L.A.’s story is complicated, but they got it
The 25 best L.A. films of the last 25 years
“Los ANGELES isn’t a real city,” people have said, “it just plays one on camera.” It was a clever line once upon a time, but all that has changed. Los Angeles is the most complicated community in America -- make no mistake, it is a community -- and over the last 25 years, it has been both celebrated and savaged on the big screen with amazing efficacy.
Damaged souls and flawless weather, canyon love and beach city menace, homeboys and credit card girls, freeways and fedoras, power lines and palm trees . . . again and again, moviegoers all over the world have sat in the dark and stared up at our Los Angeles, even if it was one populated by corrupt cops or a jabbering cartoon rabbit.
A few weeks ago, a group of Los Angeles Times writers and editors sat down to celebrate our celluloid city by selecting the 25 films from the last 25 years that best speak to the essential DNA of the Southland. We started with two simple ground rules: The movie had to communicate some inherent truth about the L.A. experience, and only one film per director was allowed on the list, a guideline that kept City of Angels specialists such as Michael Mann, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson from dominating.
There was passionate debate and not-so-polite outrage (“Do you really believe ‘Jackie Brown’ is better than ‘Pulp Fiction’?” “Look, I’ll say this slowly: ‘Fletch’ is not a good film”) and provocative results (the only film here that won the Oscar for best picture is at No. 25). There was also some pain; the beloved “Blade Runner” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” were released 26 years ago, just missing our cut-off date. After all the politicking, we ended up with a list of crowd-pleasing popcorn fare, art-house standouts, modern farce and flicks with a disturbing amount of gunplay. Welcome to Los Angeles.
-- Geoff Boucher
1 “L.A. Confidential” (1997)
She is as fitting a metaphor for the city as anything ever hatched by Hollywood: Kim Basinger’s high-class call girl Lynn Bracken in the neo-noir potboiler “L.A. Confidential.” Tragic yet glamorous, she’s a cipher for intense desire and empty idol worship (dolled-up to resemble ‘40s ingenue Veronica Lake), a classic femme fatale director Curtis Hanson calls “the emotional center of the film.”
“The character represents how I feel about Los Angeles and what I want people to feel about L.A.,” Hanson said. “She’s a natural beauty with a phony image, a disguise that’s all about selling it to the suckers. But when you go beyond the image, as when you go beyond L.A. as the city of manufactured illusion, the character is not only beautiful but totally self-aware. Underneath, she knows the truth about who she is. Everybody else is struggling to figure it out.”
The cinematic adaptation of James Ellroy’s 1990 novel -- which stars Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce and Kevin Spacey as late ‘40s Angeleno detectives out to solve a series of related murders -- masterfully interweaves police corruption, tabloid scandal-mongering, racial tension and racketeering, all set at the gates of Tinseltown’s dream factory. And it couldn’t take place (let alone have been shot) anywhere but here.
After “exhaustive” location scouting, filming took place in such beloved Hollywood watering holes as the Frolic Room and the Formosa Cafe, around Elysian Park where pockets of period-perfect architecture still stand, and Hancock Park, where exteriors for Basinger’s character’s house were shot near the Wilshire Country Club. As well, architect Richard Neutra’s iconic Lovell Health House in Los Feliz doubles as the home of Pierce Patchett (the film’s princely pimp played by David Strathairn), the only movie filmed there.
“The movie truly started with L.A.,” said Hanson, who grew up in Tarzana. “I wanted to capture the city of my childhood memories. And I wanted to take a hard look at the dark side -- the booming economy, the exploding population, the corruption and racism -- as well as certain problems that are still with us. I wanted to capture the spirit of this place. The optimism and energy was real. It still is.”
On the Q.T.: Production on “L.A. Confidential” prevented the destruction of the famed Formosa Cafe. “Warner Hollywood Studios owned the [sound] stages where we were shooting the ‘Badge of Honor’ scenes and they owned the property across the street -- the Formosa Cafe,” Hanson said. “The studio wanted to tear it down and build a parking lot. I’m one of the advisors on the L.A. Conservancy. So I told them about the plans, they got on the case and prevented Warners from doing it.”
-- Chris Lee
2 “Boogie Nights” (1997)
Even though it follows the rise, fall and survival of a boy from the Valley who discovers that his “one special thing” is the enormous bulge in his pants, “Boogie Nights” is not about porn. It is about the people who make porn. Or, more accurately, it is simply about people, in all their sad, mad, wildly messed-up glory, grappling for whatever human connection they can forge in a world changing faster than they can keep up with. Although writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow-up film, “Magnolia,” is more sprawling and ambitious and arguably emotionally richer, it is the exuberance of “Boogie Nights,” its celebration of energy and promise, that makes it our pick from this definitively L.A. filmmaker. As triumphant as it can be upsetting, as death-knell dour as it can be playfully rowdy, “Boogie Nights” makes the city vibrate with possibility and seem -- to borrow from the E.L.O. song used so knowingly over the end credits -- to be a livin’ thing.
Senior class: Keep an eye out for Iron Man’s dad, director Robert Downey Sr., in a small role as a recording studio owner. The character played by Don Cheadle is named “Buck Swope” in a nod to Downey’s film “Putney Swope.”
-- Mark Olsen
3 “Jackie Brown” (1997)
Go ahead, start drafting your angry e-mail. This is the spot where you expected to see Quentin Tarantino’s adrenaline-to-the heart masterpiece “Pulp Fiction,” or maybe his bloodied caper film “Reservoir Dogs.” No, after plenty of debate (and by split vote), we’re going in a different direction: We pick “Jackie Brown,” the less frenetic and more textured mapping of a Los Angeles we actually recognize. Tarantino himself has said he felt this might be his best and most nuanced representation of the place where he grew up. After “Pulp Fiction,” the dropout from Narbonne High School in Harbor City wanted his follow-up film to tone down the overt pop-culture references and linger on the details of place.
The story follows Jackie (Pam Grier) and bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster, who was nominated for an Oscar) as they find trouble and each other amid a nasty game involving cops (Michael Keaton and Michael Bowen), an arms dealer (Samuel L. Jackson) and his dazed cronies (Bridget Fonda, Robert De Niro). The movie is based on a twisting Elmore Leonard novel, but what you see on the screen belongs to Tarantino. He switched the main character from white to African American and relocated the action from Miami to L.A., and after all the snap and crackle of “Pulp Fiction,” he reins himself in to show slow-simmer moments between people who seem real and live in a real place.
Sweet digs: Tarantino scouted Hawthorne to find just the right apartment for his title character, a stewardess making $16,000 a year.
-- Geoff Boucher
4 “Boyz N the Hood” (1991)
Arriving with a shotgun blast in the same year as the Rodney King beating, “Boyz N the Hood” captures a uniquely Angeleno experience that no mainstream movie before it dared touch -- the first all-African American feature about South-Central L.A.’s urban strife to be bankrolled by a major studio. A cinematic counterpart to gangsta rapper Eazy-E’s slice-of-ghetto-life anthem “Boyz-N-the-Hood” (penned by rap icon Ice Cube, who, sporting an extravagant Jheri curl, also plays one of the movie’s dramatic leads), “Boyz” helped cast the city’s national identity in the buildup to the 1992 L.A. riots. That is to say, the coming-of-age drama distilled certain cultural touchstones to their representational essence: the incessant overhead hum of police helicopters, the weekend ritual of cruising Crenshaw Boulevard (and resulting gang tensions) and L.A.’s hard summer sunlight bearing down on South-Central’s sleepy, manicured bedroom community -- not to mention vividly rendering the terror and post facto misery of a drive-by shooting.
Phone check, homie: According to John Singleton, executives for Columbia Pictures, the studio distributing the film, stopped dropping by the set in South-Central after he told them horror stories about drive-by shootings and murders in the neighborhood.
-- Chris Lee
5 “Beverly Hills Cop” (1984)
Who can forget Eddie Murphy tooling down Beverly Drive in his “crappy blue Chevy Nova,” flirting with a girl in a tan convertible? Or discussing art with a marbled-mouth gallerist (Bronson Pinchot)? Just listening to the soundtrack with the synth-tinged instrumental “Axel F” and “The Heat Is On” can bring back visions of Reagan and suits with giant shoulder pads. This Oscar-nominated film (yes, really) presents L.A. as glossy studio fantasy with a fish-out-of-water twist, where a street-wise hustling cop from the mean streets of Detroit can outsmart, outtalk and outmuscle the lily-livered cops of the Beverly Hills Police Department. And yes, Murphy’s Foley can talk himself into a suite at the Beverly Hills Palm (actually, downtown’s Biltmore Hotel) by claiming to be a reporter from Rolling Stone there to interview Michael Jackson. When rebuffed by officious staff, Murphy retorts, “I was gonna call the article ‘Michael Jackson Is Sitting on Top of the World,’ but now I think I might as well just call it ‘Michael Jackson Can Sit on Top of the World Just as Long as He Doesn’t Sit in the Beverly Palm Hotel ‘Cause There’s No . . . Allowed in There!’ ” (OK, so Murphy’s R-rated diatribe is a little too spicy for this family-friendly paper. To hear his full speech, you’ll have to rent the DVD.)
Foley artists: Murphy’s career-making role was first offered to Mickey Rourke and Sylvester Stallone.
-- Rachel Abramowitz
6 “The Player” (1992)
The eight-minute opening tracking shot pays homage to Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil,” though now instead of focusing on a car carrying a bomb across the Mexican border, director Robert Altman highlights the banality of evil on an unnamed studio lot, as writers pitch witless ideas (including “The Graduate II”) to bored studio executives. Altman had plumbed Los Angeles’ amoral soul before, in 1973’s “The Long Goodbye,” and re-set an amazing collection of Raymond Carver stories there for 1993’s “Short Cuts,” but “The Player” gets the chilly Hollywood details right in this story of baby-faced empty husk of a studio executive Griffin Mills (Tim Robbins) who impulsively kills a writer and gets away with it. A platoon of celebrities, including Julia Roberts, Cher and Burt Reynolds, provide eye candy and often droll improvisation. Shows influenced by this film are plenty (think “Entourage”). Unfortunately, what’s often left in the imitators is the opulence and ambition, not Altman’s underlying theme -- that every day in Hollywood, art is casually murdered by commerce and careerism.
Water works: Altman riffs on L.A.’s predilection for the then-newfangled phenomenon of bottled water by having Mills order a different brand of designer H20 every time he enters a restaurant.
7 “Clueless” (1995)
Filmmaker Amy Heckerling (“Fast Times at Ridgemont High”) spent several years studying the genus -- rich L.A. teen -- to get all the slang and clothes right (or at least memorable) in this retelling of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” set in Beverly Hills, which she wrote and directed. Named, like her best friend, Dionne, after “great singers of the past who now do infomercials,” Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) lives alone with her dad, a ferocious “$500 an hour” litigator, after her mother has died during a routine liposuction and devotes herself to misguided matchmaking attempts. The film was one of the first to show kids using cellphones (still a rarity for most of America in 1995), introduced terms like “Betty” (pretty girl) and “Baldwin” (hunk) into the wider pop culture lexicon and advocated a return to over-the-top designer fashion (including dozens of plaid outfits) right as grunge was hitting its apotheosis.
As if: Heckerling came up with the idea for “Clueless” while playing Barbies with her daughter.
8 “Repo Man” (1984)
Los Angeles has symbolized the end of civilization in a long list of films but rarely as memorably as in this sci-fi-inflected portrait of punk-era dead-enders. Using dirty, dingy locations in East L.A. and downtown, and under freeway overpasses, the film tells the story of Otto (Emilio Estevez), a self-proclaimed “white suburban punk” who repossesses cars after his career shelving generic foodstuffs -- labeled FOOD, BEER and DRINK -- doesn’t pan out. Not only does this premise offer us a deadpan-comic tour of the seamy underside of L.A.’s car culture, it allows director-writer Alex Cox to fold in a story about alien invaders, the CIA and the invention of the neutron bomb (all with a nifty nod to the ‘50s noir classic “Kiss Me Deadly.”) This is the City of Angels in the wealthy ‘80s, but it’s far from glitzy: L.A. is filled with guns and almost no vegetation, a huge swath of the population seems to be unemployed, racial tension is high, buildings and lots are abandoned, and every convenience store we visit is in the process of being knocked over. Instead of responsible adults we have homeless savants, televangelists and blissed-out ex-hippies. Years later, the film -- a kind of hinge between “Taxi Driver” and “Pulp Fiction” -- shows an L.A. that doesn’t seem that far from where we’re heading.
Bookend: Cox, who grew up near Liverpool and now lives in Oregon, worked briefly as an L.A. repo man. He’s got a memoir coming in September called “X Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker.”
-- Scott Timberg
9 “Collateral” (2004)
Michael Mann’s cameras, and the director’s famously sleek shooting style, could probably make any city look good. Here he transforms Los Angeles into a beautiful and otherworldly place, shot mostly at night in a color treatment very close to black and white, which includes both the sophisticated and the rustic -- the shimmering skin of Disney Hall as well as a sphinx-like coyote crossing the street. It’s not the first movie to make L.A. look wildly urban, but here we’re shown places we don’t always see -- a Leimert Park jazz bar, a Koreatown club and, before a lot of people knew they even existed, subway cars. The early scenes in the movie take place in downtown, before it became fashionable for filmmakers. You might not want to live here -- L.A. seems to be where criminals go to die, and the violence is fast, dispassionate and casual. But the movie’s city, overall, is more distinctive than the seedy world of Mann’s heist thriller “Heat,” and nothing like the “sprawled out, disjointed” place Tom Cruise’s whacked-out killer describes to Jamie Foxx’s bewildered cabby.
City swap: For all the force and glamour of its treatment of L.A., “Collateral” was originally to have taken place in New York.
10 “The Big
According to Coen brothers lore, the writer-directors’ rationale for setting their surrealistic comedy “The Big Lebowski” in Los Angeles was disappointingly simple: real-life friends who inspired its most vivid characters -- the White Russian-swigging slacker protagonist “the Dude” (Jeff Bridges) and his Vietnam veteran bowling buddy Walter (John Goodman) -- lived in the city at the time; it was reason enough for the understated filmmakers to shoot what has been called “the first cult film of the Internet age” here. Its basic premise centers around mistaken identity and a kidnapping gone cartoonishly awry. But by encompassing a wide swath of L.A.’s crazy quilt of social milieus -- porn stars and German nihilists, a trash-talking Latino pederast and the titular “millionaire” in his coddled Westside mansion -- “Lebowski’s” narrative structure pays implicit homage to the detective fiction of local lit hero Raymond Chandler.
Changing lanes: Although Hollywood Star Lanes, site of several of “Lebowski’s” most delirious comic scenes, was torn down and replaced by an elementary school in 2002, some of its neon signs and retro decor wound up at Lucky Strikes, the bowling alley at the Hollywood & Highland Center, home of the Oscars.
11 “Mulholland Drive” (2001)
Named for the street that runs the ridgeline of the Santa Monica Mountains and Hollywood Hills, “Mulholland Drive” could just as easily be called “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” Less a story than a puzzle box, “Mulholland Drive” may best be viewed as an allegory of what it’s like to move to Los Angeles, an abstracted look at the dreamers who come here and the rough-and-tumble life they find instead. It feels limiting to reduce writer-director David Lynch’s masterful enigma to being simply “about” something -- the film is too enveloping, too absorbing, too plain weird for anything so mundane as meaning -- but it seems to revolve around diners, driving, desire, the mysteries of casting, desperation, an eye for design, death, personality transference and a Spanish-language rendition of “Crying” by Roy Orbison. “Mulholland Drive” was also the breakthrough performance for Naomi Watts, who brought real pathos and emotional uncertainty to her role, portraying the heartbreaking truths many star-struck transplants never quite grasp. There is the dream. There is reality. There may be a difference.
Music man: One of the mysterious Italian financiers in the film is played by David Lynch’s longtime composer Angelo Badalamenti.
12 “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988)
This wacky homage to L.A. hard-boiled detective fiction, set in 1947 Los Angeles, blended live action and animation to tell the story of a washed-up Det. Valiant, trying to exonerate cartoon film star Roger Rabbit for a murder he did not commit, and in the process save Toontown, the neighborhood where the animated stars live. Watch for the cameos of Toon legendary greats, from every studio and every period. Daffy Duck and Donald Duck face-off in dueling pianos. Dumbo roams the movie studio and Betty Boop has been relegated to a bit player with the advent of sound and the ascension of va-va vroom Jessica Rabbit. The voluptuous redhead femme fatale utters one of the most memorable lines in cinema history: “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.” Directed by Robert Zemeckis, this 1988 film, is often said to have sparked the return of feature-film animation.
Animal equality: This is the only film in which Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse ever meet, and their respective studios, Warner Bros. and Disney, signed a contract mandating that their mascots get the same number of lines and air time.
13 “Training Day” (1991)
Written by David Ayer, who grew up near the rough streets depicted in the film, and directed by Antoine Fuqua, “Training Day” presents a worst-case-scenario vision of law enforcement in Los Angeles, a nightmare phantasmagoria of a police procedural sprawled out on the hood of a car. Taking at least some inspiration from the LAPD Rampart scandals, the film presents a rookie learning first-hand how bad cops do their thing, as he and his new superior crisscross the city, from the often-filmed Quality Cafe near downtown to the little-seen Imperial Courts and Pinewood developments in South-Central, shaking down drug dealers, turning criminals loose and generally flouting procedure at every turn. Yet for much of the picture it seems they may actually be protecting the public (well, sort of). Although Denzel Washington won an Oscar for his turn as an out-of-control rogue cop, it is a never-better Ethan Hawke (don’t laugh) who really holds the movie together. Acting as the eyes and conscience for the audience, Hawke’s new-guy cop is watching and learning that this is how you get things done, and then he stands up to say this is not the way things have to be.
Rank and file: Washington’s character, Alonzo Harris, was No. 50 on the American Film Institute’s 2003 list of Hollywood’s best villains.
14 “Swingers” (1996)
For the 6.2% of actors in the Screen Actors Guild who earn more than $50,000 a year, there’s “Entourage.” For the other 93.8%, there’s “Swingers,” Doug Liman’s hip, indie comedy about the lives and loves of struggling actors written by a struggling actor, Jon Favreau (now the director of “Iron Man”) for his struggling actor buddies: Vince Vaughn and Ron Livingston. This group lives in an Eastside world of late-night eats at the Hollywood Hills Coffee Shop (now the 101 Cafe), pitch-and-putt golf in Atwater Village, Marty and Elaine at the Dresden in Los Feliz and Pink Dot delivery at home. The film’s details are precise -- note the New Beverly Cinema calendar tacked to the fridge in Favreau’s character’s apartment. They don’t lead outwardly glamorous lives, but certainly talk a big game: This is the movie that started the once-inescapable phrases “Vegas, baby!” and “You’re so money.” Though swing music and chain wallets may have gone out of vogue, “Swingers” captured the L.A. singles experience -- those without a girlfriend and an agent -- in style.
The plating game: The film is filled with several references to George Lucas’ films, including a license plate that reads THX 1138 -- a reference to Lucas’ “THX 1138” as well as “American Graffiti,” which featured a similar plate.
-- Patrick Day
15 “Devil in a Blue Dress” (1995)
It says something about the nature of things that the time and place of this superb crime drama -- the circa 1948 streets surrounding Los Angeles’ vibrant Central Avenue -- are as remote as Burkina Faso for mainstream movie audiences. A gripping piece of work by director Carl Franklin, “Devil” brings to life an era in L.A. when it was risky for black men to venture north of Wilshire Boulevard at night. Graced with a persuasive performance by Denzel Washington and some career-making work by Don Cheadle, this adaptation of the first of Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins novels gives off the kind of excitement that never grows old.
Clip job: A love scene between Washington’s Rawlins and the missing white woman he was hired to find (played by Jennifer Beals) was left on the cutting-room floor.
-- Kenneth Turan
16 “Friday” (1995)
Although rapper-actor Ice Cube and South-Central L.A. factor inextricably into both movies, don’t mistake “Friday” for “Boyz N the Hood Redux.” Shot in 20 days on a block of 126th Street between Normandie and Halldale avenues, “Friday” plays like Cheech & Chong for the khakis-and-Chucks set. It follows 16 hours in the life of characters played by Cube and Chris Tucker as they sit on the porch smoking weed, suffering various indignities (mostly involving sex, bodily ablutions and nosy neighbors) and dodging bullets from drive-by shootings. It’s a narrow slice of SoCal life in which a panoply of ‘hood archetypes -- the lovable crackhead, the O.G., the hoochie mama -- pass before the protagonists in tableau vivant. Considered another way, the ‘hood is actually the star: Its ice cream truck-driving drug dealer, trash-talking cholos, snicker-inducing beat-downs and bursts of automatic gunfire wouldn’t make much sense set outside the Southland.
House party: The director, South-Central native F. Gary Gray, set the film’s action on the same street where he grew up; his friends’ houses were used for exterior shots and Gray’s childhood home backdrops a scene in which Deebo (Tiny “Zeus” Lister Jr.) punches Red (the film’s co-writer DJ Pooh) so hard he flies into the air.
17 “Speed” (1994)
A race against time? No, far worse, it’s a race against traffic. One out of every 31 Americans lives in Los Angeles County and, right now, somewhere in town, there’s a freeway that looks like a parking lot. This truly ingenious popcorn film by director Jan De Bont and screenwriter Graham Yost takes that traffic and makes it part of a mad bomber’s evil plot. Brave but boring cop Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves doing his best “Adam-12”) jumps onboard a bus that is wired to explode if it slows to less than 50 mph. Then-newcomer Sandra Bullock is wildly likable as Annie, the passenger-turned-hero on the bus, and Dennis Hopper is the ticktock nut-job named Payne. Looking for a modern commuting metaphor? In the end, it’s mass transit (the Red Line!) that saves the day by offing the bad guy and delivering Keanu and Bullock safely to their final destination: A curbside kiss.
Dodger blues: In early scripts, the bus is driven to Chavez Ravine to use Dodger Stadium’s parking lots to avoid traffic. In the final version, of course, Traven comes up with idea of going to LAX and using its miles of runway.
18 “Valley Girl” (1983)
The era of the Valley girl has passed. The Sherman Oaks Galleria, ground zero for all things “tubular” and “gnarly,” has been razed and rebuilt. But the heart of “Valley Girl” -- a time capsule of teenage dating rituals and Reagan-era L.A. night life -- still beats true on DVD. This romantic comedy of star-crossed lovers was a launching pad for Nicolas Cage, the Hollywood punk, and a career high for Deborah Foreman, the Valley princess. Many of the clubs and hangouts have changed, but this film, inspired in part by Frank and Moon Unit Zappa’s hit song of the same name, heralded the cultural arrival of an archetype that spread from Southern California and quickly conquered all of suburban America. The fashions may have changed, but we are still entrenched in Valley speak. Don’t believe me? OMG, you have got to be kidding. LOL!
Whatever!: Producers approached Frank Zappa about using his song as the basis for a movie. When he refused, they made the film anyway. A musical remake using ‘80s New Wave songs is in the works, meaning the Zappas’ single and a movie might finally meet up one day. The way it was meant to be.
19 “To Live and Die in L.A.” (1985)
Fourteen years after “The French Connection,” director William Friedkin came back with another street tale about a criminal mastermind being stalked by violent and morally compromised cops. Oh, and don’t forget the car chase. Former Secret Service agent Gerald Petievich co-wrote the screenplay with Friedkin, and there’s riveting detail to their characters, especially Rick Masters, the world-class counterfeiter portrayed by the artsy and reptilian Willem Dafoe, and the man on his trail, swaggering agent Richard Chance, played by William Petersen, who in later (and far chubbier) years would lead the lab on “CSI.”
Early on in the film, Chance loses his soon-to-retire partner (is there a more certain death sentence for a movie cop?) and abandons his already balky moral compass. Truly unexpected plot twists follow, as well as a staggering, wrong-way freeway chase, but the film’s most memorable attribute is its cold-asphalt heart, which would echoed in more famous L.A. crime films such as “Reservoir Dogs” and “Training Day.” What would have made the film even better? Well, let’s just say that everybody shouldn’t Wang Chung tonight.
Miami twice: Does Friedkin’s use of pop music, undercover-cop tension and glamour grit remind you of director Michael Mann’s work? Mann thought so; he sued the filmmakers claiming plagiarism of “Miami Vice,” but lost.
20 “L.A. Story” (1991)
Steve Martin’s love letter to his adopted hometown reveals the side of Los Angeles usually seen only by longtime residents and NPR supporters -- the cultural side. Yes, the standard L.A. stereotypes get skewered: shootouts on the freeway, the obsession with appearances and the gloriously ditsy Valley girl played by Sarah Jessica Parker. And Martin’s familiarity with the city doesn’t seem to extend much farther east than mid-Wilshire. But Martin’s gonzo roller-skate performance through the halls of the L.A. County Museum of Art encapsulates the bizarre coexistence between the city’s low-brow and high-brow halves. L.A.-haters will have their worst suspicions confirmed by the film’s view of restaurant culture and insane commutes. However, underneath the white, upper-middle class flakiness, there’s a steady hum of magic, possibility and surprise that can be appreciated only by those who love the city as much as Martin does.
Power lunch: Though he didn’t make the final cut, John Lithgow filmed a cameo as Martin’s super-agent Harry Zell, who arrives at his client lunch by jet-pack.
21 “To Sleep With Anger” (1990)
Now that his classic “Killer of Sheep” has been handsomely reissued, this is perhaps the Charles Burnett theatrical feature most deserving of rediscovery. It stars Danny Glover in a marvelous performance as the mysterious, insinuating Harry Mention, possibly a trickster straight out of African American folklore -- and possibly not. What is without doubt is Mention’s ability to sow chaos when he shows up at the Los Angeles home of an old friend played by Paul Butler. Aside from strong acting (the cast includes Mary Alice, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Carl Lumbly, Vonetta McGee and Richard Brooks), “To Sleep With Anger” offers a penetrating look at a Los Angeles community that almost never gets screen time, the African American middle class.
Money talks: Burnett has so much trouble raising funds for theatrical features that some of his best work, like “Nightjohn,” has been done for television.
22 “Less Than Zero” (1987)
With its neon-bathed shots of Melrose Avenue, decadent nightclub set-pieces and scenes plotted around the turquoise brilliance of swimming pools at night, “Less Than Zero” viscerally evokes the Big Empty -- the hedonism, superficiality and laissez-faire nihilism -- of ‘80s L.A. Adapted from Bret Easton Ellis’ 1985 bestseller, the film functions as a Reagan-era anti-drug screed aimed at the MTV generation. It stars a subset of the Brat Pack -- Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz and a kinetic, pre-rehab Robert Downey Jr. -- as a trio of young, rich burnouts drifting through the city’s nightscape in a haze of cocaine and anomie. In particular, “Zero’s” depiction of sex and death is just about as L.A. as you can get: McCarthy and Gertz get frisky in a ’55 Corvette while spinning a doughnut at the intersection of Rodeo Drive and little Santa Monica Boulevard. And after Downey’s character dies of an overdose amid Joshua Tree’s desert landscape, he’s buried at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
Pitt stop: An uncredited Brad Pitt appears briefly in the film’s fight scene -- a walk-on part for which he was paid the princely sum of $38.
23 “Fletch” (1985)
“I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not.” Well, these days he’s not really Chevy Chase either, but he was when he made this 1985 farce. The film adapts novelist Gregory MacDonald’s character Irwin “Fletch” Fletcher, an investigative reporter with a loopy, tape-delayed brand of humor and a penchant for awful disguises. With the relentless one-liners and odd get-ups, it’s almost as if Peter Sellers was a passenger on “Airplane” -- or maybe Jerry Lewis stumbling through “All the President’s Men.”
Fletch is on the trail of two stories: The hidden forces at work behind the drug trade on the sands of Santa Monica beach and the mystery of why a businessman named Alan Stanwyk would ask a homeless man to kill him. The bad guys include George Wendt as a scabby dope merchant, Joe Don Baker as the sinister LAPD chief and Tim Matheson in the Stanwyk role. Director Michael Ritchie (“The Candidate,” “Semi-Tough”) was adept at keeping Chase at the right level of snarky and subversive and, with that Lakers dream sequence Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (and yes, even Chick Hearn!), “Fletch” feels like a hometown spoof for the ages. Buy the DVD -- and a steak sandwich -- and put it on the Underhill account.
Role play: As Hollywood sized up the “Fletch” novels in the 1970s, producers came to author MacDonald with a number of very different casting choices for the title role, Burt Reynolds and Mick Jagger among them.
24 “Mi Vida Loca” (1993)
Rather than the overheated drama one might expect of a story revolving around gang kids and drug dealers in Echo Park, writer-director Allison Anders’ “Mi Vida Loca” is a surprisingly sweet romance, cannily pitched somewhere between rose-tinted melodrama and wide-eyed realism. The love story is not only between people, but also between people and their neighborhood, the tight-knit affections many Angelenos feel for the specifics of wherever their enclave may be within the larger fabric of the city.
The film is also a snapshot of a neighborhood pre-gentrification, before the coffee shops, boutiques and hip nightspots move in, forever changing the local feel and sense of place. Anders cast her film with a combination of actors and actual kids from the neighborhood, and so there is a tangy authenticity to its dreamy world of low-riders and dances, drive-bys and deals gone wrong. With its emphasis on female friendship and the bonds of a shared sense of place, “Mi Vida Loca” carves a small-town tale out of the urban diaspora.
Cool cameos: The white kids trying to buy dope are played by a young Jason Lee and Spike Jonze, as well as the director’s daughter, Tiffany Anders. Salma Hayek also appears briefly in one of her earliest English-language roles.
25 “Crash” (2004)
Opening with a monologue that declares Los Angeles unlike a “real city” because people spend too much time behind the “metal and glass” of their cars, “Crash” announces itself right from the start as a Big Statement about L.A., which it views as a roiling caldron of racial mistrust and enmity. Directed and co-written by Paul Haggis with all the subtlety of a freeway pile-up, the film may be, notoriously, the winner of Academy Awards for best picture and original screenplay, but you have never seen such a sea of blank faces as when “Crash” was mentioned in the meeting that generated this very list -- the love it/hate it conversation-starter cache the film had when it was in theaters has since collapsed. Nevertheless, the film has had an influence. So we are not being willfully perverse or purposefully contrarian by placing it here at the bottom -- the other pictures on the list genuinely generated more conversation, passion, excitement and insight in our room full of Angelenos.
Jacked up: The idea for the film was sparked from a real-life incident; Haggis had his Porsche carjacked outside a video store on Wilshire Boulevard in 1991. How L.A. is that?
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