COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Ten Great Movies for Placemakers

Apr 19, 2012
Dec 14, 2017
Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" beautifully illustrates the mix of uses and resulting social vibrancy at Paris' now-demolished Gare Montparnasse / Photo: Paramount Pictures

When you're watching a movie, how much attention do you pay to the setting? While the best way to learn about what makes a great place is often to get out and observe how public spaces work first-hand, there are films that illustrate Placemaking principles quite beautifully. We've collected ten of our favorites here, with explanations of why we think they tell great stories about place. Take a look, and let us know if you have a favorite Placemaking-related movie or two (or three!) that we should add to our Netflix queues!


Ikiru (1962; director, Akira Kurosawa) A bureaucrat who learns he is dying of stomach cancer unexpectedly finds a sense of purpose in his life by cutting through red tape to get a park built for neighborhood children.

Thieves’ Highway (1949; director Jules Dassin) A feud among corrupt produce dealers at the San Francisco market comes alive because of the location footage. A wonderfully pulpy film noir thoroughly grounded in a very specific place.

Mon Oncle (1958; director, Jacques Tati) An eccentric uncle comes to visit family in an absurdly well-ordered and well-groomed suburb. Accustomed to the joy and texture of city life, he is utterly unable to adapt. Tati is a brilliant physical comedian who once said, “"Les lignes géométriques ne rendent pas les gens aimables" ("geometrical lines do not produce likeable people"). Watch him be hilariously confounded by a kitchen full of “convenient” modern appliances.

Play Time (1967; director, Jacques Tati) Tati’s signature character, M. Hulot, is trapped in the linear, slick, modernist environment of 1960s Paris. There is almost no dialogue. It is all about sight and sound gags. You will have to watch this four times to get them all. And you will want to watch it four times.

La Bête Humaine (1938; director, Jean Renoir) About trains and train conductors and cheating wives. The most beautiful footage of trains and rail yards ever filmed.

Brazil (1985; director, Terry Gilliam) Wonderful to watch for its humorous takedown of bureaucracy and top-down institutions, and its praise for zealous nuts.

Hugo (2011; director, Martin Scorsese) The balletic interplay of people in Hugo’s grand train station – travelers, shopkeepers, musicians, lovers – is a thrill to watch. Scorsese has created a place so vibrant, and so real, that you long to step into the screen and inhabit it yourself.

The Sandlot (1993; director, David M. Evans) This film about a neighborhood baseball field recalls a time when a kid could walk (or as was often shown in the film, run) to the neighborhood ballfield, and stay there all day, every day, unsupervised. The only time he was expected at home was for dinner.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946; director Frank Capra) Perhaps the ultimate American love song to community wisdom, with a walkable downtown to beat the band.

High Noon (1952; director, Fred Zinnemann) Talk about a sense of place. All the drama in the world is contained on High Noon’s Main Street.

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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space