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Movie Houses of Worship: NYC’s IFC Center

By  · Published on September 9th, 2012

Movie Houses of Worship: NYC’s IFC Center

Moviegoing is like attending church for many of us, and so I’d like to introduce a new regular feature titled “Movie Houses of Worship,” which spotlights our favorite temples of cinema around the world. I’m kicking things off with a theater I frequented often when I was still living in New York City. If you’d like to suggest or submit a place you regularly worship at the altar of cinema, please email me at christopher (at) filmschoolrejects (dot) com.

Name: IFC Center

Opened: June 2005 (renovated from the famous Waverly Theater/Twin, which existed from 1937–2001 in an actual former church, built in 1831)

No. of screens: 5 (two of which were added in 2009, built out of a space once housing an attached bar)

Current first run titles: Sleepwalk With Me; Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry; The Ambassador; Beauty is Embarrassing; Detropia; Girl Model; Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution. Jonathan Demme’s I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad and the Beautiful opens Wednesday. Also, the StoryCorps animated film John and Joe, which runs ahead of each film as part of the theater’s dedication to shorts.

Repertory programming: In addition to full re-releases of classics (this week has the restored jazz doc Ornette: Made in America) and regular special events, they have midnight movies – next weekend’s titles are The Thing (1982) and Phantom of the Paradise — and morning screenings of very old films, such as next weekend’s offering of Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail.

Special Events: Home to the multi-seasonal Stranger Than Fiction documentary series, which presents a new or old nonfiction feature weekly with on-site post-screening filmmaker interviews (fall season begins Sept. 27 with SXSW Audience Award winner Brooklyn Castle), as well as the main venue for the DOC NYC Documentary Festival (Nov. 8–15) and the New York leg of the annual, Oscar-qualifying DocuWeeks showcase (every August). There’s also the monthly Queer/Art/Film series (fall season begins Sept. 24 with Jules and Jim).

Why I worship here: Actually, I no longer do, as I just moved from New York City to Atlanta. But it’s the one cinema I miss most, and that says a lot considering all the great film venues in the Big Apple. I’m a documentary junkie, though, and while a bunch of docs open in the city each week, anywhere from specifically dedicated institutions like the Bronx’s Maysles Institute Cinema and Brooklyn’s UnionDocs to the giant multiplexes of Times Square, this house tends to feature the most and the best nonfiction releases on a consistent basis, and that’s not counting the series and festival noted above. Also, it’s the only theater I know of that seriously plays short films, whether it’s the pre-show titles presented as part of their Short Attention Span Cinema or the occasional packaged shorts program (“Stars in Shorts” begins Sept. 24).

Why you should worship here: If you’re not into the docs or shorts, there’s also a good amount of indie and foreign titles that open here, often exclusively. And it’s always really exceptional stuff as opposed to just what might be seen by the owners as commercial draws. Nor is the theater necessarily linked to sister distributor IFC Films (and Sundance Selects). Basically, the IFC Center is programmed like its a perpetual film festival (and there are membership packages for the whole shebang or specific series that will make you feel like you have an elite film fest badge). Every now and then they have big name guests present favorite movies (once I saw Vertigo there, selected and introduced by fan David Lynch). And sometimes they even show blockbusters, such as the 4K digital restoration of Raiders of the Lost Ark coming up.

Recent screening of note: Even more than all the great new releases and regular events I’m missing, I was particularly sorry not to be able to attend last week’s special benefit screening of the doc Big River Man, whose director, John Maringouin, is having trouble paying for life-or-death lung surgery. The way the documentary and IFC Center community organized and rallied behind something like this is a testament to how wonderful the place is. The whole thing indeed reminded me of something a church group might have done.

Devotion to the concessions: As someone whose favorite food is popcorn, I can say theirs isn’t too bad, but nothing phenomenal. I tend to only get a bag when it comes free with Stranger Than Fiction membership. Otherwise, there’s nothing too remarkable, in spite of the place having highlighted its truffle butter topping when it first opened. They do sell some nice merchandise at the concession stand, though, including box sets and Cinemetal t-shirts.

Last word: The IFC brand continues to baffle me, especially given that it stems from a channel no longer devoted to independent film. Also, IFC Films/Sundance Selects keeps growing as innovative distributors with particular attention to non-theatrical video-on-demand outlets (including the increasingly noteworthy Sundance Now online streaming service). Yet the IFC Center keeps seeming to get better and better in terms of its celebration of moviegoing and theatrical exhibition. I wouldn’t mind seeing the name and model expand to other cities. I could definitely use one here in Atlanta, for instance.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.