The best movie theater experiences we’ve ever had

The summer movie season is finally in full swing as theaters re-open and people are making their return after a year’s long quarantine and a steady rise in vaccinations across the country.

A few weeks ago I went out with a couple of friends to go see a screening of Tsai Ming-liang’s 2003 drama Goodbye, Dragon Inn at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. Described by fans and critics as the “Taiwanese Cinema Paradiso,” watching the film for the first time was the kind of serene and meditative experience that one can only have through the shared communal space of a theater house. To put it blunt and simple: movies bring together; always have and always will, for as long as we take care to cultivate spaces where those possibilities of mutual appreciation and camaraderie are possible.

With that in mind, we’ve pulled together a list of our favorite experiences at the movie theater, be they favorite films shared in the company of good friends or the kind of quirks and oddities that you can only experience at the theater. As always, chime in and share some of your favorite times at the theater in the comments.

Before Midnight, without seeing the prior two movies

My buddy Nick and I have known each other since we met in college over a decade ago. Without a doubt, he’s one of the most well-versed and well-spoken of my friends when it comes to television and movies, introducing me to everything from Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, Twin Peaks, and Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy; the latter of which was the impetus of our long friendship.

Our first time hanging out together off campus was driving up to the Century 12 theater in Evanston — which has since closed down in the wake of the pandemic — for a weekend afternoon double-feature of Noah Baumbach’s France Ha and Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight. The former didn’t quite hit for me; young-adult cringe comedies viscerally set me on edge in a way that not even the most gruesome of horror films do. But the experience of watching the latter for the first time was nothing short of rapturous.

Having never watched either of the prior two installments in the series, I was nonetheless drawn into the charismatic and undeniable magnetism Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as the central couple, Jesse and Céline. The rich inner lives of these characters and their single-day together along the picturesque shores of the Peloponnese peninsula captivated me in a way that few films have done since, with each subtle turn and emotional crescendo pulling my attention further in. To this day, I still remember what I said to Nick the moment we walked out of the theater: “That movie was so good, I wanna slam dunk my popcorn tub in the trash.” And dear reader, I did. I look back on that time fondly, not just for having introduced me to one of my favorite film series of all-time, but for gift of having made a dear friend along the way. —Toussaint Egan

The second Hobbit movie’s midnight premiere

I was never a huge Lord of the Rings fan, but I had a friend who was one of those people. She wanted someone to come to the midnight premiere of the second Hobbit movie with her and as someone who enjoyed the first one enough, I went along with it. This was also my first winter break of college and the idea of having the freedom to just go to midnight premieres and stay out late was super fresh and new in my mind. We went to the fancier movie theater across town for this experience. I didn’t have a smart phone at the time, so I took a selfie with my freakin’ Kindle Fire. Throughout the movie, my friend regaled me with fun facts about how Tauriel didn’t actually exist in the books and questions like, why does that one guy look like Orlando Bloom in Pirates of the Caribbean when Orlando Bloom is right there? Also, I don’t remember Legolas even being in the Hobbit?

I genuinely don’t remember most of that movie, but my friend had a great time, so I did as well. After we left the theater, we decided to complete the experience by eating from the Denny’s tie-in Hobbit menu. As it turned out, two of the three Dennys in our town were closed down or inaccessible, so we had to trek to the complete other side at nearly 4 in the morning to get our coveted Hobbit Hole breakfast. We also blasted “Can’t Hold Us” by Mackelmore, because this was 2013 and I’m embarrassed by it now, but it was an integral part of the experience. This part isn’t very much movie theater related, but it all comes together in a complete package for me, since we were still very much in that post-movie theater haze as we sped on beachside highways to our late night dining destination. —Petrana Radulovic

2010’s Clash of the Titans while ravingly drunk

Sam Worthington barring his teeth as Perseus in Clash of the Titans

Photo: Warner Bros.

As a ‘srs film critic’, I cannot recommend deliberately drinking near-lethal levels of alcohol before watching a movie. As a responsible human citizen, I cannot recommend going to a movie with a large group of loud friends who heckle the action. It’s rude to the people around you, who also paid to be there, and may actually want to hear the dialogue, even if it’s clichéd and plodding, and may want to follow the action, even if it’s boring and incoherent.

But on the rare occasion when you happen to find yourself intoxicated and rowdy in an otherwise-empty theater, seeing a movie that’s so incandescently bad that it feels like you’re watching The Room or The Rocky Horror Picture Show, without any of the ritual and without knowing up front that you’re getting a bad movie … for someone who normally takes movies seriously and treasures the theatrical experience, it’s especially glorious to completely break all the rules once in a while.

The current gimmick where many multiplexes will rent out an entire theater for you and your friends, so you can see what you want and talk (or jeer or shout) all you want — that seems like a great opportunity to re-create my best bad-movie evening, held in a cheapo discount theater, shouting in derision as the ridiculously self-important movie Clash of the Titans played out onscreen. I particularly remember a moment where I was drunk enough that I completely lost track of the action, and asked a friend next to me “Wait, where are they going now?” He said “I don’t know!” “What are they trying to do?” “I have no idea!” “Am I just having trouble following this because I’m drunk?” “No! I’m stone cold sober and this movie makes no damn sense at all!” —Tasha Robinson

Man of Steel in Kansas City

Henry Cavill as Ka-El / Clark Kent / Superman in Man of Steel.

Photo: Warner Bros.

I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of the Synderverse DC films, but one of my favorite theater experiences happened while I was seeing the first of Henry Cavill’s outings as Superman: Man of Steel.

I’m from Kansas City, Missouri, born and raised. KC is mostly famous for BBQ, jazz, the ex-President of the United States thinking we’re actually Kansas (Kansas City, KS is a completely different city, I promise), and being the closest city to where Superman grew up. While KC is a bigger city in an otherwise rural area, there aren’t a lot of blockbusters set here. The point is that when people from KC see themselves represented in movies, they tend to get pretty excited.

In a dark vision during Man of Steel, Clark appears wearing a Kansas City Royals t-shirt while talking to General Zod. And the people in my packed, midnight opening theater started shouting with joy. Superman has always been a home-grown, Midwest hero, but to see him show up on the big screen supporting Royals baseball hit differently in a theater filled with people from the area.

When I think about the power of a theater-going-experience, this is what comes to mind. Sitting there, cheering on the Royals with fellow Kansas Citians, escalated a movie I don’t really like into one that evokes a powerful memory every time I think of it. —Ryan Gilliam

X-Men: First Class in Baltimore

In 2011, I was in Baltimore visiting my then-girlfriend and, on a hot summer day, we decided to cool off and catch a screening of X-Men: First Class. The matinee showing wasn’t that crowded — it’s been 10 years, but I remember it being nearly empty — but this became one of my favorite theater experiences solely because of the man seated at the end of the row in front of us.

As an aside, I don’t mind people who talk during movies as long as they’re responding to what’s on-screen and it feels like they’re genuinely engaging with it, and not trying to be the class clown. And let me tell you, this man was engaging, but only with two words: “The fuck.”

Throughout the entire movie, he’d just say “the fuck” in different intonations, using whatever inflection was appropriate for what just happened in the movie. An intrigued “the fuck” when a new mutant was introduced, a shocked “the fuck” when a character died, a bewildered “the fuck” when someone’s powers were shown off, and, most memorably, a somber “the fuuuck” whispered when, in the movie’s big finale, Professor Charles Xavier suffers the injury that paralyzes him.

I’ve never felt more fondly towards a fellow moviegoer I’ve shared a theater with, but I look forward to possibly finding someone like him again every time I’m at the movies. It’s the one reason that, while I appreciate them, I get a little sad when I’m at movie theaters that institute a policy of silence. Why would you want to miss out on something like this? The fuck. —Joshua Rivera

The first public screening of Get Out

Get Out - Daniel Kaluuya eyes scene

Universal Pictures

I spent my 20s in New York City, where art houses and museums and even big multiplexes promise one-of-a-kind theatrical experiences, often of films that are impossible to see otherwise. It’s difficult to replicate the joy of William Castle’s interactive oddity The Tingler at home. Only in New York could I attend an advanced screening of Brett Ratner’s maligned and rightfully forgotten action comedy After the Sunset and see a high-off-his-ass Woody Harrelson interrupt the Q&A to introduce “my friend David Blaine” to the audience. New York: It’s a helluva town!

But my most energized screening experience had to be at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival’s secret screening of Get Out. Jordan Peele was on hand to present the very first public look at the film in the prime hour of 12:01 a.m.. Stuffed into the tight seats of The Library, Sundance’s more intimate venue (which is literally in the local library), the picture — and the audience — came alive instantly as we were introduced to LaKeith Stanfield’s soon-to-be-inhabited-by-an-old-white-man character Andre as he runs for his life down a shadowy street. There may have been a few trailers out for the film by that point in January, but every image, every gag, every weird twist felt like uncharted territory. There was no buzz on Get Out yet, but it all started there, with palpable glee. The gasps when Catherine Keener first stirred her tea! The collective cackling every time Lil Rel Howery popped up on the phone. Daniel Kaluuya’s bloodshot eyes on the big screen … each image popped, and everyone in that room knew were watching the kickoff to a major career.

When the lights went up, Peele was gracious enough to hold court at 2 a.m.. Everyone had questions. The first person to ask one was Patton Oswalt. “You made a great film, man.” Yes, he broke the cardinal run of the film festival Q&A, but also, Peele really did. The room broke out in raucous applause. —Matt Patches

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