As the home of Hollywood, Los Angeles serves as the setting for many movies about movies and moviemaking. From the first A Star is Born in 1937 to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, filmmakers have been fascinated by the inner workings of the entertainment capital of the world.
But what sometimes gets forgotten in conversations about movies about Los Angeles are the films that have nothing to do with Hollywood. The city has served as the setting for comedies, deeply affecting dramas, and so, so many classic noirs and neo-noirs. Los Angeles is a city that offers every kind of background a film could want or need, leading to a wealth of movies set within and often across those many backgrounds.
Here I want to look at 30 of the best movies about and taking place in Los Angeles that have nothing to do with Hollywood. These movies care about LA in a way that transcends it simply being a hub of moviemaking and instead explores the many other aspects that make it a magical and sometimes scary place.
Full disclosure, I grew up in Venice Beach and love my hometown.
Something in the Dirt (2022)
Not every movie about Los Angeles takes the audience on a tour of the city. Something in the Dirt, by writing/directing/acting duo Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, takes place mainly within the confines of an apartment. But it asks questions about the history of the city and its possible relationship to mystical mathematics and cults in a way that feels quintessentially Los Angeles.
Small-Scale Sci-Fi Mystery
There’s a quick outing to Griffith Park and some montages of characters finding strange symbols all around town. But mostly, the movie delivers a small-scale sci-fi mystery with a sense of grandiosity only LA can offer.
Under the Silver Lake (2018)
Under the Silver Lake is the best recent neo-noir to make use of the specificity of Los Angeles. The movie follows private detective Sam (Andrew Garfield) as he investigates the disappearance of a beautiful neighbor and unravels a conspiracy that takes him all over the northern part of the city.
Iconic LA Locations
From the Hollywood Forever Cemetery to Griffith Observatory and The Last Bookstore downtown, Under the Silver Lake is filled with iconic, and iconically LA, locations.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Unlike many movies on this list that feature major Los Angeles landmarks or widely recognizable shooting locations, Pulp Fiction just feels like LA. The wide swath of narratives the film offers gives a sense of the seemingly endlessness of the massive city.
What Life Looks Like in the City
It’s more a portrait of its setting than its characters, without ever spending too much time or attention on locations. Pulp Fiction is primarily shot in homes, streets, and, of course, restaurants, giving a sense of what life looks like in this city more than any travelog could.
Ambulance spends little of its two-hour-plus runtime on setup, instead opting to get the three leads in the titular ambulance and on a city-wide car chase as quickly as possible. Along with some of the best sequences of “Bayhem” director Michael Bay has delivered in his career, Ambulance also takes the audience on a tour of the city’s east side.
Heist Gone Wrong
From the initial heist gone wrong downtown to the helicopter chase down the LA River, the movie serves up distinctly LA locations for its nonstop action spectacle.
Troop Beverly Hills (1989)
Perhaps the most lighthearted movie on this list, Troop Beverly Hills follows socialite Phyllis Nefler (Shelley Long) as she leads a troop of “Wilderness Girls” on a journey of self-discovery.
Glitz and Glamor of Beverly Hills
The movie shows some of the glitz and glamor of Beverly Hills, especially in shopping montages, and hilariously highlights how close that glitz and glamor is to the “wilderness” in LA. In one scene, the girls are camping near the Hollywood sign only to decide to spend the night in Hotel Beverly Hills instead when it starts raining.
Heat has to place on any list of movies about Los Angeles. The epic crime drama pits veteran cop Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) against consummate professional bank robber Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) and his crew, but it is about much more than cops and robbers.
About Family and Love
The film is about family, love, and what gives our lives meaning. The sprawling narrative allows director Michael Mann to film all over the city, from homes in Malibu and East LA to the film’s climactic shootout in the streets of downtown.
The Long Goodbye (1973)
While the noirs of the 1940s usually show Los Angeles in stark, high-contrast black and white, The Long Goodbye’s vision of Los Angeles is much hazier and more fluid than hard-edged. The film sets its distinct tone from the movie’s first sequence, where Marlowe has to make a late-night cat food run for his picky cat. As Marlowe investigates the murder of a friend’s wife, that friend’s suicide, and a missing husband, The Long Goodbye takes the audience through some beautiful locations.
Feels Like LA in the 1970s
But the film is always more interested in atmosphere than specifics and more than any gorgeous scenes at the beach; The Long Goodbye is a movie that feels like LA in the 1970s.
Nightcrawler follows the ultra-ambitious Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he begins a career in freelance local news videography. Lou uses a police scanner, luck, and some less-than-legal methods to find and film car crashes and crime scenes.
Wealth, Entertainment, and Ambition
It’s a movie that examines the relationship between wealth, entertainment, and ambition in a city built on those things. But unlike most films that take place in LA and are interested in that interplay, Nightcrawler is about local news instead of Hollywood, making it a uniquely great movie about the city.
Real Women Have Curves (2002)
Real Women Have Curves centers on recent Beverly Hills High School graduate Ana Garcia (America Ferrera), who struggles with the demands of her family and her own ambitions. The film uses LA to highlight wealth gaps, contrasting Ana’s East LA home with the school she attended and the life of her love interest, who feels like life is too easy.
Beautiful and Sometimes Painful
Real Women Have Curves is a beautiful and sometimes painful coming-of-age film that also serves as a loving portrait of a neighborhood and community.
American History X (1998)
American History X has a complicated legacy. Some find the film’s treatment of a neo-nazi who learns the error of his ways in prison as overly simplistic, while others argue that the film is more relevant now than ever given the rise of white supremacist violence in the US.
Diversity of Los Angeles
Whether or not viewers agree with the film’s tactics, it’s fundamentally about the irredeemableness of racial hatred and uses the diversity of Los Angeles to tell that story. But beyond the film’s specificity in Los Angeles as a place full of WASPS, Jews, Mexicans, and black people, it’s also the movie that made the Venice Beach basketball courts famous.
The Limey (1999)
A movie about LA but starring (and named after) a Brit, The Limey follows Terrence Stamp’s English career criminal Wilson as he arrives in LA to investigate the death of his daughter.
90s Small-Scale Film
The movie tracks Wilson’s quest through the city with stops in Santa Monica and Hollywood and a chase down Mulholland highway. The Limey is a small-scale film made in the late 1990s that reaches back to the 1960s for its lead actors, Stamp and Peter Fonda, and the city highlighting how things change and how they stay the same for people and places.
The Bling Ring (2013)
Based on the true story of a group of wealthy teenagers who robbed celebrities’ homes in the Hollywood Hills, The Bling Ring is one of the most LA movies ever made.
A Classic Film About the City
The movie’s premise is already enough to make it a classic film about the city, but it’s the fact that many of the celebrities whose homes the group burgled allowed director Sofia Coppola to use their homes for the film. Some, including frequent Coppola collaborator Kirsten Dunst, even cameo in the movie.
The Nice Guys (2016)
While both of Shane Black’s non-franchise directorial outings thus far, The Nice Guys and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, are great LA movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang has too much Hollywood for this list. The Nice Guys, on the other hand, includes a plotline about movie making, but it’s something Hollywood doesn’t want any part of: pornography.
A Great LA Noir
The Nice Guys isn’t just a great LA noir; it’s also a movie lovingly indebted to other films about the city, from Chinatown to The Big Lebowski.
Boyz n the Hood (1991)
Boyz n the Hood is John Singleton’s first feature film, and he came out swinging. The film is a portrait of life for young men and women in South Central Los Angeles who have to navigate economic anxiety, police brutality, and gang activity. It’s not a fun movie to watch, but it’s a compelling one that offers an honest look at one of the city’s largest underserved communities.
Remains Incredibly Valuable
Boyz n the Hood was released in 1991 before the Rodney King riots of 1992, which exacerbated many issues the film addressed. While South Central has changed significantly since then, Boyz n the Hood remains incredibly valuable as a portrait of a time and a place.
Although originally from Chicago, Michael Mann is the only director with two films on this list of LA movies. Collateral arrived in theaters nine years after Heat and showed that Mann hadn’t missed a step. The movie follows a hitman named Vincent (Tom Cruise) and a cabbie named Max (Jamie Foxx) as they drive across the city, allowing Vincent to complete his missions.
Collateral uses its premise to take the viewer to various areas around downtown LA and Koreatown and is one of the few movies on this list that even includes a sequence on LA’s metro rail train.
Swingers is a movie about actors, but not one about Hollywood. It’s kind of specifically not about Hollywood, as we hang out with a group of aspiring actors who are overwhelmingly not making it in the industry. It’s a movie that introduced the world to its own language (“money baby!”) and gave us one of the most outstanding awkward phone calls of all time.
Paints A Picture
Swingers’ most memorable location is Las Vegas, where the lead characters take a brief trip. But the way we spend time with these men in the Los Angeles apartments, clubs, and restaurants where they live and spend time paints a picture of their lives that’s specifically LA.
Spa Night (2016)
Spa Night tells the story of David, an eighteen-year-old living in Koreatown who takes on a spa job so he can financially contribute to his family. David soon discovers that the spa is used as a cruising spot for many Korean-American men in the community and begins questioning his sexuality.
Spa Night is a coming-of-age tale that tells a very specifically rooted story about a young man’s life in Koreatown, and even more specifically within the spa.
Body Double (1984)
Body Double is where writer/director Brian De Palma most showed his love for and his ability to succeed Alfred Hitchcock as a master of suspense. The film cleverly combines Rear Window and Vertigo to create an erotic thriller that’s one of the best.
A Specifically Los Angeles Movie
But unlike the movies it draws from, Body Double is a specifically Los Angeles movie. From plot points like the lead character being a struggling actor, and voyeurism, to locations like the Beverly Center, the Farmer’s Market, and the iconic Chemosphere home, Body Double couldn’t take place anywhere but LA.
A modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma, Clueless moves the story from early 19th century England to late 20th century Los Angeles. But aside from the beautiful Beverly Hills and West Hollywood homes where lead character Cher (Alicia Silverstone) and her friends live, the movie is also marked by a particular Los Angeles slang.
From “as if” to “whatever,” Clueless popularized the language of teenage girls living in the city’s wealthy neighborhoods, making these idioms ubiquitous.
Inherent Vice (2014)
Inherent Vice tells the story of private eye “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) as he investigates a series of related mysteries around LA’s west side. Besides the fictional beach town of “Gordita Beach,” for which Manhattan Beach served as the shooting location, the locations are real places that have been in the city since 1970, when the film is set.
But it’s not just the locations that make Inherent Vice a perfect LA movie. It’s the fact that it’s essentially a parody of LA noir stories that plays 100% straight.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
Perhaps the toughest noir made in the classic noir period, Kiss Me Deadly was condemned by a group of senators as dangerous to young viewers upon its initial release. The film follows private investigator Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) as he is pulled into a mystery with high-reaching implications.
A Thrilling Noir
Hammer’s investigation takes him all over town, from the now entirely redeveloped neighborhood of Bunker Hill to Beverly Hills, and finally to a beach house in Malibu for one of the most memorable finales in film history. Kiss Me Deadly is a thrilling noir that doubles as a view into the past of the Bunker Hill neighborhood.
Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997)
Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion is one of the most delightfully silly movies ever made. From an extended dream sequence to a hilarious dance number that is somehow not part of a dream sequence, the comedy is a joy to watch.
The fact that the leads live in Venice Beach, right by the boardwalk, just makes it more wonderful for anyone like me who is from Venice. But it’s not just that location that marks it as an LA movie, as both fashion-obsessed leads initially go job searching in Beverly Hills without much luck before opening their own store there by the film’s end.
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Rebel Without a Cause gave the world James Dean’s most iconic role as the titular rebel Jim and made Griffith Observatory a place of cinematic legend. The film follows Dean’s Jim and two other young people who struggle with difficult family lives as they become a found family for each other.
One of the Best LA Movies
It’s a story that could take place anywhere, but the film’s central and climactic location at Griffith Park makes it one of the best Los Angeles movies.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive has become a classic since its release in 2011. But, more than that, it’s become perhaps the LA movie of the 21st century. While some other films on this list were released in this new century, none has had the same cultural impact as Drive as a movie about LA.
Drive begins in downtown LA at the Staples Center and goes on to include scenes in the San Fernando Valley and Echo Park.
A Los Angeles set Christmas movie shot entirely on iPhones, Tangerine tells the story of two transgender sex workers on Christmas Eve.
At the film’s start, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) gets out of a month-long stint in jail to learn that her pimp and boyfriend has been seeing another woman and vows to find him. Alexandra (Mya Taylor) wants to help her friend but is also averse to the drama that Sin-Dee often creates, and is more interested in publicizing her performance at an open mic night. It’s a small-scale movie that offers a view into these characters’ lives and their world in Hollywood.
Ingrid Goes West (2017)
Ingrid Goes West makes the most of LA’s reputation as a city full of vapid and self-interested fame seekers. The movie follows the titular Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) as she moves to LA to insert herself into the life of influence Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen).
A Black Comedy Drama
It’s a black comedy that sometimes plays like a horror movie but always cares about its characters, even when they are at their worst. Beyond the perfection of Los Angeles as a setting for a story about an influencer, the movie also largely takes place at a lovely home in Venice and includes several trips out to the nearby desert.
It’s surprising the first time you watch Chinatown to learn that the movie barely takes place there and doesn’t really have anything to do with that part of Los Angeles. Instead, Chinatown begins as a story about private investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) investigating infidelity that soon expands to a murder investigation and finally something that implicates the entire city.
Thrilling Movie About Politics
Chinatown is a lot of things, a neo-noir period piece, a family drama, and perhaps the most thrilling movie ever made about local politics.
Double Indemnity (1944)
Arguably the film noir, Double Indemnity is also one of the LA movies. The film, which follows an insurance salesman as he is seduced into a murder plot by a beautiful housewife, refers to our protagonist’s journeys across town, including comments about traffic.
An LA Movie Through and Through
But it’s not just the dialogue and monologues that mark the movie as distinctly Los Angeles. From the mansion in the Hollywood Hills where the story begins to a memorable scene where characters enjoy the music while sitting in the hills behind the Hollywood Bowl, Double Indemnity is an LA movie through and through.
Point Break (1991)
Point Break is so many things: it’s the movie about surfers who rob banks in president masks, it’s the movie that gave us a homoerotic love story between Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves, and it’s the basis for the first The Fast and The Furious film. The story that follows FBI rookie Johnny Utah (Reeves) as he infiltrates a gang of surfers who may also be bank robbers could only take place in LA.
Locations Are Clearly LA
Whether it’s the scenes at the beach or the raid on a Venice home, the locations are clearly LA, but it’s also the combination of bank robbing and surfing that makes it such a perfect encapsulation of the city’s cinematic legacy.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
In a long career full of iconic films, The Big Lebowski may still be the Coen brothers’ most culturally impactful movie over twenty years later. The story of stoner bowler Jeffrey Lebowski aka “The Dude” (Jeff Bridges) is so full of memorable lines and fantastic performances that it’s easy to see why it has such staying power.
The Big Lebowski is another film that’s quintessentially LA for its many specific locations, from the Dude’s Venice Bungalow to the Sunken City coast, and its story that could only take place in the city of angels.
The post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Kyle Logan is a film and television critic and general pop culture writer who has written for Alternative Press, Cultured Vultures, Film Stories, Looper, and more. Kyle is particularly interested in horror and animation, as well as genre films written and directed by queer people and women. Along with writing, Kyle organizes a Queer Film Challenge on Letterboxd.