Berkeley's Cinemas: The Perfect Place to Uncover Spectacle, Depth and Diversity

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Sorry folks, but when it comes to watching movies, LA and New York are the places to be. They are home to the premieres and all that Hollywood glitz and glam. But if the mainstream bores you, there's no need for worry. Up-and-coming cinema havens like Chicago and San Francisco get all the same independent and foreign movies (although sometimes a few weeks later) and even boast their own world-class film festivals.

What many don't know, however, is that when it comes to smaller films, particularly foreign and gay films, San Francisco is often even more prestigious than the traditional movie capitals. With its unrivaled multi-cultural demographic and college-educated tastes, the Bay Area attracts the best of the world film scene. In fact, just this winter, legendary Iranian director Mohsen Makhamlbaf's "Kandahar" opened here weeks before Los Angeles had a peek at it.

And fortunately for Berkeley, the enthusiasm for film in San Francisco has spilled over to our screens on Shattuck Ave., Wheeler Auditorium, and most importantly, Berkeley's own Pacific Film Archive (PFA).

The PFA boasts not only the most comfortable theater in the city (its ridiculously spacious legroom is divine), but screenings of the best international, classic, cult, family, and student films. Recently, its retrospectives have featured guest appearances by acclaimed directors like Budd Boetticher and Edward Yang, as highlighted in its bi-monthly film calendar distributed around campus. Also noteworthy are 35mm prints screened for UC Berkeley's film courses, but are also open to the public, as well as screenings for the San Francisco International Film Festival in late spring, and special sneak peeks like this month's presentation of Abbas Kiarostami's yet unreleased "ABC Africa."

It's important to note that the PFA isn't actually a movie theater in the traditional sense (it doesn't feed upon the pictures churned out by the studios, and you won't find trailers for upcoming films), but an extension of the Berkeley Art Museum, which is dedicated to the appreciation and education of film history and film art. Therefore, it's where you find the truly daring (who else would even consider playing Bela Tarr's 7-hour epic "Santago") and the avant-garde as in the PFA's Alternative Visions series and video selections. For the next two months, the PFA has unearthed such treasures as Buster Keaton's "The General," a tribute to forgotten Swedish director Mauritz Stiller, a deeper look into Japanese cult cinema with an introduction by critic Patrick Macias, and an extraordinary 20-film Eric Rohmer retrospective.

Whereas the films at the PFA are intellectual and somewhat obscure, the selections at the Fine Arts Cinema and other Shattuck Ave. theaters offer a little something for everyone. In all-too-Berkeley fashion, there is only one theater of mainstream films in the city, the United Artists theater, offering the latest blockbusters and studio pictures. Scattered around the Shattuck area are various Landmark theaters, where former suburban kids become immersed in the small independent and foreign fare they'd always heard of, but never lived in a city big enough to play them. Starting last semester, Landmark's Act I/Act II theater has held midnight screenings of cult hits like "Evil Dead 2" and "The Big Lebowski" which have drawn long enough lines that they are continuing the series this year. Look out for "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (Feb. 2), "Raising Arizona" (Feb. 16), and "Ghostbusters" (Mar. 16) among many others.

The Fine Arts Cinema, once an adult film theater, now houses nightly double features of mainstream films (like "Election"), documentaries (the award-winning "Endurance"), short films (the bizzare "Bambi Meets Godzilla"), classics (Hitchcock's "The Birds"), and whatever else they dare piece together for their exciting, thought-provoking programs. It's Berkeley's most underrated film resource, and after last-year's unfortunate closing of the beloved UC Theatre, fills a mammoth void for the city's movie lovers.

Finally, there's ASUC Superb, which puts on screenings at Wheeler Auditorium. Dreaded classroom by day, packed movie theater by night, Wheeler houses the most accessible and affordable films for Berkeley students, including occasional free sneak previews. Look out for Superb's calendars, which are always highlighted by double features of classic movies (students last semester got a rare chance to see "Taxi Driver" and "Goodfellas" on the same night). These series exist to offer students, especially those without cars, to catch a movie they might have missed or just to get out of the house on a Friday night.

Whether you watch movies to catch the latest "big thing," to impress your date, or even to learn something, Berkeley's got it. The countless screens and diverse selection reflect the eclectic demography of the city and the student body. If movies project the experience of living, then there's no place like this to develop your love of life.


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