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Chicagoist's 10 Favorite Movie Palaces

By Chuck Sudo in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 6, 2013 5:00PM

Chicago’s love affair with film runs all the way back to when Essanay Studios called Argyle Street home. The movie theaters built during the Silent film era and the transition to “talkies” by architecture firms such as Balaban and Katz, Rapp & Rapp and Lindley P. Rowe have become architectural treasures. (Those that are still standing, that is.)

As the film industry moves deeper into digital projection and multiplexes dominate the landscape, variety has taken root. The movie houses of yesteryear have received second lives as destinations for art house films, independent cinema and current hits in second runs at bargain admissions half the cost the multiplexes charge. More of these theaters are upgrading their projection systems to accommodate both 35 mm film and digital formats. The better multiplexes around Chicago, meanwhile, recognize the demand for something besides studio blockbusters and program independent releases and art house favorites among The Hobbit on four screens.

Those classic theaters and some of the newer ones that make up our list of our 10 favorite movie houses in the city represent the best and brightest film programming in Chicago and beyond. This list is a splendid mix of classic theaters, multiplexes and single screening rooms. If you’re a cinephile looking for something out of the ordinary that isn’t at your nearest megaplex, save this list. If there's a theater you feel we missed (although there was some spirited debate among the Chicagoist staff to get to this) let us know in the comments.

Ira Glass onstage at the Music Box Theatre Sept. 1, 2012. (Photo credit: lauren*o)

So long as they're still tearing tickets at the Music Box Theatre, there will be a place in Chicago for people who love watching movies. It's not just that the theater itself, a 1929 palace of handsome but humble proportions, caters so indulgently to those who feel the joys of a trip to the cinema can never be fully forgone for the comforts of watching at home. It's that this particularly well-run temple of cinephilia, nestled on the city's north side a few blocks from Wrigley Field, boasts a programming mission as focused on the best of today as much as yesterday. Into new independent movies and foreign films? Cult classics and midnight movies? Popcorn-ready chestnuts? Silent films? Special events? The variety of programming at the Music Box is unmatched in the city, afforded in no small part by the the house's unique ability to project just about every kind of film you'd want, from 16mm to 70mm and just about everything in between. No matter what kind of movie watcher you are, you'll find something on the Music Box Theatre's schedule that you want to watch. — Steven Pate
The Music Box Theatre is located at 3733 N. Southport Ave., 773-871-6607

The Siskel Film Center isn't just the only movie house left in the Loop, it's also the only movie complex in the whole downtown area that still projects film (all the surrounding multiplexes are now digital only). That gives the Siskel the kind of flexibility that makes their fare so eclectic: they host annual events like the current EU Film Festival and Black Harvest, filmmaker retrospectives, encore screenings of recent art house fare, even experimental work as part of their Conversations from the Edge series. And they do it all at ticket prices lower than the multiplexes. Oh, and they have a decent concession stand — complete with wine and beer (including $2 cans of Hamm's). Its location at State/Lake also pretty much makes it the most convenient movie theater in town. As long as the Siskel is going strong, Chicago's cinephiles will have a place to call their own. — Rob Christopher
The Gene Siskel Film Center is located at 164 N. State St., 312-846-2800

The Portage Theater (Photo Credit: Don Ritt)

At their core, movie theaters define their neighborhoods and few have the impact as the Portage Theater, whose existence is symbiotic with the current and future fortunes of the Six Corners business area of Portage Park. The 93-year-old theater is in the midst of a renaissance since its proscenium was rehabbed for Michael Mann’s 2009 film Public Enemies, where it doubled as the interior of the Biograph Theatre. Since then, the Portage’s film programming has emerged as among the most varied and eclectic in Chicago. It’s the home to both the Northwest Chicago Film Society and the Silent Film Society of Chicago; screens short and feature length films from local filmmakers; and has become the epicenter for screenings of classic Universal Studios monster films, Hammer horror films and Japanese monster movies. The Portage’s free movie screenings, featuring classics like the Star Wars trilogy and other iconic 80s movies, is one of the best movie deals in the city. Despite all this, the future of the Portage is in doubt as tensions between the current management and the theater’s owner, Eddie Carranza, remain high. Carranza would like to establish the Portage as another theater like his Congress Theater. Given the history of that venue’s troubles, it’s easy to understand why residents and fans of the Portage are wary. — Chuck Sudo
The Portage Theater is located at 4050 N. Milwaukee Avenue, 773-736-4050.

The Max Palevsky Cinema in the University of Chicago’s Ida Noyes Hall is home to DOC Films. Arguably the oldest student-operated cinema society in the United States, the predecessor to DOC films began in 1932 as the Documentary Film Group and, in 1940, the International House Documentary Film Group. The group’s mission long ago expanded past screening documentary films to include classic from the studio system-Hays Code era, silent film, foreign-language films, studies of the work of directors, producers, actors and other film notables, and new releases. The Max Palevsky cinema remains one of the smallest and best screening rooms in Chicago. Max Palevsky, a U of C graduate, made his fortune in computers and semiconductors. He helped develop the first silicon computer at Packard Bell and, as a venture capitalist, helped Intel. The naming of the screening room after him was part of a $20 million gift he left the university. — Chuck Sudo
Max Palevsky Cinema is located at Ida Noyes Hall at the University of Chicago, 1212 E. 59th St., 773-702-8574.

When I moved out to Downers Grove from the city (for all you city people, there are, believe it or not, towns west of Oak Park), I was worried I was moving to a town that wouldn’t have any of the character and history that I fell in love with in Chicago. To most people, seeing a movie in the suburbs means going to a huge megaplex that shows 30+ movies every hour. Where is the character? The charm? In Downers Grove, it’s at the Tivoli Theatre. Built in 1928, it was the second movie theater in the United States to show “talkies.” It is a beautiful theater done in a French Renaissance style that has been lovingly restored over the years. While the theater retains the charm of its past, the technology has been updated with the times. A state of the art sound system along with digital 3D technology has been added to elevate the viewing experience. The theater is steps away from the Main Street train station and even has a bowling alley under the theater. In addition to showing regular run movies, it has a group called the After Hours Film Society that shows foreign and art films. There are concerts (Poi Dog Pondering plays April 5) and a showing of It’s a Wonderful Life around Christmas that can’t be missed. — Paul Leddy
The Tivoli Theater is located at 5021 Highland Avenue in Downers Grove,

The Davis Theater in Lincoln Square. (Photo credit: sictransitgloria)
Filled with vintage movie posters, and with ticket prices below the costly average for a stub, the four-screen Davis Theater in Lincoln Square is the perfect cinematic sanctuary for the budget-conscious moviegoer. Adult tickets are $8.25, and matinees are $5.75. Given to have art-house up-and-comers and second-run hits alike (a recent billing had Best Picture nominees Zero Dark Thirty, Les Miserables, Lincoln and Argo), the Davis offers family-friendly comfort and first-run quality. Located steps from the Western brown line stop, The Davis is in a local ideal to bicyclists and pedestrians alike. You may not go every weekend, but when you do go, you’ll be reminded of why you keep going in the first place. Plus, after a movie, simply stroll to many of Lincoln Square's affordable, delicious restaurants for a quintessential date night. — Jon Graef
The Davis Theater is located at 4614 N. Lincoln Avenue, 773-769-3999

When I first moved back to Chicago after my Navy enlistment, Century Shopping Centre — like many shopping malls across the country — had seen better days. One of the main reasons for Century Centre’s continued existence (arguably the main reason) was the opening of Landmark’s Century Centre, one of the best multiplexes in Chicago. This seven screen movie house, located near the top of the mall, specializes in art house films, independent releases, queer cinema, foreign-language films and the occasional wide release. Landmark Century was one of the first venues to offer stadium-style seating, giving every patron a clear look at the screen and among the first to offer gourmet concessions such as cappuccinos. There are good, bad and great multiplexes. Landmark Century Centre is a great multiplex. — Chuck Sudo
Landmark’s Century Centre is located at 2828 N. Clark Street.

The Logan Theater (Photo credit: Paul Callan)
I’m pretty sure I’ve been to The Logan Theater for drinks in the lounge more often than I have to see a movie. That doesn’t mean the actual theaters are anything to sneeze at. You won’t find sticky floors or rickety chairs in this renovated movie house. It first opened in 1915 as the Paramount Theater, and while they’ve kept a lot of the old charm (check out the restored marble walls and the stained glass window at the entrance), they’ve added new screens, new digital projectors with 3-D capabilities, DOLBY sound and big, plush leather seating. They show the latest Oscar winning flicks right alongside indie titles and decades-old films (You know you’ve always wanted to see The Shining on the big screen). In the lounge they’ve got a full bar and an “old school” concession stand. Art Deco decor stays consistent with the original theme, with retro wallpaper, vintage movie posters and inviting couches. They’ve recently added special nights in the lounge including live comedy Mondays, and movie trivia Tuesdays. The best part is that even with all these upgrades, they’ve kept prices low. You can still catch a matinee for $5.50 and an evening ticket won’t break the bank at $7. — Michelle Meywes
The Logan Theatre is located at 2646 N. Milwaukee Avenue, 773-342-5555

In any given year, Facets Cinémathèque will show more interesting movies on a single screen attached to a video rental store than most megaplexes will manage with dozens of larger rooms at their disposal, and it's not even close. Because Facets is no mere video store, but a 65,000-title titan with a film distribution arm of worldwide renown and the one of the best non-accredited film school anywhere. With festivals, revivals, retrospectives and premieres on tap at any given moment, the community film organization launched by Czech immigrant Milos Stehlik nearly 40 years ago thrives today on a DIY spirit and a commitment to independent, experimental and documentary filmmaking. Watching a film at Facets is more than just a way to encounter something new and interesting; it's a way of helping keep independent cinema culture alive. — Steven Pate
Facets Cinémathèque is located at 1517 W. Fullerton Ave., 773-281-9075.

Photo Credit: celticshelter

Another Northwest side movie house with a new lease on life is the Patio Theater. Owner Demetri Kouvalis has spent long hours, tons of his own money, and gallons of sweat equity to transform the Patio (pronounced “Pay-cheeoh”) into a destination spot for a neighborhood sorely lacking in them. The Patio screens new films in second runs and its new partnership with the Chicago Cinema Society augments their usual programming with special screenings and premieres of award-winning films and eclectic cinema. The Patio also upgraded its projection system, allowing them to screen films in 35mm film and digital formats. The seating, however, remains as plush and worn in as ever. — Chuck Sudo
The Patio Theater is located at 6008 W. Irving Park Rd., 773-685-4291