For the movie industry, there’s no place like home… at least that’s the way it seems when you look at the staggering number of incredible movies filmed in—and often about—Los Angeles. From romantic musicals to explosive thrillers, this list has something for everyone.
L.A. Story (1991)
L.A. Story acknowledges both the romance and the ridiculousness of Los Angeles. Steve Martin stars as Harris, a disillusioned weatherman who is bored with his life and with the perky young blond he’s casually dating (Sarah Jessica Parker). He meets an intriguing and age-appropriate British reporter (Victoria Tennant), and with the encouragement of a freeway billboard that sends them messages, the pair find their way toward a meaningful and authentic relationship.
Pretty Woman (1990)
Pretty Woman is a better movie than it has any right to be, given the plot. Julia Roberts is totally charming as Vivian, a “hooker with a heart of gold” who shows an uptight businessman (Richard Gere) how to enjoy life. This is the kind of movie that Hollywood can’t seem to make anymore—both sweet and sexy, with just enough drama to make things interesting.
Die Hard (1988)
For quite a few people, Die Hard is the best Christmas movie of all time. It’s also one of the best action movies ever made, pitting Bruce Willis as a solo cop trapped in a high rise that’s been targeted by terrorists. Alan Rickman takes on his first major Hollywood role as Hans Gruber. The genius of this movie isn’t the explosions or one-liners—it’s the claustrophobic setting of Nakatomi Plaza, which amps up the tension during the game of cat and mouse between John McClane and Hans Gruber.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
Who doesn’t love The Big Lebowski? It’s a near-perfect movie, showcasing the Coen Brothers’ knack for mashing up multiple genres into a gloriously weird heist comedy. Jeff Bridges is a legend as The Dude, but the entire cast is fantastic—including Julianne Moore, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. For people of my generation, The Big Lebowski is one of the most quotable movies of all time.
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Singin’ in the Rain is one of the most beloved musicals of all time. It’s all about movie magic, set in the transitional period between the silent era and the advent of talkies. Gene Kelly stars opposite Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor. It features the iconic dance in the rain, as well as the high-octane “Good Morning” number between the three stars. Ironically, despite the plot focusing on the ethics of using a voice double, Debbie Reynolds’ singing voice was dubbed by an uncredited Betty Noyes.
The Nice Guys (2016)
The Nice Guys didn’t get nearly enough love when it premiered in 2016. Like much of Shane Black’s work (Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Long Kiss Goodbye), this movie plays with genre conventions while still delivering a legitimately great action-thriller. Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling star as mismatched private investigators trying to unravel a web of corruption in 1970s L.A. Gosling are hilarious, and he plays off of Crowe’s gruff, tough-guy persona perfectly. Few films manage to balance action, mystery, and comedy so skillfully. The Nice Guys also features one of rising star Margaret Qualley’s first roles.
Barton Fink (1991)
The second Coen Brothers film on this list is Barton Fink, my personal favorite of their movies. This darkly comedic tale about Hollywood in the 1940s stars John Turturro, John Goodman, and Judy Davis. Turturro plays Barton Fink, a New York playwright whose success lands him a job writing movie screenplays. The gig turns out to be a cheesy wrestling movie, but that’s the last of Fink’s problems as he becomes entangled with the mistress of W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), an erratic writer modeled on William Faulkner during his Hollywood years, and the overly friendly salesman living next door. His life falls apart in spectacular fashion, and the film’s climactic sequence proves why John Goodman plus Joel and Ethan Coen always equals magic.
The Big Sleep (1946)
There are two types of people—those who prefer Sam Spade and those who are loyal to Philip Marlowe. I’m firmly on Team Marlowe, and The Big Sleep is one of the best films made in the film noir era. That’s thanks in large part to the sizzling chemistry between Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. It’s a clever film, too, with William Faulkner collaborating on the screenplay during his Hollywood years. While this isn’t my favorite Raymond Chandler adaptation—that honor goes to Murder, My Sweet—it’s a classic for a reason. Without this picture, we wouldn’t have the next film on our list…
L.A. Confidential (1997)
Combining an incredible cast, a plot full of twists and turns, and stunning scenery, L.A. Confidential is a great film that deserved all the awards it won—and more. Director Curtis Hanson has an impeccable sense of place—not just for L.A., but also for Detroit in 8 Mile. He made Los Angeles of the 1950s come alive, crafting an intricate if bloody masterpiece adapted from James Ellroy’s novel. The film also launched the international film careers of Russell Crowe and Guy Pierce, who were mostly known for their work in Australia before landing the leading roles in L.A. Confidential. Kim Basinger deserves a lot of credit for her work in this film; she’d turn in another stellar performance with Hanson as her director in 8 Mile.
La La Land (2016)
Putting together these lists is fun for me because I start to notice patterns. For example, Ryan Gosling has starred in some of the best L.A. movies, including Drive and The Nice Guys. However, La La Land is a refreshing change of pace, harkening back to the classic movie musical instead of film noir like many of the movies on this list. Despite a controversial ending, La La Land is a joyful confection of a movie that celebrates Tinseltown while also questioning whether L.A.’s dream factory is worth the toll it takes on the dreamers.
Heat is generally regarded as one of the greatest action thrillers ever made. That’s mostly thanks to Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, both at the top of their game, with an assist from Val Kilmer. It’s a little disorienting to see Pacino and De Niro on the West Coast—and it’s even more bewildering that these two had never made a film together before Heat. Writer/director Michael Mann believed in this idea so much that he pushed to get it to the big screen for over 15 years, even after a failed TV pilot in the late 80s. He was right. Mann has been working on a companion novel for a few years that will serve as the basis for a prequel/sequel film. As of 2022, that project is still in pre-production.
Boyz N The Hood (1991)
Unlike many of the films on this list, which pay homage to Hollywood’s darkly glamorous past, Boyz N the Hood is interested in telling a contemporary story about people who were all but invisible in the so-called Golden Age of movies. John Singleton became the first Black director and the youngest person ever to be nominated for an Oscar at the age of just 24 for this picture. Boyz N the Hood stars Cuba Gooding Jr., Morris Chestnut, Ice Cube, and Laurence Fishburne, along with Nia Long, Regina King, and Angela Bassett. Basically, it’s a Who’s Who of Black actors from the 90s. Sadly, Singleton passed away in 2019 at the age of just 51.
Blade Runner (1982)
Blade Runner imagines Los Angeles in the near-future of 2019—well, the future from 1982’s perspective. Ridley Scott’s vision involves giant video billboards (something that didn’t become a reality in Times Square until 1996), flying cars, smog-filled skies, and lifelike androids created both for manual labor and pleasure. Of all the future Los Angeleses created in the 80s and 90s, Scott’s is the most imaginative and enduring. The original models used for some of the city shots are on display at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, and let me tell you, they are incredible!
What if we made an action movie that takes place almost entirely on a bus at an airport? It sounds absurd on paper, but so does the plot of Die Hard. International treasure Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock are perfectly cast, and Dennis Hopper seems to be having a great time chewing on the scenery. It’s one of the most fun action films ever, and if you haven’t seen it since the 90s, why not treat yourself to a rewatch? It’s a movie to have on in the background while you do chores.
Clueless is a true classic—and remains the best adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. The fashion is iconic, the soundtrack still rocks, and the lines are infinitely quotable. Plus, the film provides definitive proof that Paul Rudd does not age like the rest of us. What I really love about Clueless is that, with the occasional pratfall and catty comment aside, it’s an optimistic and sweet-natured movie. Yes, it’s a little weird that Cher ends up with her former stepbrother—but hey, their parents were only married for a minute.