To honor my one year anniversary of living in Los Angeles full-time, I thought I would do what I usually do in circumstances like this: compile a top ten film list!
What are the top ten films that capture the strange soul of this city? Los Angeles is certainly a singular municipality, and to live here is both enthralling and frustrating, for many of the same reasons. There is a definite beauty to the geography here (beaches everywhere, mountains, hills, palm trees, exotic flowers, purple trees, unnaturally-colored nighttime skies, etc), and an odd charm to its uncontrollable sprawl. It’s strangely comforting to know that I can drive fifty miles in every direction (except west!) and still be in greater L.A.
Anyway, as the birthplace of the modern cinema (and the entertainment capital of the world), L.A. has probably been the most represented city in film and television. As such, we all have our glamorous visions of this “tinsel” town. But some films have been better than others at capturing the real mood and spirit of Los Angeles—from the glittery sidewalks of Hollywood to the starmap stands in Bel Air, all the way to the homeless mini-city of Skid Row. It’s a complicated, almost unfathomable city, but its multifarious personality certainly makes for some interesting cinema.
The Big Lebowski (1998): The Coen Bros’ ridiculously funny cult film is an ode to the polygot mishmash that is Los Angeles—a city almost comically diverse. The film takes us from Venice to the Valley, Malibu to the Hollywood Star Lanes, and introduces us to a bowling bum slacker (The Dude), an avant-garde artist (Maude Lebowski), a trash-talking Latino named Jesus, a trio of German nihilists, and a porn star/trophy wife (Bunny Lebowski). Just another day in L.A.
Bread and Roses (2000): Though directed by a Brit (Ken Loach), this film about the struggle of non-union janitors (mostly Mexicans) in an L.A. highrise is a sobering, realistic look at two big issues in this town: immigrant labor and socio-economic disparity. The film is based on the 1990 Justice for Janitors strike in Century City (incidentally, the section of L.A. I currently call home).
Chinatown (1974): Roman Polanski’s classic noir drama is a 1930s-set story about greed and corruption in L.A. city government, and the dangerous game of unraveling the scandal that one private eye (Jack Nicholson) undertakes. The dark underbelly of this town is on full display, as one of L.A.’s most persistent problems (water, or lack thereof) proves the catalyst for crime.
Collateral (2004): Michael Mann does L.A. well (see Heat), but his 2004 film Collateral captures the seedy after-dark feel of the City of Angels better than anything I’ve ever seen. From the cinematography (lots of fluorescent light and yellow/grey skies) to small touches like coyotes crossing the street at three in the morning (I’ve seen this happen!), Mann gets it right.
Double Indemnity (1944): Billy Wilder’s adaptation of a Raymond Chandler novella still stands as one of the great classics of film noir. Featuring Barbara Stanwyck as a malevolent blonde temptress, the film features exquisite urban detail in its Hollywood setting, and has been called the “first film in which Los Angeles is a character unto itself.”
Falling Down (1993): Shot during the 1992 L.A. riots, this Joel Schumacher film is the ultimate embodiment of the rage that the City of Angels sometimes conjures up when the traffic, isolation, and hyperdiversity are just too overbearing. Michael Douglas excels at capturing the pent-up anger of a laid-off loner who lashes out during one of the hottest days of the year. Full Frontal (2002): Steven Soderbergh’s low-budget “experiment” didn’t go over well with most moviegoers (or critics), but I found it spellbinding and amazingly perceptive of life in the Hollywood film industry. Whether you’re an actor, screenwriter, producer, or director (and who in L.A. isn’t one of these?), the film business is mostly stress, strain, and little reward. L.A. Confidential (1997): This amazing film by director Curtis Hanson brings to life the novel by James Ellroy (who I’ve randomly bumped into several times at a Beverly Hills café) about a 1950s gangland murder mystery in Los Angeles. The film is a great homage to film noir, blonde dames (Kim Basinger is fantastic), and the LAPD.
Magnolia (1999): What a daring move to make a film about the much-maligned San Fernando Valley! Of course, P.T. Anderson’s film is about more than just “the Valley” (in which Magnolia Blvd is a major thoroughfare), but the isolated characters and overwrought emotional drama of this stylish epic definitely capture something of the experience of living here.
Mulholland Drive (2001): David Lynch is intrigued by the character of Los Angeles, “the city of dreams.” His latest, Inland Empire, is all about L.A., but not as coherently so as the masterwork, Mulholland Drive, which revels in the surrealist specters of Old Hollywood. I don’t think “Club Silencio” exists, but it captures the moonlit mystique of L.A. in a nutshell.