Close Encounters: The Top 10 Films About Neighbors
As long as there has been cinema, there have been portrayals of neighbors on the silver screen. From the amicable to the creepy to the celestial to the delightful. There are countless other worthwhile films out there on the subject, but if you've only got time for ten, get your popcorn popping, find a cozy chair, and watch the following. For the intrepid among you, invite a neighbor over and binge on all of them.
Alfred Hitchcock's masterwork is easily the finest film about neighbors ever composed. Homebound after an accident leaves him with a broken leg, photographer L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart), spends his days and nights observing the routines of his neighbors. When the wife of one of his across-the-alley neighbors goes missing, Jefferies fears a murderer may be afoot. Not only is the film about the relationship that grows between a group of strangers who happen to live near one another, it features a fine manifesto on the concept of neighboring. After her dog is murdered, a woman described in the screenplay only as "siffleuse," calls out to the alley: "You don't know the meaning of the word 'neighbor.' Neighbors like each other—speak to each other—care if anybody lives or dies." Or at least they should, though they rarely do in Hitchcock films.
When Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son, Benicio (Kaden Leos), move into the apartment down the hall from the nameless protagonist (Ryan Gosling) in Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, neither anticipates the tumultuous trajectory their relationship is on. Part thriller, part love story, the film hinges on the importance of looking out for those that live closest to us. From the moment he helps Irene carry groceries home, everything the driver (Gosling) does is out of neighborly kindness. He even works to protect Standard (Oscar Isaac), Irene's husband and an impediment between him and his would-be lover. Why? There's no other explanation than it's the right thing to do (or it sure seems like it until things take a turn).
There are some people whose lives would go unnoticed if not for the kindness and attentiveness of neighbors. Henry Darger is one such fellow. He was a Chicago janitor who kept to himself, and it was only after his death that his neighbors discovered his secret masterwork, a 15,000 plus page manuscript titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, as well as hundreds of paintings illustrating this literary universe he constructed over the course of his lifetime. Jessica Yu's 2004 documentary is both a reconstruction of his art and a remembrance of an unknown artist by the only people who were known to be close to him: those who lived in his building.
Even the worst neighbor experience you could imagine can't be half as bad as what happens to Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) in Roman Polanski's classic horror film. After moving into the capacious Bramford apartment building with husband Guy (John Cassavettes), new neighbors Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer) immediately take an interest in the young couple. Their generosity, it turns out, comes at a steep price. Around every turn Rosemary is told that propriety requires her to accept kindness from neighbors; she really should have looked that gift horse in the mouth, though.
Perhaps the most sobering film on this list, Carl Deal and Tia Lessin's documentary is comprised of footage shot before, during and after Hurricane Katrina, as experienced by Kimberly Rivers Roberts. Unable to leave the city, Roberts waits out the devastating storm, video camera in tow. She takes in neighbors during the storm, one of whom, Larry Simms, even ventures out into the flood floating on a punching bag, hoping to grab those who have lost their homes as they drift by. The true heroism of neighbors is on display throughout Trouble the Water.
Released the summer before the Los Angeles riots, John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood follows the coming-of-age of Tre Styles (Cuba Gooding Jr. and Desi Arnez Hines II) in South Central. Bright but unbridled at the age of ten, Tre's mother (Angela Bassett) sends him to live with his father, Furious (Laurence Fishburne). He watches as his friends and neighbors change during the neighborhood's most tumultuous era. Some turn to gang violence while others try to move out. In the face of tragedy, Tre comes together with his neighbors, even those that stoke the violence that shatters his youth.
Though somewhat outshone by some of his more enduring classics (Some Like it Hot and Sunset Boulevard), Billy Wilder's The Apartment is a towering achievement. In it, lower-rung insurance man C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) lends out his posh Manhattan bachelor pad to higher-ups in hopes of a promotion, but things get complicated when the apple of his eye, elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), turns up at his place, an apparent paramour of one of his bosses. One of the more memorable characters in the film is Baxter's neighbor, the crotchety but amiable Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen). Thinking Baxter is a dangerous Casanova (what with all the heavy petting he hears through the walls), Dreyfuss invokes a little Yiddish that hangs over the rest of the film: "Why don't you grow up, Baxter? Be a mensch! You know what that means?… A mensch – a human being!" Wisdom from a neighbor that proves difficult to heed.
Joe Dante's Explorers, which came out a year after his more widely beloved (and more terrifying) Gremlins, is truly one of the great sci-fi films. It deals in wonder, not peril, when following the inter-stellar adventures of three middle-schoolers. When Ben (Ethan Hawke) dreams up a circuit board, his brainiac best friend Wolfgang (River Phoenix) builds it. Along with new pal Darren (Jason Presson), the boys discover the computerized concoction is capable of sending a vessel safely into space. Once they make it across the galaxy, though, they find out their neighbors in the stars weren't exactly what they were expecting, a sort of humbling reminder that folks, even extra-terrestrials, always have a way of surprising you.
Tim Burton's Pinocchio/Frankenstein tale is about the impact an outsider has on a community obsessed with outward appearances. When Edward (Johnny Depp), an unfinished experiment of a mad inventor (Vincent Price), comes down from atop his mountain home at the end of the cul-de-sac, he is at first welcomed warmly by the banal suburbanites below. Everyone on the block boasts physical proof of their friendship to Edward (a topiary bush, a haircut, a coifed canine, and so on). But when his novelty wears off, the pitchforks come out, sending him back from whence he came, though not before he makes a few lasting relationships. A parable for treating one another with respect (and an indictment of suburban mores), it's a film about neighbors that should be revisited regularly.
Coming out just a year after their comedy classic, The Blues Brothers, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi (in his final role) trade places, with Belushi trying on the role of straight man. When new neighbors move in next door, Belushi's cranky Earl Keese immediately begins surveilling them from the windows, worried their dog will be a nuisance. That's the least of his problems… Aykroyd's Vic and wife Ramona (Cathy Moriarty) turn out to be neighbors from hell. But what's Earl to do? Even when Vic's antics devolve into a dangerous game, he still has to be a good neighbor, right? This comedy of errors has disastrous results, all because Earl keeps getting duped into thinking that just because Vic lives next door means he has to be nice to him (doesn't he?).