2/18/11

The Top 12 Iconic California Movies

We're headed to California for another visit soon. Being the geek that I am, I have the compulsive need to "prepare" by watching as many movies as I can that feel like iconic "California" movies. In the movie-mashup that is my brain, nothing says California more than the silent movie era and an old undeveloped orange grove known as Los Angeles. (In one of Mary Pickford's biographies there's an excerpt from one of her journals that talks about coming into L.A. on a train for a movie shoot. She says the air smelled strongly of citrus at all times. Can you imagine? They used to say that Hawaii smelled like flowers too.)

In fact, my husband and I love the aesthetics of early Hollywood California so much that we actually wrote an entire "Enchanted Tiki Room" film script based on the Disneyland animatronic show set in that era...granted it's set in Hawaii, but we started the story in San Diego and worked the feel of the time all the way through the story. The point is, I'm obsessed with this aesthetic.

When I dream of L.A., I dream of what it represents, not what it actually is today. Maybe that's naive, but hey...my vacation, my list. So this list will probably frustrate some people...let's just say, I grew up with a whole lotta cheesy movies sitting on my bookshelf. I'm totally okay with that, but some people may pull their hair out looking at this list with its random mix of classics and flops. So feel free to tell me what I missed in the comments section. There's almost nothing I love more than talking movies with anyone and everyone.

But these are the movies that scream Los Angeles to me...
(Links to a preview or snipper from each movie can be found by clicking on each movie title.)



1. The Rocketeer is the Joe Johnston-directed unsung adventure classic. Made in an era before comic-book movies had  truly taken off in the film industry, The Rocketeer has a straight-forward tone. No winking at the camera, no self-awareness, just a sincere story with high stakes. The cinematography is gorgeous, Alan Arkin adds gravitas and Johnston nails the tone and look of the comics. (It's what makes him the perfect choice for the Captain America movie, which he directed.)

2. Chinatown is the film noir that chronicles the story of a city-wide fight for water rights in 1920's Los Angeles. Of course, it artfully embellishes on that story and elevates it. This is a true classic, known for its tension and careful cinematography that frames each shot with care, pushing every scene to add something to the story visually even when no dialogue is being spoken.

3. Who Framed Roger Rabbit captures the same film noir spirit of Chinatown, but it combines that spirit with the pop sugary look and feel of late eighties Spielberg and the cartoons that populate the movie. Even the DVD menus have you zipping around a studio backlot. This movie is a love-letter to the iconic presence of Old Hollywood in our collective consciousness, that inspiration we can't let go even though movie fans today are more knowledgeable and therefore more jaded about the business of making movies.

4. The Three Amigos may seem like a silly choice seeing as how the majority of the story takes place in Mexico. But once again, we have a humorous take on the silent film studios of days gone by. (We love this movie so much, we designed our small production companies' logo after the silent film dialogue screens. We've done more work since starting, we've just been too busy to post any of it.)

5. Chaplin tells the story of Charlie Chaplin, and though the film drifts from Los Angeles to Europe and beyond, it covers an important era in filmmaking history. As much as it is the story of Chaplin, it is also the story of the filmmaking industry in California. At one point, Chaplin sits on the iconic Hollywood sign while musing about his troubles. Robert Downey Jr. makes a star turn as Chaplin and if you've never seen this, its well worth a watch.

6. Xanadu is a legendary cheesecake musical that may just be the eighties incarnate. It features iconic California locations, like the Hollywood Bowl and beach boardwalks that the state is known for.

7. The Big Lebowski is the surreal Coen Brothers comedy that takes you through some of the seedier sides of Los Angeles. The very color scheme of the movie screams Los Angeles between the palm trees, beaches, stucco exteriors and hard wood floors that make up a California aesthetic. In fact, this film is also part film noir, with Lebowski playing the role of amateur detective on a mission to replace a defaced rug.

8. Bowfinger is an under appreciated comedy about desperate filmmaking. Some people didn't like Eddie Murphy's concentrated performance as a village-idiot type. It's one of those movies that people pretend not to like, but when it flickers across their TV screens on a lazy Saturday afternoon, they'll settle in for the entire thing and laugh at every joke. The film takes place in Los Angeles and chronicles the studio bungalows and Hollywood hob-nob spots of industry insiders, not to mention the desperate actors and actresses willing to do anything to get a role and the ego-maniacal superstars that also roam there.

9.The World's Greatest Lover is a little known Gene Wilder classic. It tells the story of a frustrated Mid-Western man who pulls up stakes and moves to Hollywood with his wife in an attempt to become the next great adventure star, just like Rudolph Valentino. It's part "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" and part mad-cap comedy. Then again, it's also one of the most unique, hard to describe movies in the world. Just see it...I'm telling you, you'll love it.

10. Pee Wee's Big Adventure is a road movie, but it culminates in one of the most iconic Hollywood backlot scenes ever filmed. When Pee Wee steals back his long-lost red bicycle, he leads a team of security guards on a backlot chase, interrupting music videos, monster movies, and more. Hollywood is nothing like what this movie shows, but it's a perfect representation of the dream-like Hollywood that we all dream of, a mix of old movies and iconic visuals. Plus, hey...it's Tim Burton's vision for Pee Wee Herman. You have to love it.

11. The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. I know, I know. This made-for-TV movie starring Steve Guttenberg shows up on a lot of my lists. I can't help myself...I'm obsessed with theme parks...

12. The Muppet Movie culminates in the ultimate Hollywood movie studio scene and the real dream behind the image of California. "Life's like a movie, write your own ending. Keep believing. Keep pretending."

I know there are plenty of iconic California movies that didn't make my list. There's L.A. Story, L.A. Confidential, The Muse and more. So what movie really says, "California" to you?



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