Think about Taxi Driver and 1970s New York, or Fargo and the upper Midwest, or the smart cities in the futuristic kingdom of Wakanda in Black Panther. Not only can movies shape the personas and cultural mythologies of cities and towns, but they can also offer insights into the lived experiences of moviegoers and the places they call home.
As an urbanist who has worked with cities as diverse as New York and Tulsa—itself the setting of a blockbuster this year—I’m fascinated by how filmmakers imagine different types of communities. In my profession, the term placemaking is used to capture the myriad ways to harness community assets to drive vitality, health, resilience, and prosperity. In the movie business, the term is worldbuilding, the various tools a director can bring to bear to establish a creative world that anchors, reflects, and complements their story.
2023 was a fantastic year for film, and many of the best movies created compelling place-based worlds—real and imaginary—as well as the key elements that animate and structure those worlds. Among these world-shaping forces are technology and innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship, diversity and inclusion, and real estate and the built environment.Here are my 10 favorite movies of 2023, described through an urbanist’s lens:10. Oppenheimer: A timely biopic about the inventor of the atomic bomb, the film is divided between the Berkeley and Los Alamos worlds of publicly-funded innovation and the tense halls of Washington, D.C. politics; throughout, the movie suggests the moral tradeoffs people must make in innovation and national security, a dilemma important to think about in the age of artificial intelligence.
9. Saltburn: A disturbing, comically dark take on class dynamics in English society. Set on a rural estate, juxtaposed by both suburban and London interludes, the film portrays the corrosive power of extreme wealth and the importance of education in providing opportunities for economic mobility.
8. You Hurt My Feelings: A gem of a comedy, set in Manhattan, about a writer receiving stinging feedback from her husband about her book. The film shows the vulnerability of creatives and how they need constructive feedback and supportive communities to develop their art.
7. American Fiction: A film about a Black writer visiting home in predominantly white Boston, while navigating the ivory towers of academia and publishing. It’s an often poignant and funny satire on how race shapes wider societal narratives and how the white gaze affects Black cultural production.
6. BlackBerry: The story of the rise and fall of the BlackBerry, the antecedent to the iPhone. Through a cutting screenplay, the film weaves together insights into the venture capital and entrepreneurship worlds as well as the human inventors behind the planet’s first smartphone.
5. They Cloned Tyrone: This imaginative and provocative movie blends sci-fi with comedy to tell the story of a drug dealer who stumbles upon a government conspiracy. Alternately set in a Black urban suburb and a secret, subterranean laboratory, the film creates a meticulous futuristic neighborhood that resembles today’s world of the underserved.
4. Wonka: A joyful musical about the power and complexities of entrepreneurial vision, ambition, and determination told through a young and charismatic chocolatier and built on a foundation of fun and whimsical set pieces.
3. Killers of the Flower Moon: The epic true story of how members of the Osage Nation were killed and swindled out of oil wealth by white men. Set in the communities that sprung from oil fields across Tulsa and northeast Oklahoma, the movie tells the story of the relationship between indigenous peoples, oil, and American prosperity and greed.
2. The Zone of Interest: A haunting and novel depiction of the Holocaust, set in a Nazi leader’s home, erected directly next to the Auschwitz camp. The film shows in chilling detail how the built environment can physically and emotionally separate us from one another, fostering racial phantasmagoria and hate that erodes our sense of humanity.
1. Barbie: A colorful, energetic, and classic musical, with story and songs that speak to the power of female leaders, the importance of allies for equity, and the courage it takes to be change agents in societies designed to keep the minoritized down—all accentuated by expert production design and costumes that paint a detailed portrait of the Barbieland ecosystem.
These films are less magic and more astute impressions of real places and the people that populate them, suggesting that placemaking and worldbuilding aren’t so different. Good movies, like the many that entertained us this year, invite us to become both observers and characters, empowered to feel a spectrum of emotions in a fictive world that is really our own.
Nicholas Lalla is a visiting scholar at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs and the founder of the nonprofit economic development organization Tulsa Innovation Labs.