Oxford’s best cinemas: Where to go

In the rush of a term at Oxford, it’s difficult to find time for yourself, to go out and enjoy the myriad of cultural experiences that Oxford has to offer. And in recent times, with the boom of Netflix and streaming, the cinema as we know it is under threat. But in Oxford there are several excellent picture-houses, where you can see everything from blockbusters to European arthouse films and even silent movies.

The best place to see commercial hits is the Odeon, on George Street. Part of a national chain, there are 6 screens, with an absolutely huge auditorium, and they show all the latest Hollywood films on the day of release. There’s another Odeon around the corner on Magdalen Street, with 2 screens. Both cinemas are good, they show all the Hollywood hits, but there is little on offer for viewers of foreign and independent film, unlike the other two cinemas in Oxford.  

A little further north, tucked in the centre of Jericho, is the Phoenix Picturehouse. The Phoenix is the oldest cinema in Oxford to continually operate (although the Ultimate Picture Palace in Cowley is two years older, it has a more eclectic history), and it celebrated its centenary in 2013. With a rich and interesting history as a cinema, including the short-lived ‘Studio X’ screen showing adult films in the 1970s, the Phoenix has two screens and a lovely bar. Although it retains the feel of an independent cinema, it is part of the Picturehouse group, bought by Cineworld in 2012. The showings are varied and invariably excellent, with a balanced mix of arthouse and independent films and Hollywood blockbusters. The cinema also offers reasonably priced student membership, which gets you free tickets and a variety of discounts.

The Ultimate Picture Palace’s façade, restored in the 1990s, stands out in brilliant white and harks back to the golden age of cinema

The only independent cinema in Oxford, the Ultimate Picture Palace, on the junction of Jeune Street and Cowley Road, stands out in the eclectic mix of shops and restaurants on the Cowley Road. The façade, restored in the 1990s, stands out in brilliant white and harks back to the golden age of cinema. The history of the Ultimate Picture Palace is jumbled, opening in 1911 and closing again in 1917 when the owner was called up to fight in World War One. In the years since, the Ultimate Picture Palace has been used as a furniture warehouse until it opened again as the Penultimate Picture Palace in 1976, which became famous for showing banned and controversial films, closing in acrimonious circumstances and being used as a squat and community cinema in 1994. The UPP shows a real mix of films, from silent to arthouse and blockbuster, and holds film festivals. The owners are real cinephiles, even to the extent that popcorn is not sold because of the noise it makes during the film. The one-screen cinema itself is unique; there is a bar at the back of the cinema serving drinks and snacks at very affordable prices, and there are no adverts before the films. The Ultimate Picture Palace feels like a throwback to the early days of cinema; a very welcome return to the days where artistic films were part of the mainstream.

It’s always difficult to find the time in term to go out and enjoy a film. But if you do, there is much choice in Oxford, no matter what your taste in films. The independent arthouse cinemas in Cowley and Jericho are a huge part of the cultural history of the city, and if you get chance, go out and enjoy the magic of the silver screen in one of Oxford’s historic cinemas.