Las Vegas is an iconic city, and is particularly popular not just among gamblers and sun-seekers, but also with screenwriters, directors, and filmmakers. From the lights of the Las Vegas hotels and casinos of the Strip and downtown areas, to the views of soaring mountains and desolate desert, the city never fails to provide a dramatic backdrop to any storyline and cast.
From dark dramas like Leaving Las Vegas to classic films like Viva Las Vegas, great heist films like the different versions of Oceans 11, or comedies that deserve more respect like Fools Rush In and Honeymoon in Vegas — the films on this list have something for every film lover in your household. A fan of mob movies? Cue up Casino or honorable mention Godfather Part II. In the mood to laugh? Look no further than The Hangover. Looking for something to hit you in the feels? Turn on Pay it Forward.
As a setting, Las Vegas has it all — the glitz and glamour of the casinos and shows, the over-the-top luxury of a Las Vegas hotel, the rugged scenery of the mountains and deserts, upscale neighborhoods full of mansions juxtaposed with a different class of down-on-their luck neighborhoods full of decrepit apartments, a thriving city outside the strip, and the seedy underbelly of the gaming industry.
Before we get down to the list of the best movies set in Las Vegas, we have a few honorable mentions to go over. These three films are all iconic and beloved for various reasons, but they are only really partially set in Las Vegas. Swingers took 1996 by storm and brought fame to Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn. The Godfather Part II is a classic film, largely considered to be better than its predecessor, and not just an influential film in the gangster/mafia genre, but also one of the greatest films of all time. And finally Rain Man with Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman introduced the world at large to the art of card counting. Everything that follows are the best movies set in Las Vegas.
10 Indecent Proposal (1993)
In 1993, everyone was talking about what they would do if they were faced with the kind of proposal Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore’s characters got in Indecent Proposal (and knockoffs of Moore’s iconic ’90s black dress were in every store). If someone offered you a million dollars to spend the night with them, would you? Would your partner or spouse be on board with this? That’s the question at the center of this Las Vegas-based movie also starring Robert Redford. Never mind that in real life the rich man offering $1 million probably wouldn’t look like Redford.
9 Viva Las Vegas (1964)
In 1964, Elvis Presley (always so synonymous with Vegas) and Ann Margaret were two of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Viva Las Vegas was an enormous hit and is largely considered to be one of Presley’s best films, and audiences fell for the chemistry between Elvis and Ann Margaret and their musical numbers. Elvis played Lucky Jackson, who traveled to Las Vegas to race in the city’s first Grand Prix Race. Unfortunately, his car needs a new engine. He encounters further trouble when the hotel’s swim instructor Rusty Martin (Ann Margaret) pushes him into the pool. Lucky then must work as a waiter at the hotel to pay the Las Vegas hotel bill, and he enters the hotel’s talent contest in hopes of winning the cash prize to fix his engine. Fun fact: Viva Las Vegas is one of Teri Garr’s first films.
8 Pay it Forward (2000)
Pay It Forward is the only film on this list that is set in Las Vegas but not in a casino on the Strip or Downtown. In the film, seventh grader Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment) is starting school in Las Vegas. He lives with his alcoholic single mom (Helen Hunt). His teacher, Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey), is emotionally (and physically) scarred. Trevor starts a goodwill movement known as “pay it forward” that soon changes the lives of the struggling adults surrounding him in this poignant motivational movie which actually inspired many similar movements out of schools and businesses.
7 The Hangover (2009)
Comedies set in Las Vegas are usually highly underrated, at least until 2009, when Todd Philips unleashed the first of the films in The Hangover franchise. A group of four friends who call themselves The Wolf Pack travel to Las Vegas for one of the men’s bachelor parties, which turns into an epic blackout. After they wake up in a trashed Las Vegas hotel room, Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis play the group to locate the groom (Justin Bartha) who goes missing during their night of debauchery. The Hangover is the cinematic expression of the tagline “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas,” except with Mike Tyson and a tiger.
6 The Cooler (2003)
The Cooler stars William H. Macy as Bennie, a professional cooler employed by a casino to end winning streaks of gamblers. A cooler is a person who, when he or she is on a casino floor causes people’s luck to fail and winning streaks die. Maria Bello plays a cocktail waitress named Natalie who falls for him, and Alec Baldwin is casino manager Shelly. It turns out Bennie is a former gambling addict who is working for Shelly to pay off his gambling debts. When Bennie and Natalie fall for each other, his luck changes, much to the anger of Shelly. Baldwin and Bello were nominated for Golden Globes for their phenomenal, melancholic work on this excellent film about gambling.
5 Fools Rush In (1997)
Fools Rush In is one of the all-time best comedies set in Las Vegas. Matthew Perry plays architect Alex Whitman, a straight-laced WASP who is sent to Las Vegas from New York City to oversee the construction of a nightclub. One night he meets Isabel Fuentes (Salma Hayek) a sassy Mexican-American photographer. They have a one-night stand and go their separate ways. When they meet up three months later, Isabel tells Alex she’s pregnant. As he gets to know her and her family, a spirited Latino clan, he falls for her. Their cultural differences as well as the difference in lifestyle from his New York City life make up the bulk of the comedy. In one scene that every person who’s ever suffered a sunburn in the desert city will recognize, Alex’s parents appear on an escalator sunburned bright red.
4 Honeymoon in Vegas (1992)
Nicolas Cage, Sarah Jessica Parker, James Caan, and a plane full of skydiving Elvis impersonators are just a few reasons Honeymoon in Vegas earns the top spot for a comedy set in Las Vegas. Cage plays Jack Singer, who swore to his mother on her deathbed that he’d never get married. When the film opens, he and his girlfriend Betsy (Parker) have been dating for years, so she wants to get married and have a family. He proposes that they fly to Las Vegas to get married, where Jack gets involved in a rigged high-stakes poker game and loses Betsy.A series of hijinks ensue that find Jack stealing a taxi in Hawaii, ending up stuck in San Jose, and eventually donning an Elvis costume and parachute to literally drop in and get Betsy back. One phrase sums up the ridiculous hilarity of this film: “Flying Elvises, Utah Chapter.”
3 Oceans 11 (1960 and 2001)
Whether it’s the 1960 version of Ocean’s 11 starring the Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, and Peter Lawford) or the 2001 iteration starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Andy Garcia, and Julia Roberts — the fact remains that it is a pretty perfect movie, jam-packed with stars and brimming with great music and energy either way. The underlying premise of a group of people robbing a Las Vegas casino is the same in both versions, and the chemistry between the stars is pitch perfect in each.
2 Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
Nicolas Cage won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as a suicidal alcoholic screenwriter who goes to Las Vegas to drink himself to death in Leaving Las Vegas. The film is based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by John O’Brien who died by suicide after selling the film rights to his novel. Cage plays Ben Sanderson, a man from Los Angeles who lost his family and his job; once in Las Vegas, he gets involved with Sera, a hardened prostitute played perfectly by Elisabeth Shue. The film is dark, with Shue’s character getting violently gang raped and evicted, and Cage’s character determined to die, in this emotionally devastating look at alcoholism, depression, and loneliness.
1 Casino (1995)
Martin Scorsese’s Casino is one of the best films of all time. The film is based on the book Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas by Nicholas Pileggi, who co-wrote the screenplay with the great Scorsese. It revolves around Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro) at the Tangiers Casino, a gambling expert and handicapper who oversees the Las Vegas hotel and casino’s operations. Other characters include Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), a “made man,” and Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), who marries Sam. The film perfectly captures the look and feel (from fashion to interior design to architecture) of Las Vegas in the 1970s and early 1980s, as well as all the changes the city underwent during that period. It is an epic love letter to and dissection of the iconic ‘sin city’ that is Las Vegas.