Movies by State: So It’s Come Down to This…

Movies By State Map

And we’re back!  After the usual summer hiatus, I’m back publishing articles.  I’m going to start by wrapping up a project I got about halfway through last summer: Movies by State.  You may ask, interested reader, does this mean another 10 or so posts with detailed analysis?  No!  Instead we’re just going to mop this project up in one fell swoop.


One day I’ll do Minnesota justice with a long post, but today I’m just going to quickly summarize.  Let me start by pointing out that a number of movies are set in the North Star State, more than one would think given the New York/LA bias of movie settings.  Fargo (1996) is probably the best known.  The Coen Brothers grew up in St. Louis Park, MN right outside of Minneapolis, so Minnesota references tend to crop up in their movies pretty often.  A Serious Man (2009), one of the Coen’s bleaker efforts, is also set here.

Need a state to set your hockey or winter movie?  Hollywood usually picks Minnesota.  The Mighty Ducks series (1992, 1994, 1996), Jingle All the Way (1996), Miracle (2004), Inside Out (2015), meet this description, although they are films of varying quality to say the least.

Choosing a non-Fargo “definitive” movie set in Minnesota is a tough one.  I would call it a draw between Purple Rain (1984) and Juno (2007).  These movies couldn’t be more different, but that gets to the heart of the matter.  When a state is at once Western, Midwestern, and Northern, it’s hard to pin down with a “definitive” film.


We’re starting to get into Western country, and not just the region, but the genre.  Films set in the Mountain West and Southwest tend to be Westerns.  Montana is no different, although the modern Western tends to dominate with films such as The Horse Whisperer (1998), Legends of the Fall (1994), A River Runs Through It (1992) and The Revenant (2015).

Oddly enough, arguably the best Star Trek movie (at least tied with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)) has large portions set in Montana.  Star Trek: First Contact (1996) takes the best parts of the Next Generation series and successfully translates them to film.  It includes call backs to some of the best episodes of the Next Generation series and the Original Series for good measure.


While Washington State finds itself home to a few notable teen movies, such as The Twilight Series (2008-2012), and 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), films about extraordinary animals seem to be the main attraction.  These include Harry and the Hendersons (1987), Air Bud (1997), and Free Willy (1993).

For more definitive Washington State films, one should check out either Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle (1993) or Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971).  These are two very different films about the things that isolate us.  One is positive, one is not.


For movies set in the Pacific Northwest, Oregon doesn’t get nearly as much love as its northern neighbor.  The films set here tend to be a mixture of old, mostly forgotten westerns like 1946’s Canyon Passage or random films like Short Circuit (1986).

Fortunately for the State of Oregon, one of the heavy hitters of cinema history is set here too.  1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of only three movies to win Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay.


There are a lot of potatoes in Idaho, but not a lot of movies set there.  2004’s Napoleon Dynamite is probably the best known to modern audiences, or any audiences for that matter.


Wyoming is home to a surprising number of important movies. Heaven’s Gate (1980) was such a massive flop that it brought down an entire studio and effectively ended the career of director Michael Cimino (although its reputation has improved over the years).  As for traditional westerns, Spencer’s Mountain (1963) is key Henry Fonda film, Shane (1953) is considered by many critics as one of the top echelon of old Hollywood movies, and The Virginian was once such a popular tale that they made four movies about it (1914, 1923, 1929, 1946).

For a definitive movie for Wyoming, for breaking conventions but also for being a damn good story, I’m picking 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, whose reputation has only grown more positive in the last eleven years, even after being widely acclaimed when it first came out.  A close second is 1992’s Unforgiven.


Colorado is pretty fertile ground for movie settings, especially movies involving mountains.  There are “weirdos in the mountains” movies like Misery (1987), skiing in the mountains movies like Dumb and Dumber (1994), fire in the mountains movies like Always (1989), and chaos in the mountains movies like South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (1999).

Needless to say, the definitive Colorado movie is also set in the mountains.  Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) plants itself firmly in the first category of weirdos in the mountains.  Dangerous, axe murdering weirdos that is.


John Ford famously filmed a ton of movies in Utah.  Unfortunately most of them are “set” in Texas.  There aren’t a ton of notable films set in the Beehive state.  Carnival of Souls (1962), 127 Hours (2010), and Con Air (1997) pretty much sum up the selection – the strange, the independent, and the violent.


Viva Las Vegas!  No, seriously, if it weren’t for Sin City there’d be like two movies set in Nevada.  I should note that one of them is The Godfather: Part II (1974), although much of that movies is also set in New York, Florida, Cuba, and Italy.

As for Vegas films, there are no shortage.  Both Ocean’s Eleven (1960 and 2001), Swingers (1996), Rain Man (1988), Leaving Las Vegas 1995), and Showgirls (1995) are a few examples, many of which came out in the mid-90’s.  It’s hard to call a definitive Vegas movie, although 1995’s Casino has pretty much all the elements that you expect from the Vegas strip: sleaze, flashiness, and knockoffs.  In this case, Casino is essentially a re-run of Goodfellas, although with a juicer part for Robert DeNiro.

New Mexico

The most iconic film set in New Mexico is not a film at all, rather the TV series Breaking Bad.  Otherwise, it’s mostly Westerns set here, like Stagecoach (1939), For a Few Dollars More (1965), High Noon (1952), and City Slickers (1991).

There’s quite a few random films you wouldn’t think of set here too, such as Thor (2011), the High School Musical series, Natural Born Killers (1994), and Contact (1997).


Arizona has a similar profile to New Mexico when it comes to films set there.  There are random movies, such as Raising Arizona (1987)and Little Miss Sunshine (2011), but mostly it’s westerns set here.  My Darling Clementine (1946), Tombstone (1993), 3:10 to Yuma (1957) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)  are some examples.

The most iconic Arizona movie?  By far Psycho (1960), which is a contender for best American film overall.


The Hawai’i movie usually involves some combination of surfing, beaches, and vacation.  Movies such as Lilo and Stitch (2002), Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008), Blue Hawaii (1961), and North Shore (1987) meet this description.

That isn’t to say that all Hawai’i movies are fun and games.  Consider for example The Descendants (2011) or Tora Tora Tora (1970).  Indeed, the most iconic Hollywood film set in Hawai’i is From Here to Eternity (1953), which is about the waning days before the bombing at Pearl Harbor.


Movies set in Alaska usually involve sled dogs such as Balto (1995)  or the Alaska Gold Rush, such as North to Alaska (1960).  Insomnia (2002), Mystery, Alaska (1999), and The Grey (2011) are set in The Last Frontier too.

The most iconic Alaska film is one of the oldest Hollywood classics.  The Gold Rush (1925) is commonly cited as one of the finest silent films.  Considering that his later masterpieces had some element of sound effects or speech in them, it could also be considered Charlie Chaplin’s finest purely silent film.


How many American films do you think are set in California?  I would guess roughly every 2 or 3 out of five.  Hollywood may have mastered the art of filming far away lands in Southern California back-lots, but when they are reaching for a setting, the American film industry has a tendency to settle in its own backyard.  I’ve avoided “top 5” or “top 10” lists in this project, but I’ve decided that it’s the easiest way to talk about films set in the Golden State.  Here, therefore, are your top 10 California films in alphabetical order:

  • Back to the Future (1985)
  • Blazing Saddles (1974)
  • Chinatown (1974)
  • Double Indemnity (1944)
  • East of Eden (1955)
  • The Graduate (1967)
  • The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
  • Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
  • Sunset Boulevard (1950)
  • Vertigo (1958)

Feel free to disagree with the above list.

Anyway that’s (finally) a wrap on Movies by State.

(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe