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: Model Shop (1969)

  • Los Angeles movies: The Big Sleep (1946)

  • Los Angeles movies: Repo Man (1984)

  • Los Angeles movies: Magnolia (1999)

  • Los Angeles movies: Heat (1995)

  • Los Angeles movies: Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003)

  • Los Angeles movies: Jackie Brown (1997)

  • Los Angeles movies: Safe (1995)

  • Los Angeles movies: The Limey (1999)

  • Los Angeles movies: Double Indemnity (1944)

Los Angeles movies: Model Shop (1969)

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L.A. movies: Model Shop (1969)

Model Shop (1969)

French filmmaker Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) brought his inimitable romantic sensibility stateside with this tale of a troubled architect (Gary Lockwood) who has a fateful meeting with an erotic model (Anouk Aimée, reprising her role from the director’s Lola). Lockwood wanders gauzy Dockweiler Beach with mesmeric aimlessness, the perfect complement to his character’s melancholy longing.—Keith Uhlich

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L.A. movies: The Big Sleep (1946)

The Big Sleep (1946)

Howard Hawks’s sizzling adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s mystery novel casts Humphrey Bogart as private dick Philip Marlowe and Lauren Bacall as the alluring dame who assists him. More about atmosphere than plot (and shot entirely on the Warner Bros. back lot), this quintessential noir turns L.A. into an immersive, shadowy dreamscape filled with gun-toting mystery men and goggle-eyed femme fatales.—Keith Uhlich

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18
L.A. movies: Repo Man (1984)

Repo Man (1984)

“The more you drive, the less intelligent you are,” goes a line of wisdom: Alex Cox’s brilliantly bonkers debut is a punk-tinged riff on aliens, generic supermarket products, Scientology, G-men and jaded youth. Its Los Angeles is a town where the automobile is king, but car repossessors rule. The casual lunacy is intoxicating, with a blasé acceptance of anarchy that epitomizes L.A. cool.—Stephen Garrett

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17
L.A. movies: Magnolia (1999)

Magnolia (1999)

One is the loneliest number in Paul Thomas Anderson’s kaleidoscopic fever dream of Valley alienation. A former child prodigy (William H. Macy), a simpleminded cop (John C. Reilly), a despondent trophy wife (Julianne Moore) and a misogynistic motivational speaker (Tom Cruise) are among the emotionally stunted. Respect the cock—so long as it’s not raining frogs.—Stephen Garrett

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L.A. movies: Heat (1995)

Heat (1995)

Truthfully, it takes place in Michael Mann country: a cool urban landscape of postmodern interiors bathed in gunmetal-blue twilight. (Few filmmakers have staked out a terrain as stylishly.) That said, the movie’s heist centerpiece, spilling out violently onto downtown Flower Street, is undeniably Los Angeles, and one of Hollywood’s finest bits of mayhem.—Joshua Rothkopf

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15
L.A. movies: Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003)

Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003)

Because it’s made up almost entirely of clips from other movies, you’re never going to be able to rent or purchase this seminal study of the city’s onscreen presence (assembled by CalArts film theorist Thom Andersen). But if you ever hear of a public screening, clear your schedule: The connections are humorous, with nods to everything from Female (1933) to Swordfish (2001).—Joshua Rothkopf

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L.A. movies: Jackie Brown (1997)

Jackie Brown (1997)

Quentin Tarantino’s adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch adds the perfect sense of lived-in verisimilitude by grounding it in the less-than-glamorous South Bay region. Shooting in the area’s actual dive bars and bail-bond offices, the film offers the kind of pulp-perfect L.A. where career criminals hold court and desperate working-class stiffs concoct escape plans.—David Fear

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13
L.A. movies: Safe (1995)

Safe (1995)

Julianne Moore is an affluent San Fernando Valley housewife who becomes allergic to her environment—literally and figuratively—in Todd Haynes’s unsettling character study. The threat of illness is everywhere for this silver-spoon suburbanite who seems to be adversely reacting to everything from the omnipresent Los Angeles smog to her own banal lifestyle. Haynes’s tour de force speaks brilliantly to L.A.’s anxiety-inducing influence.—Keith Uhlich

12
L.A. movies: The Limey (1999)

The Limey (1999)

Terence Stamp plays a rugged Brit out of water, an ex-con come to L.A. to avenge his daughter’s death in Steven Soderbergh’s gloriously time-jumbled thriller. The urban environs are filmed like an existential playground, and costar Luis Guzmán hilariously sums up the town’s hazy climate: “You could see the sea out there, if you could see it.”—Keith Uhlich

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11
L.A. movies: Double Indemnity (1944)

Double Indemnity (1944)

Los Feliz housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) seduces insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) into killing her husband—they stage his death on the train to Palo Alto—and then things get dirty. Directing one of the shadiest film noirs ever made, Billy Wilder bathes his femme fatale in pitch-black sunlight and bad intentions.—Stephen Garrett

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Users say

11 comments
Larry B
Larry B

I loved Jackie Brown, but how did that make the list and not Pulp Fiction? Also what about 1941? Well at least Repo Man and Mulholland Drive Made the cut.

Larry B
Larry B

You guys couldn't get 1941 in there somewhere? Well at least Repo Man made the list.

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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