Los Angeles is one of the most famous cities in the world, but its true nature and the glamorous version often thought of by those who don’t live here are often wildly different. As a lifelong Angelino, I’ve seen all sides of the city and Southern California. It’s a beautiful, strange, shallow, violent, vibrant, surprising, diverse, and meaningful city that shifts from block to block and moment to moment. While no single film can encapsulate every part of L.A., movies can reveal new pieces of the city and capture its essence in ways that are impossible in reality.
While New York is most likely the most featured city on film, Los Angeles has provided a stellar background for classic film across the decades. Not only that, but the world of L.A. provides a vibrant backdrop to romance, crime, comedy, drama, and every other genre. Best of all, the many different styles and the countless approaches from writers and directors each reveal something different about Los Angeles and its residents.
The following 10 films are excellent and unique movies that not only show many different sides of The City of Angels, but feature the city in a crucial role. Best of all, the eschew the shallow and so-called glamorous side of the city for something far more real and meaningful.
Lonely lives collide in both crime and love on the streets of Los Angeles. Heat follows bank robber Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro) and Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino), who is hot on his heels. With high stakes bank heists and intense shootouts, writer and director Michael Mann’s Heat has action to spare, but it’s the human elements and wonderful dialogue that really elevate this film to the level of classic. This is a through and through L.A. movie as its characters navigate its streets in both night and day in search of meaning. Really, Heat is just as much about the loneliness of its central characters and how the two men who find themselves as enemies are truly kindred spirits. Mann’s direction makes L.A. look beautiful and cold at the same time, much like the real life city.
Quintessential L.A. Moment: McCauley takes Eady (Amy Brenneman), the woman he’s falling for, into the hills for a look at the L.A. lights at night. It’s a bit of romance and peace within a lonely and desperate city as these two lonely individuals find warmth between them.
The Big Lebowski
Taking place during the time of the war with Saddam and the Iraqis, The Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski sends viewers on a smoke-filled tour of the L.A. area in the early ‘90s, all through the lens of The Dude (Jeff Bridges). The Los Angeles references aren’t in your face like some of the other movies on the list, but they are copious and far more realistic. As a stoner who is embroiled in a kidnapping mystery that he wants no part of, The Dude travels from the smutty and rich heights of Malibu to the low key neighborhoods of Venice. Unlike many of the films on this list, The Big Lebowski avoids the landmark sights of the area in favor of more intimate but still authentic Southern California locations.
Quintessential L.A. Moment: Walter and The Dude take the ashes of their dearly departed friend Donny to a cliff overlooking the beach in San Pedro, narrating about the late Donald’s love of surfing, but the ashes blow all over Dude’s face when scattered.
(500) Days of Summer
Skipping through time, audiences are taken on a journey through the ups and downs of the romance between Tom and Summer, two young people whose lives intertwine in an important and often most unfortunate manner. Specifically, (500) Days of Summer is heavily set in the Downtown L.A. area, with many landmarks filling in the background and even playing crucial roles within the narrative. The fledgling couple wanders through the city, connecting through new experiences and showing each other their favorite places. One major L.A. location – The Bradbury Building – is the setting for the film’s final scene and plays a major role in another L.A.-centric movie: Blade Runner.
Quintessential L.A. Moment: Tom takes to Angels Knoll Park in the heart of L.A., showing her some of the city’s beauty and letting her into his world for the first time. It’s prettier in the movie.
Writer and director Michael Mann really knows how to not only capture the spirit of L.A. at night, but make it look way cooler than reality. Focusing on Max (Jamie Foxx), a taxi driver, and Vincent (Tom Cruise), the hitman he is forced to escort around the city in one wild night, Collateraljourneys through the dark and seedy as well as the hauntingly beautiful aspects of nighttime Los Angeles. Taking place completely in the span of one night, the film takes audiences through both busy nightclubs and the deserted business buildings of Downtown L.A. Mann used cheap digital cameras for most of the film, giving the L.A. nights a sharp and grainy look where lights burned into the eyes of viewers for a dazzling effect. It’s an amazing take on the look of the city.
Quintessential L.A. Moment: After a moment of connect, Vincent and Max are left with nothing left to say in the cab, only to see a group of coyotes run across the street. The two drive in silence through the L.A. night as Audioslave’s Shadow on the Sun plays, underscoring their loneliness.
Boyz n the Hood
Putting an unflinching focus on gang violence in South Central and the surrounding areas of L.A., director and writer John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood is one of the landmark films to show racial tensions and gang life in Southern California. Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) is a responsible teenager growing up in L.A. who gets involved in the escalating violence between the Bloods and Crips in the neighborhood. Boyz n the Hood is about the simultaneous appeal and destructiveness of gangs, along with how impossible it can be to escape the life. It’s a sad and violent look at the lives of countless people living in L.A. is essential for anyone looking to understand the city.
Quintessential L.A. Moment: Tre and Ricky get pulled over by an LAPD officer while driving, who then threatens him with a gun. Yep, that’s Los Angeles.
While it may be set in the pollution-ridden, space-travelling, Replicant-filled Los Angeles of the future (aka 2019), so much of the world seen in Blade Runner can be seen in the city today. Although the central story is about Blade Runnder Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) tracking down the artificial humans known as Replicants that have come to Los Angeles, it’s really about what it means to be human and find meaning in the world. Although most of the city (aside from the Bradbury Building) is not found in the modern world, the crowded and filthy streets reflect much of what is seen in parts of the city today. Most of all, the jamming together of cultures to make something new is an innate part of Los Angeles, where cultures can’t help but mash together when the people are stacked on top of one another.
Quintessential L.A. Moment: After a violent confrontation with a Replicant, Deckard retreats to his apartment with Rachael and looks out into the dark, rainy, and neon-lit L.A. night as Vangelis’ “Blade Runner Blues” plays out. The darkness and loneliness of Los Angeles oozes out of every moment, even in a strange future.
A perfect time capsule of L.A. in the mid ‘90s, Swingers isn’t just a time portal to a specific moment of Los Angeles culture, it’s a commentary on the wandering souls that make up much of Southern California. Everyone’s just trying to find meaning in their relationships. That’s a timeless piece of L.A., with the focus here specifically on the eastside of Hollywood during the ‘90s swing revival. Wannabe actors, musicians, and the generally lost all make up the people featured in Swingers, but it’s really about Mike (Jon Favreau) – a struggling actor who moved from New York to try and make a career and forget about his ex-girlfriend. But Los Angeles is not a city that naturally provides comfort to the lost and lonely, so it’s up to his friend Trent (Vince Vaughan) to pull him out of his spiral. He’s terrible at it.
Quintessential L.A. Moment: The guys visit the Dresden Lounge in Los Feliz, exposing the hidden cultural gems within the neighborhood. After Swingerswas released, the Dresden Lounge became a huge attraction, causing it to lose its indie cred for a while.
American History X
Once again focusing on race-related violence, but this time with a story centered on neo-Nazis in L.A., American History Xpulls no punches when it comes to the ugly side of L.A. Here we follow the story of Derek (Edward Norton), a former neo-Nazi who has just gotten out of prison and is struggling to live a new life. Taking place mostly in Venice, L.A., audiences are shown the dark and violent side of city through Derek and his young brother Danny (Edward Furlong), as well as the neo-Nazi gangs that they are hopelessly intertwined with in their lives. This is just one of the many rough sides of L.A. life.
Quintessential L.A. Moment: Derek is locked up in prison, where he suffers horrific violence and turns a new leaf through the epiphanies he finds. Thousands of L.A. residents are locked up every year. Here, we get to see a part of Los Angeles many movies skip.
Easily one of the most stylish of the films on the list (and that’s saying something), Drive centers on the man known only as Driver and his world of violence in the neon-lit nights of Los Angeles. A lonely, disconnected, and often violent man, Driver is a stunt man who makes extra money on the side as a getaway driver, mixing both the criminal and entertainment elements of modern L.A. in one man. From getaways that use the Staples Center to trips down riverbeds in search of some form of nature amid the concrete, Los Angeles is present in so many pieces of the narrative.
Quintessential L.A. Moment: The very beginning. With an opening shot of Downtown L.A. and Kavinsky’s “Nightcall” playing, we’re immediately sucked into a Los Angeles that is simultaneously modern and vintage as Driver travels through the city that looks both glamorous and bleak in interchangeable moments.
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
Harry Lockhart ((Robert Downey, Jr.), a small time crook from New York, gets shipped out to Southern California when he accidentally auditions for a movie role, only to get wrapped up in a noir mystery. Writer and director Shane Black’s film mixes the classic mystery trappings of Raymond Chandler novels with the self-aware sensibilities of the modern age for a combo that is not quite like anything else. The film simultaneously makes the most of L.A. clichés while also skewering the often shallow of the city and the entertainment industry.
Quintessential L.A. Moment: Harry is welcomed to L.A. by wading through a party in the Hollywood Hills, where everyone is beautiful, everyone asks what you do for work, and no one is really interested in anyone else. It’s bewildering to Harry and very close to real life.