Mega-multiplexes have their uses. When you want to see the latest IMAX-3-D-explosion-laden-Michael Bay-or-Jerry Bruckheimer-produced-blockbuster-probably-starring-Mark Wahlberg, by all means, run to the Cinema 12 or 26 screen. Spend $60 on a small popcorn and a Diet Sprite and fasten yourself into the reclining chairs as the sound system blasts you almost into the adjacent screening. It's the American way.
But what about when you want an intimate, slightly more personal film viewing experience? Thankfully, San Francisco (and other parts of the Bay Area) still have a handful of decent single screen and art house movie theaters for your enjoyment. Whether you want to gaze adoringly at Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in a revival of A Place in the Sun at the Stanford in Palo Alto or slump down in the lumpy seats at the Balboa while taking in a late run flick, there's something for everyone on our list of favorite movie houses.
The Stanford Theatre
221 University Avenue, Palo Alto
Amidst the Apple stores, Pottery Barns and undergrad hangouts of University Avenue stands the historic Stanford Theater, a perfect slice of what small town life was like between the wars when stockings were seamed and the movies were our greatest escape. This architectural gem of a movie house, and the Stanford Theatre Foundation that manages it, are dedicated to showing classic Hollywood films as they were meant to be seen: on the big screen, on film and with the kind of equipment originally used to show films during the theatre's heyday. Well worth a trip down the peninsula, the theatre frequently dedicates their schedule to movie stars (Fred Astaire, Bette Davis) and directors (John Ford, Vincente Minnelli) for mini-festivals celebrating the best of old Hollywood. For an added plus, the popcorn can't be beat, and be sure not to miss the historic film poster collection on rotation in the lobby.
3630 Balboa Street, San Francisco
Often overlooked when discussing great San Francisco movie houses, the old Balboa is just decrepit and seedy enough around the edges to make it completely charming and yet still remind you of a time when moviegoing had a bit of glamour attached. The Art Deco-by-way-of-seventies-redo interior is worth the price of admission alone, but, once you get talking to the old timers at the ticket counter and behind concessions, it's almost incidental what movie you're there to see. It's not unusual to be almost completely alone in the theater, or at least feel like it once the darkness descends on you and the rattling old sound system echoes in the space.