NOT ALL movie theaters can be found tucked between a Giant and People's in a parking lot posing as a shopping center. Some -- old classic houses like the Uptown and the Senator or the newer government theaters like the Archives and Air and Space -- still have something to offer besides sticky floors and the latest movie.
Here are a few of the best moviehouses around Washington:
AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE -- Film, in all its forms, is their business. The AFI is the only national arts organization dedicated to film, video and television. As such, it conducts workshops, saves old films, encourages new filmmakers, and, luckily for you, exhibits as many as 400 different titles a year. All 246 seats at the AFI Theater have a good view. The average price is right, too: $3.50 for AFI members, $4.50 for nonmembers. No food or drink allowed. At the Kennedy Center. 785-4600.
ARCHIVES THEATER -- The Archives holds the most complete collection of nonfiction film in the country, including rare home movies of Adolph Hitler and Eva Braun, the Zapruder film of JFK's assassination, and early works by Thomas Edison. The Archives holds film festivals built around themes selected from its 125,000 reels. The wood-paneled theater and its 216 green-felt seats are old, but the screen and sound system are modern. Films are shown at 7 p.m. Thursdays and at noon Fridays. Free. Eighth and Pennsylvania NW. 523-3000.
CINEMA 'N' DRAFTHOUSES -- Dinner theater at bargain rates. Part of a national franchise, these cinemas in Bethesda and Arlington offer a second-run movie, with beers, soft drinks, pizza and subs. You have to be 21 to get in, but the movie is only $2.50 ($3 Friday and Saturday) and the food runs about $5 for pizza and $1.50 a mug ($5.25 a pitcher) for beer. The Arlington theater holds 300 in its plush chairs and love seats, the Bethesda theater 365. On Sundays, you can get in free to watch the Skins on the big screen. Midnight shows on Fridays and Saturday at reduced prices. No-smoking sections. The Arlington Drafthouse is at 2903 Columbia Pike (486-2345), the Bethesda's at 7719 Wisconsin Avenue (656-3337).
THE AVALON -- The way moviehouses are spozed to be! The 1920s-era Circle Avalon 1 is a festival of color, its gold-painted dome sporting a scene of Mercury grasping and unrolling a reel of film; gold baroque scrollwork winds along the arch above the screen, Tivoli lights mark the aisles. And the seats: 622, with purple seat cushions and green backs. The theater is old, but the sound system is the latest. Forget its neighbor, Avalon 2; it's a modern shoebox. 5612 Connecticut Ave. NW. 966-2600.
THE BIOGRAPH -- Built as an auto showroom in 1927, the Biograph is a gritty-funky place to watch films. Movies are presented in festival format, with the international festivals the real treats. The food is occasionally served to match: sushi, for example, during a festival of Japanese films, or billy tea during an Australian series. Check out the old movie-poster mural in the hallway leading to the restrooms. 300 seats. 2819 M St. NW. 333-2696.
THE DRUID -- If you're out this way, stop in and you'll see that Grinnie Crates and her husband Donald run the Druid the old- fashioned way: no funny business. No smoochin', feet off the seats, nothin' but movie. It's old and far from city streets, but a friendly place. And the popcorn is great. Route 27, Damascus. 301/253-2171.
THE MARY PICKFORD THEATER -- When the actress died in 1979, she left the Library of Congress scores of her films. Later, executors of her estate gave the Library funds to build a theater in her name. Today, the Library's vast collection includes 6,000 pre-1915 silent movies; all of Frank Capra's collection; all of Warner Brothers' films since 1930. The theater is lush with deep-blue carpet, plush seats and lots of space -- except that it seats only 67. Films are free and are shown at 7:30 weeknights. Call for reservations a week in advance, and ask for a written schedule. First and Independence SE. 287-5677.
NATIONAL AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM -- Overwhelming. No other word will describe the IMAX theater and its six-story-high screen. The million-dollar projection system and the super sound system combine with the towering screen to turn any film into a sensory experience. More than 15 million have seen shows here since 1976. There are 11 a day; three different movies, each a half-hour long, run daily. Tickets are $2 adults, $1 for children, students and senior citizens. Sixth and Independence SW. 357-2700.
THE SENATOR -- This classic Baltimore theater looks like a giant jukebox. Glass bricks, neon, classic murals, even a Hollywood-style sidewalk area commemorating the world premiere of "Diner." The Senator has a 70mm projector, a modern sound system and 880 seats. Best of all, classic cartoons are shown before the feature. There are enclosed party rooms upstairs where you can view the movie and make a racket. The two rooms hold a maximum 18 or 22; the price is $6 a person for a minimum of 10. Call 301/426-4410 to reserve the room. 5904 York Ave., Baltimore. 301/435-1118 otherwise.
THE SENATOR -- This Washington Senator is also an architectural delight. The grand wood-paneled walls are solid, but there are some faded and missing parts in its facade. Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road NE. 398-3083.
THE STATE -- This large, casual theater offers second-run movies for a mere 99 cents. 800 seats. 220 N. Washington St., Falls Church. 532-1555.
THE UPTOWN -- This theater is big. How big? The balcony even has its own concession stand! You want bigger? It has 1120 seats, the largest in the area. And the screen is 70 feet by 32 feet, one of the largest around. And the Dolby stereo system can blast your bow tie off. What's more, it's a pretty example of art deco architecture. 3426 Connecticut Ave. NW. 966-5400.
Adapted from a Weekend article by Washington writers John Thompson and John F. Ross.