From its miles of police chase-friendly, hilly blacktop to its Victorian rooflines, San Francisco is a damn good-looking town, and, being just a few hours north of Hollywood, a prime destination for movie magic. It would take a cold, dead man to live here without collecting a few hometown movie favorites along the way. Lucky for you we bury our dead outside city limits, so here’s a rundown of 20 movies that are as San Francisco as Rice-a-Roni (well, with one giant exception).
Y'all remember when the toughest bar in the Mission was a hillbilly honky-tonk called Torchy's? You know, just across the street from Chinatown. Me neither, but damned if the shootout in a legit Muni station doesn't make up for it. It doesn't, of course, but also it does. For the record, though, Mark Twain didn't say that thing about Summer in SF. So stop.
2. The Rock (1996)
Call Alcatraz "The Rock" and you're likely to get punched in the face, either by a local or by Dwayne Johnson fresh off the tepid success of a natural disaster epic. That said, this is possibly the last time America tolerated Nicholas Cage for his soon-to-be tiresome "whole thing." Bonus points for crashing a sick Ferrari 350 Spyder on Russian Hill amid insightful car phone commentary.
3. Star Trek IV (1986)
A perfect storm of San Francisco film history involving Leonard Nimoy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) at the helm and Eddie Murphy (48 Hrs.) signed to star before being lost to The Golden Child (Big Trouble in Little China was developed as a direct competitor) in this Humphrey the humpback whale-inspired time travel adventure to the Bay Area of the '80s, this is a priceless piece of big budget perfection. Spock sleeps out a punk boom boxer on a GGB bus to drive the point home.
4. Dirty Harry (1971)
When you consider how little swimming goes down in the city by the bay, it really adds something to the circumstance of this picture's inciting incident. That said, it's a classic, and if you can get past your disbelief at a massively bigoted hero in Liberal City, USA, you'll be greeted by plenty of no shit real SF, albeit of the long gone variety.
This is pretty much the most San Francisco movie ever made. An out of work creative pushes the patience of his fiscally responsible, Sally Field-type wife with his Peter Pan-esque antics and resolves to double down on said antics with a costume charade supported by convenient take out dinners. Pour one out for RW all the same.
6. Kuffs (1992)
An attractive young slacker bails on his equally attractive, pregnant girlfriend in Sacramento to get in on the ground floor of his brother's privatized policing startup in SF (a real thing, btw), so it rings true. Also there's a sweet hill jumping car stunt before the five-minute mark.
7. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Shooting on location wasn't a huge deal around '41, so the only authentic SF you see is in the establishing shots. This is a great movie, though, and since it's an almost shot-for-shot adaptation of a truly authentic SF book (seriously, the locations make up like half of the description) we're willing to give it a pass. They tried, you see, and that counts.
8. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Shot. For. Shot. Vibe. For. Vibe. San Francisco. You could not more accurately capture this city if Elon Musk bought it and created a full-scale San Francisco-themed amusement park in its place. Privileged chefs getting the business from a privileged health inspector under the specter of an invasive population of culture-stifling drones.
Does anything speak so honestly about the palpable divide between San Francisco's police force and its resident military authority than this '88 thriller? No, but that's because Congress voted to shut the city’s military authority down a year after this boss flick came out and all we're left with is a Mark Harmon/Sean Connery vehicle to serve as memorial to what was lost when touch football took over Crissy Field.
10. Pacific Heights (1990)
As the title suggests, this picture is set in a neighborhood few can afford. Sure, we're not above feeling concerned for the kindhearted landlords as they're taken squatter-hostage, but the balancing act between schadenfreude and empathy can be difficult for anybody who's gone toe-to-toe with an eviction of late.
11. Big Trouble In Little China (1986)
Despite being the all-time best movie about San Francisco, hands down, no argument, almost none of it was shot on location. There is no portion of Chinatown that could support Jack Burton's devil-may-care driving of the Pork Chop Express. Still, the few meaningful establishing shots you get are true to life and everything else is demons in the sewers, which we assume to be real.
12. Crackers (1984)
Bluntly stated, this is not a good movie. It is, however, an immaculate time capsule of 24th Street in the early ‘80s. It's actually a little disconcerting how little has changed amidst all the change. Give it 30 minutes and you'll give yourself 30 years of cred.
Watch the Golden Gate on your silver screen
If only all theaters were as comfortable as your own house (and had popcorn as cheap). You can take these classic SF flicks home to a screen worthy of the city they feature with a little help from Best Buy, and turn your basement into a screening room.
Bullitt stars San Francisco the way American Pie stars Shannon Elizabeth. You see much more of her than you anticipate, she's almost all you remember, and the plot could pretty much be anything. This movie is about Steve McQueen and a fastback mustang, and none of the mob intrigue imaginable can change that. Still, it's a veritable where's where of actual street corners, and endlessly watchable.
14. Time After Time (1979)
This is my all-time favorite San Francisco movie, and as a San Francisco hipster I have no problem saying it. On the cusp of the '80s we find a youngish Malcolm McDowell in the role of HG Wells, time-travelling from London to SF in a device of his own making and hunting down a close friend on location, who just happens to be Jack the Ripper. You haven't seen this movie, and you should be ashamed. It perfectly encapsulates our obsession with tech and our fear of serial killers.
15. Inside Out (2015)
So yeah, it’s a cartoon. But given that it's a cartoon about a young girl forced to make the awful transition from rural Minnesota to a single-family home in Russian Hill when her dad's tech concern lands a line of seed funding that demands new offices… it's right in our wheelhouse. Set aside any bitterness, though, hoss. The tears are real.
16. The Conversation (1974)
Having never seen a mime in Union Square, I can't speak to the authenticity of Coppola's 1978 SF, but dudes with parabolic mics and vans-full of electronic equipment of questionable legality seem on point. Replace the suits at Stockton and Geary with contemporary hipsters and literally nothing has changed outside of the surveillance technology.
Looking past its proto CGI title sequence, full-on embrace of the city's roofline, and the too-real representation of the independently wealthy artist (Midge, my darling), where Vertigo becomes a truly San Francisco film is in its discovery of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl as she loops an unsuspecting Jimmy Stewart around her finger between Mission Dolores and Muir Woods. Further points for name-dropping Top of the Mark and a convo about how the city has changed.
18. The Game (1997)
A wealthy guy with a goldbricking brother and a lack of lively zest finds himself subscribed to an on-demand adventure service with no clear means of cancellation and no cleanly visible indication of sustainable revenue. Yes, this is peak San Francisco, and hugely watchable at the same time. The glass ceiling through which he falls can be found at The Palace Hotel on New Montgomery fwiw.
19. Blue Jasmine (2013)
Say what you will about Woody Allen's idea of a low rent apartment in SF -- seriously, Jasmine's sister would have to put in 100+ hours a week at Casa Lucas to pay her rent -- or his obsession with New York stereotypes as Mission locals, but Bobby Cannavale served up vodka in my actual backyard at 23rd and Alabama, and that makes this movie pretty perfect San Francisco in my view.
20. Special Mention: Godzilla (2014)
Shot wholesale in Canada, it's entirely possible that no film presumed to take place in San Francisco has ever tried so little to actually take place in San Francisco. From the blanket references to the shelter value of "The BART stations," to BART's entirely made up logo, to loading a bunch of kids on a school bus to find shelter across the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin when there's a perfectly safe route down the peninsula and away from the paths of the oncoming beast-giants. In the event of nuclear monsters, do everything these people don't.