10 great films about cinemagoing

From Cinema Paradiso to Goodbye, Dragon Inn... Critic and programmer Leigh Singer celebrates 10 films that capture the communal joy of going to the cinema.

3 December 2020

By Leigh Singer

Cinema Paradiso (1988)

I was brought up in a mixed race, Catholic family, but by the time I moved out, the spiritual home I truly recognised was the cinema. It would be too glib to say I traded one faith for another. But there are certain parallels between these familiar comforts: congregating and paying hushed homage among strangers in a temple (OK, the ABC on Friar Street, Reading) designed for commune with something transformative – literally, for a kid gazing upwards, with a higher power.

Cinemagoing was an activity I would readily proselytise about or share with friends and family, but equally something I privately guarded. I’d gladly spent many hours in cinemas by myself, but never alone. Sure, I rented video cassettes; recorded, and carefully catalogued, movies off the television. Later I studied film at higher education, where classics screened on to classroom whiteboards from overhead projectors. But nothing could compete with, or replace – to paraphrase Sunset Blvd’s Norma Desmond – those wonderful venues out there in the dark.

2020 has been, for many, a period of confusion, anxiety, loneliness and pain. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our way of life, perhaps permanently in some ways. And while no loss compares with those now missing livelihoods and loved ones, we also mourn the seemingly less important things. For me, and many, many others, that includes cinemagoing. 

The film industry is at a crossroads. Streaming services and online platforms offer instant, easy access to ‘content’, new and old. It’s been a blessing during lockdown. Our relationship to visual media and culture is in constant flux. Change is inevitable. But so too is the need to experience creative endeavours, artistry, together, in places expressly designed to showcase them.

As we again have the freedom – hopefully, for an extended period – to re-enter cinemas, it’s a wonderful opportunity to also revisit those films that turn the act of watching films, and the communal picture-house experience, into something to celebrate and believe in.

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Director: Buster Keaton

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Buster Keaton’s third feature runs a tight 45 minutes yet contains more comic invention and interrogation of the then still young ‘seventh art’ than some entire careers. Keaton’s matchless physical dexterity and grace dazzle throughout, most notably in the epic climactic runaway chase. And, ostensibly, the film is a romantic comedy, Keaton’s eponymous cinema projectionist and wannabe sleuth trying to court a girl whose family wrongly believe him to be a thief.

Yet Sherlock Jr.’s real love affair is with cinema itself. The sequence when he dreams himself inside the film, and the movie’s montage puts his character in a series of unexpected, perilous locations, is ingenious visualisation of our desire to project ourselves into silver screen drama – and the literal pitfalls that ensue. Long before Jean-Luc Godard, Mel Brooks or any other post-modern, fourth-wall-breaking filmmakers appeared, Keaton probed the medium’s possibilities with a sophistication he made look, well, elementary.

The Smallest Show on Earth (1957)

Director: Basil Dearden

The Smallest Show on Earth (1957)

A struggling London novelist and his wife (real-life couple Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna, pre-Born Free’s lion adventures) inherit a cinema in a long-lost relative’s will. Upon arriving in provincial ‘Sloughborough’, they imagine this means the town’s regal Grand cinema. In fact, they’ve accrued local, debt-ridden, rat-ridden flea pit The Bijou – its marquee letters vibrating to passing trains – and its 3 squabbling, elderly staff. 

Naturally the plucky out-of-towners opt to renovate, and the resulting warm-hearted Ealing-esque comedy revels in its peculiarly English underdogs and eccentric scene-stealing support from the likes of Peter Sellers and Margaret Rutherford. Director Basil Dearden creates some terrific fake movies (shout out to ersatz B-western ‘The Devil Riders of Parched Point’) and milks every possible cinema accident: ripped screen, collapsing seats, upside down prints. The Bijou’s good-natured audience joining in with every mishap is, especially in 2020, a welcome reminder of the joys of communal moviegoing.

Targets (1968)

Director: Peter Bogdanovich

Targets (1968)

It’s perhaps appropriate that a film featuring classic movie monster star Boris Karloff’s most graceful swan song – here playing fictional, retiring horror legend ‘Byron Orlok’ – is something of a Frankenstein’s monster itself. Working under B-movie guru Roger Corman’s guidance, Peter Bogdanovich’s debut feature cleverly plays with Karloff’s screen persona, plus actual footage from previous Karloff/Corman 1963 feature The Terror (co-starring young Jack Nicholson!) – then stitches it to the story of a seemingly well-bred young man on a killing spree.

Some of Bogdanovich’s, er, targets, are rather spelled out: the obsolescence of fantastical screen scares versus banally evil, real-life violence. Often it seems like we’re watching 2 separate films. But everything coalesces in a bravura drive-in cinema finale: the sniper behind the screen, picking off victims through a crosshair frame; and dual Orloks, on and off-screen, baffling and taking down the sociopath. If Orlok and Karloff’s time is up, they exit with moviemaking’s magic revealed, but intact.

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

Director: Woody Allen

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

If Sherlock Jr. inserts its protagonist into the film he’s watching, Woody Allen reverses the concept. In Depression-era New York, as downtrodden housewife Cecilia rewatches her favourite flick, the movie’s hero Tom Baxter – crucially, its naive lead character, not the actor, Gil Shepherd, who plays him – steps out of the screen and into her life. And so begins an improbable romance, much to the dismay of Baxter’s stranded movie cohorts, the cinema’s manager, the film’s studio and Shepherd himself.

Allen’s late-70s to late-80s output is one of the all-time great runs, and The Purple Rose of Cairo might be its unheralded gem. A pitch-perfect blend of fish-out-of-water comedy and swooning love story, it faces the gap between wish-fulfilment fantasy and hard-knock reality without flinching. The closing shot, an astounding Mia Farrow’s rapt gaze on Astaire and Rogers on screen, is pretty much the final word on everything cinema means: truth at 24 frames per second, even when it lies.

Cinema Paradiso (1988)

Director: Giuseppe Tornatore

Cinema Paradiso (1988)

Giuseppe Tornatore’s Oscar-winner is perhaps the single most beloved ‘foreign-language film’ of the past 30-plus years, and it’s easy to see why. For all its broad, Fellini-esque sentiment and growing-pains charms, the movie is powered above all by the power of the movies, a nostalgic force near impossible to resist.

In a small Sicilian village, young Toto starts assisting crotchety old projectionist Alfredo in the titular movie house, his life dominated and increasingly defined by the images beamed on to the screen. Getting older, experiencing love and loss and eventually becoming a filmmaker himself, Toto is better able to discern illusion from reality, though, arguably, Cinema Paradiso refuses such separation. The film’s true soul can be found in its 2 most famous scenes: projecting a film on to the local town square’s walls, and the ‘forbidden’ montage reel of censored kissing scenes, Alfredo and Tornatore’s parting gift to movie lovers everywhere.

The Long Day Closes (1992)

Director: Terence Davies

The Long Day Closes (1992)

“Can I go the pictures?” The very first words of Terence Davies’ autobiographical, coming-of-age collage reveal the heart of film and filmmaker. In truth, surprisingly few scenes take place inside the movie houses of young Bud’s tough, closeted childhood in working-class 1950s Liverpool. But whether detailing school days or Sunday mass, cinema permeates every frame, offering more lucid life lessons than school, more meaningful salvation than Catholicism. 

As with much of Davies’ earlier work, The Long Day Closes is structured by emotion and memory rather than linear narrative. The roving camera tracks lines of classroom desks or crammed church pews that dissolve into packed, smoked-filled, beam-illuminated cinema aisles. Snippets of Hollywood musical or Ealing comedy become woven into the film’s sophisticated aural tapestry. Even repeated shots of Bud gazing out his bedroom window resembles a frame of celluloid. When real life is harsh and confusing, Davies confesses, film offers the fantasy to create your own truths. 

Matinee (1993)

Director: Joe Dante

Matinee (1993)

1962. The Cuban missile crisis looms on the horizon, but in Key West, Florida, the young Loomis brothers have more vivid horrors on their mind: the local premiere of new creature feature Mant! (“Part Man, Part Ant, All Terror!”) with celebrated filmmaker Lawrence Woolsey in attendance, his toybox of gimmicks ready to add spooky special effects like seat-shaking ‘Rumble-Rama’ to the screening. Assuming nuclear war doesn’t get in the way first…

Joe Dante’s period satire is an under-seen delight. It captures that youthful excitement of exploring pleasures and fears that you’re probably too young to deal with but can’t wait to experience anyway. Super cine-literate – John Goodman’s showboating Woolsey is a great send-up of schlock impresario William Castle – it also quite brilliantly weaves in serious issues of the era, from atomic disaster to Hollywood blacklisting, while honouring its B-movie roots with genuine affection. Part-parody, part-primal terror primer, all-wonderful.

Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003)

Director: Tsai Ming-liang

Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003)

For his 2001 film What Time Is It There?, Tsai Ming-liang shot a key scene at Taipei’s failing Fu-Ho repertory cinema. Intrigued by its fading grandeur, he hired it out and shot his next entire feature there: a farewell to the cavernous venue as it screens 1967 martial arts classic Dragon Inn to a rag-tag collection of spectators, including 2 of Dragon Inn’s ageing stars. Meanwhile, cinema workers also quietly watch, cruise and pine for something else ineffably lost, as the rain teems down outside.

Slow cinema in excelsis, Tsai’s mainly dialogue-free, long-take, static compositions are nevertheless quietly gripping in their opaque, allusive way. Goodbye, Dragon Inn has the feel of a ghost story long before the Fu-Ho appears actually haunted, yet is also frequently droll; after all, cinemagoing also often means tolerating noisy eaters or feet slung over seats. It’s at once a sly meta-fiction, valediction and benediction of cinema that proves the medium’s endless resurrective possibilities.

Shirin (2008)

Director: Abbas Kiarostami

Shirin (2008)

Piercing modern deconstruction of cultural mythology or arthouse Gogglebox? Highbrow fans of legendary director Abbas Kiarostami would doubtless decry the second option, but the formally daring, austere Kiarostami was always equally playful. Here, he invites 114 Iranian actresses (including Paterson’s Golshifteh Farahani, and Leila Hatami from A Separation), plus Juliette Binoche, to watch an interpretation of the eponymous 12th-century Persian poem. We, Shirin’s spectators, watch only them in close-up, watching that film…

…Or do we? Shirin’s construction was itself faked, the cast staring only at a blank screen and flickering lights. Yet the emotions they express seem utterly real. It’s another intriguing cine-experiment for Kiarostami that’s rich with meaning. As he put it to one actress during Shirin’s production: “this movie has neither a director, nor an acting-director; it is just you and yourself, if you pull it off, good for you, if not, your loss.”

A Useful Life (2010)

Director: Federico Veiroj

A Useful Life (2010)

The Cinemateca Uruguaya in Montevideo (now there’s the name of a film town) is an ongoing cultural institution, and Jorge Jellinek is a real Uruguayan film critic (he voted in the last Sight & Sound greatest films poll). But director Federico Veiroj adjusts these facts to posit a fictional scenario in which a veteran curator must face up to the closing down of his beloved workplace retreat and re-engage with the outside world.

There’s enough wry social observation and gentle comedy in this brief, monochrome film to entice general audiences. But undoubtedly those engaged with repertory cinema as passion or profession will connect the most, as the film knowingly engages with the business of choosing retrospectives, struggling to drum up audiences or awkwardly waiting during end credits to start a Q&A. Then there’s that painfully matter-of-fact scene in which the Cinemateca is branded “not a profitable project from a financial point of view”. Just as well this isn’t a documentary, eh?