Yes, it's true, between internet skullduggery and On Demand, you can see an awful lot of movies without ever leaving your couch (or bed). But you've got to admit, in the right circumstances (that is, no talkers or texters, and with proper climate control) seeing a movie in a darkened theater is an experience unlike any other. Scary movies feel more frightening, comedies get funnier, and tragedy leaves you more shattered that it would if you just have it on while you check Instagram or fold the laundry. Here are our favorite movie theaters, chosen on the basis of unique programming, customer service, atmosphere, and SF flavor (which, in this case, is extra butter).
The Castro Theatre
As if we need to tell you, the Castro Theater is downright gorgeous. Lovely. Old-school charm. Aesthetics aside, they host some of the finest film festivals in the country, Q&As with Marc Huestis and major notables (e.g., Christina Crawford, John Waters, Karen Black, and Ann-Margret, just to name a few), and Peaches Christ's iconic and whipsmart Midnight Mass. Sure, their Mighty Wurlitzer will soon make way for a $700,000 "Symphonic Theatre Organ," but no one said the Castro couldn't roll with the times.
429 Castro Street
Landmark Theatres Embarcadero Center
Yes, it's a mall theatre, but it's still your best bet to catch the latest Almodovar, or that obscure Oscar-nominated documentary about a '70s performance artist that only a handful of PhD candidates and your lesbian ex-girlfriend are ever going to see. After a late-2013 remodel, you've got wall-to-wall screens, barcalouger-esque recliners, craft beer, wine, and hot foods, and assigned seating. It's now one of the swankiest theatres in town.
1 Embarcadero Center
Rain falls outside the Sundace Kabuki Cinemas in Japantown. (photo: Steve Rhodes)
The Sundance Kabuki
Until the Embarcadero's revamp, the Sundance Kabuki had the local market cornered on reserved movie seating. And it's true, there is nothing more stress-relieving than buying movie tickets and knowing you can waltz in while the trailers are rolling and still have the best seat in the house. Another point in the Kabuki's favor is the mix of programming: while some theatres are home only to art-house and others only show bigger budget, this place has both. As of this writing, for example, the Kabuki is showing the biggest blockbuster of summer 2014, a small-budget biopic, and is the only place in SF that's showing a complicated, surreal, and egg-heady relationship drama. Pro tip: if you're seeing a movie in their Theatre One, even when the balcony's closed, staffers typically turn a blind eye if you go sit up there anyway. It's like having the whole theatre to yourself.
1881 Post Street
The neon lights are bright on 16th Street (photo: M. Thorn)
The Roxie and The Little Roxie
As the oldest continually-operating movie theater in San Francisco, it would be impossible to make this list without a mention of the Roxie. After a brief stint as a porn theater in the late '60s and early '70s, the Roxie now operates as a not-for-profit movie house. Between the main 238-seat space and its 48-seat sister, The Little Roxie, next door, the Roxie hosts everything from hard-to-find or out-of-print releases, cult classics, Noisepop and Frameline film screenings and even the occasional local comedy showcase. The theater's independent film distribution arm, Roxie Releasing, continues the commitment to great film with releases like Kurt and Courtney and the 30th anniversary edition of George Romero's The Night of the Living Dead.
3117 16th Street
The 4-Star Theatre, photo from their website.
No, the 4-Star is not the poshest theatre in town, nor is it the hugest. But it is one of the coolest, with multiple screens of what they call "alternative world cinema" but I call badass eurotrash sex and violence next to earnest indie relationship drama next to first-run Asian films — the only theatre in SF to still host the latter, they say. Established in 1919 as the La Bonita, the 4-Star narrowly escaped eviction in 2005. It doesn't get more SF than that.
2200 Clement Street