30 Best Los Angeles Movies Since 1984, From Iconic to Obscure

Morris Chestnut, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ice Cube in Boyz n the HoodEXPAND
Morris Chestnut, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ice Cube in Boyz n the Hood
Columbia Pictures

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: 

Mariel Hemingway and Eric RobertsEXPAND
Mariel Hemingway and Eric Roberts
Ladd Company

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.

Sarah Michelle Gellar and Dwayne JohnsonEXPAND
Sarah Michelle Gellar and Dwayne Johnson
Universal Pictures

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.

Riz Ahmed and Jake GyllenhaalEXPAND
Riz Ahmed and Jake Gyllenhaal
Bold Films

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.

Anthony EdwardsEXPAND
Anthony Edwards

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.

Nicolas Cage and Deborah ForemanEXPAND
Nicolas Cage and Deborah Foreman
Valley 9000

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. 

Willem DafoeEXPAND
Willem Dafoe
SLM Production Group

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.

Ice Cube
Columbia Pictures

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.

Roddy Piper in They LiveEXPAND
Roddy Piper in They Live
Alive Films

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.

Benjamin Bratt, Damian Chapa, Jesse BorregoEXPAND
Benjamin Bratt, Damian Chapa, Jesse Borrego
Hollywood Pictures

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.

Laura Harring and Naomi Watts in Mulholland DriveEXPAND
Laura Harring and Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive
Les Films Alain Sarde

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.

Sean Penn and Robert Duvall in ColorsEXPAND
Sean Penn and Robert Duvall in Colors
Orion Pictures

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. 

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