringing its people to life.
Director: Curtis Hanson
When I read Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys a few years after seeing the movie, I was immediately struck by how deftly the adaptation (by Steve Kloves, who also adapted the Harry Potter series) captured the story and also the feel of the novel. In turn, the novel and the film both nail the specific culture of academia in Pittsburgh, a city that’s not-quite-east coast, not-quite-Philadelphia, and attracts an interesting mix of pretentious city snobs and salt-of-the-earth rust belt-ers —two categories straddled by Grady Tripp, played by Michael Douglas in one of the best (albeit completely ignored) performances of his career. Tripp is a perpetually stoned English professor and author who rattles around a messy, old house (shot appropriately in Friendship, a popular university neighborhood) working on a follow-up to his one famous novel, published long ago. Wonder Boys follows Tripp and a great cast, including pre-Iron Man Robert Downey, Jr., pre-Spider-Man Tobey Maguire and Frances McDormand, through a madcap Pittsburgh weekend involving a dead dog, a stolen car, a break-in and a lost manuscript. It doesn’t attempt to find visual beauty in the Golden Triangle (teeming rain and freezing cold often greet Grady as he stumbles out the door in his bathrobe), but rather something more existential in its spontaneity and at times frustrating connectedness: It’s smaller, and more complicated, than it seems.
Director: Martin Ritt
Released to poor box office numbers in 1970, this film about Pennsylvania coal miners remains unknown to many aside from coal country-bred Irish-Americans like my parents, who insisted I include it on this list. But The Molly Maguires is well worth seeing, as it tells an essential Pennsylvania story. Set in 1876, the film is based on the true story of a group of Irish immigrant miners belonging to the “Molly Maguires,” a secret organization (originally formed in Ireland around land usage disputes) who targeted oppressive mine owners by planting dynamite in mines and destroying equipment. Sean Connery stars as Maguires leader Jack Kehoe, with Richard Harris playing James McParlan, a Pinkerton detective hired to infiltrate and undermine the group. The film revolves around these two men on opposite sides, who take vastly different approaches to the same personal goals. The Molly Maguires’ biggest selling point is its realistic depiction of life in an Irish-American coal community, with its miners’ shacks, bare-bones pub and black, coal-dusted hills. Luckily, Ritt was able to shoot in Eckley, PA, a coal town that at the time of filming remained virtually unchanged from the late 19th century (it is now a museum). The Molly Maguires is a small-scale film that manages to speak volumes about Pennsylvania in the 1870s—a rising industrial capital built on the backs of immigrant workers who were already beginning to organize and fight for their rights.
Director: Peter Weir
In any discussion of Pennsylvania’s cultural eccentricities, we’d be remiss to leave out the Pennsylvania Dutch, otherwise known as the Amish, whose population still tops 300,000 to this day. Peter Weir’s Witness is, surprisingly, still the only mainstream cinematic treatment of the Amish, a group that’s often the butt of jokes and general misunderstanding in popular culture. Witness takes an open-minded approach, depicting the Amish as a group of people who, though they live according to a rigid set of beliefs, are not terribly different from the rest of us where it counts. That said, this is very much a film of the Reagan era, playing up the juxtaposition between a city rife with depravity and the quaint, simple life of the Amish. Harrison Ford plays John Book, a police officer forced to hide out with an Amish widow, Rachel (Kelly McGillis), when her son (Lukas Haas) witnesses one of Book’s fellow officers (Danny Glover) commit a murder. The Philadelphia of Witness is almost cartoonishly corrupt and conspiratorial, but the film balances this with its sensitive rendering of its characters. Raised in the Amish community, Rachel is generally naïve to a lot of American culture, but she’s still a mature, fully formed human being, and the film doesn’t take the easy way out by “rescuing” her from her Amish life. John and Rachel share a crucial understanding, but in the end they step back into their own worlds, unable to bridge the gulf.
Director: Brian De Palma
Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, a spiritual sequel to Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow Up, tells the story of B-movie sound technician, Jack Terry (John Travolta), who witnesses a strange car accident while recording one night near Philadelphia’s Henry Avenue Bridge. When he rescues Sally (Karen Allen), the vehicle’s passenger, he becomes entwined in a political scandal. Echoing both Blow Up and Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), the film weaves a web of conspiracy and paranoia, as Jack and Sally, two lost and drifting souls, decide to do the right thing, exposing a plot against the governor at their own risk. Blow Out, too, is an iconic “gritty Philadelphia” film, one that seems to take joy in undercutting the city’s pride: The whole plot hinges on corrupt politicians and their operatives, there’s a “Liberty Bell Strangler” on the loose and its climactic moment of violence plays before a giant American flag during the city’s “Liberty Day” parade. The film revisits De Palma’s reoccurring obsession with voyeurism, one that suits the public spaces of Philadelphia. From the train station, to the subway, to the streets, to even the characters’ own apartments, someone’s always listening—except, of course, in the film’s ironic dénouement, when screams go unheard on the teeming city streets.
Director: George Romero
George Romero once said, “I’ve always felt that the real horror is next door to us, that the scariest monsters are our neighbors.” That’s certainly true in Night of the Living Dead, which takes place in a rural PA farmhouse (in Evans City, just north of Pittsburgh) where paranoid local vigilantes become just as dangerous as the slobbering undead they’re fighting. Romero is one of Pittsburgh’s greatest treasures: Though born in the Bronx, he began his film career in the Steel City, working for Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood after graduating from Carnegie Mellon. Upon its release, Night of the Living Dead made a surprisingly big impact for a B-movie. For one, Romero’s style was considered so graphic at the time that it sparked a debate about censorship and age requirements for horror cinema. (Roger Ebert wrote about his experience watching alongside a crowd of traumatized children.) But it was the film’s element of social commentary that made it a cult classic: Romero has acknowledged that the film is in part a reaction to what he considered a failure of the peace movement. Additionally, it echoes the ongoing carnage in Vietnam and simmering hostilities between the anti-war contingent and the “silent majority.” Romero’s decision to cast a black actor in the lead role (Duane Jones, the first black actor to headline a horror film) added another layer of relevance, with the film’s ruthless, devastating ending unintentionally mirroring the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. just months prior.
Director: George Cukor
In The Philadelphia Story, the city is more a representation of status than a presence—it was actually shot on a single set on the MGM lot in Culver City. But George Cukor’s romantic comedy classic was so popular and decorated that it became one of the films most associated with Philadelphia in the popular imagination. It’s also one of the few films to depict Pennsylvania—gritty, coal-coated Pennsylvania—as a potentially glamorous destination, as it trains its focus on Philadelphia’s then-thriving old money aristocracy. Katharine Hepburn stars as wealthy socialite Tracy Lord, an independent-minded divorcée with a razor sharp wit who is embarking upon her second marriage, to a dud of a fiancé played by John Howard. Of course, her ex-husband (Cary Grant) just happens to show up, bringing with him friends from Spy Magazine (Jimmy Stewart and Ruth Hussey) to clandestinely report on the wedding. The Philadelphia Story never denies how out of touch its upper-crust characters are, and mines humor from their frivolous approach to life. It’s an irresistible showcase for three legendary actors—Hepburn, Grant and Stewart—who gleefully fire off Cukor’s crackling dialogue, fight, reminisce, lust after each other, get drunk and go swimming in an outdoor pool that would only serve a Philadelphian for about three months out of the year.
Director: Jonathan Demme
Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia is one of those 1990s prestige pictures that we don’t see the likes of much anymore. With a top-notch cast of stars and dramatic courtroom sequences, its Philadelphia is handsome and diverse, shot brightly and expansively (plus, it hits the classic rock jackpot with original music by Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young). But within Philadelphia beats the heart of an art house flick, and it excels not only in its delicate handling of AIDS, homosexuality and mortality, but also in its thoughtful examination of homophobia—all of which shouldn’t have been expected in a mainstream film at the time. Tom Hanks as Andy Bennett, afflicted with AIDS and suing his employer (a fancy law firm headed by a glowering Jason Robards) for wrongful termination, is, in standard ‘90s message-movie fashion, more or less a saint: a brilliant, compassionate upper-middle-class lawyer with a loving partner (Antonio Banderas) and a large, understanding family. More complex is Denzel Washington’s character, a “TV lawyer” who agrees to take Andy’s case but struggles to reconcile his own knee-jerk homophobia, even as he becomes his client’s friend and champion. Philadelphia acts as an appropriate backdrop for these conflicts, and the film’s extended opening montage pointedly takes us all over the city, highlighting its stately humanity, as if to say, “This is just one small story of justice and tragedy. But there are many more here to tell.”
Director: Denzel Washington
It’s hard to believe that Fences marks only the second film adaptation of an August Wilson work—the first being a 1995 made-for-TV version of The Piano Lesson. Fences is key in what is referred to as Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle,” a series of plays that depict life in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, where the writer was born and raised. Once the city’s center for African-American culture and jazz, the Hill District is now a shadow of its former self, mainly due to an ill-conceived 1950s “redevelopment project” that displaced many black families and businesses. Filmed on location in the Hill, Fences tells the emotionally turbulent story of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), a 50-year-old former Negro League ball player whose life hasn’t turned out the way he planned. He works long days for the sanitation department and comes home to a loving wife, Rose (Viola Davis), a son he doesn’t understand and a brother, brain damaged in the war, who depends on him. Wilson could do extraordinary things with dialogue, and Washington and the stellar supporting cast make Wilson’s words sing. But it’s Davis’s quiet Rose who pulls you in the most. While Troy talks endlessly about his disappointments and regrets, Rose’s show on her face and in her posture as she moves around the house and around him. Most of Fences is, as its title implies, restricted to the short radius of the Maxsons’ life: the small house, the narrow backyard, the alleys between townhouses. But instead of feeling superficial, Fences emerges as a sincere story of a place and its people, of the confining and the confined.
Director: George Romero
It’s nearly impossible to choose the superior film between Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and 1978 follow-up Dawn of the Dead, but the latter has the edge on this list because of its iconic location: the Monroeville Mall in suburban Pittsburgh, which in the film becomes a crass playground for humans and zombies alike. (The mall still stands today, but renovations have sadly stripped it of its kitschy ’70s set pieces.) While Night of the Living Dead took a grimly austere approach to the zombie apocalypse, Dawn of the Dead’s mood is more of a sort of manic delirium. In Romero’s sequel, a small group of survivors seek refuge at the mall in the course of fleeing the end of the world, playing house in back offices while hordes of zombies ride up and down escalators in search of human meat. Romero’s rarely without sly political motive (as he told Time in 2010, “If there’s something I’d like to criticize, I can bring the zombies out”), and Dawn of the Dead aims its satire squarely at consumerist American culture. The undead clamor at the doors of J.C. Penney, drooling and falling down, and even the film’s main characters find plenty of time for shopping (between violent zombie battles), in rapidly edited, candy-colored looting scenes, backed by cheerful stock music. Dawn of the Dead’s strange giddiness, combined with cartoonish gore, add a unique style and a feeling to a genre Romero was only beginning to define, but its ending is a direct callback to Night of the Living Dead: Laughably hapless zombies largely ignored, the mall becomes the site of a human-on-human battle, motivated by selfishness and suspicion.
Director: Harold Ramis
In Groundhog Day, the divide between urban and rural attitudes is front and center: Bill Murray’s Phil Connors begins the film as an embittered city cynic, but after 30 to 40 years (by some estimates) of seeing the other side, he eventually comes around (though not until he hits rock bottom). Rumor has it that during the filming of Groundhog Day, Murray and Harold Ramis had a falling out over the film’s tone: Murray wanted to take the script to darker places, while Ramis preferred a lighter, more Capra-esque comedy. Though it was a blow to their friendship, this disagreement produced one of the best comedies of all time, one that walks a hair-thin line between joy and despair (and gives us the gift of deadpan Murray at his finest). Connors is a Pittsburgh weatherman whose rude, self-absorbed behavior keeps him from forming any close relationships, and the universe chooses as his penance a near-eternity in Punxsutawney, a gray Pennsylvania town whose singular claim to fame is perhaps the world’s most boring and meaningless holiday. Though it was filmed in Illinois, the film’s spirit is firmly with the people of Punxsutawney, who revel in tradition but also feel the grind of small town life with little glamor. (See Connors’s exchange with Punxsutawney resident Ralph (Rick Overton): “What would you do if every day was exactly the same, and nothing you did mattered?” “That about sums it up for me.”) It’s a testament to the film’s greatness that it’s become synonymous with the holiday—one seemingly dreamed up just to keep the good people of Pennsylvania going through a cold, predictable February.
Director: Michael Cimino
Ah, The Deer Hunter, a movie of grand ambition and messy politics, one that critics exalt for its thoughtful depiction of working class Pennsylvanians while in the same breath condemning it for its racist one-sidedness and ponderous ambiguity. But despite Michael Cimino’s shortcomings, with The Deer Hunter he created a film truly unlike any other, an episodic saga that captures what Pauline Kael eloquently called “poetry of the commonplace” while also boiling over with anti-war sentiment and palpable rage regarding American troops’ experiences in Vietnam. The film’s first hour alone is a work of art, a fly-on-the-wall documentation of life in a Pennsylvania steel town (with eastern Ohio mostly standing in), as a group of friends including Nick (Christopher Walken), Michael (Robert De Niro) and Julie (Meryl Streep) prepare for two key events: a large, raucous Russian Orthodox wedding and the imminent departure of the men for Vietnam, where they realize their lives will forever be changed. The film’s shocking second act, with its POW Russian Roulette games and Nick’s torturous break with reality, is of course its most memorable. But the scenes that bookend that horror are the ones that earn it a place on this list, and ground its most ghoulish and surreal sequences in the real sense of despondency that threatened to drown many communities in the wake of the war.
Director: John G. Avildsen
Ask most people what Pennsylvania movies they know, and more often than not, their first answer will be Rocky, a peculiar little underdog story, starring the then-unknown Sylvester Stallone, that became the highest-grossing film of 1976 as well as that year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture. More than any other film, Rocky highlights the city of Philadelphia, juxtaposing its most domineering features with our small-time hero. To this day, the “Rocky steps” (a.k.a. the stairs leading up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art) remain a tourist attraction, complete with a bronze Rocky statue that was erected in 1980. The film spawned a mammoth franchise of seven sequels (the best by far is 2015’s Creed), demonstrating the timeless appeal of Rocky Balboa, a weirdo Italian-American street rat who talks to his pet turtles and dreams of athletic glory. Rocky’s Philadelphia is blue collar through and through, and many of the film’s locations, for better or worse, remain fairly ramshackle. Rocky is on its face a formulaic story—the poor, underestimated kid from the wrong side of the tracks works hard and becomes a champion—but through the offbeat characters and performances by Stallone and Talia Shire (Adrian), it becomes uniquely compelling, the kind of story that will, before you realize it, make you care about boxing. While the legacy of the first Rocky can be occasionally overshadowed by the jingoistic nonsense peddled by most of its sequels, the original is just quirky and eager and unassuming enough to transcend its clichéd premise, to stick firmly in movie, and Pennsylvania, history forever.