The bad news: I’m moving to Florida in a few months.
The good news: At long, glorious last I’ll be living in the state where classics of cinema like Scarface, Jack-O, and Two Thousand Maniacs! were filmed.
Florida is one of those states that seemingly works well as a representation of America as a whole. This is because a lot of weird, quintessentially American things happen there, most of which run the gamut from bizarre to hideous. Strange things can happen when it’s 104F with 175,000% humidity 11 months out of the year. Some of Florida’s weirdness is part of that general good ol’ fashioned American weirdness, but some of it is very unique to Florida and only Florida. Where else could you build Disneyland?
In honor of the state I’ll soon be calling home, let’s cover a few of my favorite movies set in Florida. They also had to be shot in Florida to some meaningful or noticeable degree. I’ve been to the state a few times in the past, but this will be the first time I’ve spent more than a couple of days there.
Ultimately, and at the very least, Florida is an interesting place with a deep film history. That’s not necessarily a good reason to live there, but it’s something.
1. The Florida Project (2017)
Director: Sean Baker
It’s easy to dismiss The Florida Project as Oscar bait. The movie was nominated for several awards, but only one for an Oscar, and that was a well-deserved nod to Willem Dafoe as the manager of a motel where most of this A24 film is set.
But The Florida Project isn’t a particularly inspirational story. It’s a look at a young unemployed mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite, nailing her screen debut), and her 6-year-old daughter, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). They live in a relatively grim motel near Disneyland, trying to make what little money they can and staying one step ahead of being kicked out of the motel and onto the streets. The movie doesn’t deviate too much from this description. Halley and Moonee live in depressing circumstances in the shadow of the most famous theme park in the world. We’d like things to get better for them, but it’s hard to be optimistic.
The movie shows us their story, as well as that of Dafoe (at his sympathetic best) as Bobby Hicks, the manager of the motel, without pretension or arrogance towards its subjects. I love The Florida Project for that, and for showing Florida with what at least feels like some semblance of reality. The fact that the film was shot entirely on location helps with that, as well.
2. Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Set on a Florida prison farm, Cool Hand Luke consists of actual Florida locations, including Jacksonville, and a set built in California that was designed to look like a prison farm in the deep south. That’s enough to justify its inclusion here, but really, this is one of the best movies of the 1960s. It’s a contender for one of the best movies ever made, period.
With Cool Hand Luke, you’re getting more than just a movie that’s incredibly entertaining and quotable on every possible front. You’ve got Paul Newman in all his iconic badass glory, as a low-level criminal who refuses to be broken by anyone at the prison in which he is to spend the next two years of his life. You’ve got a stellar supporting cast that includes George Kennedy (winning an Oscar here, and perhaps better known for the Naked Gun movies), Strother Martin, Jo Van Fleet, and early turns from Dennis Hopper and Harry Dean Stanton. You’ve got genuine tension, memorable doses of humor, and the absolute best of everyone involved behind and in front of the camera.
Cool Hand Luke is essentially timeless as an entertainment piece. Unfortunately, they don’t make them quite like this anymore.
3. The Birdcage (1996)
Director: Mike Nichols
When I was a little kid, my impression of Florida was formed almost entirely by what I had seen in The Birdcage and Scarface. I have no idea if those movies represent a reasonable approximation of the state, or even its locations (the film was shot in such locations as Miami and Miami Beach). Exterior shots of major Florida destinations still seem to make up a lot of the images I conjure when I think about this unhinged state at all.
Florida as depicted in The Birdcage is just as important to the appeal of this beloved comedy as the cast, director, or anything else. The performances and energy match the unique atmosphere of their surroundings. You don’t really need to think about these things to consider The Birdcage one of the best comedies of the 90s.
At its core, The Birdcage is Robin Williams and Nathan Lane bringing out their respective best qualities as performers for almost two hours. They’re believable and enduringly funny as a gay couple trying to make their son happy by meeting his fiancé’s conservative parents (Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest are perfect). Add comedy great Mike Nichols to all of this, and it’s not a huge surprise that this film remains a gem.
4. Night Moves (1975)
Director: Arthur Penn
Something about the Florida Keys seems to work well for noir stories. They don’t come much grimier or bleaker than the 1975 classic Night Moves.
Although Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman in yet another powerhouse 1970s performance) is a Los Angeles private detective, much of his work for this film takes him to Florida. The film gets some authenticity from actually going to these locations in Florida to shoot those scenes. What we’re left with is a film that feels like a few hundred miles of bad road, with Harry finding himself in over his head in his search for a faded movie star’s young daughter (a young Melanie Griffith).
Night Moves isn’t really a road movie. It does however belong to a long tradition of movies in which weary people wander the landscape for one depressing reason or another. Harry’s marriage is falling apart, but that’s not the only problem this guy has. We watch his life and story unfold as he himself tries to make sense of the case he’s taken on.
Night Moves doesn’t offer any easy or happy answers. What it does give us is a thrilling descent into seedy and complex circumstances, enhanced in no small way by its Florida backdrops.
5. Blood Rage (1987)
Director: John Grissmer
Even though these five movies aren’t ranked, let’s just go ahead and pretend Blood Rage is the greatest movie to ever be filmed in Florida. It’s someone’s favorite movie of all time, you would imagine. This 1987 slasher didn’t make a big impression upon initial release (several years after it was actually shot), but has since found a devoted following who consider it an unsung gem of the decade.
I think I’m pretty firmly in the second camp. Blood Rage features a fairly clever premise concerning twins (both played by Mark Soper), the fact that one of them has a VERY weird thing going on with their unhinged mother (a delightfully deranged Louise Lasser performance) and the fact that the other one recently escaped from a mental institution. All of this takes place on Thanksgiving, in case you needed anything else to make this oddball absolutely perfect.
Blood Rage gets some of its charm from over-the-top performances and odd line readings. I would say that’s only a smart part of it. This movie also manages to be so unusual in its tone and choices, it becomes its own kind of creepy.
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