Streaming: the best films set in cinemas

As British cinemas prepare to reopen, delve into the rich history of films that put movie theatres in the spotlight

At long last, cinemas are reopening on Monday, ending a long winter for those of us who, with due respect to the streaming platforms that fuel this very column, don’t only wish to watch films from the comfort of our living rooms. No amount of technological advancement in home cinema systems can compensate for the communal thrill of big-screen immersion. But for anyone still wary of setting foot back in their local picture house, I thought I’d devote this week’s column to the often grandly atmospheric films set in and around cinemas that you can nonetheless stream from a cautious distance.

Some of the first titles I thought of turned out to be, perhaps with appropriate resistance to modernity, unavailable to stream. You’ll have to order its recent Blu-ray restoration to enjoy Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), Tsai Ming-liang’s ravishing, dreamlike ode to the joys of old-school filmgoing, while A Useful Life (2010), Uruguayan director Federico Veiroj’s lovely, wistful docufiction chronicling the closure of a Montevideo cinematheque, can be found on DVD only. They’re worth the extra effort.

Cinema Paradiso.
‘Sincere movie-love’: Cinema Paradiso. Photograph: Films Ariane/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

But Cinema Paradiso, the medium’s most obvious valentine to its own temples, is readily available to stream on Amazon Prime – and as cynical as many critics have become about Giuseppe Tornatore’s beloved 1988 saga of an ageing projectionist and the budding cinephile he mentors, I still find myself succumbing to its rosy sentimentality and sincere movie-love.

It’s certainly a more bright-eyed study of formative childhood cinema-going than Victor Erice’s exquisitely haunted The Spirit of the Beehive (1973; on iTunes), in which a travelling cinema screening of Frankenstein in a remote village in 1940s Spain drastically shapes a young girl’s perception of the real world; cinema-induced trauma unfurls as an elegant metaphor for other postwar wounds. Director Joe Dante, meanwhile, took a sweeter, jokier approach in Matinee (1993; on Google Play), in which a Z-grade horror film director (John Goodman) chooses a shabby Key West cinema to host the premiere of his absurd new mutant-ant adventure in 1962 – chaotically amping up local anxieties over the looming Cuban missile crisis.

John Goodman in Matinee.
John Goodman in Matinee. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy

No surprise that the horror genre, which interacts with its audience more directly than most, has often used the cinema itself as a site of terror. Lamberto Bava and Dario Argento’s Demons (on Shudder) was critically mauled on its release in 1986 but has inevitably aged into a cult item. Its lurid tale of a Berlin horror film audience transformed into demonic monsters as a grisly B-movie plays before them holds up as a cheerfully nasty hoot, and gets bonus points for its evocative use of Berlin’s former Metropol cinema as a backdrop to the carnage.

The screen comes alive with gentler consequences in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985; on Amazon), with a wonderful Mia Farrow as a neglected housewife who gets more escapism than she bargained for when her matinee idol breaks the fourth wall and pulls her into the adventure. Dreams and film fantasy also blur brilliantly in Buster Keaton’s 1924 silent masterpiece Sherlock Jr (on the BFI Player), in which he stars as a lowly projectionist whose romantic yearnings get tangled up in the film he’s playing when he falls asleep on the job. Peter Sellers, meanwhile, is on oddball projectionist duty in the delightful 1957 British comedy The Smallest Show on Earth (on Amazon), which sees an inexperienced couple inherit a fleapit cinema with shambolic consequences.

Lastly, Peter Bogdanovich knew better than most film-makers about the cinema’s own cinematic value. A San Fernando drive-in served as the eerie climactic venue for a mass shooter’s final stand in the chilling, ahead-of-its-time thriller Targets

(1968; on YouTube), while the title gives away the resonance in his classic The Last Picture Show (1971), as a mournful final showing of Red River in a shuttering Texas cinema completes the film’s elegy to a passing way of smalltown life. May next week’s picture shows feel rather more hopeful.

Also new on streaming and DVD

Robyn Nevin in Relic.
Robyn Nevin in Relic. Photograph: Allstar/Carver Films

Relic
(Shudder)
One of last year’s best horror films – make that best films, full stop – is now available to stream on the ever-interesting Shudder platform. Starring Emily Mortimer, Bella Heathcote and a superb Robyn Nevin as three generations of women reunited in the mouldering family home, it’s perhaps the most inventive (and certainly the most unnerving) of several recent films grappling with the trauma of dementia.

Oxygen
(Netflix)
A young woman wakes up in a futuristic cryogenic sleep chamber with no memory of who she is and how she got there, and a limited amount of time to escape before oxygen runs out. This return to French-language film-making from B-movie auteur Alexandre Aja is a hi-tech reworking of the more bare-bones premise of Buried: contrived but effectively claustrophobic, and propelled by Mélanie Laurent’s committed performance.

Fat City
(Powerhouse Films)
Given a beautiful 4K restoration for Blu-ray, John Huston’s shadowy, lowdown boxing drama was underrated for decades, but now stands as one of the great American films of the 1970s. Vividly set amid the dive bars and dosshouses of Stockton, California, this study of a faded champion (Stacy Keach) attempting a comeback as his teenage protege (Jeff Bridges) rises is a seamy, heartbroken toast to the losers.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
(Eureka)
First time on Blu-ray, too, for one of cinema’s best ever stabs at John le Carré, starring an ideally cast Richard Burton as a British agent masquerading as a defector in East Germany. Fifty-six years on from its release, it remains tense and terse and stylish, directed by Martin Ritt with a real sense of political conscience and consequence.

Contributor

Guy Lodge

The GuardianTramp

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