10 great films set in New Jersey

Nine movies that get under the skin of the Garden State… and a TV series we just couldn’t miss out.

Christina Newland
Updated:

Paterson (2016)

Paterson (2016)

New Jersey is a state with an inferiority complex. With its close proximity to New York – the great behemoth of American cities – it’s often been on the receiving end of a certain amount of disdain. Seen as a backwater or a cultural void, there’s a cruel long-standing joke about Jersey: it’s the ‘armpit of the east coast’. Yet Jersey has proven to be a breeding ground for artistic luminaries – from Bruce Springsteen to Allen Ginsberg to Frank Sinatra. They never stuck around long, but the pattern is clear enough: whatever hard-graft blue-collar lives these figures were expected to conform to sent them running in the other direction.

In Paterson, Jim Jarmusch’s gentle week-in-the-life narrative follows a routine-driven city bus driver who scribbles poetry in the spare time before his shift. Played by the hangdog, lovable Adam Driver, our hero seems to find a simple and moving lyricism in the most quotidian of tasks. He lives with his kind but impractical girlfriend (Golshifteh Farahani) and a grouchy English bulldog, and each morning rises for work with lunchbox in hand. He idolises William Carlos Williams, a poet who hailed from Paterson and wrote his magnum opus about the place. Williams declared “a man himself is a city”, and Jarmusch’s protagonist – who shares a name with the place he lives in – seems to personify this with ample sensitivity for the denizens of his neighborhood.

Paterson shares a kinship and warmth with the disparate characters he encounters, portraying a feeling for community in this depressed urban portion of the Garden State. That variety of New Jerseyans – hustlers, crooners, housewives and bros – is also a feature in all of the 10 films below.

The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)

Director Bob Rafelson

The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)

Shot by László Kovács in the bleak north-eastern winter, Atlantic City never looked quite so downtrodden. Jack Nicholson (himself from NJ) stars as a radio host looking to establish a better relationship with his hustler brother (Bruce Dern). A strangely paced film with a miserablist mood, it also features a stunning turn from Ellen Burstyn as an ex-beauty queen with a nasty streak a mile wide.

There’s hardly a better metaphor for the American dream in decay than the sight of a bitterly cold and decrepit ex-vacation spot. Director Bob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces, 1970) films the once-bustling leisure town as it’s caught up in a cycle of real estate scams and end-of-the-road plotting. This would not be the last time that New Jersey would be used to symbolise deterioration on screen – of both the personal and the national kind.

Atlantic City (1980)

Director Louis Malle

Atlantic City (1980)

In this deeply affecting film, French maverick Louis Malle draws out the best assets of the ageing Burt Lancaster as an elderly mobster. A momentous change had occurred in Atlantic City since The King of Marvin Gardens was filmed in the early 70s. In 1976, it became only the second city in the US to legalise gambling. In an attempt to return the city to some of its former glory, casinos and hotels popped up overnight, and it was within this environment that Malle set this film four years later.

Opening with the demolition of a grand hotel from the city’s glory days, the story follows a young blackjack dealer (Susan Sarandon) as she is unwittingly dragged into a dangerous mafia drug deal. Meanwhile, a surprisingly poignant romance unfurls between Lancaster and the much-younger Sarandon. It’s fitting that an old-timer who can remember Atlantic City’s burnished past has a last chance – however crookedly – to save the day.

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)

Director Susan Seidelman

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)

A screwball-style case of mistaken identity is at the centre of this zigzagging comedy starring Madonna and Rosanna Arquette. When an outrageous New York City con artist and a New Jersey housewife have their lives switched around, Jersey is a clear stand-in for the dull and conformist, where Arquette’s domestic duties are stifling her. Manhattan, on the other hand, is dirty, dangerous and thoroughly exciting.

A low-budget and thoroughly female-led rumination on women’s identities – directed by no-wave filmmaker Susan Seidelman – the film became a runaway hit on release. With Madonna’s downtown cool and Arquette’s wifely pastels, it’s a film strongly delineated on the contrasts between New Jersey and New York. But the women’s subsequent switch opens up the possibilities of each other’s lifestyles – good and bad. From the ragtag fashion choices to the Madonna soundtrack, Desperately Seeking Susan is one of the great iconoclastic films of the 1980s.

Palookaville (1995)

Director Alan Taylor

Palookaville (1995)

Using the old-timey phrase that Brando spits out in his famous On the Waterfront (1954) monologue, Palookaville is a word that immediately conjures a particular spirit. It’s a place for losers, for palookas who could’ve been contenders, for working stiffs caught on the wrong side of the tracks. In this 1990s crime caper about a set of thieves and their respective messed-up backgrounds, Vincent Gallo and William Forsythe dominate.

Alan Taylor also directed several memorable episodes of The Sopranos, and so has a feel for the tone and mood of Palookaville’s realistic blue-collar Jersey City background. Understated, often hilarious and with a punctured optimism that is nonetheless touching, the movie is deeply sympathetic on the subject of its desperate criminal protagonists.

Cop Land (1997)

Directors James Mangold

Cop Land (1997)

This crime thriller sports a who’s-who cast of macho men – Sylvester Stallone, Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel – all thrown into the treacherous underside of police corruption in a small New Jersey town. The poisonous deeds and cover-ups of the NYPD have seeped over the Hudson and infected the town where Stallone is a local sheriff. The crooked police ring hide out one of their own in the suburbs, but Stallone – with the help of a gruff internal affairs investigator (De Niro) – threatens to send the whole secretive edifice toppling down.

Cop Land is one of the dwindling opportunities to see Liotta and De Niro still in towering form, ruling over the crime genre with simmering intensity. But credit is due to Stallone for his subtle performance as the oafish, honest cop; he holds his own against the series of acting heavyweights on screen.

Chasing Amy (1997)

Director Kevin Smith

Chasing Amy (1997)

Many of Kevin Smith’s films are set in the urban sprawl of a New Jersey universe, as with the convenience store of Clerks (1994) and the shopping mall in Mallrats (1995). In his third and potentially best film, Chasing Amy, Smith tells the story of a young comic book writer, Holden (Ben Affleck), who befriends and falls madly in love with lesbian Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams). This funny and occasionally touching romantic comedy depicts – and smartly undermines – the macho insecurity of its young, straight New Jersey bros.

Holden and his best friend (Jason Lee) are baffled by female sexuality that they can’t control, and they respond with casual insensitivity or utter confusion. But Smith thoroughly sides with the bright and confident Alyssa, who, after being attacked for her promiscuity in the past, says: “Good or bad – they were my choices, and I’m not making apologies for them now.” This may be a film set in Jersey, but that’s a thoroughly New York attitude.

The Hurricane (1999)

Director Norman Jewison

The Hurricane (1999)

A fairly traditional biopic from an industry old-timer, The Hurricane sees Norman Jewison take on the much-contested story of middleweight boxer Rubin Carter (Denzel Washington). In 1966, Carter was falsely convicted of robbery and triple murder in a Paterson, NJ bar. Questionable witnesses, racial tensions and a cause célèbre case with lots of media attention all complicated matters, and, 20 years after his initial incarceration, Carter was exonerated and released. Washington spent a great deal of time with the real Rubin Carter in preparation for the role.

Jewison adds a second, crucial narrative strand to the film, focusing on the real-life Brooklyn teen (Vicellous Shannon) who, along with a group of social justice activists, helped to re-open Carter’s case and free him in the 1980s. The film garnered a mixed response from critics, many of whom pointed out that the film took liberties with the realities of the case. But reality had long been lost after Bob Dylan penned the 1976 protest song ‘Hurricane’ – from that point forward, Carter practically passed into folk legend.

The Sopranos (1999-2007)

Creator David Chase 

The Sopranos (1999)

Yes, it’s television. But has anything committed to film done as well in depicting the state of New Jersey? David Chase’s magnum opus is inextricable from its setting. This family make every vital decision and commit every terrible deed within their own bubble; their hangouts and hideaways are key to the cosseted, semi-secret world they occupy.

From Bada Bing! strip club to Satriale’s Pork Store, the McMansions of Tony’s well-heeled suburb to the snowy Pine Barrens where Christopher (Michael Imperioli) and Paulie (Tony Sirico) spend a terrifying night, little else has offered such a multifaceted and nuanced portrait of modern life in the state. The overall impression is still startlingly bleak – lots of snow-filled grey skies, ugly strip malls, polyester knits and acrylic nails – but realistic to a painstaking degree. Even the New York mafia, represented by Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent), think that the Jersey faction is “a glorified crew” – too big for its britches. What a telling encapsulation of New York-Jersey attitudes from time immemorial. 

The Wrestler (2008)

Director Darren Aronofsky

The Wrestler (2008)

Featuring a rightfully lauded comeback performance from Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler trawls through territory that is fearfully familiar for many wrestling fans and unknown to most other audiences. A viewing of WWE documentary Beyond the Mat (1999) goes some way to shedding light on the riches, exploitation and physical hardship wrestlers face.

Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson is an ageing king of the arena, hugely popular with audiences but struggling with serious medical issues from a lifetime of wear and tear on his steroid-filled body. Decades spent wrestling on the road has estranged him from his grown-up daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), with whom he makes heart-wrenching attempts at reconciliation. Filmed against the backdrop of trailer parks and strip clubs, Darren Aronofsky’s doleful outlook is borne from and fed by the surroundings. This is a disintegrating setting – a place well past its prime – and yet it stumbles forward day by day.

Jersey Boys (2014)

Director Clint Eastwood

Jersey Boys (2014)

Frankie Valli may be the most beloved of Belleville, NJ’s native sons, particularly with the Italian-American population. Clint Eastwood’s hammy adaptation of the hit Broadway musical landed in cinemas with a middling-to-poor critical response, but it should be said that Jersey Boys never lacks colour or charm. Following the boys as they go from practicing street-corner harmonies to performing on the Ed Sullivan Show, the film stars stage actor John Lloyd Young, who makes up for a lack of charisma with his impressive falsetto.

Vincent Piazza plays ne’er-do-well Four Seasons singer Tommy DeVito, who later acrimoniously parted ways with Valli. While far from perfect, the Scorsesean direct-address and joyful momentum of the film has an enjoyable classical touch. And by comparison with most of the murky dramas set in Jersey, it proves lighthearted fare indeed.

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