Tuesday, July 10, 2012

My Favorite Los Angeles movies

Being an L.A. guy, I always love when a film is set here and I see locations that I recognize. It’s easy to set a movie here because it’s a perfect setting and it’s the birthplace of modern film. But it’s hard to make movies that capture L.A. perfectly or use it as a character or become iconic.

Too often, L.A. just plays the background. Movies are set there but aren’t really from there or it’s just there because. As I’m doing my part to discover what it means to be an Angeleno, here’s 10 of my favorite L.A. movies (not in any order)

One of my favorite movies, it’s a lesson in great acting, character development and pacing. Oh yeah, it also has two of the acting geniuses in Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro in perfect roles for them to be masters of this chessboard.

As an L.A. film, it’s iconic because the shootout between DeNiro’s crew and Pacino and the LAPD sadly inspired two guys to rob a bank and imitate the shootout in North Hollywood with heavy artillery. 

San Pedro got mispronounced badly (pronounced like the Spanish PAY-DRO instead of PEE-DRO) but the South Bay city served as the backdrop for one of the best crime thrillers/twists of the last 20 years. And how I could leave out the movie that inspired by old blogging alias Virgo Kent.

Even though parts of the film are set in New York, the meat of the movie takes place in LA between Verbal Kint and Agent Kujan. I’m probably more biased putting it here because I love the film more than it embodies LA but hey, how many times will San Pedro get love like this.

I just saw this film over the weekend and it immediately jumped on my list. It felt like a novel by Raymond Chandler (one of my city’s greatest scribes) as it took you through old L.A. where the police ruled swiftly, organized crime was in vogue and almost nobody’s hands are clean.

It was a fairly accurate depiction of the L.A. life in the 50’s complete with racial scapegoating, seedy Hollywood insiders, cops and call girls. The movie breathed like it was in the 50’s and 15 years later, it’s still worth seeing. 

No movie has impacted me about living in Los Angeles more than this 2006 Best Picture winner. The opening lines not only set the tone for the movie, they describe why LA and it’s hustle bustle, car culture, bottom line focus has made us distant strangers.

"In any real city, you walk, you brush past people, and people bump into you. In L.A, nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other just so we can feel something" -

Some may not like how much it discusses stereotyping or its twisting narrative but I do. The idea of crashing into each other being the only way we slow down and recognize each other is how I feel at times. We lack the community that comes from public transportation and it feels like everyone is so self-concerned that they lack common courtesy or seeing people as partners instead of threats.

It’s a weird way of thinking but Crash has affected how I view Los Angeles and more than just people falsely assuming we’re all prejudiced.

The newest film on the list, it struck me as soon as I saw it. Going from Staples Center to the Valley and all in between, it captured LA landmarks as well as the lazy vibe in the Valley where summer heat means a slow pace.

Besides the fact this film was one of the best in 2011, it wouldn’t be the sense if this movie was made anywhere else. Few US cities utilize their cars as much as L.A. and the dreamy vibe is evident by the various scenic spots around. You can drive for hours here and that soundtrack would be perfect driving down the 101/405/110 freeways.

I enjoy Pulp Fiction more but I’ll take Jackie Brown as more L.A.-centered . Quite a few scenes take place in my hometown of Inglewood and it’s set in the South Bay, which isn’t typical for most L.A. themed movies. When Sam Jackson mentions Roscoe’s to Chris Tucker, every local and visitor who knows probably got a bit more excited hearing it.

It also helps that Tarantino grew up in the South Bay (briefly attended Narbonne, worked in a Manhattan Beach video store that impacted his career.)

Throw in the final scenes taking place at the Del Amo Mall, which was the coolest mall for me growing up, and it makes L.A. an unlikely, yet excellent location for a updated blaxploitation film. Not to mention, it’s an excuse to bring up the beautiful Pam Grier and that awesome soundtrack.

It’s hard to separate these two movies because I see them as two sides of the same coin. Inner city life in 80’s/90’s Los Angeles was portrayed vividly with realism, emotion and magnetic storytelling. Both filmmakers (John Singleton and the Hughes Brothers) are from L.A. so that gave them a knowledge that most lacked.

Boyz N The Hood gets an edge being named after one of L.A.'s most iconic songs, starring arguably the biggest West Coast rapper at the time and taking place around Crenshaw Boulevard, arguably the most famous urban street in the city.

This is the L.A. most folks don’t see and only saw when the city erupted in rioting. Boyz N The Hood is more optimistic while Menace is pessimistic. One side tries to show avoiding the streets, the other reflects it. All while referencing L.A. hood spots.

For young Black men in L.A., this is the struggle and both movies show it with the energy and passion it deserves without making it stereotypical.

A great ode to the L.A. streetball culture, which isn’t recognized nationally as much as New York’s is. With cameos from local hoop legends Marques Johnson and Freeman Williams as well as other Venice Beach vets, it’s a film as much about the courts as it is about Wesley Snipes/Woody Harrelson’s friendship and hoop stereotypes.

Besides the fact that Eddie Murphy is hilarious and this movie came out the year I was born, this film did a great job showing the Beverly Hills scene. This movie did for the city what Miami Vice did for Miami minus the OD on crime and sex appeal.

Rodeo Drive, posh hotels, the stores, the huge City Hall building and the reaction to see a random Black person all around who doesn’t seem to fit. It captured one side of 80’s Los Angeles and Axel Foley’s Detroit cool makes it even more attractive.

This movie is another favorite because it captures L.A. at a critical time. Police corruption was well-known due to the Rampart scandal and Denzel Washington represented the attitude of every crooked cop infected by the disease in the department.

Bonus points for being shot in East L.A. and specifically, The Jungles – a notorious neighborhood of gangs – and having actual Blood and Crip gang members recruited as extras. When I saw it, I could relate to hating Denzel’s character because I knew he existed and knowing how people feel towards cops here, I think it captured the underbelly of the L.A. people only hear about.

Honorable Mention: Die Hard, Pulp Fiction, Love and Basketball (a great L.A. love story), Friday


  1. Great list! Hard to argue with any of those choices. I can watch Jackie Brown or Heat any time it's on.

    One of my favorite LA-themed movies is Get Shorty. John Travolta is amazing as the gangster turned Hollywood producer.

  2. Definitely agree with you there. I never saw Get Shorty? Although Swordfish isn't a bad one either with Travolta, Halle Berry and Hugh Jackman.