The Best Movie Theaters in America

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Last week, in singing the praises of the cool original posters for the Alamo Drafthouse’s “Rolling Roadshow” series, your author offhandedly noted that the Alamo is “arguably the greatest movie theater in the country.” (And keep in mind, this proclamation was made before the anti-texting PSA heard ’round the world). Our editor, being a good editor and all, posed the reasonable question, “Well, is it?” And so we started asking around.

Come to find out, people are very passionate about their favorite movie theaters. After carefully surveying friends and colleagues from all over the country, we managed to get a list of the country’s best down to a manageable dozen houses, based either on the quality of presentation, the eclecticism of the programming, or both. These days, when too many movie theaters are, to paraphrase Ebert, value-added popcorn stands, these venues deserve kudos for still striving to make movie-going an experience. Check them out after the jump, and if we left off your favorite, we’re certain you’ll let us know in the comments (UPDATE: And that you did, and we listened–read part two of this list here.)

Alamo Drafthouse at the Ritz, Austin, TX

Founded in 1997 by Tim and Karrie League, the Alamo Drafthouse has become an institution in Austin, with a total of four locations in the city and several others spread throughout Texas (and one franchise in Virginia). But it all started at the original downtown location, a single screen which operated for ten years before moving to its current, two-screen location on 6th Street in 2007. As the chain’s home base, the downtown locations have hosted scores of special film festivals (including the Quentin Tarantino Film Festival, in which the filmmaker introduces his favorite movies, and Ain’t It Cool News “head geek” Harry Knowles’s annual Butt-Numb-A-Thon) and events; their schedule includes pictures from every conceivable genre, era, and country, whether you’ve heard of them or not. The venue also serves food and alcohol (with an emphasis on local beers and cuisine), often complimentary to the evening’s event — i.e., Chinese food with kung-fu movies, 40 ounce beers with (the original!) Shaft, free lemonade at the world premiere of Cabin Fever. And as we all found out last week, they absolutely, positively do not tolerate texting during the movie. (Big thanks to Austin refugees and Alamo fans Mario and Michelle Hernandez for filling me in on the Alamo experience.)

The Castro, San Francisco, CA

As much a cultural icon as a cinematic must-see, the Castro was built clear back in 1922 and maintains its original Spanish Colonial Baroque look. Inside, the ornate interior design is complimented by the “Mighty Wurlizter” pipe organ that is used for silent films and pre-show music. Now operated by original owners the Nasser family (after 25 years of outside ownership from 1976 to 2001), the Castro is home to scores of film festivals, a terrific repertory series (their current 70mm festival includes Playtime, Vertigo, and Lawrence of Arabia), double features, and midnight movies.

The Senator, Baltimore, MD

Originally opened in 1939, this single-screen, 900-seat Art Deco landmark has been fully restored and currently shows first-run titles (you can go see Super 8 there this weekend). Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989, the theater’s lobby includes the original terrazzo floors and murals, and the 40 foot curved screen is revealed at each screening by the opening of a massive gold curtain. In recent years, the Senator has faced threats of auction and foreclosure, but it has managed to stay open thanks to support from the community and City of Baltimore. Our own Judy Berman sings the Senator’s praises: “They’ve had all kinds of trouble staying open, and ownership has changed hands many times, but no matter who owns it, nothing beats the experience of seeing a film in one of America’s few remaining classic movie palaces.”

The New Beverly, Los Angeles, CA

This famed house in the Fairfax district of LA dates clear back to the 1920s, when it was originally opened as a vaudeville house and later converted into a nightclub. It became a movie theater in the 1950s, and went through several changes of name, ownership, and programming before Sherman Torgan took over in 1978. Torgan’s philosophy was simple: Double features, comprised of both new and classic films, covering all genres. With its frequently oddball and obscure films, the theater was a favorite hangout of Quentin Tarantino, so when the venue went up for sale after Torgan’s death, Tarantino bought it, leaving the operations to the Torgan family but occasionally programming festivals and double-features himself.

Film Forum, New York, NY

Originally a one-screen alternative venue with fifty folding chairs, Film Forum is now a three-screen house in the West Village that screens new foreign and independent films along with a rotating schedule of classics and carefully-curated retrospectives. Quite simply put, there’s no better destination for cinephiles in New York (which is a big city for them); not only has the Forum premiered recent indies like Meek’s Cutoff and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, but they’ll do one-and-two week, five-shows-a-day runs of classics like La Dolce Vita and Breathless. However, their mini-festivals are the real attraction; often bundled in double and even triple features, they’ve recently presented retrospectives of the work of Anthony Mann, Preston Sturges, Buster Keaton, and Sergio Leone, in addition to their famed “Pre-Code” festivals of films from the surprisingly permissive early 1930s.

State Theater, Traverse City, MI

You wouldn’t expect to find a world-class movie house in Traverse City, but Michigan native Michael Moore and a thriving local arts community brought the long-dormant State, originally built in 1918, back to life — first as the venue for the Traverse City Film Festival, then as a year-round art house operated by that group. Their schedule mixes art-house fare with special film events and 25-cent matinees of family and classic movies. Plus, the State offers an incentive for summer movie-going — if the temperature hits 100, admission is free. (Big, big thanks to our friend Lauren Epstein for the 411 on the Castro and the State.)

The 21st Street Warren, Wichita, KS

Full disclosure: your author is a Wichita native. But I promise you there’s no hometown pride coloring this entry — I’ve been to theaters across the country and never seen one that approaches the style and luxury of this giant multiplex in west Wichita. Originally opened in 1996, the deco-style lobby has marble floors and hand-painted murals; the huge auditoriums all feature THX sound. Last year, after adding on several new stadium auditoriums in the years since its opening, the theater added an IMAX venue, with a 600′ screen that is currently the biggest in the world. Owner Bill Warren also operates an east-side multiplex and a downtown seven-screen with food and drink service to all seats in all auditoriums.

AFI Silver, Silver Spring, MD

The original Silver Theater was built in 1938 and designed by noted atmospheric architect John Eberson; earlier this decade, it was restored by the American Film Institute, which added two new stadium auditoriums to create a three-screen complex that specializes in new independent films as well as classic repertory titles (they’re currently running summer-long Hitchcock and Rohmer retrospectives). Consequently, the Silver offers the best of both worlds: two sparkling new screens, and one American classic. (Credit due to Wil McMillen and Rachel Hull for flagging it.)

The Uptown, Minneapolis, MN

Originally opened as the Lagoon in 1913, remodeled and renamed in 1929, rebuilt after a fire a decade later, the Uptown is one of the oldest theaters in the Twin Cities and boasts the city’s biggest screen and only operating balcony, in addition to the original murals and iconic 50-foot tower sign. Now operated by the Landmark chain, the programing skews independent and foreign, complimented by midnight movies — including a long run of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. (Thanks to our friend Claire Lambrecht for the heads-up on this one.)

The Paramount, Oakland, CA

This gorgeous art-deco venue, designed by Timothy L. Pflueger (who also designed the Castro), opened in 1931; as with so many of the great movie palaces, it fell into decline and neglect thanks to the one-two punch of television and the rise of the multiplex. It was rescued by the Oakland Symphony, the City of Oakland, and private donors in the early 1970s, painstakingly restored, and reopened in 1973. The Paramount is now on the Register of Historic Places and is a national historic landmark; they currently rotate classic films with music and comedy concerts. (Thanks to Flavorpill’s Leah Taylor for putting this one on the radar.)

The Ziegfeld, New York, NY

As those of us who live here know, space is at a bit of a premium in New York City. That’s why it’s so surprising to find a spacious, single-screen movie house still standing in midtown Manhattan. The Ziegfeld was built in 1969, in tribute to the original Ziegfeld Broadway theater, which resided down the street from 1927 until 1966, when it was torn down to make way for a skyscraper (thanks, New York). One of the last of the big movie palaces, the Ziegfeld seats over 1100 people and is the largest single-screen theater in New York; it is frequently used for gala premieres and film festival screenings in addition to its regular daily schedule (your author saw Inglourious Basterds there, which was awesome).

ArcLight Hollywood, Hollywood, CA

This 14-screen multiplex only dates back to 2002, though the complex does include the restored “Cinerama Dome,” built back in 1963 and equipped with a giant, curved screen. Their schedule is a fairly expected mix of mainstream and indie cinema, but the ArcLight (in either Hollywood or its other three locations) is most famous for is its reserved seating policy: patrons can purchase tickets online or at the venue in advance and select their desired seat. For anyone who’s ever shown up five minutes before the movie, sat on the far right side of the front row, and left with a neck-ache, this is a major plus. The ArcLight also places ushers in the theater as each movie begins to check projection and sound, stops seating at the five-minute mark, and enforces age restrictions at its “21+ screenings,” where only adults are allowed and drinks are served. (Thanks to our West Coast friend Matt Frank, who always shows up five minutes before the flick.)