Though the Lumière brothers and Thomas Edison are often credited with groundbreaking discoveries that paved the way for modern cinema, history sometimes leaves out a key player: photographer Eadweard Muybridge. Commissioned to find out whether horses lifted all four legs off the ground while galloping, Muybridge invented a device called the zoopraxiscope to display his photographed findings. His first zoopraxiscope screening was held in Palo Alto in 1879, making the city the birthplace of film. To honor Muybridge’s work, as well as the technological innovations bubbling throughout Silicon Valley, the Palo Alto International Film Festival was born in 2011. It focuses not only on new technology, but on breakthroughs in artistic expression, screening a collection of films from around the world. They range from major Hollywood releases, such as 2012’s Looper, to independent works, such as George Lucas’s home videos of himself practicing light-saber moves in his garage. Outside the theater, visitors can mingle at an array of talks, film workshops, and parties.
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From the cabernet-hued curlicues on the carpets to the gilded columns and soaring ceilings, the Alameda Theatre is steeped in history. During the Second World War, soldiers crowded in to watch films in the auditorium, which also has spent stints as a practice area for rock bands and as a skating rink. The theater was recently brought out of dormancy with an extensive renovation project that restored the glow to its art-deco façades and towering neon sign. Gold leaf, some still intact from the building’s construction in 1932, leads eyes up to a screen 50 feet in width.
A packed schedule of first-run films flickers to life on the big screen, with showings in 3-D letting audiences see explosions leap from the flat surface or watch pieces of the Hulk’s hard-to-program VCR fly past. The historic theater also showcases classic films such as The Graduate or The Wild One every week, and hosts a talent show every Friday and Saturday evening.
Established in 1919 and under the same local ownership since 1964, 4-Star Theatre specializes in independent and foreign films while also showing major studio releases. Touted by many sources as the best place to see Asian cinema in California, the quaint art house runs regular Asian film series showcasing reels old, new, and from 2067. Coming features include Echoes of the Rainbow, the winner of a Crystal Bear at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival, which tells the story of a working Hong Kong family whose eldest son becomes sick with leukemia. Legend of The Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen is a raucous martial-arts adventure, elaborating on a role made famous by Bruce Lee in Fists of Fury. You can also see documentaries such as The Future of Food and We Are Skateboarders as well as blockbusters such as the second Wall Street installment and the CGI explosion-filled remake of On Golden Pond.
Hailed as one of America’s “coolest film festivals” by MovieMaker Magazine, the Disposable Film Festival celebrates and showcases the world’s best no-budget filmmaking. The festival culls its selections from short films shot on inexpensive equipment such as cell phones, still cameras, and webcams, giving audience to a new brood of cinematic mavericks unfettered by major studios, movie stars, or caterers who never bring enough bagels. Grab a fellow cineaste and eyeball the work of shoestring Scorceses and Bergmanesque Skypers as the 2011 festival kicks off with the competitive shorts program at the grand, lavish Castro Theater. A panel of experts appraises each film, and one diminutive flick is selected by the masses to receive an Audience Choice Award, giving laypeople a taste of the judgmental fun that movie critics, mothers-in-law, and sanctimonious squirrels enjoy every day. A festival T-shirt and tote bag help opening-night attendees reminisce about the evening's miniature masterpieces, and an online gallery of past competitors provides a glimpse of the sort of artistry audiences can expect. After the show enjoy complimentary appetizers and wine from Four Vines Naked Chardonnay, Mark West Pinot Noir, and Avalon Cabernet Sauvignon at the Lookout.