Photo collage: Shutterstock by Everett Collection and Featureflash Photo Agency, Seattle Met composite.
A pan across lake union. Then we plunge into a tugboat's engine room, where we meet the married, middle-aged couple who own it. They'll spend the next hour and a half engaged in bouts of slapstick bickering. That’s how Seattle first hit cinema screens, in 1933, in Tugboat Annie. It's not exactly a must-see, but since then, the city and the state around it have been portrayed in hundreds of movies (many shot in Vancouver, BC). Below are brief reviews of films that are significantly set here, divided alphabetically into three categories: Definitely Watch, Worth a Watch, and Skip. We’ll keep adding as we keep watching.
If you want to screen via the ever-shifting streaming services, justwatch.com has up-to-date info on where you can find each movie. Or, better, you can head to one of the city’s true claims to film fame: Scarecrow Video. It has almost all the titles on this list and some you’ll find only there.
10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
In 10 Things I Hate About You, based loosely on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger tromp all over the city: paintballing at Gas Works Park, prom at the Paramount Theatre. The plot is nothing groundbreaking—a student (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) trying to play matchmaker between the cerebral high school misfit (Stiles) and the bad boy (Ledger)—but this romantic comedy is charming as hell.
Drag Becomes Him (2015)
Jinkx Monsoon was the first queen from the Pacific Northwest to appear on RuPaul’s Drag Race. This documentary traces the life of Seattle’s Jerick Hoffer (the person behind the Jinkx persona) as they grow up, start doing drag at 15, head to Cornish College of the Arts, become Monsoon, win that season of Drag Race, and have their career blossom. Told through interviews with Hoffer, friends, and family, the movie offers a funny and holistic look at Hoffer’s life on stage and off, as well as what sets the Seattle drag scene apart. “It’s less superficial than other drag scenes I’ve seen,” Hoffer says, noting that here drag cross-pollinates with other art forms. And it’s “just the right amount of pretentious.”
The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)
Real-life brothers Jeff and Beau Bridges star as the Baker boys, a piano jazz duo who slink around Seattle playing small-time lounges. Beau is the dorky, married businessman; Jeff is the louche, laconic, gifted artist. When they bring a singer into the fold—a former escort played by Michelle Pfeiffer—things get romantically and filially complicated. Though set in the late 1980s, this calls back to 1940s Hollywood romance and glamour—all pianos and innuendo, cigarettes and bad behavior. The story is well worn, but even three decades after its release, the chemistry between the three leads feels brand-new.
The late writer-director Lynn Shelton’s breakthrough piece remains a vital work of local moviemaking, following two straight male friends who decide to have sex with each other on camera. What could just yuk it up for bromance laughs instead becomes a tender, intelligent take on sexual identity, masculinity, and progressive Seattleite inclusiveness.
A grunge documentary could easily become another part of the brouhaha around early ’90s Seattle. But Hype! smartly looks at how grunge was as much a feat of marketing (especially by Sub Pop) as of art. For proof of the film’s persisting relevance, you need only know that it ends with people complaining about condo construction.
Outside In (2017)
Lynn Shelton’s final Washington-state film—filmed on location in Granite Falls, all gray skies and verdant foliage—is also her finest. Carol (Edi Falco), a Granite Falls high school teacher, has worked for years to get her former student Chris (Jay Duplass) released from prison after years of being locked up for a murder he didn’t commit. As she fought for his release, they developed an ambiguous bond, which he now wants to turn into a real relationship. She’s unhappily married, with a teenage daughter, whom Chris befriends. This is a careful, compassionate look at how tragedy echoes through lives, galvanized by smart performances, particularly Duplass who plays Chris as if his demeanor—a guarded hope—had paused in adolescence, a case of literal arrested development.
Police Beat (2005)
Director Robinson Devor’s film follows a Seattle police bike cop Z (Pape Sidy Niang) through a week of surreal calls: having to throw away a dead goose, telling a man not to sharpen a machete in front of his neighbor. The Stranger’s Charles Mudede cowrote the movie, and it’s based on actual police calls recounted in his column of the same name. But instead of a typical crime film, Police Beat is dreamy, drifty, with a streak of absurdist humor. Z is an immigrant from West Africa who wandered into the job (he’s less than excited about the “WTO this, WTO that” he gets from some citizens). As weird harrowing crimes stack up, he spends much of the film worrying in his native Wolof about his girlfriend. Even on the less-than-optimal DVD transfer available at Scarecrow, it’s one of the most beautifully shot movies ever set in Seattle, capturing the rich mystical greens of the city’s parks and the water’s steely majesty, while getting at truths about the experience of immigrants and about a Seattle now past.
This sci-fi western, directed by two former Seattle Pacific University students, follows Cee and her father as they mine for a precious mineral on a green moon with a toxic atmosphere (they filmed near the Olympic Peninsula’s Hoh Rain Forest and in a Fremont studio). But when another miner tries to rob them, things grow ominous and darkly funny. There have been plenty of sci-fi epics lately with massive budgets, but few with this imagination and texture, few that will stick with you like Prospect.
There’s no direct violence in Sadie, a drama from Seattle writer-director Megan Griffiths. Yet it’s a story about violence on the periphery. Sadie, played with introverted nuance by Sophia Mitri Schloss, lives in a trailer park in Everett with her mother, Rae (Melanie Lynskey). Sadie’s father has been away at war for years. She plays violent video games and loves brutal movies. When Rae falls for a pain-killer addict and Sadie’s best friend starts getting threats at school, menace seeps in. The climax goes perhaps a step too far in making a point, but it’s a necessary point: A culture that uses violence as a solution will produce children who try to use violence to protect those they love.
Say Anything (1989)
This is easily one of the most beloved movies set in Seattle, even if it doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the city (it was largely shot in California). Location be damned, though: It’s a winsome teen romance, starring John Cusack as the lovelorn Lloyd who tries to win over Ione Skye’s high school valedictorian.
Since I Been Down (2020)
In this sweeping documentary, director Gilda Sheppard tells the stories of kids caught up in a spate of gang violence in the 1980s and 1990s in Tacoma and traces their narratives to the present. One of those kids was Kimonti Carter, who unintentionally killed a college student in a shooting and was sentenced to 777 years in prison for a crime committed at age 18. Today, he works with Black Prisoners Caucus, a group of incarcerated men focused on liberation through education, a group that has spread through Washington state prisons. Sheppard weaves together interviews with prisoners, cops, and community members to question what true justice looks like, and how Washington’s current answer is insufficient. As Carter says, the current system is “not designed to help anyone grow.” Note: Check its website for streaming info.
Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
Why and how, exactly, this pleasant, unassuming romantic comedy wound its identity so tightly with this city’s—beyond the considerable charisma of Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks and the crowd-pleasing powers of Nora Ephron—is hard to say and doesn’t much matter. If you live here, you must watch it at some point: It’s the cinematic Space Needle, and—along with Kurt Cobain, coffee, and a couple billionaires—a key point in charting how the world sees us.
The Slender Thread (1965)
A University of Washington student Alan Newell (Sidney Poitier) goes to his volunteer shift at a crisis hotline. His second caller of the night (Anne Bancroft) has just taken a fistful of barbiturates and won’t tell him where she is. The film plays as a dramatic thriller: Newell works to find out why she wants to die while police and doctors work to locate her. The Slender Thread grows increasingly melodramatic, but watch it for an extended and tense scene of Poitier alone on the phone (and Poitier throughout), for a score from Seattle-raised Quincy Jones, and for the handsome black and white cinematography of the city, from Pacific Science Center to Golden Gardens.
A high school student (Matthew Broderick) who likes to slip into the school’s virtual books and change his grades, accidentally hacks a U.S. Military supercomputer, which might be on the verge of starting World War III. Though WarGames has all the trappings of a thriller—and was convincing enough to inspire the U.S. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act—today the movie reads as a blissfully silly comedy.
Wheedle’s Groove (2009)
From 1965 through 1975, funk and soul wailed until 4am at Seattle venues like the Black and Tan Club and the Golden Crown Up. Bands like the Black on White Affair and Cold, Bold, and Together topped charts at KYAC, the Central District’s soul station. When disco arrived, the Central District scene faded. But in 2004 some crate-diggers collected enough pieces to release a compilation called Wheedle’s Groove. In this documentary, the members of the aforementioned bands, along with people like Ben Gibbard and Quincy Jones, look back on what that scene was and what it meant to Seattle.
Worth a Watch
Set here, shot in Vancouver, this comedy follows Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who gets diagnosed with cancer at 27. As his body deteriorates, he reckons with his relationships. Seth Rogen and Anna Kendrick play his best friend and his just-starting-out therapist. The script is based on writer Will Reiser’s own experiences, and while the stoned-dirty-sweet-poignant comedy blend has been done plenty, especially by Rogan and his affiliates, it’s rarely been handled with such grace.
As the Earth Turns (1938)
Back in the early days of cinema, a 20-year-old Seattleite named Richard Lyford made an oddball sci-fi film called As the Earth Turns, in which a young reporter seeking a good story ends up finding one in the form of an anti-war activist named Pax. The movie has been unavailable since it was made, but a restored version surfaced in 2018. If you’re a local film geek, this is essential viewing. In a city whose film industry identity is largely wrapped up in small DIY passion projects, the movie is an early little indie—black and white, silent, with goofy models standing in for trains and planes—made only a year before big-budget Technicolor blowouts like The Wizard of Oz.
The Dark Divide (2020)
The first feature produced by REI Co-op Studios belongs to a precise cinematic genus, along with Wild and Into the Wild, in which our heroes journey alone through PNW wilderness, with only a backpack, a strummy folk soundtrack, and a need to plug up some howling existential void. Adapted from Robert Pyle’s memoir, The Dark Divide follows Pyle into Washington’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest on a monthlong backpacking expedition. He’s a Guggenheim-winning lepidopterist—here played by David Cross. Professionally, he seeks new butterfly species; personally, he’s reckoning with losing his wife (Debra Messing, in flashbacks) to cancer. Cross’s divine pedantry is an excellent bit of comic casting, since Pyle has little idea of what he’s doing in the woods, and Cross handles the pathos ably. Unlike some of its wandering ilk, the salvation-via-nature stuff is here nicely tempered—subtle enough to ring true.
The Half of It (2020)
Writer-director Alice Wu’s second feature (after 2004’s Saving Face) tells the story of Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), an archetypal high school nerd in the fictional small town of Squahamish, Washington. She quotes Camus and writes other students’ papers for money and works the train station for her father, a Chinese immigrant who lost his wife and fell into a depression. Then a highly inarticulate football player enlists Chu to help him woo a popular girl at the high school via love letters and then texts. When Chu falls for the girl too, we get an increasingly complicated love triangle in which friendship and race and queerness delicately commingle. You’ll need to suspend ample amounts of disbelief—especially in the movie’s third act—but this Netflix original is a well-acted, deeply sweet, and often funny coming-of-age movie.
Harry In Your Pocket (1973)
This crime flick stars James Coburn as the titular Harry, a suave and accomplished pickpocket. In Seattle, he brings a young couple into his operation to learn how to filch wallets from the very rich. Character development and good dialogue are nonexistent, but it’s still an enjoyable heist movie, especially since plenty was shot on location downtown.
The Mystery of D.B. Cooper (2020)
In 1971, someone known as D.B. Cooper hijacked an airplane, demanded $200,000 in cash, and parachuted from the plane from 10,000 feet over Ariel, Washington. Neither he, nor a body, nor the parachute, nor most of the money has been found, even though the FBI kept working the case until 2016. This HBO documentary tells the story of the crime along with those of obsessive hobbyists still searching for him and those of four suspects in the case. It works fine as a true-crime caper, but fails when it tries to examine mass cultural obsession. Like the people it follows, the film is too fixated on the who, on the evidence, and not enough on why people can’t let this go.
Even second-tier (and bigger-budget) Lynn Shelton is worth your time. In the director’s Seattle-set film, Megan (Keira Knightley), an aimless 28-year-old, has one week to decide if she wants to get married. So she befriends and then hides out with some high school students she meets and develops a crush on one of their dads (Sam Rockwell). The whole thing unfolds as a kindly, low-stakes drama.
An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)
This Port Townsend–shot romantic melodrama—about cadets enlisted in a Navy training camp—is a certified local classic, and not poorly made. But there’s a pretty good chance that if you live in Seattle now, you’ll find all the gender stereotypes and military machismo tiresome. (A key plot point concerns a local woman trying to trap one of the cadets into marriage by faking a pregnancy.) If you just want to see Richard Gere look dashing in his dress whites, do your thing.
The Parallax View (1974)
Director Alan J. Pakula’s warm-up before All the President’s Men is another political thriller about a swaggering journalist (Warren Beatty) trying to reveal a deep conspiracy. It’s loosely inspired by the John F. Kennedy assassination—one shooter or two?—only here a senator gets shot in the Space Needle and the killer falls off the top. It’s nowhere near as accomplished as Pakula’s latter film, but remains a fun, deeply cynical, very 1970s piece.
The Ring (2002)
Is Gore Verbinski’s adaptation of a Japanese horror movie actually a dive into globalization anxieties in post-WTO Seattle? Maybe. Is it an atmosphere-heavy genre piece starring Naomi Watts as a Seattle P-I journalist who discovers a video tape that actualizes a deadly nightmare for those who watch? Absolutely.
Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
Before helming a couple of the newer Jurassic Park movies, director Colin Trevorrow made this Sundance-hit comedy. In it, Jake Johnson plays a skeezy Seattle magazine writer who heads out to Ocean Shores, Washington, to write a story about a guy (Mark Duplass) who’s seeking a time travel partner. The writer brings along a couple of interns. One of them, played by Aubrey Plaza, befriends Duplass’s character. Their portions are the stuff of prototypical indie dramady romance (magical whimsy! awkwardness! damaged pasts! fireside folk songs!). The portions about the Seattle magazine writer—who drives an Escalade, has a seemingly limitless budget, and takes the story just to try to hook up with his ex—are the least plausible things Mr. Trevorrow has put on screen, dinosaurs included.
Any trope you can peg on early 1990s Seattle—grunge, flannel, coffee, yuppies—manifests in Cameron Crowe’s Singles. Is it truly a classic, casting off the calculated hipness of its setting to air deep human truths about young dating life? No. But you aren’t a Seattleite until you can glibly dismiss it.
Trouble in Mind (1985)
Were a young Tom Waits to direct a Seattle neo-noir movie, it’d probably turn out a lot like Trouble in Mind. Ex-cop Hawk (Kris Kristofferson) just got out of prison after shooting a mobster to clean up the streets. While hanging around his friend’s two-bit diner, he crosses paths with Georgia (Lori Singer) and her criminal husband, Coop (Keith Carradine). This is one of the few films shot in Seattle—from SoDo to a shootout staged in what’s now the Asian Art Museum—but not technically set here. Instead, the action unfolds in the faintly dystopian Rain City. The story at the center is tiresome, two toxic men vying (which means punching) for the affections of a blonde dame. But the movie’s milieu—a little naturally rough Seattle, a little Blade Runner sans sci-fi—remains fresh and precise. Just watch how Coop’s appearance surreally shifts during the movie: from rustic PNW dude to an impressively pompadoured peacocking glam junkie.
The Wicker Man (2006)
This remake of the 1973 Christopher Lee movie is likely the greatest good-bad movie ever set in Washington. Here a haunted, pill-popping cop (Nicolas Cage) heads to a fictional San Juan island to help search for his ex-fiancee’s daughter. There he meets an all-women cabal of artisanal honey farmers who are descended from some Salem witches and pretty into pagan rituals themselves. Think Midsommar, but way funnier, with a properly unhinged Cage doing some surrealist scenery-chewing.
Battle in Seattle (2007)
This drama about the 1999 WTO protests overflows with stars: Charlize Theron, Ray Liotta, André Benjamin, Woody Harrelson, Channing Tatum, Joshua Jackson, Michelle Rodriguez. If you have some idea of what happened here, it isn’t a terrible watch. But the whole thing plays like a reenactment—with thin character development and simplistic distinctions (good cops, bad cops, good protesters, bad protesters)—more than a proper movie.
Double Jeopardy (1999)
After a swank Whidbey Island party, Ashley Judd’s character awakes on a yacht covered in blood. Her husband has disappeared. While in prison for his murder, she finds out…maybe he’s not dead? The performances by Judd and Tommy Lee Jones, as a parole officer, are pretty good, but this ludicrous thriller amounts to more shrug than seat-gripping suspense. Seattleites do get some San Juans beauty, and a ferry scene that will make you think twice about parking near the edge of the car deck.
Michael Douglas stars as a tech executive who gets sexually harassed by his boss, played by Demi Moore; only she then turns the tables on him and claims she was the one harassed. Let that sink in. Well, this movie is even sleazier, and stupider, than you’d expect, including Douglas’s character delivering indignant speeches about the plight of the beleaguered white male. It makes a decent hate watch. It’s not good for much else.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019)
Another scrap tossed to the snarling jaws of America’s Ted Bundy fixation, this 2019 Netflix original is supposedly from the point of view of Elizabeth Kloepfer, who dated Bundy on and off between 1969 and the mid-1970s. That could be an interesting, and actually revealing, look at Bundy’s path of destruction. Only the movie isn’t that. Instead, it’s an inane chance for Zac Efron, as Bundy, to play psychopathic retro dress up and for Netflix to cash in on the Sexy Serial Killer trope.
It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963)
In the first scene, Elvis Presley’s character and his partner are crop-dusting potatoes in a biplane while singing pristinely and checking out "chicks" in cars. A small-town sheriff then impounds the plane because the partner has gambling debts (not to the sheriff). This musical becomes no more coherent after that. The pair hitchhikes to Seattle. Elvis befriends a seven-year-old girl, takes her to the fair, then falls in love at first sight with a nurse he won’t leave alone. Elvis movies aren’t a particularly revered realm, and this isn’t even a good one. The songs are middling; everything else is worse. Though perhaps no movie in existence so fetishizes the Space Needle. It is ogled, dined in, kept as desktop statue, and brandished as a large landmark-shaped cigarette lighter.
Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)
You probably already know that this movie about a sub-dom relationship between a naive college student and a generically powerful Seattle business hotshot is quite bad, by any objective standards: writing, acting, awareness of its lead’s big predator energy, awareness of BDSM culture, knowing anything about the city it’s set in, etc. However, if you’re a certain sort of person, you might find its ineptness—so literal that it misses the mark completely—very (unintentionally) funny. For instance, some sample dialogue: “I don't make love. I fuck. Hard.”
Somewhere between rom-com and rejected Black Mirror script, Superintelligence follows Carol (Melissa McCarthy), a Seattle woman so average she’s chosen as the test subject for a super artificial intelligence to observe. In an effort to better understand humanity, the AI (voiced by James Corden) pushes Carol to rekindle a romance with her ex. The catch? If the AI doesn’t feel it learned enough from Carol, it’ll end the world. While there are moments of McCarthy’s trademark wit and physical comedy, the film struggles to provide either a compelling romance or offer any insights into technology. It is a mindless watch—perfect to throw on as background noise. Plus, there’s a Ken Griffey Jr. cameo. HBO Max —Carli Ricker
Tugboat Annie (1933)
More historical curiosity than enduring classic, this comic drama is Seattle’s big-screen debut, with a title sequence shot on Lake Union, and some Puget Sound tugboat action, though much of the rest was shot in a California studio. Annie (Marie Dressler) runs a tugboat with her drunk of a husband (in one gag he slathers his hair with tonic then drinks the rest). When their beloved son, a polished Navy captain, shows up with his wife-to-be, hijinks ensue. The plot is rather loose, with lots of drunk slapstick that’s only fitfully funny, and then a third act that reaches for dramatic gravitas. But some of the old-time port town dialogue is fun: “By golly, it’s a race, mister! These Puget Sound tugboats sure go after the business!”
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)
Unless you are a David Lynch or Twin Peaks completist, there’s not much reason to watch this sort of prequel to the original series. Yes, it has some mesmerizing Lynchian weirdness, and it does work to turn Laura Palmer (the show’s dead girl) from plot object to more complicated subject. But its story of her demise is all insinuated in seasons one and two, and by turning its horrors explicit, Lynch makes some of the grimmer aspects of the show—incest, the sexualization and murder of high school girls—blur into exploitation.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette (2019)
How did this movie go so wrong? Maria Semple’s Seattle-skewering novel is a beloved epistolary flurry of emails surrounding a neurotic Seattle architect and her family. Cate Blanchett plays a raging neurotic better than anyone. Director Richard Linklater can nail smart, lived-in comedy. For all that, though, this movie is a tepid mess: neither funny, nor dramatic, nor illuminating, nor baseline entertaining.