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10 Quintessentially San Francisco Movies

aka Best Movies filmed in San Francisco


    Most of us know that the cities that make more feature films than any other are Mumbai followed by Hollywood. But when it comes to quality and diversity, San Francisco (and NYC) set the pace.

    The San Francisco International Film Festival, our nation's oldest, brings 200 (often rare) treats for our viewing pleasure every April. We also host the only festival on the planet that spotlights Film Noir.  The names of some of the (at least 2 dozen) other film festivals in and around the city offer a sense of our myriad perspectives and communities: Frameline (the LGBT leader), Asian-American, African-American, Jewish, Arab, American Indian, Queer Women of Color,Tranny, Human Rights Watch International, Buddhist, Indie (our own little Sundance), Epidemic, Ocean, Sex Workers, Berlin & Beyond, French Cinema Now, Silent.

My criteria for this list? These films are worth your time and attention and their stories and characters may have been fatally compromised  had they been set in Manhattan, LA, New Orleans, Vancouver, instead of San Francisco.

  1.     (1) Vertigo (1957): Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Stars Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes. An elusive woman becomes an ex-cop's obsession. (We do both a half-day San Francisco-only version of a tour whereby you see most of the extant sites, and a full-day version that takes us down to the quiet historic town of San Juan Bautista.)  A Friend in Town also pays tribute to--
  2.     (2) "The Birds" (1963):  Less sensational than "Psycho" but in many ways more profound...and of course terrifying.
  3.     (3) Escape from Alcatraz (1979): Stars Clint Eastwood (born across the Bay in Oakland), set where 4 million visitors volunteer to serve time every year, and based on a "true story."
  4.     (4) Dirty Harry (1971) and its sequels: Also starring Clint Eastwood, as a maverick cop tracking a serial killer.
  5.     (5) The Joy Luck Club (1993) and (6) Flower Drum Song (1961): The former is based on local Amy Tan's best-selling novel about four women's experiences in leaving China and creating new lives in a new world; the second is a popular musical set in a fantasy Chinatown. Flower Drum Song may not be a great movie but it is based on an excellent Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Those hoping for a more insightful view of Chinese-American life in late 20th-century San Francisco should seek out William Wang's "Chan is Missing," "Dim Sum," and "Eat a Bowl of Tea."
  6.     (7) Bullitt (1968): Stars Steve McQueen as a cop who follows a trail of malfeasance from the ladies-who-lunch crowd to San Francisco General Hospital. Famously follows a car being chased down and around several really steep streets—a scene that trashed 7 Mustangs before completion.
  7.     (8) Mrs. Doubtfire (1993): Stars Robin Williams (resident here for decades) in a farce that most kids...many grown-ups too..just love! The outdoor scenes were actually filmed in the North Beach and Pacific Heights neighborhoods--unlike "Pacific Heights," the pretty good movie with Micheal Keaton et. al., set in a house many blocks from its namesake. Harvey Fierstein and Sally Field add spice to "Doubtfire"'s plot.

       (9) Tales of the City (1993) and its sequels: Based on a wildly popular serialized

   novel by Armistead Maupin, it shines light on an emerging "gay" lifestyle, on one of

   those hidden streets that make ordinary life for San Franciscans extraordinary.

     (10) The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2003): Stars a noisy flock of red-headed conures and their once homeless caretaker, Mark Bittner, who helps us get to know and love their idiosyncrasies. He later married the filmmaker.

    Should you crave a more complete listing of movies made in San Francisco, check out www.filmsf.org (the film commission's website). One last movie that also has the visual power of the masterpiece "Night of the Hunter" (1955) is "Thieves' Highway" (1949)--filmed at the old produce market when it was an Italian-American monopoly and starring the luminous Valentina Cortesa, it may take some effort to find. Also worth noting is San Francisco (1936), starring the Julie Andrews of her age, Jeannette MacDonald, plus Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy (who'd be back in The City to star in Stanley Kramer's ground-breaking "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?"). Catastrophic earthquakes happen many places, but few come with such melodrama and leave a city's official anthem in their wake: "San Francisco, open your Golden Gate!"

    So why not include other obvious candidates like "The Presidio"? Because I think that plot would have worked with any large residential military base. "Sister Act"? Any church in need of new energy. "Zodiac"? Maybe it should've made the list. What about the now classic "American Grafitti," "The Graduate," "Play Misty for Me" (Eastwood's directorial debut)? They weren't filmed in the city, but nearby—respectively in Petaluma, Berkeley and on the Monterey Peninsula. Did I overlook "Full House," "Nash Bridges," "The Streets of San Francisco"? All popular. All TV series, not feature-length movies.

    That's my list. Agree or disagree. But do visit this photogenic city—for an exploratory walk, a film festival, a tour.

  --Jesse W. for A Friend in Town

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