A theater, a good theater, has just an attractive enough marquee to draw us in, and its atmosphere is both rich in character and antiquated. Like any palace, there’s a regality that keeps us alert, so when the lights dim and the show overwhelms us, we’re awake for every second of the ride. The experience is intimate and overpowering, a rush of emotions drowning connecting us while a simultaneous veil of darkness isolates us from the rest of the audience.
It’s a distinct experience you can’t get at home (and not just because the screen is larger). Theaters have a carefully blended aroma of spilled soda, popcorn, and candy. The seats are slightly less comfortable, and you dare not lounge too freely in fear that you might catch the plague from whoever sat in that chair before you. And the sound!
For my 2017 yearly wrap-up, I decided to list my top 5 theater experiences. These are the ones that moved me.
5. Dunkirk in 70 mm, at The Music Box Theatre
The Music Box Theatre is one of my favorite haunts. It’s been around since 1929, and it’s one of the premiere Chicago movie theaters for indie, cult, and foreign films.
If there was one movie in 2017 that mortified me more than any other, it was Dunkirk. I saw it on my 30th birthday, knowing full well that I was subjecting myself to a serious dramatization. What I didn’t know was how overpowering and terrifying the sound was going to be. I’ve never winced in a theater as many times as I did during Dunkirk, never felt a stronger urge to dig my nails into the armrests. Director Christopher Nolan set out to create a truly haunting experience, and Dunkirk is one of the few movies I’ve seen where, when I left the theater, my hands were still jittery.
4. Darkman, at The Patio Theater
The Patio Theater is a movie house in Portage Park that I’ve only been to a handful of times. It was first opened in 1927, and when you step foot inside, you can tell. That’s what makes it fun to visit.
I’ve been obsessed with Darkman since I was about 10 years old. It’s one of those campy, stylistic cult films that beats to its own low-budget drum. It’s goofy, charming, and truly one of a kind. Director Sam Raimi would later go on to develop the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies for the big screen, bringing a perfected cinematic style you can see the early formations of in Darkman.
Seeing Darkman at a movie theater was an experience I never expected to have. I considered Darkman as one of those cult films few people knew about — a secret handshake among geeks. Never could I have fathomed that I would find myself in one of Chicago’s oldest theaters, nearly 20 years after my first viewing, watching it on the big screen. Even though I knew all the beats and memorized all of the lines, I felt like a little kid seeing it for the first time. Darkman was (and still is) a trek to the fountain of youth, an injection of whimsy that I sorely needed this year.
3. Loving Vincent, The Glen Art Theatre
Before this year, I had never been to the Glen Art Theatre. It’s a fun spot in the heart of downtown Glen Ellyn that I will definitely be visiting again.
I saw Loving Vincent with my wife, Deanna, and it was one of the most beautiful theater moments I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing. Each frame of the film is hand-painted to mimic Vincent Van Gogh’s art, and while the story is weak, the visuals are majestic. It’s one of those films that makes history just because it exists. Loving Vincent, in its passion and love for Vincent Van Gogh, created a cinematic experience that I will most likely never see again in my lifetime. What made this viewing even more special was how much love Deanna has for Van Gogh.
Watching her eyes, as she took in the swirl of colors before her, is a highlight from 2017 that I’ll never forget.
2. Mothra vs. Godzilla, at The Patio Theater
Godzilla is an obsession of mine. It’s an obsession that goes back to when I was a small child, watching Mothra vs. Godzilla for the very first time on a recorded VHS tape my dad made from a TNT Monstervision Godzilla marathon.
It sounds silly, but when I caught a rare showing of this at The Patio Theater, I felt a few tears rolling down my cheek midway through the film. When Godzilla first appeared, rising from the sandy earth, I was 6 years-old again. I was in my parents’ old house, sitting on the floor with my legs crossed. Amazed. Full of imagination. My mind open to limitless wonder.
As that iconic Godzilla theme thundered throughout the theater, I reached my hand out to an empty chair. My wife couldn’t make it for this viewing, but I grabbed for her hand anyway.
1. American Buffalo, The Riverfront Playhouse
The Riverfront Playhouse is one of Aurora’s hidden gems. Dating back to 1927, it’s a small theatre with a rich history. Deanna found this theatre on a whim, and we definitely plan on going back.
I had never seen American Buffalo before, but at the behest of Deanna, we attended a staging a couple of months back. The play is gripping in a way David Mamet plays tend to be, and this particular production was an experience I still think about. It’s because of the walls in The Riverfront Playhouse. There’s a story buried in the eccentric and unique artifacts littering the theater on all sides. The story is about normal, everyday people. People with full-time jobs, families, bills to pay, and every other errand or chore life demands. In spite of everything, these people have kept this tiny theater, tucked away in an alley off one of the main roads in Downtown Aurora, alive.
That’s a beautiful thing, and it’s inspired me endlessly as of late.