La La Land is a love letter to Los Angeles, a city that has been the backdrop for many memorable movies over the years. But there’s a difference between a film merely being set in LA and one that turns it into a character.
For those who really want to delve into it, track down the documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself. It’s about movies about L.A. Meanwhile, here are 25 favorite LA films that summon the soul of the city.
1. OJ: Made in America (2016): This sprawling, mesmerizing, nearly eight-hour documentary — which played in some theaters before being shown widely on ABC and ESPN — explores the L.A. that gave rise to the combustible blend of politics and race that set the scene for the O.J. Simpson murder trial in the mid-’90s.
2. Chinatown (1974): Roman Polanski’s epic tale of corruption, greed and water rights in ’30s LA starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway is a masterwork of drama and intrigue.
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3. L.A. Confidential (1997): Never mind that two of the leads (Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce) are Aussies, this Curtis Hanson film based on a James Ellroy novel about ’50s-era police captures the roughneck spirit of the City of Angels’ darker side.
4. The Day of the Locust (1975): Nathanael West’s prescient 1939 novel about those who move to the West Coast only to find despair, disappointment and rage was made into an equally compelling film starring Donald Sutherland and Karen Black.
5. Blade Runner (1982): Ridley Scott’s futuristic masterpiece, set in a particularly hellish Los Angeles, remains as visually and thematically fascinating as when it was released.
6. Straight Outta Compton (2015): F. Gary Gray’s story of the rise of the hip-hop group N.W.A. is also a full-color snapshot of a particular time (late ’80s, early ’90s) and place (South Central LA).
7. Rebel Without a Cause (1955): Even if this drama starring James Dean weren’t referenced in La La Land or all it had going for it was the iconic scene set at the Griffith Observatory overlooking L.A., it would still be worth including. But it has more than that.
8. L.A. Story (1991): Whereas so many movies about Los Angeles are about utopia rotting into dystopia, Steve Martin went the other direction with this sweet and funny salute.
9. Devil in a Blue Dress (1995): Walter Mosley’s detective mystery offered a glimpse into what life was like in 1950s black L.A., and it became an equally engrossing drama starring Denzel Washington.
10. Drive (2011): Nicolas Winding Refn’s moody masterpiece is the flip side of La La Land. Ryan Gosling stars in this much darker tale of crime amid L.A.’s underbelly. A great cast — Oscar Isaac, Bryan Cranston, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks — helps make this drama even more vivid.
11. The Player (1992) : Robert Altman’s satire of the movie biz, based on the novel by Michael Tolkin, is a darkly funny take on L.A.’s most famous (or infamous) industry.
12. The Big Sleep (1946): Arguably the ultimate exercise in L.A. noir, this Raymond Chandler detective mystery. starring the dynamite duo of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. is a hard-boiled classic.
13. 500 Days of Summer (2009): Well before La La Land, director Marc Webb wanted to portray a Los Angeles that is magically romantic. He succeeds big time with this ebullient romantic comedy starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel.
14. Sunset Boulevard (1950): When Gloria Swanson, as the delusional faded movie star Norma Desmond, crows “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small” in this sad Hollywood tale, it sums up in one line all the broken dreams that have washed up on L.A.’s beaches like shattered glass.
15. Heat (1995): Beyond the lengthy shootout scene for which it’s known, Michael Mann’s heist drama, starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, paints a complex portait of a city on the edge.
16. Tangerine (2015): Sean Baker’s effervescent, low-budget and provocatively engaging chronicle of a prostitute on the hunt for her pimp captures a hint of L.A.’s huge Armenian community and the derelict yet mini-mall-bland parts of Hollywood, both of which rarely make the big screen.
17. Pulp Fiction (1994): Quentin Tarantino grew up in L.A. and has no interest in showing off its glitzy, star-studded side. This bitingly funny and wild, violent ride through the city’s mean streets, starring John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, is proof of that.
18. Mulholland Drive (2001): David Lynch’s surreal take on life in the land of the dream factory is one of his career high points. The BBC, based on a poll of 177 critics around the world, named it the “the greatest film since 2000.”
19. The Big Lebowski (1998): The Coen Brothers have shown a fascination with L,A, in such films as Hail, Caesar! and Barton Fink, but perhaps this tale about the ever abiding Dude (Jeff Bridges) is the most blissfully Californian at heart.
20. Magnolia (1999): Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic, multistory L.A. tale, with inter-related characters and their stories of San Fernando Valley sturm und drang, is infinitely preferable to Paul Haggis’ similar story of Southern Californian lives colliding in the heavy-handed though Oscar-winning Crash.
21. Boyz n the Hood (1991): Director John Singleton’s hard-charging film put a slice of South Central life on screen that had only been experienced through hip-hop at that point.
22. To Live and Die in L.A. (1985): Crime and corruption within L.A. law enforcement is hardly a novel story angle, but director William Friedkin made it come alive, including staging one of the most memorable freeway chase scenes of all time.
23. Short Cuts (1993): Director Robert Altman tells a single L.A. story in 1992’s The Player, but he expands on that in this three-hour, multiple-story ensemble drama with Julianne Moore, Robert Downey Jr. and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
24. Zoot Suit (1981): L.A.’s infamous zoot-suit riots of the 1940s became the basis for Luis Valdez’s play, which then became a film with Edward James Olmos. It offered a look into the often ignored Latino side of L.A.’s history. (For a modern version of this, check out Los Punks, a 2016 documentary about L.A.’s thriving Latino punk subculture.)
25. Welcome to L.A. (1976): Robert Altman protege Alan Rudolph pulls back the curtain on the shallow and successful in this tale of a not-particularly-talented songwriter starring Harvey Keitel, Sissy Spacek, Keith Carradine and Sally Kellerman. Rudolph ventured into similar terrain eight years later with Choose Me.