10 Best Movie Dramas about Los Angeles
Many classic movies have been made about life in the City of Angels
Los Angeles, California is certainly one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the United States, if not the world, so it certainly makes sense that numerous movies have been made about the city and its people. Moreover, the presence of Hollywood, the film capital of America, which lies smack in the middle of L.A., enhances the city’s convenience, importance and popularity as a movie location.
This list only includes dramas, because such movies are generally the most realistic depictions of people’s lives. Also, if your favorite L.A. drama is not on it, then I offer a thousand apologies.
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10. Mulholland Falls (1996)
Mulholland Falls is a neo film noir set in Los Angeles in the early 1950s. A squad of four detectives known as the “Hat Squad” - because they’re always nattily dressed in silk suits and fedoras and smoke cigarettes furiously - patrols L.A. in search of organized criminals from cities Back East who are bent on taking over poor L.A. But the Hat Squad’s aggressive tactics are not exactly legal, as they aren’t beneath flinging bad guys from a residential cliff nicknamed Mulholland Falls.
Nick Nolte plays Detective Maxwell Hoover, the leader of the Hat Squad, who investigates the death of a prostitute named Allison Pond (Jennifer Connelly), with whom he’d once had an affair. It soon becomes apparent that whoever killed the hooker wasn’t a bad guy from another city. No, this caper involves nothing less than the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, and the FBI and U.S. Army are also complicit in a bizarre cover-up involving soldiers dying from atomic bomb tests.
This stylish movie lost money at the box office, but most critics liked it.
9. The Day of the Locust (1975)
The Day of the Locust is a movie set in the late 1930s in Los Angeles. Based on a novel by Nathanael West, the story depicts Hollywood as a mean, cynical, gothic machine bent on making money and furthering the careers of egotistical movie moguls. William Atherton plays Tod Hackett, an aspiring art director employed at a major movie studio. Hackett starts out as a likeable character but soon becomes corrupted by a system with no apparent good guys.
The movie is filled with bizarre characters, particularly Donald Sutherland, who plays Homer Simpson (yes, that’s his name!), a sexually repressed accountant in love with Faye Greener (Karen Black), a tawdry, talentless woman aiming for stardom at any cost. At the climax of the film. Homer Simpson tramples to death an impish young girl who taunts him near Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. A crowd lining up for the premier of a movie at the theatre murders Simpson, and then rampages through the streets, as Hackett imagines the death and destruction in his own painting, The Burning of Los Angeles.
It’s hard to like this movie, but its production values and bleak vision are the stuff of books written about what has been called the liveliest art.
8. L.A. Confidential (1997)
L.A. Confidential is another neo noir film, this one starring Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe and Kim Basinger. Set in 1950s’ Los Angeles and based on a novel by James Ellroy, Kevin Spacey plays Sergeant Jack Vincennes, who's assigned to investigate a multiple murder at the Night Owl coffee shop. Vincennes also works as a technical advisor for a Dragnet-like TV crime series and also provides tips for celebrity arrests to the editor of Hush-Hush magazine, a local tabloid. When a young actor gets killed after Vincennes calls the editor of the magazine, his guilty conscience spurs him onward.
During the investigation, Vincennes and two other detectives slowly uncover a web of corruption surrounding the homicides, including a call-girl ring specializing in women who’ve had plastic surgery to make them resemble movie stars, such as Kim Basinger who plays a Veronica Lake lookalike. Vincennes also reveals that political machinations within Los Angeles are also responsible for the deaths.
In general, critics loved L.A. Confidential, and it won two Academy Awards.
7. Boyz ‘n the Hood (1991)
Reportedly Los Angeles has more gangs than any other city in the United States, so it seems fitting to have at least one movie on this list about the city’s gangsters or “gangstas.” Boyz ‘n the Hood is a movie that depicts life in South Central Los Angeles, a predominantly black section of L.A. The plot revolves around the life of Tre Styles, played by Desi Arnez Hines II, who, because he can’t stay out of trouble at school, his mother (Angela Bassett) sends him to live with his father, Furious Styles, played by Laurence Fishburne.
Furious Styles, who lives near Crenshaw High School, does what he can to teach Tre a sense of social responsibility, while continual tension between the predominant gangs in the area, the Bloods and the Crips, yank Tre and other young men one way or another. Moreover, the police in the area don’t show African-Americans much respect either. Eventually gunfire erupts between the Bloods and the Crips, drawing many characters into a vendetta-charged gang war.
The movie was nominated for two Academy Awards, but actually won many other prestigious awards.
6. The Big Sleep (1946)
The Big Sleep is a film noir based on a novel of the same name by Raymond Chandler, considered one of the masters of twentieth century crime fiction. The legendary Humphrey Bogart plays Chandler’s cynical, hard-boiled private detective Philip Marlowe, the character - along with Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade - Bogart made famous and the portrayals for which he became perhaps Hollywood’s greatest movie star. Lauren Bacall plays the female lead as the straight-laced rich girl Vivian Sternwood Rutledge.
The complicated plot unfolds when General Sternwood, a wealthy man living in his Los Angeles mansion, hires Marlowe to resolve the gambling debts of his daughter, Carmen Sternwood, who is being blackmailed. But his older daughter, Vivian Sternwood Rutledge, suspects her father hired Marlowe so he can locate his friend Sean Regan, who had disappeared a month earlier. In order to protect her younger sister, Vivian becomes embroiled in the action, at one point claiming she murdered Sean Regan.
Though the plot is convoluted and confusing, audiences loved seeing Bogart and Bacall together.
5. Boogie Nights (1997)
Boogie Nights is a movie about the so-called Golden Age of Adult Films from the late 1960s to the AIDS scare of the 1980s. Mark Wahlberg plays Eddie Adams, a dishwasher at a nightclub in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. Eddie Adams is a good-looking, charismatic young man, but perhaps his major attribute is having a very large male member. Movie director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) discovers Adams and gives him an audition.
Adams passes the audition and then gives himself the screen name of “Dirk Diggler,” and a movie star is born. Adams becomes rich and famous as a movie star but, along the way, becomes addicted to heavy drugs, making him impotent, and then he has a falling out with Horner. Hoping to give up adult movies, Adams tries to become a rock star but can’t afford the demo tapes. Eventually, Adams reconciles with Horner, who wants to make adult movies with style, class and at least a little plot.
In general, critics lauded Boogie Nights, and it won many awards.
4. Training Day (2001)
Training Day is police drama that follows for one day the actions of two L.A.P.D. narcotics detectives. Detective Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) must evaluate the job of rookie Jack Hoyt (Ethan Hawke), who hopes to further his career with the help of Harris, a highly decorated police officer. The bewilderment for Hoyt begins when Harris forces him to smoke marijuana they’d confiscated from drug dealers, so the dealers won’t think Hoyt is a cop.
Harris soon teaches Hoyt that the way to prevail as a cop on the mean streets of L.A. is to engage in vigilante justice, pay off snitches and steal money and drugs from dealers. Hoyt objects to his partner’s illegal tactics, but Harris just shrugs, considering Hoyt naïve. Eventually, in order to snatch $1 million in drug money from a dealer, Harris pays a thug to murder Hoyt, but Hoyt escapes. At about this point in the move Harris declares triumphantly, “King Kong ain’t got nothin’ on me!” At the climax, seeking revenge for a courier Harris had killed, Russian mobsters murder Harris at the airport.
For his performance in the movie, Denzel Washington won an Academy Award for Best Actor.
3. Heat (1995)
Heat is a crime drama with a stellar cast – Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Ashley Judd, Natalie Portman and Tom Sizemore. Based on a true story written by Chicago police officer Chuck Adamson, Heat depicts the conflict between L.A.P.D. robbery-homicide detective Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and his criminal nemesis, Neil McCauley, a professional thief played by Robert De Niro.
The plot revs up when McCauley’s gang robs an armored car of $1.6 million worth of bearer bonds belonging to money launderer Roger Van Zant. Against McCauley’s directions, the gang murders all three guards, enraging Van Zant. Later in the movie, McCauley’s gang robs a bank of $12 million, but the cops are waiting for them outside the bank because Van Zant had tipped them off. Then gunfire erupts with the McCauley gang firing assault rifles at the police. This gun battle is sensational, like nothing seen before in a Hollywood movie! At the denouement, Hanna has a shoot-out with McCauley, who dies in Hanna’s arms, making a touching scene.
Heat netted millions of dollars at the box office and is considered a critical success, making it one of the most successful American movies of all time.
2. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Sunset Boulevard is another film noir and perhaps the quintessential flick about movie making in Hollywood. Directed and co-written by the legendary Billy Wilder, the story is about a washed up silent film star named Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson, who vows to make a comeback in the movies. Opposite the aging star, William Holden plays Joe Gillis, a failed script writer who’s drawn into Desmond’s fantasy world.
The film’s voice-over narrative is spoken by Gillis after he’s been murdered and lies floating in a swimming pool. In flashback, Gillis’s car breaks down near Desmond’s mansion and then she hires him to work on her screenplay about the biblical character Salome. Soon Gillis becomes sexually involved with Desmond, though he loves a much younger woman played by Nancy Olson. Eventually Desmond shoots Gills and the police come for her at the mansion, where the film ends when Desmond, now completely immersed in her fantasy world, utters the unforgettable line: “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”
Sunset Boulevard received mixed reviews but is still considered one of the best American films ever made.
1. Chinatown (1974)
Of course, Los Angeles wouldn’t exist without water – lots of it, and Chinatown is about the quest to acquire it and control it back in the 1930s. Jack Nicholson plays J.J. “Jake” Gittes, a private investigator in L.A. The story opens when a woman identifying herself as Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray hires Jake to keep an eye on her husband, Hollis Mulwray, a water engineer in L.A. Jake tails Hollis and takes a photo of him with his girlfriend. Then the photo shows up on the front page of the newspaper. The following day the real Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) shows up at Jake’s office, at which point Jake realizes that the prior woman was an imposter and that he had been duped.
Then the cops fish the body of Hollis Mulwray from a reservoir. Suspecting murder, Jake investigates. He soon meets Noah Cross (John Huston), who is Hollis Mulwray’s former business partner. Cross hires Jake to find Hollis Mulwray’s missing girlfriend. Eventually Jakes learns that Cross’ wife Evelyn is the mother and sister of Cross’ daughter Katherine. He also discovers that Cross murdered Mulwray so he could steal the reservoir’s water and use it for residential development. At the climax, Evelyn, while trying to flee with Katharine, wings Cross in the arm and hops into her car, but the cops shoot Evelyn as she tries to drive from Chinatown, the movie’s only reference to its title.
Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, Chinatown only wins the one for Best Original Screenplay by Robert Towne. Nevertheless, Chinatown is often considered one of the greatest movies of all time, and is almost certainly the best drama ever made about life in Los Angeles.
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© 2013 Kelley Marks