(In an effort to celebrate those films that best define the U.S. states they depict, Paste presents the first in a series of lists that counts down each state’s cinematic darlings. Take a hint from the original colonists and settle in: Make yourself at home.)
When people think of Massachusetts’ burgeoning movie industry, they probably think first of gritty, unforgiving gangster films, of severe accents, of reluctant geniuses, of Ben Affleck. But the Bay State has offered more to cinema than just chronicles of working class stiffs, real crime allegory, or some combination of Matt and Ben: this is the Cradle of Liberty we’re talking about here, a place that’s defined as much by its best contributions to America’s foundation as its most shameful historical transgressions.
So to give you a taste of what Massachusetts is really all about, we’ve drilled down to suss out the ten best movies about the Old Colony State, from horror joints to adventure flicks, Civil War biopics to courtroom dramas; and yes, we’ve included few mob movies, because those are an important part of our regional patchwork, too.
Director Victor Fleming
Admittedly, Victor Fleming’s adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s novel takes place primarily aboard a fishing schooner, and its plot hinges on a mishap that occurs upon the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. So maybe pegging Captains Courageous as a “Massachusetts” film is just a tad generous; it could just as easily be described as a “Newfoundland” film.
But fishing and the seafaring life are a big part of both Massachusetts’ cultural identity and economy, and besides: the yarn’s climax is a literal race to get to Gloucester, one of the state’s biggest summertime destinations and an essential component of its fishing industry. On top of that, the lingering final shot showcases the Man at the Wheel, Gloucester’s Fisherman’s Memorial, crafted in 1925 and a landmark of the city’s harborside. Fleming and his cast—notably Freddie Bartholomew, Spencer Tracy, Lionel Barrymore and Mickey Rooney—go on quite the voyage, but the destination proves worthier than the journey.
Directors: Sam Fell, Chris Butler
Massachusetts is rich in area folklore and littered with creepy tourist attractions. From Leicester’s Quaker Cemetery, to Cape Cod’s Orleans Inn, to North Adams’ Houghton Mansion, the state has no shortage of haunted hotspots. But no horror niche is more intrinsic to Massachusetts’ character than witchcraft, famously embodied by the Salem witch trials, which concluded with the execution of 20 men and (mostly) women.
Chris Butler and Sam Fell confront Massachusetts’ grisly colonial background in ParaNorman, a rousing, spooky delight that taps into the root of mob hysteria. It’s an animated romp from the folky, macabre geniuses at Laika that’s equally empathetic and tragic, tracing the course of how ignorant misunderstanding can lead to scapegoating and worse. Blithe Hollow might be made up, but it’s the definition of “quaint Massachusetts town,” and the film itself deals with factual events and human themes that are all too real.
Director: Edward Zwick
Massachusetts played a pivotal role before and during the Civil War, as well as in its aftermath; you can no more divorce the Bay State from the War of the Union than you can from our harsh inflections. Films like Little Women (in all three of its incarnations) view the fighting from afar, portraying the ebb and flow of civilian life as the conflict ran its course. Meanwhile, films like Ed Zwick’s Glory get right in the trenches.
Glory marches onward from Massachusetts to South Carolina in a fictionalized account of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (one of the first official African-American units deployed in the war). In that regard, the film isn’t directly about Massachusetts—but it is about the sacrifices made by the regiment and the cost of war on their families, honored to this day by a memorial on Boston Common. Though Glory may not take place entirely within the Commonwealth, the bravery of the 54th reflects the state’s commitment to the War of the Union and abolitionism, ultimately pegging it as a Massachusetts joint.
Director: Martin Scorsese
In which Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Alec Baldwin and Martin Sheen all try on some “Bahston” accents. The Departed might be best described as Martin Scorsese making a commercialized version of a Martin Scorsese movie: grimy and nasty, it still feels like a shadow of what Scorsese has accomplished throughout his career.
But if The Departed just riffs on Uncle Marty’s best works while reinterpreting Andrew Lau’s Infernal Affairs within a Bostonian framework, it’s no less successful for it. You can’t divorce Massachusetts from Boston, after all, and The Departed is Boston’s mob saga, a Whitey Bulger parable filtered through the lens of one of cinema’s all-time greatest chroniclers of American crime. In short, watered down or no, it’s terrific, so long as you can listen to the Southie enunciations without snickering.
Director: John Llewellyn Moxey
Another fictional Massachusetts town with a foreboding name, another tale of witches and witchcraft. Seeing a theme here? Like ParaNorman, The City of the Dead takes a special interest in the history of witchcraft; unlike ParaNorman, it’s a real spinechiller that better resembles the likes of Suspiria, Rosemary’s Baby and Black Sunday (though it’s nowhere near as famous or cult-worshipped as those).
That might be a matter of visibility or unintentional similarity to the works of Alfred Hitchcock. The City of the Dead isn’t about unhealthy mother/son relationships, but the change in villain doesn’t keep it from seeming like a twin to Hitchcock’s Psycho: both movies follow a similar blueprint, sending lovely, young blonde women to remote hotels to meet their makers. Watch them side by side. The similarities are astounding—if coincidental (based on production timelines).
Director: Gus Van Sant
Good Will Hunting might be formulaic and predictable, but not only is it willing to dive headlong into the psychological baselines of its principal cast, it’s totally in love with Boston, treating it as so much more than just the film’s setting. Boston is as much of a character here as New York City is in Manhattan, or as Vienna is in The Third Man. Typically enamored with West Coast locales, Van Sant explores every inch of Boston’s cityscape from start to finish.
The film is most significant for introducing the world to Matt Damon and Ben Affleck; for better or worse, they are the two faces of Boston’s movie hub, and Good Will Hunting is their breakout production. In that regard, it might be the quintessential Massachusetts movie.
Director: Ben Affleck
Somewhere along his post-Good Will Hunting ascendancy in Tinseltown, Ben Affleck stumbled. Maybe it was 2003, when he starred in Daredevil and Gigli, two of the aughts’ most reviled movies; maybe it began earlier, say in 2000, when he took a lead part in Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor. But wherever that career backslide began, it ended in 2007 with Gone Baby Gone, the movie that established the modern Affleck dynasty.
The film is a veritable smorgasbord of Boston talent. Based on a Dennis Lehane novel, it has both an Affleck at the helm and another, Ben’s younger brother Casey, in front of the camera. It’s also a scathing indictment of media blitz tactics designed to milk tragedy for ratings, and a mournful tour through the dissolved municipality of Dorchester. Gone Baby Gone is a sordid, seedy portrait of Massachusetts life, but it’s an excellently truthful one, so we’ll take it.
Director: Todd Field
This entry may take you by surprise; Little Children is the kind of Massachusetts movie that doesn’t really draw attention to itself as a Massachusetts movie. Nobody squeezes into a grating parody of colloquial cadence, there’s nary a recognizable area landmark in sight, and despite being set in Boston, the city’s name is barely invoked, much less the state’s. This film could occur in any suburban community nestled within a major metropolitan area.
But that’s exactly why Little Children is so befitting of designation as a “Massachusetts movie.” Apart from the fact that it’s a phenomenal film, bolstered by great work from Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson and Jackie Earle Haley, it’s a film that never leans on regional stereotypes to supply its character. Hollywood so often evokes those tropes when making movies about Boston that Todd Field’s decision to ignore them feels like a stroke of brilliance. Not every Boston native habitually drops their “R”s or has a tenuous connection to organized crime, after all, and Little Children lets Boston be Boston without all the clichéd bells and whistles.
Director: Sidney Lumet
It’s worth noting upfront that Sidney Lumet shot most of The Verdict in New York City; old rumors suggest that this was a strategic choice, made so that Lumet could avoid dealing with Boston Teamsters. (Lumet never hid his antipathy for Teamsters, so there’s at least a kernel of truth to the hearsay.) Be that as it may, the film manages to showcase at least a little bit of Boston scenery, taking special interest in Southie locations that natives are more likely to recognize than outsiders.
But the real connective tissue that links The Verdict to Boston is its narrative, in which a hard luck, hard drinking lawyer (the great Paul Newman) butts heads with the city’s archdiocese over a “right to die” case. Boston has a large Catholic community that wields an impressive amount of social influence—Lumet might have shot his picture in the Big Apple, but he nonetheless encapsulates that religious influence perfectly in his courtroom drama. Plus he has his cast tiptoe around the matter of accents quite deftly, too, which is a nice if nonessential touch.
Director: Peter Yates
Peter Yates’ screen adaptation of George V. Higgins’ debut novel is the perfect Massachusetts film in many ways. Rather than hunker down in Boston proper and stay there, The Friends of Eddie Coyle traipses from Dedham to Cambridge, Milton to Weymouth, Malden to Somerville, Sharon to Quincy—it even takes the time to stop at the Boston Garden for a Bruins game. And if you’re particular about regional timbre, Peter Yates’ cast nails the prototypical Bostonian speech pattern note-perfectly.
The film itself ain’t half bad, either. It is in many ways a confluence of the ideas and motifs that come up elsewhere on this list: it’s a crime drama in which the protagonist, the eponymous Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum), is faced with a moral dilemma and is subsequently doomed by his own decisions. But The Friends of Eddie Coyle is flinty, sophisticated, and unsentimental, a minor masterpiece that’s often tragically overlooked in discussions of both its genre and its backdrop. This is a great entry in gangster canon, a wonderful exploration of Greater Boston, and, above all else, an outstanding film.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film for the web since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant and Movie Mezzanine. You can follow him on Twitter. Currently, he has given up on shaving.