Good, bad, or ugly, they tell essential truths about Vegas
Las Vegas has been appearing in movies since at least the early 1940s, and the town’s onscreen image has evolved as the city itself has transformed and expanded. In picking the 10 essential Las Vegas movies, I looked at films primarily set in and/or about Las Vegas, not just movies with one memorable Vegas sequence (which leaves out Swingers or the recent Gloria Bell). With the Las Vegas Film Festival wrapping up (April 28-May 5, lvff.com), here are iconic Vegas films that, whether great, good, or bad, help paint a vibrant picture of our city on the big screen.
Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956)
Cyd Charisse stars as an imperious ballerina performing at the Sands in this charming MGM musical, which combines plenty of Vegas atmosphere with old-fashioned Hollywood song-and-dance numbers. The sleepy plot provides lots of time for musical showcases, including some stunning wfootwork from Charisse, and the movie effectively sells both Vegas glamour (dig those gorgeous outfits) and the Vegas showbiz work ethic.
Viva Las Vegas (1964)
The title song of this Elvis Presley musical has had a more lasting impact than the movie it came from, but Viva Las Vegas remains a defining onscreen moment for Vegas, establishing so many of the persistent, indelible elements of the city’s image. Presley isn’t much of an actor, and the story is pretty undercooked, but there’s infectious fun in the musical set pieces, and a giddy enthusiasm for everything Vegas that still does wonders for the city.
Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
Often cited as one of the worst James Bond movies, Diamonds Are Forever is not exactly a great showcase for the iconic secret agent. But it is a great showcase for Las Vegas, which shines in all its gaudy, neon-drenched 1970s glory. The eight featured Vegas hotels are as much the stars of the movie as Sean Connery, especially the International (now the Westgate), turned into the fictional Whyte House, run by the movie’s campy Howard Hughes analogue.
Is Showgirls one of the worst movies ever made? Is it so bad it’s good, or is it actually secretly brilliant? Paul Verhoeven’s stripper saga is all of those things and more — but the movie is never not entertaining. Joe Eszterhas’ screenplay is full of quotably ridiculous dialogue, and the performances are perversely dedicated, especially Elizabeth Berkley in the role that both defined and essentially ended her career. Showgirls presents Las Vegas as a corrupt cesspool, but also as a place where people with genuine artistic ambitions come to make it big. In its strange way, it’s a tribute to the town’s own ruthless ambitions.
While it’s often overshadowed by director Martin Scorsese’s previous collaboration with crime writer Nicholas Pileggi, 1990’s Goodfellas, Casino is every bit the masterful crime epic its predecessor is, another complex examination of loyalty and betrayal among gangsters, in this case the criminal organization that unofficially ran multiple Las Vegas casinos in the 1970s and early ’80s. Robert De Niro gives possibly his last great performance as Lefty Rosenthal stand-in Sam “Ace” Rothstein, and Joe Pesci is delightfully unhinged as Rothstein’s best friend and worst enemy Nicky Santoro.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s seminal novel captures the kaleidoscopic nightmare experienced by Thompson stand-in Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and his lawyer/accomplice Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Toro) as they navigate the garish horrors they perceive in the Vegas of 1971. Using Vegas as a stand-in for America’s worst excesses may have become a cliché, but Fear and Loathing embraces its inherent contradictions, allowing its self-destructive characters to take advantage of depravity while also recoiling from it in horror.
Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
Ocean’s Thirteen (2007)
The bookends of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy make Las Vegas look almost impossibly cool, a high-end playground for the crew of suave thieves led by George Clooney’s Danny Ocean. Far superior to its Rat Pack source material, Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven is a lively, funny, and massively entertaining heist movie bursting with great performances. Ocean’s Thirteen is even more of a love letter to Vegas, made when construction on the Strip was booming and new megaresorts seemed to open every other month.
The Hangover (2009)
Todd Phillips’ raunchy comedy has come to define the hedonistic image of modern Las Vegas as the place where people are free to indulge their darkest desires. The story of three friends trying to piece together their harrowing bachelor party night is still consistently funny, with justifiably star-making performances from Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis. The movie portrays Vegas as a dangerous adult playground where anything goes, which is equally enticing and terrifying.
Electrick Children (2012)
Las Vegas native Rebecca Thomas makes the city into an ethereal promised land in this dreamlike fable about a sheltered Utah teenager (Julia Garner) who runs away from a religious compound to seek out the man she believes impregnated her via a holy cassette tape. Garner is fantastic as the open, tender Rachel, who views every new place she visits with wide-eyed wonder. Thomas finds that wonder away from the Strip, in places like Downtown’s Artifice and the Alamo, and at the suburban Desert Breeze Skate Park.
A team-up of some of the most talented local filmmakers of the last few years, Dealer is an omnibus film made by five directors and/or directing teams (Lundon Boyd, Jeremy Cloe, Mike and Jerry Thompson, Ryan and Cody LeBeouf, Adam Zielinski), tied together by Boyd’s character, a hapless casino card dealer who’s forced into running errands for a mysterious crime boss. Each segment has its own tone, from surreal to sweet to suspenseful, and each highlights a different side of Vegas.
Vegas Vacation (1997) The worst movie in the Vacation series (until the 2015 reboot) puts the Griswold family through a series of painful slapstick set pieces, and makes Vegas look ugly and unappealing.
Pay It Forward (2000) Haley Joel Osment plays a beatific little boy who comes up with the spiritual equivalent of a chain letter, and the, heavy-handed movie treats Vegas like the filth he has to wash from everyone’s souls.
Last Vegas (2013) Old guys! In Las Vegas! At a nightclub?! The mind reels.
Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 (2015) Oh, come on.