The world knows Los Angeles better than it thinks. Not even counting the many classic satires of Hollywood itself, the vast majority of American-made movies are filmed within the city limits, with the Valley supplying a neighboring every-suburb for all varieties of domestic drama. But which films really nail what it means to live here? Time Out scoured the history of cinema to come up with a ranked list of essential Los Angeles movies—a trove of shady noir villians, sappy romances, sunny comedies and everything in between. (Pardon our occasional cynicism: Hating Los Angeles is definitely a part of loving it.) And please leave your suggestions in the comments box below. We’re aware that this subject, like the city itself, is a sprawl. It’s time to explore the best (and worst) Los Angeles movies.
10. In a Lonely Place (1950)
Love and hate are the true soulmates in this dark, destructive romance, a noir devoid of criminals but rife with violation. Fading screenwriter Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), too proud to work on popcorn pictures, gets accused of strangling a checkroom girl and throwing her body from a car into Benedict Canyon. His alibi? Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), a neighbor in his “hacienda-like” Beverly Hills apartment complex, who saw him at home. Their subsequent affair softens Dix’s edges and inspires him creatively, as he adapts a bubblegum best-seller. But that artistic temperament still looms—especially when the police keep nosing around. Nicholas Ray’s tragedy is a deeply forlorn look at Los Angeles, where road rage is a matter of course and the most tender relationship often ends up being with your agent.
9. The Big Lebowski (1998)
Every era gets the white knight it deserves; for Los Angeles in the early ’90s, that man was a shaggy-haired stoner who went by “The Dude.” Joel and Ethan Coen’s cult comedy riffs heavily on Raymond Chandler’s 1940 detective stories (it even borrows a famous line from the author’s classic Farewell, My Lovely), but the film’s skewed paradise of kooks and freaks is completely its own. Joel himself has claimed that the movie was a tribute to the “marginal Los Angeles” he encountered in Venice Beach, Pasadena and parts of the Valley, and the film works beautifully as a celebration of the city’s fringe dwellers: the hippie dreamers, ex-military nutjobs, far-out feminist artists and lonesome cowboys who call L.A. home.
8. The Player (1992)
In the years between Robert Altman’s seemingly uninterrupted string of ’70s studio masterpieces and this 1992 comeback, he didn’t really disappear so much as shift to a more intimate canvas. But when the revered director returned to make a definitive Hollywood satire, the town rose up to welcome him. Dozens of celebrities—from Cher and Julia Roberts to Malcolm McDowell and Buck Henry—happily contributed cameos, adding immeasurably to the film’s verisimilitude. But apart from backstabbing life on the lot, there are dynamic set pieces establishing a desperate city: A screenwriter is stalked and murdered at the legendary Rialto Theatre; the killer, a studio executive (Tim Robbins), escapes to an exclusive spa in Desert Hot Springs; finally, his crime closing in on him, he succumbs to the Pasadena police, a world away from his sphere of entitlement.
7. Blade Runner (1982)
Were it not for the title card and the familiar site of the Bonaventure Hotel’s towers peeking through the skyline in Blade Runner’s opening shot, you’d think you were looking at a Bosch painting instead of gliding over the City of Angels circa 2019. Flames shoot out of smokestacks and people are living on top of each other; if ever a movie deserved to have the overused phrase Hell-Ay applied to its aesthetic, it’s Ridley Scott’s dystopic noir. “Visual futurist” Syd Mead’s conception of a metropolitan nightmare recasts tomorrow’s Los Angeles as a glorious ruin, lovingly turning landmarks like the Union train station into a dirty police precinct and the Deco Bradbury Building into an acid-rain-soaked battleground. It’s no surprise that, when the director’s cut was released in 1992 at the Nuart Theatre, the lines were around the block. Angelenos know a dark valentine when they see it.
6. Shortcuts (1993)
Robert Altman masterfully skewered the Angeleno psyche in many of his pictures, but those shrewd observational tools were especially incisive (and damning) in his L.A. swan song, a tragicomic tapestry that stretches from lofty homes in the Hollywood Hills and the earthy hiking trails of Griffith Park, to the trailer-park lows of working-class Downey. A sprawling latticework based on the stories of Raymond Carver and transposed seamlessly from the writer’s native Pacific Northwest, Altman’s magnum opus of minor lives shimmers with a chronic anxiety aptly suited for a region haunted by earthquakes. Pool cleaner, limo driver, newscaster, doctor, artist, lounge singer, policeman—all hide emotional fault lines that vein throughout the city’s sprawl. As if this weren’t L.A. enough, check out the film’s Thomas Guide end credits.
5. Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
If you know only the Lita Ford song, you’ve got some viewing to do. In this wonderfully seedy L.A. private-eye tale, the murder plot skips from pavement-bound criminality to the frightening reaches of apocalyptic doom, courtesy of a glowing, radioactive suitcase. (Quentin Tarantino’s a fan.) Our hero—the Mickey Spillane–created Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker)—is close to a thug himself, leading with his fists and smugness. But the real reason this mighty noir charts so high on our list is clear in nearly every background, from the soon-to-be-razed tenements of Bunker Hill to the Hollywood Athletic Club and a bopping jazz bar on Figueroa. Director Robert Aldrich would go on to huge budgets and studio luxuries (The Dirty Dozen), but he never eclipsed this movie’s pungent sense of place, a corruption seeping out of every bruised face and busted, dead-end apartment.
4. Sunset Blvd. (1950)
Arguably Hollywood’s first zombie movie, Billy Wilder’s memento mori is a grotesquerie of Tinseltown decrepitude, populated with the walking waxworks of a bygone era. Desperate to keep his Plymouth from repossession, deadbeat screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) takes shelter at fictitious 10086 Sunset Boulevard, a mansion-turned-mausoleum that contains the silent-screen star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Hired to do a polish on her vanity revamp of Salomé, Gillis becomes a kept man, swathed in bespoke suits and smothered by self-loathing. No drama better epitomizes the film industry’s pathological nostalgia for past glories, manufacturing celebrities forever addicted to fickle adoration. Buster Keaton, Hedda Hopper, Cecil B. DeMille and Schwab’s Pharmacy all make appearances, but the best cameo is saved for Melrose Avenue’s poisoned dream factory, Paramount Pictures.
3. Mulholland Drive (2001)
How many aspiring starlets have come to the entertainment capital of the world, only to have their dreams smashed? David Lynch’s hallucinatory tale of a perky blond ingenue (the extraordinary Naomi Watts) caught up in a mystery involving an amnesiac brunette (Laura Elena Harring) begins with a bone-crunching car accident on the eponymous roadway and basks in the city’s boozy, nightmarish atmosphere. But look beyond Lynch’s expectedly surreal sights (a demonic homeless man living behind a Gardena diner, a soothsaying albino cowboy, Billy Ray Cyrus) and you’ll witness one of the director’s most devastatingly emotional works—a mournful love poem to all those who have been chewed up and spit out by the Hollywood machine.
2. The Long Goodbye (1973)
This isn’t your father’s Philip Marlowe: Robert Altman’s spectacular neonoir transplants Raymond Chandler’s cynical detective (Elliott Gould) into druggy 1970s California. He’s a man far outside his time, driving a 1948 Lincoln Continental and talking two-dimensional tough as if nothing had changed since the end of WWII. But beneath the pristine sands of the Malibu beaches and the glinting lights of the Hollywood Hills, something terrible lurks. And though Altman adheres to a number of mystery story standards, this is less a straightforward whodunit than a sharp, sarcastic existential quest. Never before had the moral rot of Los Angeles and its many self-obsessed denizens been so potently satirized.
1. Chinatown (1974)
If Los Angeles is built on beautiful illusions (some might say lies), then call it a cosmic coincidence that the high point of intelligent Hollywood filmmaking—Roman Polanski’s staggeringly great neonoir—arrived in the service of exposing the city’s buried sins.Chinatown is as ingenious as screenwriting gets: Robert Towne’s 1930s detective tale seamlessly blends glamour and action with then-current paranoia, the Nixonian moment when “follow the money” was the phrase on all lips. In the film’s case, it’s “follow the water,” diverted from thirsty orange groves in the Valley to future suburban tracts. The crime is colossal in scope and based on true events; rakish detective Jack Nicholson (never better) is quickly in over his head. But no mere period piece—even one with luscious Faye Dunaway—could ever top our list on historicity alone. The lasting beauty of this cynical movie is obvious to any screenwriter who aspires to say something profound about their town, and to any Angeleno who wants to believe the truth is out there.