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L.A.'s story is complicated, but they got it

The city has been a main character in many films of the last 25 years. Our film crew picks the best. It's a tough list to crash.

August 31, 2008|Geoff Boucher; Chris Lee; Mark Olsen; Rachel Abramowitz; Scott Timberg; Patrick Day; Kenneth Turan

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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, September 03, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction
Los Angeles movies: An article in Sunday's Calendar about the best films of the last 25 years set in the Los Angeles area said of "The Big Lebowski" that Lebowski's mansion was on the Westside. The movie locates it in Pasadena. Also, it said "Training Day" was released in 1991. It was released in 2001.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 07, 2008 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Los Angeles movies: An article last Sunday about the best films of the past 25 years set in the Los Angeles area said of "The Big Lebowski" that the millionaire Lebowski's mansion is on the Westside. The movie locates it in Pasadena. Also, "Training Day" was released in 2001, not 1991.

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)

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