So, Fences is up for a lot of Academy Awards this year. It was mostly made in the same neighborhood where playwright August Wilson imagined it—with Denzel Washington’s Troy Maxson roaring across the Hill District of the ’50s like the literal wrecking ball that would smash through the neighborhood soon thereafter.
It’s both one of the best movies ever made in Pittsburgh, and one of the most Pittsburgh movies ever made. Those are two completely different things, of course.
For sheer Pittsburgh content (regardless of quality), it’s kind of hard to top Sudden Death (1995), which features a fight scene between Jean-Claude Van Damme and Iceburgh (the Penguins mascot) in the kitchen of the Civic Arena, using a deli meat slicer and a deep fryer as weapons. Flashdance (1983) is another Pittsburgh classic—about a steelworker/stripper (!), in a time-capsule-of-the-’80s sense. It was a massive hit, even though the critics hated it.
Picking the best movies made in Pittsburgh, though, is actually really tough. Even five years ago, it was easier. But the recent boom in Pittsburgh-made productions has knocked out some good-but-not-great movies, like Wonder Boys (2000), out of the top 10.
As always, feel free to disagree, and add your own picks below. I feel like I’m going to change my mind already.
10). The Dark Knight Rises (2012) is certainly the biggest movie ever made in Pittsburgh, making more than a billion dollars worldwide. Compared to the first two chapters in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight (Batman) trilogy, it’s a lugubrious, murky slog, with the franchise’s least interesting villain (Tom Hardy tried, but it’s hard to act with your mouth covered). Still, there are a few action sequences here that are simply stunning, such as the apocalyptic destruction of Heinz Field on game day. And by this point, the onrushing doom of Nolan’s vision has its own unstoppable momentum.
9.) Lightning Over Braddock: A Rustbowl Fantasy (1988): There’s always been a strong undercurrent of experimental cinema in Pittsburgh, going back to the ‘60s. To single out one superb example, there’s Tony Buba’s sublimely weird Lightning Over Braddock. It’s about both the economic implosion of a working class steel town paradise, and some goofball local character named Sal, who periodically hijacks the whole movie, steering it towards his own esoteric, self-aggrandizing ends. You’ll never see another movie like it.
8.) The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012): In the social hierarchy of high school, being a wallflower—the shy, observant sort—is only slightly above hall monitors and kids crammed into lockers. But for freshman Charlie (Logan Lerman), there are some perks, like being adopted by an older clique of worldly misfits, including a girl who was a wizard in a past life (Emma Watson). Somehow, of the three great coming-of-age novels of Pittsburgh adolescence, the best book, Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, made the worst movie. The second best book, Jesse Andrews’ brilliant and underrated Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, made a very good movie (just missing this list). However, Stephen Chbosky’s Perks takes the crown, through outstanding performances from its leads.
7.) Dawn of the Dead (1978): The legendary first sequel to Night of the Living Dead has some surprisingly sharp satire of modern consumer culture buried beneath the endless severed limbs and decapitated heads. A few lonely survivors try to ride out the apocalypse holed up in Monroeville Mall, while the undead return to wander endlessly, aimlessly—not that much differently than when they were alive, actually. Who knew the world would end not with a bang or a whimper, but with an all-you-can-eat buffet (of humans) at the mall?
6.) Bob Roberts (1992): Though obviously intended as political satire, it now hits a bit too close to home—like some sort of demonic prophecy foretold. Actor/writer/director Tim Robbins plays a genial folk-singing fascist, an entertainer who makes the jump to a Pennsylvania Senate race by preying on the fears and worst instincts of the marginal and the gullible. He cleverly inverts Bob Dylanesque protest songs into anthems about lynching drug dealers (and users), and the lazy immigrants and welfare queens living large on your unwitting largesse: “Times are Changin’ Back,” “Retake America,” “My Land.” It’s funny and ridiculous until, suddenly, it’s not. Still probably less absurd than our current political reality.