Mega-multiplexes have their uses. When you want to see the latest IMAX-3-D-explosion-laden-Michael Bay-or-Jerry Bruckheimer-produced-blockbuster-probably-starring-Mark Wahlberg, by all means, run to the Cinema 12 or 26 screen. Spend $60 on a small popcorn and a Diet Sprite and fasten yourself into the reclining chairs as the sound system blasts you almost into the adjacent screening. It’s the American way.
But what about when you want an intimate, slightly more personal film viewing experience? Thankfully, San Francisco (and other parts of the Bay Area) still have a handful of decent single screen and art house movie theaters for your enjoyment. Whether you want to gaze adoringly at Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in a revival of A Place in the Sun at the Stanford in Palo Alto or slump down in the lumpy seats at the Balboa while taking in a late run flick, there’s something for everyone on our list of favorite movie houses.
The Stanford Theatre 221 University Avenue, Palo Alto
Amidst the Apple stores, Pottery Barns and undergrad hangouts of University Avenue stands the historic Stanford Theater, a perfect slice of what small town life was like between the wars when stockings were seamed and the movies were our greatest escape. This architectural gem of a movie house, and the Stanford Theatre Foundation that manages it, are dedicated to showing classic Hollywood films as they were meant to be seen: on the big screen, on film and with the kind of equipment originally used to show films during the theatre’s heyday. Well worth a trip down the peninsula, the theatre frequently dedicates their schedule to movie stars (Fred Astaire, Bette Davis) and directors (John Ford, Vincente Minnelli) for mini-festivals celebrating the best of old Hollywood. For an added plus, the popcorn can’t be beat, and be sure not to miss the historic film poster collection on rotation in the lobby.
Balboa Theatre 3630 Balboa Street, San Francisco
Often overlooked when discussing great San Francisco movie houses, the old Balboa is just decrepit and seedy enough around the edges to make it completely charming and yet still remind you of a time when moviegoing had a bit of glamour attached. The Art Deco-by-way-of-seventies-redo interior is worth the price of admission alone, but, once you get talking to the old timers at the ticket counter and behind concessions, it’s almost incidental what movie you’re there to see. It’s not unusual to be almost completely alone in the theater, or at least feel like it once the darkness descends on you and the rattling old sound system echoes in the space.
Roxie 3117 16th Street, San Francisco
If you want to see a two part, five hour Japanese movie about cross-dressing step-siblings who fall in love and then join a cult, the Roxie is your theater. Likewise, if you want to sit through an all day Wes Anderson retrospective before seeing his latest, or if you just want to feel like you’re traveling back in time to the ’70s for a little exploitation grindhouse fun with a slightly ruckus group of filmgoers. Something about the place even smells authentic: it’s a little bit bar floor, a little stale popcorn, a little warm celluloid: an aroma only a cinephile could love. Added bonus: it’s allegedly the oldest still operating theatre in San Francisco.
Clay Theatre 2261 Fillmore Street, San Francisco
I have four words for you to explain one of the many reasons the Clay is a great neighborhood movie house. Rocky Horror Picture Show. In addition to hosting midnight showings of the audience participation classic, the theater is also renowned for showing other cult films in its history, including a long running screening of John Waters’ Pink Flamingos in the ’70s. The Pacific Heights bar and restaurant scene makes the Clay a perfect date night destination. San Francisco Magazine even names it the “best theater to makeout in” in 2004. A, um, friend of mine can vouch for that…
The Paramount Theatre 2025 Broadway, Oakland
The Paramount is a theatre that does double duty; sometimes it hosts concerts with A-list talent (I’ve seen Tori Amos there more times than I can remember), while never neglecting its origins as a movie house. Actually, the term “movie house” is insufficient; the Paramount is truly a movie PALACE in the old sense. The opulent decor is show enough (a fabulous example of Egyptian Revival), but there’s also the added benefit that, in addition to screening classic films, they also screen later favorites like The Goonies and the occasional horror schlock, which is elevated to art amidst the gazes of the plaster sphinxes. In the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, movie studios frequently also owned the theaters their movies played in, and the Paramount is a fabulous reminder of this back-in-the-day monopoly. Every time I’ve seen Tori in concert at the Paramount, she can’t help but compliment her surroundings, which is probably why she, like us, keeps coming back.
Vogue Theatre 3290 Sacramento, San Francisco
A neighborhood gem, this Presidio Heights theatre is (according to property records) the second oldest operating movie house in San Francisco. Go for the quiet, the lack of crowds on a weeknight and the fabulous “Mostly British Film Festival.” And come back for the great cultural events the Vogue hosts, including the “Dance Film Festival” and simulcast screenings of the opera.
The Castro Theatre 429 Castro Street, San Francisco
I’ve saved my personal favorite for last. Whether you’re going to a major film festival, star-studded premiere, kid friendly sing-a-long or Peaches Christ drag spectacular, it’s almost impossible to have a bad time at the Castro. Yes, the Castro is beautiful, yes, it hosts only-in-SF traditions (what other city does an annual screening of Showgirls?) and yes, it is the place where many burgeoning young cinephiles first saw Fellini and Bergman and Almodovar on the big screen, but it’s also important for being one of the most distinguishable landmarks in the neighborhood that helped bring gay rights to the forefront of American culture.
My favorite place to watch a movie in the Castro is in the balcony; you not only have a great view of the screen, but you also have a great view of the audience, which is sometimes the real show. The next time the Castro screens Milk, run, don’t walk to the next show time. To sit inside the theatre while watching crowds onscreen processing outside is a total Twin Peaks moment that’s at once a little eery and completely magical. For me, the Castro will always be the beating heart of the SF movie house scene, pumping blood to all the other organs in the body electric of our film-going fantasies.
On second thought, who needs a mega-multiplex?