by Jason Koenigsberg
A few months back I wrote an article about the best New York City movies. That is the city that is nearest and dearest to my heart so for me it was easier to select films that best encapsulate the Big Apple. Having just returned from Los Angeles, I was inspired to come up with the ten best Los Angeles movies. It seems like a natural fit since this is the epicenter of the motion picture industry and many of our greatest films have been made in Los Angeles.
As an outsider looking in to Hollywood it presented a nice challenge, my brainstorm list ended up with over sixty films ranging from Nightcrawler (2014) to The Last Action Hero (1993). Similar to the New York list, I selected the films and ranked them not by their greatness or entertainment value but by how well I felt they reflected the Los Angeles culture.
Also like last time, I will start off with the films that just missed my top 10 that I felt were so good I really wanted to include something about them. This was really hard to narrow it down to ten and not turn this article into a novel. Even with this there are so many great L.A. films I am neglecting (sorry The Graduate, Strange Days and Clueless).
Just missed the Top 10:
The Limey (1999) directed by Steven Soderbergh
On the surface a straightforward revenge thriller, but beneath it, The Limey is a smart and insightful look at the social class structure in LA as well as the way the entertainment industry can have devastating effects on people’s lives even all the way across the Atlantic Ocean. The Limey is also my favorite Soderbergh film and it contains Terrence Stamp’s best performance.
Point Break (1991) directed by Kathryn Bigelow
The same summer that Terminator 2: Judgment Day (a great LA movie that also did not make the cut) exploded onto cinemas, James Cameron’s ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow composed her own action thriller that uses Los Angeles as more than just a setting for a thriller about bank robbers wearing masks of ex-presidents, but made it where this film could only take place in L.A. It is one of Keanu Reeeves’ best films and it was not a mere coincidence that Patrick Swayze’s Bodhi is the one wearing the Ronald Reagan mask when he robs the banks. No picture has captured the beach culture of Southern California better than Point Break. With thrilling surfing scenes, shoot outs, chases and sky diving, Point Break is a superb L.A. film in every way.
Drive (2011) directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Another great action film set in Los Angeles but this one has a much greater underdog quality to it. From the opening pulse-pounding car chase that ends with our hero The Driver (Ryan Gosling) walking past the Staples Center as it is letting out a huge crowd and he puts on a Clippers hat (the ultimate L.A. underdog team) I knew I was in for a very unique action experience. Drive never lets up and shows L.A. from a very working class point of view with no glamour or extravagance.
L.A. Story (1991) directed by Mick Jackson
Written by Steve Martin, L.A. Story is an insightful, funny and romantic comedy that greatly exaggerates stereotypes and clichés about Los Angeles. It touches on how life in this city can be ridiculous. L.A. Story works very well as a story about finding love in L.A. and despite its criticism about daily life with humorous scenes about ordering coffee, taking a walk, trying to make a dinner reservation and driving on the freeway, in the end it really shows the city as a magical place.
Bowfinger (1999) directed by Frank Oz
Another comedy written by and starring Steve Martin that takes place in Los Angeles and captures the idiosyncrasies better than most other films. This time it is a look at the show business culture from the struggling actor and filmmaker’s point of view. Hilarious and heartfelt despite its criticism of the Hollywood system and its players, in the end both Bowfinger and L.A. Story are Steve Martin’s love letters to Los Angeles much like Annie Hall and Manhattan are Woody Allen’s love letters about New York City.
Pulp Fiction (1994) directed by Quentin Tarantino
Tarantino’s groundbreaking independent masterpiece is also one of the best movies to capture the City of Angels. Unlike most other films that depict L.A. from the points of view of the upper class, or people trying to break into the film industry, this movie is told from criminal’s points of view. The city is an appropriate backdrop to some of the smartest and wittiest dialogue ever put on film.
Lethal Weapon (1987) directed by Richard Donner
A film that showcases a lot of famous L.A. landmarks and the L.A. lifestyle as it tells the story about mismatched partners forced to work together to solve a crime involving drug dealers and murder. Lethal Weapon features Mel Gibson’s best acting performance as a cop on the edge (or is he just faking it?) as well as some of the best stunts done at that point. Richard Donner’s direction keeps everything moving briskly and Shane Black’s intelligent screenplay adds a lot to the buddy cop sub-genre and has been a major influence on action scripts ever since. One last trivia note, Lethal Weapon was the first movie to feature a cell phone, that tidbit alone captures how this is a great L.A. movie.
Die Hard (1988) directed by John McTiernan
Another great L.A. action film, it seems the 80’s brought us some of the best action pictures and Die Hard remains the one that set the standard many would follow and try to duplicate. The first thirty minutes of exposition demonstrate how different Los Angeles is as it is being seen for the first time by New York City police officer John McClane (Bruce Willis). The only reason this great film is not on my top 10 is because the majority of the film takes place in the Nakatomi high-rise building where our main characters are held hostage and you do not really see much of Los Angeles other than LAX and the skyline.
Boyz N the Hood (1991) directed by John Singleton
I’ve heard that South Central Los Angeles has improved a lot over the years since this film was made. In that case Boyz N the Hood is an important time capsule of what the Los Angeles urban ghetto was like during the 1980’s and 1990’s. This does for L.A. what Taxi Driver did for New York. Nothing glamorous here, just a powerful drama about growing up in poverty and surrounded by crime. Also worth noting, Boyz N the Hood is the first film to have an African-American nominated for an Academy Award for best director, and at age 23 John Singleton is still the youngest person to be nominated for that award.
Double Indemnity (1944) directed by Billy Wilder
It really kills me that this did not make my top 10 but that is a testament of how hard it was to make this list and how many great L.A. movies there are. Double Indemnity is one of the first and best film noir pictures ever made. If you have not seen it do yourself a favor and seek this classic out. It all takes place in L.A. as many film noirs do but this one really captures the look and feel of what it was probably like to live in the outskirts of Hollywood during its golden age. Actor Fred MacMurray and director Billy Wilder would go on to do great comedic work but their finest hour may arguably be Double Indemnity. The performance to savor is Barbara Stanwyck as she creates the most devilish femme fatale ever put on screen.
The Top 10 Los Angeles Movies
10. To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) directed by William Friedkin
This is the movie that kicked Double Indemnity off the top 10. Hopefully I can explain myself and justify this action. As I said these films are not listed based on how great they are but by how well I feel they capture the essence and spirit of Los Angeles. As great as all the movies I listed above are, To Live and Die in L.A. captures the City of Angels in the 1980’s better than just about any film I can think of. Not only that, this is one of the best films about the 1980’s that was ever made. Featuring a soundtrack by Wang Chung and some of the gaudiest fonts for the opening and closing credits. It captures L.A. because even the criminal (played by a young Willem Dafoe) is a struggling artist and uses his art to help him with his crimes as an expert counterfeiter. What master director William Friedkin did for the 1970’s New York with The French Connection (1971) he duplicates with To Live and Die in L.A. for Los Angeles in the 80’s. Below is the Wang Chung music video of the title song directed by Friedkin, it captures the atmosphere of the film perfectly.
9. Singin’ in the Rain (1952) directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly
What a glorious feeling it gives me everytime I watch Singin’ in the Rain. This one of the very best movies ever made and it is hard to believe that it did not get a Best Picture Nomination from the Academy Awards when it was first released. A fun movie-musical but also a great story about Los Angeles and how show business was going through turmoil and changes as the silent movie era ended and “talkies” were the new thing. It captures L.A. at a very special time in the cities history and no film has been able to recreate the joy that Singin’ in the Rain creates. This is a true masterpiece that can make its viewer feel better about life every time they watch it. Below is the most famous scene of Gene Kelly singing the title song.
8. Ed Wood (1994) directed by Tim Burton
Shot in magnificent black and white Ed Wood is not only Tim Burton’s best film, but in my humble opinion this is the best movie about filmmaking ever made. Featuring unsurpassed performances by Johnny Depp as the title character and Martin Landau (who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar) as Bela Lugosi, Ed Wood showcases Los Angeles and its cinema culture during the 1950’s better than any other film. It also goes to great length’s to illustrate that although Edward D. Wood Jr. might have been the worst director of all time, he might also have been the most passionate. The trailer is embedded below and its a great one.
7. Mulholland Drive (2001) directed by David Lynch
The darkest and strangest picture on this list, I hailed as the best film of the decade five years ago. Mulholland Drive is like the anti-Singin’ in the Rain a story about searching for dreams in the City of Angels only to have them crushed and your soul lost and destroyed in the process. Many movies have been made about the superficial culture of Hollywood but none are as complex and surreal as this film. Lynch really captures a darkness that exists in L.A. and it has never been shown in such a magnificently cynical light as Mulholland Drive. With its fantastic cinematography and eerie music score Mulholland Drive captures L.A. at it’s creepiest and most dreamlike, but in an instant that dream can turn into a nightmare. Below is an interview with David Lynch describing how his ideas come to him and the making of Mulholland Drive, but in typical Lynch fashion it does not provide much insight into what the film means.
6. Chinatown (1974) directed by Roman Polanski
I cannot believe that Chinatown is all the way back at number 6 on my list, but this turned out to be much more of a challenge than I originally thought. Robert Towne’s outstanding screenplay does so much for cinema, by recalling its golden age of detective stories it would go on to influence almost every mystery film that would follow and start an entire neo-noir genre. Some great performances by Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston enhance this picture with subtle little jabs about L.A. especially relevant is the detail about salt water and fresh water and how Jerry Brown (current Governor of California) has called for a reduction in water usage due to a drought. There are probably so much more brilliant L.A.-isms that I have not picked up on but would if I lived there. Click below to watch one of the most unforgettable scenes in movie history.
5. Blade Runner (1982) directed by Ridley Scott
The only science fiction movie that made this list really does an outstanding job at capturing what an overcrowded metropolis Los Angeles could become. Plus, along with Chinatown this is the only film that really acknowledges and takes into account the huge Asian population in the city. It is a masterpiece of science fiction but also captures downtown L.A.’s seedy underbelly. It really helped that some of it was filmed on location and I think taking place in L.A. enhanced its story about who is human and who is a replicant (android if you have not seen the film) adding to it a dreamlike surreal quality that other cities would not have been able to duplicate. I embedded one of my favorite scenes below.
4. Short Cuts (1993) directed by Robert Altman
It broke my heart that P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia one of my favorite films of the 1990’s did not make this list but that film would not have existed if it were not for Short Cuts. Altman’s stunning tour de force about regular people’s lives intersecting in Los Angeles is one of the best films about the city, one of the best films of his career, one of the best films of the 90’s and one of the best films about people searching for some meaning in their life trying to find love or even a connection with people. This does a much better job explaining the human condition and utilizing Los Angeles as a character and not just a setting than the 2005 Best Picture winner Crash, and is even more insightful about people living in all aspects of life in L.A. than Altman’s The Player (1992) both of which were also runners up for this list. See the trailer below.
3. The Big Lebowski (1998) directed by The Coen Bros.
Determining the top three L.A. pictures was really the hardest. I kind of wish that I could have a three-way tie for number one but that would feel like a cop out. The Big Lebowski is the funniest movie set in L.A. and boy does it make use of its surroundings. From the opening scene at a Ralph’s grocery store to its mentioning of the In and Out Burger and a myriad of details in between. The Big Lebowski is Los Angeles in a lot of ways. The laid back culture is illustrated perfectly by the Dude (Jeff Bridges) who spends his time smoking weed which is much more common in L.A. than many other American cities and it has aspects of the show business culture in its plot which is a mystery and like a film noir only instead of just being dark and ruthless it is ridiculously hilarious. Watch the trailer below, it does a very funny job of capturing the mood of the film.
2. L.A. Confidential (1997) directed by Curtis Hanson
Speaking of mysteries, this may be the best film mystery to take place in Los Angeles. I realize that is a very bold statement especially considering I have Chinatown at number 6. L.A. Confidential had me on the edge of my seat trying to put the pieces together and trying to figure out what each character would do next. Explosive performances from Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce as three detectives with very different backgrounds and styles trying to solve a murder that is not what it seems. L.A. Confidential is like the best of both worlds, it is an indictment about the dark side of the movie industry as well as a great film noir-ish murder mystery with Kim Basinger (in an Oscar winning performance) as the femme fatale. Check out the trailer for this unforgettable and intelligent mystery.
And now the Best Los Angeles Movie ever made…
1. Sunset Boulevard (1950) directed by Billy Wilder
Combining elements of mystery, drama, social commentary about the film industry and film noir, Sunset Blvd. is the perfect L.A. movie. It has all the elements of a great noir mystery that Wilder’s own Double Indemnity has but contains more frank observations about the dark side of Hollywood as seen through its main character the infamous Norma Desmond, played impeccably by Gloria Swanson. The opening narration, the murder, the cinematography and lighting with heavy emphasis on shadows. This is the perfect Los Angeles movie and the best movie about being a has-been and wanting to relive your glory days or go back to living in a time where things seemed better. Check out the fantastic scene below about a former Hollywood star trying to over compensate for not being famous anymore.