MOST FAMOUS FOR RECENTLY playing home to a meth-dealing, megalomaniac chemistry teacher — street-name, “Heisenberg,” — New Mexico has quietly become the paradigm for the increasingly hip Southwest. Like every great state, the Land of Enchantment has made its small as well as its big cities all the more impressive for hosting many seminal American films and television series. For proof, here are 16 great shows and movies that feature the state’s inimitable vistas, iconic landmarks, and unparalleled tax incentives.
1. Frank (2014, dir. Lenny Abrahamson)
One of the breakouts of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, Irish director Abrahamson’s fifth feature stunned by using its star, Michael Fassbender, from almost exclusively within a gigantic plastic head. But the power and tenderness of Frank owes as much to the central performances of Fassbender, rising star Domhnall Gleeson, and Maggie Gyllenhaal as to its resplendent photography, shot in Albuquerque and other cities in the Southwest. With his story situated in such beautiful locales, Abrahamson manages to hit all the sweetest notes.
2. Two-Lane Blacktop (1971, dir. Monte Hellman)
Before he produced Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs in 1992, counterculture king Monte Hellman had brought his patented blend of existentialism, minimalism, and music savvy to a range of the best films from the New Hollywood Renaissance. His 1971 classic Two-Lane Blacktop, starring balladeer James Taylor and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson and shot partly in New Mexico, elevated the cross-country road movie to high art.
3. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008 – 2010)
Few but the most avid fans of the Terminator franchise might remember that a 2008 prequel series launched to highly positive reviews on Fox. Though unjustly “terminated” before its time, The Sarah Connor Chronicles utilized ABQ’s growing metropolitan identity as a key character in its own right. And perhaps more importantly, the show’s access to local tax incentives and on-location sets helped to bring shows like the USA Network hit In Plain Sight and AMC’s Breaking Bad to the state.
4. No Country for Old Men (2007, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)
In the same year as Jason Reitman’s Juno and Paul Thomas Anderson’s remarkable There Will Be Blood, only one film was able to compete for Best Picture at the 80th Academy Awards: Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men. Adapted from the Cormac McCarthy book, No Country owes much of its success to the groundbreaking photography by the legendary Roger Deakins. And as Deakins freely admits, without the fearfully stark Santa Fe and Albuquerque locations, this masterful cowboy noir would not exist. New Mexico has never looked so menacing.
5. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969, dir. George Roy Hill)
No history of filming in New Mexico or the Southwest is complete without mentioning one of the most important neo-Westerns in cinema. Announcing the serendipitous pairing of Paul Newman and Robert Redford, George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was filmed all around the region, continuing a tradition first popularized by the master himself, John Ford. In fact, Redford was so enamored of the state that he returned to shoot his acclaimed The Milagro Beanfield War (1988) 20 years later.
6. The Muppet Movie (1979, dir. James Frawley)
In 1998, the New Mexico Department of Tourism highlighted Jim Henson’s Muppet Movie as one of the key moments in “100 years of filmmaking in New Mexico” to that point. Despite fears that singing puppets would fail to successfully translate to the Silver Screen, Henson and director James Frawley’s 1979 family flick managed to blend glamorous vistas with notable Albuquerque landmarks and what’s since become the popular Albuquerque Studios.
7. Let Me In (2010, dir. Matt Reeves)
When the moody Swedish teen romance Let the Right One In crossed the Atlantic into independent cinemas around the US, horror fans around the country were enthralled by its revisionist take on vampire mythology. Those same fans were scared to death that Matt Reeves’ 2010 remake, Let Me In, would be too corporate, too accessible, or too derivative. Instead, Reeves set the film in Los Alamos, and translated that city’s small-town-big-people vibe into a sensitive, dark period piece about domestic life in 1980s America. Rich in visuals and heart, Let Me In made its snowy setting look as enchanting and exotic as Stockholm without the umlauts.
8. Into the West (2005, exec. producer Steven Spielberg)
New Mexico’s statehood is tied up with the legacy of the First Peoples tribes whose descendants remain active participants in its cultural growth. So it’s a shame that one of the most profound accomplishments in television miniseries, 2005’s Into the West, has been largely forgotten. Not only was the series nominated for a Golden Globe, but it also highlighted important, oft-overlooked tales of Native American experience in the 19th century; and above all that, it was actually shot on the vast reservation lands throughout New Mexico.
9. Silkwood (1983, dir. Mike Nichols)
It’s a widely held belief that on-location shooting brings a sense of authenticity and realism even to Hollywood-commissioned studio pictures, and no film proves the rule more than Mike Nichols’ Oscar-nominated version of the Karen Silkwood story. Universally acclaimed for its lead performances by Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell, and Cher, Silkwood owes its naturalism and rawness as much to the actors as to the Los Alamos and Albuquerque-based sets.
10. Manhattan (2014 -)
No one could have expected that WGN America’s second original program ever would be one of the most stunning aesthetic experiments on television. Created by Sam Shaw, 2014’s Manhattan is shot in and around Los Alamos, but virtually no show before it has better explored the vistas and sunsets of New Mexico. Add to that fact its historic period setting, long-arc storytelling, and ensemble cast of TV vets, and you get a truly rich representation of the American Southwest.
11. Ace in the Hole, aka The Big Carnival (1951, dir. Billy Wilder)
In 1950, the largest non-combat set ever built was constructed just outside the town of Gallup, New Mexico. Legendary émigré filmmaker Billy Wilder’s Oscar-nominated Ace in the Hole created a synthetic set of cliff dwellings, collapsed caves, carnivals, and milling tourists composed of more than 1,000 working extras. This spectacle brought local work and money into the state, but it’s hard to imagine the local folk being grateful for Wilder’s grimly cynical take on small-town living.
12. The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976, dir. Nicolas Roeg)
As varied and impressive as the productions on this list, few managed to capture the astonishing geographic variety and scope of New Mexico so well as Nicolas Roeg in his Man Who Fell to Earth. Now a bonafide cult classic, the film makes stunning use of deserts, mountains, citylines, and deep valleys thanks to Roeg and director of photography Anthony B. Richmond. Add David Bowie’s star turn as an introverted humanoid alien, and you’ve got one of the defining works of modern science fiction.
13. The Grapes of Wrath (1940, dir. John Ford)
More than three decades earlier, though, another genre had used filming locations in Santa Rosa, Laguna Pueblo, and Gallup to shift paradigms: John Ford’s “road-movie” adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath. Regarded as one of the most important films in classic Hollywood, Ford’s black-and-white masterpiece used the various landscapes of California, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Arizona to parallel the Joad family’s cross-country experiences. So profound and artful was this technique that Grapes of Wrath was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.
14. The Avengers (2012, dir. Joss Whedon)
How important is New Mexico in film history? Well, for one thing, it played host to one of the highest grossing films in world history. Joss Whedon’s Avengers was shot throughout the state, much to the pleasure of Marvel, critics, and audiences alike. With multiple studios erected just to finish production, the film and New Mexico owe each other a few favors for their mutual, but unpredictably enormous, success.
15, 16. Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul (2008 – 2013; 2014 -)
The Golden Age of American television found its poster child in AMC’s award-winning, paradigm-shifting series Breaking Bad. From the Tohajiilee Navajo Reservation to the Sandia Mountains, the show captured its setting’s unique beauty in ways more expressive and photographically daring than any before it. So spectacular was the Albuquerquean landscape that AMC’s spinoff series, Better Call Saul starring Bob Odenkirk, has nearly completed shooting its first season in and around Duke City. Though prognosticators abound, only time will tell if the show’s launch in 2015 will herald an even greater wave of production in the state.