The many faces of L.A.
Los Angeles isn’t just the home of the movies — it’s also been a dynamic player in them. The roles L.A. has held on the big screen are as varied as its neighborhoods, from the groomed lawns of Beverly Hills to the gritty streets of South Central, the bright westside beaches to the dark eastside dive bars. Transport yourself to glamorous SoCal with these essential L.A. movies, and see the City of Angels switch from radiant dream factory to sun-drenched concrete prison without so much as a change in the weather.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)
A quarter-century after his second feature Pulp Fiction made singular use of the city (more on that later), Quentin Tarantino returned to L.A. for his ninth, a true cine-fanboy’s fantasy that’s just as indulgent as its 161-minute runtime suggests — and all the better for it. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt play a fictional, aging ’60s TV star and his stunt double, respectively, alongside Margot Robbie as a luminous Sharon Tate in the auteur’s alternate history of one of Tinseltown’s darkest episodes. Disturbing as the subject matter may seem, however, Tarantino treats the landscape with such love so as to remind us that eras may come to an end, but fairy tales last forever — especially in Hollywood.
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
“You used to be big,” Joe Gillis tells Norma Desmond, an aging silent film actress, decades past her prime, who still clings to delusions of stardom. “I am big!” she barks back. “It’s the pictures that got small.” If that’s true, Billy Wilder’s iconic noir must be the exception. William Holden stars as Joe, an out-of-work screenwriter who happens into Norma’s seemingly deserted Hollywood mansion and agrees to help her edit a horrible script she’s written, hoping to stage a comeback. Gloria Swanson and Erich von Stroheim, playing Norma and her servant, a former silent film director, both give legendary performances as characters whose Hollywood histories bear significant resemblances to their own, and Hedda Hopper, Cecil B. DeMille, and Buster Keaton all appear as themselves.
Before he became a major Hollywood player as the director of Marvel blockbusters, Disney remakes, and indie charmers alike, Jon Favreau was just a struggling actor living in Los Angeles — and when he documented that experience, he made his own breakout moment with Swingers, which was shot on location in various L.A. hangouts. Favreau made his screenwriting debut with the 1996 Doug Liman-directed comedy, in which he also stars as Mike, a struggling actor (imagine that) who recently relocated to L.A.’s hip eastside from New York after getting dumped. Vince Vaughn also got his breakthrough co-starring as Mike’s fast-talking friend Trent, who tries to help his newly single pal meet women and get over his ex. All these years later, Swingers is still so money.
Boogie Nights (1997)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, about a group of adult film actors and filmmakers in the Valley in the 1970s, has all the hair, makeup, clothes, music, and cocaine that a two-and-a-half-hour movie about the Golden Age of Porn demands; Anderson’s next film, 1999’s Magnolia, is also set in the Valley, but Boogie Nights makes the list for its brilliant evocation of a time and place. Mark Wahlberg stars as Eddie Adams, a high school dropout who is discovered by porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) at the nightclub where Eddie works. Eddie takes on the stage name “Dirk Diggler” and joins Jack’s little filmmaking family, the star-studded cast of which includes Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Heather Graham, John C. Reilly, Don Cheadle, and William H. Macy.
La La Land (2016)
“Here’s to the ones who dream,” Emma Stone sings as Mia, a Hollywood dreamer, in writer-director Damien Chazelle’s stunning musical La La Land, his follow-up to 2014’s Whiplash. Opposite Stone (for their third onscreen pairing), Ryan Gosling stars as Sebastian, a jaded jazz pianist whose dreams of reviving his dying art form are gradually diminishing. The artists’ love story, set against their ongoing struggles between selling out and holding out, takes the form of a classical Hollywood musical, complete with original music and a handful of breathtaking dance interludes. In every lush, vibrant frame, Chazelle seems to toast to the ones who dream — and to the only city big enough for all of their outsize hopes.
Right now, California is in the middle of a drought, and Roman Polanski’s practically perfect Chinatown, four-plus decades after its release, couldn’t feel more timely. Jack Nicholson is Jake Gittes, a private detective who, jaded from his time spent as a police officer in Chinatown, now identifies the investigation of marital infidelity as his métier. That is, until one of his cases plunges him back into the murk of exposing corruption, as he uncovers an elaborate plot to control L.A.’s most precious resource: its water. Polanski made the iconic neo-noir just a few years after the vicious murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, in Benedict Canyon, and the filmmaker’s grim view of the lonely city is evident in every frame.
As if we could leave Clueless off the list! Thirteen years after her feature directorial debut, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, captured the experience of teens in the Valley, writer-director Amy Heckerling shifted her focus south to Beverly Hills and made one of the most stylish, iconic, and endlessly quotable teen movies — and L.A. movies — of all time. The modern reimagining of Jane Austen’s Emma stars Alicia Silverstone as Cher Horowitz: queen of her high school, budding philanthropist, and, uh, virgin who can’t drive. Like her Regency era counterpart, Cher endeavors to find a match for her adorably clueless friend, only to fall majorly, totally, butt-crazy in love with someone herself.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Quentin Tarantino’s sophomore filmmaking effort (after 1992’s Reservoir Dogs) takes place in a highly stylized L.A. — and somehow, Tarantino’s unique brand of postmodern weirdness only makes its setting all the more essentially Angeleno. The iconic indie intertwines a handful of narrative threads, following a pair of hitmen, a pro boxer, a crime lord’s wife, and a couple of petty criminals. The film was enormously influential, having inspired a whole slew of copycats, revived John Travolta’s career, and built significantly on the momentum of the indie film movement of the ‘90s, and now, more than two decades later, we’re still dying to know: What’s in the briefcase?
Singin' in the Rain (1952)
What a glorious feeling it is to watch Singin’ in the Rain, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s dazzling musical ode to — and winking satire of — Hollywood itself. Kelly stars as silent movie star Don Lockwood in the 1929-set comedy, which depicts the earthshattering moment in Tinseltown history when movies began to speak (decades later, The Artist would take home the Oscar for doing the same). His glamorous leading lady Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), unfortunately, has a hilariously horrible speaking voice, so a sweet chorus girl (Debbie Reynolds) dubs her dialogue in the new talkies — and wins Don’s heart, naturally. Movies this wonderful are even more rare than thunderstorms in Los Angeles.
L.A. Story (1991)
Mick Jackson’s L.A. Story, written by and starring Steve Martin (eight years before he skewered Tinseltown in Bowfinger), pokes gentle fun at the City of Angels, but treats it with much more affection than disdain. Martin plays Harris K. Telemacher, a weatherman (in a city that doesn’t have weather) looking for meaning in his life. He finds guidance, as only a true citizen of L.A. ever could, in the apparently personal messages he receives on a freeway traffic sign. Before she became TV’s most celebrated New Yorker, Sarah Jessica Parker was a great Angeleno as the fantastically vapid SanDeE*, a ditzy aspiring spokesmodel.
Boyz n the Hood (1991)
Writer-director John Singleton picked up a Best Director nomination with his feature debut Boyz n the Hood, which also marked the film debut of Ice Cube. Cuba Gooding, Jr. plays Tre Styles, a teenage boy who lives with his father in South Central L.A., where he befriends his neighbors, half-brothers Ricky (Morris Chestnut) and Doughboy (Cube). The boys all grow up together but end up on different paths, with Ricky and Tre both planning to go to college, while Doughboy has gotten swept into the violent gang culture of the neighborhood — out of which not all of the boys will make it.
The Graduate (1967)
Mike Nichols’ influential 1967 classic sprawls all over California, but its heart is in Los Angeles: While Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock lives with his parents just east of the city in affluent Pasadena and he pursues Elaine Robinson up the coast at Berkeley, his trysts with Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson are all L.A., shot in the iconic Ambassador Hotel (called the Taft Hotel in the film). That’s not to mention the fact that Benjamin’s post-college malaise manifests itself in the essentially Angeleno form of lounging idly in a pool all day — and of course, is there any American city more plastic than Los Angeles?
Mulholland Drive (2001)
How to explain Mulholland Drive? David Lynch’s surreal neo-noir thriller is as twisty as the narrow roads that lead up into the Hollywood hills. Naomi Watts got her breakthrough role as Betty, a typically hopeful aspiring actress, who crosses paths with Rita (Laura Elena Harring), a woman who has lost her memory after a car accident on the eponymous L.A. street. As the two women try to piece together the mystery of what happened in Rita’s accident, Lynch’s movie offers more misshapen puzzle pieces than any viewer can hope to assemble in just one viewing — but hey, at least figuring out Mulholland Drive is easier than making total sense of Los Angeles.
Troop Beverly Hills (1989)
Amid all these dramas oozing existential angst, Jeff Kanew’s sunshiny 1989 comedy about a Beverly Hills Wilderness Girl troop — whose merit badges include the “gardening with glamour patch” and the “jewelry appraisal patch” — is like a refreshing bottle of Evian on a scorching SoCal day. Shelley Long stars as Phyllis Nefler, a chain-smoking shopaholic in the middle of a messy divorce who signs on to lead her daughter’s troop to Wilderness Girl glory. After making over the frumpy khaki disaster of a uniform, Phyllis teaches the daughters of struggling actors, eccentric directors, famous athletes, and jet-setting socialites (“My parents are in Monte Carlo!”) how to survive in the wilds of Beverly Hills — what a thrill!
L.A. Confidential (1997)
Curtis Hanson directed this adaptation of James Ellroy’s 1990 novel, about three policemen (Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, and Kevin Spacey), all with very different approaches, all trying to uncover the truth about the corruption that thrives in the city — including in their own force. Los Angeles itself is front and center in this stylish neo-noir, the heroes of which have to navigate both the glamour and the sleaze of Hollywood as carefully as they tread the fine line between right and wrong in their pursuit of the truth. And what’s more L.A. than a prostitution service made up of women who have all gotten plastic surgery to resemble movie stars?
Barton Fink (1991)
In 2016, Joel and Ethan Coen’s Hail, Caesar! made fun of Hollywood from the inside of the studio system, but 25 years ago, the Coen brothers’ genre-defying Barton Fink made for a more piercing Old Hollywood story, centered around a newcomer glimpsing the industry from the outside. John Turturro stars as Barton Fink, a New York playwright on the rise who takes a job writing screenplays for a major studio in the 1940s. Working out of a ratty old hotel, he struggles both to write his first film script and to make sense of the world he’s just stepped into — but he’s just a tourist with a typewriter.
A Star Is Born (1954)
Judy Garland earned her first Oscar nomination when she lent her gorgeous voice to this quintessential Hollywood tale, which was based on the 1937 film of the same name and would go on to inspire a third version in 1976, starring Barbra Streisand, as well as the 2018 hit which won star Lady Gaga her first Oscar (for Best Original Song). Garland takes top billing in George Cukor’s 1954 classic as a talented young actress who falls in love with an alcoholic movie star (James Mason); as she ascends to Tinseltown glory, his career falls apart. The tearjerking musical is well known for Garland’s rendition of the song “The Man that Got Away.”
A handful of movies invoke L.A.’s consuming car culture, from 2014’s Nightcrawler, in which Jake Gyllenhaal zoomed all over the city to catch gory footage for the TV news, to 1994’s Speed, in which Keanu Reeves must keep a bus moving at a high speed during L.A. rush hour (forget it). But Nicolas Winding Refn’s stylish neo-noir makes the list in their place, in part because it marries the car to the movies: The film’s hero, who is played by Ryan Gosling and whose name is never made known, is a Hollywood stunt driver by day, getaway driver by night. That’s not to mention that, under Refn’s precise direction, driving has never looked so good.
Training Day (2001)
Denzel Washington won an Oscar for his performance in Antoine Fuqua’s gritty police drama, in which he plays a respected detective of the L.A.P.D., Alonzo Harris. But even outside of Hollywood, nothing in L.A. is exactly what it appears: Alonzo is as corrupt as movie cops come. Ethan Hawke plays a golden-boy rookie narcotics officer who must spend 24 hours working alongside Alonzo in South Central Los Angeles, and is thrust into the middle of his superior’s vile hypocrisy over the course of the training day.
The Player (1992)
Robert Altman has depicted Los Angeles more than once, first with 1973’s neo-noir The Long Goodbye and later with 1993’s Short Cuts, a feature of linked vignettes. But it’s The Player, and its dazzlingly clever treatment of the Hollywood dream factory, that earns a spot on the list. Dozens of major celebrities make cameo appearances as themselves in Altman’s satire, in which Tim Robbins stars as a studio executive who murders a resentful screenwriter. It sounds grim, but don’t worry! If there’s anything a studio executive knows about, it’s how to get a Hollywood ending.
Double Indemnity (1944)
Hot, sprawling, superficial, and isolating, the crowded but lonely L.A. sets the perfect stage for a number of classic films noir, including Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. The film is based on the novel by master of hardboiled crime fiction James M. Cain, whose cynical view of Southern California was similarly captured in Mildred Pierce and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Fred MacMurray stars as Walter Neff, an insurance salesman, and Barbara Stanwyck is the femme fatale who entraps him when she takes out an insurance policy on her husband’s life, planning to kill him.
Real Women Have Curves (2002)
America Ferrera made her film debut in Patricia Cardoso’s lauded indie playing Ana, a teenager from a Latino neighborhood in East L.A. who buses across the city every day to go to a prestigious Beverly Hills high school. When she graduates, her favorite teacher urges her to go to college, but her emotionally manipulative mother disapproves. Ana wants to do more with her life than work in her sister’s dress factory, but at the same time, she can’t afford — or fit into — the dresses they make, which her classmates might easily snap up at Bloomingdale’s. She may not feel like she quite belongs in either world, but her ability to move between the two and find herself in the middle makes her a truly great movie Angeleno.
A Single Man (2009)
Before 2016’s Nocturnal Animals, fashion designer Tom Ford made his directorial debut with this adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel. Colin Firth picked up his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor (he would win the following year, for The King’s Speech) for his portrayal of George Falconer, a literature professor living in (a gorgeously recreated, stunningly photographed) Los Angeles in the ‘60s who is mourning the loss of his partner, Jim. Over the course of a single day, at the end of which he plans to commit suicide, George says goodbye to all the people he encounters and all the beauty that surrounds him.
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
The most famous sequence in Rebel Without a Cause takes place at one of L.A.’s most recognizable landmarks: Griffith Observatory, which offers a perfect view of the sprawling metropolis. Nicholas Ray’s film also gives a clear perspective on the city, and in particular the isolated young people who inhabited it at in a particular moment in American culture. James Dean gives his iconic performance as Jim Stark, a troubled teenager who finds kindred spirits in the equally misunderstood Judy (Natalie Wood) and Plato (Sal Mineo) upon moving to Los Angeles — where he also finds enemies just as easily.
(500) Days of Summer (2009)
Marc Webb’s unconventional 2009 rom-com celebrates its SoCal setting without invoking any of its many clichés, and paints Los Angeles with the same romanticizing brush When Harry Met Sally used on New York. While it is worth noting that one of the film’s sweetest sequences takes place at the Burbank IKEA, 500 Days truly earns its spot in this list when Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) rediscovers his passion for architecture through his relationship with Summer (Zooey Deschanel), and the pair spends many of the happier days of their brief 500 together sitting in his favorite park and looking out at the city’s beautiful art deco buildings — the ones that aren’t blocked by parking garages, anyway.
Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
Martin Brest’s Beverly Hills Cop stars Eddie Murphy as Axel Foley, a Detroit cop who goes to Beverly Hills to investigate the murder of his best friend. Once in sunny L.A., Axel has to deal with some major west coast culture shock, as well as the two Beverly Hills policemen (Judge Reinhold and John Ashton) who have been assigned to keep an eye on him. And while it’s not exactly a heavy, socially aware L.A.P.D. drama, don’t underestimate Beverly Hills Cop because of its genre; Daniel Petrie Jr. and Danilo Bach’s original screenplay was nominated for an Oscar in 1985.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
Have the movies every given us a more quintessential Angeleno than The Dude? Jeff Bridges stars in Joel and Ethan Coen’s cult crime comedy as the ultimate L.A. slacker who gets attacked by a pair of thugs mistaking him for a millionaire who shares his name. The mix-up — and the subsequent soiling of the Dude’s rug by the inconsiderate goons — takes our White Russian-loving hero down a rabbit hole of pornographers, nihilists, and, of course, bowling enthusiasts in a story that only the Coen brothers — and Los Angeles — could make real.
Frank Oz directed this Hollywood satire written by Steve Martin, who also starred as Bobby Bowfinger, a low-grade filmmaker determined to make a hit. With a ridiculous sci-fi script written by his accountant, Bowfinger shoots for the stars (quite literally) and tries to get Hollywood’s hottest actor (Eddie Murphy) to headline the project. When the superstar rejects him, Bowfinger decides to just shoot the movie around him without his knowledge. Bowfinger pokes fun at every Hollywood type imaginable, from Heather Graham’s airheaded but ambitious starlet, to Robert Downey Jr.’s shallow studio executive, to Murphy’s action star who belongs to a cult-like religion called MindHead.
The Bling Ring (2013)
A member of one of the greatest Hollywood dynasties of all time, Sofia Coppola gets Los Angeles. Her fourth feature, 2010’s Somewhere, was a moody expression of Hollywood ennui, but it’s her fifth, 2013’s The Bling Ring, that earns a spot on the list. Based on Nancy Jo Sales’ 2010 Vanity Fair article about the group of teenagers who broke into celebrities’ homes and stole a few million dollars’ worth of designer duds, Coppola’s satire (which stars Emma Watson as one of the thieving SoCal brats) sharply observes the fame-, money-, and status-obsessed culture that is alive and well in the City of Angels.