The Bay Area movies to see, according to data

Watching local for the holidays

Thanks for joining me for the 25th issue of the Golden Stats Warrior, a newsletter for data-based insights about the Bay Area. If this is your first time reading, welcome! You can sign up here. I am grateful for your support.


There is something special about watching a movie when it’s based in your hometown. At least for me, when a fictional world overlaps with my real one, it is exhilarating. With every scene there is the chance the protagonist might walk by your favorite park or restaurant. It can also bring you new insights about the people and places in your midst.

Recently, I watched East Side Sushi, a terrific movie about a young Mexican American woman from East Oakland who wants to become a sushi chef. I probably would have liked the movie no matter where it took place, but it was particularly fun to see the main character eating lunch at Lake Merritt and visiting the farmers market near Fruitvale Station.

The combination of the pandemic and the holidays means many of us will spend even more time than usual watching movies over the next month. So if you want to watch local, where should you look?

The best place to start is one of the lists made by Bay Area movie critics, like these compilations from Susana Guerrero in SFGate and Mick LaSalle in the Chronicle. But this is a data-focused newsletter, so I took a different approach.

I collected data on over 800 movies set or filmed in the Bay Area, according to tags on IMDB. For the 161 movies with over 25,000 reviews by IMDB users (a good proxy for popularity), I collected their Rotten Tomatoes audience and critics scores. It’s a blunt way of identifying Bay Area movies. The list includes movies like Forrest Gump and Avengers: Endgame that only have a few scenes in the Bay Area. (I will try to deal with this issue in a bit.)

The scatter plot below shows each of these movies as a point. Movies like Black Panther, which received high audience and critic scores show up in the top right. (Click on this link for an interactive version of this chart. You can mouse over the dots to see the name of the movie. You might be surprised by what comes up.)

The plot below zooms in on the movies that received at least an 80 critics score and an 80 audience score. Bay Area classics like The Maltese Falcon, The Birds and The Conversation make the cut. Newer movies that passed the criteria include The Social Network, Milk, Inside Out and Blindspotting, which are all well worth watching. (Click here for an interactive version of the chart).

Of course, some of these movies above barely have a Bay Area connection. For example, Star Trek just has few scenes here. So rather than accept IMDB’s suggestion a movie is San Francisco-related, I am going to use a little editorial judgment from here on out.

To identify the best Bay Area movies of the last 50 years, I collected the Rotten Tomatoes scores for any movies that came out in 1970 or later and received at least 2,500 IMDB reviews and got at least an average 7 out of 10 rating by those users. I then went through all of these movies and read through the plot to see to if the film actually took place primarily in the Bay Area.

Using this rubric, I identified 26 fiction films that I think make for a pretty good list! Call it a Bay Area Criterion Collection. I’d say if you watch all these you will have seen most of the highlights of Bay Area set film.

I’ve seen 15 of these movies, and perhaps the most interesting as a local viewer is The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Last Black Man is a particularly intense experience for people living here, as it is focused on the region’s changing demographic landscape. I also thought it was a wonderful movie with a gorgeous score.

I recently watched Time After Time because it showed up on this list. If you are interested in a comedy about Jack the Ripper and HG Wells showing up in 1980s San Francisco, this is the movie for you. It was cute and strange.

I also went through the same exercise for documentaries. The list of 12 movies that qualified is below.

Finally, a little errata:

  • Did you know the Sister Act movies both take place in San Francisco? I didn’t.

  • Dangerous Minds takes place in East Palo Alto, not LA, as I had thought.

  • Sonic the Hedgehog can apparently jump through a portal to San Francisco.

  • Stella of How Stella Got her Groove Back lives in Marin!

  • Medicine for Melancholy, the debut movie by Moonlight director Barry Jenkins is centered around a couple walking through San Francisco. I’ve watched it and you can definitely see Jenkin’s talent.

What movies did I miss? I would love to hear about your favorite Bay Area movies.


Bay Area media recommendations of the week

I absolutely love the Gimme Shelter podcast. Hosted by Liam Dillon of the LA Times and Matt Levin of the CalMatters, the biweekly show goes deep into the policy and politics behind California’s housing crisis. Dillion and Levin are playful wonks who make the details of Prop 13 and Accessory Dwelling Units regulation a joy to learn about. The podcast is the best way to stay informed about California and the Bay Area’s most pressing issue. Most of the episodes are evergreen, so I suggest going through the back catalogue and listening to whichever one intrigues you.

(Have you read, watched or listened to a piece of great Bay Area media recently? Please send it to me!)

Dan’s favorite things

Since I don’t think I can properly explain the architectural brilliance of Township Commons, the new waterfront park in Oakland, here is the beginning of the San Francisco Chronicle’s design critic John King’s review of the space.

Every shoreline park is unique — shaped by conditions that differ from site to site as surely as each day’s shifting tides.

But even within this reality, Township Commons on Oakland’s waterfront is a startling act of urban reinvention that, with time, should pull people from across the city to an area that until now has been off the map.

Part historic restoration, part sculptural intervention, the 4½-acre landscape replaces a mostly demolished shipping terminal that dates to 1930. It’s also the first public space in the initial phase of Brooklyn Basin, a 65-acre development south of Jack London Square that will include 32 acres of parks along the Oakland Estuary.

I visited the park a few weeks ago and found it enchanting. Rocky’s Market, a restaurant and grocery store that is part of the site, hosts salsa dancing, comedy nights and jazz on the weekends. (Photo credit for the moody picture of me at the park to Kanchan Gautam).


Thanks for your time, and see you in a couple of weeks.

If you think a friend might enjoy this newsletter, please forward it along. You can follow me on Twitter at @dkopf or email me at dan.kopf@gmail.com. The Golden Stats Warrior logo was made by the great Jared Joiner, the best friend a newsletter writer could have. Follow him @jnjoiner. Also, thanks to Srivatsa Marthi, lover of net play, for copy editing this week.