The 18 best cinemas on screen

From fleapits to picture palaces. When people in movies go to the movies…

David Parkinson

Cinema Paradiso (1988)

Cinema Paradiso (1988)

Cinemas are forever popping up in movies, as they provide a surefire way for directors to connect with viewers gazing at the big screen.

As a film fan, it’s easy to identify with Don Ameche being astounded by The Jazz Singer (1927) in Hollywood Cavalcade (1939), Woody Allen getting lost in Casablanca (1942) in Play It Again, Sam (1972) and Colin Firth drinking in Touch of Evil (1958) in Apartment Zero (1998).

And, of course, it’s possible to put the wind up audiences by showing patrons being slayed in horrors like Blood Theatre (1984), Demons (1985), Anguish (1987) and Scream 2 (1997).

Yet while Barry Levinson opted to set the last act of Jimmy Hollywood (1994) in Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre, and Femme Fatale (2002) and Mr Bean’s Holiday (2007) descended on the Palais des Festivals in Cannes, the majority of screen cinemas are fictitious edifices like Le Gamaar in Paris, which hosted the explosive premiere of the Nazi propaganda picture Stolz der Nation in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), and the Bijou in the fictional northern town of Sloughborough, which is saved from closure in Basil Dearden’s The Smallest Show on Earth (1957).

Going to the pictures has changed a lot in the last 122 years. But, as the following titles suggest, some aspects of sitting in the darkness with complete strangers remain very much the same.

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Director Buster Keaton

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

In his third independent feature, Buster Keaton not only spoofs the nature of movie melodrama but also explores the extent to which editing shapes audience expectation in a brilliantly surreal sequence after his small-town projectionist falls asleep and blunders through the screen into the action of the five-part serial, Hearts & Pearls, or The Lounge Lizard’s Lost Love.

Ingenious gags involving an exploding pool ball, feminine apparel, a riderless motorbike and a floating car follow, before Keaton copies the movie’s handsome hero in order to woo his beloved.

Sabotage (1936)

Director Alfred Hitchcock

Sabotage (1936)

The Bijou in Plouthorp Road, SE5, provides the setting for Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. Despite a billboard advertising cowboy star Tom McGurth in Two Gun Love, it’s a British comedy that amuses the audience while owner Oscar Homolka plots a bomb attack on the Lord Mayor’s Show.

The need to take a two-reeler entitled Bartholomew the Strangler to the nearby Canterbury picturehouse allows Hitch to ramp up the tension before the enormity of what has befallen her brother hits Sylvia Sidney while she’s watching the 1935 Disney cartoon, Who Killed Cock Robin?

La Marie du port (1950)

Director Marcel Carné

La Marie du port (1950)

Jean Gabin owns Centrale, a Cherbourg brasserie with a downstairs cinema, in Marcel Carné’s simmering interpretation of a Georges Simenon novel. At one point, Gabin flirts with patron Odette Laure over a shared baguette and a newsreel about French naval manoeuvres. He later pops in to see Edwige Feuillère in George Lampin’s Dostoevsky adaptation L’Idiot (1946), whose plot echoes Gabin’s struggle to cope with the conflicting passions swirling around him.

No wonder he gazes longingly at the simpler South Sea existence depicted in F.W. Murnau’s Tabu (1931).

The Blob (1958)

Directors Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr., Russell S. Doughten Jr.

The Blob (1958)

Still thriving in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, the Colonial Theater hosts a Midnight Spook Show in Irvin Yeaworth’s low-budget sci-horror. The audience hoots with derision at John Parker’s Daughter of Horror (released as Dementia in 1955) as the projectionist is overcome by the slithering entity. The patrons are then forced to flee before getting the chance to enjoy Bela Lugosi in My Son the Vampire (the American title for Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire, 1952).

The sharp eyed will notice that the billboard for The Vampire and the Robot has been cobbled from a poster for Fred M. Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet (1956).

The Critic (1963)

Director Ernest Pintoff

Watch The Critic

Inspired by the rantings of “an old immigrant man” three rows behind Mel Brooks during a 1962 New York screening of an avant-garde short by Norman McLaren, this Oscar-winning animation will delight anyone whose movie-going experience has been ruined by another member of the audience.

Ad-libbing in a Russian Yiddish accent, Brooks launches into a tirade as a 71-year-old infuriated by his inability to understand the images. Opening with “Vat the hell is dis?” and closing with “I don’t know much about psychoanalysis, but I say this is a dirty picture,” this forgotten gem contains the greatest line in critical history: “It must be some symbolism. I think it’s symbolic of junk.”

The Last Picture Show (1971)

Director Peter Bogdanovich

The Last Picture Show (1971)

Always a keen student of cinema, Peter Bogdanovich pulled rank on author Larry McMurtry in adapting his 1966 novel by replacing Storm Warning (1951) and The Kid from Texas (1950) on the bill at the Royal Theater in Anarene, Texas, with Vincente Minnelli’s Father of the Bride (1950) and Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948).

He also slipped in a snippet from Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 (1950) and a poster for John Ford’s Wagon Master (1950). The latter had starred Ben Johnson, who, as Sam the Lion in The Last Picture Show, gave the shortest performance in Oscar history (9 minutes 54 seconds) to win the best supporting actor award.

Kings of the Road (1976)

Director Wim Wenders

Kings of the Road (1976)

Wim Wenders’ epic about travelling projection-equipment repairmen is bookended with conversations about cinema history. In Lüneburg, Rüdiger Vogler talks to a retired theatre pianist who enthuses about such contrasting titles as Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) and Fred Niblo’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925).

At journey’s end in Hof, however, Franziska Stömmer tells Vogler that she would rather close the imposing Weisse Wand Lichtspiele than show softcore pornography: “Better no films than these ones.”

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

Director Woody Allen

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

Despite the fact that it trembled when freight trains passed by, Woody Allen remembered the Kent Theatre in Brooklyn as “one of the great, meaningful places of my boyhood”. It’s the perfect location, therefore, for Jeff Daniels to stare through the screen at Mia Farrow and declare “My God, you must really love this picture,” before stepping out of a 1935 RKO programmer and into the auditorium of the Jewel Theater.

Acknowledging his debt to Sherlock, Jr., Allen named Robert Talmadge, the star of the film-within-the-film, after Buster Keaton’s son.

Coming Up Roses (1986)

Director Stephen Bayly

Coming Up Roses (1986)

Opening with a heartbreaking montage of derelict and converted cinemas, this Welsh-language charmer sees The Rex in Aberdare close down – despite the marquee promise “Raiders Coming Soon” – after a disastrous screening of Konga (1961).

But projectionist Dafydd Hywel and ice-cream girl Iola Gregory refuse to give up hope, as he blasts out a tune from Pop Gear (1965) and she lip-syncs to Rosalind Russell belting out her anthem from Gypsy (1962). Yet, which self-respecting projectionist would call the 1949 Ealing comedy “Passage to Pimlico”? Sadly, The Rex was demolished to make room for a car park in 1990.

Dead End Drive-In (1986)

Director Brian Trenchard-Smith

Dead End Drive-In (1986)

A comic-book variation on Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962), Brian Trenchard-Smith’s Ozploitation take on the dystopic Peter Carey story ‘Crabs’ sees Ned Manning and Natalie McCurry endure a nightmare date at the Star Drive-In, which has been turned into a concentration camp by a government fighting to regain control over a crashed society.

Denouncing the decade’s “junk culture”, Trenchard-Smith adds Snapshot (1979) to his own The Man from Hong Kong (1975) and Turkey Shoot (1982) on the Star bill, while the coming attractions include Rambo Conquers Russia.

A Man from the Boulevard des Capucines (1987)

Director Alla Surikova

A Man from the Boulevard des Capucines (1987)

Taking its title from the scene of the epochal Lumière picture show of 28 December 1895, Alla Surikova’s red musical western satire on American myth-making and the redemptive power of cinema has great fun with generic clichés like the barroom brawl.

Itinerant projectionist Andrei Mironov terrifies the rowdy residents of Santa Carolina with L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1896), delights them with L’Arroseur arrosé (1895) and civilises them with displays of French manners and a little Chaplin slapstick. But decorum flies out of the saloon door when a rival showman arrives with a consignment of violent flicks.

Cinema Paradiso (1988)

Director Giuseppe Tornatore

Cinema Paradiso (1988)

Giuseppe Tornatore’s Oscar-winning lament for the passing of traditional movie houses is lodged in the affections of audiences worldwide. Whether it’s the blaze during the screening of The Firemen of Viggiù (1949) at the eponymous venue in the Sicilian village of Giancaldo or the closing montage of 41 kisses, this is cine-nostalgia per eccellenza.

Escape from the ‘Liberty’ Cinema (1990)

Director Wojciech Marczewski

Escape from the ‘Liberty’ Cinema (1990)

A decade after quitting filmmaking after Shivers – his autobiographical account of life in a 1950s indoctrination camp – was banned for three years, Wojciech Marczewski got his revenge on the censors (and critics) with this inspired satire, in which the rebellious cast of Daybreak refuse to speak the lines of a screenplay that has been emasculated by official editors.

With disillusioned district censor Janusz Gajos trying to mediate, somebody notices the situation’s similarity to The Purple Rose of Cairo and a print is unearthed for comparison, only for chaos to ensue when the films accidentally merge.

Popcorn (1991)

Directors Mark Herrier, Alan Ormsby

Popcorn (1991)

Like Joe Dante’s Matinee (1993), this knowing horror celebrates the maverick genius of William Castle, the king of the gimmicks. Castle’s ‘Emergo’ process inspires the giant insect that ziplines across the Dreamland cinema, which is hosting a fundraising all-nighter during the 3D shocker Mosquito, while ‘Percepto’ anticipates the Shock-o-scope seat buzzers enlivening The Attack of the Amazing Electrified Man.

Castle never got round to an Odorama process like the one that accompanies The Stench. But the key picture in this affectionate romp is a creepy little short entitled Possessor.

The Majestic (2001)

Director Frank Darabont

The Majestic (2001)

The ghost of Frank Capra haunts Frank Darabont’s paean to traditional American values, as HUAC-era Hollywood screenwriter Jim Carrey fetches up in Lawson, California, with a case of amnesia.

The Big Parade (1925), A Streetcar Named Desire, The Day the Earth Stood Still and An American in Paris (all 1951) are namechecked as Carrey helps Martin Landau restore the local cinema. But the most impactful picture is the fictional Sand Pirates of the Sahara, which features the golden idol from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003)

Director Tsai Ming-liang

Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003)

With a limping cashier trying to catch the eye of the projectionist, one patron losing a shoe while chomping watermelon seeds and a Japanese tourist seat-hopping in the hope of a gay assignation, the only people interested in the closing night screening of Dragon Inn (1967) at Taipei’s Fu-Ho Grand Theatre are Tien Miao and Chun Shih, who actually co-starred in King Hu’s martial arts masterpiece.

Experimenting with ‘slow cinema’, Tsai Ming-liang mischievously shifts between an excruciating urinal encounter and a poignant close-up of Shih welling up as he surveys the screen.

A Useful Life (2010)

Director Federico Veiroj

A Useful Life (2010)

Federico Veiroj’s sublime celebration of cinephilia centres on the efforts of Jorge Jellinek and Manuel Martinez to avert the closure of the Cinemateca Uruguaya in Montevideo. Shot in Academy ratio monochrome, the picture treats Icelandic retrospectives and tributes to Manoel de Oliveira with a charming gravity that carries over into Martinez’s live mic translation of the intertitles to Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924).

Last Screening (2011)

Director Laurent Achard

Last Screening (2011)

This is how things might have panned out if Norman Bates had run a cinema. Posters for Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967) and Paul Vecchiali’s Femmes Femmes (1974) decorate the lair in which projectionist Pascal Cervo keeps both the remembrances of the film fixation he inherited from his mother and the trophies from a killing spree that includes a bludgeoning by celluloid splicer.

Unable to get the rights to Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), Laurent Achard closes the Empire Cinema in the French town of Paray-Le-Monial with Jean Renoir’s French Cancan (1955).

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