13 Movies That Define Life in LA

'La La Land' is a love letter to LA featuring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling
'La La Land' is a love letter to LA featuring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling | © Dale Robinette/Black Label Media/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
Photo of Mary Pettas
24 June 2019

The business of movie making is synonymous with LA. From its main source of industry to the inspiration behind its beloved nickname (and film) La La Land, Los Angeles wouldn’t be quite so dazzling without the magic of the films that inspire the city. And these 13 films are the ones that truly define the City of Angels.

Clueless (1996)

Loosely adapted from the plot of Jane Austen’s beloved novel Emma, the protagonist Cher is the modern-day sassy equivalent, living the charmed life in LA while struggling to relate to the peasants the surround her. Her struggle is surprisingly heartwarming and always hilarious. The 1996 film is primarily set in the illustrious Beverly Hills, replete with insider snarks at “The Valley” and living “South of Sunset.” With scenic backdrops of Rodeo Drive, Clueless is the pinnacle of LA inspiration.

L.A. Story (1991)

Set in the early ’90s, Martin is hysterical as a weatherman whose life has become as predictable as the Southern California weather. This is Steve Martin’s love letter to all the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the people that embody LA. Nobody can simultaneously poke fun at a place and revere it better than Martin.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

This quintessentially Quentin Tarantino movie (with one of LA’s most esteemed and stylish directors) examines drugs and violent gang crime in Los Angeles. This movie included memorable roles for all of its main actors including Samuel L Jackson and Uma Thurman (who continued to work with Tarantino on the Kill Bill movies), but especially for John Travolta as it wildly differs from the Grease character that made him so famous.

Chinatown (1974)

This movie is considered an eye-opening expose of corruption related to the California water wars. Not only is this an important topic, it is one that has been central to LA’s history for years and whose ramifications are still being felt today as California faces years of drought. This film is essential to the history of the city and expertly exposes the issues that have been plaguing us for decades.

L.A. Confidential (1997)

Centered around a corrupt but glamorous 1950s Hollywood, the L.A. Confidential police force were complicit in covering up their crimes. The revered legal drama won multiple Academy Awards while portraying a dark nostalgic depiction of Los Angeles. Three policemen work together to solve a murder that is linked personally to all of them in some way, and in doing so achieve their revenge. This is film noir at its finest, and is often compared to Chinatown in quality and tone.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Jeff Bridges as ‘The Dude’ is the iconic, stereotypical, and ever-surprising Venice Beach hippie who gets himself involved in a hostage situation, all the while gripping a White Russian (the drink, that is). The film also follows The Dude’s best friends, including John Goodman’s larger than life character, a crazy Vietnam War veteran named Walter, and Donny who is the strange and quiet hero. The psychedelic and surreal feel of this movie leave the audience wondering what exactly it is about, but that may just be the point as ‘The Dude’ doesn’t care about much at all. Except bowling. And this cult classic is a city tour of Los Angeles – from restaurants to bowling alleys, the film has inspired some of the city’s now-iconic film spots.

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

This movie explores the rise of gangsta rap from the community of Compton in the 1980s through the success of N.W.A., a group who came from the area and caused a revolution. Featuring Ice Cube’s doppelganger son playing his younger self and an incredible performance from Jason Mitchell as Easy-E who battles AIDS in beginnings of the disease’s epidemic. Straight Outta Compton is one of the truest depictions of East LA’s race war and a pivotal depiction of how the N.W.A. roots inspired an uprising and fight against police brutality.

Mulholland Drive (2001)

One of David Lynch’s most famous works is named after the street that winds through the northern Los Angeles mountains. This is a mystery film that investigates the identity of one of its main characters, who cannot remember who she is after surviving in a devastating car crash. Mulholland Drive goes a step behind its windy road and portrays the noir glamour of Los Angeles in an iconic film portrait of the city.

The Graduate (1967)

One of the most iconic films in history, The Graduate follows recent college graduate Benjamin as he struggles to find his place in society and momentarily finds himself accepted and seduced by a bored housewife named Mrs Robinson. Things get even more complicate for Benjamin when he falls in love with her daughter and has to decide whether to stand up for something he wants, or to drift through life never quite sure of what that is. The film is set and filmed in Los Angeles and the original locations are now cult fan destinations.

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

Starring Cuba Gooding Jr and a young Ice Cube, this film was one of the first honest depictions of urban life in South Central Los Angeles as it followed its inhabitants through their daily struggles. John Singleton was the first African American to be nominated for Best Director because of his work on this historically significant piece.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Sunset Boulevard is often described as the best movie ever made about Hollywood and another drama from the great film noir genre. This film focuses on an aging silent movie star Norma Desmond and her tempestuous relationships with both her screenwriter and her dwindling fame. As the screenwriter tries to manipulate her, she strikes back leading to a shocking end, and her former fame is only replaced with madness and despair.

La La Land (2016)

An unmissable musical saga following Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling through four seasons (and one flash forward), La La Land is perhaps the peak of LA film inspiration. The 2016 Damien Chazelle Oscar-winner is filmed throughout the city, and pays homage to everything from traffic to old Hollywood haunts. If ever there was a movie that personified a love letter to a city, its La La Land’s professed affection for the City of Angels.

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