The state of Florida is alternatingly frustrating and hypnotizing. It is the subject of much writing, many movies, and mid-tier jokes. Most of us who live here understand it is at least two states. This is a syllabus for essential feature-length movies shot and/or set in South Florida. South Florida is often referred to as Palm Beach, Broward, and Dade counties, excluding The Florida Keys and Southwest Florida (Collier County, seen in Adaptation).
The most important criteria for this canon is that the chief filmmaker and source material come from the region. An easy example of this is Moonlight: source material from Miami, director from Miami. There is no longer a film tax incentive down here for various reasons, so those who want to shoot in FL these days probably live in the region, and/or the integrity of the movie necessitates it. Borscht Corp, a former film institution in Miami, stipulates that for canon, “movies have to be shot on location, written/directed by people who live or lived here, and be good.”
Most Florida movies live outside the canon and are worth noting. During the times of the tax incentive, many films were shot in Florida without even being set here. They are affected by the light and energy and people here, whether they like it or not.
Cape Fear (1991) — This was supposedly set in North Carolina, but mostly shot in Broward County, and the light is unmistakable. The costume designers must have gotten inspired by the region, they weren’t even trying to make it look like North Carolina. De Niro’s outfits pop off in this one.
The other day I took a boat ride in Fort Lauderdale and heard a story about the filming of Cape Fear. There were many outrageous claims made by the boat captain, including how Nick Nolte had to film that movie in Florida instead of North Carolina because he had an ankle monitor and was under house arrest at his home in Fort Lauderdale. I looked up the story later and found a news article from the 90s that said Nolte bought that Fort Lauderdale home because he fell in love with the area after filming Cape Fear. So either the captain made that story up, or Nick Nolte’s reps lied to the press about when Nolte bought the house.
Miami Vice (2006) — On this same boat ride, I passed by Michael Mann’s house, and it was covered in gargoyles. I was really excited about it until I looked it up online and saw it was sold years ago and that Michael Mann never lived there, just used it as a location in the Miami Vice TV show. Boat captains love to lie. What I love is the way Miami Vice captures the feeling of night in South FL, especially the highway scenes.
Wild Things — There’s a classic battle between Beach and Swamp here—Neve Campbell as Swamp Girl and Denise Richards as Beach girl.
Zoo by Frederick Wiseman — An incredible documentary about the Miami Zoo, examining the lives of the animals along with the staff’s day-to-day relationships with them.
Some Kind of Heaven — My friend Lance made this movie in the largest master-planned community in America called The Villages. He’s from South FL and drove up to Central Florida to make this colorful doc about four retirees entrenched in a struggle of love and death.
Victor Nunez’s films, especially Gal Young Un and Ruby In Paradise, are North Florida Canon. He was one of the original regional filmmakers, and a teacher of mine at Florida State University. He captures the Gulf Coast perfectly. He shoots all his own movies and they have a very unpretentious charm to them.
Sun Don’t Shine — Amy Seimetz is from Tampa, and this one is an indie classic at this point, mostly shot on her home turf and in Central Florida. Love that she shot at Weeki Wachee Springs.
Honorable mentions to Scarface, Miami Blues (novelist from Florida), Vernon Florida, Bully, Wind Across The Everglades, Ace Ventura, and The Beach Bum, all made by primarily outsiders/studios imposing stories on the region. Harmony Korine moved to Miami so he gets some points, but it’s night and day if you compare it to Gummo which was shot in Nashville, where he grew up.
I always wondered what Jackie Brown could have been like if shot in South Florida, where Rum Punch was set. But kudos for QT for setting it on his home turf, since he was raised in Southern California.
Also notable are The Paperboy, set in Florida but shot in New Orleans, and 99 Homes, set in South Florida but shot in New Orleans.
Moonlight — A lot has been written about this movie and I don’t have much to add other than it’s both a great movie and important evidence of this entire thesis. The director, writer, and multiple producers are from South Florida.
River of Grass — Kelly Reichardt’s only movie shot in her home state of FL. Love the discourse about Dade vs Broward counties, showing the Florida Turnpike, Tamiami Trail, and Alligator Alley—which run into the Everglades. Definitely a first feature with highs and lows.
Pain & Gain — Michael Bay is from Miami, and it shows. This movie fully works for me because of its framing device. It’s from the viewpoint of its confused main characters, which helps rationalize the seduction of fraud amidst the obscene wealth in South FL. Easily my favorite by Bay, but I’m overdue to watch some of the others again.
What’s most interesting is that so few movies qualify as true canon. So many great movies were shot in NYC by people who grew up around there, and have an energy and feeling that you can’t fake or impose… similar to movies set in LA. It’s a reason why the show Atlanta is so good, the writers room either grew up or lives there. A pretty simple concept, but unfortunately there’s a pressure and legitimate reason to live and work out of the two biggest cities in the country — and a lot of those stories are picked over.
On that boat trip previously mentioned, every supposed fact mentioned by the captain was about the habits and proclivities of glitzy celebs when they make movies down in South Florida — what hotels they stay at, where they park their boats. But no one makes movies in South Florida anymore. Those stories are well over a decade old, and since they are that old, it only makes sense that they are fabrications — designed to entertain tourists from out of town.
Florida was built on the lie that you can make the swamplands habitable and even luxurious. You lie long enough and it comes true. I wrote the first draft of this syllabus in 2018, and a few things have changed, namely, many more people live in South Florida now. Tech moguls are moving here from Northern California and elsewhere. Normally I would think this was another lie, but I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I don’t think these new people are going to be making movies, but that’s okay, it would be silly to expect anything to last forever.
The other day, I was trying to rent some equipment from what used to be the biggest rental house in South Florida, and the owner told me they were moving their entire operation to Atlanta but keeping a tiny warehouse in Miami, just in case.