Did you know there are 24 movies based in the San Fernando Valley? Me neither, until I started making this list. Several weeks later, the dirty work has been done for you. Here are cocktail party conversation-starters for the rest of your life.
In between the cracks of suburban tract homes, strip malls, and asphalt roads are some of our most troubled storylines. As you’ll see, the best movies wield the San Fernando Valley’s symbolization. This is as opposed to urban set-pieces, where the abnormal can feel normal.
Here in the Valley, concrete normalcy becomes a character of its own.
I've become attuned to the ways this city channels our lives into repetitive, safe motions. Ultimately, it's a success in city planning. But for the soul, you're best off taking a few nights to watch the top 3 movies.
You’ll appreciate this living, organic city we call the San Fernando Valley just a little bit more.
Because everything needs a structure, or I’ll get roasted in my emails!
The movies on this list make direct reference to the Valley. It is central to the storyline. This excludes the thousands of movies that were simply shot here.
40% - Technical Storytelling and Shot Planning. I’m a stickler for well-made movies. Like selling a home, it’s not about how much you like the real estate agent. Did they do a good job?
30% - Do not underestimate the Valley’s power in accentuating stories. As you’ll see in the list, its ruthless normalcy plays second fiddle to magnanimous storylines. It’s social commentary about the most important people in cinema: the everyday American.
20% - Box Office Relevance - National influence is important to how a movie’s history will be written. Bad movies can still touch our emotions, technical or not.
10% - SFV location usage, because of that “a-ha” moment when you recognize a spot.
24. Plan 9 from Outer Space
My mother told me not to judge a book by its cover. This was a movie, so I still judged it - and I was right. I almost gave up on writing this list after the credits rolled. It hails from an era of pulpy characterization and bad set-pieces, so I can’t get too frustrated. Someone had a vision, it just wasn’t executed.
23. Encino Man
This movie is bad. It brings down Encino property values. Two high school castouts find a frozen caveman and and thaw him out. It has potential for intellectual commentary - a dumbfounded caveman is baffled by the complexity of our suburban lives.
Sadly, they rely on witless sophomoric humor. It’s so bad, there’s a cult following. Next time a seller extolls the beauty of Encino, reference this movie. The only reason it’s not last is because it includes more Valley shots.
22. The Lonely Lady
I feel bad ranking this movie so low. Its message is relevant - the female protagonist seduces her way to the top of the Hollywood food chain. Gender politics aside - the execution is poor. It’s aimless cynicism and empty sex scenes, predicated on the audience’s assumption that life isn’t fair.
Life isn’t that fair, but that’s not what we go to the movies for. There’s a scene with a garden hose that is just unnecessary shock value.
21. The Karate Kid Part III
The only thing better than celebrating good movies is bashing bad movies. The steep drop in quality from the first one is evident in how they rehash the exact same themes. That’s what happens in all trilogies, and it’s no different here.
The surprising amount of violence was likely deliberate - the adorers of the first movie had grown up. Unfortunately, I’d rather watch Die Hard or even a Transformers movie if I want to see some butts kicked. It’s not thrilling when the Karate Kid is a young adult who needs a job. I don’t want to see him fight - I want him to hurry up on the double cheeseburger I ordered. (Alright, that was mean. But I was angry for wasting two hours of my life.)
20. Dancing at the Blue Iguana
Like The Lonely Lady, this one means well. The most effective movies lend a voice to those that need one. It follows the lives of several strip club dancers and the effects of the industry.
Unfortunately, Dancing at the Blue Iguana underutilizes the opportunity. Life is tough in the Valley because of the disproportionate amount of people trying to make it in the show business. It’s an integral theme to almost any movie about the city, but it just wasn’t done right.
19. The Karate Kid Part II
Remember this movie? I almost wanted to rank this lower than Part III just because it actually tried. Nonetheless, it was a commercial success. It hit a lot of the right notes of a coming-of-age story.
Therein lies the problem, though. We love movies that bring us somewhere new. This wasn’t a bad movie, it was just boring. Also, I deduct points because most of it was shot in Japan, not the Valley (though I love Japan!).
18. The Sandlot II
The magic of the original was squeezed out of this direct-to-DVD sequel. Fast-forward ten years, the protagonists are grown up. I get it - it's a sequel. It was still so boring. The first movie captured beautiful, suburban childhood. Their problems, while still important, can’t be portrayed from a childhood standpoint. You have to really like the original characters for this to succeed. In this case, the transition wasn’t robust.
17. EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE
After a string of successful hits, Clint Eastwood tried his hand at this aimless action-comedy. I can’t believe I sat through this whole thing. His best friend's an orangutan. Apparently, it turned out to be one of the most commercially successful movies of all time. This goes to show his star power.
The movie transitions to Colorado, so there’s even less reason to watch this for Valley scenes. I tried laughing at Eastwood, but he's just too scary.
16. San Fernando Valley
Shot in 1944, this is the oldest movie on the list. I’ll try to hold it to a different standard, but it’s still bland. A old man and his two granddaughters live on a ranch and go through typical rancher problems. There’s a bad guy, some love interests, and unrelatable themes.
I really skimmed this one, in part because I wanted to watch movies about our San Fernando Valley. Of all the movies that could actually be named after our city, I was disappointed we didn’t get a more contemporary portrayal.
15. A Cinderella Story
I remember watching this movie when I was a kid, so I was ecstatic to rewatch it. I must have become incredibly cynical and jaded over the years, because this “story” was impossible to sit through. My ex-girlfriends can list a million reasons why I wouldn’t like this movie. They’re right, but I was also disappointed by how little was shot in the Valley.
Hilary Duff and Chad Michael Murray, Disney teenage superstars, had admirably generic acting here. I mean to say - it’s so empty, its good. It’s a cut-and-paste story (what would you expect with a title like that?) that is generic family bait.
14. Earth Girls Are Easy
Three lonely male aliens descend upon earth looking for romance. They find it and hilarity ensues. It’s similar in concept to Encino Man, but much better executed. Valley girls are on full display in this movie. Even then, I can’t help but feel flattered that ruthless aliens could love our native ladies.
We’re at the halfway-point of this list, and we have an above-average movie. I say "movie" with full deliberation because it’s senseless, fun entertainment. That’s why we go to the movies, right?
13. Down in the Valley
We have yet another movie wherein an outsider comes to the San Fernando Valley. The friction between Edward Norton’s rancher from the midwest and boring suburbia are just enough for an escapist romance. The story works for what it’s worth. We grow tired of concrete roads and supermarkets, too.
The first part is enchanting, but the second trips all over itself. It tries to tell a solemn story, but just becomes boring. Maybe all romances end that way, after all. Edward Norton is notorious for being difficult on set. Perhaps that’s the case here with impalpable chemistry with his love interest.
12. The Sandlot
This movie was ridiculously popular at the time, despite mediocre execution. I was drawn into it as the movie went on. All of the themes matter desperately to the 12-year old heart.
By the end, I took a step back and remembered that heart always matters, no matter what age. It’s the driving force of the goodness, yet so easily forgotten about. Maybe I’ll get more clients if I can remember this more often.
Four teenage girls come of age in high school. Yes, another teen drama film. No, it’s not that bad. Execution and a diverse cast underscore Jodie Foster before she was a national sensation. This is yet another example of the Valley as a backdrop for normality against harsh lifestyles.
It’s a stark reminder that to teenagers, problems are very real. If you know one, reach out and lend them a hand. It’s a theme of these movies just how normal the Valley can be.
10. 2 days in the Valley
One murder, 48 hours, and a tad too many characters - I was impressed by the Valley's crime-thriller. While originally panned by critics, it grew into own place in the history of the city's legacy. Sleek storylines power this important piece of cinematic history.
If you can figure out what the ending means, please call me. Julianne Moore is a lonely wife from a wealthy neighborhood. In other words, a perfect medium to discuss contemporary issues. She develops a sudden disease where she becomes allergic to everything. Whether or not it’s just in her head is left up to the audience. She soon joins a cult (as if the Valley doesn’t have enough of those) to solve her New-Age disease.
Interpreted by some as a metaphor for the AIDS crisis, there’s plenty of modern issues that the San Fernando Valley illuminates clearly. This movie’s slower pace makes it more effective.
8. The Karate Kid
I’ve already been chastised for not keeping this one in the top 5. The Valley’s normalcy is ready-built for childhood narratives. It’s a true coming-of-age story for the good-hearted kid. The meshing of Japanese and American philosophies offer wise tidbits for all the young suburbanites of the world.
It’s an honest look at how competition brings out heroes and villains. It may not be a high-end superhero movie, but those karate moves spurned endless dojos across the Valley. Today, many of them still remain.
7. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
If you haven't gotten the point already, the Valley is where aliens come and feel especially out of place. This is because we’re especially normal.
Spielberg storytelling is firing on all heartwarming cylinders here. Additionally, it touches on all levels of life - disgruntled parents, antsy federal police, and the genuine kindness of childhood. The unique friendship between a kid and his alien reminds us that love can transgress all boundaries. I’ll watch this movie with you and we’ll see who cries first.
6. Bad News Bears
Oh boy, does the Valley capture childhood in its purest form. A team of the worst baseball players in the city are formed from a discrimination lawsuit. They take it all way to the championships in Hollywood fashion, but actually lose - unlike Hollywood.
That’s not the point. It’s an oft-brutal look that is arguably not for kids. But in a sense, it’s the right movie for children to understand the nature of competition.
As far as movies about children go, this is my favorite. It’s realistic and character driven, something the Valley beautifully plays with.
5. Valley Girl
I'm a transparent person, so I'll let you in on a secret - I love this movie. It's sweet, funny, and based on Romeo & Juliet. Nicolas Cage's breakout role is a cornerstone of the laidback counterculture to our startling normalcy.
4. La Bamba
It’s your duty to gush about this movie. Ritchie Valens, our own local music star, lived and ended his short life in the San Fernando Valley. Many know that day as the day the music died. For us, we said goodbye to one of our own.
This ranks even higher on my list because its best moments are the the most unexpected parts - everyday suburban life, a mother who cares too much, childhood dreams, and racial tensions. Essentially, it does what I’m looking for, which is to portray the Valley in its natural state.
If you haven’t seen this already, it’s time. It’s not just an hour-and-a-half of entertainment. It’s our own personal history.
It might be the most disrespected winner of the Best Picture Oscar of all time. The Academy loves social commentary, however, and here the San Fernando Valley holds no prisoners in dishing it out. An ensemble cast from all levels of the social ladder crash in scathing ways.
The entire movie is about racism, mind you. Although the movie lacked technical execution, it withstands its critics by discussing a difficult topic.
If you’ve seen it, watch it again. If you haven’t, you’ll understand the dark underbelly of the American melting pot. It's a thrill every time.
2. Boogie Nights
Masterful director Paul Thomas Anderson is the Valley’s mouthpiece to the world. Mark Wahlberg becomes a superstar in this movie about pornstars and their own vicious, forgotten Hollywood stardom. This movie is partially to blame for our less-known tagline “porn capital of the world”.
Whether we like it or not, it’s our stigma and our history. As controversial as it is, my list accounts for historical influence. It was tough to rank this above Crash, but its matter-of-fact approach to sexuality ultimately illuminates more about the Valley’s history. You live in the Valley, now see this one.
If you just skipped over here, it's fine. I'm too euphoric from this movie to be mad.
28-year old Director Paul Thomas Anderson was born and raised in the Valley. The complexity of this epic of 8 stories and 9 characters is interwoven through suburban angst. The incredible high's and low's of being a human being are fully displayed.
Families are juicy, endless ammunition for great stories. The ways which we hurt each other are put to full use by a brooding San Fernando Valley. A nurse, sex guru, trophy wife, loser child celebrity, cocaine addict, and other characters connect throughout a 3-hour magnum opus with an absurdist ending.
Anderson evokes the American insecurity like very few directors can. This magic, mixed with our city, is easily the top movie.