UPDATED 9/4/08 12:21 p.m.
Attention, Los Angelenophiles, wherever you may be! The more you drive, the less intelligent you are! That little bit of wisdom, perhaps more salient than ever in this season of $60 fill-ups, comes from the number-eight movie on a new list that will be generating some discussion, at least in the city in which I write, for the foreseeable future. If you are not either a resident of the City of Angels or a subscriber to the local paper of record, you may not know, but this past weekend the Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar section featured The 25 Best L.A. Films of the Last 25 Years, one of those big lists designed to occupy a holiday weekend of morning newspaper reading (the kind you can do in the bathroom, or wrapped in a chair on your front porch with a mug of coffee—I prefer Diet Pepsi, but that’s just me) and impassioned letters to the editor filled with outrage about the titles that did not make the cut. The list, compiled by several Times entertainment editors, features short, smart bursts of copy devoted to the films themselves, and Geoff Boucher’s intro hints at the process by which the list came to be, a process which, if you’ve ever participated in a think-tank operation like this one, can be a lot of fun, and quite maddening too:
”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.”
Boucher’s entrée to the fun hints at one of the challenges a list like this inevitably faces, especially if you’re creating it in a forum that holds itself to some obligation to avoid complete esotericism in its approach to the subject. The 25-year cut-off date is purely arbitrary (just as the one was that I imposed on my question about comedies during the Memorial Day quiz), a way of focusing the discussion without any real necessity or rationale behind that. It certainly makes the task easier for those who have set it upon themselves, but it also, as Boucher notes, automatically disqualifies a set of films that, were there no restrictions based on date of release, would be certain shoo-ins for placement near the top.
These films would include titles that would pop right off the top of the heads of most movie buffs concerned with Los Angeles on film, titles like the aforementioned Blade Runner (1982) and Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), but also certainly Chinatown (1974), The Long Goodbye (1973), Killer of Sheep (1977) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955), and perhaps even a more recently exposed gem like Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles (1961). My own list of contenders that would be too outré to ever make a list by committee like this one would definitely include H.B. Halicki’s Gone in 60 Seconds (1974), action cinema purely unadorned by style, the demolition derby as primitive art, as well as a virtual time capsule tour of the Long Beach-South Bay area as it was nearly 35 years ago; Michael Schultz’s Car Wash (1976), an crassly funny American Graffiti-style paean to the spirit of a sliver of L.A.’s working class; and Steven Spielberg’s 1941 (1979). Frankly, lists like these have become prevalent enough in the post-Entertainment Weekly world of public film discourse (whatever that even means anymore) that I’m always secretly kind of glad that limits apply which prevent some of the perennial favorites from taking their place at the head of the pack—just that much more room for a group of editors to argue about and perhaps brazenly include a title or two that might not normally be spotlighted, especially when the argument is based on such recherché concepts as overall quality and merit.
And believe me, I am no Olympian snob when it comes to playing these kinds of games. I have decreasingly little tolerance for the kinds of lists that seem to be ET’s bread and butter (100 Greatest Pop Culture Icons of the Past Five Years!), but something like the L.A. Times list as least has at its foundation a juicy subject and leaves room for thought, argument and those “Aha!” moments when you realize they (Thank God!) left a title off, or when you remember (Dammit!) one that could have easily replaced another that did make the cut. For instance, I had resigned myself, because of the love it/hate it conversation it engendered when it was released, to the inevitable inclusion of Crash, serious contender (along with American Beauty) for worst Best Picture Oscar winner ever, so I was greatly relieved that other epics of suburban angst and middle-class (white) frustration like Lawrence Kasdan’s mealy Grand Canyon (1993) and Joel Schumacher’s repellent Falling Down (1991) were duly remaindered (Thank God!)
But actually, as these things go this isn’t a bad list at all. Take a look:
1) L.A. Confidential (1997)
2) Boogie Nights (1997)
3) Jackie Brown (1997)
4) Boyz N the Hood (1991)
5) Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
6) The Player (1992)
7) Clueless (1995)
8) Repo Man (1984)
9) Collateral (2004)
10) The Big Lebowski (1998)
11) Mulholland Drive (2001)
12) Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
13) Training Day (2001)
14) Swingers (1996)
15) Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)
16) Friday (1995)
17) Speed (1994)
18) Valley Girl (1983)
19) To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)
20) L.A. Story (1991)
21) To Sleep with Anger (1990)
22) Less Than Zero (1987)
23) Fletch (1985)
24) Mi Vida Loca (1993)
25) Crash (2004)
(You can read the list with capsule reviews by Boucher, Mark Olsen, Kenneth Turan, Chris Lee, Rachel Abramowitz, Scott Timberg and Patrick Day by clicking here.)
There were only eight, perhaps nine instances where I felt like the choices could have been replaced, by another film in the director’s filmography, or by another similarly themed film, or just by another movie to replace one that just shouldn't be there at all. For example, I can certainly understand why Boogie Nights is on the list, but it’s ultimately too diffuse and far more conventional than its electric style would suggest. I much prefer P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia (1999), a high-wire act in which Anderson gets more directly in touch with his inner Altman and dashes all concerns over whether anyone’s having a good time or not, planting Old Testament visual clues that subliminally lay the groundwork for that shocking rain of frogs. (And speaking of Altman, while I'm not the biggest fan of The Player, I was far happier to see it representing the great director here rather than the dour and sour Short Cuts.) I can also acknowledge the influence of Boyz N the Hood while also acknowledging that the movie seems, after 18 years, a trifle melodramatic, and I would trade the more emotionally satisfying South Central (1992), with its searing performance by Glenn Plummer as a father determined to steer his son from the gang life that so defined his own identity, for John Singleton’s picture in an instant.
It’s hard for me to think of Beverly Hills Cop as much of anything, and I can’t help but imagine its overwhelming popularity (and its title) is the primary reason it’s on this list. Instead, how about a comedy that manages to make its way south of the 110 Freeway and revel in caustic street humor without making a shell game over whether or not it has a heart? I’m thinking Ron Shelton’s White Men Can’t Jump (1992). And I know that it’s in violation of the Times one director-one movie policy, but if they’re going to insist on the Eddie Murphy vehicle, then how about trading away Training Day for another David Ayer-scripted L.A.P.D. expose, this one based on a James Ellroy story, also directed by Ron Shelton, that features a lead performance (by Kurt Russell) every bit as good as Denzel Washington’s Oscar-winner, but with a shade more ambiguity and lived-in meanness that extends to the whole of the movie itself-- Dark Blue (2002).
The comedy choices at positions #18, 20 & 23 are among the list’s diciest players. I’d have to trade Martha Coolidge’s time capsule Valley Girl, which may be representative of an ethnographic excavation of sorts, but it’s really not much of a movie. Take it out and replace it with John Landis’s dazed and morbid Into the Night (1985), in many ways the woozily comic version of Michael Mann’s nocturnal L.A. vision in Collateral. Say bye-bye to L.A. Story’s tired faux-Woody Allen love-hate L.A. clichés and trade up to another Steve Martin Hollywood valentine, Bowfinger (1999), which also gets you back the Eddie Murphy you traded away in Beverly Hills Cop. And though I love Michael Ritchie and saw Fletch more than once theatrically and on VHS back in the day, it really doesn’t hold up as much more than a reminder that we all once thought of Chevy Chase as a movie star. Instead, if we can justify the inclusion of another brilliant chase thriller to go alongside Speed (#17) that cleverly incorporates an element of L.A. life—obsessive cell phone use-- that only ten years ago might have seemed excessive, if not preposterous, look no further than David R. Ellis’ hot-wired action comedy Cellular (2004), from a script by Larry Cohen.
Finally, spots #22 and #25 feature two pretentious dramas that absolutely must go. I can’t think of one good reason why Marek Kanievska’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ Less than Zero is on this list—not even Robert Downey, Jr. It’s as phony as all that prop coke vacuumed up during the picture’s endless party scenes. Dump this trash and make room for Tim Burton’s tribute to legendary schlockmeister Ed Wood (1994), itself also a lovely and hilarious remembrance of the last days of Bela Lugosi and a Hollywood underworld of untalented but driven performers who managed to carve a niche in movie history for themselves that no one else cared to occupy. And though Mark Olsen cites its influence and ambition, as well as its ability to spark water-cooler (and Internet) conversation as justification for its inclusion, Paul Haggis’ Crash is just too big for its britches, inept as storytelling, unmodulated as an actor’s showcase and, worst of all, shrill, unconvincing and obvious as a message picture. Though it would never tout itself as one, Steve De Jarnatt’s Miracle Mile, a terrific paranoid end-of-the-world thriller, works just as well as a snapshot of a small but significant part of the city that manages both a satirical perspective and a genuine sense of loss at its impending decimation.
Several years ago on this blog I raised the question, ”Is there any movie made that seems to be in love with Los Angeles?” Many of the movies that made the L.A. Times list were mentioned in the discussion of that question that followed. I’m not sure if Curtis Hanson’s movie exactly qualifies as a love letter, but I don’t have much of a beef at all with the Times’ ranking of L.A. Confidential at the #1 spot. Of the movies that actually made the list, I think my own #1 would have to be Jackie Brown, a movie that has definitely expanded in my brain and my esteem from the day I saw it during the 1997 Christmas season. (The Times writers certainly hold 1997 in their own high regard—the numbers one, two and three positions on their list are all held by movies released in that year.) But the movie I would personally put in the top spot is one that has as its very subject the ways Los Angeles has been depicted on film ever since the dawning days of Hollywood. It may have been disqualified due to considerations about how many people have actually seen it; maybe the writers didn’t feel a documentary was the kind of movie they had in mind when the list was conceived, particularly one composed entirely of bootlegged clips from other movies; maybe not enough of these writers themselves had seen it. All this is speculation. But none of these points are reason enough to discount Thom Andersen’s brilliant, provocative bit of film criticism entitled Los Angeles Plays Itself. As I wrote in 2005:
“Los Angeles Plays Itself is no dry Film History 101 lecture, but instead a poetic consideration, a personal remembrance, a love letter, a politically progressive deconstruction of prevalent myths about not only Los Angeles but the films most often singled out as the best representations of the city, and a reconstruction of some forgotten chapters in the city's ongoing cinematic iconography. Andersen begins with a faux-ominous ‘This is the city,’ in first-person narration read by independent filmmaker Encke King, invoking the spectre of Dragnet, about which Andersen will offer surprising observations later. ‘They make movies here. I live here. Sometimes I think that gives me a right to criticize.’ Andersen frames his criticism with the use of extensive clips (nearly 200 of them) and that crisp, deadpan, often very funny narration to take on the gargantuan task of detailing how the movies have observed, and essentially created, a Los Angeles of the mind that often has little to do with the reality of the city. This Los Angeles is also the city within which resides Hollywood, and if you didn't already know, Andersen wants you to understand that there's a distinct difference between the two. The film states that Los Angeles is the most photographed city in the world, yet it's the hardest to capture, to get right.”
Los Angeles Plays Itself is nearly impossible to see outside the festival and special screening circuit—Andersen created it for a classroom situation and the extensive use, without permission, of the clips seen in the movie, have created a rights-clearance nightmare the profundity of which will likely forever prevent the movie from ever seeing the light of a legitimate DVD release, a peculiar position for one of the best movies of the new millennium to find itself. But as thorough, irascible and hugely entertaining history lessons, works of social inquiry and piquant film criticism go, this is one of the best, a unique love letter to a city that, despite its reputation as a dream factory, is also recognized as an elusive cinematic target, not to mention a diffuse and disconnected community with little regard for its own shared history.
UPDATE 9/4/08: Thanks to Robert Fiore for giving us all a heads-up to the American Cinematheque September schedule at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica. It turns out that the oft-requested Los Angeles Plays Itself will screen Thursday-Saturday, September 11-13 at this terrific Montana Avenue venue, and after the screenings on the 11th and the 13th Thom Andersen will host a Q-and-A session, perhaps even commenting on some of the filmed representations of the city that have occurred since the movie was finished in 2004 (and maybe even a thought or two about that Times list). This is, it goes without saying, a must-see, can't-miss affair, not only for Andersen's participation but because, as noted in the Aero schedule, Los Angeles Plays Itself is one movie that will never be on DVD. Go see it while you have the chance, just like you used to have to do in the pre-Betamax world when engagements were really exclusive!
There are lots of other contenders within that 25-year span that might light your fire, and the embers of a few arguments, that you can find by taking a gander at this list of movies set in Los Angeles (This one extends wa-a-a-a-ay past that 25-year boundary), and local Los Angeles video store Rocket Video has checked in with some excellent alternatives to the L.A. Times list. Finally, as an online extra, the Los Angeles Times has provided a nifty location map revealing many of the spots where some of the city’s famous sequences were filmed. Any way you slice it, if the city of Los Angeles is a subject of interest to you, there ought to be something here worth investigating. (I have yet to see To Sleep with Anger or Mi Vida Loca, and I thank the Times list for reminding me about those films.) What about you? How do you feel the L.A. Times list measures up? Any glaring omissions? Any agonizing inclusions? What’s your Los Angeles number one?
(Thanks to Mark Olsen!)