The funky, artsy image that San Francisco cultivated for itself in the 1980s and 90s may not be its biggest claim to fame since the tech takeover of the 21st century, but the arthouse tradition is still alive in a few districts of the central city. Where Haight Ashbury and North Beach used to be the hip artists hangouts, today the small but robust arts scene has moved into the colorful Mission and the ethnic community of Japantown. Check out classic films in beautiful picture palaces, world cinema and funky film festivals playing once-in-a-lifetime festival films.
Catch a film in an old-school cinema
In the 1920s, when silent movies played in ornate, single-screen “picture palaces,” San Francisco was buzzing with picture houses. Today, you can see some of the older style of cinema glam at the Castro Theatre, a revival house where the bright neon lights of the marquee shine down on the vibrant Castro district, known city-wide for its progressive Queer politics and expressive residents. Check out double features of classic Hollywood films, arthouse movies and quirky independent film festivals, all part of the Castro’s eclectic lineup of one-night-only shows. Live organ music helps put cinema-goers in the mood before the show.
In the neighboring Mission District, the Roxie Theatre has a similar vibe in an even older theatre. San Francisco’s oldest cinema has been in operation since 1909, which is a pretty amazing feat in itself. Today, it still screens new releases (usually independents, documentaries and European films) and sponsors film festivals, workshops and special events with filmmakers. Visiting artists can submit a short film as part of the cinema’s monthly “mixtape” screenings, or attend a festival or talk to broaden your knowledge of filmmaking.
Indie spirit lives at the San Francisco Film Society
Real independent movie geeks will recognize the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) as a progressive film foundation that supports work that’s important to the Bay Area. Small-time movies with big dreams of social and cultural impact come to SFFS for funding and promotional support and dedicated film patrons attend the society’s annual film festival to enjoy the resulting films. Recent films like “Winter’s Bone” and “Fruitvale Station” were made with support from the SFFS and premiered at the Sundance Kabuki Cinema in Japantown, the Film Society’s home base. Keep an eye out for the San Francisco International Film Festival at the end of April, which premieres Bay Area artists’ works, films from around the world, and workshops and lectures by the filmmakers.
Yes, the place shows foreign films - but the Mission District’s Foreign Cinema is so much more! A homespun dinner theater and romantic art house, the warehouse conversion is a great place to talk movies with cinephiles and catch up on some of your favorite classics from Italy, France and Japan, or watch more contemporary American films set in exotic foreign locales. Foreign Cinema is open weekdays for dinner from 5:30 pm - 10 pm, with an oyster and shellfish bar as well as seasonal, local seafood, Californian cuisine, cheese plates and desserts. On weekends, the 11 am - 2:30 pm brunch menu is made up of fresh egg dishes and grilled sandwiches, in addition to the “picnic menu” with fancy finger foods. Films are shown daily during dining hours. Film lovers and foodies alike are charmed by the careful and clever pairings that unite small audiences in awe every night.
Without reservation, cinema lives
Next time you’re looking for that special DIY spirit that tech-centric San Francisco seems to have lost, check in at one of the arthouse homes of the classic San Franciscan scene, which tourists come to the city to experience. Although Haight Ashbury and North Beach may not be the provinces of edgy, underground artists anymore, visitors can still experience the city’s progressive, artistic atmosphere in these storied venues.