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: L.A. Story (1991)

  • Los Angeles movies: Ed Wood (1994)

  • Los Angeles movies: To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

  • Los Angeles movies: Clueless (1995)

  • Los Angeles movies: Die Hard (1988)

  • Los Angeles movies: Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

  • Los Angeles movies: Swingers (1996)

  • Los Angeles movies: Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)

  • Los Angeles movies: Less than Zero (1987)

  • Los Angeles movies: Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Los Angeles movies: L.A. Story (1991)

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L.A. movies: L.A. Story (1991)

L.A. Story (1991)

The City of Angels as a land of enchantment? Steve Martin wrote and starred in this whimsical love letter to his adopted hometown, where highway signs flash personal advice, French restaurants are named L’Idiot, and museumgoers wear roller skates. Best of all: Quintessential Gotham girl Sarah Jessica Parker plays vivacious Venice bunny SanDeE*. (Yes, she insists on that punctuation.)—Stephen Garrett

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L.A. movies: Ed Wood (1994)

Ed Wood (1994)

The awful cult auteur Edward D. Wood Jr. inspired Tim Burton to make his most humane and adult film, filled with keen views of the Pantages Theatre and seedy Hollywood hangouts like Boardner’s. Most evocative of L.A., though, is the sad specter of Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), the first celebrity to publicly enter rehab.—Joshua Rothkopf

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L.A. movies: To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

This West Coast cousin to director William Friedkin’s French Connection (with even sleazier cops) takes us on a vivid, Wang Chung–scored tour of the L.A. underground. Memorable set pieces abound, from a terrorist attack at the Beverly Hilton to a wrong-way car chase along the Terminal Island Freeway.—Keith Uhlich

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37
L.A. movies: Clueless (1995)

Clueless (1995)

Not a skewering of the archetypical Valley girl so much as an affectionate portrait of a spoiled Beverly Hills do-gooder, Amy Heckerling’s modernization of Jane Austen’s Emma swaddles itself in shallowness, until the final result is warmth. Mall culture at the Westside Pavilion is captured, as is a scary driver’s-ed scene on the freeway.—Joshua Rothkopf

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36
L.A. movies: Die Hard (1988)

Die Hard (1988)

John McClane (Bruce Willis) is a New York City cop, so already he’s a fish out of water. But when his estranged wife and others are taken hostage at the top of the sleek “Nakatomi Plaza” building (the recently completed headquarters of Twentieth Century Fox), our hero springs into action with honed urban instincts. A classic Hollywood action picture, it also evokes the catty maelstrom of L.A. media.—Joshua Rothkopf

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L.A. movies: Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

The poet of the San Fernando Valley, Paul Thomas Anderson, set his delirious love story amid the Chatsworth area’s industrial warehouses and ticky-tacky apartment complexes—which, strangely, seem like the most romantic places on earth when turned into backdrops for Adam Sandler and Emily Watson’s swooning soulmate connection.—David Fear

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34
L.A. movies: Swingers (1996)

Swingers (1996)

L.A.’s neolounge movement and big-band revival were already in full swing when writer-star Jon Favreau’s tale of a lonely wanna-be comedian offered a peek at the city’s retro-chic culture. Thanks to this indie hit, suddenly everybody wanted to sip cocktails at the Dresden and look “money” on the Derby’s dance floor.—David Fear

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L.A. movies: Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)

Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)

Accidental detective Easy Rawlins (Denzel Washington) is hired to find a wily white woman (Jennifer Beals), but is sucked into a world of corrupt politicians and dirty murders. Novelist Walter Mosley’s sly private eye gets superb big-screen treatment in this sumptuous look at the racial dynamics percolating in 1948 Los Angeles.—Stephen Garrett

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32
L.A. movies: Less than Zero (1987)

Less than Zero (1987)

Bret Easton Ellis’s debut novel, an essential piece of L.A. fiction, deserves a movie version more faithful than this one, which emphasizes glamour over despair. Still, the well-chosen locations—from Bel Air to Malibu—capture the city well, and Tinseltown’s favorite comeback kid, Robert Downey Jr., announces himself as a major talent.—Joshua Rothkopf

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31
L.A. movies: Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Teen angst finds its charter mascot as James Dean pouts through a switchblade duel outside Griffith Observatory. Later, a tragic game of chicken at fictitious Millertown bluff (shot near Palos Verdes) puts him on the lam with crush Natalie Wood and troubled Sal Mineo. Only in L.A. could a hunk be a loner.—Stephen Garrett

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Users say

8 comments
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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