Watching films at home has its own charm. It’s a comfortable experience, and one you have complete control over. But there’s nothing quite like seeing a film on the big screen, in a room full of other people, to really make it feel special. Apropos of little more than our undying love of cinema, we’ve put together the stories of the most memorable screenings some of our writers have ever attended. If you don’t immediately want to go to your nearest cinema after reading this, then we’ve failed.
Patrick Taylor – Pitch Perfect Aca-Along
Amongst the dying embers of the blazing hot summer of 2013, the Prince Charles Cinema by Leicester Square had a command for me and my friends: “Sod the sunshine. Come sit in the dark.” So off we went to watch a screening of Pitch Perfect. But this wasn’t any old screening, oh no. This was an ‘aca-along’, inspired by the a capella stylings of the film.
Having settled in our seats reasonably near the front of the auditorium, our host for the evening (one of the fine members of staff at the Prince Charles), took to the stage and announced, in true Pitch Perfect fashion, that they were going to host an aca-off between random members of the audience. Egged on by their friends, a few brave souls ventured to the front and took it in turns to make music with their mouths. All participants received a rapturous round of applause for taking part and then it was time for the film to begin.
Fans of the 2012 surprise hit will be familiar with the film’s mocking yet celebratory take on collegiate a capella groups. It’s a fantastically fun and charming film at the best of times, but when you add a passionate audience, large sections of which know every song inside out, the experience is elevated to another aca-level (sorry).
With the film approaching its final stages, and the Barden Bellas – led by Anna Kendrick – about to take centre stage in their make-or-break performance at the A Capella National Championships, even those skeptics who had perhaps been dragged along by their friends couldn’t resist a smile. As the Bellas’ performance reached its Breakfast Club-inspired conclusion, the music was turned up inside the auditorium, a disco ball was lowered and mountains of confetti were sprayed into the air from hidden cannons, prompting everyone inside to jump up from their seats and party like it was 1999.
All too soon, the lights came up and it was time to leave. The audience spilled out into a warm London evening, a more joyous and fun night at the pictures they could not hope to have had.
Joseph Brennan – Ozu, Alcohol and Dad
Last year, the wonderful Prince Charles Cinema (Ed – thanks for the cheque) in London had a retrospective of Yasujiro Ozu, one of my favourite directors. Despite the distance, I travelled from Sheffield on my one day off work so I could catch the 1953 classic Tokyo Story. The only problem was this meant I didn’t have much time to spend with my family. Now, my dad isn’t one for leisurely stories about the nuances of familial relationships, but he asked if he could go with me.
Before the film I thought I’d take him to a nearby Korean barbecue place. He’d never had it before so I thought it was a nice thing to for him to try. Something else he’d never tried before was sake…
An hour later we stumbled out of the restaurant and wandered into the film slightly drunk. Seeing one of my all-time favourite films on the big screen was magical enough, but unusually Ozu’s muted style was even better when I was slightly inebriated. Perhaps it’s because Ozu famously collaborated with screenwriter Kogo Noda by staying in Noda’s villa and reportedly averaging 100 bottles of sake per script.
The best moment came during the scene where Chishu Ryu’s ageing patriarch gets slaughtered on sake with some old friends. Me and my Dad turned to each other in that moment and gave a look that said: “wheeeeeeeeey, that’s what we just had.” It’s kinda silly and juvenile, but it was a moment when I was able to share my love of Japanese cinema with my dad. Ozu still isn’t his thing, but at least the sake meant he had a good time.
Naomi Soanes – A Nightmare on Elm Street Nightmare Screening
The year was 2012. All Hallow’s Eve. At the time I was working in a rundown cinema in Gloucester. It was musty, decaying, and everyone was too nervous to go into Screen 5 alone. We’d always tell new starters about the ghost that haunted projection, making the lights flicker and the sound cut out… (in reality it was the faulty electrics).
I was working until close that night, a vast disappointment as it meant that me and my coworkers were unable to go out on the town and celebrate the occasion in style. But, in his infinite wisdom, my manager put forward the offer of screening a film after the last customers had left and we had locked up for the evening. We deliberated for hours, and, owing to the fact that it was Halloween, we finally settled on the 1984 classic, A Nightmare on Elm Street.
The clock chimed midnight. We locked the doors, turned off the foyer lights, and settled into Screen 5 to view one of the most frightening films ever made.
My instincts were correct – this had been a mistake. My senses had never been more alert – when you’re that alone in a screen, with no popcorn munching or phone lights to distract you, you have nothing to pull attention away from the horrors onscreen. And Elm Street is one of those horror films that stays with you. It’s a film that plays on your vulnerabilities for its scares, attacking you in your sleep when you have no capability to fight back, and no-one around to save the day. Sitting alone in a cinema screen, you feel nothing if not vulnerable, and completely isolated.
I left that screen fearing the iconic Krueger was hiding around every corner. Not only was it the longest drive home of my life, but by the end of it I was unable to get out of the car for fear that Freddie would come lumbering out of the darkness. But is this not why we put ourselves through horror films? To scare ourselves, to remind ourselves of what terrifies us? And that’s why this was the worst, but also the most exhilarating, cinema experience of my life. And yes, I do still have nightmares about it.
Rachel Brook – Frances Ha at EYE, Amsterdam
There are many distinct cinema feelings that contribute to my love of the whole experience. Cathartic solo trips where experiencing the emotions of another makes me see my own more clearly; being pulled headlong into another world and absolutely loving it, but still wondering if the person next to me is feeling the same; and the euphoria of animated post-film discussion which can enrich – and sometimes alter – my responses. I experienced all of this when I first watched Greta Gerwig in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha in July 2013.
On holiday in Amsterdam my boyfriend agreed – on his birthday no less – to a trip to the EYE Filmmuseum, a waterside cinema and film museum supported by the EU’s Europa Cinemas programme. There was nothing extraordinary about the screening itself (aside from Dutch subtitles), but the whole experience of visiting the EYE elevated it. It was the kind of sunny day that some might consider wasted in the cinema, and we travelled on a free boat to the distinctive building.
Frances’ plight chimed strongly with my anxieties about ‘adult’ life – it was like Alan Bennett’s description of reading from The History Boys: “the best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else … and it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.” Setting and sentiment combined to make me fall in love with Frances Ha. The frisson of seeing it slightly before the UK release may have also helped. A subsequent watch back home in Oxford was comparatively disappointing, but in the (sadly) under-populated EYE screening room I loved every moment.
Bertie Archer – In a Galaxy Far, Far Away…
It always comes back to Star Wars, and Star Wars always comes back to fathers. My personal Star Wars saga (Part I) took place between the ages of eight and 16, when my father took me to see the original trilogy ‘Special’ editions when they were re-released in the ‘90s, then to each of the prequels. Who knew that this universe was just getting started and that this series, which had a profound role in my filmic upbringing, would provide my two, tied for first place, greatest screenings?
A shorter time ago in an abandoned warehouse near, nearby… Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, as presented by Secret Cinema. Re-enacting the events of A New Hope from an imagined perspective which led you and your fellow rebels through Mos Eisley and the Death Star, it was such a thrill for my father and me to see Star Wars come to life. Playing cards with Lando Calrissian, trading droid parts with Jawas, avoiding Darth Vader as you attempt to sabotage his plans – this was a world recreated in loving detail. The imaginative interactivity continued throughout the film screening too, with Stormtroopers marching down the aisles as they stormed the Hoth base for example, culminating in the fateful lightsaber duel between father and son (that’s surely not still a spoiler?) happening for real on a gangway above the audience.
Having seen The Force Awakens at the BFI IMAX – twice, and yes one of those was with my father – I thought my next Star Wars story would come from Rogue One, but then May the Fourth 2016 happened. As a Medicinema volunteer I get to see the power of cinema first-hand each time I take a patient from Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospitals to see a new release film. There is something special about every screening, but this one was particularly so as Star Wars royalty came to visit. As patients were escorted between their wards and the cinema, some were professing their deep fandom and their joy at seeing Star Wars on Star Wars Day, despite being in hospital. Imagine their reaction when we open the doors and they find Luke Skywalker, BB-8, R2-D2 and C-3PO there to greet them. Thanks to Disney and Force For Change that’s exactly what happened. Patients were able to speak with Mark Hamill himself, interact with the droids, and even learn a few lightsaber moves before watching The Force Awakens with an introduction in which Luke Skywalker spoke many, many more words than he does in the film.
Breathtaking, memorable, and a powerful reminder of the good that cinema can do; these were definitely the screenings I was looking for.
Tom Bond – A Trip to Sundance London and The Trip to Italy
The O2 Cineworld isn’t the most glamorous of venues. It feels a little like a strange portal in the middle of a deserted shopping centre, but nevertheless it was the venue for the first film festival I attended in 2013. Sundance London brought some great films across the pond – Fruitvale Station, Frank, Obvious Child – and for a few days me and my fellow critics watched them in the low-key back corridors of the multiplex. The films were good, but the mood was subdued. You know the drill: critics, jaded, etc. That all changed when I ventured into a public screening for one of my most anticipated films, The Trip to Italy.
This laidback comedy from director Michael Winterbottom and stars Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan was playing in extended form on TV at the time, so hype was high amongst the audience. That much was clear when I walked through the foyer to enter the screen. Instead of the half-full theatres kept afloat by a trickle of critics returning to continue their marathon sessions of four films a day, this screening had spawned a monstrous queue, snaking its way across the foyer and ruining the evening of everyone else in the cinema. The half-hour wait to finally get in didn’t really bother anybody. Hey, if this many people are queuing it must be good!
When I finally got into the colossal Sky Super Screen the scale of it all dwarfed me. The theatre was nearly full by this point, with close to a thousand people bringing an excited buzz to the air. As the room fell dark and the light from the screen flickered across the hundreds of faces before me, I knew I was watching cinema as it was meant to be watched.
Every punchline drew a chuckle, every good impression a laugh, and every bad impression a roar. Soon the laughter was ricocheting around the room, every smile an echo of someone else sitting hundreds of feet away but connected for a moment by what they were seeing on the screen. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed more watching a film. I’ve certainly never been in a room where so many people were carried away at the same time into that giddy state of communal delirium. It was simply a joy. I gave the film 5 stars.
The screening was followed by a Q&A with Brydon and Coogan, who despite appearing like toy soldiers against the panoramic screen, commanded the room with their wit. I got to ask them a question – “a good question” apparently, something about playing themselves – and walked off into the night with a few hundred other people, all of whom had just had the time of their lives.