Top 10 places to see movies

Jan. 16, 2015, 12:55 a.m.

Whether you’re looking to see the latest blockbuster, an old classic, or the latest independent or foreign fare, Arts & Life takes a look at the best places to see movies in the Bay Area on the big screen on and off campus.

Photos of the Stanford Theatre
The historic Stanford Theatre, located on University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto, screens American classics throughout the year. Photo by Gabriela Groth.

1.  Stanford Theatre (221 University Avenue at Emerson St., Palo Alto)

Located on University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto, the Stanford Theatre, originally opened in the ’20s, has been restored by David Packard so that it can keep screening classic Hollywood films on celluloid. It’s one of the cheapest places to see a movie ($6 per ticket) and get some excellent popcorn ($2 for a large), and it’s a great place to see old classics from “The Bridge at the River Kwai” to “Psycho” to “Gone with the Wind.” The cinema has two levels — a slightly sloped orchestra and a balcony — and on weekend evenings, you’ll be treated to jazz-age classics, performed live on the Würlitzer organ. During winter quarter, the Stanford Theatre will be screening a retrospective of Hitchcock films: See them on the big screen the way they were meant to be seen.

2.  Palo Alto Square (3000 El Camino Real at Page Mill Road, Palo Alto)

The CineArts cinema in Palo Alto Square was predictably deserted on a Wednesday afternoon. Upon entering the theatre, you’ll be greeted by a row of vintage movie posters above the concessions, from”Raging Bull” to “La Dolce Vita.” CineArts is comfortably small with just two screens — “Birdman” and “The Theory of Everything” are currently screening — but this fairly modern theatre itself is plush and generous, even though it doesn’t have stadium seating. No complaints here about acoustics or visuals. Tickets, purchased in advance, are relatively amenable to a college student’s budget ($7.50 for an early bird ticket). You can also show your student card at the door for a discount. Screenings are in the early afternoon and evening. Palo Alto Square is a bit out of the way — east of University and Stanford’s campus in general at Page Mill Road and El Camino Real — but the price and theatre will be worth your while.

3.  Stanford Film Society (Kairos, Stanford)

Stanford’s student-coordinated film screenings run every Friday evening (7:30 p.m.) at Kairos, on the row. Keep an eye out for the week’s choice, usually announced via email a few days beforehand. Selections are always in good taste — think “Singin’ in the Rain” (screened last Friday), “Life of Brian” and “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” complete with shadow cast on Halloween — and the atmosphere is intimate. You’ll likely find yourself seated on one of the pool room’s couches, or if it’s an especially lively night, on the floor. The room’s walls are decorated with old vinyl sleeves and string lights — this is an artsy, bohemian enclave if there ever was one. The informality of SFS’s screenings is their draw. Come for the films and drinks, and stay for the slightly edgier ambiance. Whatever the case, you’ll be among fellow movie buffs.

4.  Castro Theatre (429 Castro St at Market, San Francisco)

Located in the lively Castro district of San Francisco, the Castro Theatre is an historic repertory movie palace that offers not only big blockbuster flicks but also an eclectic mix of films, from recent indie theatrical releases to noir classics. The main hall is divided into two levels of seating — mezzanine and balcony — both of which are furnished with comfortable red velvet seats that curve around the stage, allowing every moviegoer a clear view of the screen. Spanish Baroque style wall motifs and ornate chandeliers create a performance hall experience, making the average movie experience seem much more refined. As a pre-show treat, you will also be able to hear a dramatic Wuürlitzer pipe organ play show tunes live. Though the Castro Theatre has only a single screen, which shows different movies each night, its monthly schedule is easily accessible online for you to plan for movie nights ahead of time. You can also reach the Castro by taking the CalTrain to downtown San Francisco and then hopping on the KT outbound train.

5.  Cinemark Redwood City Downtown 20 (825 Middlefied Road, Redwood City, CA)

Far more updated than its other mainstream competition in Mountain View, Cinemark Redwood City Downtown is easy on the eyes. This is a modern cinema: each theater boasts stadium seating and fairly comfortable chairs. The Redwood City cinema also has IMAX capability, but the differences in its mainstream fare from Century 16 Mountain View are minimal. Although the cinema is within walking distance of the CalTrain (the nearest stop is visible from street level), transportation to the Cinemark requires passage through two arbitrary zones, making the price of the trip fairly steep. For this reason, when traveling to the Cinemark, it’s often best to either drive (if driving is an option), Uber or bike (there are bike racks within walking distance of the theater). The Cinemark is surrounded by a number of dining options, which are ideal for before or after a screening. Tickets are $11.50, but student and matinee discounts are available.

6.  The Guild Theater (949 El Camino Real, Menlo Park, CA)

Just a short bike ride from campus (or a single stop by CalTrain), the Guild Theater in Menlo Park offers a number of cinematic selections not found at the closer Palo Alto Square and Aquarius theaters — popular films will often rotate between the Aquarius and the Guild. In the fall, it screened such modest and, ultimately, rewarding films as “The Skeleton Twins,” “Citizenfour” and “Wild.” Due to the the theater’s limited size, the Guild only projects one film a week, meaning certain films often overstay their welcome. Fortunately, the interior of the theater is fairly well maintained, though there’s minimal gradation in the rows. Once a month, the Guild also offers a midnight screening of the classic horror comedy “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Tickets are relatively cheap at $10 a piece.

7.  Century Cinema 16 (1500 N. Shoreline Blvd., Mountain View, CA)

Located just south of campus and a few miles from downtown Mountain View, Century Cinema 16 is a mere 16 minutes from campus by car. Century Cinema 16 screens both mainstream and independent — even foreign — films. Unfortunately, it’s not very CalTrain accessible; it’s a sizeable walk from the nearest station. Pricing is fair — generally $11.25 for adults — with both discounts for students and reduced costs for matinee screenings. A bit dated, the theater is fortunately in the process of renovating. At present, the theaters are small, with almost no gradation, and it’s easy to imagine getting saddled up with a poor seat. Several of its theaters now offer reserved seating, however, and the cinema is far enough off the beaten path to stave off crowds.

8.  Aquarius Theater (430 Emerson St at University Ave, Palo Alto)

The Aquarius in downtown Palo Alto, true to its name, is painted an odd, vibrant blue. Although the cinema is hardly modern, it does have a distinctly vintage vibe, which pairs well with its quirky and independent film programming, like “Big Eyes” and “Foxcatcher,” which are currently screening. While both films received lukewarm reviews from critics, the Aquarius is an experience in its own way. The audience on a Saturday evening was a good one — it tends to be packed with film fans on weekends and very lax during the week. The Aquarius has showtimes in the afternoons and late evenings, with tickets as cheap as $7 on weekdays. If you go on a weeknight, don’t forget to show your student ID card for a discount.

9.  Rented Projector (Lathrop and Green Library, Stanford)

Check out a projector from Lathrop Library’s Tech Lounge. Head to Green Library’s Media and Microtext collection to borrow a DVD of that movie you’ve been dying to see. Invite the whole dorm over for a good flick and snacks, and you’ve got a great weekend or weeknight event. Lathrop offers portable Dell projectors that do a good job for their size. I’d recommend speakers for better audio, but the picture is alright. Projectors checked out from the Tech Lounge are due for return by 5 p.m. on the next day of business. Additional days carry a charge of $10, so plan accordingly!

10.  Flicks (Cubberley auditorium, Stanford)

Taking place in Cubberley auditorium (located on Lasuen Mall) Sunday evenings at 8 p.m. throughout the school year, Flicks provides a cost-conscious alternative — it’s free — if you don’t mind waiting until after a film’s theatrical release to see it. Throughout the year, Flicks screens a variety of mostly mainstream films, ranging from “Boyhood” to “Gone Girl” to “Sex Tape.” Cubberley is a pretty decent screening space, especially in comparison to some of the older theaters in the South Bay. Because the lower seats lack gradation, seeing the whole screen can sometimes be difficult. Fortunately, balcony seating is also available. Although Cubberley is currently only equipped to screen DVDs, Flicks and the Stanford Film Society are in the process of purchasing a digital cinema projector, which could open up opportunities, in partnership with The Daily, for advanced screenings of films before their release.

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