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11 Movies Set In California That You Need To Watch Now

11 Movies Set In California That You Need To Watch Now

While it’s tough to choose which movies set do the best job of portraying California, a few stand out as great cinematic experiences.


5 min read

August 11, 2021

If you’ve been to the movies, you’ve been to California, or at least to a part of it. The Golden State has been immortalized on the silver screen throughout cinematic history, and it's no surprise that Hollywood doesn’t venture out too far from the studio when looking for inspiration on locations. 

Valley girls, cops, historical figures, and detectives have all found a place in California's cinema story. While it’s tough to pick and choose which movies set in California do the best job of portraying the state, a few definitely stand out as great cinematic experiences. Here are some of our favorites movies set in California across several genres and decades—have fun viewing! 

Movies Set In Northern California

Lady Bird received a standing ovation at its international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Photo courtesy of Lady Bird.

1. Lady Bird

Director: Greta Gerwig

Release Date: 2017

Lady Bird tells the story of Christine McPherson—played by Saoirse Ronan—who’s a high school senior struggling to fit in at her Catholic high school in Sacramento. Writer and director Greta Gerwig admitted in an interview that when she finished writing the movie, she realized it was a love letter to her childhood in NorCal. The movie set in California is majorly shot in Sacramento featuring famous landmarks and neighborhoods, which are bound to resonate with anyone who grew up here as well.

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2. Moneyball

Director: Bennett Miller

Release Date: 2011

Based on Michael Lewis’s book, “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” Moneyball tells an incredible story. This movie set in California retells the chronicles of Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt)—the general manager of the Oakland Athletics at the time—facing the tough challenges of having the third-lowest payroll in the MLB. Beane re-evaluates the league by analyzing player statistics in ways that had never been done before and succeeds in helping the team win an unprecedented 20 games consecutively in an inspiring turn of events.

Movies Set in San Francisco

Blue Jasmine tells the story of a rich Manhattan socialite who falls on hard times and has to move with her sister. Photo courtesy of Blue Jasmine

3. Blue Jasmine

Director: Woody Allen

Release Date: 2013

The critically acclaimed film Blue Jasmine tells the story of one woman’s attempt at starting over in San Francisco after a rough patch in life. After losing her marriage and her sanity, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), a wealthy New York socialite, decides to start over in San Francisco with her sister. Much of the movie is set in San Francisco and features Ocean Beach, Chinatown, and beautiful views of the bay. 

Milk is a biographical film based on the life of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California.

4. Milk

Director: Gus Van Sant

Release Date: 2008

Another film based on real-life events, Milk tells the story of Harvey Milk, an American activist who became California's first openly gay elected official. This movie set in San Francisco tells the story of how Milk became an iconic figure in LGBTQ+ history.  An emotional roller coaster and an inspiration for all, Milk is a definite must-add to your “to watch” list.

Starring Clint Eastwood and Patrick McGoohan, Escape from Alcatraz dramatizes the 1962 prisoner escape from the maximum-security prison on the island.

5. Escape from Alcatraz

Director: Don Siegel 

Release Date: 1979

San Francisco’s Alcatraz Island is a popular tourist destination largely due to the fact that it houses the infamous prison, and Escape from Alcatraz certainly adds to its notoriety. This movie set in San Francisco follows the story of Frank Morris (Clint Eastwood) an exceptionally intelligent inmate who has consistently been successful in escaping from correctional facilities before being sent to Alcatraz. Based on a true story, Escape from Alcatraz provides a glimpse into the history of one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist attractions

Movies Set in Southern California

Set in 1969 Los Angeles, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood follows a fading character actor and his stunt double as they navigate the film industry.

Movies Set in Los Angeles

6. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Release Date: 2019

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood revisits 1969 Los Angeles, where fading TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) strive for fame and success in an industry they hardly recognize anymore. An ode to the Golden Age of Hollywood, the movie set in L.A. features a large cast and multiple storylines. Tarantino does a fantastic job of capturing the essence of a time and place vastly different from what we see now.

Clueless is loosely based on Jane Austen's 1815 novel Emma, with a modern-day setting of Beverly Hills. Photo courtesy of Clueless.

7. Clueless

Director: Amy Heckerling

Release Date: 1995

Clueless tells the story of adolescence in the 1990s in a hilariously entertaining and surprisingly heartwarming way. Based on Jane Austen’s novel “Emma,” this 1995 movie set in L.A. satirizes the lives of ultra-rich teens from Beverly Hills by following Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) through her daily struggles. Shopping montages, iconic one-liners, and a dreamy Paul Rudd make this movie set in California a must-watch—it’s one of the best teen movies of all time.

As a drummer, Damien Chazelle has a predilection for musical films. He wrote the screenplay for La La Land as early as 2010.

8. La La Land

Director: Damien Chazelle

Release Date: 2016

La La Land by Damien Chazelle is perhaps the peak of L.A. film inspiration. The 2016 Oscar winner is not only filmed and set in Los Angeles, but it also pays homage to everything from traffic and dingy gigs to massive opportunities and beautiful attractions. A love letter to the City of Angels, La La Land’s professed affection for L.A. makes it one of the most endearing movies set in California to watch.

9. The Nice Guys

Director: Shane Black

Release Date: 2016

The Nice Guys is another movie set in Los Angeles that travels back in time to the 1970s. The movie follows a mismatched pair of private investigators searching for answers in the cases of a missing girl and the mysterious death of a porn star—this hilarious roller coaster of a film will make you fall off the couch. A buddy movie through and through, this movie set in California is a 70s feel-good ride you should definitely watch.

Movies Set in San Diego

Almost Famous tells the story of a teenage journalist writing for Rolling Stone in the early 1970s. Photo courtesy of Almost Famous.

10. Almost Famous

Director: Cameron Crowe

Release Date: 2000

Ocean Beach is a laid-back community in San Diego with a 1970s hippie vibe, which is why it’s the perfect setting for the award-winning comedy-drama Almost Famous. The movie set in San Diego tells the story of a young journalist who’s still in high school but has the opportunity to follow a band called Stillwater and write a story for Rolling Stone magazine. A coming of age story in its essence, Almost Famous is considered one of the greatest in its genre and a definite must-watch among the movies set in California.

11. Top Gun

Director: Tony Scott

Release Date: 1986

After being accepted into Miramar's elite Fighter School that’s also known as "Top Gun," Tom Cruise’s character Maverick tries to get a fresh start in his career and competes to be the best in his class. Despite the fact that Top Gun received mixed reviews at the time of its release, the film was praised for its action sequences and quickly became a fan-favorite. This movie set in San Diego is definitely a classic and arguably the film that turned Tom Cruise into the movie superstar he’s known as today.

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