I would start of with a recent classic THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007) directed by masterfully by Paul Thomas Anderson and loosely based on the novel OIL by Upton Sinclair. The film starts in 1902, when Southern California was laying under a sea of black gold. Sounding a lot like director John Huston, Daniel Day Lewis looms large as the flinty oil hound Daniel Plainview. Lewis (in a deserving Oscar winning performance) literally sucks the oil from the ground with his very presence. "There's a whole ocean of oil under our feet! No one can get at it except for me." He'll even drink your milk shake all up for you too!
Maybe the only more important than the oil boom was the value of water to Los Angeles?
"Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water" sez the "REAL JOHN HUSTON" as the deliciously villainous Noah Cross in CHINATOWN (1974.) Roman Polanski gave us a fictionalized version of the city father William Mulholland stealing water from the farmers in the Owens Valley to quench the thirst of a parched city in this true classic that, Jack Nicholson cemented his status in films with his portrayal of cool, classy 1930's private eye J.J. "Jake" Gittes who stumbles upon hanky panky at the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power while working a adultery case and almost loses his nose for his troubles. Not only does screenwriter Robert Towne gives the viewers a great taste of L.A. history it also serves up a twisted tale of incest that ends with Faye Dunaways head dropped on a blaring car horn with a bullet in her head in CHINATOWN. Nicholson and his P.I. character returned in THE TWO JAKES (1990) as he's working on a case in 1948 post war L.A. which involves real estate, oil and someone from his past.
The importance of the Martin Scorsese, Howard Hughes bio film THE AVIATOR (2004) in Los Angeles history is two fold; it follows Hughes (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) as he inherits his fathers tool company (the senior Hughes made his fortune inventing a heavy duty oil drilling bit... I'm sure Daniel Planview must have used a few.) The young Hughes at first was a aviation enthusiast, designing planes for himself, in his quest to break flying records (the film features an incredible sequence that has Hughes crash landing on a Beverly Hills golf course while testing a new aircraft) then building his aviation empire Hughes Aircraft that was to become one of the major supplier of planes for the government during the war, sparking the aerospace boom and becoming a pioneer in commercial airline industry forming the company TWA. Hughes was also a filmmaker; directing the films; HELL'S ANGELS and THE OUTLAW (as well as buying RKO studios.) DiCaprio does a top job portraying the legendary and obsessive-compulsive mister Hughes, from young playboy in the twenties who parties at the famed Coconut Grove (with the likes of film stars, Katherine Hepburn and Jean Harlow) to the suffering genius on the brink of madness; "Tell Jimmy I want ten chocolate chip cookies, medium chips, none too close to the outside."
Sid Hudgens /Danny Devito : [voiceover] Come to Los Angeles! The sun shines bright, the beaches are wide and inviting, and the orange groves stretch as far as the eye can see. There are jobs aplenty, and land is cheap. Every working man can have his own house, and inside every house, a happy, all-American family. You can have all this, and who knows... you could even be discovered, become a movie star... or at least see one. Life is good in Los Angeles... it's paradise on Earth." Ha ha ha ha. That's what they tell you, anyway...
With the 1950's and L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997) we have a violent city that's full of big plans (real estate, freeways) and yup, corruption... and lots of it! Director Curtis Hanson who also adapted (with Brian Helgeland) James Ellroy's thick novel paints Los Angeles as a big juicy city ripe for the picking. This film has dirty cops, statuesque movie star look-alike hookers, reefer smoking pretty-boys and lots and lots of dead bodies... yeah we're pretty sure L.A. was like this... maybe even worse. The films gang-buster climax at a rundown hotel amidst the oil fields of Baldwin Hills is as pure a L.A.location as you'll ever see. With a great screen adaptation plus great actors equals masterpiece... but that's on the hush, hush... and on the Q.T..
An icon and sex symbol of the 70's himself, Burt Reynolds really gives one hell of a performance (Oscar nominated) as Walhberg's director mentor Jack Horner. Also in the cast is; Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Heather Graham (as "Roller Girl!"), John C. Reilly just to name a few. It's a time in L.A. were everything goes; sex, drugs & more sex & more drugs,
The good old days before AIDS and came to town and spoiled the whole party. So until someone makes a great film about the 80's & 90's I guess it all begins and ends for now with Paul Thomas Anderson? Now go rents some of these movies and maybe you'll learn something about Los Angeles while you're at it pilgrim.