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- 'The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension' (1984)
Imagine if, during Orson Welles' infamous mock-radio newscast version of "War of the Worlds," aliens really had arrived in New Jersey, only to remain dormant until a modern-day scientific breakthrough made possible their plan to take over the earth? That's the notion behind this delightfully absurd, smarter-than-it-needs-to-be sci-fi spoof, starring a pre-RoboCop Peter Weller as the unflappable surgeon/rock star/physicist hero of the title. There's even a character here named "New Jersey" (Jeff Goldblum), the way another movie might name a character "Tex" or "Brooklyn."
- 'American Hustle' (2013)
In David O. Russell's celebrated caper comedy, behind the mirror balls and bad hair, there's the nugget of a true story: the targeting of Jeremy Renner as a New Jersey politician whose dreams of transforming Atlantic City from seedy squalor into Vegas-like glitz make him an easy mark for both Christian Bale's con man and Bradley Cooper's ambitious G-man. He thinks he's a sophisticate, but he turns out to be a bridge-and-tunnel rube suckered by New York City slicksters. It's almost tragic.
- 'Atlantic City' (1980)
John Guare's drama captures the transition, alluded to in "American Hustle," from the old-time A.C. of boardwalk grifters to the new A.C. of sleek, corporate casinos. The old and new are personalized in the unlikely relationship between aged small-time gangster Burt Lancaster (one of his last great roles) and a young casino croupier (Susan Sarandon). Under the direction of Louis Malle, the tale manages to be both gritty and bittersweet.
- 'A Beautiful Mind' (2001)
The script for Ron Howard's retelling of mathematician John Nash's (Russell Crowe) biography is about as far from reality as some of the character's delusional ravings. Nonetheless, there are several poignant scenes at Princeton University, both when Nash is a student and, many years later, when he finally gets the recognition he deserves.
- 'Big' (1988)
In Penny Marshall's fable, suburban New Jersey clearly represents an idyllic childhood, just as New York City – visible just across the Hudson River but seemingly far off – represents adulthood, with all its danger, excitement, and rueful knowledge that comes with experience. When a wish transforms young Josh into a grownup (Tom Hanks), it's no wonder that he flees across the river to Manhattan and finds a job and an apartment, but he yearns to return to Jersey and be a boy again. (The same age/geography duality would play out many years later when the story was remade with a female protagonist as "13 Going on 30.")
- 'Big Night' (1996)
In this delicious comedy-drama, immigrant brothers Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci open a gourmet Northern Italian restaurant on the Jersey Shore, but since it's still the 1950s, patrons would rather dine at the red-sauce-and-checkered-tablecloths joint run by rival Ian Holm than eat Shalhoub's subtle shrimp risotto. The brothers gamble their dwindling fortune on Holm's promise to help them stay in business by inviting bandleader Louis Prima to dine at their place. The resulting feast is one of the most mouthwatering food sequences in film history, and the whole movie plays like the meal, incredibly satisfying and unforgettable.
- 'Broadway Danny Rose' (1984)
Woody Allen's comedy about a hapless talent agent on what turns out to be an epic quest – bringing his Italian crooner client's brassy mistress (an unrecognizable Mia Farrow) back from Jersey to attend his taping of a TV special in Manhattan – is also a hilarious exploration of the differences between New York and New Jersey, Jews and Italians, nostalgia and tunnel vision, and familial loyalty and friendship. The movie's climactic gag involves a gunfight in the warehouse where the giant helium balloons for the Macy's Thanksgiving parade are stored.
- 'Cinderella Man' (2005)
Four years after "A Beautiful Mind," director Ron Howard and Russell Crowe return to N.J. for another poignant biopic. This time, the subject is Depression-era boxer James J. Braddock, whose climb from Jersey longshoreman to the heavyweight title bout at the old Madison Square Garden earns him the title nickname. Rosemarie DeWitt, who plays a Braddock neighbor, is the boxer's real-life granddaughter.
- 'City of Hope' (1991)
Many of director John Sayles' early movies were set in New Jersey ("Return of the Secaucus 7," "Baby It's You," "LIanna"), but this one, set in a fictional metropolis across the river from New York, grandly sums up everything Sayles has to say about the state. The movie offers a panoramic view of all strata of the city, from the working stiffs to the corrupt power brokers. It offers both despair over a politics seemingly designed to make sure that nothing changes, and hope that some kind of change is still possible.
- 'Chasing Amy' (1997)
Since his debut with"Clerks" 20 years ago, Kevin Smith has made a career out of films set in his home state, most of which feature slackers Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith himself) as a Greek chorus. This one, which made Ben Affleck a star, is probably the most fully realized. Smith's Jersey is one big suburb of New York, where no one is more than a couple degrees of high-school-yearbook separation from anyone else. So when Affleck meets a fellow comic book artist who's an exotic New York City lesbian (Joey Lauren Adams), she turns out to be a Jersey girl from his old stomping grounds. The film makes Red Bank, N.J., where Holden's studio is located (and, in real life, the site of Smith's famous comic book store) , look like a bohemian enclave that could be part of Manhattan's SoHo or Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhoods. Alas, the Affleck character's provincialism dooms his unlikely romance with Adams, proving that you can take the boy out of Jersey but not vice versa.
- 'Cop Land' (1997)
In this underrated crime drama, Sylvester Stallone is sheriff of a sleepy New Jersey town inhabited largely by New York City cops, whose very presence is a constant reminder that he'll never be a big-city cop himself (he's deaf in one ear). (As in "Big," the George Washington Bridge seems to span an otherwise uncrossable gap between innocence and experience.) When an incident on that very bridge opens up a police corruption scandal, Stallone finally has the chance to play the heroic cop, but he balks since his actions could destroy the town and cost him his job (and maybe even his life). Somehow, for this gritty little indie film, director James Mangold assembled an all-star cast that also included Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, Janeane Garofalo (in a straight dramatic part), Cathy Moriarty, and several future "Sopranos" actors.
- 'Desperately Seeking Susan' (1985)
In this offbeat comedy, bored suburban Jersey housewife Rosanna Arquette finds herself living the more exciting life of a bohemian in Manhattan's East Village. Complications arise when the woman whose life she has appropriated (Madonna, in her best film role ever), shows up.
- 'Edison, the Man' (1940)
Spencer Tracy plays Thomas Edison, predictably but with his usual verve, as a visionary and a gambler who bets repeatedly on his own work ethic (he lives out the inventor's own maxim about genius being mostly iperspiration, not inspiration). The production design wizards at MGM meticulously recreate the master's vast, gadget-filled laboratory in Menlo Park in a Hollywood soundstage.
- 'Friday the 13th' (1980)
Yes, Camp Crystal Lake, wellspring of the murderous and unkillable Jason Voorhees (and his similarly homicidal mom), is supposed to be in New Jersey.
- 'Garden State' (2004)
Zach Braff, or a character very much like the actor/writer/director, returns home to South Orange for his mother's funeral, and he's ultimately lifted out of his depression by a romance with the archetypal Manic Pixie Dream Girl (Natalie Portman). Braff's film was vastly influential in the indie realm (we've seen this protagonist, and heard his Shins-heavy soundtrack, many times since), but it also offered a new portrayal of Jersey that lived up to the state's nickname. There's a lot of greenery in the film, but also a lot of past trauma that lies literally just beneath the surface. There's a lot of digging in this film, whether it's at the cemetery (where Braff's childhood pal, played by Peter Sarsgaard, now works as a gravedigger) or at a quarry in Newark. As in any garden, sometimes you have to churn up that soil to allow something new to grow.
- 'Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle' (2004)
Written by Randollph natives Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, this satirical portrait of New Jersey launched a three-film franchise (so far), revived Neil Patrick Harris' career (he'd never have played Barney on "How I Met Your Mother" or started hosting awards shows if not for his eye-opening performance here), and made a star out of Montclair-born Kal Penn, whose lazy but quietly brilliant Kumar is certainly a unique comic creation. For all its dark absurdity, the movie's take on Jersey's unnavigable highways, ferocious critters, Princeton nerds, and fast-food bounty isn't that far from the truth.
- 'The Hurricane' (1999)
Denzel Washington stars in this biopic of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, the Paterson, N.J. boxer who ultimately became famous for being framed for murder (thanks to Bob Dylan's protest song "Hurricane"). Some young idealists learn of his story and commit themselves to free him on appeal, fighting a state government that does not want to see the case reopened and its own racism and corruption exposed.
- 'The In-Laws' (1979)
In one of the funniest comedies ever filmed, dentist Alan Arkin, who lives comfortably in a New Jersey suburb, has his life upended by his daughter's future father-in-law (Peter Falk), a rogue CIA agent who may be completely nuts. Soon, poor Arkin is being shot at by thugs in Manhattan and being chased by Feds across New Jersey (and unwittingly getting his luxury German import permanently pimped with racing flames along the way). There's also a Latin American detour that's begins with a visit to a small N.J. airport and ends with the sudden appearance of a wedding orchestra from Paramus.
- 'Jersey Boys' (2014)
Clint Eastwood's big-screen version of the long-running Broadway musical smash retells the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, whose stellar career as 1960s pop hitmakers began in the Newark suburb of Belleville. Lots of local color, much of it of the shady, mobbed-up variety. Bonus points for the inclusion of Joe Pesci as a character, back when he was just another Jersey music scenester and still a quarter-century away from becoming an Oscar-winning actor.
- 'The King of Marvin Gardens' (1972)
This nearly forgotten character study unites Jack Nicholson (as a depressed radio host) and Bruce Dern (as his impractical-dreamer brother), along with a pre-fame Ellen Burstyn (a year before "The Exorcist"). The plot centers on a real estate deal in Atlantic City ("Monopoly" players will recognize the title location as a property from the game board), which was then at the dawn of its transition from faded resort town to East Coast Vegas.
- 'Not Fade Away' (2012)
"Sopranos" creator David Chase and star James Gandolfini return to Jersey for Chase's first major post-"Sopranos" opus. It's a tribute to the same Jersey rock scene that gave birth to the Four Seasons in the 1960s. Here, Gandolfini is the skeptical father to an aspiring rocker (John Magaro). Co-starring as a band member is Jack Huston (who, after four seasons on HBO's Atlantic City-set "Boardwalk Empire," is practically an honorary Garden Stater). Here, Jersey is a source of rich musical roots, but itls also a place to get away from as soon as you become successful enough to do so.
- The Oranges (2012)
In this comedy-drama, set in suburban West Orange, two neighboring families are torn asunder when the patriarch of one (Hugh Laurie) has a fling with the other's prodigal daughter (Leighton Meester). Turns out both families had been coasting for a long time in a state of catatonic suburban inertia, as is clear from the self-deluding narration of Alia Shawkat (as Laurie's disgusted daughter), who has been putting off for years her dream of moving to Manhattan to pursue a design career, and who won't admit she resents Meester for getting out of West Orange and experiencing the world. The embarrassingly overqualified cast also includes Allison Janney and Oliver Platt (as Meester's parents), Catherine Keener (as Laurie's betrayed wife), and Adam Brody (as Shawkat's brother, forced to reconsider his own amorous feelings toward Meester). The movie points a lot of satirical barbs at the Jersey suburbs, where lawns remain impeccable green even at Christmastime, but it also finds a lot to admire in the two families' neighborliness and friendship.
- 'The Purple Rose of Cairo' (1985)
A year after "Broadway Danny Rose," Woody Allen once again makes New Jersey the site of dreary reality, as opposed to the glittering fantasyland of Manhattan as seen in the movies. During the Depression, abused housewife Mia Farrow spends hours in a Jersey cinema watching such movies, until a leading-man character (Jeff Daniels) actually notices her, steps off the screen, and courts her. The real-life actor who plays the character heads to Jersey to try to restore order, but he falls for Farrow, too. She's forced to decide between reality and fantasy, and she makes the wrong choice. There are a lot of comic moments here, but the film is mostly bittersweet – and one of Allen's most underrated.
- 'Something Wild' (1986)
A year after he made "Purple Rose of Cairo," Jeff Daniels plays an uptight New York businessman who is dragged to New Jersey on an erotic adventure by a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (Melanie Griffith). Turns out she has an agenda, which is to show up at her high school reunion with a classy guy. Unfortunately, she also has a violent ex (Ray Liotta, in the role that put him on the map), and with his appearance, Jonathan Demme's suburban odyssey turns from a comic road trip into a waking nightmare. The movie is a cult favorite that's full of surprises, starting with its depiction of New York City as the safe refuge and New Jersey as the dangerous suburban jungle.
- 'The Station Agent' (2003)
"Game of Thrones" star and Morristown native Peter Dinklage got his big break as the star of Tom McCarthy's debut feature. He plays a model-train enthusiast who finds himself managing an all-but-abandoned depot in a remote Jersey town. The film is about how he comes out of his shell and befriends a motley collection of locals , including Bobby Cannavale, Patricia Clarkson, Raven Goodwin, and Michelle Williams. McCarthy, who is from New Providence, N.J., made the similarly fine character studies "The Visitor" (set mostly in Manhattan) and "Win Win" (set in his hometown).
- 'The Toxic Avenger' (1984)
From low-budget exploitation house Troma Films comes this satirical superhero saga about a nerd named Melvin who gets into an accident involving toxic waste. As a result, he's horribly deformed but also inhumanly strong. (Like Marvels' rock-like The Thing, he even finds a chance at love with a blind woman who's not put off by his appearance.) Taking on local bullies and corrupt politicians, Toxie becomes known as the first superhero from New Jersey. The film, whose make-up and special effects are incredibly disgusting (but in a cartoonish way that is pretty impressive, given the film's tiny budget) became Troma's signature creation and spawned a franchise of sequels and spinoffs.
- 'War of the Worlds' (2005)
Like "Buckaroo Banzai," Steven Spielberg's update of the H.G. Wells alien-invasion classic pays homage to Orson Welles' radio version by setting the tale in New Jersey. Here, Tom Cruise is a longshoreman who, once the aliens show up, tries desperately to get his kids (Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin) out of Jersey to reunite them with their mother in Boston. It's Spielberg's most purely terrifying film since "Jurassic Park," but it also is haunted by memories of 9/11, with many scenes that recall real-life images of the destruction and its aftermath that occurred just four years prior and just across the Hudson River.
- 'The Wedding Singer' (1998)
The Adam Sandler-Drew Barrymore romantic comedy is notable not just for its '80s nostalgia trappings but also its setting, in Ridgefield, in a part of North Jersey notable for its many catering halls. It's not unusual that a wedding singer like Sandler's character and a waitress like Barrymore's character might find regular work at one particular hall, as in the film. As in other films, suburban Jersey is a refuge from the dangerous world of money and sex across the river in Manhattan, as represented by Barrymore's caddish fiancé.
- 'Welcome to the Dollhouse' (1995)
Newark-born Todd Solondz is another filmmaker whose portrait of his home state is sharply satirical in such films as "Storytelling," "Happiness," and this one, his debut. In this pitch-black comedy, junior high schooler Dawn Weiner (Heather Matarazzo, in the film that launched her career) is a hopelessly nerdy and bullied girl. At least the bland hell of her suburban home and school are preferable to Times Square in Manhattan, where Dawn's annoyingly perfect little sister winds up after getting kidnapped. Still, the resolution of that traumatic ordeal offers surprisingly little catharsis; after it's all over, Dawn still has to go back to junior high.
- 'The Wrestler' (2008)
Mickey Rourke's comeback film was Darren Aronofsky's saga of an over-the-hill professional wrestler with a lot of baggage – he has an adult daughter he's estranged from, an aging stripper (Marisa Tomei) he's courting, a dead-end job at the deli counter of a New Jersey supermarket, and a lifetime of scars and ailments from his career in the ring. He's offered a chance to return to former glory via a rematch against his most notorious opponent from 20 years before, but his flawed heart might not be able to take the strain. There's not much dialogue; grimy New Jersey locations (along with Rourke's battered face) tell the whole story.