50 States, 50 Movies – Part 3

Let’s be honest, here. I’m not really that much of a movie buff. I’ll see a movie in a theater maybe once a year, watch one on TV at about the same rate, and watch one online maybe twice a month. But I still appreciate the art form and its history. So maybe that qualifies me sufficiently to make a list like this. Heck, it’s not that hard. Just enter “Best movie set in {state}” in your favorite search engine, and you’re off and running.

And if, unlike me, you are a true film buff, maybe by poking around in the “runners up” you’ll find a hidden gem that deserves more attention.

Ohio: It’s not that there aren’t movies set in Ohio, or filmed in Ohio, it’s that it’s hard to find one that’s both – and reasonably good on top of that. I will offer the biopic of Cleveland’s own Harvey Pekar, American Splendor, and leave it at that.


Hey, this is my list, I can include the movie version of a Broadway musical if I want! And can you come up with something better?

Oregon: The Goonies shows off coastal Oregon at its best.

Pennsylvania: The standard joke is that Pennsylvania is Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west, and Alabama in the middle. Whatever you may think of that characterization, Witness (shot in Philadelphia and Lancaster County), covers both the urban and rural parts of the Keystone State, and could not have taken place anywhere else.

Rhode Island: I have to go with a concert film (hey, it’s my list, I can if I want). Jazz on a Summer’s Day is a film of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, and features performances by (among others) the Thelonius Monk Trio, Anita O’Day, Dinah Washington, Chuck Berry, Louis Armstrong, and Mahalia Jackson. And there’s plenty of shots of Newport and the harbor….

South Carolina: Birth of a Nation may tell you more about life in the state than the state’s tourist office would like. Glory is a fine “antidote” to that movie. However, neither was filmed in the Palmetto State. The Notebook was; but it’s a rather generic romance. That leaves The Patriot, which was filmed almost entirely in the state and features Mel Gibson once more going berserk against the British.

South Dakota: Even though the setting isn’t specifically mentioned, the pick here has got to be Dances with Wolves, right?

Tennessee: The obvious selection here is Robert Altman’s Nashville. But I cannot choose it. I had the opportunity to see it as part of a film study course I took in college. After an interminable time, I said to myself, “This is boring! Nothing is happening! There’s no plot! And I don’t even care about the characters!” I walked out. So for a movie that’s set in, was filmed in, and reflects some aspect of life in the state, I’m going with Walking Tall (the original, of course).

Texas: In many cases, there really isn’t a right answer to the question of “Best Movie” from a state. Even experts who you think would know both movies and their state the best have trouble deciding.

In the case of Texas, I suppose it might just come down to what era of Hollywood you prefer: Giant for “classic” Hollywood; The Last Picture Show for the Silver Age, Friday Night Lights for the Modern Era.

Utah: The state’s spectacular scenery has provided the backdrop to many a western. Sadly, none of any note are actually specifically set in Utah. 127 Hours dramatizes a real incident while showing off the state’s landscape, so let’s go with that. Not sure one can do better, anyway. However, if you want to be iconoclastic, you can note to your friends that Carnival of Souls made great use of the abandoned Saltair Pavillion on the outskirts of Salt Lake City….

Vermont: Everyone picks Super Troopers, but that cult comedy wasn’t filmed in Vermont. Diane Keaton’s Baby Boom was. So was Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry, where the filmakers famously had to glue leaves back onto trees for the outdoor scenes….. What do people who live in Vermont have to say? I haven’t found anything yet.

Virginia: Remember the Titans deals with the integration of a high-school football team – but it was shot in Georgia. How about Loving, another movie that deals with racism and was filmed entirely in Virginia?

Washington: Let’s see…there’s Seattle, Bigfoot, Puget Sound, and, um, aren’t there volcanoes there…and, uh, Seattle…. Harry and the Hendersons uses the Bigfoot legend for comic effect, but critics were generally “meh” about it. The Ring is more respected by the critics, but it doesn’t really require a Pacific Northwest setting (the fact that it’s a remake of a Japanese film should make this clear). Sleepless in Seattle is your basic “could be set anywhere” rom-com. Your call on this one.

West Virginia: To anyone but a football fan or a coal industry executive, the choice of Matewan is obvious. Extra points for period-appropriate music, including the title track “Fire in the Hole” by West Virginian Hazel Dickens.

Wisconsin: You know, I can’t think of anything. I mentioned at the start of this list that lots of movie review (and pop culture) sites do these lists every so often. Let’s see what they have to say about Wisconsin:

Time Out New York: Come and Get It
Rotten Tomatoes: American Movie
Business Insider: Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Reader’s Digest: The Straight Story
Popsugar, Entertainment Weekly, Thrillist: Bridesmaids

Come and Get It, while admirably portraying life in Wisconsin, was filmed in Idaho. American Movie is a low-budget “documentary” about making a low-budget horror movie. It’s only set in Wisconsin because that’s where producer/writer/lead Mark Borchardt is from. Dawn of the Dead is set in a fake Wisconsin town, but it wasn’t filmed in the state. Most of The Straight Story takes place in Iowa. Bridesmaids is a rom-com that just happens to be set in Milwaukee; it could take place anywhere.

Is that the best you can do, Wisconsin? Really? You’re going to make it difficult for everyone by having a bunch of “meh” films that don’t really show off the state? In that case, to heck with you! I’m going to choose The Giant Spider Invasion! And the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version on top of that! HA!

Wyoming: Brokeback Mountain. See, Wisconsin? This is how you do it! Take a standard trope (Romance in this case), give it an interesting twist, and set it (or at least a major part of it) in the state’s majestic scenery…..

Washington, DC: OK, for the nation’s capitol, it’s either political intrigue or comedies about ordinary Joes becoming senators or president. For the former, that means All the President’s Men; for the latter, it’s Dave. How do they compare? Rotten Tomatoes gives AtPM a 93% rating; Dave gets a 95%. OK, that’s pretty much too close to really call. How about Metacritic? There, it’s 80 to 76 in favor of AtPM. Still really too close. IMDB, how about you? There, AtPM wins with an 8.0 rating to Dave’s 6.8.

So I guess it’s All the President’s Men for DC.

By the way. how much of that movie was actually filmed there? Not much, actually. Just a couple of external shots around landmarks. If you really want to see a lot of DC and Alexandria, the movie to watch is State of Play, a 2009 adaptation of a British miniseries about an investigative reporter discovering a political scandal behind a pair of seemingly unrelated deaths. Starring Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck, it’s got scenes in a Metro station, the Southwest Fish Market, the Watergate Hotel, and the JFK Center for the Performing Arts, among many others.

Feel free to disagree with me. These sorts of lists are entirely subjective, anyway.

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