This Summer, a Return of the Return to the Movie Theater

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Be sure to check out our full 2023 Summer Arts Guide to live music, movies, art, theater, festivals and more in the Bay Area.

Last year, vaccinated against the virus and reaching escape velocity from the Netflix/Prime Video force field, audiences thronged back to theaters. It wasn’t just teenagers, either: Lobbies and aisles were crammed with adults attracted by the drumbeat of Tom Toms (Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick, Hanks in Elvis).

Hollywood’s betting even bigger this year that moviegoers want to escape to familiar places with crash-bang sequels of the Spider-Verse, Transformers, Mission: Impossible, Indiana Jones, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Insidious variety. (Aren’t we lucky these flicks were finished before the writers went on strike!)

For escapism with a dash of familiarity, summer screens offer plenty of options.

(L–R) Jeff Goldblum and Leonard Nimoy in 1978’s ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers.’ (United Artists)

Sundown Cinema

Various locations, San Francisco
June 8–Oct. 20

San Francisco’s free annual outdoor series intriguingly matches seven movies you’ve seen (more than once, probably) to seven allusive settings. Get of your hood and head to the Presidio for the military macho of Top Gun: Maverick (June 30) or to Dolores Park for the ABBA-infused Mamma Mia! (Aug. 18). Philip Kaufman’s 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers (June 8 at Alamo Square Park), the best film in the lineup and the only one set in San Francisco, reimagines Don Siegel’s 1956 parable of creeping small-town McCarthyism as a terrifying tale of New Age seduction and smug urban “individualism.”


Blue Jean

Comes Out June 16
Get in gear for Pride Month — if you haven’t already been galvanized by the latest right-wing attacks on LBGTQIA+ folks — with UK writer-director Georgia Oakley’s jangly drama set in the late 1980s. Rosy McEwen plays a lesbian high school P.E. teacher who’s profoundly afraid of being exposed in Thatcher’s England, yet also excited about the love, life and community within her reach. The arrival of a new student upsets Jean’s balancing act.


Comes Out June 16
Veteran Pixar animator and voice actor Peter Sohn (The Good Dinosaur) returns to the director’s chair with a fairy tale about diversity, equity and inclusiveness. Think I’m kidding? Fire, water, air and earth residents live together peaceably in the same city, explored by new pals and apparent opposites Ember and Wade. I can’t wait to see Disney’s Florida marketing campaign!

The Blackening

Comes Out June 16
The stabs at humor in summer horror films are typically broader than in their autumn cousins, but that doesn’t mean they skimp on the chills. Tracy Oliver (Harlem) and Dewayne Perkins’s screenplay, helmed by Tim Story, reunites seven Black college friends for a Juneteenth party at the requisite cabin in the woods with the requisite slasher in the wings. Sacred and not-so-sacred genre conventions are cheerfully skewered, along with a raft of stereotypes and (unhappily) a few cast members. Presumably there are breaks in the banter so the audience can scream, “Don’t open that door!” (For fantastical fun from a different Black perspective, check out East Bay multi-talent Boots Riley’s limited series about a 13-foot-tall Oakland native, I’m a Virgo, premiering June 23 on Prime Video.)

Catherine Deneuve in a famous scene from Luis Buñuel’s 1967 film ‘Belle de Jour.’ (Courtesy BAMPFA)

Luis Buñuel’s Magnificent Weapon

July 7–Nov. 23 at BAMPFA, Berkeley
The master of delicious perversity for half of the 20th century, Spanish-born filmmaker Luis Buñuel slid his stiletto into the fatty liver of upper-middle-class entitlement, religious hypocrisy and base sexual desire. Shocking for their time and savagely funny, Buñuel’s social satires used dream sequences and flashbacks to fracture narrative expectations. (A lifelong surrealist, his influence extends to David Lynch, Gaspar Noé and the aforementioned Mr. Riley.) BAMPFA’s retrospective begins with the brilliant ’60s and ’70s films — Viridiana, Diary of a Chambermaid, Belle de Jour and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie among them — that cemented Buñuel’s reputation and became rep house staples for a subsequent generation.

A Japanese man and woman get close near a granite boulder.
Sessue Hayakawa and Tsuru Aoki in ‘The Dragon Painter,’ directed by William Worthington and filmed in Yosemite National Park (standing in for Japan), 1919. A restoration of the film screens at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival. (Courtesy SFSFF)

San Francisco Silent Film Festival

July 12–16 at the Castro Theatre
The uncertain future of the Castro Theatre provides additional incentive, as if it’s needed, to bask in the movie-palace ambience and movie-love sentiment embodied by the venerable SFSFF. I used to think it was a nostalgia-fest for eccentric movie buffs who yearned for the past — until I attended my first show. Innovative storytelling and cinematography (showcased in flawless 35mm prints) by cinema’s most gifted pioneers is always a revelation, and the live performances of witty scores by great musicians is irresistible. Pick any program and you’re bound to have a blast, but the hot tickets are the three premiering restorations: The Dragon Painter (1919) starring Sessue Hayakawa with musical accompaniment by the Masaru Koga Ensemble, Joseph De Grasse’s 1924 Texas oil melodrama Flowing Gold accompanied by Utsav Lal, and the prolific-yet-underrated Allan Dwan’s unknown Padlocked (1926) accompanied by Stephen Horne.

In a still from ‘The Catskills,’ Jackie Horner (in blue dress, at left), dances with hotel staff at Grossinger’s Resort. Horner would serve as the real-life inspiration for “Baby” in the 1987 film ‘Dirty Dancing.’ (Courtesy San Francisco Jewish Film Festival)

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

July 20–Aug. 6 at the Castro and Vogue Theaters; also at the Piedmont Theater in Oakland
The festival has to navigate a challenging tightrope this year, marking Israel’s 75th anniversary even as an extremist right-wing government continues its clampdown on the Palestinians and seeks to constrain Israeli artists. If controversy isn’t your cup of Sanka, the festival offers several nonfiction portraits of American Jewish culture: Lex Gillespie compiles an oral history of The Catskills, octogenarian filmmaker Ralph Arlyck disarmingly confronts aging in I Like It Here and Ruth Reichl embarks on a cross-country odyssey among local farmers, ranchers and chefs in Laura Gabbert’s Food and Country.


Comes Out July 21
Greta Gerwig’s ambitious (and possibly misguided) satire of conformity and consumerism looks like no other movie this year. Barbie (Margot Robbie) and Ken (Ryan Gosling) live their plastic existence in a cloying candy-cane dollhouse world that will either set your teeth on edge or propel you on a pastel journey for the perfect summer outfit. Will Gerwig (and co-writer and White Noise director Noah Baumbach) eviscerate gender roles and heterosexual anxieties with laugh-out-loud precision? Or will Mattel and Warner Bros. experience buyers’ remorse for this alt-world swan dive into product placement?



Comes Out July 21
Christopher Nolan fancies himself a craftier Kubrick and a smarter Spielberg, an inventor of fantastic worlds (Inception, Interstellar, Tenet) for adults that spin the turnstiles and spark conversations. This three-hour (!) recapitulation of the Manhattan Project, the nuclear-bomb program headed by theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) during World War II to defeat the Nazis, employs Nolan’s tried-and-tired formula of nonlinear story structure, gargantuan set pieces and melodramatic acting. A Compassionate Spy (August 4) provides a nonfiction bookend: Steve James presents the perspective of young Manhattan Project physicist Ted Hall, whose concern about the U.S.’s exclusive ownership of nuclear weapons led him to pass information to the Soviet Union. Summer apocalypse, anyone?