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Film Critics Name the Best Movie Theaters In the World — IndieWire Critics Survey

In celebration of the Alamo Drafthouse finally opening in Brooklyn, we asked our panel of film critics to pick the best cinema they've ever been to.

Alamo Drafthouse Brooklyn

Nick Simonite

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?” can be found at the end of this post.)

At long last, the Alamo Drafthouse is finally opening in Brooklyn this Friday, complementing a new wave of New York City cinemas that already includes the Metrograph, the Nitehawk (which will soon open another location), and the iPic chain, and is scheduled to add several more exciting venues 2017. With that exciting news in mind, we’ve put forward the following question to our panel of critics: What is the best movie theater that you have ever been to, and what made it so special?

Miriam Bale (@mimbale), Freelance

The Castro Theater in San Francisco is obviously the best. See anything there and you’ll know why. But I also have a soft spot for The Stanford in Palo Alto, the Walter Reade in New York, and NFT1 at the British Film Institute Southbank. My favorite movie theater, though, for pure logistics of screen size and view, is a theater in the Sihlcity Arena multiplex in Zurich. And my favorite lobby (almost more important than the screen) is the one at Anthology Film Archives.

Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevasse), Freelance

I love my dear Metrograph here in New York, and yet their heinously priced/sized/flavored popcorn options (olive oil and sea salt? what am I, the Pope?) prevent me from naming it as my one true favorite. My heart truly belongs to the Brattle in Cambridge, MA, a tucked-away arthouse that balances the most challenging new-run cinema with beloved and to-be-beloved classics.

I’ve got lots of fond memories of the space — as a kid in the suburbs north of Boston, I’d often pester my parents to give me a ride to the nearby commuter rail station so I could take that train to a different train that’d then connect to a third train that would then deposit me nearby the Brattle. It was there that I saw “Vertigo” with a live orchestra, had my first experience with the cinema of Peter Strickland, and watched “Lady Snowblood” through the wide eyes of a teenager.

One night, having just been forcibly removed from a show at the nearby Sinclair for underage drinking, my inebriated little brain went to autopilot and walked me right over to the Brattle and got one ticket for whatever was playing next. I sat down, half-aware of what was going on, and “Leviathan” (the experimental fishing doc, not the Russian one or the Cosmatos one from ’89) blew my goddamn mind. Though it was all a direct result of me being a dumbass, I do consider that night to be a little sacred — in my hour of need, I returned to my space of worship and was saved. Keep the Brattle in business for life.

READ MORE: The Alamo Drafthouse Comes To Brooklyn: The Long Road Is Almost Over

Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker

Years ago, in the age of subliminal persuasion, I read that, in the offices of Muzak, it was a faux pas for the composers to compliment each other — it meant that they’d noticed the music when the very point was for it not to be noticeable. So it is with movie theaters: if they’re any good, what’s memorable are the films. That said, in the subordinate parentheses of life experience called Between Screenings (which could be the title of any critic’s autobiography), a few glimmers of recollection of the walls of the halls creep in, and the first that comes to mind is Theatre 80 St. Marks, which had the most steeply banked seating outside an Athenian amphitheatre — because it, too, had formerly been a theatre and it had no projection booth to bother with. The projector was behind the screen and parallel to it, beaming images into a mirror that bounced them toward the viewers onto a special sort of screen that seemed to diffuse and halo the films like the embodiment of forgotten dreams emerging from the mists of time alongside the theatre’s own ornate yet faded décor. Theatre 80 showed mainly Hollywood classics and exotics — I still cherish the discovery of Louis Wolheim’s performance, like a vulnerable pillar of meat, in an early-sound film called “Danger Lights” — and if there was ever a movie house to subordinate the individual ingenuity of auteurs into the collective hallucination enshrined in Joseph Cornell’s “Rose Hobart,” that was it.

Christopher Campbell (@thefilmcynic) Nonfics / Film School Rejects

The best theater I’ve ever been to sadly went out of business in 2009. The Speakeasy Cerrito, in El Cerrito, California (there was also an Oakland location) was a lot like Drafthouse theaters in that there was food and draft beer and giant metal bowls for the popcorn, but it was a little cozier and the staff delivering the food, which you’d order in the lobby ahead of time, were more respectful of the fact we were all there trying to watch a movie. The coziness came from the fact that many of the seating options included couches and love seats as well as the atmosphere of a place that really felt owned by a couple movie lovers. It was also hella cheap, including two-for-one nights. The fact that I’ve never lived in the Bay Area made it easier to get over the closings of the Speakeasy Theaters (I believe they’ve maybe been replaced by similar businesses with different owners) but it’s still said since I’ve never been to anything so comfortable since.

Of the places that are currently in business, I really like the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (aka Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema) in Toronto, because they show docs and have a cool window wall between the concession stand and the auditorium.

Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar

Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar

Erik Davis (@erikdavis), Fandango

I fully admit this is not for everyone, but to me nothing beats the experience of watching a bonkers midnight movie with a packed crowd full of crazed movie lovers at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar or Ritz in Austin, Texas. There’s just something about the atmosphere and the communal adrenaline — everyone feeding off everyone else’s excitement and energy and love of movies. Whenever I walk out of a fun, lively Midnight screening at one of those theaters, I am reminded why the moviegoing experience is still such an important part of our lives and needs to continue to be so or else we’re doomed!

David Ehrlich (@davidehrlich), IndieWire

This is a tough question, because there are so many factors that go into the perfect moviegoing experience. The Drafthouse definitely jumps to mind (some of my favorite screenings have been at the Ritz in downtown Austin), but — as excited as I am about the chain finally coming to Brooklyn — I’ve always found that the bustle and chatter of their wait staff a tendency to distract from the brand’s ethos of absolute purity. Regardless, the Alamo adds to what is already an embarrassment of riches for any New Yorker, even if they limit themselves to the cinemas that can be reached via subway.

Of course, there’s a sentimental element to any of these answers, and for me that’s what might give the edge to Toronto’s monstrous Scotiabank multiplex. It’s not that the screens are enormous or that they serve poutine in the lobby or that the whole thing is decked out to look like a spaceship (more accurately: it looks like someone tried to make it look like a spaceship and sort of got bored with the whole idea halfway through), but that I so inextricably associate that place with the Toronto International Film Festival and all the people I’ve met there. Each September, when I first step onto the endless escalator that carries you up to the screening rooms, I’m filled with the same rush of excitement about what might be waiting for me at the top.

Eric Kohn (@erickohn), IndieWire

My first truly exciting moviegoing experience as a budding cinephile in Seattle was a 35mm screening of “Le Cercle Rouge” at the Harvard Exit (RIP). While Seattle may not have the same volume of options as New York, the metropolitan center of the Evergreen state is nevertheless a terrific filmgoing town with some marvelous arenas for consuming cinema of all kinds — from the classic venues like the Cinerama to more recent additions like the SIFF Film Center and the Sundance Cinemas, Seattle offers a moviegoing option for nearly every type of serious moviegoer. My own favorite among the existing options is the Egyptian, a majestic 600-seat auditorium that was salvaged in recent years by SIFF’s ever-growing network of local options. As a kid, the Egyptian was the first theater I regularly attended with a romanticism that felt nearly spiritual (it was a lot better than synagogue, let me tell you). A lot of my favorite movie experiences can be traced to the Egyptian. It was in its lobby that I snapped a proto-selfie with a young Quentin Tarantino after he came to town to present a series of Roy Rogers westerns there. Two years ago, I was honored to moderate a conversation there with Jason Schwartzman in front of a packed house. Last year, I had a blast watching King Hu’s “Dragon Inn” in 4k with my parents. It was the ideal setting for a timeless crowdpleaser as cheers and laughter greeted every wonderful twist; the noise echoed the room in constant dialogue with the spectacle on the screen. The best thing about the Egyptian is the way it speaks to the sheer physical power of a well-designed theater to generate a relationship with its audience that stems beyond the specifics of the programming. Going to the Egyptian always felt like the right thing to do, and that feeling is almost certainly the last great hope for the future of the movie theater.

Jordan Hoffman (@JHoffman), The Guardian

The best movie theater in the world is the Jerusalem Cinematheque, a four-story complex perched near Mount Zion opposite the Old City. The valley beneath the Cinematheque is, according to some scholars, what the Hebrew bible referred to as “Gehenna,” later called “Jahannam” in the Qur’an, but perhaps best known by its Christian name: Hell. But inside, in addition to a restaurant on one level and an outdoor bar on the other, is an extensive library and archive that includes, get this, a zillion files with printed out film reviews. These enormous filing cabinets collect from notable papers and high faultin’ film journals, but from some of the smarter, scrappier blogs, too. It’s a hell of a thing to see your “B-“ take on the Neil Marshall film “Centurion” nestled somewhere so deep in this historic city. The programming is top notch, too, mixing indie/prestige fair, the latest repertory restoration project that just played Film Forum and curated international runs. This month they’ve got a Portuguese Film Week, an animated shorts competition, a collection of new Japanese films and something called “Woman Is The Future of Man” to celebrate, as they put it, American cinema in the wake of the 2016 elections. (The associated image on the website is from “Mad Max: Fury Road.”)

The best movie theater in Europe is the Utopia Cinema in Avignon. It shares a border wall with the Palais des Papes, where the Antipopes of the 1300s lived. When I was last there I saw a 35mm print of “Blow-Out.” There’s a jazz club there, too, naturally.

The best movie theater in the United States outside of New York City is the Cable Car in Providence, Rhode Island, circa 1990. As it does now, it shows fairly typical arthouse titles, but, when I was a young lad, it kinda blew my mind that you could drink cappuccino, sit on a comfy couch and watch movies like “Delicatessen” or “Until The End of the World.” I just checked the website and it appears that they remodeled the furniture inside. Gone are the worn, ratty sofas with the stuffing bursting out. What a pity.

The best movie theater in New York City is Film Forum. No, it’s Film Society of Lincoln Center. Actually, it’s Anthology Film Archives. Hold that thought, it’s the Museum of the Moving Image. I’m sorry, it’s Metrograph. No, wait, it’s definitely IFC Center. Or is it MoMA? Possibly BAM. Isn’t the Quad coming back? You see my point. New York City is a cinephile’s dream from which you never have to wake. How anybody who isn’t caring for a small child can stay home and watch Netflix all day is beyond me.

The best movie theater in the Truffaut film that is my own memory is the theater where a girl let me put my arm around her and close-mouth kiss her during, of all things, the Jerry Lee Lewis biopic “Great Balls of Fire!” It’s since been converted into a gym.

Metrograph movie theater

Metrograph

Tomris Laffly (@TomiLaffly), Film Journal International, Film School Rejects

I’ve only been to the Toronto Film Festival once years ago, and I remember being wowed by Elgin. So gorgeous and majestic. I used to love going to the Ziegfeld in NYC. Too bad it closed down recently. But my favorite theater in the world is Walter Reade at Film Society of Lincoln Center. I feel at home there. (Well, its great screen/seats and FSLC’s wonderful programming certainly help.)

Matt Patches (@misterpatches), Thrillist

The best movie theater in the world is the one that shaped you during your formative years. Mine’s the Ambler Theater in Ambler, Pennsylvania. In 1928, Warner Bros. opened the Ambler Theater with showings of “Our Dancing Daughters.” In 2003, after changing hands and sitting dormant for years, the Ambler Theater reopened, glistening with the shine of old Hollywood, on a block best known for Rita’s Water Ice. The new ownership immediately began programming classics, independent films, and foreign titles in dire need of a home. Teenage Me was content with the decaying multiplexes scattered about Philadelphia’s suburbs, but Ambler Theater hustled to become a cultural sanctuary. The theater opened “Rabbit-Proof Fence” and I showed up opening day. The theater continues to funnel art into a community that wouldn’t seek it out. With everything I can get in New York City, I still miss it dearly.

Kristy Puchko @KristyPuchko Pajiba/Nerdist

I know it’s the sentimental choice, but it was the Ziegfeld in midtown, before it closed to become another posh, exclusive event space. When I was a kid, “Annie” made a huge impression on me, thanks to that scene where Daddy Warbucks takes the titular ragamuffin to the theater, and a whole floor show happens before their movie starts. I marveled. I thought that in New York City, that’s how every movie theater was. And when I moved here in college, I guess I kind of still had that expectation. It meant a lot of disappointment at theaters where you could hear the subway through the floor, or the bleed noise of other movies through the walls, or spot mystery stains on seats. Then I went to the Ziegfeld. For “Constantine.” I’ll make no apologies for paying to see a Tilda Swinton/Keanu Reeves team-up. But I was stunned at the grandeur of the the theater, all decked out in reds, golds, and velvet. And if you were lucky, a man named Prince was your ticket taker, and he’d proclaim as you entered with a suitably enthusiastic theatricality, “Welcome to the Ziegfeld!”

The theater itself was sprawling and beautiful. There’s not a bad seat in that house. And when they used to show revivals, my husband and I went almost weekly. There we saw “Jaws,” “Back to the Future,” “The Birds,” “Gone With the Wind,” “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” and many more there, all with audiences alive with shared excitement. The last time we went was to see “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” opening weekend. We didn’t know it would be our last time. But we were lucky it was. The line wrapped around the block (as was common), and abuzz with people in costume or just so eager to see this movie they beamed. That was the magic of the Ziegfeld. Even though it sat in the middle of one of Manhattan’s most bustling districts, it felt hidden, just to be found by true movie lovers.

Q: What is the best movie currently playing in theaters?

A: “The Handmaiden” and “Moonlight” (tie)

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