Criterion Collection’s Best L.A. Films

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For viewing audiences with refined tastes, The Criterion Collection offers a treasure trove of cinema history.

A pioneer in the presentation of movie classics on home video dating back to the 1980s with its groundbreaking releases on laserdisc (remember those?), The Criterion Collection moved into the streaming world last year with The Criterion Channel. A curated selection of important high and lowbrow titles, their movies are also a great way to take a deep dive into the history of L.A. on celluloid.

The Big Knife (1955)

Before he tackled the dark side of Hollywood stardom with “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” director Robert Aldrich was already familiar with the industry’s seamier side thanks to this compelling film noir gem adapted from a play by Clifford Odets. Jack Palance stars as Charles Castle, a mercenary actor willing to sell his soul for his career — even if it means being complicit in murder.

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)

The sexual free-for-all that hit popular culture in the ’60s had its biggest impact in California, and nowhere is that clearer than in this colorful look at spouse swapping from director Paul Mazursky. Not only do you get to see Natalie Wood, Dyan Cannon, Elliott Gould and Robert Culp in their prime as former squares dabbling in their wild sides, but you also get priceless footage of the Pacific Coast Highway in ’69 and a slew of other familiar locales from Pasadena to the San Gabriel Mountains.

Dark Star (1974)

Begun in 1970 as a USC project for a student by the name of John Carpenter, this oddball sci-fi comedy about young, bored astronauts was expanded to feature-length and launched a career that would make history four years later with “Halloween.” Co-writer Dan O’Bannon also appears in the film for a wild interstellar stowaway sequence that would inspire his later and most famous film, “Alien,” in 1979.

Eating Raoul (1982)

A seemingly mild-mannered L.A. couple come up with a very extreme method of bankrolling their dream restaurant in this classic cult comedy from Paul Bartel, who gave the world “Death Race 2000.” Pretty much every Angeleno stereotype from the early ’80s gets a good skewering here, and it isn’t too far removed from …

Equinox (1970)

Ground zero for the student filmmaker explosion that would ignite with later films like “The Evil Dead” (and “Dark Star” above), this ambitious creature feature started life as a short film by Pasadena City College student Dennis Muren, who later became a six-time Oscar winner for films like “Jurassic Park” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” The film soon snowballed into a phantasmagorical supernatural cult classic featuring eye-popping work by future effects legends like Jim Danforth.

The Freshman (1925)

This great silent comedy stars Harold Lloyd as a freshman so desperate to be accepted he decides to work his way onto the university football team — with hilarious results. There’s nothing quite like seeing L.A. in all its 1920s glory, including the Rose Bowl a mere two decades after its creation.

Ghost World (2001)

Daniel Clowes’ underground comic book made the leap to the big screen with this first narrative feature from Terry Zwigoff, featuring impeccable star turns by Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson navigating love and pop culture in modern L.A. From the irresistible Bollywood dance-along opener to the poignant ending, this is a love letter to our city like no other.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)

Stanley Kramer’s party-sized comedy epic packs in some of the biggest comedians of the era — along with ringers like Spencer Tracy — to show how a little bit of greed goes a long, long way in a race across the desert from Palm Springs to Long Beach in search of buried fortune.

The Player (1992)

Robert Altman’s Oscar-nominated pitch-black satire of Hollywood selfishness cuts deep to this day. Tim Robbins stars as a manipulative studio executive receiving death threats that eventually prod him into committing an act of violence, but that’s just the start of his troubles in this star-studded ride that easily merits repeated viewings.

Stop Making Sense (1984)

Shot over multiple nights at the Pantages Theatre, Jonathan Demme’s once in a lifetime masterpiece captures the Talking Heads at the peak of their powers. Easily one of the greatest concert films of all time, it starts out simply with David Byrne performing “Psycho Killer” on a nearly barren stage and builds, song by song, into a joyous celebration of music for the ages.

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