The 8 Best Portland Movies from the Last 10 Years

When Portlandia reshaped our pop culture image, movies didn't get the memo.

By Conner Reed

Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding in I, Tonya

10 years ago, in the rebrand heard ’round the world, a little show called Portlandia premiered on IFC. Portlanders developed an immediate love-hate relationship with its portrait of the Rose City as Brooklyn 2.0, crawling with yuppie bohemians and farm-to-table freaks. It stood in sharp contrast to the Gus Van Sant version of Portland that America got in the ’80s and ’90s: a rough, hardscrabble, perma-gray place full of drifters and folks who'd prefer to live off the grid.

In truth, the city had changed, and a combination of that fact and good PR built Portland up in the minds of the public as an idllyic, chilled-out oasis. On the big screen, though, our reputation never really shifted: most Hollywood fare set in or around Stumptown in the last decade has remained focused on our underbelly. We rounded up the 8 best films set in and around Portland from the last 10 years, and in pretty much all of them, this thesis bears out, diverse as the movies’ subjects may be. Together, they form a surprisingly truthful mosaic of a city beset with natural beauty, bountiful potential, and its fair share of growing pains.

1. Lean on Pete (2018, dir. Andrew Haigh)

British auteur Andrew Haigh, fresh off the HBO dramedy Looking—which was (wrongly, in this writer’s opinion) sometimes billed as “the gay Girls”—took a sharp left turn with this gutting adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s novel. Charlie Plummer plays a sensitive youth with an equine passion who, after a sudden tragedy, treks from Portland to Wyoming with the titular horse in search of his estranged aunt. Steve Buscemi, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Zahn, and others turn up as characters of varying scrupulousness who Plummer encounters on his journey. Lean on Pete is a bleak, bleak movie, but it’s also an unforgettable one: it captures the sweeping, alienating expanse of the West like few movies in the last decade have, and its (very) occasional moments of gentleness ring louder for their presence among the surrounding blackness. Streaming on Showtime and Kanopy

2. Night Moves (2013, dir. Kelly Reichardt)

2020’s First Cow, also directed by Oregon’s unofficial filmmaker laureate Kelly Reichardt, is maybe a more apt choice: it made bigger critical waves and was entirely filmed within an hour of Portland. Night Moves, though—a tense eco-thriller set and shot near Medford—is sometimes cast as lesser Reichardt, and we’d like to take this opportunity to correct the record. (Also, let’s be real, we’ve already given First Cow plenty of love.)

Jessie Eisenberg stars as an environmental extremist who lives in an idyllic commune but itches for more direct action. He ropes a pair of accomplices (Peter Sarsgaard and Dakota Fanning) into his plot to blow up a dam, and, surprise, things don’t go as planned. Night Moves is plottier than your average Reichardt, but it doesn’t come at the expense of her sensitivity, brilliantly economical framing, or trademark gut-punch ending—and she lays the moral ambiguity on thick, avoiding any tidy comforts a lesser filmmaker might be tempted to wring from the material. Streaming on Kanopy and Amazon Prime

3. Leave No Trace (2018, dir. Debra Granik)

Released within a few months of Lean on Pete, it’s hard not to take the two together: both are refreshingly empathetic portraits of homelessness in Portland, both carry shades of McCabe and Mrs. Miller in their concepts of a beautiful-but-ruthless Northwest. There's a softness to Granik’s film, though, that evades Haigh’s more or less completely. This one focuses on a father and daughter living in Forest Park, played by Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie, in a star-making performance. Content with their fully off-the-grid routine—captured in glorious, tactile detail in the film's first act—they're abruptly swept out by the authorities, and begin a strange journey of assimilation which doesn’t take equally with both of them. The final shot is a heartbreaker, and the balance of toughness and tenderness ensures the whole thing lingers long after the credits roll. Streaming on Kanopy, Starz, and Amazon Prime

4. Kubo and the Two Strings (2016, dir. Travis Knight)

The animation slot goes to this lightly mind blowing Laika epic, directed by Phil Knight’s son Travis in his pre-Bumblebee debut. It tells the story of a one-eyed boy with a magic instrument who sets out on a convoluted, eye-popping journey to claim enchanted armor and deal with some good old-fashioned inherited trauma. The star-studded voice cast—Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, George Takei—elevates the project instead of feeling like a celeb-worshipping gimmick, and if you ever doubted why Portland has become a world leader in stop-motion, look no further than every single landscape in this movie for evidence. Available to rent

5. Green Room (2015, dir. Jeremy Saulnier)

It's a wonder there aren't more horror movies about the Oregon Coast. Even if there were stiffer competition, though, this nasty little slasher would still probably take the top slot. Centered on an Anton Yelchin-led punk band touring the Northwest, Green Room harnesses the inherent menace of our dense evergreen forests to glorious, exploitative ends. Yelchin's band leaves Portland to play a gig at what they fail to realize is a neo-Nazi bar, and they wind up entangled in a full-fledged war with a gang of skinheads led by a gleefully terrifying Patrick Stewart. A sleek, muscular, gorgeously shot blast of blood and metal that whizzes by at 95 minutes but leaves a real bruise. Streaming on Showtime and Kanopy

6. I, Tonya (2017, dir. Craig Gillespie)

Gillespie’s fast, funny Tonya Harding biopic commits the cardinal-but-familiar sin of passing off a tax-friendly slab of greenery (in this case, Georgia) as the Beaver State. We’re issuing a pass in this instance, though, because I, Tonya was so influential in reshaping the popular conversation about one of Portland’s most enduring and controversial icons. As Coen Brothers ripoffs go, this movie is way better than it needs to be, and as biopics go, it’s sort of a home run: Robbie is excellent in the title role, the supporting characters feel like people instead of Wikipedia ghosts, and most importantly, it rehabilitated Harding’s image to such a degree that we got a Sufjan Stevens song about her. Streaming on Hulu

7. C.O.G. (2013, dir. Kyle Patrick Alvarez)

This dark, funny, under-seen gem has all the satisfying ambiguity of a good short story—no wonder, since it was adapted from an essay by the same name in David Sedaris’s bestselling collection Naked. Jonathan Groff stars as the Sedaris stand-in, who takes a bus to Oregon and starts working in an orchard to flee his homophobic family. He falls in with an uber-religious clockmaker played by Dennis O’Hare, and slowly, the signature Sedaris whimsy starts to give way to something squirmier. The only(?) major motion picture that features downtown Forest Grove’s Theatre in the Grove, where this writer once played Mowgli in The Jungle Book in a violently unflattering wig—worth it for this tidbit alone, we think. Streaming on Starz and Amazon Prime

8. Wild (2014, dir. Jean-Marc Vallée)

Adapted from the bestselling memoir by Cheryl Strayed, Vallée's tale of a grief-stricken recovering addict who elects to hike the Pacific Crest Trail builds on the impressionistic approach he brought to Dallas Buyers Club and would later perfect on HBO miniseries Big Little Lies and Sharp Objects. Reese Witherspoon is career-best as Strayed, and Laura Dern's small role as her late mother leaves a mark. Available to rent

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