In our article on the best video games set in San Francisco, we lamented the dispiriting dearth of films that prominently feature the beloved city (relative to, say, Los Angeles or New York). If one takes it upon themselves to engage in a bit of cultural sleuthing, though, they’ll find a rich array of films shot on location in the city by the bay, be they older classics, contemporary indie titles, or CG-heavy action blockbusters.
As dedicated film-buffs, we’ve ever-so graciously completed that research on your behalf. While far from all-encompassing, this list includes a solid representative sample of some of the best movies set in San Francisco.
Debates among film-bros over which David Fincher film is his magnum opus still rage on Letterboxd and Twitter, and justifiably so. Fincher, the modern mastermind behind psychological dramas and thrillers like The Social Network, Se7en, and Gone Girl, is one of contemporary cinema’s most consistent and distinctive voices, having yet to have a real directorial blunder. One thing is consistent across those debates: Zodiac is always in the top three spots. The film, based on true events, follows an obsessive San Francisco Chronicle journalist as he works independently of the law to uncover the identity of the man behind multiple cryptic murders plaguing the Bay Area. Fincher took pains to ensure his version of 1980s San Francisco was as period-accurate as possible, even including a CG-reconstruction of the pre-earthquake Embarcadero Freeway.
Speaking of cop films, one of the most famous cop classics was filmed right here in San Francisco. Clint Eastwood’s 1971 thriller Dirty Harry is an action-packed neo-noir that went on to help define the actor and director’s career, and the SF setting is a character of the film in itself. From sweeping views of the Pacific coast to myriad shots with Alcatraz Island in the background, the Victorian architecture, hilly streets and Fisherman's Wharf; the environment within which the titular vigilante cop explores his world sets the tone for the whole film. This movie wouldn’t be the same without us!
Many film bros liken Fincher to Alfred Hitchcock, arguing that much of his work is indebted to Hitchcock’s preoccupation with suspense, sociopathic murderers, and psychological thrills. Another key similarity: one of Hitchcock’s best movies was shot in San Francisco. Starring the legendary James Stewart, Vertigo adheres to the noire formula quite rigidly: a hard-boiled private investigator working through past trauma from his days as a cop encounters a mysterious woman and must untangle a web of lies and deceit. This web of lies and deceit takes our protagonist to Mission Dolores, the Golden Gate Bridge, and even the Muir Woods.
This 1992 cult classic neo-noir from Paul Verhoeven - one of the masters of unpretentious pop cinema and the director of classics like Starship Troopers and Robocop - is basically just a modernized, campier, more violent, more sexually explicit Vertigo. A hard-boiled San Francisco detective encounters an enigmatic femme fatale (famously portrayed by Sharon Stone), and so begins a series of wild hijinx involving bloody ice picks, car chases, and Michael Douglas looking confused. Something about San Francisco’s narrow, hilly, winding lamplit streets and ocean adjacence are ripe for noire murder mysteries.
Another thriller set in the heart of Gold Rush town, The Game stars Michael Douglas and Sean Penn as estranged brothers, the later of which accepts a strange gift from the former: a chance to take part in a real-life game that ultimately turns the successful banker’s life upside down. The city of San Fran takes center stage in many of the film's shots, but Douglas' mansion isn't actually at the SF address given. Instead, it's the same mansion featured in the 1980s soap opera Dynasty, but don't let that pull this spectacular film off your watch list.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
A24 has rapidly become a revered production and distribution company, consistently pumping out some of the most formally innovative and narratively subversive films and television series of recent memory (think Midsommar, Moonlight, Euphoria, and, most recently, Everything Everywhere All At Once). Serendipitously, one of their best titles is not only set in San Francisco but essentially converts the city into a character of its own. Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco is an achingly beautiful, crushingly melancholy love letter - more of an elegy, really - to a changing city in which, tragically, our central characters no longer belong.
Simultaneously a critique of gentrification and its very real impact on Black folk and other marginalized communities as well as a romantic ode to the city San Francisco once was, this film is staggeringly brilliant and boasts career-defining performances from Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors (rejoice Marvel stans: as of Disney Plus’ Loki, Majors will now officially portray Kang, the MCU’s next big-bad/Thanos-level threat).
Will Smith and his real-life son Jaden star in this 2006 drama about a father and son who find themselves out on the streets when dad’s luck runs out in business and life. It’s a real tear-jerker, but it's full of beautiful moments both in the acting and in the San Francisco background. From the family’s former home to the daycare center where Jaden’s character goes to school, The Pursuit of Happyness is full of true-to-the-area landmarks that you can visit, if you do a little research.
Tim Burton - the king of the off-beat, the eerie, and the surreal - has countless seminal works under his belt (Big Fish, Edward Scissorhands, etcetera). Unexpectedly, Big Eyes is neither eerie nor surreal, though it is a little off-beat. This based-on-a-true-story dramedy traces the story of Margaret Keane (played exceptionally by Amy Adams), a gifted artist whose obnoxious husband claimed the credit for her immensely popular portraits, all of which feature larger-than-life eyes. The film, taking place largely in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, is a thoroughly engaging and remarkably acted exploration of gender dynamics in the 1950s and 1960s that remains worth critiquing. The real-life Margaret Keane continued to paint and enjoy life in the city until June of this year when she passed away in Napa County at the age of 85.
One of the greatest family comedies of all time, Robin Williams stars opposite Sally Field and Pierce Brosnan in this heartwarming and hilarious tale of a father who will do just about anything to stay close to his children. While you probably remember the insane character acting of Williams more than anything else, San Francisco does play as the setting of this timeless classic. From the home of the central family to the scenes filmed in SF's courtrooms (which are now inside the San Mateo County History Museum), Mrs. Doubtfire is full of Bay Area spots. It’s all the sweeter when you realize Williams was himself a longtime Bay Area resident!
It is our belief that Gareth Edwards’ 2014 creature feature Godzilla is, despite the massive budget, an underrated gem and should be more appreciated. The climactic final half of the film centers on an epic showdown between a heroic Godzilla and two other massive, otherworldly kaiju that leave San Francisco in shambles. Edwards could have easily phoned it in: this film was very nearly a mediocre disaster flick like San Andreas or its sequel Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Edwards, though, maintaining full control of his craft, seizes a run-of-the-mill screenplay and directs it with such style, restraint, and sensitivity that the film feels less like a multimillion-dollar blockbuster and more like a mid-budget indie horror piece.
Take the scene in which Godzilla stampedes through the Golden Gate Bridge, cleaving it in half: a lesser director would have shown us the action by cutting between a million different camera angles in the span of a few seconds. Edwards, instead, confines the viewer to the interior of a school bus on the surface of the bridge speeding away as Godzilla storms through it. The viewer only gets to see the action through the rainy window of the bus as the children populating it scream in collective terror. A+ filmmaking.
Photography by: Getty