This week’s Favorites post is all about the movies. Sometimes, you just want to sit back, grab the popcorn and watch the credits roll. We’re here to help you find the best place in town to do just that. Read on for all about favorite theatres, from the Uptown to the Hoffman Center to Bethesda Row.
Hands down, The Uptown, on Connecticut Ave in Cleveland Park. The place is old and glamorous, and sports the latest in theater gear. It’s a beautiful theater with a huge screen and it’s a great place to watch a movie–no bad seats in the house. My personal preference is up on the balcony. The Cleveland Park metro stop is about a block away, and there are a bunch of restaurants and bars in the immediate area for your before- or after-movie needs. Tickets aren’t cheap ($10 plus $1 service charge per ticket if you buy your tickets online through Fandango), but compared to the also-high prices at other DC theaters, the extra change is worth it.
Runner-up would have to be the AFI Silver in Silver Spring. The theaters are on the small side (at least the ones I’ve been in), but they have really comfy seats and seating arrangements. But the best part of the Silver are the kinds of movies they show. They show a lot of independent films, along with various film series featuring specific directors or actors, and special screenings, such as for the 48-hour Film Project.
When I was trying to pay for college, I spent my senior year of high school and all my breaks during college working at a local movie theater. I spent most of my time selling concessions, but occasionally subbed in the box office or with the ushers. This experience taught me the usual lessons about the value of a dollar and the character-building qualities of hard work, blah blah, but it also made me very picky about the nuances of my movie theater experience. So while the Uptown is a great place to see a movie for things like Trilogy Tuesday, where I’m primarily interested in the screen and sound quality, when I’m looking for the overall, hassle-free experience, my pick is actually the AMC Hoffman Center 22 in Alexandria.
First of all, the Hoffman Center is blessed with the twin Holy Grails of convenient access- it has both a ginormous parking lot as well as a Metro station right across the street. There is no fussing about how to coordinate transportation for a large group, and unlike the theater where I spent so many late nights closing up, the parking lot is well-lit in even its most remote areas, so I’ve never been uneasy heading out to my car when I’ve attended a late movie by myself.
And then there’s the design of the actual building. The theater I worked in was a converted bowling alley- the concessions area was an island that must have been the shoe-rental area at some point, and the nine auditoriums were situated along a straight hallway where the lanes used to be. The problem with this arrangement was that unless you were in one of the three large auditoriums whose doors faced the lobby, when your movie was over, you’d typically have to stop as soon as you got outside the door to re-orient yourself, because you were staring at a wall full of theater doors that were identical to the ones you just left. And anyone who has ever ridden up an escalator behind a touron can tell you what a recipe for disaster that is. By contrast, the Hoffman Center’s 22 auditoriums are on two floors, clustered around a large, open, atrium-style lobby. As soon as you come out of any theater, you’re facing the lobby and know exactly which direction to walk in. Brilliant! The concessions areas on both floors are against the rear wall, thereby not creating an obstacle to traffic in the lobby. The ticket-takers are situated at the bottom of the Up escalator and at the rear of the box office, allowing maximum room for lines to form outside auditoriums, but keeping the flow going in the lobby itself. And while I don’t have any need for them myself, it’s also got “Family” restrooms in addition to Men’s and Women’s, which is such an obvious innovation in public accommodation that I wonder why it took so long to catch on.
Finally, there are the little things- stadium seating, which is the norm for new theaters but most theaters here aren’t new. The available nearby restaurants- the Ruby Tuesday’s sucks but the San Antonio Grill has lightning-fast service, and Ted’s Montana Grill serves bison, so hey… The Hoffman Center has a particularly large number of self-serve ticket kiosks, which is excellent for misanthropes like me. The popcorn smells like movie popcorn ought to smell- it’s amazing how often popcorn in theaters smells rancid, or maybe I’m just picky from years of making the popcorn myself. (And just WHERE were the little pre-sealed packages of nacho chips and cheese 10 years ago when they would have made my life SO much easier?)
The first time I heard of the C&D was my first year living in the area, back when I lived in the Hamlets of Alexandria and downtown seemed so very far away. I headed over for an evening showing of a fairly forgetful second run movie with a friend. We bought our inexpensive seats at the door, and walked inside.
No rows of seats, just tables. Smoking on the outside, non-smoking in the center, and, wait just a second, are those taps?! Holy crap! Beer and movies! It’s like peanut butter and chocolate! Full service at your table before and during the show? I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
I’ve gone back frequently to the C&D for Lord of the Rings, for Moulin Rouge (both of which play far better on the big screen than on my HDTV) and for other late running flicks. The C&D tends to show movies that are meant for the cinema, not that made for DVD garbage that so frequently infects mainstream theatres. The primary drawback is that they only tend to have one showing of each movie per evening, but they make up for that with old-fashioned double features and the occasional midnight show. The seats are comfy, the food good, the beer excellent and the movies just what you want to see while downing a pitcher of PBR or a glass of a nice Belgian ale.
The West End (sadly, now defunct)
Unfortunately my favorite Movie Theater in Washington D.C. was torn down to build the Ritz Apartments in Foggy Bottom about 7 years ago. It was the Cineplex Odeon West End on 23rd and L streets.
This little 4-screen theater seemed tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the larger multiplexes. In fact I never sat in movie there with more than 10 other people at one time.
The West End was very old. Musty carpets, poor fixtures, disgusting bathrooms. But they got all the big movies there and the four screens were good old-fashioned monsters. Every time I took a friend or a date to see a movie at this quiet West End theater they would always express surprise as to how big the screens were compared to the tiny theater façade out front.
I loved the West End because it felt like my own personal screening room. After going there for a few years, I became familiar with the Indian family who worked there. Eventually I made the crucial inside contact that would occasionally let me into movies for free or slip me a free Dr. Pepper with my Buncha-Crunch.
I’ll miss the old West End. There really wasn’t a better theater for a movie-going misanthrope like myself.
Of course the Uptown is a real beaut of a theater, and always will be. However I feel their programming the last few years has been really weak.
Today, I prefer the Hoffman Center in Alexandria to the other multiplexes. Parking is never a problem, the spacious interior gives everyone plenty of room to maneuver with their mountains of concessions, and the seats are damn comfy.
Having joined the DC Film Society last year, I’ve had the chance to see a lot of movies at a good variety of the movie theatres in the area. And not being one to limit myself to one favorite, I have a couple that I like for different reasons. First and foremost, in any true cinemagoer’s heart, must always be the Uptown. It’s one of the few single screen theatres left, still has a balcony, and it’s where I sat for 14 hours watching all three Lord of the Rings movies back to back on Trilogy Tuesday. The big drawback is that they tend to hang on to movies for a longer run, and if there are several big movies coming out around the same time, they won’t have both.
The Loews at Georgetown has a good variety of large and small theatres, excellent concessions, many Fandango machines, an excellent manager, and a good mix of big films and independents. The trick to the Georgetown location is finding one of the garages that offers $5 parking – never, ever use the meters in front of the theatre; they don’t last long enough, and unless you want to run out of the movie to feed your meter, you’re looking at a $100+ ticket.
The Avalon, up near Chevy Chase Circle, has excellent classic movies and family films each weekend. They have 2 screens (1 big screen), but the theatre has been entirely re-done, so now they have the cushy, tall-backed seats. Parking can be a challenge, but it’s worth it if there’s a film you want to see.
Landmark (both Bethesda & E Street) have offered some of my favorite films of late – smaller, formerly art-house films. If you were a big fan of Visions, these are the guys to be mad at; but it’s nice to have the chance to see the small films in a nice theatre. Interesting concession choices, nice theatres. Parking is problematic at both for different reasons – take the Metro and save yourself a headache. I like Mark Cuban’s philosophy on filmgoing and entertainment, and they have an excellent newsletter that offers chances to win free movie passes and has interesting information about the films and filmmakers.
Finally, my new favorite, the Regal in Chinatown by the MCI Center. Great neighborhood, interesting eateries (and more on the way), solid film choices, and very comfortable theatres. I’ve only been there once, so far, but I can highly recommend it. And while you’re there, check out the hand dryers in the restrooms. (You’ll see what I mean when you get there.)
What separates one movie going experience from another? As long as the reel keeps going without interruption, as long as the sights and sounds are unimpeded by inconsiderate patrons, as long as the furniture fully supports your weight; most theatres will offer that much. Actually I’m sure we could fill a library with violations of the above criteria.
Beyond that, there are theatres that offer quite a lot to enhance your experience. I am personally partial the Hoff Theatre at the University of Maryland, but I can’t realistically expect you share my enthusiasm for a facility that took five years to renovate and save for the rearrangement of chairs, showed little improvement on the inside.
I will put in a good word for the Rio at Washington Center in Gaithersburg, MD. I know that most of you probably consider Tenleytown to be nether region, but bear with me here. The Rio offers a palatable of selection of shows at all times, but offers something few other theatres in the area can match. You can polish off an excellent meal at any of the numerous restaurants within shouting distance. None of them will be asking you if you want to super-size your meal for the two buttons and change you found between the sofa cushions.
You can pick up a few necessities for the abode at the Tar-jzhay (c’mon, you don’t expect me to be a corporate shill now do you?) or peruse the aisles at the amply stocked bookstore. Pick up a nice bottle of wine and some cheese to go along with it. I am not sure if you are allowed to feed the ducks, but you can at least exhange greetings with them as you walk around the lake to get to your show.
I’m a bit of a movie nut, which means that, these days, I’m a big fan of Netflix and DVDs. I might be one of the only people I know – certainly the only person in my social circle – who actually listens to every commentary track on a given DVD.
As much as I love a DVD chock full o’ extras, though, there’s something pure and right and holy about going to see a movie on the big screen. The dark theater. The cinemuck. The golden faux-butter-syrup stuff that I consume so much of that I actually request that my corn be double-bagged so as to prevent seepage.
But, just like the silence that was once sacred on the Metro during rush hour, it seems that the purity of the theater-going experience has disappeared. The erosion of the “bargain” in the bargain matinee price. Commercials before movies. People having “outside-voice” conversations during the film. And don’t even get me started on the ringing cell phones, or the people who actually take calls.
But I’m happy to say that there is a sanctuary from the philistines: Bethesda Row Cinema. Despite the slightly-higher-than-your-average-Loew’s ticket price, there is much to love here. The fact that they show independent films – even ones with subtitles. The fact that the staff is friendly and courteous. The fact that you take an escalator down to the theater (I don’t know, there’s just something cool about the fact that it’s underground. I’m a simple girl, what can I tell you?). The fact that it’s next door to Gifford’s ice cream (if you haven’t had the Swiss chocolate, you haven’t really lived, although the summer heat can be squarely squashed with the honeydew melon). The wide variety of restaurants nearby for pre or post-movie going dining.
The hugemongous movie posters that adorn the walls. And, probably most importantly: the fact that the theaters are populated by polite grown ups (not a laser pointer in sight!) who came here for the same reason I did: they love movies.
Now, if only they had those do-it-yourself-butter machines….
This post appeared in its original form at DC Metblogs