For Seattle cinema lovers, 2011 was a good news/bad news year. For the bad, there was the May closure of the Columbia City Cinema and the February conversion of the Neptune into a music and events hall. The empty Uptown reminded us of another neighborhood theater with history gone dark. And the rush to digital projection in the minimally manned multiplexes left too many screens getting dimmer because of 2-D digital prints run through 3-D splitters (no, it's not your eyes going bad) and more digital prints replacing 35mm screenings of classic films. But let's not forget the good. Here are the 10 best reasons for movie-loving Seattleites to celebrate this year.
1) SIFF saves the Uptown! And in the same year the Seattle International Film Festival left its McCaw Hall time-share for its own year-round theater/permanent headquarters at Seattle Center. The Uptown deal came together more quickly (over the past year), and its October reopening gave SIFF four screens with both film and digital capabilities. Two blocks apart, the two venues will expand local access to the kinds of foreign, art-house, and independent films that other cities can experience only on Netflix and VOD.
2) The Cinerama 70mm Festival. Paul Allen just gave his pet movie palace a costly new renovation, and brought in independent management (Greg Wood of Portland's Roseway Theater) to replace national operator AMC. So while it can and does show big blockbusters and digital 3-D, the Cinerama celebrated its makeover in September with 16 days of 70mm and Cinerama prints of classic films (the original high-def). Change is inevitable, but every movie lover deserves to see the texture and color of actual film.
3) Scarecrow—the greatest video store in America—remains alive. Never mind streaming—here's where you can still rent DVDs, Blu-rays, VHS tapes, and even laser discs, from new releases to out-of-print rarities to imports. And while dead Blockbusters leave gaping holes in regional strip malls, let's also give a shout-out to neighborhood stalwarts like Video Isle (in Queen Anne and Fremont), Rain City (in Ballard and Sunset Hill), and Capitol Hill's On 15th Video and Broadway Video. Some still like to browse the racks, talk to fellow customers and film-loving clerks, and make video-renting a social experience.
4) Landmark stays put. After placing the national Landmark Theatres chain on the market in early 2011, Dallas tech billionaire Mark Cuban changed his mind. OK, he didn't actually get any serious offers, but it meant that seven theaters and 23 screens (from the Egyptian to the Varsity to the Guild 45th) are still intact and showing movies. And while the Neptune is no longer among them, Seattle Theatre Group still presents periodic special screenings there.
5) Lynn Shelton. After the national acclaim for 2009's Humpday, the local director's latest, Your Sister's Sister, was picked up by IFC at its Toronto premiere this fall. Starring Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt, the San Juan Islands–set drama is a reminder that local talent can make movies (and a career) without going Hollywood. The film has its American premiere at Sundance in January; chances are it'll also play SIFF before an early summer release.
6) Northwest Film Forum adds beer and wine. It's not the only venue to do so, of course. Central Cinema, Cinebarre, and Big Picture serve during the show, however: dinner, drinks, and a movie with the lights at half mast, in accordance with state liquor laws. NWFF sells drinks as an invitation: Stick around the lobby and lubricate yourself from the rotating menu of local brews and wines for a discussion before or after the film. Thanks, don't mind if I do.
7) Mini-festivals! Has Seattle ever had a screening landscape so rich in specialty film festivals? In addition to the SIFF juggernaut, we have STIFF, NFFTY, Jewish, Polish, Spanish, Italian, Lesbian and Gay, Transgender, Children's, Local Sightings, 1 Reel (at Bumbershoot), and Maelstrom. And Seattle supports not one but two annual film-noir series: SAM's long-running fall retrospective (the oldest in the country) and February's week-long Noir City series at SIFF.
8) Visiting filmmakers. NWFF continues to bring celebrated directors to town, not just for an evening but for days on end, to introduce screenings of their work, conduct classes, and talk with audiences for experiences that go beyond the usual Q&A. This year alone brought Mexican filmmaker Nicolás Pereda, Quebecois director Denis Côté, and Los Angeles documentarian Thom Andersen.
9) It's a Wonderful Life at the Grand Illusion. Sure, it's on TV every December, but this is a tradition the GI has continued for 41 consecutive years. On film. And let's not forget that the volunteer-run nonprofit continues to show classic and cult movies throughout the year, most of them screened on real 35mm and 16mm prints. (See the Wire.)
10) Neighborhood theaters. The Majestic Bay in Ballard. The Admiral in West Seattle. The bargain shows at the Crest in Shoreline. Dinner and a movie at the Central Cinema in the CD and the Cinebarre in Mountlake Terrace. Or, for a snack and drinks, the Big Picture in Belltown or Big Picture Redmond. And don't forget The Tin Theater in Burien or the Vashon Theatre or Bainbridge Island's Lynwood Theatre. They don't do 3-D or IMAX, but who cares? Sometimes you just want to get out of the house (and away from the TV) and walk to your local cinema.