Thanks to Hollywood and the film industry, Los Angeles is one of the best-documented cities in the world. Often the setting of films and TV shows itself, LA also has served as a stand in for countless other cities, both real and fictional. Fantasy also informs reality in LA; car chases, for example, are an entire genre of non-fiction entertainment, for better or worse.
Which is to say, that if you want to understand LA you need to understand how it’s depicted in film. Whereas older cities like Paris or even New York carved out distinct identities long before film arrived, LA grew up on the silver screen. It’s sense of self is inextricably tied to film, and the way it’s depicted in the movies.
Entire books have been written on this subject and no one blog post could even come close to being comprehensive. So instead, here are 10 movies that I think capture some of the essence of Los Angeles by depicting two of it’s most quintessential activities: driving and crime.
This aptly-named film starring Ryan Gosling is about a movie stunt driver and mechanic who moonlights as a getaway driver. The opening scene in particular shows how to escape a police chase. Drive is deliberately slow, very violent, and turns a uniquely stylized lens on Los Angeles.
Collateral is a fantastic film with huge stars (Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx) and good reviews, that somehow you don’t hear much about outside of cinephile circles. That’s a shame because its slick story about a taxi driver and a hitman is very much worth watching. The two drive all over LA, and the film features a memorable (and spontaneous) coyote cameo to boot.
A co-worker of mine recently described Nightcrawler as a love letter to LA that’s about sociopath. I’d agree with that. The movie’s main character — a guy who works his way up filming violence for the local news — is chilling and the cinematography is gorgeous, which produces an intellectually rich juxtaposition. The movie is also notable because it explores LA’s unique news-as-entertainment industry.
Quentin Tarantino’s first several movies were set in Los Angeles, and were also kind of about Los Angeles. I considered including Jackie Brown here instead, but ultimately Pulp Fiction feels like it’s more about moving through the city than Tarantino’s other early films. Though driving isn’t as central to the film as it is in, say, Collateral, the characters still roam far and wide, and cars in particular are a recurring motif. Tarantino is obviously famous and celebrated generally, but he also happens to be one of the best, most creative documenters of LA.
This 1978 car chase extravaganza documents an old, grittier LA that’s barely recognizable next to more modern movies. (Pay special attention to the scene on the rooftop; many of the buildings in that shot are now demolished.) Still, it has had a huge impact on subsequent movies, including both Pulp Fiction and apparently Drive. The plot follows a nameless getaway driver who is the subject of a police investigation and attempted sting.
— Jim Dalrymple II