Boston movie theaters have historically offered a wide variety of film-viewing options, from Cambridge art houses and Chinatown movie palaces to X-rated theaters in Downtown Boston’s nearly defunct Combat Zone. Today, major chains like the spacious Regal Fenway Stadium near Kenmore Square bring the big blockbusters to town. The Kendall Square Cinema artfully straddles the line between art house and multiplex, offering an intriguing array of indies, documentaries and foreign films, as well as its fair share of pictures from bigger studios. Vintage gems like the former vaudeville venue Somerville Theatre and the art deco Coolidge Corner Theatre make movie night an event, with screening series, one-offs, second-runs and visiting performers all a part of the regularly scheduled programming.
Offbeat movie houses
Home to the largest collection of 35mm films in New England, Harvard's film temple and screening space provides access to a hard-to-find and diverse catalog of films. The selection in a given month might include anything from Hong Kong cinema to historically important Hollywood gems to pure experimental stuff. The HFA also hosts retrospectives, with filmmakers frequently brought in for Q&As. The poured cement exterior of the Carpenter Center might not be much to look at, but it’s the only Le Corbusier building in North America. Tickets are $9, or $12 for special events. Weekly screenings for Harvard students are free and open to the public, and the HFA’s monthly catalogue is a free film education in and of itself. Alas, there are no snacks allowed.
Built in the 19th century, right in the middle of Harvard Square, the Brattle looks more like a barn than a movie theatre. A non-profit that’s dangled close to the edge of bankruptcy several times, the historic single-screen carries on, marching to the beat of its own eclectic programming. The decor isn’t fancy, but the schedule generally has something worth seeing, from Twin Peaks episodes to yearly Valentine’s Day screenings of Casablanca. With classic films, cartoon marathons, new documentaries, rare Japanese horror, best-of-the-year recaps and staff picks all on the roster, it’s good for open minds and omnivorous tastes. More easygoing than the nearby HFA, the Brattle serves beer and also hosts book events and live music on occasion. Showtimes can be a little erratic, so it’s best to double-check the website.
It’s not technically a theatre, but MIT's Lecture Series Committee has been programming movies on MIT's campus since the 1950s. The weekly screenings are a mix of recent blockbusters and classic films, plus the occasional special event like a film from a visiting director or an all-night sci-fi marathon—all projected on 35mm. With its small wooden auditorium seats and dollar popcorn, the LSC provides a relaxed, sociable atmosphere and an offbeat viewing experience well worth the dirt-cheap $4 ticket. It’s one of the first movie venues to put its schedules online (in 1996), and it's the only place in the area where Björk has been spotted at the movies.
Only a few minutes on the 77 bus from Harvard Square is the scrappy, second-run Capitol Theater. An Art Deco mural and gold-painted columns point to its past life as a luxurious movie palace back in the 1920s and '30s; but these days the Capitol is more of a cheap date, early-bird-special kind of establishment. The space's six screens are now stocked with a variety of second-run films, including kids' movies. With $6 weekday matinees, baby-friendly Mondays and opera screening events, the audience net is cast wide. You'll find the standard assortment of popcorn and snacks, plus ice cream at the attached Capitol Creamery. And thanks to its suburban locale, no ticket is over $9.
Steps away from the Davis Square T station, the Somerville Theatre opened in 1914 as a vaudeville and movie venue, transitioning into the picture business full-time during the Great Depression. The Somerville’s tradition of attracting audiences by giving away prizes like turkeys and appliances ended in the 1970s, but a crowd-pleasing, multi-purpose spirit is still intact. As well as showing new, one-off and second-run movies, the theater is also a concert venue for major acts and the hospitable home of the Independent Film Festival Boston every spring. Four smaller screens were added in 1996, but the original colorful, gold-and-plaster main theater remains in good shape. Beer and wine are sold for all shows, and like its sister theater, the Capitol, the Somerville’s ticket prices slightly undercut competitors: $9 for evening shows and $6 for weekday matinees and weekend shows before 6pm.
The distinctive neon marquee of the Coolidge Corner Theatre towers over Brookline like a beacon. The Art Deco non-profit is working all the angles by juggling tons of series in addition to their regular independent and foreign programming. Science on Screen pairs a movie with a related science talk, After Midnite does cult films and horror, and the Coolidge Shorts program plays short films alongside feature presentations. The annual Coolidge Award has honored the likes of Meryl Streep and Jonathan Demme, and attracted many a big name into town. Like the Somerville and Capitol Theatres, Coolidge has added more screens to compete with multiplexes—in addition to their main 1930s theater, there are three smaller screens. But be warned: one is very small.
Emerson College’s Paramount Center is an old classic that rose from the ashes in 2010, thanks to extensive renovations. The new ArtsEmerson initiative is kicking off its first season of film programming alongside theater, dance and concerts. The restored Art Deco building is dominated by the iconic flashing marquee, and still has the old Paramount Pictures logo carved into the facade. The complex now houses two theaters for performing arts and the Bright Family Screening Room, with 170 seats and both film and digital projection capabilities. The public film offerings are varied and appetizing, with unusual foreign films, animation, shorts, children’s programming and new avant-garde film all represented. It’s a far cry from the seedy selection of sex clubs and adult theaters that used to define the Washington Street area as Boston's “Combat Zone.” And if there aren’t going to be any strippers around, at least you can catch an Orson Welles flick sometime.
The Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Film Program at the Museum of Fine Arts shows new narrative and documentary films frequently and hosts festivals of national/ethnic cinema—from French to Greek to Jewish to Palestinian—as well as work from local filmmakers and director retrospectives.