The 7 Best Movie Theaters In Chicago
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 well as those that are still open. Since we posted our favorite movie palaces last year, the Patio Theater has shuttered and the Portage Theater closed and re-opened. (The verdict is still out on the Portage's new management.) These lists are always worth revisiting, as our recent best pizzas list proved, and they're always open for debate.
This year's best theaters list features a few repeats along with some new additions. As always: debate; dissect; and discuss.
The Music Box Theatre. (Photo credit: Stephanie Barto)
Music Box Theatre
Of course, right? The Music Box is such an institution, it’s easy to take it for granted or nitpick its faults. But why do that? Strictly for quality of programming, I’d give the edge to the Gene Siskel Film Center, but for a combination of excellent, diverse programming and distinctive atmosphere, the Music Box is the crown jewel. Its original 1929 design largely intact, vintage European style and whimsical touches (like artificial twinkling stars and moving clouds on the main auditorium’s ceiling) create a warm environment. And the programming remains essential, with indies, foreign films, classics and midnight cult films all in the mix. Yeah, that mini-auditorium added in the ‘90s isn’t great (though improved with recent renovations), sound on contemporary films can be tinny in a main auditorium built long before stereo and yes, the bathrooms are way too small for an 800-capacity theater. But it’s hard to imagine anyone who really loves movies not loving the Music Box. — Joel Wicklund
The Music Box Theatre is located at 3733 N. Southport Ave.
Gene Siskel Film Center
Screw it, I’m going out on a limb here and concluding that point-for-point, the Siskel is the finest place to catch a movie in Chicago. Why? Location: it’s easily accessible from every El line, and walkable from anywhere in the Loop. Selection: from an endless rotation of festival offerings to classics, both foreign and domestic, to experimental work, documentaries and movie/lecture events, the Siskel covers the spectrum. Comfort: a stellar concession stand (including alcohol!) and very nice seats, plus ample space to hang out before or after the movie. Presentation quality: the Siskel still projects film (while also showing video, of course) and every seat has a good view. So, yeah, the Siskel is a darn good place to catch a movie. — Rob Christopher
The Gene Siskel Film Center is located at 164 N State St.
Max Palevsky Cinema
We ran a piece a few weeks ago about Doc Films, the Chicago institution that was a haven for young Roger Ebert. But what is the group without its theater? Max Palevsky Cinema is located within the lovely Ida Noyes Hall on the University of Chicago campus. The building was built in 1916 and was home to a gymnasium and a swimming pool, until the late 1980s, when the spaces were refashioned and replaced with a 475 seat theater. This theater is open most nights of the week and always showing great stuff. Check out the Doc Films website for a full calendar. — Sophie Day
Max Palevsky Cinema is located at 1212 E. 59th St.
The Logan Theater (Photo credit: Paul Callan)
Just a few short years ago the Logan would have never made this list. The historical theater was crumbling and while you could catch a cheap movie a few weeks after its release date, it was in no way an ideal movie watching experience. Thankfully the Logan Theatre had a major facelift in 2012 and since then has become my favorite place to catch a new or classic film in the city. The once crumbling walls and uneven seats were restored to some of the grandeur a moviegoer would have seen when the theater first opened in the 1920s. But other than its throwback appearance, two things keep me coming back to the Logan— low prices and consistently fun programming. A regular ticket and popcorn at the Logan will cost you about as much as just a ticket at any megaplex in the city. And if you don’t want to see a new release, you frequently have the option of catching an old favorite. Check their site for weekly nostalgic additions to their schedule. — Gina Provenzano
The Logan Theatre is located at 2646 North Milwaukee Avenue.
A few years ago I celebrated Halloween at Facets by catching a midnight showing of The Devil’s Rain, the legendary B-horror movie starring William Shatner and Church of Satan founder, Anton LaVey. Prior to the show, a local horror movie buff stood at the front of the theater and presented an off-the-cuff talk on the film’s significance in modern cinema. It is bizarrely compelling programming like this that keeps me going back to Facets. Aside from screenings, the front half of the Facets building houses a videotheque, a movie rental library of 65,000 titles available to rent in person or online nationwide through mail-order. They also have a film school, summer film institute and produce the annual Chicago International Children’s Film Festival. — Allison Kelley
Facets is located at 1517 W Fullerton Ave.
At a glance, this theater may seem like just another cookie cutter, multi-screen theater, but the Showplace ICON in the South Loop has plenty of extra bells and whistles to make your experience more interesting. Located at the Roosevelt Collection, it is only a short walk from both the Red and Green Lines and offers free parking for theater patrons. When it comes to purchasing your tickets, you have a few options. Your standard ticket will run you the same as it would at most theaters, but the ICON also offers a VIP tickets for select films. If you decide to splurge, be sure to show up early in order to take full advantage of the VIP lounge, which boasts good food and drinks (which can be enjoyed during the movie in the theater) and great views of the downtown skyline. Finally, you get to view the movie from a balcony in the comfort of your own jumbo, plush chair. So go ahead, live the mantra of Tom Haverford and Donna Meagle and “treat yo self!” — Sophie Day
Showplace ICON is located at 1011 S. Delano Court East.
The Harper Theater
Once on Preservation Chicago's Most Endangered Buildings list, this Hyde Park movie house came roaring back to life last year under the guiding hand of Tony Fox, who accomplished a similar miracle with The New 400 Theaters in Rogers Park. The Harper Theater features four screens showing first-run films, equipped for digital projection; Dolby surround sound; reserved seating; valet parking on weekends; and clean and modern seats with clear sight lines of the screens. The Harper also has a cafe serving coffee, tea (Metropolis is their roast of choice), baked goods and, as of this past summer, a full-service bar. As the Harper enters its second century of existence, it's the perfect theater for Hyde Parkers and University of Chicago students without having to haul far from the neighborhood. —Chuck Sudo
The Harper Theater is located at 5238 S. Harper Ave.