Los Angeles movies: 50 films that best capture the essence of LA

From seedy mysteries and Hollywood satires to the bounciest of beach films, we rank the greatest Los Angeles movies of all time, the ones that get it.

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  • Los Angeles movies: Gidget (1959)

  • Los Angeles movies: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

  • Los Angeles movies: Greenberg (2010)

  • Los Angeles movies: The Day of the Locust (1975)

  • Los Angeles movies: Boogie Nights (1997)

  • Los Angeles movies: The Exiles (1961)

  • Los Angeles movies: Training Day (2001)

  • Los Angeles movies: The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)

  • Los Angeles movies: Them! (1954)

  • Los Angeles movies: The Graduate (1967)

Los Angeles movies: Gidget (1959)

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L.A. movies: Gidget (1959)

Gidget (1959)

Squeaky-clean SoCal teen Sandra Dee hits the beach, and America gets its first good look at Malibu’s surfer culture. This adolescent rom-com didn’t just inspire a wave of fun-in-the-sun movies; it would serve as an advertisement for L.A.’s world of tanned bodies and good vibrations.—David Fear

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49
L.A. movies: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

As viewed from Elysian Park, Los Angeles is obliterated in nuclear fire, in one of James Cameron’s most nightmarish sequences—Hollywood blockbusting at its darkest. But the director recaptures some municipal goodwill via a landmark chase scene set in the cement waterway of the L.A. River.—Joshua Rothkopf

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48
L.A. movies: Greenberg (2010)

Greenberg (2010)

New Yorker Noah Baumbach’s movie about a fortysomething failure may seem like it’s marinating in East Coast haterade. But its blindingly bright yet perpetually smoggy L.A. perfectly mirrors the mind-set of Ben Stiller’s mopey protagonist; few movies have better captured how this beautiful city can seem like one big storm cloud to its losers.—David Fear

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47
L.A. movies: The Day of the Locust (1975)

The Day of the Locust (1975)

John Schlesinger’s surreal adaptation of Nathanael West’s bitter novel turns “Hollywoodland” into a Depression-era hellscape, epitomized by the desperate residents of the San Bernardino Arms: a broken-down vaudevillian, a two-bit actress and a simple man on the edge of psychosis. The most horrifying scene is an apocalyptic movie premiere set at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.—Stephen Garrett

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46
L.A. movies: Boogie Nights (1997)

Boogie Nights (1997)

From Reseda’s disco palaces to the hot-tub-adorned backyards of West Covina and Van Nuys, Paul Thomas Anderson’s supercharged portrait of the porn industry boasts an enviable precision with local details. Dirk Diggler’s rise and fall is a distinctly L.A. tale of hedonistic reinvention—an X-rated echo of the mainstream movie business playing out just to the south.—Joshua Rothkopf

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45
L.A. movies: The Exiles (1961)

The Exiles (1961)

Kent MacKenzie’s near-forgotten fugue for the urbanized Native American is a heartbreaking look at the down-and-out denizens of now-razed Bunker Hill, an ethnic enclave and de facto reservation within the city limits. Luscious b&w cinematography (including views of the beloved Angels Flight funicular railway) impart a noir sheen to the nocturnal high jinks and existential dilapidation.—Stephen Garrett

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44
L.A. movies: Training Day (2001)

Training Day (2001)

Rogue narc-squad chief Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) straddles law enforcement and street justice to ferment his own brew of swaggering vigilantism and wet-beak opportunism, while undercover rookie Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) watches mortified, even as his sleazy superior slips him a PCP-laced joint. The chronically maligned LAPD never looked so demonic (at the movies, at least).—Stephen Garrett

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43
L.A. movies: The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)

The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)

The definitive record of a crucial moment in the city’s musical history, this doc puts you right where the action was, from the dingy church where X practiced to the mosh pit at a Germs show at the Masque. This is L.A. punk, year zero, in all its uncut glory—an ’80s time capsule that doubles as a note from the California underground.—David Fear

42
L.A. movies: Them! (1954)

Them! (1954)

A profoundly influential 1950s fear film, this is the one about giant radioactive ants laying waste to the human population. The gargantuan pests are spawned in New Mexico’s A-bomb deserts, but make their way to the sewers of L.A., where soldiers descend (via the Los Angeles River spillway) to do fiery battle.—Joshua Rothkopf

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41
L.A. movies: The Graduate (1967)

The Graduate (1967)

Virginal college grad Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) was educated on the East Coast, but it’s in L.A. that he gets schooled in the real world. Beverly Hills MILF Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) tutors him at the Taft—the old Ambassador Hotel—and upends a generation’s definition of the California girl.—Stephen Garrett

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Users say

9 comments
Carl P
Carl P

How the hell did you miss out Falling Down?! It's a movie about a guy walking across L.A.

Carlos
Carlos

Really? Boyz-n-the Hood is ranked 29th? I can care less about Colors or any film after but John Singleton's masterpiece was the first real film to showcase life in South Central Los Angeles from the perspective of the people who lived there. But of course like in real life no one gives a dam about that part of the city.

Joe
Joe

I would have added Collateral, Bad Influence, Pretty Woman, El Norte, Wonderland and Species.

Alex
Alex

What About... Menace II Society, CRASH, American Me, Blood In Blood Out... ???????????? where R They?

BaronVG
BaronVG

After reading some of the other reviews, another one that stunned me was the omission of Lethal Weapon! Again, WOW! I mean, out of the many late 80s action movies set in Los Angeles, you pick DIE HARD?!?! Die Hard; a movie set mostly in a building that just happens to be in L.A. Whereas Lethal Weapon and it's action was more spread out over the city. Ridiculous. Now my rating is TWO stars.

BaronVG
BaronVG

Ok, I appreciate all the movies on this list but there were two movies I was just waiting to read about: Collateral and Pulp Fiction. Neither made the list. Wow. Just...WOW. I guess I should be happy that Heat was on here at least.

Sonny Black
Sonny Black

Average list at best. The big ones that are missing here off the top of my head would be, Lincoln Lawyer, American Gigolo, Rush Hour, Lethal Weapon, Color of Night, Beverly Hills Cop, Falling Down... One that stood out to me that shouldn't be on here was & is Blade Runner. I'm sorry but LA is non-recognizable for the most part in that film.

Chris
Chris

"Mommie Dearest" and "The Loved One"

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