Before you scroll to the bottom and berate me for compiling “a pretty good list, but you obviously omitted [fill in the blank]”, here’s a bit about the methodology:
1. Only one movie per director. This makes it more interesting and diverse.
2. Plenty of films are shot or take place in L.A. But for this list, there has to be something a little more going on here and offer a strong take on L.A. For lack of a better phrase, L.A. has to be a strong ‘character’ in each of these candidates. But it’s even more than that. Not only does L.A. have to be a character; these are movies that could only take place in L.A.
3. No movies pre-1984. That’s three decades and change. People — from editors to readers — like multiples of 5 and 10, but for this list I wanted to do everything post-Blade Runner. There are plenty of movies before 1984 that famously depict L.A., and I suggest you check them all out in lieu of telling me what those are.
4. Most of these movies offer bleak portrayals of L.A., either on the surface or embedded in the subtext. They’re mostly comedies, versions of noir or social reality/crime pictures. For the most part, these are not romantic love letters to Los Angeles the way Woody Allen masturbates to the New York skyline in Manhattan. This lists allows for highly critical depictions of Los Angeles.
5. This is purely qualitative and has nothing to do with IMDB lists, Rotten Tomato/Metacritic averages or box office returns. If you disagree, good for you. Welcome to the internet.
OK, so here are the best 25 movies about L.A. since 1984:
25. Star 80 (1983)
Eric Roberts plays yet another bad dude in this Bob Fosse picture based on the real-life murder of a Playboy Bunny. It’s that classic “young person moves to L.A. and is destroyed by her own ambition/beauty” tale that is, unfortunately, all too realistic and prevalent to this day.
24. Southland Tales (2006)
Some of you might stop reading now and assume I am an insane person. That may be true. But this is one of the most ambitious, bizarre, messy and mutli-layered takes on L.A. I’ve ever seen, and it reflects — accidentally or not — the confused, chaotic nature of a near future where tech bros hawking “fluid karma” have taken over L.A. Which isn’t too far off from what's been going down on the Westside for the past decade.
23. Nightcrawler (2014)
Nightcrawler is quietly revealing itself to be one of the best films of this decade, and it’s a beautiful — if deeply cynical — portrait of L.A. as media capitol of the world in a constant state of transition. As Louis Bloom, Jake Gyllenhaal offers up one of the all-time great depictions of the ruthlessness of the sort of fame-seeking sociopaths that we’re famous for attracting — and producing.
22. Miracle Mile (1988)
I came to this film under the auspices of “Oh, it’s the L.A. version of Scorsese’s After Hours,” which is true — to an extent. But it’s way, way crazier and bleaker than its predecessor, and captures a very specific — and weird — strip of the middle of L.A. that’s always held some supernatural or preternatural vibes.
21. Valley Girl (1983)
For very few good reasons, the SFV always gets shit on by its neighbors to the south. That’s mostly due to ugly classicism, but the Valley has become fertile ground for reevaluation. Valley Girl is one of the first bigger-budget features to really take on the Valley, and it’s an underground classic.
20. To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)
I’m still amazed at how many native Angelenos and Tupac fans (and combinations of the two) I’ve come across who have not seen this hard-boiled neon-noir classic by William Friedkin. Whether it’s the red-hot Wang Chung score or William Peterson rattling off badass lines like, “You want bread? Fuck a baker,” this film oozes ‘80s L.A.
19. Boyz n the Hood (1991)
Boyz n the Hood's brutally realistic portrait of South L.A. got the world’s attention. Our opinions and associations of what South-Central is are largely formed by this one film. It was absolutely revolutionary upon its release, a genuine shock to white America and, in hindsight, a fascinating portrayal of a community that would explode in riots a year later.
18. They Live (1988)
In spite of the fact that this film inspired Shepard Fairey to create an empire of tacky clip art, it’s still redeemable. Pro wrestler-cum-thespian Roddy Piper (R.I.P.) plays a dude who gets wise to an alien invasion. It’s campy. It’s clunky. It’s got another classic score by director John Carpenter. It’s got one of the most memorable fights of all time. And it exposes how shitty most downtowns became in the ‘80s, especially downtown L.A. Ultimately, it's a nightmare body-snatcher allegory about the yuppification of L.A.
17. Blood In, Blood Out (1993)
This is one of those VHS tapes that got rinsed out at middle school boy sleepovers in the ‘90s. It’s a tough look at Chicano gang culture in California, and it is overflowing with bad motherfuckers.
16. Mulholland Drive (2001)
David Lynch is the architect of gorgeous nightmares, and this is his magnum opus. It tells you everything you need to know about how to get ahead in Hollywood. For casting, you’re gonna need an old Italian Dan Hedaya guy to tell you “this is the girl.” If you want to direct, you’ve got to meet a hairless cowboy on his ranch and ride along on his metaphorical buggy. If you want to be famous, you’ll have to be willing to do anything, including confronting that trash monster behind the Winkie’s.
15. Colors (1988)
The last film Dennis Hopper directed before this was Easy Rider, and it's a gruesome and gritty story about gang and police culture in Los Angeles. Sean Penn — who co-stars as a young buck alongside Robert Duvall — punched an extra during filming, which would be the only time he went to jail for hitting someone else.
14. Repo Man (1984)
Repo Man is — like several on this list — a truly unique film that's almost universally revered among cult film fans. And for good reason. Its dystopian view of L.A. is more interesting and nuanced than, say, Blade Runner.
13. Short Cuts (1993)
Altman has hit on the Southland several times before (The Long Goodbye, O.C. and Stiggs, Calfornia Split, The Player), but Shortcuts weaves even bigger tapestries of characters and life in the L.A. diaspora than his successor P.T. Anderson would even be capable of holding together.
12. Nowhere (1997)
Gregg Araki’s ‘Doom Generation’ trilogy is fearless, and Nowhere is the best of the three. Its demented catch-all MTV hypergraphics on steroids provide a perfect capsule for a decade that saw the rise of Adderall and captures L.A. youth culture in all its trashy glory.
11. Friday (1995)
This movie is exceptional for many reasons, least of which is introducing “Bye, Felicia” into the lexicon. But it’s also an antidote to films like Boyz n the Hood's social horrors and shows that life in the hood is mutlifaceted and funny.
10. White Men Can’t Jump (1992)
You’d think this movie wouldn’t age well, but it does. It’s one of the best two-handers about grifters we’ve got. And it also perfectly captures the ‘80s folding into the ‘90s in L.A. and its many colorful neighborhoods.
9. Tangerine (2015)
People who’ve never been to L.A. assume Hollywood is glamorous or where the movies are made. It’s really neither of those two. This movie is the best film ever about trans sex workers on Santa Monica, but it’s also probably the best film about Hollywood (the place, not the entertainment industry) post-crack. R.I.P. Donut Time, y’all.
8. Jackie Brown (1997)
Quentin Tarantino’s best film and his best film about L.A. When I watch this movie, I feel like I’m actually in the Del Amo Mall or in the LAX corridor with all the '60s mosaic tiles. It’s a rich, pulpy, and tangible depiction of South L.A. that is rarely captured on film and will be fondly remembered as Tarantino's best when he decides to hang up his spurs.
7. L.A. Confidential (1997)
It's unfortunate that James Ellroy has revealed himself to be a cuckoo neocon, but this is the best acting you’ll ever see Russell Crowe, Kim Basinger or Kevin Spacey do, thanks to director Curtis Hanson, who passed away last week. It’s the most “epic” L.A. movie on this list, and it portrays the brutal reality of being gay, black, latino or otherwise undesirable in old L.A.
6. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)
Though it’s often perceived to be an allegory of how L.A.’s public transit system got demolished, that’s unfortunately not really true. It is, however, the most insanely creative neo-noir we’re likely to ever get about L.A. and works on a variety of levels, from its Red Scare to the metaphor of cartoons as a non-white working class that gets screwed on the regular. Some of the smartest mega-budget, post-Jaws filmmaking of all-time.
5. The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Coen brothers have taken on L.A. many times, but this early-‘90s L.A. satire veiled as a stoner comedy needs no introduction. It’s sad to think we now live in an L.A. where it would be impossible for people like The Dude to exist. The rents are just too damn high. That’s a bummer, man.
4. Clueless (1994)
Like a few other comedies on this list, essentially every line of Amy Heckerling’s brilliant satire is so quotable its become a part of the pop-culture vernacular. Its take on wealthy Beverly Hills brats has not been improved upon in the last twenty years. It’s still the most endearingly searing takedown of rich kid assholes, but candy coats it while wearing a rom-com disguise.
3. Swingers (1994)
Swingers is like Clueless for boys. It’s infinitely quotable and speaks to a time when rockabilly was the dominant persuasion in L.A. (which, due to the rise of the high fade, has basically cycled back 'round again), and is essentially a story about trying to get laid or, even better, find love. And get famous. It’s a ridiculously simple little film, but it’s staggeringly realistic and resilient.
2. Boogie Nights (1997)
On a recent episode of Weekly alum Amy Nicholson’s podcast, The Canon, There Will Be Blood beat out Boogie Nights as — ostensibly — a better P.T. Anderson film, which is absurd. Boogie Nights — even though you’ve seen it a billion times on T.V. — still has the nuts and is quite possibly the most endearing portrait of the Valley that we’ll ever be lucky enough to see. And it doesn't gloss over any of the bumpy patches. It’s wild, messy and the definition of self-indulgent cinema. It’s alive in the way most films — or people — never can be. This is the most quintessentially L.A. movies by one of the most quintessentially L.A. auteurs you’ll ever see.
1. Heat (1995)
Heat. Too obvious? Perhaps. But this cable classic — originally a TV show called L.A. Takedown (also the name of a synth-rock outfit based in L.A.) — is a beautifully cracked love letter to Los Angeles. Michael Mann imbues his Los Angeles with a sense of romanticized melancholia that this city of isolated dreamers knows all too well. It is one of the most rewatchable and best-cast films of all time. It succeeds even with its over the top, cheeseball Moby chords in the climax because it offers no solutions and no escape from L.A.'s tragic, magnetic pull.
Honorable mentions: Airheads, True Romance, American History X, Falling Down, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, Hurlyburly