An odd feeling comes over me when I see the World Trade Center towers appear in a contemporary film. It’s anxiousness that is (hopefully) replaced with welcomed nostalgia. The 10 films below are the finest examples I’ve found of such remembrance. This list did not consider documentary footage of the attacks or any film released prior to 9/11. All new films, all graced by a tasteful hand.
10. Winged Migration (2001)
The filmmakers behind the fascinating documentary Winged Migration spent four years flying with birds on all seven continents. The film is full of mesmerizing images that remain utterly spellbinding, but my favorite will always be the Canada geese flying high next to the towers. It’s so quietly powerful.
9. Spider-Man (2002)
By the time marketing materials for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man began showing up, America was in a very delicate state. A poster featuring images of the towers was pulled, as was a special shoot trailer that featured Spidey catching a helicopter full of thieves in a web between the towers. But in the final film, the studio made the wise choice to let filmed images of the towers stay in, namely the quick reflection of the buildings in Spidey’s eyes.
8. Sidewalks of New York (2001)
Edward Burns’ Sidewalks of New York premiered at the Toronto Film Festival just three days before the attacks. Its theatrical release was ultimately delayed until November, but from the film’s first scene, in which Burns’ character talks to the camera as the towers stand proudly behind him, Burns made it clear that he had no intention of hiding. The stamp of a proud New Yorker, through and through.
7. World Trade Center (2006)
I love the mundaneness of this shot. It’s just a guy going to work. He doesn’t stare at the towers, because he sees them all the time. He just stands and waits, completely unaware of the horrible day he’s about to have.
6. Munich (2005)
Steven Spielberg could’ve set the final scene of his masterful Munich anywhere in New York City, but he wisely chose a park overlooking downtown Manhattan. As the camera pans and Eric Bana walks out of frame, we see the towers in all their glory. A rather beautiful sight to behold.
5. 25th Hour (2002)
This is a bit of a cheat, as the opening credits of Spike Lee’s 25th Hour don’t show the actual towers themselves. Instead, we’re given a bravado sequence of the striking blue lights that stood tall in the absence of the towers. Leave it to Spike Lee to prove immediately that he isn’t shying away from anything.
4. Vanilla Sky (2001)
Here’s Cameron Crowe’s explanation as to why the towers can be seen in the final sequence of his film: “That’s what we filmed. It was filmed about a year before the tragic incident that removed them. And I didn’t want to remove them again.”
Well said, good sir.
3. Gangs of New York (2002)
Martin Scorsese is one of our proudest and most famous New Yorkers. In the wake of 9/11, he released an epic retelling of his city’s origins entitled Gangs of New York. It’s a big movie with big ambitions, but it’s greatest accomplishment is its final shot, in which we watch New York come alive through a series of slow fades. Each new shot lasts five seconds (with four second bookended transitions), but the final shot, in which the towers loom from afar, is held a little longer than the rest. This is Scorsese’s New York, and I can’t help but admire in awe.
2. United 93 (2006)
Much of the visceral impact of Paul Greengrass’ United 93 is the way the movie makes you feel like you’re seeing things for the first time. The image of Flight 175 crashing into the south tower is an image of terror forever synonymous with our time. But when I first watched Greengrass’ film, I felt a terrifying sense of novelty as I watched a handful of guys in a control room watch Flight 175 crash into the South Tower. Their radar shows that the plane is going dangerously fast and rapidly dropping altitude. Then one guy spots the plane coming in from the south. They stare in horror and wait for the inevitable.
1. Man on Wire (2008)
The main point of this list was to showcase tasteful images of one of America’s darkest days. Whether those images were achieved through digital effects or just sheer audacity, I was determined to not highlight documentary footage as a way of making my point.
But I just can’t help myself.
The first time I saw Man on Wire marks one of the most significant movie-going experiences I’ve ever had. When Philippe Petit finally stepped out onto the wire he had strung up between the two towers, the people occupying the sold out theater I was sitting in didn’t dare make a sound. Instead, we listened as Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédie No.1” gracefully played over the soundtrack, and we watched as a man did the impossible. He did the impossible, and he did it with glee. He reminded us that this site was once a location for joy and celebration. It reminded us that, for at least one group of people, the World Trade Center towers will always be remembered fondly. Sure, this footage was shot decades before the attacks, but never have the towers stood taller or more elegant than they do in this film.