If ever there was a time to binge watch endless movies guilt free, a government enforced shelter-in-place order is probably it. And since we can’t get out to enjoy our lovely city in person, dialing up a San Francisco-set movie is the next best thing. Fortunately there are plenty to choose from, some even featuring the city as a sort of third character, enough to give local viewers lots of place-checking warm snugglies at seeing their home city on the big (small) screen.
The list I compiled is a bit idiosyncratic, and based on a couple criteria. First, and obviously, the film has to be filmed here; not in some studio lot in Burbank with a few beauty shots of Coit Tower thrown in. Second, it has to be good… according to me. And third, it has to be a film I’ve actually watched, which eliminates some probably worthy films I’ve never gotten around to (Zodiac, all the Dirty Harry movies).
Big Trouble in Little China John Carpenter! Kurt Russel! Martial arts! Ancient curse! Good vs Evil! What else could you want? SF’s Chinatown, and Carpenter’s alt universe version, plays a starring role in this wicked fun romp.
The Love Bug This was my first introduction to San Francisco as a kid. Hills, old Victorians, hippie vans, Chinatown, empty streets in night fog. Disney made a slew of wacky kid-friendly films in the 60s and 70s before turning to animation, and this was one of their best and silliest.
The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill The most personal and idiosyncratic of SF docs, meaning the most San Franciscan. It’s a lovely piece about a unique slice of nature found in the city, and a deep dive into the parrot caretaker and his life, the kind of colorful San Francisco character now endangered (if not extinct).
Bullitt A travelogue of San Francisco neighborhoods via the era’s muscle cars. The city takes a starring role in this classic Steve McQueen flick loaded with action and suspense, and lots of pulse-racing chase scenes over and around the hills of the city.
The Conversation This Coppola classic is such an intense and deep character study the many scenes of San Francisco can get overlooked. But it was filmed entirely here, with some lonely shots around the city evocative of Gene Hackman’s character.
Crumb One of the best documentaries ever, which follows underground comix artist Robert Crumb on his life and rise and dysfunctional upbringing. San Francisco figures prominently in his career, where he lived from the late 1960s through the early ‘90s. And while there aren’t a ton of city shots, he was a SF fixture during that time and important part of our counter-culture.
Play it Again, Sam One of my favorite Woody Allen films isn’t directed by him (though he wrote and stars in it). The movie is set and shot in San Francisco and Sausalito, with shots of Allen riding cable cars and driving through the rainbow tunnel in Marin.
Harold and Maude The only film I know of that was almost entirely shot on the peninsula. From South San Francisco to Santa Cruz, and almost every city between gets a cameo in the 70s cult classic about a couple eccentrics brought together by their love of funerals for a May-December romance.
Milk Award-winning film about a San Francisco icon played by a long-time Bay Area resident entirely set and shot in the city. A must-see highlighting an important chapter in San Francisco’s history, and the man who made that history.
Fearless An interesting movie by the great Peter Weir starring Jeff Bridges. While the film is primarily a character study of a plane crash survivor, one of my favorite scenes is Bridge’s architect character driving around Oakland giving an architectural tour of its many wonderful old buildings.
So I Married an Axe Murderer A silly but fun movie from Mike Myers before he was super famous. Set and shot in San Francisco, sight-check familiar spots like Fog City Diner, Alamo Square, Palace of Fine Arts, and lots of North Beach locales. Bonus points for scenes from a typical old-school SF butcher shop.
Vertigo Easily a top three San Francisco-based movie. Besides Hitchcock’s fantastic use of color, his angles and shots of the city set the mood, turning San Francisco into the perfect backdrop in this classic thriller. See the city in a whole different light through the eyes of a master.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco The newest addition to the SF-movie canon came out last year, and is made with loving care by a local. Some of the shots are absolutely gorgeous. And it also shines a light on a totally underrepresented community that’s been systematically gentrified out.
Dark Passage All those shadows and fog make SF an ideal setting for film noir, and it doesn’t get much better with Bogie and Bacall leading the dark mystery. Every scene is filmed in the City (or Marin), including what’s now Grubsteak, and the exquisite Malloch Building on the slopes of Telegraph Hill where the two characters hole up.
The Lady from Shanghai Another classic film noir, this one starring Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. Includes a memorable chase scene through Chinatown, and a climatic scene at a funhouse at Playland, the amusement park that once lived at Ocean Beach by Golden Gate Park.
Butterflies Are Free Filmed mostly in a top floor North Beach apartment (Grant and Green) with a fantastic old skylight, there’s also a nice lunch scene at Perry’s on Union St. (still there 50 years later). This is a lovely drama from the early 70s with Goldie Hawn playing a free-spirited flower child and her blind neighbor struggling against his domineering Nob Hill mother.