There is not much time left to take advantage of the space — the two years will pass faster than the pop of a flashbulb — so by all means make it one of your destination cinemas.
4. Landmark Theatres Hillcrest Cinema #1
3965 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest, 619-819-0236
Bonus Features: Quality films, spotless presentation, a knowledgeable staff, and no more Stella Artois beer commercials before each movie.
Number of Seats: 316
Total Number of Screens: 5
3965 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest
Built by Landmark Theatres in 1991, Hillcrest Cinemas stands firm in its commitment to bringing the finest in art, independent, and foreign films to the community. Prior to Reading Cinemas’ arrival in 2008, chances are if it was a quality art film, it played at either Hillcrest, the Ken, the La Jolla Village, or the late, lamented Cove, all Landmark Theatres.
Hillcrest has been forced to change with the times, particularly between January and April, when the smaller art films take a backseat to potentially moneymaking awards winners and contenders. Far be it from me to begrudge their success, as these films, along with compensatory hits such as The Blair Witch Project and Napoleon Dynamite, ensure that the artier product, prone to underperforming, will follow in their wake.
It is almost unfair to include the #1 Hillcrest on this list because it feels more like home than an afternoon at the movies. Not long after I hit town in 2001, it became clear that the majority of the morning press screenings would be held there. A disc jockey at a nighttime promotional show was handing out bumper stickers and one just happened to find a permanent home plastered to the bottom of my favorite seat to help mark the territory. You never know when that morning cup of coffee is going to hit, and on the rare occasions that a mid-movie visit to the restroom is in order, the sticker makes it easier to find my place in the dark.
Two thousand screenings later, the sticker remains in that treasured spot. I invite you to try it out, just not when I am in attendance.
5. Reading Cinemas Grossmont Center #10
5500 Grossmont Center Drive, La Mesa, 619-465-3040
Bonus Features: Side-to-side masking and the largest screen(s) in town!
Number of Seats: 625
Total Number of Screens: 10
5500 Grossmont Center Drive, La Mesa
Size matters! Built as a Pacific Theatre in the early ’90s to replace an existing triplex, the Grossmont Center 10 is home to the largest viewing surfaces in the area. Both theaters #1 and #10 house enormous 60-x-24-foot screens.
As with Reading Cinemas Town Square, an ever-changing touch of homemade craftsmanship in the form of employee art, designed to herald upcoming pictures, can be found situated behind the lobby ticket booth. Sure it’s kitschy, but so is much of what plays on-screen. These minimalist attempts at ballyhoo add an expressive touch that in their own small way hearken back to the Golden Age of moviegoing.
6. Edwards Mira Mesa IMAX
10733 Westview Parkway
Number of Seats: 312
Total Number of Screens: 18
10733 Westview Parkway, Mira Mesa
Built in June 2000, of all the venues up for discussion, Edwards Mira Mesa is the most efficiently run megaplex in the county. After seeing many a movie under their roof, I have the pleasure of reporting that it’s the one venue where I’ve yet to make an un-billed mid-movie cameo in the lobby to grouse about presentation issues.
Is it IMAX or LIEmax? The consensus among the cinematic cognoscenti is that in order for a film to be true IMAX, it must be projected in 70mm on a screen that measures at least 52 feet high and 72 feet across. The digital IMAX house at Edwards Mira Mesa is a reasonable facsimile thereof.
There are currently five IMAX houses serving San Diego County: Edwards Mira Mesa, AMC Mission Valley 20, AMC Palm Promenade 24, AMC Westfield Plaza Bonita, and the domed IMAX at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park. The latter was the first giant screen house to grace our town and is the real deal when it comes to fitting the proper technical specifications. With this tradition of excellence comes the equally customary selection of non-narrative, wide-gauge science and nature documentaries that tend to resemble high-end versions of the National Geographic Channel. And no matter how many times they try to solve the problem, the seams in a domed IMAX screen remain annoyingly visible during brightly lit scenes.
The closest we come to genuine IMAX is the Edwards Spectrum IMAX Theater in Irvine. Of the four local-area IMAX screens I’ve visited (one day, Plaza Bonita), Mira Mesa is the amazing colossal screen du jour. Management was loath to release specific screen dimensions, but a quick eyeballing gives it a slight edge over its counterparts in Mission Valley or Palm Promenade.
7. AMC Mission Valley #17
1640 Camino Del Rio North
Bonus Features: Curved screen and side-to-side masking.
Number of Seats: 323
Total Number of Screens: 20
1640 Camino del Rio North, Mission Valley
AMC’s first stadium-seating theater erected in San Diego, the Mission Valley 20 is one of the chain’s top performers. The place is fairly imposing; no local megaplex has more screens. You might want to think about renting a golf cart to transport you to the back auditoriums.
AMC Mission Valley was my first brush with stadium seating. While vacationing in 1995, the year the theater opened, I stopped by for a showing of the relatively obscure romantic comedy Paperback Romance. It was like stepping onto Noah’s Ark, had the vessel come equipped with high-backed turquoise blue chairs and raked rows. Once seated, you could barely see the tops of other patrons’ heads, and the unobstructed view contributed to a surprisingly pleasurable viewing experience.
It’s a crunch to get in on the weekends, and while some of their smaller cookie-cutter auditoriums are cramped and impersonal, the 40-foot screen and crisp acoustics make Cinema #17 the local jewel in AMC’s crown.
8. The Museum of Photographic Arts Joan and Irwin Jacobs Theater