City life consists of small, sublime instants that when combined offer the most potent kind of romance. It's rarely more compelling than those moments spent in the dark, surrounded by strangers, watching light dance across a 30-foot screen. Occasional intrusions from a siren or car horn merely remind you of the good fortune of being inside, transported into another world. Plus, going to the movies remains one of the cheapest dates around.

Recently, while suffering through one of the less poetic staples of city life -- bumper-to-bumper traffic -- I was shocked to see an impressively endowed stud nonchalantly employ a pool cue to spank the bare ass of a buxom blonde in the behemoth that idled next to me. These playful souls emanated from an 8-inch video screen mounted above the rearview mirror.

Safety implications aside (can that really be legal?!), I have to think we're doing ourselves a disservice by dragging moving images into every corner of life. Sure, porn livens up a commute, and yes, video iPods offer a convenient way to catch up on that quirky Sundance hit, but the more we head in this direction, the more we undermine the act of faith, not to mention the sensual pleasures, of seeing movies on the big screen.

This time of year, you're especially obligated to do so: It's Oscar time, and there are plenty of unique urban theaters in which to catch the contenders. But take note: They're not all created equal.

St. Paul

The state capital must have the lowest screen-to-person ratio of any city in the U.S. The Mounds Theatre is outfitted with reel-to-reel 35-mm projectors, but films are screened only once or twice a year. The Science Museum has Imax in its Omnitheater, but then, you know, you have to learn something. That leaves the Grandview and the Highland. While I'd love to root for them, it's hard to overlook the tacky photo studio portraits in the lobby, and the last time I saw a movie in the Grandview's rather optimistically named "Fine Arts Screening Room" (the screen is the approximate size of my TV), the print looked as though it had been run through a paper shredder. Twice. Sorry, St. Paulites (I'm one, too!), you've got to cross the river. Or drive to the brand-new AMC Rosedale 14, where the screens are bigger than Africa but your dollars go to corporate idiots dumb enough to build an outdoor box office in Minnesota.


It's often said (at least by me) that a city is only as vital as its downtown. This is not good news for Minneapolis, or for the Crown Theatres Block E 15. The Crown continues the tradition of the defunct Skyway 6 (now home to Bar Fly), in that it's downtown and it occasionally hosts violent patrons. Among the many downtown muck-ups, however, the Crown is a diamond in the rough. Granted, there's too much neon, and the pre-film commercials last, like, a year, but there's no better way to spend an afternoon than a $5 twilight show at the Crown. The projection and sound are pristine; the concession stand has hot dogs, and nobody yells when you put your feet up. Giggling at "Borat" with 450 other people, ranging from someone's grandma to someone else's gangsta, I remembered that true democracy lives downtown, in movie theaters.

University of Minnesota students' options are solid, though not stellar -- they can enjoy the serviceable if not remarkable St. Anthony Main, as well as Oak Street Cinema and Bell Auditorium, both of which have struggled lately but have recently begun booking more notable titles.

The more artistically inclined can make their way to Walker Cinema at the Walker Art Center (they play films, not movies, don't ya know) but ugh -- they have a strict no-popcorn policy (in addition to, by all appearances, a no-fun policy).

In Uptown, the six-screen Lagoon plays great titles and rarely experiences presentation problems, but if anyone wants to revolt against the bourgeois regime some call the concession stand, I'm in. If you've never been to the Uptown, go now. Sometimes they forget to turn the house lights down, and I've peed in better bathrooms, but they just don't make 'em like this anymore. It boasts a big screen, a bright bulb, a balcony and just the right amount of mustiness. And damn, they play good movies!

In south Minneapolis, the Parkway Theatre has long teetered on the brink of extinction, but go-it-aloner Bill Irvine finally sold the building, and it's slated for transformation into a multi-use art space. Too bad they won't be reclaiming its 1970s porn-house identity -- the big screen would provide a better venue than an SUV for my billiards-loving friends.

And then there's the Riverview Theater. The only criticism I can muster for this old dame is that she's too nice. The Riverview lacks the exquisite decrepitude of the Uptown or Oak Street, but that matters only to those of us who find decay divine.

It has cheap tickets, prescient booking, no commercials, a gorgeous lobby and spot-on sound, plus the concessions beat all, the crowds are lively and your dollars go to a hard-working small business owner whose devotion shows through every frame. The god of cinema (who in my imagination looks like Orson Welles in "The Muppet Movie") and the god of Minneapolis (more of a Rodney Dangerfield type) must smile when the Riverview's marquee lights up in south Minneapolis night after night.

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Emily Condon previously worked behind the scenes with Oak Street Cinema, the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival and the Sound Unseen Film + Music Festival.