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Top 10 Chicago Movies

October 31, 2010

Chicago movies

Plenty of movies have been shot in Chicago. The Windy City is home to dozens of famous scenes and legendary characters. Check out our ten favorite movies based in Chicago.

This summer was a busy one downtown. Transformers 3 spent most of the summer blowing up street corners and flying helicopters through the streets. Colombiana brought Zoe Saldana to town for a small portion of Olivier Megaton’s revenge movie. Currently, Steven Soderbergh’s A-list ensemble thriller Contagion is shooting in The Windy City. Plenty of other films were shot in Chicago this summer, from the low-budget 3D live-action comedy Shakey to the upcoming television series Ridealong.

The Midwest is no stranger to the film industry. But its heyday is still in the past. Only one film in the last decade finds its way on our ten favorite Chicago movies.

Blues Brothers

Blues Brothers

In the distant future, when aliens scour the remains of Earth for clues of a lost civilization, hopefully they will stumble upon a DVD/Blu-ray/Holovision of Blues Brothers. That way, the extraterrestrials will know what Chicago is all about. It is the epitome of a true Chicago movie.

Blues Brothers really had it all – a car chase through Daley Plaza, fantastic music, bizarre buddies and Carrie Fisher with a rocket launcher. Chicago native John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd came into town and left with one of the most beloved comedies of all time.

If only Wayne’s World was shot in Chicago and not Aurora, IL (just outside the city), Blues Brothers might have some competition on the comedic front. The movie is a staple of every Chicago tour and arguably is a tour itself.

The Fugitive

The Fugitive

Although the payphones by the Chicago River do not exist anymore, it is difficult to walk by and not think of the great phone call scene in The Fugitive. The slow reveal of Dr. Richard Kimble’s location is brilliantly executed and what ensues is a city chase like no other.

Few movies have utilized the famous elevated train as well as The Fugitive. In Spider-Man 2, Doc Ock fights the web slinger on a train battle that appears to be New York’s transit system, but actually took place on Chicago’s “El.” The Fugitive found more ways to make it integral to the story without forcefully creating an action scene.

The St. Patrick’s Day parade chase is a great sequence that showcases the busy streets of Chicago. Overall, The Fugitive finds a way to bring the story through the city naturally, while showcasing its highlights in a fluid way.

Public Enemies

Public Enemies

The most recent film to properly use the city in its splendor was also true tale of the country’s most wanted criminal. John Dillinger was public enemy #1 in the 1930s and the heart of the nation’s crime problem was in Chicago.

Michael Mann brought his infamous attention to detail to Public Enemies. The Biograph Theater, location of Dillinger’s death, is still active on the North Side. Mann didn’t have to change much, but he shut down the entire block to completely recreate the look and feel of 1930s Chicago. Needless to say, it was a success.

Public Enemies absolutely looks the part. Location scouting was so important to the production and clearly they paid close attention. Even the locations of the “El” seem right for the time.

Beyond production design, every detail was carefully considered. Michael Mann is a Chicago native and came back to the city to film Public Enemies. He could have simply shot on a soundstage in Los Angeles, but they came to the city and it shows.

The Sting

The Sting

Although much of The Sting was shot in California, enough sequences were filmed in Chicago for it to belong here. Besides, it is an iconic Chicago movie. Robert Redford and Paul Newman team up in a heist movie of an era similar to the one above – Public Enemies.

Chicago can be gritty or it can be cool. The Sting is the latter, where two slick con-men pull an epic caper. It may not have filmed all around Chicago, but the movie is pure Chicago.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Ferris Bueller's Day Off

Hopefully this is one of your favorite Chicago movies. Most people light up with a big smile when a Ferris Bueller reference is spoken. Chicago native John Hughes shares his passion for the Windy City through the eyes of a bored teenager.

Bueller’s trip to Wrigley Field is just as iconic as any moment in the 100+ year old stadium’s history. The Art Institute will never be the same after the famous sequence in Ferris Bueller. Even the skyscraper view from the top of The Sears Tower is a memorable Chicago moment in the 1986 film.

Still, of all the great Chicago moments, my favorite is the valet attendants’ joy ride in Cameron’s father’s car. That one little moment where they fly over the camera with the Chicago skyline in the background is seared into my memory forever.

Road to Perdition

Road to Perdition

Chicago truly blossoms as a character in Road to Perdition. Sam Mendes came to Chicago around ten years ago and filmed almost all of the movie in the city. While a healthy portion of the movie is shot just outside the city, the sequences downtown are breathtaking.

The final scene of Road to Perdition is one of the greatest ever constructed. The rain creates a sort of Matrix-like coating of lines that accentuate the intense action on screen. And there is no question that scene is pure Chicago.

The weather and the city act as a buffer for the cold characters on screen. It is an industrial film when they focus on the city. There is no question the city has its locations that breed cold-hearted violence.

High Fidelity

High Fidelity

Chicago isn’t all gangsters and car chases. John Cusack headlines a story about the real-life music scene as it unfolds in Chicago. Lincoln Park and the surrounding neighborhoods on the North Side have a vibe that is unique to the area.

High Fidelity captures a part of Chicago that is just an integral to its style as the physical structures of the city – the people. It is a glimpse into the heart of Chicagoans and the musical drive that keeps them moving.

Believe it or not, the people in the city are just as interesting as those who come to it. Dreamers and slackers are everywhere – some even look their part. But High Fidelity puts the people on display and questions what makes them who they are. It could be explored in any major city, really, but Chicago adds some much-needed spice.

Hoop Dreams

Hoop Dreams

The only documentary on this list is widely considered one of the best ever made. Like High Fidelity, this is a tale of real people in a real world. That would just happens to be Chicago. High Fidelity captures the essence of the North Side, while Hoop Dreams finds the soul of the South Side.

Every city has their athletes who escape their struggles to be superstars. Hoop Dreams takes a look at two of them over a four-year stretch.

The city becomes an afterthought as the characters draw you in, but Chicago is undoubtedly a major player in the way both athletes’ lives pan out. Location and lifestyle are what brought the camera to them and it is a fascinating display of real life.



Ron Howard’s exciting film is a gritty Chicago movie. It may not be about the city, but it sure takes place in it. There are times where you just know it is a Chicago-based movie, but the city does become relatively irrelevant. Still, the urban atmosphere of the locations within Backdraft are what make every scene so unnerving.

It finds a way to capture multiple genres seamlessly. At once it is a catch-me-if-you-can thriller, only to quickly turn into an action romp and right over into a romantic tale.

Clinical filmmaking would suggest to bring Backdraft to New York City, where firefighters are put on a pedestal of greatness. But Chicago’s finest are just as admirable and the elements are just as engaging.

It seems like Ron Howard enjoyed Chicago because he was back in town this summer shooting The Dilemma.

Home Alone

Home Alone

Chris Columbus’ 1990 film captured the hearts of the world, raking in over $500 million in the box office. That kind of ticket sales is pretty good publicity for Chicago when it is put on display. Of course, the majority of the film takes place in the suburbs, but this just can’t be ignored.

Most of the scenes were shot around the downtown area, as opposed to deep in the suburbs. The house can be found in Evanston and Wilmette, just a few miles north of downtown. This is one of the few movies, even on this list, that shot exclusively in Illinois.

The Chicago O’Hare sequence is particularly great. O’Hare has some great sections to film in, but rarely gets the full treatment like in Home Alone and Home Alone 2. There is a clear love for the city of Chicago from the filmmaker’s perspective. Much of the movie could have easily been done on a soundstage, but location was important and it paid off.

Honorable Mention: Batman Begins/The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight

Although these two are arguably the best films on this list, they don’t exactly take place in Chicago. Christopher Nolan shot both films in Chicago, which was then turned into the fictional Gotham City.

Anybody with the faintest knowledge of Chicago can recognize it in a heartbeat. The signature Chicago River is put on display in the evacuation scene of The Dark Knight, while the oft-filmed Lower Wacker Drive is shown in both movies.

Even the unfinished (at the time) Trump Tower, which now rivals the Hancock Center and the Sears Willis Tower in size, is home to the final battle between Joker and Batman in The Dark Knight.

Since the movies used Chicago as a stand-in for Gotham, it can’t truly make our top ten list. But since Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are so good, we’d be hard-pressed to leave it completely off.

Chicago is a haven for filmmakers. It is not only beautiful, but also shakes up the overused look of New York City and Los Angeles. Films like Weatherman area  testament to the low-budget independent film market that thrives in Chicago.

It’s rare a month will go by in Chicago without a feature film in production. The Second City is right up there with Los Angeles, New York City and New Orleans, but it has found a comfortable place amongst the most well-shot major cities in America.

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