10 Films You Need to See to Have a Conversation in San Francisco

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Photo: Universal Pictures
Photo: Universal Pictures

Every clique and every city has those films that inevitably come up with greater frequency in conversation. Whether it's because it features the city brilliantly, was made by local talent, has an aesthetic that's been embraced by the neighborhood creatives or is just so brilliant it was bound to be championed by the local thinkers, some films are just beloved city-wide.

In my interviews and conversations with other writers and people in the entertainment industry, one theme about our city keeps asserting itself: San Francisco is incredibly film savvy. But of course: we've had Coppola down the block since the '70s, more film festivals than you can count and an active and engaged Film Commission that's making San Francisco a nouveau production Mecca.

There could be 30 films on this list of movies you need to see to have a conversation in SF, but I'm going to narrow it down to the films that are most referenced in my personal circles; otherwise, we'd be here all night! If I miss any of your favorites (spoiler alert: I will), leave the title in the comments below!

Modern Times (1936)

Charlie Chaplin's relationship with the Bay Area goes back a century; many of his earliest shorts were filmed across the Bay in the charming ville of Niles Canyon (check out their main street and you'll find lots of Little Tramp branding at local businesses). Any true film lover has an appreciation for the comedic and balletic genius that is Charlie Chaplin and, in San Francisco, Modern Times seems to be the film most people have the greatest affinity for. It's no surprise Chaplin's indictment of soulless industry, spirit-crushing capitalism and automation (as best personified by the famous scene where Chaplin slips through an assembly-line's gears) continues to resonate with local, politically left audiences. Fun fact: it's the only Chaplin film that features the Little Tramp walking down the dusty road at the end of the film with a friend, the film's heroine, Paulette Goddarrd (his wife at the time). Runner up Chaplin film: City Lights, 1931.


Pink Flamingos (1972)

Although John Waters is a filmmaker most closely associated with his hometown of Baltimore, he has been embraced in San Francisco since he began touring here for screenings with his drag queen star Divine in the late 1960s. Something about Waters' appreciation of aesthetic kitsch, his "hippies who were really punks" characters, his zing-y dialogue amidst absurdly joyful plots and his totally irreverent championing of the outsider has always spoken directly to the spirt of the city. How lucky are we that Waters now makes his home here part of the year? His most famous/notorious film remains 1972's Pink Flamingos, and if you don't know why it's notorious, we're not going to tell you. What we can tell you about the film is that it stars Divine and Waters' other iconic "Dreamland" actors (Edith Massey, Mink Stole, Mary Vivian Pierce, David Lockary) battling to see who is most worthy of the title "The Filthiest People Alive." It's not just the gays that reference John Waters in San Francisco; all the cool straight people of any generation also know this film and for good reason.

Grey Gardens (1975)

"Let's make the hat a little more Grey Gardens." "She hadn't cleaned in so long, it looked like Grey Gardens up in her place." "I love her. She's such a Little Edie type." These are all references people have made to the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens in the last two days alone. The Maysles Brothers' film chronicles the lives of "Big Edie" Bouvier Beale and her daughter "Little Edie" Beale -- aunt and cousin of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis -- who were living in a rather decayed East Hampton mansion that was the frequent target of the local board of health. The vivid, amusing and poetic mother and daughter (79 and 56 at the time of filming) sang, danced and bickered through Tennessee Williams-esque looks back at their pasts and started countless fashion trends with their DIY bohemian costumes. Little Edie's penchant for head coverings, sweaters worn as skirts (and capes), bathing suit bodices with lace curtain sarongs all held together by a broach have been famously paid homage in various fashion magazines, music videos and art exhibitions, and the film remains a touchstone for documentary film lovers around the world. The Edies' strong streaks of individuality are probably what rings the truest for San Franciscans; aristocrats throwing off their constraints to live like artists was once a very San Francisco quality.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Although none of the noir classic was actually shot in San Francisco (there's some stock footage used for establishing shots at the beginning of the film), you feel like you're actually in the Tenderloin of the '30s and '40s whenever you watch the famed Humphrey Bogart detective film. When you think San Francisco noir, you think of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon (almost every trope of the genre came from this film). It is your civic duty to watch and reference this film at least once a year and, at least once in your life, you must visit the falcon displayed at John's Grill and then swing by Dashiell Hammett Alley (where the writer's Tenderloin apartment was located) to pay your respects. Don't embarrass yourself by not getting references to "the stuff dreams are made of" or any other moments from the film. Netflix it! Or better yet, see it at the Castro Theatre next time it's playing.

So I Married an Axe Murder (1993)

Everything The Maltese Falcon is to 1930s San Francisco, So, I Married An Axe Murderer is to 1990s San Francisco. Natives all know this film: the then under-appreciated Mike Myers comedy has some extremely good vista shots of the city (unexpected neighborhoods too, like Noe Valley and North Beach). It also takes one back to the Beat revival of the '90s coffee house scene for laugh out loud scenes where Myers performs poems about his ex girlfriends with a jazz band. There are thousands of in-jokes still quoted with regularity by kids who grew up in San Francisco in the '90s. Plus, this is the movie that taught us what a haggis is! "Helllllloooo!" By the way, you can call me Vicki.

Gimme Shelter (1970)

The Maysles Brothers' documentary following the Rolling Stones on tour has a notorious Bay Area connection: the disastrous Altamont Free Concert was filmed on location at the speedway in Livermore, where a teen was famously stabbed to death during a riot. That said, it's a film that continues to come up in conversation for the incredible footage of the Stones performing live and because many a local camera crew was swept into the production for addition footage. The men and women that were there still love to share their stories, whether they were crew or concert-goer. My favorite comes from a friend who was working with a group of KQED camera operators at the concert: "You just used the camera to guard yourself and hoped it was still capturing something."

Eraserhead (1977)

David Lynch's dark, experimental and slightly revolting (in the best sense of the word) midnight movie Eraserhead is not a film to everyone's liking, but for some reason has a loyal San Francisco following. Screenings at the Castro, Roxie and elsewhere in recent years have always been full, and the occasional cutesy drag homage to the film's dancing roast chickens and the lady in the radiator are always good fun. Only in San Francisco can a film that has terrified other audiences with its surreal depictions of nightmarish infants be seen as a beloved aesthetic reference. My favorite local Eraserhead moment would have to be the bartender whose ringtone was the Pixies' cover of the film's theme song: "In Heaven, Everything is Fine."

Hemingway and Gellhorn (2012)

Phillip Kaufman's 2012 HBO bio about the marriage between writers Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn (staring Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman) received mixed reviews, but for months after, San Franciscans couldn't help but mention the Bay Area locations that doubled as foreign countries in film. Marin is Spain! Sausalito is Cuba! Herbst Theater is New York! Even though we're not given credit for it, San Francisco has never looked so good on screen, even if we're playing another city. Nicole Kidman's performance as pioneering female war correspondent Martha Gellhorn also garnered some much deserved praise, easily her strongest character since Virginia Woolf.

Bullit (1968)

I'm going to be totally honest with you: I know I've seen the entire Steve McQueen film Bullit more than once in its entirety, but I only have a vague sense of what the plot is. Something about McQueen as a detective guarding a mob witness and... Yeah, let's just talk about the car chase. One of the most famous car chases in American cinema is featured in Bullit where McQueen, in a 1968 Ford Mustang, goes after the bad guys up and down the hills of San Francisco, as they race around in a 1968 Dodge Charger. Both cars have become iconic to film fans and gear heads alike, and the chase showed off San Francisco like no other film before or since. All these years later, we're still proudly talking about McQueen's bad-assery in this film and it's still fun to try retracing the chase route. Anyone with a '68 Charger want to give me a ride for a follow-up blog?

Vertigo (1958)


It has been called one of the most perfect films in cinematic history, and it was mostly shot in San Francisco. No wonder we can't stop talking about it! The Hitchcock classic about dual identity and a certain dizzying feelings stars Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak in two of the best performances of their careers, and let's just leave plot and character at that. If you haven't seen Vertigo, I do not want to be the one that gives it away! Fort Point, the Legion of Honor and the Mission Dolores cemetery all have beautiful scenic cameos. Don't let this one fly over your head in conversation any longer; see the movie and then reference away the next time you're bantering with one of our informed cinema citizenry at the next film festival cocktail party.