10 movies that define California
My mom, the movie critic.
The same mom who once tried to fool “the girls” — a group of eightysomethings who went to the movies together once a week — by telling them that I had recommended the Mexican film “Y Tu Mama Tambien.”
The truth came out shortly after the scene with full frontal male nudity sent half the women running for the lobby. My mother had to confess that she was unable to reach me, and that she had read a good review of the film and thought she could get away with saying I endorsed it. The group never went to a movie without my recommendation.
After the infamous “Y Tu Mama Tambien” incident, my mother was required to call me in front of her friends and put me on the speaker phone for confirmation.
I last wrote about my mom in 2007 when a major movie studio treated her like a princess after I reported her concerns over how the studio planned to translate her favorite novel “The Kite Runner” into a film. Paramount executives responded immediately with an invitation for my mother and 200 of her closest friends to a private screening of the film before its official opening. And this happened in New Jersey, of all places.
My mom rode that wave of popularity for quite a while, and she still enjoys going to the movies, although she has changed coasts.
In July, I moved her from Atlantic City, N.J., to Mission Viejo, Calif. She was worried at first that the move would curtail her movie-going, but I assured her that we do have movie theaters in California. The only difference is that there is no snow on the ground or slush in the streets when you leave the theater.
She’s been here almost two months and I have been remiss in preparing a cinematic introduction to the state. All newcomers should understand the essence of their new home, and the best way to learn anything is through movies. It’s a well-known fact. School is so overrated.
For years, my mother had it easy. All she had to do was pop in a tape of director Louis Malle’s 1980 classic “Atlantic City,” and a newcomer in town knew everything they ever needed to know about Atlantic City and New Jersey.
But California is much larger than New Jersey, and considerably more complex and diverse. You can’t learn everything from a single movie. We are much more sophisticated than that.
I have considered many so-called California movies, and narrowed my list to 10 movies that not only define California, but explain it. These movies should be required viewing for every new resident, along with an eye test.
1. “The Maltese Falcon” (1941) - The last line uttered by Sam Spade in this movie - “The stuff that dreams are made of” - pretty much sums up the state as it is perceived throughout the world. People come here for the stuff that dreams are made of, whatever that means. Personally, I came for the Double-Double.
2. “Sunset Boulevard” (1950) - This is the California dream turned upside down, particularly as it relates to Hollywood. The moral of the story is to always be ready for your close-up.
3. “The Wild One” (1954) - For years, I assumed that motorcycle gangs led by Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin freely roamed the streets of Orange County. I was wrong, of course. They don’t all ride motorcycles.
4. “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982) - Jeff Spicoli emerged from this teen film as a California stoner icon, but it was Mike Damone who imparted a life philosophy worth following: “Act like wherever you are, that’s the place to be.” I believe it was Rule Number 3.
5. “Chinatown” (1974) - If only history class was this interesting. Bottom line: It’s the water, stupid.
6. “Gidget” (1959) - This movie about a tiny girl on a big board and the 1964 Beach Boys live concert album were more responsible for East Coast people moving to California than any false promises of bountiful jobs and streets paved with gold.
7. “L.A. Confidential” (1997) - This movie taught the world that all our cops look like Russell Crowe and Kevin Spacey, and that all our prostitutes look like movie stars through the magic of cosmetic surgery. You can look it up.
8. “Boyz N the Hood” (1991) - John Singleton’s flip side of George Lucas’ vision of cruising. It is hard to watch, but impossible to ignore.
9. “Clueless” (1995) - If “Chinatown” explained how the San Fernando Valley was created, this film gave the valley a voice. It ultimately led to the invention of the Kardashians.
10. “American Graffiti” (1973) - An idealized snapshot of life in Northern California, and a nice long look at California’s love affair with the automobile.