Since many of us are being kept at home right now, Hyperallergic is ramping up its recommendations for good art and entertainment you can get without going anywhere. This week, we have a roundup of great movies made in, set in, and/or otherwise about California, the home of the American film industry. Many films set in the state have grappled with the paradoxes over the decades — the idyllic weather versus a dark history of colonialism, environmental beauty and ruin, societal dysfunction, and more.
Los Angeles Plays Itself
This film is the cipher not just for the rest of this list, but for basically anything made about Los Angeles. In one of the greatest essay films ever, Thom Andersen scrutinizes how film and television has depicted Los Angeles, drawing connections in how different neighborhoods, kinds of architecture, and even the same landmarks and buildings are utilized in different ways.
This is a crucial text on modern social alienation and uniquely late capitalist maladies, both real and imagined. (Gee, how could that be relevant?) Julianne Moore plays a model housewife whose life upends after she starts having serious physical reactions to everyday chemicals. Todd Haynes’s deeply troubling drama of psychosomatic distress lays bare the spiritual emptiness of contemporary life. And it does so against the most perfect possible backdrop of bland suburban hell: the San Fernando Valley.
One of the most unjustly maligned movies of the new century, this LA-set sci-fi epic is a feverish roman à clef against Bush-era America, which also foretold the the unreality of the Trump era. For this breathless, weird, funny, and even poignant movie, Richard Kelly used every ounce of clout he’d attained to make this happen with a big budget and major actors, only for it to fail completely. It could only ever become a cult classic.
Meshes of the Afternoon
Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid shot this landmark of American experimental cinema in their Hollywood home, and so the dreamlike, ambiguous story plays out against the backdrop of ubiquitous Southern California Spanish Revival architecture. It isn’t what one might normally consider an “LA film,” but its mood is definitely in line with that of other wartime noir pictures.
Barbara Hammer shorts
Iconic queer filmmaker Barbara Hammer shot many of the films in her prodigious body of work in California. The pioneering Dyketactics, for instance, was filmed in Napa Valley. As part of its “In Company With” digital program, Company Gallery has made 10 of her shorts available for free online.
Sadly, too few of the films of the LA Rebellion movement are available to stream. This early short by Julie Dash, later known for directing Daughters of the Dust, is essential. Set in the film industry during the ’40s, it holds Hollywood to account for its historical failure to properly represent people of color.
To Sleep with Anger
Another LA Rebellion film, Charles Burnett brings his singular sense of humor and interpersonal dynamics to this tale of a South Central family whose lives are upended by the arrival of an old friend from the South. Long overlooked, it has since been reassessed as an important work of Black American cinema.
The Decline of Western Civilization Trilogy
The definitive chronicle of alternative music scenes in the Los Angeles region from the early ’80s through the late ’90s, these three films from Penelope Spheeris explore punk rock, heavy metal, and gutter punk, respectively. Together, they track how the underground sensibility evolved over the years.
The Royal Road
In this hybrid road movie, video essay, and memoir, Jenni Olson travels El Camino Real, the route connecting the 21 Spanish Missions in California. Along the way she muses on the Native, Spanish, Mexican, and American histories of the region, along with her own identity and romantic past.
Agnès Varda’s California films
Beloved French New Wave filmmaker Agnès Varda lived in California for a brief period in the late ’60s, during which the counterculture inspired her to make three films mixing documentary and fiction: Lions Love (… and Lies), Uncle Yanco, and Black Panthers. She would later return to the state to make two more films in the early ’80s. All of them exhibit her trademark wit and playfulness.