There are miles of police chase-friendly, mountainous blacktops in San Francisco, and its Victorian rooflines make it an ideal location for movie magic just north of Hollywood. A cold, dead man would be hard-pressed to live in this town and not have a few local movie favorites. This is a list of 20 movies that are as synonymous with San Francisco as Rice-a-Roni is (well, with one giant exception).
1. 48 Hrs. (1982)
Do you recall Torchy’s, a hillbilly honky-tonk that used to be the hardest bar in the Mission? Chinatown is right across the street. A real-life Muni station shootout is more than enough to make up for it, if you ask me. Even though it doesn’t, but it does, In fact, Mark Twain never said anything about Summer in San Francisco. So put an end to it.
2. The Rock (1996)
A local or Dwayne Johnson, fresh off the lukewarm success of a natural catastrophe epic, will certainly punch you in the face if you call Alcatraz “The Rock.” That being said, this may be the final time the American public will put up with Nicholas Cage’s “whole thing” before it becomes tedious. Insightful comments over the phone while driving a sick Ferrari 350 Spyder on Russian Hill earns you extra points.
3. Star Trek IV (1986)
It’s a rare piece of big budget perfection, a symphony orchestrated by Leonard Nimoy and Eddie Murphy, who were both signed to star in the film before it was axed for The Golden Child (Big Trouble in Little China was being developed as a direct competitor), and a time-traveling adventure to the Bay Area of the 1980s. To emphasize his point, Spock spends the night on a GGB bus listening to a punk boom boxer.
4. Dirty Harry (1971)
This picture’s instigating incident is made all the more compelling when you consider how rarely people go swimming in the city on the water. A highly bigoted hero in the fictional city of Liberal City, USA, coupled with plenty of no shit actual SF, awaits anyone who can get past their disbelief.
5. Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
This is, without a doubt, the most authentically San Francisco-themed film ever. When an unemployed artist’s Peter Pan-like antics finally get the better of his fiscally prudent wife, he decides to go all out with a costume charade supported by handy takeout dinners. All the same, give RW a round of applause.
6. Kuffs (1992)
It’s based on a true story about a handsome young slacker who dumps his equally handsome pregnant girlfriend in Sacramento in order to invest in his brother’s private police firm in San Francisco. Before the five-minute mark, there is a great hill-jumping automobile trick.
7. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
In 1941, filming on location was rare, hence the only true shots of San Francisco were in the establishing shots. In the end, we’ll give this a pass, because it’s an almost shot-for-shot reproduction of a real SF book (seriously, the locales make up like half of the description). They made an effort, and that’s what matters.
8. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
In order to get the vibe, you have to shoot for the shot. San Francisco. If Elon Musk bought it and built a full-scale San Francisco-themed amusement park in its place, you couldn’t better represent this city. Under the threat of an invasive population of culture-stifling drones, wealthy chefs are getting the business of a privileged health inspector.
9. The Presidio (1998)
In what other film can you see the stark contrast between San Francisco’s police and military authorities as clearly as this 1988 thriller? A year after this boss movie came out, congress decided to close down the city’s military authority, so all that’s left is a Mark Harmon/Sean Connery vehicle to serve as a memorial for what was lost when touch football moved into Crissy Field.
10. Pacific Heights (1990)
This film takes place in an upscale area that only a select few can afford. If you’ve been through an eviction recently, you’ll understand how tough it can be to balance schadenfreude and empathy when landlords are taken hostage by squatters.
11. Big Trouble In Little China (1986)
Despite being one of the greatest San Francisco movies ever made, almost all of it was filmed in the city’s studios. In Chinatown, there is no place where Jack Burton’s reckless driving of the Pork Chop Express would be tolerated. It’s all demons in the sewers in the few meaningful establishing shots we get, which we assume to be real.
12. Crackers (1984)
Simply put, this is a bad film. A time capsule of 24th Street in the early 1980s, it is, however, immaculate. It’s a little alarming how little has changed in the midst of all the transformation. If you give it 30 minutes, you’ll earn 30 years of credibility in no time.
13. Bullitt (1968)
In the same way that Shannon Elizabeth stars in American Pie, San Francisco does in Bullitt. You see a lot more of her than you expected, and she’s the only thing you remember about the narrative. Steve McQueen and a Mustang fastback are the stars of this film, and no mob intrigue can alter that. Still, it’s a true street-corner guide that’s always fascinating to see.
14. Time After Time (1979)
It’s my all-time favorite film set in San Francisco, and that’s saying a lot coming from a San Francisco hipster. A teenage Malcolm McDowell plays the character of HG Wells, who uses his own invention to travel from London to San Francisco and track down a long-lost buddy, who happens to be the serial killer Jack the Ripper. You should be ashamed of yourself if you haven’t seen this film. Our fascination with technology and our fear of serial killers are wonderfully encapsulated in this piece.
15. Inside Out (2015)
So, yep, it’s an animated short. On light of its subject matter, though, this cartoon about a young girl who is forced to relocate to a single-family home in Russian Hill because her father’s software company secures a line of startup capital that requires new offices isn’t a bad choice. It’s within our capabilities. Hoss, put away any lingering bitterness. It’s not a figment of my imagination.
16. The Conversation (1974)
No mime in Union Square has ever come close to emulating this scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1978 SF, but the guys with parabolic microphones and the trailers full of electronic equipment of questionable legality look like they’re right on target. Replace the suits at Stockton and Geary with current hipsters and nothing else has changed save for the monitoring equipment.
17. Vertigo (1958)
Vertigo is a distinctly San Francisco picture if you look past its pre-CGI title sequence, full-on embracing of the city’s skyline, and the too-real representation of the wealthy artist (Midge, my darling). In addition, you get bonus points for mentioning Top of the Mark and starting a conversation about how the city has changed.
18. The Game (1997)
After signing up for an on-demand adventure service without any obvious cancellation options or clear indications of sustainable revenue, the affluent man finds himself unable to get out of it. Yes, this is the height of San Francisco, but it’s also a fantastic watch. Fwiw, the Palace Hotel on New Montgomery is home to the glass ceiling through which he plunges.
19. Blue Jasmine (2013)
As much as I may disagree with Woody Allen’s depiction of a Mission-area low-income apartment or his obsession with New York stereotyped characters as Mission locals, I can’t deny that Bobby Cannavale served me vodka in my own backyard at 23rd and Alabama, and that makes this movie a perfect representation of San Francisco in my opinion.
20. Special Mention: Godzilla (2014)
It’s certainly feasible that no film that purports to be set in San Francisco has ever attempted so little to really be set in San Francisco. “The BART stations,” BART’s wholly made up logo, and boarding a school bus full of kids to find shelter over the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin when there’s a perfectly safe route down the peninsula and away from the path of the impending beast-giants are just a few examples. Everything these guys don’t do should be done in the event of a nuclear monster.