Going to the movies is, or should be, a holistic experience. Sure, assigned seating can tip the scales. But so can the architecture, the amenities, the ambiance and, most important, the art — known as cinema — on the screen. Here's a guide to navigating the best, the newest, the oldest and, in some cases, the oddest ways to take in a movie.
There's Imax, and then there's, as some wags put it, Lie-max.
The high-tech screening format — once best known for presenting such short-form documentaries as "To Fly!" on museum screens several stories tall and as wide as several barns — is now, er, more widely available in commercial theaters, where Hollywood fare such as "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" can be seen. But in the multiplex, the company's proprietary technology, which some have taken to calling Imax Lite, is typically paired with screens that are only slightly larger than normal (and, in some cases, even smaller than a non-Imax screen like the Uptown's).
The premium ticket price, however, hasn't shrunk. According to Imax, it's in the immersive-entertainment business, and that comes at a price, jumbo screen or not.
For local fans of old-school Imax, which boasts not just state-of-the art tech — razor-sharp images and bone-shaking sound — but also titanic vistas, there are still two great options, both operated by the Smithsonian. (There were three, but the Imax theater at the National Museum of Natural History went out of business last year.)
On the Mall, the National Air and Space Museum features a screen 75 feet wide and four stories high. But the mother of all movie screens in the DMV is at Chantilly's Udvar-Hazy Center, which features an 86-foot screen that's six stories tall. This is movie mecca for the popcorn purist. At $15 a ticket, with parking fees waived after 4 p.m., it's still cheaper than many smaller Imax screens. Upcoming Hollywood fare includes "Black Panther" (Feb. 16) and "A Wrinkle in Time" (March 9).
Airbus Imax Theater, National Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center, 14390 Air and Space Museum Pkwy., Chantilly. 877-932-4629. si.edu/theaters/airbus.
Lockheed Martin Imax Theater, National Air and Space Museum, Independence Avenue and Sixth Street NW. 877-932-4629. si.edu/theaters/lockheedmartin.
In an age when one theater looks like any other — long hallways leading to as many as two dozen separate screens — it's nice to live in a town that still respects the movie palace.
Built in the 1920s and 1930s, and restored for an audience that appreciates idiosyncratic ambiance more than six-inch-wide armrests, the cavernous, vintage screening rooms of the neoclassical Avalon and its art-deco cousins, the AFI Silver and Uptown, provide the experience of going to the movies in a bygone era — minus the 25-cent ticket.
Long beloved for its wide screen and balcony, the Uptown has recently started offering weekend-morning matinees of family-friendly 1980s favorites. You'll find a similar Saturday-morning program at the Avalon, which, during the week, supplements its Hollywood fare with one-night-only screenings of films from France, Israel and the Czech Republic. The Silver is even more eclectic, screening — in addition to popular, first-run films — a smorgasbord of restored classics, documentaries, thematic series and international film festivals.
AFI Silver, 8633 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. 301-495-6700. afi.com/silver.
AMC Loews Uptown, 3426 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-966-5401. amctheatres.com.
Avalon, 5612 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-966-3464. theavalon.org.
It's hard to capture the vibe at Suns Cinema, a storefront theater in Mount Pleasant that is easily the area's most unusual — and friendliest — place to catch a flick. Although the website describes the 40-seat venue as "cozy art house cinema meets dive bar," it feels more like your hippest neighbor's rec room — with the slightly underground flavor of a floating craps game, tempered by a welcoming warmth.
That's not surprising, considering that the operation grew out of the informal, old-fashioned movie nights — complete with sheet on the wall — that co-owner David Cabrera and his business partner, Ryan Hunter Mitchell, would stage in the group house they shared. Things are a lot more professional these days, with a digital, overhead projector and a real, albeit small, screen. But the eclectic decor, which features a hodgepodge of seats — some salvaged from a theater, one wooden pew and other mismatched items — is still domestic, including such movie-lover touches as an area rug patterned after the hotel carpet in "The Shining" and a replica of the leg lamp in "A Christmas Story."
Cabrera's programming philosophy, which centers on a changing monthly theme, is equally eclectic. January, it's mysteries. February, Black History Month. Look for a Spike Lee series, the Senegalese "Touki Bouki" and the Oscar-nominated documentary "I Am Not Your Negro."
"That gives us a parameter to throw s--- at the wall," Cabrera says, "and see what sticks."
Suns Cinema, 3107 Mount Pleasant St. NW. sunscinema.com.
From highbrow to lowbrow
Fathom Events is, in its own way, stretching the definition of movie.
The nationwide alternative-entertainment program, which takes place in various local venues across the country, is known for presenting fare associated less with the multiplex than with the Kennedy Center: opera, theater, ballet and music concerts — some of it live and some recorded, and typically one night only or in a limited run (hence the "event" designation).
But Fathom also includes Hollywood classics, TV premieres, anime, documentaries, sporting events, seasonal films, comedy and other eclectic offerings, such as the midnight-movie staple "The Room" (now memorialized in the buzzy, making-of dramedy "The Disaster Artist").
Prices vary, from the cost of a regular movie night to just under $30 for a performance of the Metropolitan Opera, with the added benefit that you don't need a jacket and tie.
Fathom Events, multiple area venues. 855-473-4612. fathomevents.com. Sign up online to receive an email newsletter.
Rated X — for extreme
The newest cinema innovation to hit Washington is 4DX. Debuting at Regal's Gallery Place theater this month in one of its 14 screening rooms, the 128-seat attraction is closer to a theme-park ride than a traditional movie. Along with Los Angeles, Seattle, Orlando and New York, which has two such venues, D.C. is the fifth U.S. market to offer 4DX.
During a recent screening of "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" in 4DX, the seats tilted forward, backward and sideways, rumbling like a La-Z-Boy with indigestion during X-wing fight sequences. At times, they nearly spilled this occupant — and his popcorn — onto the floor. During lightsaber battles, the back of my seat repeatedly "kicked" me in the lumbar region, an effect I can re-create any time by sitting in front of a 5-year-old.
Then there were the lightning, wind and fog effects, not to mention something at ankle height called, most disconcertingly, a tickler. Bubbles, scents and snow also are available but weren't part of my test run.
Is it worth $21.99? That's hard to say. The effects are programmed to coincide with and, presumably, enhance what's happening on-screen. Falling rain — timed to mimic the inclement weather on Luke's Island — lent the moviegoing experience a tactile reality that underscored the mood. At other times, I was holding onto my cupholder for dear life. (Note: The water can be turned on and off, via a button on the armrest. Viewers who are sensitive to flashing lights are advised to reconsider. And everyone should secure their valuables, just like on a roller coaster.)
Regal's Gallery Place Stadium 14, 701 Seventh St. NW. 202-393-2121. regmovies.com. "Maze Runner: The Death Cure" is now available in 4DX. Upcoming offerings include "Black Panther" (Feb. 16); "A Wrinkle in Time" (March 9); and "Pacific Rim: Uprising" (March 23).
For the deaf and hard of hearing, keeping up with the latest movies can be difficult. Theaters that provide open captions — subtitles on the screen — sometimes set restrictions on what's offered, requiring that a certain number of tickets be sold, limiting the selection of films or scheduling screenings at inconvenient times. Closed-captioning devices, which involve such technology as headsets or armrest-mounted screens, are cumbersome and occasionally run out of batteries during the film.
Options, in other words, are limited.
That's not good enough, according to Erik Nordlof, a film buff and founder of D.C. Deaf Moviegoers, a Facebook group that, since 2015, has organized and lobbied for open-caption screenings. Nordlof's fellow advocate Jamie Berke recently approached Mark O'Meara, the owner of two small Northern Virginia theaters, with a proposal: Institute an open-caption night every second Sunday, making all nine movies at both of O'Meara's venues — the six-screen Cinema Arts Theatre and the three-screen University Mall Theatres — available to deaf and hard of hearing audiences during prime-time evening hours (generally between 7 and 8 p.m.).
O'Meara, a fierce independent who has long run midnight screenings of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" at University Mall — where the popcorn is advertised as the best "in the known universe" — agreed. "We dare to be different," he says.
Cinema Arts Theatre, 9650 Main St., Fairfax. 703-978-6991. cinemaartstheatre.com.
University Mall Theatres, 10659 Braddock Rd., Fairfax. 703-273-7111. universitymalltheatres.com.
Drinks and a movie . . . or maybe just drinks
Booze in movie theaters is nothing new. Long before you could order an adult beverage from the increasingly ubiquitous bar/concession stand, there were those who'd stoop to sneaking a hip flask of hooch in to spike their soda. But we're better than that, aren't we?
One of the most civilized places to imbibe, even without a ticket stub, is Landmark's Atlantic Plumbing Cinema. There, in what feels like an industrial-chic neighborhood lounge, you can relax with a pint or movie-themed cocktail in soft leather seats, using the Rockbot mobile app to program the jukebox.
There's more of a pub vibe at my second favorite cinematic watering hole: Alamo Drafthouse Cinema's beer-focused Glass Half Full Taproom, which sells dozens of draft and bottled beer, wine and mixed drinks. Did someone say the movie is about to start? I'll have another round.
Landmark's Atlantic Plumbing Cinema, 807 V St. NW. 202-534-1965. landmarktheatres.com.
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema One Loudoun, 20575 Easthampton Plaza, Ashburn. 571-293-6808. drafthouse.com/northern-virginia.
Films on art, films as art
You might imagine that the National Gallery of Art's film program features documentaries and dramas about art and artists. It's a museum, after all. And though you wouldn't be wrong, that's only where the fun begins.
On Saturday, for example, you can catch back-to-back screenings related to the gallery's special installation of Jackson Pollock's 1943 "Mural," on loan from the University of Iowa Museum of Art. (At nearly 20 feet wide, it's the painter's largest work.) At 2 p.m., it's the Emmy-winning TV documentary "Mural: Story of a Modern Masterpiece," followed at 3:30 p.m. by the 2000 biopic "Pollock," starring Ed Harris and Marcia Gay Harden.
But this robust — and free — film-school-in-miniature, which takes place in a 500-seat auditorium, also features restored classics, thematic micro-festivals, Washington premieres in conjunction with the Environmental Film Festival, panel discussions with filmmakers and scholars, and regular "cine-concerts" (silent films accompanied by live music).
National Gallery of Art, East Building Auditorium, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. 202-842-6799. nga.gov/film. Seating is available on a first-come, first-served basis, with doors opening 30 minutes before showtime.