10 Great L.A. Movies

LA movies

Trying to describe what it's like to live in Los Angeles is like trying to tie a knot with a fart - nearly impossible.

Many have attempted to explain what it's like, often calling L.A. its own planet, which I totally get. Oftentimes I catch myself using the adjective schizophrenic, probably because of the multitude of attitudes that layer this city more than the smog that blankets it. Here, you'll find that in most circles transplants outnumber the natives, resulting in a mishmosh of values, personalities and Starbucks latte preferences. And the random physical landscape of the city couldn't reflect this more perfectly: beaches, ghetto alleyways, mountain trails, residential streets, deserts, strip malls - and that's all within an hour's drive.

I've picked ten films that, for me at least, successfully encapsulate the L.A. experience. And after living here for six-plus years, I like to think that I have a firm grasp on what that's all about.

These movies aren't necessarily about show business, the industry that practically acts as the lifeline of this sprawled-out metropolis. They are merely films (of recent memory...sorry, Chinatown) that have managed to subtly capture the elusive essence of L.A. life and prove that it's more than just traffic, palm trees and lunchtime auditions that shape the hazy skyline. It's about something more...transcendent, if you will.

So here they are, in no particular order (because I'm indecisive when it comes to ranking things)...

1. Swingers (1996) - The shadowy-yet-sexy bars. The caravan to random parties in the hills (only an Angeleno driver can appreciate). The spontaneity behind a Vegas road trip...Doug Liman's ode to bromances (before bromances even existed) follows two dreamers trying to get by - and get laid - in a city of millions with the same aspirations. If you're an unemployed (and horny) actor/writer looking to summon the spirit of the film, may I suggest getting a window booth at the 101 Cafe on Franklin Avenue on any given weeknight after 10.

2. Go (1999) - One of my all-time favorite movies boasts an energetic score from one of my all-time favorite musicians, BT. Critically lauded as a Pulp Fiction Jr., this joyride from Doug Liman (hello again) through an eventful 24 hours in the lives of young Angelenos is so watchable because, upon every viewing, you discover a new thread in this Red Bull-fueled tapestry (look, it's a pre-brainwashed Katie Holmes!). Go is a high-risk journey through a nocturnal wonderland of supermarket shenanigans, all-night raves and death-defying car chases - the kind of live-on-the-edge thrills most of us would love to experience, substance-free or not:

3. Laurel Canyon (2002) - Frances McDormand is a record producer who's still in love with the 70s. Christian Bale is her conservative doctor son. Kate Beckinsale plays his studious yet budding sexpot of a fiancee. And Alessandro Nivola channels Coldplay's Chris Martin as a singer-songwriter with a fondness for cougars. All of them live, learn, love and lose in L.A.'s near-mythological playground located somewhere between Hollywood and that desolate wasteland known as the Valley.

4. Friends With Money (2006) - Or, What My Life is Starting to Feel Like. Here's another Frances McDormand flick in which she plays one of three friends to Jennifer Aniston's less fortunate gal pal. Writer-director Nicole Holofcener paints a beautiful portrait of disaffected life in West L.A., steering three marriages through bitterness, childcare dilemmas and mistaken sexual preferences while also delivering all-too-real bits of comedy and heartache against a backdrop straight out of a Restoration Hardware catalog:

5. L.A. Story (1991) - Steve Martin's comedy did for Los Angeles what Woody Allen's Manhattan did for the Big Apple. L.A. Story exposes Southern California as the big, bubbled melting pot of controlled lunacy it really is. And that freeway sign that torments Martin's woeful weatherman? One of the best visual gags ever created. Bonus: Catch a young Sarah Jessica Parker, before she moved to that other City.

6. Clueless (1995) - "You get mad if anyone thinks you live below Sunset." That's just one of the many lines that still gets us, along with the inside jokes about the Valley (such was the trend in the 90s). One of those rare "teen" movies loved by both the young and the old, Clueless is sometimes an exaggerated look at what it's like to grow up in an exaggerated city where learning to drive can be considered an extreme sport.

7. Crash (2004) - Here is one of those few movies that doesn't paint the City of Angels as a glossy Shangri-La filled with tanline-obsessed hardbodies. This Oscar-winning ensemble piece nails the melancholy and loneliness that often permeates L.A.'s tense commuter culture...and probably continues to discourage prospective transplants from moving here.

8. Grand Canyon (1991) - More than just "a Big Chill for the 90s," Lawrence Kasdan's masterfully written character study taps into mid-life crises, racial guilt and the frustration over making a left turn on La Cienega at any given hour of the day, perhaps a precursor of P.T. Anderson's Magnolia. Enhancing the script are nuanced performances from Kevin Kline, Danny Glover and a sturdy supporting cast that includes a toned-down Steve Martin who plays a hotshot movie producer learning to re-prioritize his life after getting shot by a gang member.

9. To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) - William Friedkin's kaleidoscope of crime was the antithesis of the then-popular Miami Vice and its glam gunslingers. In the simplest of terms, this cult classic was a cool yet gritty L.A. cop movie - two years before Lethal Weapon came on the scene and reclaimed the title.

10. Less Than Zero (1987) - Sex, coke and pool parties. This is the movie that probably got RDJ started on his infamous drug binges in the 90s (and subsequent legal troubles). Adapted from Bret Easton Ellis's then-controversial novel, LTZ showcased Beverly Hills brats well before Aaron Spelling zoomed in on that ubiquitous zip code. Now, the movie is only great for nostalgic purposes; those Gossip Girl bitches could probably eat these characters for breakfast - and then vomit them up just in time for lunch.

Honorable Mentions: Strange Days (1995), Falling Down (1993), Magnolia (1999), Mullholland Drive (2001), Collateral (2004), The Broken Hearts Club (2000)

Go on and fire up that Netflix queue.



Anonymous said…
I remember loving LA Story so much when I first saw it. Then I moved out here, some 10 years later, and so many things made more sense. I think Steve Martin really nailed the characters, the vibe, all the little nuances of this place we now hang our hats.

It's amazing that a movie from 1990 is still such an accurate satire of this sunny land.

Good list!
Jenny said…
Look how skinny Vince Vaughn is!!

I looove "Go." I definitely need to see it again soon.

Great list! :)
Anonymous said…
how the hell could you forget Troop Beverly Hills?!!?!?!
devin said…
*pretty* good list but I'm a little disappointed by two movies that did not make at least honorable mention. Big Lebowski and Get Shorty.

Especially Get Shorty.. that's got some great Hollywood satire in it.

Also, if i could borrow the scene from Thank You for Smoking when Adam Brody walks him around the agency... that scene -- and the followup meeting with Rob Lowe -- is some more great satire.
devin said…
I must say.. i'm a little disappointed that i'm not seeing two movies -- even if they were only in the Honorable Mention...

Big Lebowski and Get Shorty.

Especially Get Shorty; it's got some fantastic hollywood satire.

On that topic, the scene when Adam Brody walks Aaron eckhart around the agency in Thank You for Smoking, followed up by his meeting with Rob Lowe, is brilliant.

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