9 Scenic California Movies to Stream (Until You Can Actually Go There)
Remember why you love California? The jaw-dropping beauty of the Pacific and its long, lazy shoreline; desertscapes that alternate between vast emptiness and teeming music festival crowds; wine country; San Francisco's skyline and Santa Barbara's surfers. Discover a new destination or remember one you love with these movies that show scenic California, for real. And take notes, because soon enough, you'll be able to jump in your car and visit up close and personal.
1. ‘500 Days of Summer’
This 2009 sleeper hit charmed audiences with a simple tale (boy meets girl, boy loses girl) told in a complicated way (the timeline is shuffled). What's straightforward is the affection filmmaker Marc Webb has for the city of Los Angeles. Take, for example, the special view from the L.A. bench (356 South Olive Avenue in DTLA, by the way) where the hapless male lead played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt takes his girlfriend Zooey Deschanel. Or the fountain in downtown's civic center park used as a background for a dance sequence. Or even the rooftop party where Gordon-Levitt has his heart well and finally broken. It's all young and romantic and so L.A.
2. ‘Bottle Shock’
It might be hard to conceive of now, as you sit nursing your Napa Valley Chardonnay, but wine from the Golden State was derided as amateurish swill as recently as 50 years ago. That all changed when a British sommelier by the name of Steven Spurrier introduced California wines into a blind taste test in Paris, and the rest is history. Bottle Shock tells that story, and while hampered by a shoehorned love triangle and Chris Pine's inexplicably bad blond wig (he's a "hippie," get it audience?), the long shots of northern California's rows of vines, not to mention barrel tastes of fermenting greatness, will make you thirsty for a vineyard visit of your own.
3. ‘La La Land’
From the delightfully chaotic morning rush hour traffic scene that erupts into a dance number to Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling's romantic dusk stroll over Pasadena's Colorado Street Bridge, we are so here for this movie that mayor Eric Garcetti endorsed as a perfect tourism brochure for Los Angeles. Look for the special ride that the stars take on the Angels Flight, the tiny funicular that connects Hill Street and Grand Avenue downtown.
4. ‘Blue Jasmine’
A contemporary tale of the haves and the have-nots, this is like an updated variation of A Streetcar Named Desire set in the Ponzi scheme era. Cate Blanchett's nuanced performance as Jasmine, the former New York City socialite who is forced to move in with her working-class sister, was a lock for the best actress Oscar, but we're feeling the strong supporting role played by the city of San Francisco. Undulating streets coupled with that gray bay—it has a flat, end-of-the-world quality to it all that is both liberating and claustrophobic.
5. ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’
This 2019 film caused a sensation in SoCal when it was filming, thanks to director Quentin Tarantino's freshly painted groovy zodiac-themed mural on Sunset and the retro signage slapped up around Hollywood Boulevard, to recreate the '60s. You can still see the murals between Vine and El Centro streets, and squint your eyes and Hollywood Boulevard looks almost the same. The film is a virtual ode to bopping around L.A. in your car, the way Brad Pitt's character does in the film when he's cruising Hollywood or taking the freeway to the Valley. Or the scene set in Westwood where Margot Robbie, playing Sharon Tate, interrupts her errands to watch herself onscreen at a theater. Tarantino said this film, including its controversial climax, is his love letter to Los Angeles, and it's a beautiful tribute to the city's glory.
6. ‘Almost Famous’
A suburban boy gets a taste of the fast life in this fictionalization of writer-director Cameron Crowe's years as a San Diego teen who started writing for big-time San Francisco music publication Rolling Stone. Standout locations show young William, as Crowe's alter ego is called, walking along the San Diego pier and going to a show at the San Diego Sports Arena (the band is called Stillwater, but it's modeled on Crowe's time on tour with Led Zeppelin back in the day). And there's a great interlude at the Hyatt hotel on Sunset Boulevard, in the 70s known as the "Riot Hyatt" for how many kids would mob the place when rockers stayed there.
San Francisco gets all thrilling in Hitchcock's 1958 masterpiece about obsession (and fear of heights). From the opening shot of Kim Novak trying to jump to her death in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge to the climactic scene atop the bell tower of Mission San Juan Bautista, this movie is one of the most suspenseful, has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed stories in cinema. Oh, and nature lovers will appreciate the many beautiful outdoor locations including Big Basin Redwoods state park and iconic Cypress Point on 17-Mile Drive.
8. ‘20th Century Women’
Director Mike Mills was inspired by his own Golden State adolescence, growing up in Santa Barbara in the late 1970s in this coming-of-age flick. The hedge-lined streets of lower Montecito and Miramar Beach are the same now as then. Mills describes Santa Barbara as "the idyllic, sort of Maxfield Parrish painting location for a pre-digital, pre-internet world." Plan to start your visit at Butterfly Beach across from the Four Seasons and if the tide is low, walk across Hammonds Beach to Miramar.
9. ‘Chasing Mavericks’
This biopic of Santa Cruz surfer Jay Moriaty is great for soaking up the NoCal surf culture, as the teen is taken under the wing of a local big-wave surfer played by Gerard Butler (who actually injured himself while filming). The name is a reference to a surf break just north of Half Moon Bay where, after a winter storm, waves can crest at 60 feet—a sight that's both scary and magnificent. But all year, the sweet beach town vibe of the modest homes around the Santa Cruz boardwalk are just like they appear in this coming-of-age story.