The Best Arthouse Cinemas in Wisconsin

Inside a cinema
Inside a cinema | © Iqbal Osman / Flickr | © Iqbal Osman / Flickr

While Wisconsin might not be at the forefront of the art film scene, it still has some excellent venues for enjoying cinematic masterpieces from across the globe. Though arthouse cinemas are few and far between in the state, the theaters Wisconsin does have are sure to delight film lovers looking for a unique experience.

1. Oriental Landmark Theatre


The Oriental Landmark Theatre opened in Milwaukee in 1927 as a movie palace. Film-goers have marveled at its ornate East Indian design for over 90 years and it is said to be the only movie palace ever built to specifically incorporate this type of décor. For a time, the theater was used for live performances in addition to movie screenings, and the Violent Femmes are said to have gotten their start here. It now mainly shows a combination of Hollywood blockbusters, foreign, specialty, and cult classic films. On select Saturdays, those in attendance at the 7 p.m. screening will be treated to the Kimball Theatre Pipe Organ opening the show.

2. UW Cinematheque


UW Cinematheque
Courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Madison | Courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Madison

For Madison’s historical and international film fanatics, UW Cinematheque is the premier arthouse cinema in the area. Representing UW-Madison’s student film groups and academic departments, it is the theater’s mission to bring the finest films to the screen that wouldn’t be shown by mainstream cinemas. International historical films are a specialty of the movie theater, which regularly screens archival and rare footage. Admission is free and open to all film fans who appreciate the beauty of rare and classic film.

3. UWM Student Union Cinema


UW-Milwaukee Union Cinema
© Union Cinema | Courtesy of Union Cinema

Opened in 1972, the UWM Student Union Cinema provides the UW-Milwaukee area with an engaging film program focused on first-run international and domestic films, documentaries, experimental cinema, and classics from around the world. This unique film venue was one of the first 23 theaters nationally to be recognized as a Sundance Institute Art House Project theater. Union Cinema makes a conscious effort to showcase as many 35mm and 16mm films as possible, a rare treat in the modern age. Admission is free to UW-Milwaukee students, but the local public is welcome to join screenings for a small fee, apart from select series that are free for everyone.

4. Downer Theatre


Downer Theatre in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
© PunkToad / Flickr | © PunkToad/flickr

Milwaukee’s Downer Theatre opened its doors in 1915 and is the city’s oldest operating movie theater. Located on the upper Eastside, it was one of the most modern residential cinemas when first built. The theater closed briefly for renovations but reopened again in 1990. Today, it is a great place to catch the finest foreign language and independent films.

5. Times Cinema


The Times Cinema began showing films in Milwaukee in 1935. Since then, it has remained a single screen movie theater. While not necessary art-film focused, it specializes in repertory films, reintroducing classics to today’s audience. Unfortunately, it is under threat of being shut down in the near future, so make sure to check out this local cinematic treasure before it’s gone.

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