If you are planning a trip to Los Angeles, you are in the unique position of being able to do an extensive preview of the city that you will soon be exploring. Thanks to the Hollywood entertainment industry, the southern California region has been documented in thousands of television shows and movies. In this blog entry I list various movies that not only take place in the Southland, but take it a step further and somehow move the city of Los Angeles to the forefront.
Inevitably, I have drawn from Thom Andersen’s masterful video essay “Los Angeles Plays Itself.” If you somehow manage to find a copy of this documentary, it is an interesting exploration of how various movies have referenced LA and also a good introduction to the Los Angeles landscape. (Please note that Thom Andersen took the name from “LA Plays Itself“, one of the more famous gay art/porn movies around). Another reference for this list was Mike Davis’ book “Ecology of Fear,” which concentrates on disaster movies in LA. This movie location website is a neat resource, T Hoffarth’s flickr set is really impressive, and www.blogging.la has a nice list that links to a bunch of fun, short articles. Also note Thom Andersen’s interesting article.
So here is my collection of movies that showcase Los Angeles. I have tried to leave off the really obvious ones and instead emphasis more offbeat selections. The list is organized by the release year of the individual movies.
The Savage Eye (1960) – A divorcee wanders through Los Angeles while having an existential conversation inside her head. Good street view of the city in 1965; Haskell Wexler was one of the cinematographers.
The Exiles (1961) – Thom Andersen concludes “Los Angeles Plays Itself” with a tribute to this seminal independent movie. UCLA recently restored the film; it is now widely available on DVD. The movie details a night in the life of Navajo residents in the Bunker Hill neighborhood. It is both a social document and a window into this historic neighborhood which has since been razed.
Model Shop (1969) – Very French take on Hollywood, directed by Jacques Demy. . . George Matthew (played by Gary Lockwood) pursues a divorcee in L.A. The interior shots kinda do get kinda dull; good street views when they are driving around in a convertible sports car.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) – Russ Meyer’s film is more a parady of The Valley of the Dolls (1967) than a sequel. Beautiful, buxom ladies come to Hollywood for fame and glory and instead they find sex, drugs, and the self-destructive party life! Roger Ebert wrote the script for the cult classic flick.
Dusty and Sweets McGee (1971) This movies is composed from a mix of documentary and fictional scenes of heroin addicts in Los Angeles, with some breathtaking location footage.
Cisco Pike (1972) A down-on-his luck musician played by Kris Kristofferson is blackmailed by corrupt cop Gene Hackman and must sell 100 kilos of pot over a weekend . Karen Black and Harry Dean Stanton are both featured in strong supporting roles. A great forgotten classic 70’s flick.
The Long Goodbye (1973) – Robert Altman really got it right with this adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel set in swinging 70’s Los Angeles. Eliot Gould gives a solid performance. The amazing apartment building his character lives in is located at 2178 Hightower Drive, 90068 (very close to the Hollywood Bowl). Good night shots of the city.
Earthquake (1974) – This expensive all-star movie was a big deal in it’s time and is still pretty fun. There is a lot of melodrama in this 70’s disaster movie and also some good model special effects work (refreshing after all the CG we get these days). The climatic scenes at the Hollywood Reservoir are a hoot.
Car Wash (1976) – A day in the life of a Los Angeles car wash! This movie was filmed at an actual LA location near MacArthur Park (it was torn down in the 80’s). Features good music, Richard Pryor, and Los Angeles street scenes.
The Killer of Sheep (1977) – This is another social document type of movie, this time in the largely African-American Watts neighborhood. It was created as Charles Burnett’s UCLA MFA graduate thesis. And like “The Exiles” this movie has now been restored and finally given wide distribution! “The Killer of Sheep” portrays the working-class world of Stan, a butcher in a slaughterhouse who lives in Watts. Gritty emotional stuff, filmed in 16mm. (Incidentlally, Charles Burnett wrote the script for Bill Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1984), a film which is sadly hard to track down).
Killing of Chinese Bookie (1978) – I had to have a John Cassavetes movie here and to me this is one of his more accessible films. Ben Gazzara plays the owner of a strip-club who has to deal with the fall-out from his gambling debts. This character-driven movie portrays the grimy and seedy underworld of 1970’s Los Angeles.
Foxes (1980) – Slice of life film about four teenage girls coming of age in the San Fernando Valley and encountering life’s difficulties. This is a somewhat melodramatic but very poignant teen flick. Jodie Foster and Cherie Currie really shine; Giorgio Moroder did the soundtrack.
The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) – Penelope Spheeris (of “Wayne’s World” fame) set out to document the South Bay punk rock scene in this documentary. The result is riveting, shocking, and funny. Includes bands such as The Circle Jerks, X, Black Flag, Fear, and the Germs.
Vice Sqaud (1982) – A cat and mouse chase across bizarre and seedy early 80’s Hollywood, featuring upstanding prostitute Princess who is menaced by psychopathic pimp Ramrod.
Valley Girl (1983) – “Valley Girl” is about the teenagers from the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood with a “Romeo and Juliet” type plot. Nicolas Cage is wonderful as a punk rocker who falls for a valley girl. This film has ended up becoming a well-loved artifact of 80’s Southern California.
Repo Man (1984) – A stone-cold cult classic with a great soundtrack (and sound design) plus tons of footage of Los Angeles. Emilio Estevez plays a punk who gets a job as a repo man and joins the search for a 1964 Chevy Malibu. Director Alex Cox uses dark humor and a weird sci-fi story to comment upon the Los Angeles wasteland and the contemporary scene. This is one of my all time favs.
Night of the Comet (1984) – Whoo hoo another teenage movie set in the San Fernando Valley. This one is unique as the world ends via comet. And there are zombies in this movie too (well just a couple, but zombies all the same). Really a fun 80’s movie, highly recommended.
To Live and Die in LA (1985) – William Friedkin directed this classic cop film that takes place in the City of Angels. The Los Angeles highpoint is the crazy car chase scene where they drive going against traffic for the longest time.
Barfly (1987) – This one written by Bukowski himself (he was a long time Los Angeles resident). Mickey Rourke is somewhat frustrating but I think maybe that’s the whole point. Faye Dunaway is pretty incredible in this, bless her heart. Los Angeles is the ultimate city in which to get a cheap apartment and maintain a low profile; people leave you alone and let your do your thing here.
Miracle Mile (1988) – This is an odd end-of-the-world flick starring Anthony Edwards (of ER). Most all of this movie takes place in the Miracle Mile area of Los Angeles. Prominent landmarks that are featured include the La Brea Tar Pits, Johnies, the Variety Building, and the Park La Brea apartments. This movie will definitely give you a nice over-view of this historic part of the city as well as a picture of 80’s Los Angeles lifestyles.
Troop Beverly Hills (1989) – Shelley Long plays a rich Beverly Hills housewife who starts a girl scouts troop with comedic results. This is a family favorite that pokes good-hearted fun at the very wealthy residents of the Southland.
LA Story (1991) – My favorite Steve Martin movie. OK, I admit the part about the talking billboard is kinda dumb but its still a great flick. Steve Martin stars and Sarah Jessica Parker plays a lively Valley Girl love-interest in this tale loosely based on “A Midsummer Nights Dream.” The idiosyncrasies of Los Angeles provide great material in this comedy.
Boyz in the Hood (1991) – At age 23, John Singleton revitalized the ghetto movie genre with this gripping tale of growing up in South Central Los Angeles. In 1993, the Hughes brothers followed with the equally powerful Menace to Society, another movie about life in the Los Angeles ghetto.
Short Cuts (1993) – Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” follows a number of mostly disconnected Los Angeles stories with characters and plots drawn Raymond Carver’s writings. This powerful and evocative three hour long movie is filled with moving performances as a whole host of stars portray characters scattered across the Los Angeles urban sprawl.
Mi Vida Loca (1993) – This film follows the lives of teenage gang members in Echo Park. This movie is distinctive in the gang genre as the lead characters are female (Mousie, Sad Girl, and La Blue Eyes) and it makes an effort to look at their lives beyond the gang world.
Clueless (1995) – Alicia Silverstone portrays a spoiled but sweet Bevery Hills high schooler in this movie which ended up catapulting her to stardom. I remember this movie being really entertaining. The director Amy Heckerling also made “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982), another famous Los Angeles high school movie.
Strange Days (1995) – Although kinda terrible, this movie by Kathryn Bigelow is highly entertaining and incorporates some really interesting ideas. Ralph Fiennes is an underworld dealer of recorded experiences who lives in a chaotic Los Angeles of the near future. (James Cameron wrote the script).
My Family (1995) – A saga covering multiple generations of an immigrant family in Los Angeles. It’s a pretty melodramatic tale, but hey, it made me shed a tear! Jennifer Lopez makes an appearance which is always a plus. This movie helps to reminds us that California was a part of Mexico first, who is the real immigrant in Los Angeles after all?
Swingers (1996) – This is a classic movie featuring the 1990’s Los Angeles lounge scene. People love this buddy movie. And yeh I liked it too. Marty and Elayne are still doing their thing at the Dresden Room.
The Big Lebowski (1998) – This movie is just great. It helps me forgive the Coen brothers some of their weaker works. Jeff Bridges is the Dude! And yes, the movie takes place in various Los Angeles locations.
Volcano (1999) – Ok this one is totally preposterous but somehow I am fond of it. Disaster strikes when a volcano appears under Los Angeles and lava comes rushing out of the ground. Quick head to Cedar-Sinai for safe haven and to divert the lava flow! Or something like that. It does not make much sense but the whole thing is fun. Many Los Angeles landmarks are seen–covered by molten rock!
Mulholland Drive (2001) – To tell the truth I have never been sure exactly what does happen in this movie. This definitely is one of the more effective David Lynch vehicles. One interpretation is that this work is a long reflection on both Hollywood and the psychological possibilities of the movie-going experience. The locations for this movie include the iconic Mulholland Drive as well as other places in Hollywood and Los Angeles.
Dogtown and Z-boys (2001) – Great documentary about how some Venice kids changed the world and made their fortunes. Hats off to Stacy Peralta for this thrilling history of modern skateboarding. The movie gives you a little glimpse of Venice Beach and Los Angeles in the 70’s.
A Certain Kind of Death (2003) – A documentary exploring what happens in Los Angeles when a person dies and leaves no contact info for friends or family. The hard work and compassion of city workers becomes clear in this touching testament to people who end up anonymous and forgotten.
Collateral (2004) – Maniac assassin Tom Cruise hijacks taxi-driver Jamie Foxx and his services for a criminal tour of Los Angeles. Jamie Foxx rises to the occasion in Michael Mann’s grand blockbuster.
Some great films I have left off the above list because they are already well-known and famous: Sunset Boulevard (1950), Chinatown (1974), Blade Runner (1982), Pulp Fiction (1994), LA Confidential (1997).
Notable examples from the related sub-genre of movies that reveal the dark side of Tinseltown include: Souls for Sale (1923), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), The Big Knife (1955), Inside Daisy Clover (1965), Day of the Locust (1975), S.O.B. (1981), The Player (1992)
Such an abundance of movies have been filmed here in the Southland. Surely I have surely missed many great movies that dwell on the city of Los Angeles! More that I know about but have not yet watched include: Mondo Hollywood (1967), It’s a Bikini World (1967), Riot on Sunset Strip (1967), The Cool Ones (1967), Boulevard Nights (1979), Van Nuys Blvd. (1979), Midnight Madness (1980), Get Crazy (1983), Colors (1988), Break of Dawn (1988), Lost Angels (1989), Encino Man (1992), American Me (1992), Bound by Honor (1993), Hustler White (1996), Training Day (2001). . . .
Please offer more examples and recommendations in the comments!
[Photo courtesy of Paul!!!]