7.) Bob Roberts (1992): Though obviously intended as political satire, it now hits a bit too close to home — like some sort of demonic prophecy foretold. Actor/writer/director Tim Robbins plays a genial folk-singing fascist, an entertainer who makes the jump to a Pennsylvania Senate race by preying on the fears and worst instincts of the marginal and the gullible. He cleverly inverts Bob Dylanesque protest songs into anthems about lynching drug dealers (and users), and the lazy immigrants and welfare queens living large on your unwitting largesse: “Times are Changin’ Back,” “Retake America,” “My Land.” It’s funny and ridiculous until, suddenly, it’s not. Still probably less absurd than our current political reality.
6.) Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020): Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther) gave this his final, valedictory performance, as he was dying of cancer, in between surgeries and chemotherapy. This makes it painful to watch, as his limitless talent clearly reaches a crescendo here. While awaiting a 1927 recording session from the imperious Mother of the Blues, Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), the band members joke, spar, tell stories and vie for position. Trumpeter Levee (Boseman) has ambitions to start his own band, writing his own music, and wants to make his mark on every song. He’s interested in Ma’s girlfriend, too. Davis looms large as Ma Rainey, a woman who has amassed real power in a white man’s world and is unafraid to wield it by walking away whenever. Though the white record executives are willing to bend to her will, the threat of racial violence and theft reigns as a malevolent, spectral presence, haunting all but the indomitable Ma.
5.) Fences (2016): Fences was mostly made in the same neighborhood where playwright August Wilson imagined it — with Denzel Washington’s Troy Maxson roaring across the Hill District of the ’50s like the literal wrecking ball that would smash through the neighborhood soon thereafter. It’s impossible to know how this will age, or how it will relate to the rest if Denzel Washington adapts all 10 of August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle plays for the screen. At times, Fences feels more like a play than a movie, but that’s the only criticism that sticks. By now, the role fits Washington like an old catcher’s mitt. He and Viola Davis reprise the roles that won them Tonys on Broadway, wearing the pain and sorrow and fleeting bits of joy of their fenced-in characters as if August Wilson was still watching.
4.) Slap Shot (1977): Another genre that rarely gets respect is the sports movie. Slap Shot (shot in Johnstown, Pittsburgh and upstate New York), might be the funniest and best movie about sports ever made. It’s a rite of passage for hockey fans, and explains the pugnacious, blue-collar soul of the sport like nothing else. Though it’s easy to miss amidst all the blood and unbelievably crude jokes, there’s also an undercurrent of foreboding here—adroitly depicting a looming crisis of masculinity, when the mills and factories are shutting down, and people are clinging to any bit of hope and camaraderie they can find.
3.) The Deer Hunter (1978): A panoramic portrait of mill town martyrdom, as souls forged in the steel mills of Western Pennsylvania are fed into the final furnace of Vietnam. Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep all appear at the peaks of their respective powers. From the wild Russian Orthodox wedding to the prison camp game of Russian roulette, this is the sort of cinematic moonshot that either launches or detonates careers. For Michael Cimino, it was the former, until its catastrophic follow-up, Heaven’s Gate (1980), became the latter.
2.) The Silence of the Lambs (1991): Serial killers have kind of been done to death (sorry), but it’s hard to overstate how unsettling and original this seemed back in 1991. It won Academy Awards in the Big 5 categories: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Adapted Screenplay, which never happens. Horror movies rarely get nominated for anything in the first place. Also, the house in Fayette County (which is pretty nice!) where the killer, uh, did bad stuff, took forever to sell, because . . . well, we don’t really know. But go ahead, you try to live there.
1.) Night of the Living Dead (1968): In town for the Pittsburgh premiere of Land of the Dead in 2005, filmmaker Quentin Tarantino mentioned to me that the American independent movie was born in Pittsburgh with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Romero (who previously worked on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood), along with some friends, family and friends-of-friends, didn’t realize they were inventing the modern horror movie or a zombie genre that still refuses to die.
The claustrophobic, walls-closing-in sets, shadowy black & white film, and tense, wartime newsreel-like cinematography weren’t selected to maximize terror — they were just cheap. The guts and innards yanked from screaming victims weren’t elaborate special effects—they were pieces of meat the butcher shop didn’t want. Duane Jones wasn’t intended to break new ground for African-American actors — he just gave the best audition. In 1999, the movie was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress.
Got a favorite movie made in Pittsburgh that we didn’t mention? Here’s your chance in the comments below.