US Cities on Screen: Los Angeles

Photo: Koury Angelo

Photo: Koury Angelo

LA is the loneliest and most brutal of American cities
— Jack Kerouac

The City of Angels is the most populous city of California, the second largest in the States, and – how could we forget – the epicenter of Hollywood moviemaking. Unsurprisingly, this so-called Dream Factory, where dreams are made as fast as they’re broken, has stared itself in the mirror on more than one occasion; there are thousands of movies set in LA. So the question is: What stares back? Glamorous red carpets, sex tapes, sleaze, corrupt cops, bouncing low-riders, traffic on the San Bernardino freeway. Whatever it is, the city itself always sparkles on the silver screen. From Compton to Beverly Hills, here are some of its best moments.

Boyz n the Hood

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One of the original hood movies, John Singleton’s first film featured none other than NWA's Ice Cube, in his acting debut. Set and shot in South Central, it serves up a blistering snapshot of gang rivalry, vengeful drive-bys, and police brutality, all depicted in a pre-Rodney King LA. It’s a time capsule of the city in the early 90s, when it was the beating heart of West Coast hip-hop, with bouncing Cadillacs and “fuck the police” scrawled on street corners. As its poster proclaims, it ain’t no fairy tale.




If it bleeds it leads. That’s the questionable mantra of Lou Bloom, a freelance camera “reporter” who sells gory crime footage to local news station KWLA 6. Written and directed by Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler shines a light on the sordid underbelly of LA’s media industry – specifically, its thirst for blood. Jake Gyllenhaal is more than a little creepy as the bug-eyed Lou Bloom. As for the city itself, it twinkles at night, shot from the Hollywood Hills and the Griffith Observatory, where James Dean got in a knife fight in Rebel Without a Cause. Watching Nightcrawler will change the way you watch local LA news stories, for sure.

Mi Vida Loca

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Described in its trailer as “a provocative movie about girls, gangs and guns”, Allison Anders's hard-hitting hood movie was shot in Echo Park, back when Echo Park was a rough, impoverished Hispanic neighborhood (it’s now gentrified and populated by hipsters, as you probably guessed). The director worked with actual gang members and lays bare the effects of gang violence and the toll it takes on women. It’s raw, original, and totally nostalgia-inducing, with its characters in baggy denim, hairnets, and knuckle tattoos in gothic fonts. Look out for Spike Jonze and Jason Lee in their feature debut as the two lanky white kids.


Short Cuts

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Robert Altman’s epic patchwork of LA tales, plucked from various Raymond Carver short stories, is the ultimate movie set in the City of Angels. With the help of musicians Tom Waits, Lyle Lovett, and a whole ensemble of early 90s movie stars, the maverick moviemaker stitches together stories including a drunken limo driver, a phone-sex operator, and a baker who prank calls his customers. Only in LA, you think to yourself. Soon the stories overlap, and you see how they come together in one colossal climax that prefigures Magnolia. You could even say: without Short Cuts there would be no Magnolia. Speaking of which…



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Paul Thomas Anderson’s three-hour-plus drama is another one that weaves together stories and characters that initially seem unrelated. Slowly, these LA characters start to cross paths and you see how they’re all pieces in PTA’s giant jigsaw that, to some, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say this is the first-ever movie to feature a scene with raining frogs. (Side note: PTA also made two other LA-set movies that you should 100% check out: Punch-Drunk Love and Boogie Nights.)


The Big Lebowski

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The Coen brothers’ gloriously goofy tale of slackers and stoners in 90s LA ushers you through the fringes of the city. No Downtown, no Beverly Hills. The Dude lives in an apartment complex in Venice, which is known – or was known – for its super-chill Bohemian beach vibe. The bowling alley where Walter demands Donnie “MARK IT ZERO!” was Hollywood Star Lanes, on the seedy side of Santa Monica Boulevard in East Hollywood. Then there’s Jackie Treehorn’s futuristic bachelor pad in Benedict Canyon, just west of Hollywood. The most LA image, I’d argue, features Walter, Donnie and The Dude, cruising down Santa Monica Boulevard, fresh from In-n-Out Burger, slapping the dashboard as Creedence plays on the tape deck.


The Decline of Western Civilization III

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The third part of Penelope Spheeris's landmark documentary The Decline Of Western Civilization chronicles LA's gutter punk scene of the 90s. In it, Black Flag’s Keith Morris recounts one of his favourite lyrics: "Beverly Hills, Century City, all the people look the same, don't they know they're so damn lame?" You get his point. The doc’s teens were labeled gutter punk because most of them were homeless and living in back alleys. They hang out on Hollywood Boulevard, begging for cash while guzzling beer from bottles in brown paper bags. It’s a portrait of one of LA’s last true subcultures.


Killer of Sheep

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Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep zooms in on LA’s impoverished Watts district during the late 70s. Kids toss rocks at passing freight trains. People argue on front porches. It’s like a grainy black and white photobook brought to life. Shirking conventional narrative arcs and character development, Burnett shows the hardscrabble lives of Watts residents from the perspective of Stan, a family man who works at a slaughterhouse. Written, produced, directed and shot by Burnett in 1978, it’s a heartfelt slice-of-life drama. Plus it features a soulful soundtrack, featuring Dinah Washington and Elmore James. Put simply, it’s a timeless classic.


Mulholland Drive

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Observe LA funneled through the strange mind of David Lynch, one of the city’s most visionary residents. In the film, Lynch puts would-be Hollywood starlets, movie producers and, um, cowboys, through his bizarre blender. The result? A fragmented story of Hollywood’s dark underbelly, replete with many WTF moments, including a hobo behind a diner who may or may not be a troll. Welcome to Lynch’s LA. It’s dark, mysterious, and quintessentially Lynchian, like your nightmares reimagined as a silky film noir. (For more LA weirdness, see Lynch’s Lost Highway and Inland Empire.



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The LA that Cher and Dionne waltz around, clutching those giant cellphones, doesn’t exactly match with reality. Meaning, Cher’s house isn’t actually in Beverly Hills, it’s in Encino. Their high school in Beverly Hills isn’t actually in Beverly Hills, it’s in Valley Glen. And the scene in the sketchy Valley neighborhood? That was in Granada Hills. In fact, one of the only movie-matches-life locations was the shopping scene in Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills. All of which is to say, you can forget about trying to recreate this movie IRL with your friends. As if!


For more US Cities on Screen, check our our guides to Chicago and New York


Words: Oliver Lunn