Our Favorite L.A. Films

Cover of "The Day of the Locust"
Cover of The Day of the Locust

My favorite L.A. films – in fact, my favorite films about anyplace – are those that accomplish one of three things. They either hold up a mirror to the place and the people who live there, hold up a microscope to give you a view of the place that you have never seen before, or capture something about the place that makes it a little magical. The place becomes a living, breathing presence that touches the plot and the characters in a definable way.

Put simply, the best films about a place are those where the setting is a character, not mere backdrop, and they couldn’t happen anywhere else. Wayne Wang’s A Great Wall could not have been made in Shanghai or Hong Kong. It was suffused with the essence of Beijing. New Orleans should have been given an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in The Big Easy, and location was unquestionably an uncredited character in films like Elizabethtown, Juno, Napoleon Dynamite, and The Shipping News.

When the location becomes backdrop, something disappears from the cast list. One of my favorite L.A. films, strangely, was Clint Eastwood‘s Every Which Way But Loose. But watching it today, L.A. simply becomes a generic backdrop. Philo could have lived in Phoenix or Dallas. They shot at the north end of the San Fernando Valley because it was Western, working-class, and close. Christopher Nolan‘s Batman films happened in a Gotham City that was New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore all rolled into a mash that said “generic Northeast U.S. City,” taking the character of the setting out entirely, a feat I think of as location neutering.

So all of our lists of top films of the Golden West may not necessarily be the best films made in or about their settings, but in each the place is a presence, a character, a device that moves the plot forward in a way nowhere else could.

For Los Angeles, they are, in descending order:

1. Chinatown – Roman Polanski
2. L.A. Story – Steve Martin
3. L.A. Confidential – Curtis Hanson
4. The Big Lebowski – The Coen Brothers – (Honorable Mention: Barton Fink)
5. Magnolia – Paul Thomas Anderson – (Honorable Mention: Boogie Nights)
6. Falling Down – Joel Schumacher
7. Boyz in the Hood – John Singleton
8. The Day of the Locust – John Schlesinger
9. Blast from the Past – Hugh Wilson
10. The Holiday – Nancy Meyers

There were some close calls here, and there are a few omissions that I feel the need to explain. First, I don’t count Blade Runner as a film about L.A. Once you rip out the Chandleresque narration that offended many fans of the movie, the setting feels more like New York, Hong Kong, or Tokyo than Los Angeles. Beverly Hills Cop nearly made it, but the filmmakers lost me when they took serious geographic license in portraying Beverly Hills as encompassing parts of West Hollywood, LAX, Pasadena, and other random chunks of metropolitan Los Angeles. It was a Los Angeles designed to feel real to only those who had never been there.

Let me know what you think I’m missing here.

Coming next: our favorite San Francisco Films.

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Author: David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.

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