How do you make a Florida movie?
If you go by the stereotypical Hollywood view of the Sunshine State, you take one gangster, one senior citizen and throw them together on Spring Break. Add explosions, car chases and drug deals gone wrong. Sprinkle in lots of shots of palm trees. Because you don’t know a movie is a Florida movie unless there are lots of shots of palm trees.
But the best Florida movies come in all shapes, sizes and subject matter — from big Oscar winners to small independents.
The best Florida movies aren’t necessarily filmed here — one was even made in England. But, for this list, they had to be set in Florida, and they must reflect some essential aspect of the crazy-quilt, only in the Sunshine State experience.
So here are The 30 Best Florida Movies, ranked.
Let the arguments begin. Preferably under a palm tree.
30. ROSEWOOD (1997)
Sunshine status: John Singleton’s movie is a reminder of Florida’s fraught history. It fictionalizes events surrounding the 1923 Rosewood massacre of blacks by a white mob, and was criticized for it by some, but the film is emotionally and devastatingly accurate in its depiction of Southern racism at its most virulent.
29. COCOON (1985)
Sunshine status: The ultimate Florida seniors movie — with a twist. Ron Howard’s appealing sci-fi fantasy has a condo of stereotypical St. Petersburg duffers finding a new Fountain of Life, courtesy of alien pods. Don Ameche won an Oscar for his role.
28. THE GODFATHER PART II (1974) and GOODFELLAS (1990)
Sunshine status: Mobsters are our underappreciated snowbirds, and these movies spotlight Florida’s importance to the Cosa Nostra lifestyle. Strictly as a film, the Oscar-winning “Godfather” sequel should be Top 5, but it only has a small scene set in Miami, where Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) goes to visit his rival, Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg). “Goodfellas” also has a brief Florida scene, but it’s a memorable one: enforcers Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta threaten a late-paying gambler with death-by-lion at the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa. (It was filmed in Brooklyn, though.)
27. TONY ROME (1967)
Sunshine status: Sinatra and Miami Beach in the ring-a-ding ’60s: What more do you want? Frank plays a hard-boiled private detective who lives on a houseboat. Theme song by daughter Nancy. Great, eclectic cast, from Jill St. John and Gena Rowlands to Shecky Greene and Rocky Graziano.
26. ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976)
Sunshine status: Florida’s role in a president’s fall. Reporter Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) follows the Watergate money to Miami, where he links the Cuban-American burglars to President Nixon’s re-election campaign thanks to a tip by Dade County State Attorney’s investigator Martin Dardis (Ned Beatty).
25. RAY (2004)
Sunshine status: Jamie Foxx’s brilliant, Oscar-winning portrayal of Ray Charles, which covers his early years in north Florida, where he lost his sight, attended the St. Augustine school for the deaf and blind and overcame family tragedies before hitting the road to becoming a music legend.
24. OUT OF SIGHT (1998)
Sunshine status: Elmore Leonard is one of the poet laureates of Florida crime fiction. This adaptation of his novel has an unforgettable meet-cute scene at a Belle Glade prison, in which escaping jailbird George Clooney jumps into a car trunk with FBI agent Jennifer Lopez and starts wooing her with movie talk.
23. MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969)
Sunshine status: Best movie about the worst bus trip to Miami. At the close of this Oscar winner about an unlikely New York friendship, male hustler Joe Buck (Jon Voight) takes his ailing con man pal Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) to Florida, only to have Ratso die on the way.
22. THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY (1998)
Sunshine status: A grown-up Ben Stiller reunites with high school fantasy Cameron Diaz in Miami, and somehow true love prevails despite zipper accidents, fish hooks in the mouth, a sticky hair situation and Stiller’s unlikely rival, Bret Favre. (Say it with us: Fah-vruh.)
21. THE HEARTBREAK KID (1972)
Sunshine status: A cautionary tale from writer Neil Simon and director Elaine May about Florida sunburns. If you get one on your Miami Beach honeymoon, your new husband will leave you in the hotel room, go down to the lobby and fall in love with Cybill Shepherd. So stay out of the sun.
20. DONNIE BRASCO (1997)
Sunshine status: Probably the best Florida mob character study, because it dares to shows a gangster as sad sack loser (Al Pacino, in a rare subtle performances in his ongoing Hammy Era.) Pacino’s made man not only unknowingly buddies up with an undercover fed (Johnny Depp), but thinks Miami is the place to stage his shot at redemption. Take a guess how that goes.
19. THE GHOST GOES WEST (1935)
Sunshine status: A comic delight from director Rene Clair. A grocery magnate has a Scottish castle dismantled and rebuilt on the Florida coast, not knowing that a cursed ghost (Robert Donat) is part of the package. This was a giant hit in Britain, where the Sunshine State was recreated on a soundstage, but has been forgotten over the years. It shouldn’t be.
18. ULEE’S GOLD (1997)
Sunshine status: Florida filmmaker Victor Nunez is an unsung treasure, and this is his best film, with a memorable, Oscar-nominated performance by Peter Fonda as a widowed North Florida beekeeper forced to raise his grandchildren because the mother is a substance abuser.
17. THE YEARLING (1946)
Sunshine status: A classic tearjerker, about a post-Civil War farm family in North Florida, and the son’s love of a young, rambunctious deer named Flag. (Think Bambi. Pass the tissues.) Based on Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ novel, the movie is also a moving exploration of every parent’s fears for their children. Starring Gregory Peck, Jane Wyman and Claude Jarman, Jr., who won a special “juvenile” Oscar for his role as the son.
16. THE LONGEST YARD (1974)
Sunshine status: The second-best Florida prison movie, and probably the best prison football movie. Burt Reynolds is a disgraced former pro quarterback who is arrested after stealing his Palm Beach girlfriend’s car and gets sent to Citrus State Prison, where sicko warden Eddie Albert makes him play for the hoosegow football team.
15. MONSTER (2003)
Sunshine status: This dark, disturbing story of prostitute-turned-murderer Aileen Wournos and her central Florida killing spree is unforgettable because of Charlize Theron, who you’ll never recognize. Roger Ebert rightly called it one of the great performances in cinema history, and she won the Oscar for Best Actress.
14. BODY HEAT (1981)
Sunshine status: Still the sexiest — and sweatiest — movie ever made in Palm Beach County. This neo-noir was filmed throughout Lake Worth and Hypoluxo and helped turn William Hurt, Kathleen Turner and Mickey Rourke into major stars. (Not to mention a pre-‘Cheers’ Ted Danson.) The film also zeroes in on the link between Florida humidity and murder: “Always starts hopping in weather like this,” says a cop in the film. “When it gets this hot, people try to kill each other.” Nothing’s changed.
13. APOLLO 13 (1995) and THE RIGHT STUFF (1983)
Sunshine status: These two films pay tribute to the importance of Florida, and specifically Cape Canaveral, as the launch pad for NASA’s missions. “Apollo 13” took off from the Cape on its tense, failure-is-not-an-option journey. “The Right Stuff” shows how the Cape was part of the hell-raising, can-do spirit of the Mercury program, and also how tragic accidents on the launch pad marred our sprint to the moon.
12. RAGING BULL (1980)
Sunshine status: Martin Scorsese’s masterwork about boxer Jake LaMotta’s rise and fall, hitting rock bottom in a Miami jail cell, pounding the walls with his fists and screaming, “I am not an animal.” DeNiro’s weighty, unforgettable (and still painful to look at) transformation won him an Oscar. Shot in black and white, ’50s Florida looks both swanky and seedy.
11. COOL HAND LUKE (1967)
Sunshine status: The best Florida prison movie, and one of the best anti-establishment movies of the ’60s. A drunken escapade gets Paul Newman’s Luke assigned to a hard-as-nails lockup, where he keeps trying to escape. It juxtaposes hellish scenes of prison and chain gang brutality with classic movie moments, such as Luke’s bet he can eat fifty hard-boiled eggs in an hour and the memorable line, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”
10. MIAMI BLUES (1990)
Sunshine status: Based on the great Charles Willeford’s novel, this crime thriller/love story/quirkfest gave young, sexy Alec Baldwin what is still his best role. He’s a wacked-out killer named Junior, who is shacked up with dim hooker Jennifer Jason Leigh while being chased across the city by Sgt. Hoke Mosely (Fred Ward), whose dentures Junior has stolen. Only in Miami.
9. MOONLIGHT (2016)
Sunshine status: The acclaimed, Oscar-nominated film shows us a Miami far removed from glitz and glamour — the housing projects of Liberty City. In three richly detailed chapters, a young man comes to grips with his life, from confused child to conflicted young man. While touching on issues of race, sexuality, drugs and prison, it also captures the heat of South Florida as well as any movie made here.
8. KEY LARGO (1948)
Sunshine status: The classic Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall film noir, in which they and an all-star cast are held hostage by gangster Edward G. Robinson in a Keys hotel during a hurricane. (The movie inspired, but should in no way be held responsible for that treacly Bertie Higgins song.)
7. NIGHT MOVES (1975)
Sunshine status: One of the bleakest films of the ’70s, as L.A. private eye Gene Hackman travels to the Keys to track down missing teen Melanie Griffith. Murder, mayhem and misdirection follow. And, in typical sun-baked noir fashion, nobody wins.
6. THE PALM BEACH STORY (1942)
Sunshine status: The best movie about Palm Beach. Preston Sturges’ comic romp has married Claudette Colbert fleeing hubby Joel McCrea and coming here to find herself a rich husband, running into all sorts of well-heeled twits along the way. It’s practically a documentary. Sturges knew the island first-hand. He was married briefly to Marjorie Merriweather Post’s daughter Eleanor, and hung around the Everglades Club with Paris Singer. As he wrote in his autobiography: “The few weeks I spent as Eleanor’s house guest at Mar-A-Lago were not unuseful to the story…Millionaires are funny.”
5. IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934)
Sunshine status: The classic romantic comedy. Escaping bride-to-be Claudette Colbert jumps off her rich daddy’s yacht in Miami and takes a bus ride up the coast with incognito reporter Clark Gable. Squabbles and sparks flare up before they ever hit Jacksonville. First movie to win all five major Oscars.
4. GOLDFINGER (1964)
Sunshine status: Bond, James Bond, on the beach, Miami Beach. The Fontainebleau. Auric Goldfinger cheating at cards poolside. Odd Job and that sharp hat. Beautiful blonde Shirley Eaton…smothered to death in gold paint. Considered by many to be the greatest Bond film. So good we’ll even forgive 007’s crack about listening to the Beatles with earmuffs. (Bond’s practically a snowbird, too. He saves Miami from being blown up by SPECTRE in “Thunderball” and parachutes into a Keys wedding in “License To Kill,” where he also meets M at the Hem — Ernest Hemingway’s Key West home.)
3. SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959)
Sunshine status: Musicians Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, in drag, escape the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre by hiding out in Miami, with ukelele player Marilyn Monroe getting “the fuzzy end of the lollipop.” Cross-dressing, open talk of homosexuality — Billy Wilder’s movie was not only funny, but cutting-edge for 1959. Especially the unforgettable ending: “Nobody’s perfect.” Maybe, but this movie is pretty close.
2. SCARFACE (1983)
Sunshine status: Speaking of massacres, say hello to the little film that sparked a big ruckus in Miami, forcing this ultra-violent, rags-to-riches Cuban-American gangster saga to be filmed mostly in California. Still, its influence to this day is undeniable, from rapper personas and the Michelle Pfeiffer shoutout in “Uptown Funk” to endless video games. “Scarface,” in all of its over-the-top glory, is part of the culture. And it’s the movie many people think of when they think about Florida “bad guy” movies.
1. CITIZEN KANE (1941)
Sunshine status: The Florida movie that nobody thinks of as a Florida movie. Orson Welles based newspaper baron Charles Foster Kane on William Randolph Hearst, whose famous San Simeon castle is in California. But in the movie, Kane’s Xanadu megamansion (“Cost: No man can say”) is somewhere on a giant mountain in the “deserts” of west Florida. It’s where he croaks, whispering the mysterious word, “Rosebud.” Which isn’t as much of a mystery as where in Florida you can find a combo of deserts and mountains. But let’s not nitpick genius — Welles’ masterwork has long been the critical consensus for Greatest Movie Ever Made. And Florida can take a bow.
What do you think? Tell us what Florida movies we left off the list.