California Neo-noir Films - Movies that Glow

Neo-noir in California

Also known as "retro '80s synth," or around my house "chillwave movies," I describe these more '80s lensed films with their nod to the dodo-going genre of chillwave music. Thankfully for me, there are still puddles of enthusiasts out there maintaining the legacy and kicking out new jams, but the truth is that the music's fifteen minutes are five years past.

At the same time people were listening to chillwave music in the early to mid '10s, there was an influx of movies injecting that glowy, sparkling palate of hues and washes into theatres. They are atmospheric, typically, but complete eye candy. That's the cool thing about that neon noir chillwave style, there is as much an emphasis on the visuals as the audio qualities, so even if you don't especially enjoy the movie, at least you get some rad colors and interesting cinematography to get lost in. Let's cover some favorites. I've vetted the following list to reflect critically and audience praised films. 

I won't go into great detail about any plots because I enjoy going into movies blind. Most of what I'll mention takes place in California, though the reach and influence goes beyond, so some non CA based films will also be mentioned.  


DRIVE (2011)

Delivered to us by director Nicolas Refn and shot by Newton Sigel, Drive is the tale of a lone stunt driver who bides his evenings doing professional criminal getaway driving. Things get complicated when his neighbor gets into a jam.   

About the style: Think '80s neons and glowing colors during the night sequences and sunspot, sepia hued daylight scenes. The dialogue is sparse, causing the viewer to rely on the audio and visual queues that balance the atmospheric crescendos.  

This is a quintessential chillwave movie that came from the anales of the music genre right when the ship was starting to sink.  


Thanks to Jason Stanley for letting us use this, more of his awesome designs here.

Lot's of visual similarities between this film and Drive. The story is about a sociopath entrepreneur starting his local news filming career with unorthodox methodologies. Could be a great case study for a business class on developing a business plan, finding a market and boosting sales.  

About the style: The coloring here is fantastic. The majority of the film takes place at night, in Los Angeles. So it has this California injection that's similar to Drive. Expect lots of atmospheric shots and bold contrasts. The story is fantastic, and Gyllenhaal has a Patrick Bateman degree of anti-hero about him. Straight up chillwave coolsville.

HEAT (1995) 

Michael Mann's break out hit. Bringing Al Pacino and DeNiro together, two sides of the same coin. A typical cop and robber thriller. The film that makes every man salivate like carniceria trotting doberman. Also, like the above two films mentioned, takes place in Los Angeles, which imparts on the film that signature summer-toned aesthetic.

About the style: Grittier than Drive and Nightcrawler, this is one of the first Los Angeles films to truly bask in LA as a moebius character. The diversity of siting throughout LA grants the viewer a riding shotgun to the mayhem experience with dreamy, stylized backdrops, from KoreaTown, Downtown, and the Valley, the plot takes us everywhere. The soundtrack is straight up '80s synth heavy, so it keeps in the line. If you like this, definitely check out Mann's other films that bear the chillwave pulse: Collateral, Miami Vice, Thief and Manhunter.  

HANNA (2011)

This movie is so awesome. Great soundtrack, killer visuals, totally badass femme fatale lead. Just awesome all around.  Young girl is a trained mercenary, all you need to know there, and Cake Blanchett is a total beast. 

Hannah is also a UK film, so although not Californian, it wears that '80s glow and neon like a golden state badge. Hard to get more chillwave than this. Plus, like any noir film, it's filled with action. I can watch this movie anytime thanks to its glorious visuals. 


Poster by the talented Mr.  Dana Jones  

Poster by the talented Mr. Dana Jones 

Taking place in South London, Attack the Block is a great sci-fi monster movie with a Gooney level of come-uppance.  Visually, the film reflects this throw-back to the '80s style coloring.  

The film is great fun, but visual expect lots of contrasts, stacks of lights in futuristic dystopian frames. Night sequences hold the film so there's lots of use of reflected color and cityscape backdrops. Hell, even the monsters have glowing teeth that add a bold contrasting visual. 


This post will be developed over time and added to as new films emerge and fit the bill. My motivation for this strange post: relatively recently, I was stoked when I first started seeing movies like these and would have valued a resource that put them together.

More notable films fitting the bill: 

  • Akira - '80s ultra violence with neon styling.
  • The Guest
  • To Live and Die in LA - an '80s classic.
  • John Wick - Keanu Reeves at his Reeviest.
  • Cold in July - Revenge is best served lone star
  • Black Rain
  • Collateral - Another Michael Mann LA noire beat
  • Fracture - Gosling, attorney at law.
  • Blade Runner - Dark, rainy, neon, Harrison Ford in a trench coat.
  • Thief - Michael Mann loves this '80s shit. 
  • Brick - Writing that makes me weep and never write again.
  • It Follows - Stylish, exceptionally written horror in Motor City.
  • American Ultra - Green fueled action. 

I would adore more recommendations.