Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Best San Francisco Movies to Stream This Holiday Season

Bay Curious listener Ben Kaiser asked for our favorite movies that are filmed and set in San Francisco. While we don’t normally take on subjective questions, we figured with the pandemic keeping us all inside more these days, it was a great time to visit the Bay Area through film.

Bay Curious is a podcast that answers your questions about the Bay Area. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, NPR One or your favorite podcast platform.

We asked Peter Hartlaub, San Francisco Chronicle’s culture critic and #TotalSF podcast host, and Carly Severn, KQED’s senior engagement editor and resident movie obsessive, to share their top picks on a recent Bay Curious podcast episode. They shared the movies they would be most likely to sit down and watch over the holidays — not necessarily the most critically-acclaimed films. Our audience to shared some of their favorites, too!

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

Plot summary from IMDB: “To save Earth from an alien probe, Admiral James T. Kirk and his fugitive crew go back in time to San Francisco in 1986 to retrieve the only beings who can communicate with it: humpback whales.”

Why we love it: This charming, lighthearted movie makes the Bay Area look undeniably fun. One KQED fan said the film was “influential in shaping how I think about the environment and is the Star Trek movie with the most heart in it.”

Where to watch: Amazon Prime(Included in subscription), YouTube ($2.99), PlutoTV (Free)

Inside Out (2015)

Plot summary from IMDB: “After young Riley is uprooted from her Midwest life and moved to San Francisco, her emotions – Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness – conflict on how best to navigate a new city, house, and school.”

Why we love it: Pixar has dropped Bay Area references in several animated films over the years, but Inside Out takes it to the next level. The film takes place in the Bay Area, and features rich and detailed imagery from around the region.

Where to watch: iTunes ($3.99), Disney+ (included with Subscription), Amazon Prime ($2.99), YouTube ($3.99)

Zodiac (2007)

Plot summary from IMDB: “In the late 1960s/early 1970s, a San Francisco cartoonist becomes an amateur detective obsessed with tracking down the Zodiac Killer, an unidentified individual who terrorizes Northern California with a killing spree.”

Why we love it: “Second only to Alfred Hitchcock, director David Fincher has a great sensibility for San Francisco,” says Peter Hartlaub. “This film absolutely captures a place in time. The music choices, the visual cues, the production design. Nothing’s wasted. I was a little kid, and I remember hearing about the Zodiac killer, and this movie brought that back so well.”

Where to watch: Crackle (free), Amazon Prime (included in subscription), YouTube ($2.99)

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)

Plot summary from IMDB: A young man searches for home in the changing city that seems to have left him behind.

Why we love it: One of the few films on our list that is a commentary on the Bay Area, and how gentrification has decimated once vibrant Black neighborhoods. The cinematography will absolutely take your breath away. Pause the movie at any point and you might be inspired to hang the still image on your wall.

Where to watch: YouTube ($2.99), Amazon Prime (included in subscription)

Basic Instinct (1992)

Plot summary from IMDB: A violent police detective investigates a brutal murder that might involve a manipulative and seductive novelist.

Why we love it: “The plot is ludicrous … but it’s a romp. It’s a riot. It also looks way better than it needs to, and it sounds way better than it needs to,” says Carly Severn. “I love the way it uses San Francisco. It goes for all the classic shots — there’s North Beach, there’s Telegraph Hill.” You’ll also find lots of gorgeous helicopter shots in this one.

Where to watch: Netflix (Included in subscription), YouTube ($2.99), Amazon Prime ($2.99)

Always Be My Maybe (2019)

Plot summary from IMDB: Everyone assumed Sasha and Marcus would wind up together except for Sasha and Marcus. Reconnecting after 15 years, the two start to wonder – maybe?

Why we love it: “It makes San Francisco look really cool, but it also makes San Francisco look normal. A lot of it is set in the Outer Richmond,” says Carly Severn. “As a resident of the Bay Area there’s such a pleasure in looking at the screen and saying ‘Oh I know that! That’s cool!”

Where to watch: Netflix (included in subscription)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Plot summary from IMDB: When strange seeds drift to earth from space, mysterious pods begin to grow and invade San Francisco, California, where they replicate the residents into emotionless automatons one body at a time.

Why we love it: “I think this is the most under-rated San Francisco movie,” says Peter Hartlaub. “A lot of directors come in and they love San Francisco, but they shoot from the same seven places — Telegraph Hill, the Golden Gate Bridge, The Palace of Fine Arts. Director Philip Kaufman shot in places I think he always wanted to shoot — The Tenderloin is a huge character in the movie. Civic Center. Obscure places like Pier 70.”

Where to watch: YouTube (Free), Hulu (included in premium subscription), Amazon Prime (included in premium subscription)

Vertigo (1958)

Plot summary from IMDB: A former police detective juggles wrestling with his personal demons and becoming obsessed with a hauntingly beautiful woman.

Why we love it: If you’re going to watch one movie set in San Francisco, a lot of critics would argue it should be this Alfred Hitchcock classic. The plot is woven into the location in a way that few movies can rival. And if you’re wanting to really *see* the city — this film is a hit parade of gorgeous locations.

Where to watch: Hulu (included in premium subscription), Peacock (included in premium subscription), YouTube ($3.99)

So I Married an Axe Murderer! (1993)

Plot summary from IMDB: A San Francisco poet who fears commitment suspects his girlfriend may have a knack for killing off her significant others.

Why we love it: One KQED fan says it “captures something of the SF that I grew up in” and another calls this film “a love letter to SF.” It highlights many of the city’s most famous sights — like the Golden Gate Bridge to the Palace of Fine Arts and Alcatraz.

Where to watch: PlutoTV (Free), Amazon Prime ($2.99), YouTube ($3.99)

Bullitt (1968)

Plot summary from IMDB: An all guts, no glory San Francisco cop becomes determined to find the underworld kingpin that killed the witness in his protection.

Why we love it: Do we need to say much more than “epic car chase scenes on San Francisco hills?” This film features tons of on-location filming, so you’ll get a big taste of the city.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime($2.99), YouTube ($3.99)

Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)

Plot summary from IMDB: After a bitter divorce, an actor disguises himself as a female housekeeper to spend time with his children held in custody by his former wife.

Why we love it: We couldn’t leave this film off the list. After all, it features one of the Bay Area’s most beloved celebrities, Robin Williams. After his death, the house featured in this film at 2640 Steiner Street became a pop-up memorial. You’ll spot everything from ordinary streets to iconic San Francisco locations throughout the film.

Where to watch: Hulu (included with premium subscription), Amazon Prime (included in premium subscription), YouTube ($3.99)

The Rock (1996)

Plot summary from IMDB: A mild-mannered chemist and an ex-con must lead the counterstrike when a rogue group of military men, led by a renegade general, threaten a nerve gas attack from Alcatraz against San Francisco.

Why we love it: Much of the film was shot on in and around Alcatraz, a tall order given the production crew had to do it all while tour groups milled around the site of the former federal penitentiary. Other locations in the film include the Fairmont Hotel, San Francisco City Hall and Pier 39.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime($2.99), YouTube ($3.99)

These 12 films are still just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to great movies filmed in the Bay Area. Other audience favorites include: Chan Is Missing, The Conversation, Blindspotting, Sorry to Bother You, The Princess Diaries, Parrots of Telegraph Hill and La Mission. Find even more suggestions on these two Twitter threads, and on KQED’s Facebook page.

Copyright 2020 KQED