The BFI at Southbank is more than just a cinema – it’s an archive and repository for film information, fronted by a reasonable restaurant and containing a second bar-cum-cafe deeper into the complex. I’ve spent many happy hours browsing their extensive collection of materials and their targeted film bookstore. The free video repository is particularly cool – I’ve watched some interviews and documentaries otherwise totally unavailable, such as the raw footage for Michael Parkinson’s 1969 interview with Alfred Hitchcock.
Where the BFI is unbeatable is its commitment to screening a variety of seldom-seen and semi-forgotten works. Today for example, they’re screening Just William, a rare British comedy so obscure its IMDb page is basically a placeholder. Whether the film’s any good or not I couldn’t say, but I can now say that Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious works a lot better for me on the big screen than the little, and that Four Rooms is genuinely cinematic in a way I hadn’t appreciated from VHS. In essence, the BFI is like a perpetual film festival attached to a library and a cocktail bar.
It’s just about the best place on earth, except… most of the screens are substantially less classy than the ultra-modern glazed exterior. They’re generally weirdly proportioned, with semi-comfortable seating and neither excellent sound nor excellent screens. Don’t get me wrong – they’re as good or better than most generic multiplex cinemas, it’s just that it’s a disappointment after the place itself. So, the BFI must take second place – the first loser – in my list of cinemas I like.