10 Modern Films That Capture California's Soul

Hollywood Hills | © Shinya Suzuki/Flickr
Hollywood Hills | © Shinya Suzuki/Flickr
Photo of Monique Elliott-Smith
19 December 2016

California has strikingly beautiful scenery, exciting cities, and colorful characters. The Golden State’s also has a rich history that begs to be discovered. Check out our list of ten films that we think embody California. From biographical pictures like Milk to classics like The Graduate, there’s certainly something here for everyone.


Featuring an Academy Award-winning performance from Sean Penn, 2008’s Milk documents the life of Harvey Milk as the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California. The film also sheds light on the climate of San Francisco in the 1970s, especially as experienced by gays. Despite the tragic assassination of Milk and Mayor George Moscone, the film successfully portrays how Milk was able to unite and instill hope in the people of San Francisco.


Clueless captures adolescence in the 1990s in more ways than one. Based on Jane Austen’s Emma, this 1995 picture successfully satirizes the lives of ultra-rich teens from Beverly Hills who get plastic surgery and don’t really have to learn how to park their cars because “everywhere you go has a valet.” Clueless is complete with Beverly Hills shopping montages and Alicia Silverstone’s infamous line “as if,” as well as a young and dreamy Paul Rudd who reads Nietzsche in his spare time. While somewhat mindless, Clueless is endlessly entertaining.

Bottle Shock

With sprawling shots of California’s beautiful Wine Country, Bottle Shock tells the story of how Napa Valley wines put themselves on the map in an industry that was historically dominated by the French. The film stars Chris Pine as the young, adventurous Bo Barrett and features a spectacular performance from Alan Rickman as the British wine snob who travels to Napa in search of wines for his Judgment of Paris wine competition. Based on the true story of vintners Bo and Jim Barrett of Chateau Montelena Winery in Calistoga, this film is a testament to the spirit of the Napa Valley in the 1970s. It will leave you longing for a weekend trip there.

The Graduate

While it seems that nearly everyone has seen The Graduateone of the most popular films of all time – it’s always worth another viewing. The image of a young Dustin Hoffman floating in the pool by day and having an affair with Mrs. Robinson by night will never cease to be significant. This film is a testament to the California culture of the 1960s, with scenes in Pasadena, Berkeley and Santa Barbara. The film’s soundtrack is defined by classic songs from Simon and Garfunkel, who became immensely popular after the release of this film.

500 Days of Summer

Hopeless romantics and dreamers everywhere admire this tale of a charming greeting-card writer, Tom, who falls in love with the woman of his dreams, Summer. While the film is premised on their break-up and Tom’s internal search for the moment when it all went wrong, it remains a quirky and honest exploration of romance in the real world. The film celebrates Los Angeles, with the architecture of Downtown playing a central role in the storyline. Tom is an aspiring architect himself, and his world-view is represented through architectural sketches coming to life.

Top Gun

Top Gun is undoubtedly an American cultural icon, celebrating heroic fighter pilots in the US Navy and the culture of Southern California the 1980s. “Fightertown USA,” the elite pilot training school, is located in sunny San Diego. The idyllic picture of a young, sun-soaked Tom Cruise sporting aviator sunglasses and playing sand-volleyball with fellow military men will be forever imprinted in your mind after watching this classic. After a charismatic performance as Maverick, Tom Cruise became the full-fledged movie star that we know today.

Erin Brockovich

This biopic tells the story of one small town in California’s Mojave Desert. Erin Brockovich, a legal clerk, discovers that the town’s water supply was contaminated with a cancer-causing chemical due to actions by the Pacific Gas & Electric Company. Julia Roberts gives a spectacular performance as she rallies the entire town to participate in a class-action lawsuit. It earned her the Oscar for Best Actress in 2000.

The Pursuit of Happyness

Chris Gardner and his son, played by father-son duo Will and Jaden Smith, endure a life of hardship in San Francisco in the 1980s, living in shelters after being evicted. Gardner sells bone density scanners and struggles to make ends meet while maintaining full custody of his son following divorce. Despite their circumstances, Gardner’s unbreakable spirit lands him a job as an unpaid intern at a brokerage firm that changes the course of his career and his life. This heartwarming tale of one man’s quest for the American dream landed Will Smith a nomination for an Academy Award.

Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen’s critically acclaimed film tells the story of one woman’s attempt at starting over in San Francisco. Jasmine, portrayed by Cate Blanchett, is a wealthy New York socialite who loses her marriage and her sanity. While living in San Francisco with her sister, Jasmine juggles jobs and tries to lead an independent existence, but she continues to be tormented by thoughts of her past. Much of the film was shot in San Francisco and features Chinatown, Ocean Beach, and sweeping views of the bay. Blanchett won both an Academy Award and Golden Globe for her performance.


Jobs explores the life of Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple in the Silicon Valley. The film follows Jobs from his college years at Reed College in Oregon to the launch of the first Apple iPod in 2001, exploring his inspirations and relationships along the way. Jobs illuminates the nature of the Silicon Valley as it developed in the 1970s, a far cry from the Silicon Valley that we see today. Ashton Kutcher plays the role of Jobs in the film, which also stars Dermot Mulroney, Josh Gad, and J.K. Simmons.

Cookies Policy

We and our partners use cookies to better understand your needs, improve performance and provide you with personalised content and advertisements. To allow us to provide a better and more tailored experience please click "OK"