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.
5.) Fences (2016): It’s impossible to know how this will age, or how it will relate to the rest if Denzel Washington adapts all 10 of August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle plays for the screen. At times, Fences feels more like a play than a movie, but that’s really the only criticism that sticks. By now, the role fits Washington like an old catcher’s mitt. He and Viola Davis reprise the roles that won them Tonys on Broadway, wearing the pain and sorrow and fleeting bits of joy of their fenced-in characters as if August Wilson is still watching.
4.) Slap Shot (1977). Another genre that rarely gets respect is the sports movie. Slap Shot (shot in Johnstown, Pittsburgh and upstate New York), might be the funniest and best movie about sports ever made. It’s a rite of passage for hockey fans, and explains the pugnacious, blue-collar soul of the sport like nothing else. Though it’s easy to miss amidst all the blood and unbelievably crude jokes, there’s also an undercurrent of foreboding here—adroitly depicting a looming crisis of masculinity, when the mills and factories are shutting down, and people are clinging to any bit of hope and camaraderie they can find.
3.) The Deer Hunter (1978): A panoramic portrait of mill town martyrdom, as souls forged in the steel mills of Western Pennsylvania are fed into the final furnace of Vietnam. Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep all appear at the peaks of their respective powers. From the wild Russian Orthodox wedding to the prison camp game of Russian roulette, this is the sort of cinematic moonshot that either launches or detonates careers. For Michael Cimino, it was the former, until its catastrophic follow-up, Heaven’s Gate (1980), became the latter.
2.) The Silence of the Lambs (1991): Serial killers have kind of been done to death (sorry), but it’s hard to overstate how unsettling and original this seemed back in 1991. It won Academy Awards in the Big 5 categories: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Adapted Screenplay, which never happens, and horror movies rarely get nominated for anything in the first place. Also, the house in Fayette County (which is pretty nice!) where the killer, uh, did bad stuff, took forever to sell, because . . . well, we don’t really know. But go ahead, you try to live there.
1.) Night of the Living Dead (1968): In town for the Pittsburgh premiere of Land of the Dead in 2005, filmmaker Quentin Tarantino mentioned that the American independent movie was born in Pittsburgh with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Romero (who previously worked on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood), along with some friends, family and friends-of-friends, didn’t realize they were inventing the modern horror movie or a zombie genre that still refuses to die. The claustrophobic, walls-closing-in sets, shadowy black & white film, and tense, wartime newsreel-like cinematography weren’t selected to maximize terror—they were just cheap. The guts and innards yanked from screaming victims weren’t elaborate special effects—they were pieces of meat the butcher shop didn’t want. Duane Jones wasn’t intended to break new ground for African-American actors—he just gave the best audition. In 1999, the movie was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress.
Got a favorite movie made in Pittsburgh that we didn’t mention? Here’s your chance in the comments below.