A-List: Five Best Movies About Los Angeles

By J. Don Birnam

June 4, 2015

She will destroy you. Do not doubt this.

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“Stars are ageless, aren’t they?” When a subtly panic-stricken Gloria Swanson immortalized those lines on the big screen, she brilliantly captured the essence of the anxieties and contradictions that characterize the city that is responsible for movies themselves.

I’ve discussed the best movies about the Big Apple, but Los Angeles is not far behind in terms of captivating moviemakers with its endless sun, crowded freeways, and ruthless endeavors to make it big. Recently, disaster movies like 2012 and San Andreas have shifted their destructive focus to Los Angeles. No surprise, given that the romanticism of strolls down the streets of Manhattan, evoked, for example, in Woody Allen films, is matched by the idyllic, sun-soaked rides along a Los Angeles pier or beach. And the cutthroat, lifeless solitary of New York’s concrete and steel meets its match in the superficial, glamour-filled adoration of youth and beauty that defines iconic Tinseltown.

Today, then, I explore some of the best movies set in or about Los Angeles.

I’ll use the same criteria I used for last year’s list about New York: if the movie makes notable use of Los Angeles landmarks on more than passing occasion, or, alternately, if it explores the relationships of people vis-à-vis the Los Angeles environments in which they are set, then it is eligible. It is not enough that a movie be merely set in whole or in part in Los Angeles (many movies are), it has to actually have something to say about the interaction between the city and its characters. Movies that explore Hollywood are the core of what I mean: Hollywood is where diverse characters embark upon self-discovery or fulfillment.


Making this list was no easier than making the list about New York movies because the options are plenty and worthy. But in perusing the candidates, a few themes emerged, all of which lead to a long list of honorable mentions.

The first is that romances, comedies, and rom-coms about Los Angeles are few and far between, believe it or not. Perhaps it’s harder to have impossibly trite chase scenes in the crowded L.A. freeways than in the busy Manhattan sidewalks, or that Angelinos are simply not as romantic as their silly New York brethren, but Los Angeles apparently does not inspire love in moviemakers.

Another noticeable trend is that the 1990s seemed to have been the apogee of movies about Los Angeles. Moreover, these films’ motifs tended to revolve around anxieties about crime and the vicissitudes of Hollywood (granted, a theme that is perennial when it comes to L.A. movies). Thus, classics from Pulp Fiction to Magnolia to The Big Lebowski to Boogie Nights and Training Day and Drive (both 2000s releases) are worthy mentions as movies about Los Angeles. The big houses, the heat, the swimming pools, the sexy women, endless scenes of driving from place to place, crime, and bizarre characters all make appearances and faithfully represent at least a part of the spirit of Los Angeles.

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