One of the things I’ve noticed ever since moving to Los Angeles is that I recognize a lot buildings, streets, bars, etc. in the movies I watch. I remember watching A Very Brady Sequel whilst in college (not sure why this is the movie that is currently coming to mind, but…), and laughed through their dance number that took place on some sort of outdoor shopping district with fountains. I saw this again after moving to LA, and by that time I recognized it as Santa Monica’s 3rd Street Promenade.
Not sure why this made a difference, except that by the second time I watched it, my knowledge of the geography of Los Angeles had added some “a ha!” moments to many of the movies I grew up on. The Naked Gun? Those giant boob-looking reactors are on the 405, heading south to San Diego. Del’s Saloon, where Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd get a drink in Knocked Up? Right across the street from my apartment.
This got me to thinking- what movies use the cities in which they are set the best? Which cities actually make a difference to the movie in which they are set? I thought I would take a trip (in my mind’s eye) through this beautiful country of ours, stopping at some prominent cities and deciding what I think are the best movies that were set in those cities.
A few criteria first:
- The movies have to actually have been shot in the city. It doesn’t count if Toronto doubles for, say, Seattle.
- The cities have to be called by their actual name. This disqualifies The Dark Knight (Gotham, not Chicago) and Superman (Metropolis, not New York).
- The city has to be more than a pretty back-drop- it either needs to figure into the plot or show that the maker’s had a reason for picking it as the setting.
- The movie has to take place in that city for most of the movie. This is why Swingers will not count as a Las Vegas movie.
OK… here we go. Oh, and I’m sure I am neglecting some really good ones. If you want, remind me what I forgot.
Beginning on the West Coast and moving East over the next week…
Lots to choose from here, and besides Chicago, the city I have the most knowledge of. LA is so fucking big; it’s hard to capture it in one movie. P.T. Anderson chronicled the San Fernando Valley and its citizens better than anyone in Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch Drunk Love. I also liked Clueless, which shows LA in a light that I think a lot of people who don’t live here imagine it to be. You could also look at South Central- Boyz in the Hood, Menace II Society, or even Friday. Quentin Tarantino set Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown in LA, showing that a coffee shop in Carson could be as iconic a locale as the Hollywood Hills. I really liked how The Long Goodbye and L.A. Confidential used the city as well. The Long Goodbye shows stoner driftiness in Malibu better than any movie until The Big Lebowski came along. And what needs to be said about L.A. Confidential? Not only did it use great locales like The Frolic Room, The Formosa, and the oil drills up on La Cienega, but it showed them in a bygone time, adding to the sepia-tinged nostalgia of the Los Angeles we all want to remember.
But it eventually came down to a race between The Big Lebowski and Chinatown. Lebowski does a fantastic job of linking the main character to Los Angeles itself- driftless, meandering, somewhat laid-back. The movie traveled through a lot of LA terrain- seedy bowling alleys in Hollywood, the valley (to visit little Larry Sellers and get an In n’ Out burger), Simi Valley for the money drop, Malibu (where the sheriff is a real reactionary), and Bel Aire. And if Chinatown didn’t exist, Lebowski would hold the title. But since Chinatown uses locations as well as any movie mentioned here (I especially liked the Archer School for Girls cameo) AND the plot is actually about the creation of Los Angeles as we know it, it wins.
Best LA Movie: Chinatown
My initial thought here was to go with Dirty Harry. Set during the early 70’s, Harry Callahan was response to the hippie movement in SF during the late 60’s, and was therefore a direct response to the city itself. Plus, a lot of great early 70’s San Francisco was on hand for all to see. But I think that Zodiac is even better, using the city as a pressure-cooker of fear during the serial killer’s terror spree. Also, it spans the early 70’s through the late 80’s. I love that shot of the Transamerica Pyramid being erected to demonstrate the passing of time. There are some other choices- Bullitt, with the car chase made up primarily of screeching tires and bump-launching, Star Trek IV (believe it or not), or even any of the other “Dirty Harry” series.
But my winner here is Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The city looks dream-like in all its turquoises and browns, which adds to the mind-fuck that Scotty is going through in the movie. There is an air of unreality that threads throughout the whole movie, giving you a San Francisco that doesn’t quite exist, but you really want it to (assuming you don’t develop an obsession with a “dead” woman).
Best San Francisco Movie: Vertigo
Uh… Stakeout? Singles? I don’t know, nothing really stood out for me in terms of a great Seattle movie. The same is true of San Diego, although if I had to pick, I’d go with Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy mainly based on his line about San Diego being German for “whale’s vagina.”
You could go with Bugsy here, for showing how Vegas was created in the first place. Or one of the Rat Pack movies (which I haven’t seen, so I won’t even try to formulate an opinion). I thought Honeymoon in Vegas would be good, but almost half of that takes place in Hawaii, so that was out.
I think the best Vegas movie is Scorsese’s Casino. Again, you get to look at a familiar city at a time long gone, and you get to do this through the eyes of the gangsters that were the heir apparent to Bugsy Siegel. Also, when you think of Vegas, the casinos are the first thing that come to mind, and Casino shows you in detail how the mob was able to make money from these joints. So… a great mob story, but also the story of how the sleaziness of Vegas was Disneyfied, and why that was not such a good thing for anyone.
Best Las Vegas Movie: Casino
Coming Soon: The Fly-Over States!