It’s well known that New York City, with its large number of independent movie theaters and well-funded arts organizations, is a cinephile’s paradise. What fewer film lovers realize is that Chicago (my former home) is itself a shockingly fertile garden of cinematic delights. For movie fanatics who either live in Chicago or travel there often, here’s a guide to Chicago’s must-know independent cinema exhibitors:
The Major Art Houses
The Gene Siskel Film Center, located in the downtown “Loop” and funded by the School of the Art Institute, is Chicago’s premiere art house. The location is convenient (serviced by both the Blue and Red line el’ trains), the space is elegant, the projection is impeccable and the programming is top notch. Their calendar is pretty evenly split between new films (often foreign or obscure domestic releases that otherwise wouldn’t be shown) and classic revivals, with a Thursday night experimental film program called “Conversations at the Edge.” They also host lots of special screenings with impressive guest lecturers and several significant annual film festivals. More info at www.siskelfilmcenter.org.
Facets Multimedia is a multi-faceted Chicago institution that distributes many important foreign films on DVD (notably, the recent work of Hungarian director Bela Tarr), has a wide selection of obscure movies available for rent, hosts weekly film classes in their “videotheque” and screens lots of great stuff in their cinematheque. The programming focuses heavily on oddball indies and documentaries, foreign classics and new films from Asia and Europe. More info at www.facets.org.
The Music Box Theatre is an old North-side movie palace that shows an impressive array of current independent cinema along with excellent weekend programs of matinee classics (think John Ford, Howard Hawks and Douglas Sirk) and midnight movies (think David Lynch, John Carpenter and David Cronenberg). The main auditorium is huge and cavernous (good for ambiance, poor for sound) and old timey Wurlitzer performances precede many of their evening shows. More info at www.musicboxtheatre.com.
Doc & Block: The Student Theaters
At opposite poles of this sprawling Midwestern metropolis (Evanston to the North and Hyde Park to the South), you’ll find two University-sponsored and student-operated theaters that boast incredible, seasonal repertory programs:
Doc Films at the University of Chicago (Hyde Park) is the oldest – and the hands-down greatest – student film organization in the country. Their themed, nightly programs are full of rarely-screened classics, and their season passes are dirt cheap. More info at www.docfilms.uchicago.edu. You should also check out the offerings of U of C’s Film Studies Center, run by the student and faculty of the University’s excellent Cinema Studies program. Each semester, they host an impressive hodgepodge of experimental screenings and special retrospectives, often featuring filmmakers in person. More info www.filmstudiescenter.uchicago.edu.
Block Cinema is located within Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art. Like Doc, Blocks shows movies almost every night, with a strong emphasis on classic revivals (both domestic and foreign). More info at www.blockmuseum.northwestern.edu/block-cinema.
The only downside: for those who live in Chicago proper, getting to either of these polar universities is quite a hike.
On the far Northside, you’ll find two venerable old repertory theaters that crank out classics week after week:
Bank of America Cinema (formerly known as LaSalle Bank Cinema) screens Hollywood classics every Saturday night to a large audience of gray-haired regulars plus a sprinkling of younger movie geeks. More info at www.cine-file.info/venues/lasalle.html.
The Portage Theater specializes in silent films (often with live accompaniment), monster movie classics and, strangely enough, low budget, contemporary horror. More info at www.portagetheater.org.
Chicago Filmmakers is a long-running North-side screening space, with a strong emphasis on presenting work by local artists. They also distribute rare film prints, teach filmmaking classes and co-host the city’s annual Gay & Lesbian Film Festival (“Reeling”) and the Experimental Film and Video Festival (“Onion City”). More info at www.chicagofilmmakers.org.
The Nightingale is a relatively new venue that is quickly becoming a key player in Chicago alternative film scene. The Wicker Park loft, which is also home to the venue’s organizers, is the go-to screening space for many traveling film programs and community-oriented movie projects. More info at www.nightingaletheatre.org.
Cinema Borealis is a another Wicker Park loft equipped for projection – in this case, with 16mm, 35mm and, it is rumored, even 70mm (!) projectors installed by famed A-V wizard, James Bond (the architect of many a movie house and screening facility in the US). They don’t have a website or publish a calendar, but their events are usually listed on Cine-File (www.cine-file.info – more on that below).
Additional community centers that show movies:Beverly Arts Center in Morgan Park.Mess Hall artists collective in Rogers Park and
Art galleries with film programs: Alogon Gallery, Heaven Gallery and Roots & Culture Gallery.
Museums with film programs: Chicago History Museum, DuSable Museum of African American History and the Museum of Contemporary Art.
The Chicago Underground Film Festival, which hosts an eponymous annual event and presents a variety of different shows throughout the year, is one of Chicago’s premiere advocates of off-beat and low budget filmmaking. More info at www.cuff.org.
White Light Cinema is an ongoing series of often rare experimental classics (think Stan Brakhage and Andy Warhol), run by former Chicago Filmmakers programmer (and current Cine-File editor) Patrick Friel. More info at www.whitelightcinema.com.
Chicago Cinema Forum (a group I co-founded when I was living in Chicago) is a series that focuses on special presentations of rare art house films, programmed by Chicago film professor Gabe Klinger. More info at www.chicagocinemaforum.org.
These organizations often present shows at small, independent venues like the Nightingale and Cinema Borealis (discussed above).
Standing alongside the city’s great swath of multiplexes are the Landmark Century Center Cinema and the AMC-owned Piper’s Alley, which show the majority of the city’s major “indie” releases (French comedies, award season “prestige” pictures, Michael Moore documentaries and such). Another independent venue worth looking into is the Logan Square Auditorum – a second-run theater that shows major releases for 4 bucks a pop after they leave the multiplex. Check out the Chicago Reader for more information: www.chicagoreader.com/movies/index.php.
In my humble opinion, the absolute best way to stay on top of all of Chicago’s nearly overwhelming spread of movie happenings every week is to subscribe to the weekly “Cine-List” published by Cine-File – an online guide to Chicago’s experimental film scene that I founded and edited when I lived there: www.cine-file.info/list.htm.
Ocular Loci is another great alternative cinema guide, in a different format: www.restructures.net/chicago/film.htm.
Chicago’s biggest (semi-)independent newspaper, the Chicago Reader, provides great independent film coverage on their movies page: www.chicagoreader.com/movies/index.php. For decades, the paper was the home to Jonathan Rosenbaum, one of the greatest living film critics (check out some of his writing at www.jonathanrosenbaum.com), and though he has since retired, the Reader archives are filled with his insightful “capsules.”
A final Chicago institution that must be mentioned is Odd Obsession, a Wicker Park movie rental store (though it could more accurately described as a video speakeasy) that’s up there with Kim’s in New York, Scarecrow in Seattle, Le Video in San Francisco and Mondo Video in Los Angeles as one of the surest sources for obscure and hard to find movies. If there’s something you can’t find on Netflix or GreenCine – even something that iMDb lists as out of print or commercially unavailable – ask the resourceful guys behind the counter at Odd Obsession. Check them out at www.oddobsession.com.