The nation’s capital may have earned the nickname “Hollywood for Ugly People,” but when you need an escape from the ongoing political drama, DC movie theaters deliver, whether you want to catch the latest releases, or find art-house fare in screening rooms and auditoriums within some of the city’s best art museums.
Best movie theaters in DC
Abandoned by its corporate operator, the city’s oldest surviving moviehouse was rescued and restored by a neighborhood group. Both inside and out, the 1923 structure has more charm than any number of the cookie-cutter megaplexes that have sprouted like mushrooms in the suburbs. It now shows a mix of foreign, independent, documentary and Hollywood fare, as well as classic and children’s films. The small second screen upstairs is nothing special.
The eight-screen Landmark is the city’s leading arthouse. Screens are big, even in the smallest of the auditoriums. This is one of only three DC cinemas with a liquor license; other amenities include upscale concessions and an espresso bar. Landmark also operates the roomier Bethesda Row in suburban Maryland, which also shows artsy flicks, but the Downtown theater’s bookings tend to be more adventurous.
With the destruction of the last of the Downtown movie palaces in the 1980s, what was once just an average neighborhood theater became the city’s premier cinema. The 1936 art deco movie palace—with 1,500 seats it’s the city’s largest—now shows blockbusters and would-be blockbusters. Not everyone applauds the curved screen, originally installed in the 1960s for Cinerama movies.
Across the plaza north of Verizon Center and up two flights of escalators awaits a sparkling new but otherwise standard contemporary megaplex, with 14 auditoriums. A rowdy scene on weekend nights.
The Hirshhorn showcases work by upcoming and experimental directors, often fresh from their successes on the international film festival circuit. Highlights from several alternative festivals are shown annually and filmmakers sometimes show works in progress.
Opened in late 2010, the city’s newest arthouse reclaims a three-screen cinema abandoned by a national chain in 2004. The theaters are small, but the equipment is state-of-the-art and the projection excellent. Early offerings have been heavy on documentaries, but also include films by Gaspar Noe, Jean-Luc Godard and Woody Allen. Upscale snacks and alcoholic drinks are available.
This 14-screen cinema, part of a complex that incorporates the old Georgetown Incinerator, has a large, dramatic lobby. The theaters, the biggest of which have 300 seats, are standard stadium-seating houses, with large screens and clear views. Right nearby is the recently revamped Georgetown Waterfront Park.
The American Film Institute opened this handsome, state-of-the-art complex in 2003. The largest of the three houses is a restored (and reduced) version of the Silver, a 1938 art deco cinema. It tends to show first-run foreign, indie and documentary films. But it still hosts retrospectives of directors and stars, overviews of national cinemas, and series devoted to African and Latin American cinema.
The films shown here come from the countries represented in the gallery’s collection, predominantly Asia and the Middle East. It is one of the best places in town to see movies from India and Iran, but arrive early—the theater soon fills up with émigrés from those countries.
The seven-screen cinema was the city’s first with stadium seating, boasting large screens and excellent sightlines. Alcoholic beverages and an expanded snack menu are available in the two "club cinemas". The latter auditoriums are restricted to viewers over 21, although that doesn’t guarantee that the movie shown will be suitable for adults.