Visiting all 50 states is a fairly common bucket list goal, whether you plan to knock out full regions in sprawling road trips or chip away bit by bit throughout life. But while many travel plans are on hold at the moment, consider a different route: experience the far-flung corners of the United States from the comfort of your own home by watching the best movie set in every single state.
Alabama: To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
The town of Maycomb may be fictional, but the state of Alabama is real as can be. The rare silver-screen adaptation to do its source material justice and then some, To Kill a Mockingbird is an all-timer worthy of Harper Lee’s revered novel. The Old Monroe County Courthouse in the author’s hometown of Monroeville inspired the courtroom set used in the film, which was so accurate that many Alabamans thought those scenes featuring Gregory Peck at his most inspiring were shot on location.
Alaska: Grizzly Man (2005)
If you want to see the rugged, savage beauty of Alaska from the comfort of your own home, there’s no substitute for Grizzly Man. Werner Herzog’s elegiac documentary tells the tale of Timothy Treadwell, a bear enthusiast who spent 13 summers in Katmai National Park and so adored the majestic, imposing creatures that he often approached (and occasionally even touched) them. While this story doesn’t have a happy ending, Herzog’s one-of-a-kind narration — “I have seen this madness before on a film set. But Treadwell is not an actor in opposition to a director or a producer. He’s fighting civilization itself. It is the same civilization that cast Thoreau out of Walden and sent John Muir into the wild” — and the use of Treadwell’s own footage make it one worth watching.
Arizona: Raising Arizona (1987)
No one who saw 1985’s Blood Simple was likely to imagine that the Coen Brothers would follow their harsh debut with a comedy like Raising Arizona, which is part of what makes their sophomore effort so special. In one of his most memorable roles, Nicolas Cage plays a hapless husband who, to please his desperate wife (Holly Hunter), kidnaps — with the best of intentions — one of the newborn quintuplets of a local painted-furniture magnate. Desert landscapes and powerfully bright sunlight cut through the film's bittersweetness, making for a far more moving experience than you might expect.
Arkansas: A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Elia Kazan already had multiple Best Director Oscars and Tonys under his belt (for classics like On the Waterfront and Broadway’s Death of a Salesman) when A Face in the Crowd came out, and this story of a scheming drifter who becomes the most famous man in America feels strangely prescient. A Face in the Crowd is a remarkable movie — it begins in a rural Arkansas jail and ends with its protagonist (Andy Griffith, in his film debut) influencing politics and mass media in equal measure.
California: 3 Women (1977)
Countless films take place in California, and for good reason: the most populous state in the country is also the home of the film industry itself. What makes 3 Women rise above worthy competitors like Blade Runner, Pulp Fiction, and Sunset Boulevard are the performances of Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall (who won a well-deserved Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival) as oddly paired friends, the dream logic of its increasingly surreal plot, and its use of the California desert as a canvas for all manner of subconscious projections. Robert Altman had several masterworks to his name — The Long Goodbye, M*A*S*H, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller among them — but there’s simply nothing like 3 Women in his or anyone else’s filmography.
Colorado: The Shining (1980)
The Shining was born when Stephen King and his wife, Tabitha, spent a night in room 217 of the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado. They were the only guests in the supposedly haunted hotel, which King turned into The Overlook for his seminal horror novel. The author himself wasn't a fan of Stanley Kubrick's adaptation, but the movie is a classic all the same — one in which the snowbound setting is quite literally a character in and of itself.
Connecticut: The Ice Storm (1997)
He’s better known for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain, but Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm remains an under-seen classic. Following two seemingly ordinary families in New Canaan, Connecticut, over Thanksgiving weekend in the early 1970s, The Ice Storm is proof that filial dysfunction comes in all forms and occurs in all places — including and especially upscale suburbia.
Delaware: Dead Poets Society (1989)
Dead Poets Society is perhaps the most famous film ever shot in Delaware — namely St. Andrew's School in Middletown as well as other locations in New Castle and Wilmington. The boarding-school drama further solidified Robin Williams’ dramatic chops following his role in Good Morning, Vietnam, and adolescent academia has rarely been depicted so winsomely.
Florida: Scarface (1983)
No movie has ever portrayed the American Dream quite like Scarface, in which the now-infamous Tony Montana emigrates from Cuba to become a criminal kingpin unlike any other. Al Pacino’s lead performance and Brian De Palma’s direction steal the show, but none of this fable’s inherent darkness would be so grim if it weren’t contrasted with the sunny skies and neon lights of Miami.
Georgia: The Color Purple (1985)
Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey both made their big-screen debuts in Steven Spielberg's take on Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which is as closely linked to Georgia as peaches and pecans. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards (including acting nods for both Goldberg and Winfrey), the coming-of-age drama about a young Black woman who finds solace in her female friendships left the ceremony empty-handed, but it also became a cultural touchstone.
Hawaii: From Here to Eternity (1953)
Even if you don’t know this Best Picture winner by name, you’re certainly familiar with its most famous scene: Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr kissing passionately on the beach as waves crash over them. Fred Zinnemann's romantic drama follows a group of soldiers (including Montgomery Clift and Frank Sinatra) stationed on Hawaii who have no way of knowing that they'll be thrust into World War II following the imminent attack on Pearl Harbor. From Here to Eternity won a total of eight Oscars, including Best Director for Zinnemann and supporting actor trophies for Sinatra and Donna Reed, with the Aloha State serving as a tragically exquisite backdrop.
Idaho: My Own Private Idaho (1991)
One of the most important films in the New Queer Cinema canon, Gus Van Sant's loose reworking of Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V stars River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves as friends who trek from Portland to Idaho in search of answers and, really, themselves. You might not think of the Gem State as being America’s most scenic, but a trip to My Own Private Idaho will change that.
Illinois: Halloween (1978)
Laurie Strode and Michael Myers are the main characters of John Carpenter’s chilling slasher franchise, but don’t downplay the role of its fictional setting: Haddonfield, a small town like any other that’s haunted by its past — especially since it refuses to stay dead. Endless sequels, remakes, and ripoffs have made this kind of movie old hat, but the 1978 original was terrifying precisely because it showed that not even Anytown, USA, was safe from horror.
Indiana: Hoosiers (1986)
What is it about Indiana and inspirational sports movies? In addition to Hoosiers, the state also serves as the setting for Breaking Away and Rudy. The urtext of inspirational-coach movies, it stars Gene Hackman as the mentor in question and Dennis Hopper as the basketball-obsessed town drunk; loosely based on the Milan, Indiana, team that won the 1954 state championship, Hoosiers can claim credit for introducing the world to Indiana’s official state nickname — even if its origin remains a matter of debate all these decades later.
Iowa: Field of Dreams (1989)
If you build it, they will come — and watch, too, as Field of Dreams is right up there with Hoosiers as one of the most beloved sports movies ever made. About an Iowa cornfield that gets turned into a baseball diamond of, well, dreams, the movie has such a devoted following that the actual field in Dubuque County remains a popular tourist attraction.
Kansas: In Cold Blood (1967)
It’s difficult not to give the nod to The Wizard of Oz, but that all-timer’s most famous (and most frequently misquoted) line seals the deal: “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” When it comes to actually showcasing the understated beauty of the Sunflower State, this 1967 adaptation of Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel” does it best. It’s a bleak story to be sure, but the twinge of melancholy evident in nearly every scene makes it unmissable.
Kentucky: Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)
Sissy Spacek won an Oscar for her portrayal of Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner's Daughter, a biopic about the country singer born in Butcher Hollow (which the locals pronounce Butcher Holler). And though rural Kentucky isn’t the most glamorous of settings, its depiction here is nothing if not authentic — especially in the way it shows the extent to which Lynn’s environment influenced her artistry.
Louisiana: Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
It’s impossible to imagine Benh Zeitlin’s Sundance sensation taking place anywhere other than the Louisiana bayou. Very much a post-Katrina endeavor, the fantastical narrative concerns a little girl (the pint-sized phenomenon Quvenzhané Wallis), her ailing father, and their ragtag community (called the Bathtub) fleeing an imminent storm while, on the other side of the world, extinct creatures called aurochs have been released from melting ice caps. What results from that strange blend is whimsical, deeply felt, and ultimately heartbreaking.
Maine: The Cider House Rules (1999)
“Goodnight you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.” With due respect to the many Stephen King adaptations set in the Pine Tree State, it’s The Cider House Rules that most affectionately evokes Maine’s autumnal vibe. Lasse Hallström's period piece earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Director and won for its screenplay and Michael Caine's supporting performance. Go all out and complete the New England experience by pairing the film with a cozy quilt and warm apple cider.
Maryland: The Blair Witch Project (1999)
No, it isn’t “real,” as was endlessly debated when this enormously influential mockumentary was first released in 1999, but the thrills are. Set and filmed in the woods of Maryland, where local lore claims the eponymous witch is said to reside, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s found-footage lulu proved that less is indeed more — especially when the environs are so inherently terrifying.
Massachusetts: The Departed (2006)
Martin Scorsese shipped up to Boston for the film that finally won him a directing Oscar, a crime saga whose setting is so integral to the plot you may have a hard time believing it’s actually a remake of the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs. New York is Scorsese’s most frequent backdrop, but his brand of gritty drama feels right at home in Beantown.
Michigan: RoboCop (1987)
RoboCop dares to ask the question that no other film would: What if a cop, but robo? Paul Verhoeven's sci-fi classic is set in a near-future dystopian Detroit, where the only answer to a ceaseless crime wave is to build a cybernetic law-enforcement officer — not exactly a flattering portrait of the Motor City, one might argue, but one that’s become so indelibly linked to it that a crowdfunded statue of the strangely beloved police officer has been in the works for nearly a decade.
Minnesota: Purple Rain (1984)
If anything represents Minnesota better than Prince, we’ve yet to hear of it. Everything about Purple Rain was huge: Prince’s acting debut, the concert sequences, its Oscar-winning score, and the bestselling soundtrack that moved more than 25 million copies. Filmed almost entirely in Minneapolis, including at its iconic First Avenue concert venue, Purple Rain represents the Land of 10,000 Lakes as only the late, great Purple One could.
Mississippi: In the Heat of the Night (1967)
They call him Mr. Tibbs, and don’t you forget it. Sidney Poitier’s electrifying performance is reason enough to watch this Best Picture winner, but here are some more: Rod Steiger’s equally great turn as a small-town police chief, Norman Jewison’s masterful direction, and the murder mystery that unfolds in Sparta, Mississippi. In the Heat of the Night deftly explored matters of race and prejudice at the height of the Civil Rights movement, unafraid to reckon with how those issues affected the country in general and the South in particular.
Missouri: Winter’s Bone (2010)
Before The Hunger Games made her a superstar, Winter’s Bone showed that Jennifer Lawrence is a major talent. She was just 20 years old when she received an Oscar nomination for playing a young woman trying to protect what remains of her family in this backwoods mystery set “way down in Missouri,” as the song goes. This area of the Ozarks has a dreary beauty to it, especially as envisioned by director Debra Granik — everyone is simply trying to survive, which is easier said than done.
Montana: Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)
In for a penny, in for a pound. It’s hard to resist the idea of Clint Eastwood (as Thunderbolt) and Jeff Bridges (playing Lightfoot) as two criminals teaming up for a heist in the wide expanse of Montana. Michael Cimino’s directorial debut (his following film was the Oscar-winning The Deer Hunter), with its long stretches of road and tragicomic plot, reads like an unofficial brochure for Big Sky Country.
Nebraska: Election (1999)
Nebraska itself would be the obvious pick, but it’s another Alexander Payne movie that best represents his home state: Election, which encouraged viewers to “Pick Flick” while demonstrating that not even a midwestern high school is immune to cutthroat politics. Starring Reese Witherspoon in one of her best roles alongside a very un-Ferris Bueller Matthew Broderick, this biting comedy is as relevant now as it was 20 years ago.
Nevada: The Misfits (1961)
Anyone who thinks of Marilyn Monroe as merely a blonde bombshell need only watch The Misfits to see what a talented performer she was. John Huston's 1961 drama was the final film she completed before her untimely passing (ditto Clark Gable); set in Reno and Dayton, the film is also proof that there’s life beyond Vegas. Few backdrops can compete with the likes of Monroe, Gable, and Montgomery Clift for attention, but the desert vistas of Northern Nevada do their utmost.
New Hampshire: On Golden Pond (1981)
The precise location of Golden Pond may never be mentioned in this idyllic story of an aging couple (Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda), but anyone who’s been to Squam Lake in Holderness, New Hampshire, knows all about it. The filming location has become the area's main attraction for visitors, including a boat tour of the lake itself and other sites from On Golden Pond; as with most of the Granite State, it’s a quiet, gorgeous getaway.
New Jersey: On the Waterfront (1954)
On the Waterfront coulda been a contender. Instead, it’s so much more. The movie that won Marlon Brando his first Academy Award is an early classic from master filmmaker Elia Kazan (who also directed A Streetcar Named Desire and East of Eden), and it’s the best movie ever set in New Jersey (sorry, Clerks). More specifically, it's about the low- and high-level crime among Hoboken's mob-connected longshoremen, a group of would-be bigshots whose exploits are as tragic as they are reprehensible.
New Mexico: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
Sergio Leone innovated and perfected the Spaghetti Western, a '60s subgenre made by Italian filmmakers and almost always filmed in Italy and/or Spain. That may make The Good, the Bad and the Ugly an odd choice to represent the Land of Enchantment, but the film's climactic showdown — which involves the Civil War's bloody New Mexico Campaign — make the state look so epic that it’s easy to overlook the fact that it wasn’t actually shot there.
New York: Do the Right Thing (1989)
Spike Lee has been on a roll of late with BlacKkKlansman and Da 5 Bloods, but it’s hard to imagine anything overtaking Do the Right Thing as the high-water mark of his one-of-a-kind career. More relevant than ever, it sees tensions rising along with the mercury over the course of one scorching summer day in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. Lee wrote, directed, and starred in the film, which acts as a microcosm of race relations in America. Few films have ever tackled that fraught subject as boldly or with this much style and verve, and its unforgettable climax remains a topic of heated debate more than three decades later.
North Carolina: Blue Velvet (1986)
Twin Peaks is David Lynch’s best known exploration of small-town America’s seedy underbelly, but he first delved into the subject in Blue Velvet. His subterranean interest is literal in this case: The movie opens on a shot of a man mowing his lawn in Lumberton, North Carolina, and then, as sprinklers go off, the camera burrows into the earth, showing ants toiling in the soil. Rising from there, we see our hero (frequent Lynch collaborator Kyle MacLachlan) discover a human ear in the grass — a clear sign that something is amiss, and an unforgettable starting point for this singular journey.
North Dakota: Fargo (1996)
While it’s true that only the first scene takes place in the eponymous town and most of Fargo is set in Minnesota, there aren’t a whole heck of a lot of movies set in the Peace Garden State — but even if there were, it’s unlikely that any of them would be as good. The Coen Brothers had already made a name for themselves with films like Blood Simple and Barton Fink, but Fargo was truly their breakthrough: a pitch-black comedy full of over-the-top, endlessly imitated accents exemplifying both midwestern friendliness and the darkness that sometimes lurks beneath.
Ohio: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
A Nightmare on Elm Street’s most overtly terrifying moments take place in its characters’ dreams, but a more subtle form of horror is owed to its setting: an intentionally common-sounding street in everyday suburbia. Wes Craven’s slasher benchmark, set in the fictional town of Springwood, Ohio, introduced the world to Freddy Krueger and a slew of imitators (not to mention a number of increasingly low-quality sequels), but there’s nothing like the original.
Oklahoma: Twister (1996)
Oklahoma lies smack dab in the middle of Tornado Alley, so it only makes sense that its most famous movie would involve wind sweepin’ down the plain. A disaster drama that deftly balances fun and frights, Twister showcases the Sooner State's wide-open beauty and how vulnerable it is when the elements conspire against it. As an approaching F5 tornado threatens to destroy half the state, an estranged couple (Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt) discover that their shared love of storm-chasing may be as strong as their love for each other.
Oregon: Stand by Me (1986)
Based on a Stephen King novella and named after the Ben E. King song, Stand by Me is a coming-of-age drama of the highest order. Few films have ever shown how deeply meaningful childhood friendships are, and fewer still have showcased Oregon quite so well. Brownsville stands in for the fictional town of Castle Rock where much of the film is set, but the story is also universal — even if your own childhood didn’t involve traipsing through the woods or bravely crossing railroad tracks, you’ll hear echoes of your youth in Stand by Me.
Pennsylvania: The Deer Hunter (1978)
One of the best films ever made about the Vietnam War happens to take place largely in America. Michael Cimino’s wrenching classic The Deer Hunter spends more time on the before and after than he does on the conflict itself, focusing on three steelworkers from small-town Pennsylvania — specifically Clairton, which is situated south of Pittsburgh along the Monongahela River — whose experiences over there change themselves, and their community, forever. Fantastic performances from Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Cazale, Meryl Streep, and John Savage accentuate an already tragic story, which touches on everything from working-class struggles to Russian roulette.
Rhode Island: Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
What kind of bird are you? Wes Anderson is among the rarest kinds, an eclectic filmmaker whose style is both instantly recognizable and inimitable. Moonrise Kingdom is among his best efforts, a tender coming-of-age story about two adolescents falling for each other while at a summer camp set on the fictional New England island of New Penzance (which was filmed in Rhode Island). It’s a winsome, moving affair, one whose innate charm is enhanced greatly by the Ocean State’s elegance.
South Carolina: Glory (1989)
Denzel Washington won his first Academy Award for Glory, a Civil War drama following the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the second Black regiment in the Union Army. Morgan Freeman and Matthew Broderick co-star as a sergeant major and colonel in the 54th, whose campaign eventually leads them to James Island and Charleston Harbor — two spots in South Carolina that hosted bloody, consequential battles. The Palmetto State's role in the Civil War tends to be overlooked in favor of battles like Gettysburg, which is just part of what makes Glory essential viewing — by highlighting the role of Black soldiers at the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, it helps ensure their place in history isn’t forgotten.
South Dakota: Badlands (1973)
Think of Badlands as an even darker version of Bonnie and Clyde, a romantic drama based on two real-life lovers who went on a crime spree. The film, which opens in South Dakota, marked writer-director Terrence Malick’s first time behind the camera and helped introduce the world to Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen. It’s a lyrical, visually arresting experience, one whose natural backdrop is often brought to the foreground as Malick’s camera lingers on passing clouds and distant fields.
Tennessee: October Sky (1999)
Nashville and The Evil Dead are fierce competition, but October Sky is so unjustly overlooked, and its coal-country setting so crucial to the plot, that it gets the edge. Based on a true story and filmed in a rural corner of East Tennessee, it stars a young Jake Gyllenhaal as an aspiring rocket scientist whose life is forever changed when he sees Sputnik light up the sky one night in 1957. That kind of childhood wonder is difficult to capture authentically, but October Sky does it with aplomb.
Texas: No Country for Old Men (2007)
What’s the most you ever lost on a coin toss? Before you answer, consider No Country for Old Men: a pitch-perfect adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s bleak novel about a West Texas lawman realizing that he’s outmatched by an adversary beyond his reckoning. That enemy isn’t just Anton Chigurh, the agent of fate played with ferocity by Javier Bardem, but the very passage of time itself. Southern drawls and desert vistas abound, all of it rendered strangely haunting by the film’s desperate milieu.
Utah: Carnival of Souls (1962)
Even if you’re unfamiliar with Carnival of Souls, the director of your favorite horror movie has closely studied it. Made for just $33,000 in 1962, the independent production centers on a church organist in Salt Lake City who recently survived a car accident that killed two of her friends — but she can’t remember how she made it out alive. The journey that follows takes her to the Great Salt Lake (in the literal sense) but really to her own twisted inner mind, which is rife with ghastly nightmares and otherworldly visions. Incredibly surreal for its time, the cult classic has more than stood the test of time.
Vermont: Shirley (2020)
Scenic though it may be, Vermont has not inspired as many movies as you might think. A rare exception is Shirley, Josephine Decker’s bracing psychodrama starring Elisabeth Moss as Shirley Jackson. After making a name for herself with her revered short story “The Lottery,” the film finds Jackson near the campus of Bennington College, a liberal-arts school in the southwest corner of the Green Mountain State, where her husband teaches. This is where Jackson actually wrote some of her most famous works (like The Haunting of Hill House) and spent the remainder of her life.
Virginia: The New World (2005)
“How much they err, that think every one which has been at Virginia understands or knows what Virginia is.” This musing from Captain John Smith appears onscreen at the beginning of The New World, Terrence Malick’s lyrical reimagining of America’s creation myth. Set in Jamestown circa the early 1600s and shot on location, it stars Colin Farrell as Smith alongside Q'Orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas; suffice to say that Malick’s vision has little in common with that of a certain Disney movie. Arrestingly beautiful cinematography by Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki (who received an Oscar nod for his lensing and later won the award three years in a row for Gravity, Birdman, and The Revenant) only intensifies the largely unspoken romance between the two leads, whose star-crossed bond is ultimately like two ships passing in the night.
Washington: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)
Not even diehard Twin Peaks fans cared much for its silver-screen continuation when it was first released a year after the cultural phenomenon’s unceremonious cancelation, but the power of Fire Walk With Me has only grown in the decades since. Where the show tempered its darker themes with soap-opera subplots and offbeat humor, the movie explored the harsh reality behind that dreamlike veneer with little regard for how disturbing some viewers might find it. And while Twin Peaks itself remains a fictional setting, the lumber town felt more real and alive in Fire Walk With Me than it ever could on the small screen.
West Virginia: The Night of the Hunter (1955)
You may not have seen The Night of the Hunter, but you’re probably familiar with its most enduring image: a reverend with the words LOVE and HATE emblazoned on his knuckles. Robert Mitchum gives a haunting performance as that man of god — who, it's no spoiler to reveal, moonlights as a serial killer — in the only movie Charles Laughton ever directed; that's a shame, as this is a stone-cold classic. Set in West Virginia in the 1930s, it’s full of savage beauty both external and internal, none of which would be as pronounced had Laughton not transposed his German Expressionist influences onto the Mountain State backdrop.
Wisconsin: Bridesmaids (2011)
Ain’t no party like a bachelorette party, especially when the celebrants in question are as hilarious as Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ellie Kemper, and surprise Oscar-nominee Melissa McCarthy. This covert recession story begins in Milwaukee, a city hit hard by the economic downturn of the late aughts, before making a memorable stop in Las Vegas. The Badger State has hosted relatively few films, but after singing Wilson Phillips’ “Hold On” with the cast of Bridesmaids, you’ll likely wish that weren’t the case.
Wyoming: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Anyone who's observed the night sky in Wyoming knows it's the perfect place to stargaze — and, as it turns out, the ideal location for a movie about whatever might be out there visiting us humble earthlings. For proof, look no further than Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The most important encounter in Steven Spielberg’s revolutionary sci-fi epic takes place at Devils Tower, an imposing Black Hills butte that stands 867 feet from summit to base; little surprise, then, that aliens would choose to make landfall there.