When seeking the best American movies of all time, one could turn to Academy Award winners, sports movies, classic romantic comedies or the most patriotic movies of all time. Or you could break out the atlas and do what we’ve done here: go state by state to find the most emblematic film shot within the borders. The result: 50 of the most evocative pieces of Americana onscreen. Did we forget one? Write to your local chamber of commerce—and do let us know.
American movies: Alabama to Georgia
Harper Lee’s fictional Maycomb, AL, was generalized enough to register as a beautiful evocation of small-town life—yet specific enough to capture the uglier side of Deep South racism, bubbling just under the surface. It’s a place where you might need a good attorney (the mighty Gregory Peck).
Our nation’s northernmost state—craggy, rugged, unforgiving—is the perfect setting for a journey of spiritual discontentment, reckoned with by adventurer Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch). The movie is directed by Sean Penn with unusual respect and sensitivity.
Arizona: Raising Arizona (1987)
The Coen brothers’ lunatic comedy about a loving trailer-park couple who kidnap one of five quintuplets to raise as their own captures the distinctive patois—a hybrid of local dialects—and arid poetry of the Grand Canyon State.
Arkansas: Sling Blade (1996)
Billy Bob Thornton became a household name with this touching Southern drama, which he not only dominated as the mentally slow Karl, but wrote and directed. The overall picture—an Arkansas of crime, compassion and hope—was positively Clintonian.
California: Chinatown (1974)
It may be the birthplace of beach parties, the Summer of Love and Hollywood, but Roman Polanski’s noir tears the scab off California dreamin’: an L.A. detective story that exposes what lies beneath our go-west idealism, while simultaneously evoking nostalgia for the Golden State’s sunny facade.
Colorado: Jeremiah Johnson (1972)
In Sydney Pollack’s backcountry oater, a jaded Mexican War veteran (Robert Redford) seeks solace in the American West, only to discover that life in the Rocky Mountain State—with its harsh weather, craggy terrain and aggressive inhabitants—is more turbulent than transcendental.
Connecticut: The Ice Storm (1997)
Cubes clatter in Scotch tumblers as the emotional temperature plummets in Ang Lee’s portrayal of Nixon-era life in New Canaan, CT. Fine, these are the problems of wealthy white people, but stiffness yields something tragic and universal.
Delaware: Fight Club (1999)
A tough one! The slender First State doesn’t have a lot of cinematic history, and authorities denied David Fincher permission to shoot his radical anticapitalist comedy in Wilmington, where it’s set. But enough clues are sprinkled throughout—business cards, license plates—to know we’re at the financial hub.
Florida: Spring Breakers (2012)
As tawdry and trashed as the collegiate tradition itself, Harmony Korine’s tale of girls gone wild presents a Florida that’s a neon fountain of youth—a version of the state’s sunbaked, garish resort-town vibe that feels only slightly exaggerated.
Georgia: Gone with the Wind (1939)
Frankly, my dear, we don’t give a damn that this classic Hollywood melodrama was shot mostly in Tinseltown. Between its extravagant plantation sets, the epic battle scenes, a Southern-fried romantic triangle and the unforgettable burning of Atlanta, this is the most iconic rendering of Georgia on film.
American movies: Hawaii to Maryland
Above and beyond this drama’s unusual story of a Honolulu lawyer (George Clooney), his comatose wife and the man she was having an affair with, there’s the presence of the lush, sprawling land itself (another character, essentially). It’s an unlikely paradise for domestic troubles; there’s even a subplot about a contested tract of unspoiled acreage. Ukuleles strum to every plot turn.
Gus Van Sant’s moody, Shakespeare-inflected street-youth tale follows a narcoleptic hustler (River Phoenix) on a tragic journey in search of himself. Idaho is the place he’s most drawn to: a site of roots (it’s where the last of his family lives) and hallucinogenic dreams (a highway to nowhere stretches tauntingly beyond the horizon).
Chicago is shown off magnificently as a playground for an irresponsible teen hero: Ferris (Matthew Broderick) drags his friends to Wrigley Field and the Art Institute, high up the Sears Tower—and even to the front of the Von Steuben Day Parade. Writer-director John Hughes, a local, called the movie his love letter to the city.
Go ahead and call this ultimate dad movie “corny”—we think that’s fully intentional, down to its Iowa setting. The field itself, where dead baseball heroes reunite and daddy issues get resolved, is a cornfield. And W.P. Kinsella’s original 1982 novel, Shoeless Joe, was written at an Iowa writer’s workshop, where he took local inspiration.
Of course, there’s a point when we’re not in Kansas anymore. But until then, in lovely sepia tones, Dorothy’s farm surroundings come to vivid life, as does a scary “twister” on the horizon. Judy Garland’s immortal rendition of “Over the Rainbow” is a full dose of country yearning in two minutes.
Going from rags to riches is the American Dream, but this biopic of country-music legend Loretta Lynn (starring a spunky, radiant Sissy Spacek) emphasizes that hers is a Kentucky story—she’s a honky-tonk honeysuckle rose born in coal dust and bred by the state’s hardscrabble rural beauty.
It would be perverse of us not to pick a Stephen King adaptation, so thoroughly he commits to depicting his home state. We like this domestic drama, a murder mystery set in a handsome coastal town. Kathy Bates embodies take-no-guff Maine attitude—King wrote the character especially for his Misery star.
Any John Waters film would fit this slot perfectly: The Pope of Trash’s commitment to his home state—the setting for all of his movies—is just as famous as his taste for pink flamingos and Divine. But Pecker captures an especially vivid Baltimore—from its excruciating Hampden accents, pit-beef sandwiches and gentle, unofficial theme song in Dave Hardin’s “Baltimore, You’re Home to Me.”
American movies: Massachusetts to New Jersey
Massachusetts: The Fighter (2010)
Never mind the blue bloods: David O. Russell’s story of boxer “Irish” Micky Ward’s grab for the brass ring gives us a working-class Lowell community that’s pugnacious, vivacious and fiercely loyal to its own. In this Massachusetts microcosmos, everyone is a fighter.
See the film that catapulted documentarian Michael Moore from grassroots obscurity to a constant thorn in the side of conservatives worldwide. See what the fine folks at General Motors did to the citizens of ruined Flint, Michigan. See GM chairman Roger Smith defend his actions...not.
It’s never a bad time to return to Prince’s autobiographical pop melodrama—especially lately, to pay your respects. But you might be surprised to notice how fully Purple Rain captures many Minneapolis landmarks. Naturally, there’s First Avenue, the real-life nightclub where the Purple One forged his fame. But there’s also ice-cold Lake Minnetonka…or is it?
Mississippi: In the Heat of the Night (1967)
The town is fictional, but this Oscar-winning thriller about a white police chief and an African-American detective channels a very real Mississippi—one racked with hot temperatures, racial tensions and uneasy acceptance of the era’s tides of change.
Missouri: Waiting for Guffman (1997)
Christopher Guest’s faux documentary about Blaine, MO (“stool capital of the United States”), and a community-theater troupe with delusions of Broadway grandeur beautifully captures small-town American eccentricity, always with a gentle wink.
Montana: A River Runs Through It (1992)
Watch virtually any scene from Robert Redford’s fly-fishing family drama and you’ll get a sense of Montana’s majestic landscape; every time Brad Pitt casts his line into the Blackfoot River, you realize why they call it Big Sky country.
Nebraska: Election (1999)
This pointed satire about a high-school student election is one of Alexander Payne’s finest satirical portraits of his home state, unearthing in the Nebraska suburbs a microcosmic portrait of American politics and all its wheelings and dealings.
Nevada: Melvin and Howard (1980)
Las Vegas and its barren outskirts provide the mythic meeting place for billionaire mogul Howard Hughes (Jason Robards) and service-station owner Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat). Melvin spends the rest of Jonathan Demme’s delightfully quirky comedy trying to prove the encounter took place; the arid Nevada desert haunts the film like a half-remembered dreamscape.
New Hampshire: To Die For (1995)
New Hampshire, with its quiet suburbs and picture-perfect scenery, is the setting for Gus Van Sant’s stone-cold black comedy about a career-obsessed woman (Nicole Kidman) who murderously manipulates her way up the ranks of a local cable station.
New Jersey: Clerks (1994)
A strong contender for the scrappiest state in the union, “Dirty Jersey” gets the eloquently foulmouthed comedy it deserves in Kevin Smith’s indie classic about counter jockeys. They tell it like it is—in the funny, frank way you associate with the Garden State.
American movies: New Mexico to South Carolina
America’s legendary outlaw went down at Old Fort Sumner, in the state nicknamed the Land of Enchantment. Strong-willed director Sam Peckinpah turned in a Western for the ages (despite much studio interference), caked with grime and dirt, tinged with frontier wildness.
Also the No. 1 film atop our 100 NYC movies of all time, Martin Scorsese’s urban classic is a prowl through the decrepit streets of New York’s meanest years. Stream rises from manhole covers, prostitutes wobble on high heels and behind the wheel of a cab might be a monster. The film is an urban legend in and of itself.
Filmmaker David Gordon Green creates a nuanced, diffuse portrait of a rural North Carolina community in repressed turmoil, its inhabitants (portrayed by nonprofessional actors) consumed by anxiety, economic woe and lethargy in equal measure. As directorial debuts go, few are this localized to the pain of actual people.
Much of the movie takes place in ice-scraped Minnesota, but we can’t help but defer to the title: It’s where half-smart car dealer Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) drives to set up his kidnapping scheme. More symbolically, North Dakota is the wintry place where all is lost in the Coens’ breakthrough.
As played by Paul Giamatti, underground comic-book memoirist Harvey Pekar is a cranky yet sympathetic ogre. Crucially, though, on Letterman and a national stage, Pekar becomes a symbol for his unpretentious blue-collar hometown of Cleveland (where the movie was largely shot).
The title song says it all: “Where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain / And the wavin’ wheat can sure smell sweet!” Forget Broadway: The vistas in this adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s hit musical make you feel like you’ve just been dropped into Sooner State grandeur.
As Philly as it gets: Sylvester Stallone’s breakthrough goes the distance with iconic shooting on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (These days, they’re actually called the Rocky Steps.) So careful is this movie’s eye for local landmarks, Creed’s director Ryan Coogler insisted that his excellent sequel return to the city.
Sure, you remember the “hair gel” scene the most—a notorious comedy moment that will never die so long as there are horndogs. But codirectors Peter and Bobby Farrelly have always demonstrated a commitment to their cozy home state; most of their movies are at least partly set there.
Kevin Costner’s offscreen death (his flashback sequences were cut) provokes a group of his friends—former student radicals now living in uneasy comfort—to talk about their lives and listen to one of the best-selling soundtrack albums of all time. Less remembered: the lovely antebellum mansion in Beaufort, SC, where all the boomer handwringing goes down.
American movies: South Dakota to Wyoming
Alfred Hitchcock’s intense chase film is the beginning of the modern action movie, a precursor to the James Bond series and a high-point of Hollywood craft. There’s no denying that its most iconic scene takes place at South Dakota’s pride: on the face of Mount Rushmore. Those are some monumental thrills.
Arguably the finest American movie of the 1970s, Robert Altman’s sprawling masterpiece takes in the entirety of Music City, from its local singing legends to its fluky aspiring artists—and all freaks and fans in between. If you know only the (unrelated) TV psychodrama, you’ve got some woodshedding ahead of you.
What other film could we have possibly chosen? Apart from being an underrated horror classic—one that’s a lot less gory than you think—Tobe Hooper’s low-budget masterpiece also captures a sweltering Texas summer, complete with gas fumes rising from the highway and rural rest stops offering barbecue (or worse).
James Franco’s hiker is stuck between a rock and a hard place (literally) for most of this true-story survival tale. But Danny Boyle’s film still captures Utah’s Canyonlands National Park in all its rugged glory, and gives viewers a sense of the natural beauty that characterizes our 45th state.
A dead body appears in the woods outside a Vermont hamlet. Whodunit? Alfred Hitchcock’s mild-mannered murder mystery captures the plush beauty of the Green Mountain State—even though production began so late in the season, they had to glue their own foliage to the trees.
Terrence Malick’s gorgeous dramatization of the colonial settlement of Jamestown, VA, works as a dual love story: one between enraptured John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Native American princess Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher), and also between humankind and the natural world. The film used locations along the Chickahominy River.
Cameron Crowe’s friends-in-their-twenties drama serves nicely as a time capsule of Seattle’s grunge scene, a moment when the world’s attention swiveled to flannel shirts and bruised, rainy emotions. Watch closely and you’ll catch cameos by members of Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains.
The area’s mountainous terrain and the tenacious people who work it are beautifully represented in John Sayles’s re-creation of the 1920 coal miners’ strike that scarred the state. Sooty laborers, social activists and manic preachers choose their sides in a landscape that seems both craggy and nurturing.
The ultimate logging psychodrama comes from an esteemed Edna Ferber novel and features brawny men competing for the comely attentions of saloon singer Lotta (Frances Farmer, one of Howard Hawks’s spunkiest female leads). A fortune is made over the course of a generation; an audience learns much about deforestation.
You don’t have to be a love-struck cowboy to swoon over the gorgeous scenery in Ang Lee’s romantic tragedy. The high plains, rocky mountains and rushing rivers that form the backdrop for Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal’s trysts will make you fall for the territory’s wide-open spaces.