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Inside Los Angeles

Inside Los Angeles (Sep 18th, 2019)

Hello LA readers!

Today we're doing something a little different and looking at some of the most iconic films in history where the city of Los Angeles plays a major role. If you go through the history of cinema, you'll find this is no small task. LA is where most movies are conceived of, greenlit and financed, so it's no surprise that there's a plethora of stories that use the sprawling metropolis as a backdrop.

From film noir to high-stakes action to movie musicals, there's a good chance that some of your favorite classics take place in the City of Angels. I struggled to keep this to only 10 films, so feel free to reply to this email and let me know why I'm an idiot for leaving "Die Hard"/"Blade Runner"/"The Big Sleep"/several Robert Altman movies off the list. You'll definitely have a point. -Jonathan

1. Mulholland Drive

For much of the last century, Los Angeles has been one of the only major American cities where the majority of its residents were born elsewhere. One of the quintessential LA experiences, for a huge percent of its population, is arriving here – and very few people show up in LA (and, more specifically, Hollywood), without a hefty quotient of hope and optimism. "Mulholland Drive" perfectly captures the dreamlike experience of arriving in LA for the first time, as well as the experience of having those dreams shattered.

Betty (Naomi Watts) arrives at LAX from Deep River, Ontario, hopeful to a cartoonish degree, ready to make her mark as an actress. Across town, in the Hollywood Hills, a mysterious woman (Laura Elena Harring) survives a car crash, only to lose her memory and take on the name of Rita (after seeing a poster for the 1946 film "Gilda"). The two women search for Rita's true identity, coming into contact with filmmaker Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), whose new movie is being wrested from his hands by powerful forces out of his control.

It's possible "Mulholland Drive" will be the most divisive film on this list. Its lack of a cohesive structure and intentionally over-the-top performances frustrates some viewers. But, it's hard to argue that it doesn't nail the phantasmagoria of living in Los Angeles. David Lynch has always been interested in how the idyllic vision of America fails to cover up its seedy reality. In "Mulholland Drive," he turned his lens onto Los Angeles, and struck gold.

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2. Sunset Boulevard

It's just a coincidence that this list begins with two films that take their titles from prominent LA streets. But, that also feels like it makes a lot of sense. Part of our city's very identity comes from these streets where we spend so many hours sitting and waiting for lights to change.

And Sunset Boulevard is quite a street. It's the street where struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis ducks into what he thinks is an abandoned mansion, trying to lose the repo men who want his car. But, the house has a very famous occupant: former silent film star Norma Desmond (played by former silent film star Gloria Swanson). Desmond falls for Gillis, and he strings her along, giving himself a big mansion to live in while he works on a new screenplay with Paramount reader Betty Schaefer.

It all goes haywire, but we already knew it would. This isn't a spoiler – the film opens with Joe Gillis floating dead in a swimming pool. It's the earliest example I can think of in film of the *Record Scratch* *Freeze Frame* meme.

Ultimately, "Sunset Boulevard" is about how we have a hard time letting go of the past, about how we delude ourselves into thinking our glory days will return. I'm just now realizing this list has a lot of sad endings. Welcome to LA, I guess.

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3. Chinatown

I almost left "Chinatown" off the list. Its director is, undoubtedly, not a great guy. My only justification for including "Chinatown" is that I simply cannot imagine a serious discussion of Los Angeles cinema without it.

Jack Nicholson plays J.J. "Jake" Gittes, a private detective in 1937 hired by a woman named Evelyn Mulwray to follow her husband Hollis, whom she suspects of having an affair. Only, the woman is not Evelyn Mulwray, and Hollis is not having an affair, though there is a young woman he visits frequently. I'll leave it at that.

The film also spends considerable time on the allocation of water in Los Angeles, an issue which has hardly abated in the ensuing decades. "Chinatown" is a movie about obfuscation, isolation, how very little is as it seems, and how both landscapes and faces can be a façade. In a nutshell, it's very LA.

(Note: The film's depiction of Chinese people is also, to put it mildly, quite dated. It uses the language barrier between Chinese-born immigrants and English speakers to try and make a point about the natural divide between people, how we only share the information we want to. But, to modern audiences, it will come with its fair share of cringe.)

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4. Boyz n the Hood

Think about the world into which "Boyz n the Hood" debuted in 1991 – pre-LA Riots, pre-O.J. Simpson murder trial, pre-Black Lives Matter movement – and imagine what a portrayal of life in South Central Los Angeles must have felt like to mainstream audiences. Most of the country had, quite simply, never seen anything like it.

The LA Times' Kenneth Turan, in his original review, writes about how the "peripheral sensations" of the movie, like the ever-present buzzing of police helicopters, linger as strongly as the plot.

Cuba Gooding Jr., Morris Chestnut, and Ice Cube star as a trio of friends struggling to make their way through the obstacle course that is life in South Central. What happens to them may seem cliché, but that's also kind of the point. Life for black Americans in poor urban neighborhoods has a feeling of inevitability, that their future comes with an assumption of violence and crime, and America is all too eager to turn away.

The director of "Boyz n the Hood," John Singleton, died earlier this year at the age of 51.

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5. The Big Lebowski

I'm a 36-year-old straight white man. There's no way "The Big Lebowski" wasn't going to be on this list.

Joel and Ethan Coen send The Dude on a magical mystery tour of LA, to Simi Valley, Pasadena, and North Hollywood near the In-N-Out Burger. They describe Jeff Bridges' character, via Sam Elliott narration, as being "the man" for his time and place – Los Angeles in the early 1990s. He's lazy, vulgar, and has little agency of his own. He's knocked around life by the whims and schemes of his friend Walter, elusive artist Maude, and a wealthy businessman that shares his same name. He's a bowling pin knocked around and put back in place again by mechanisms beyond his control.

The Dude, unlike many of us, takes setbacks in stride. He may be lazy, but he's resilient. In the City of Angels, that's a necessary quality to have.

(Note: Special shout-out to "Barton Fink," another Coen Bros classic about "making it" in LA, with yet another stand-out performance from John Goodman. We don't appreciate him enough, you guys.)

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6. L.A. Story

When I was a child, growing up in Orange County, I decided I wanted to be an actor. I spent much of my youth in the car, driving with my mother north on the 5 freeway, heading to Los Angeles for auditions. I was only a kid, and never in LA for more than a few hours at a time, but I got a keen sense of what the city was like (or, Hollywood, at least). It was about being in the car, rushing everywhere only to be told to wait at your destination, about grabbing a bite before getting back in the car to sit and rush and wait again.

"L.A. Story" may not be the most accurate portrayal of real life in this bustling, crowded, diverse city, but it certainly captures what being here feels like. Every joke about LA's traffic, vanity, pompous restaurants, and earthquakes has a home here.

Steve Martin plays weatherman Harris Telemacher. This is presented as the easiest job in the world. After all, it's weather in Los Angeles – what's going to change? But, as we come to learn, change is inevitable. Harris's marriage crumbles, as does his social life and his job. He requires the weather in LA to change in order to spark change in his own life. And how does he know this? A traffic sign on the freeway tells him.

(Note: Another Steve Martin film from 1991, "Father of the Bride," takes place in a Los Angeles suburb, and features a freak snowstorm to break us into the third act. An odd Steve-Martin-1991-LA-Weather-Plot-Device coincidence, don't you think?)

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7. Tangerine

You thought "Boyz n the Hood" was a view of LA life not often seen by mainstream audiences? Wait until you get a load of "Tangerine."

Kitana Kiki Rodriguez plays Sin-Dee Rella, a transgender sex worker who discovers her pimp and boyfriend has been fooling around with other women. It's a film full of confrontations and reconciliations that takes place out in the open on Hollywood streets. The sex workers spend a significant amount of the film at Donut Time on the corner of Santa Monica and Highland. (It closed down a few years ago – there's a Trejo's Tacos and Donuts there now.)

The film was shot entirely on the iPhone 5S using the FiLMIC Pro app to control focus and color. Sean Baker's remarkable achievement gives you the feeling that you're standing right next to Sin-Dee. It's uncomfortable, jarring, and 100% necessary.

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8. Clueless

What if Jane Austen's "Emma" took place in Beverly Hills in the 90s? It's a premise so simple and immediately compelling that it must have taken under 10 seconds to greenlight. But, it wouldn't have worked without Amy Heckerling's masterful execution, a script as smart as its source material, and a pitch perfect cast. (I mean, just look at this cast!)

Heckerling uses the city to push her protagonist, Cher, into the real world. She's a rich kid whose biggest problem in life may be choosing which designer outfit to wear to school. But, she confronts some pretty serious stuff in "Clueless" – street crime, when to become sexually active, social isolation, and what to do when you realize you're in love with your ex-stepbrother.

"Clueless" is so "90s" that I'm not at all surprised we'll probably see a modern reboot in the coming years.

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9. Paul Thomas Anderson's "Valley" movies: Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love

I'm going to cheat a little bit here. Paul Thomas Anderson was born in Studio City, Calif., and most of his early films take place in the San Fernando Valley. I couldn't choose just one, so I'm going with three.

"Magnolia" is an epic-vignette film following a dozen interrelated stories of people facing uncertainty and irrelevance in the Valley. (Another film that takes place in LA using the same structure, Robert Altman's "Short Cuts," could also easily have appeared on this list.)

"Boogie Nights" is a depiction of the adult film industry in the late 70s and early 80s that launched Anderson to stardom as a new, young, hotshot director. (He reached out to Quentin Tarantino shortly after the release of "Boogie Nights" to figure out what exactly that role entailed.)

"Punch-Drunk Love" is about the owner of a bathroom supply business (a career-best Adam Sandler) whose isolated existence in Chatsworth leads him to call a phone sex line that ultimately threatens his business and a new relationship. Sure, the film is notable for its brief jaunts to Hawaii and Provo, Utah. But, the most memorable moment may be the first scene, where a car crash on a deserted Canoga Avenue early in the morning deposits a harmonium at Barry Egan's feet.

Much of Anderson's Valley is barren and lonely. But, there are great moments of happiness and love in each of these films. And they almost never take the 101 or 405 south into the city proper. That's quite an achievement for an LA director.

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10. Once Upon a Time In Hollywood

The wild card here is also the newest film on this list. Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time In Hollywood" transports us back to 1969. The production crew's meticulous detail in recreating the city of 50 years ago helps Tarantino's latest feel immediately timeless and alive.

The city (or, our fantasy of a long gone Los Angeles) is as much a star here as Leonardo DiCaprio or Brad Pitt. It is, however, when all is said and done, a fantasy. Sharon Tate likely never watched herself in "The Wrecking Crew" at the Bruin Theatre in Westwood, Cliff Booth never fought Bruce Lee, and the events that transpired at 10500 Cielo Drive can't be changed.

Of course, fantasy (and the successful marketing of fantasy) is what made Los Angeles such a bustling metropolis in the first place. "Once Upon a Time In Hollywood" – like many of the films on this list – is a masterful depiction of a Los Angeles that never was, that could only exist on the big screen.

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Jonathan Harris is a Los Angeles-based writer. Previously, he wrote for The Huffington Post,, and the YouTube channel What’s Trending. He’s a frequent performer at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Hollywood. Follow him on Twitter @countrycaravan.

This newsletter is edited by Inside senior editor Bobby Cherry, a Pittsburgh-based journalist who's always on social media. Reach him at

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