San Francisco and the environs of the Bay Area are home to many famous spots. No, we aren’t just talking about the “Full House” house. There’s the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Lombard Street, and let’s not forget the house from “Full House!” It’s also been the setting for many movies that have had critical or commercial success, and oftentimes both. These are the top films set in San Francisco, or in the general vicinity of San Francisco.
“Vertigo” is the first film many think of when it comes to San Francisco films. However, the Alfred Hitchcock classic goes well beyond that. In fact, the famous “Sight & Sound” poll declared “Vertigo” the best movie ever made, finally surpassing “Citizen Kane.” That’s high praise, indeed!
Eddie Murphy’s movie stardom began here with “48 Hrs.” Murphy was all of 21 years old at the time, but the second he shows up on the screen he starts to steal the movie from Nick Nolte. It’s a pretty gritty movie for what is ostensibly a comedy, but if you want to see where it all began with Murphy, it starts here.
The first “Thin Man” movie is pretty good, but being made in 1934 it had some rough spots from a movie-making perspective. Sure, 1936 was only two years later, but the film industry was growing exponentially at the time. “After the Thin Man” is a better movie than “The Thin Man,” a fun romp for Nick and Nora Charles, with Jimmy Stewart in a supporting role.
We like “Ant-Man,” but personally we prefer “Ant-Man and the Wasp” a bit better. It seems like the success of the first film allowed director Peyton Reed more leeway. “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is heavy on the comedy and the sight gags, and it really works. Paul Rudd is great, as is Michael Pena, as always.
John Carpenter’s “Big Trouble in Little China” is a strange concoction, but it largely works. It’s a mix of mysticism, fantasy, and martial arts, all with Kurt Russell in the middle of the film as truck driver Jack Burton, who is in over his head but doesn’t seem to realize it.
When they talk about the all-time car chases in movies, “Bullitt” is often at the top of the list. Honestly, we probably only still talk about “Bullitt” because of that car chase. And yet, it lives up to the hype! If you care about car chases at all, you owe it to yourself to see “Bullitt.”
The ‘70s was the decade of the conspiracy thriller, and Francis Ford Coppola had to get himself into the mix. Gene Hackman plays a quiet surveillance expert who is extremely private himself. Then, one day in San Francisco while on a case, he overhears something that doesn’t sit right with him. Has he stumbled onto a conspiracy? And if he has, what does that mean for his anonymity.
In terms of quirky romantic comedies, “Harold and Maude” might take the cake. Bud Cort plays the teenaged Harold, who is obsessed with death. Ruth Gordon plays the 79-year-old Maude, who is in love with life. They come together, they bring joy into one another’s lives, and it just makes sense a counterculture city like San Francisco would be involved.
Granted, a lot of “Inside Out” takes place in the head of Riley, the ostensible human protagonist. However, at a certain point, that vessel for the emotions moves to San Francisco, which means the movie is then set in San Francisco. Pixar is known for making movies that appeal to kids but also tend to leave adults an emotional wreck, and “Inside Out” is no different.
How could we not include a movie with “San Francisco” right in the title? The title “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is not literal, but symbolic. Jimmie Fails stars as, well, Jimmie Fails, who is preoccupied with a vacant house he says once belonged to his family in a now-gentrified neighborhood. It’s solemn and contemplative, but often beautiful.
“The Maltese Falcon” is one of the quintessential film noirs. John Huston, a luminary of directing, was making his directorial debut. Humphrey Bogart stars as the classic private eye Sam Spade, who is on the search for who killed his partner Miles Archer, and a bird statue might be involved.
San Francisco was one of the first hubs of gay rights activists, including Harvey Milk. Milk became the first openly-gay person elected to public office in the city, though he was eventually assassinated tragically. Sean Penn stars as Milk, and Penn won an Oscar for the movie. So did Dustin Lance Black, who wrote the screenplay.
Look, we know when you are watching “Mrs. Doubtfire” you are focused on Robin Williams’ antics. You remember him in his Mrs. Doubtfire drag, his over-the-top voice, him sticking his face in a pie and then saying “Hello!,” “run-by fruiting,” and so on. As such, you may not remember where the movie is set. As you likely guessed, Daniel and his family live in San Francisco.
“Point Blank” begins and ends in San Francisco, including a stop at Alcatraz. Lee Marvin is brutally efficient as Walker, a man who is betrayed by his criminal partner. He wants his half of the robbery. He wants his $93,000. That’s all. He’s quite nonchalant about it. Of course, he will also nonchalantly kill anybody who gets in his way.
We had to have at least one movie set at Alcatraz, the most famous prison in the United States. We are going with the silliest one of the bunch. Michael Bay’s action film is totally ridiculous but in a fun way. Don’t watch “The Rock” looking for Oscar-worthy performances. Watch it to see Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery chew the scenery.
Whoopi Goldberg stars in the crowd-pleasing “Sister Act” as a lounge singer in Reno who has to flee after witnessing a mob hit. Placed into witness protection, she is played with a convent in San Francisco. It’s a culture-clash comedy, but eventually, Whoopi comes to appreciate her time there, and audiences appreciated it enough to lead to a sequel with the delightful subtitle “Back in the Habit.”
The rule of thumb is that the even-numbered “Star Trek” films are the good ones, which includes “The Voyage Home.” Sure, the movie may seem strange. There’s time travel and very important humpback whales. We see some stereotypical punks and Scotty tries to talk into a computer mouse. In the end, though, we get to watch the crew of the Enterprise hangs around in San Francisco trying to save the world.
There are pulpy movies about serial killers, including the all-too-real Zodiac Killer, and then there is “Zodiac.” David Fincher does not mess around. The man likes to work in dark spaces, and “Zodiac” is definitely that. However, it’s interested in delving into the lives of three men who dedicate themselves to trying to figure out who Zodiac is, even if it destroys their lives. In terms of true-crime-adjacent films, “Zodiac” is definitely the most critically acclaimed of the bunch.
Disaster flicks were a big part of the ‘70s. You would think that a disaster film set in San Francisco might be about an earthquake. Instead, perhaps the best of these disaster flicks, “The Towering Inferno,” is about a fire in a giant skyscraper celebrating its opening. Fortunately, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen are on hand to try and save the day. It’s an impressive ensemble and an engaging thriller.
Screwball comedies were the name of the game in the ‘30s and ‘40s, but they didn’t go away completely. One of the all-time best screwball flicks actually came out in 1972, when Peter Bogdanovich directed “What’s Up, Doc?.” The action all begins at a hotel in San Francisco and then spirals out into hilarious chaos from there. If you like a romp, check this one out.
Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty” Harry Callahan movies aren’t always ideal politically. They are about a rogue cop taking matters into his own hands, and the films are usually a little nasty. That being said, “Dirty Harry” is an important cultural moment. It’s the first film in the series and features some famous lines of dialogue. It helped solidify Eastwood as an actor outside of Westerns. Any list of the best San Francisco films probably needs to include it.
“The Room” is set in San Francisco, and it’s one of the worst movies ever made. It’s also amazing in all its insanity and complete lack of quality. “The Room” became a cult hit, so much so that there’s a movie about the making of “The Room.” That movie is “The Disaster Artist,” which was directed by James Franco. Franco also stars as Tommy Wiseau, the man behind “The Room.” If you don’t know anything about Wiseau, well, you’re in for a treat.
David Fincher returns, this time with a movie we don’t want to say too much about. Michael Douglas finds himself in a strange situation. Is it just all an elaborate game that’s part of a birthday gift? Or has something really gone wrong? That’s all we want to say, lest we get into spoiler territory.
You know “The Love Bug.” It’s a movie about the sentient Volkswagen Beetle. Dean Jones stars as a down-on-his-luck racecar driver whose life is turned around when Herbie rolls in. Then again, he already could afford to live in the Bay Area. Maybe things weren’t too shabby already.
We start with Hitchcock and we end with Hitchcock. “The Birds” is more of a straight horror film than “Vertigo.” It’s all in the title. Birds take over a small town in the Bay Area. Nobody knows why. They just know they have to fear for their lives. It’s man vs. nature, and it’s one of the all-time best “When animals attack” horror flicks.