40 Movies That Define Los Angeles

Los Angeles may be the entertainment capital of the world, but depicting the diverse and complicated city on film is easier said than done. Here are 40 movies that got it right, for better or worse, presented in chronological order.

1. Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Paramount Pictures

Director: Billy Wilder
One of the darkest (and darkly comedic) looks at Hollywood on screen, Sunset Boulevard is an unrivaled classic. William Holden stars as failed screenwriter Joe Gillis alongside Gloria Swanson as has-been silent film star Norma Desmond. The characters became types in later Hollywood satires, but they were never more biting.

2. Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Warner Bros.

Director: Nicholas Ray
James Dean’s most famous role was as Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause, released less than one month after his death. Central to the film is the Griffith Observatory, where Jim gets in a knife fight on a field trip, and where the movie reaches its tragic conclusion. Go for the views, stay for the pathos.

3. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

20th Century Fox

Director: Russ Meyer
While Valley of the Dolls is about the moral decay of the entertainment industry as a whole, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is about the cesspool that is L.A. Oh, it’s not all that bad — but watching Russ Meyer’s schlocky satire, you’d likely believe it was. The gruesome climax was inspired by the real-life Tate-LaBianca murders.

4. Chinatown (1974)

Paramount Pictures

Director: Roman Polanski
Chinatown was the first of Robert Towne’s planned trilogy about Jack Nicholson’s J.J. Gittes and the corruption of powerful men in Los Angeles seeking control over resources. The sequel flopped and the third film was abandoned, but Chinatown remains a classic. And it all comes down to the most precious resource of all, water.

5. The Day of the Locust (1975)

Paramount Pictures

Director: John Schlesinger
Nathaniel West’s 1939 novel The Day of the Locust is considered one of the quintessential L.A. books. The film adaptation stars Karen Black as a failed actress and Donald Sutherland as the repressed accountant who loves her in this story of desperate people and their crushed dreams of fame and success.

6. American Gigolo (1980)

Paramount Pictures

Director: Paul Schrader
Richard Gere is the titular male escort in Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo, which — like Pretty Woman, also about a prostitute and starring Gere — showcases the importance of luxury apparel and a wealthy lifestyle to status in Los Angeles. When push comes to shove, of course, those material things mean little.

7. Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

Universal Studios

Director: Amy Heckerling
Screenwriter Cameron Crowe went undercover at a San Diego high school for a year before writing the book and then film Fast Times at Ridgemont High. But while the original high school may have been in San Diego, the film’s San Fernando Valley filming location make it one of the most iconic Valley movies ever made.

8. Blade Runner (1982)

Warner Bros. Pictures

Director: Ridley Scott
As we fast approach 2019, it’s clear that Los Angeles isn’t going to look exactly like the dystopia Blade Runner depicted. (The Bradbury Building, for example, actually looks better than ever.) And yet, the film was strangely prescient about some things — the omnipresence of bright, aggressive advertising, for one.

9. Valley Girl (1983)

MGM

Director: Martha Coolidge
Valley Girl didn’t invent the term, but it certainly helped popularize it. For those who grew up in Los Angeles in the ’80s, the star-crossed class struggle between lovers Julie Richman, a Valley Girl, and Randy, a punk, was all too real. And the final shot of the limo driving off past the Galleria is the stuff of 818 legends.

10. Less Than Zero (1987)

20th Century Fox

Director: Marek Kanievska
Based on Bret Easton Ellis’ debut novel, Less Than Zero follows Clay, Blair, and Julian, three high school friends who find themselves drastically changed when Clay returns to L.A. from college. Although Ellis initially hated the film, it captures the culture of wealth and decadence that dominated much of Los Angeles in the ’80s.

11. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

Buena Vista Pictures

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Yes, it’s a film in which human beings live alongside cartoon characters. But it’s also a neo-noir set in 1947 and, much like Chinatown, about corruption to make rich men richer at the expense of the common man (or toon). In this case, it all comes down to destroying Toontown to build a freeway and change the city forever.

12. L.A. Story (1991)

TriStar Pictures

Director: Mick Jackson
Steve Martin stars as a TV meteorologist looking for love, aided in his quest by a helfpul freeway traffic condition sign that communicates advice throughout the film. While the movie is, at times, a sincere love letter to L.A., it also satirizes the types of people you encounter here, including Sarah Jessica Parker’s aspiring spokesmodel.

13. Boyz n the Hood (1991)

Columbia Pictures

Director: John Singleton
Boyz n the Hood broke ground, marking Ice Cube’s first film role and the first time a black director was nominated for a Best Director Academy Award. Beyond that, it’s an unflinching depiction of life in South Central Los Angeles in the early ’90s. It spawned many imitations, few of which lived up to the original.

14. Point Break (1991)

20th Century Fox

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Keanu Reeves stars as rookie FBI agent Johnny Utah, who learns that surfer Bodhi, played by Patrick Swayze, is the leader of a bank robber gang known as the Ex-Presidents. Point Break may not be the quintessential surf movie, but it is a unique depiction of surf culture, including surfer accents that L.A. residents know well.

15. Grand Canyon (1991)

20th Century Fox

Director: Lawrence Kasdan
Grand Canyon was advertised as “The Big Chill for the ’90s,” but it’s really more of a proto-Crash. The film uses its characters to expose the racial and class divides in Los Angeles, with Kevin Kline playing an immigration lawyer, Danny Glover a tow truck driver, and Steve Martin an action film producer.

16. The Player (1992)

Fine Line Features

Director: Robert Altman
There are nearly 60 celebrity cameos in The Player, Robert Altman’s satire of Hollywood. Tim Robbins plays studio exec Griffin Mill, who murders an aspiring screenwriter he believes is sending him death threats. While Altman called it “very mild satire,” it’s a hilarious send-up of the studio system.

17. Pulp Fiction (1994)

Miramax Films

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Before all the parodies, Pulp Fiction was fresh and funky, a postmodern crime drama with a nonlinear structure that felt very hip at the time. It also showcases the dark humor and aggressive weirdness of Los Angeles, as in the famous scene when Vincent Vega takes Mia Wallace to an oddball ’50s-themed diner.

18. Speed (1994)

20th Century Fox

Director: Jan de Bont
Yes, there is public transportation in Los Angeles! And contrary to what Speed suggests about bombs on buses and a subway system that causes a climactic decapitation, it’s actually quite safe. Nevertheless, the film remains a strangely accurate reflection on L.A. diversity and the perils of traffic.

19. Safe (1995)

Sony Pictures Classics

Director: Todd Haynes
The odd, unnerving Safe stars Julianne Moore as Carol White, a homemaker who develops multiple chemical sensitivity and suddenly develops strange symptoms that may be caused by the chemicals in everyday products. But it’s also a film about the isolation of the Valley, and the oppression of a certain kind of L.A. life.

20. Friday (1995)

New Line Cinema

Director: F. Gary Gray
Ice Cube co-wrote and stars in Friday as Craig Jones, who along with his buddy Smokey (Chris Tucker), must pay a drug dealer $200. The film is a comedy, but it showcases the harsh realities of life that many face in South Central Los Angeles, including unemployment, drug abuse, and gang violence.

21. Heat (1995)

Warner Bros. Pictures

Director: Michael Mann
While Heat was inspired by one of real-life detective Chuck Adamson’s cases in 1960s Chicago, the action was transposed to contemporary Los Angeles. Regardless of its origins, Heat ends up feeling like an intrinsically L.A. movie, as Al Pacino’s Lt. Vincent Hanna tracks down Robert De Niro’s Neil McCauley.

22. Clueless (1995)

Paramount Pictures

Director: Amy Heckerling
Clueless did for ’90s teen girls what Valley Girl did for teen girls of the ’80s. And note, the Valley is definitely on the outs — remember when Cher had to go to a Valley party? Amy Heckerling’s modern-day adaptation of Emma is a bit stereotypical in its depiction of Beverly Hills, but it’s not all that far off.

23. L.A. Confidential (1997)

Warner Bros.

Director: Curtis Hanson
A ’90s film that feels like classic noir, L.A. Confidential covers police corruption in 1953. Kim Basinger stands out as Lynn Bracken, part of a prostitution ring that uses plastic surgery to make the women look like Hollywood stars. The seedy underbelly of glitz and glamor has never been more apparent.

24. Star Maps (1997)

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Director: Miguel Arteta
Signs advertising “star maps” aren’t the common sight they once were in Los Angeles, perhaps because the internet has made that kind of information much more readily available. Either way, Star Maps is less about the actual maps and more about a Mexican-American teenager hustling himself for a Hollywood “in.”

25. Volcano (1997)

20th Century Fox

Director: Mick Jackson
Volcano wasn’t the first disaster movie to destroy Los Angeles, but it’s the only one to perfectly capture the city in all its glory — from Museum Row on the Miracle Mile to Angelyne billboards. It’s fitting that the film was directed by Mick Jackson, who also helmed the equally authentic L.A. Story.

26. Slums of Beverly Hills (1998)

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Director: Tamara Jenkins
Beverly Hills isn’t all the shiny high-class world seen in Clueless. Slums of Beverly Hills offers a different take, as a struggling Jewish family relocates from cheap apartment to cheap apartment just to stay in the Beverly Hills school system. It’s not something Cher Horowitz ever experienced, but it’s equally valid.

27. Magnolia (1999)

New Line Cinema

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights was very much a Los Angeles film, but it’s hard to compete with Magnolia, which he devised as “the epic, the all-time great San Fernando Valley movie.” The film’s disparate characters reflect the Valley’s sprawl. And people say it never rains (frogs) in L.A.

28. Training Day (2001)

Warner Bros. Pictures

Director: Antoine Fuqua
Denzel Washington won an Oscar for his portrayal of LAPD narcotics detective Alonzo Harris, who is evaluating fellow officer Jake Hoyt. As the film follows the officers through South Central, Harris’ corruption becomes clearer, validating the distrust many of the people in this community feel toward the LAPD.

29. Mulholland Drive (2001)

Universal Pictures

Director: David Lynch
Describing the plot of Mulholland Drive is easier said than done — this is a David Lynch film, after all. Suffice it to say, Naomi Watts plays Betty Elms, an aspiring actor new to Los Angeles. And then things get confusing. It’s part-neo-noir, part-commentary on Hollywood, and like L.A., completely impossible to pin down.

30. Dark Blue (2002)

United Artists

Director: Ron Shelton
Crime novelist James Ellroy — who gave us L.A. Confidential — wrote the story for Dark Blue, which shows the days leading up to the L.A. riots and ends as the city burns. The film captures the racial tensions and corruption that led to the 1992 riots, spurred by the acquittal of four LAPD officers in the beating of Rodney King.

31. Real Women Have Curves (2002)

Newmarket Films

Director: Patricia Cardoso
A pre-Ugly Betty America Ferrera plays Ana Garcia, a Mexican-American teenager who lives in East L.A. but attends Beverly Hills High School. It’s a film about the drastically different cultures in Los Angeles, embodied by Ana’s rebellion against her mother’s traditional values and her aspirations outside of L.A.

32. Crash (2004)

Lionsgate

Director: Paul Haggis
Characters’ stories intertwine in Crash, which tackles racism and diversity in Los Angeles. While the film has been criticized for its heavy-handed approach, it manages to incorporate an eclectic cast of characters that reflect the city’s melting pot culture, as well as showcasing the different forms that racism can take.

33. Collateral (2004)

DreamWorks

Director: Michael Mann
Like Michael Mann’s earlier film Heat, Collateral is a crime thriller that happens to take place in Los Angeles. Contract killer Vincent, played by Tom Cruise, takes Jamie Foxx’s cab driver Max Durocher hostage. But again, the city is front and center. Few films have been better able to capture L.A. with the same scope and depth.

34. The Informers (2008)

Senator Entertainment

Director: Gregor Jordan
Another adaptation of a Bret Easton Ellis novel, The Informers returns to Los Angeles in the ’80s. (There’s actually some crossover with Less Than Zero, though it’s not depicted in the film.) Either way, it’s an even bleaker look at shallow L.A. living and the consequences of drug and sexual excess.

35. A Single Man (2009)

The Weinstein Company

Director: Tom Ford
Tom Ford’s gorgeous adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s novella depicts a single day in the life of George Falconer, a British professor living in Los Angeles and grappling with depression following the death of his longtime partner. It’s a subtle story that includes stunning shots of the city as it would have looked in 1962.

36. 500 Days of Summer (2009)

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Director: Marc Webb
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel charmed the hell out of audiences as Tom and Summer, who fall in and out of love over the course of the titular 500 days. It’s not a traditional love story, though in many ways, it is a love letter to Los Angeles — particular Downtown L.A., which has been revitalized in recent years.

37. Drive (2011)

FilmDistrict

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Night driving through the streets of Downtown L.A. never looked cooler than with Ryan Gosling behind the wheel and “Nightcall” blaring through the speakers. Drive is a taut crime thriller, punctuated with scenes of brutal violence, but its most memorable moments are those shots of the city at night, gritty and gorgeous.

38. The Canyons (2013)

IFC Films

Director: Paul Schrader
Bret Easton Ellis’ most recent cinematic contribution is thematically aligned with his past works — and once again, the dark side of Los Angeles is given the full treatment. Everything about The Canyons feels like L.A., from the subject matter to the casting of tabloid darling Lindsay Lohan and porn star James Deen.

39. Afternoon Delight (2013)

Film Arcade

Director: Jill Soloway
Kathryn Hahn is great in last year’s highly underrated indie film as a woman who looks for an escape from her sexless marriage. Beyond that, Afternoon Delight is a movie that fully gets Silver Lake, both its quaint suburban feel and the seedy underside. The club where Rachel meets stripper McKenna is a real local destination.

40. The Bling Ring (2013)

A24

Director: Sofia Coppola
Based on a true L.A. story, The Bling Ring recounts how a group of rich kids and wannabes formed a gang to rob wealthy celebrities like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan. The film employs a darkly comedic tone, but there’s more than greed at play here — some of these kids just want to fit in with their richer peers.

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