12-years-a-slave-TIFF-review

The best award set of the season is usually the Independent Spirit Awards — that’s the ceremony where filmmakers cut loose, and it’s the set of awards that is most likely to highlight actual achievement, rather than doling out statues to whoever campaigned the hardest for their Oscar.

Today the nominations of for the 2014 Independent Spirit Awards were announced, and they spread recognition out to a wide array of films. 12 Years a Slave scored the most nominations, but this year’s crop of films is diverse and excellent; if you spent the rest of 2013 catching up with everything you’ve yet to see on this list, it would be a great end-of-year movie run. Read More »

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Every once in a while a movie comes along that can be used as a yardstick to measure just how different people want their movies to be. Computer Chess is that movie for 2013. This period-set story of a weekend competition for chess programmers is a pitch-perfect recreation of early ’80s geek culture — when the geeks were truly awkward outcasts — and a very unusual exploration of the intersection between humanity and technology.

This is an unusual film, but also one that is constructed with incredible care, and a killer eye for detail. While the plot edges towards sci-fi, there’s a degree to which this is a film that you just have to feel your way through. It isn’t very concerned with laying out answers or final conclusions about some of the ideas it proposes. But it captures a moment in history in a way that is totally unique. Check out the theatrical trailer below. Read More »

I saw three films at Sundance this year that I would characterize as incredibly specific, because they dedicate themselves so thoroughly to a premise and aesthetic that they exist as their own one-film subgenres. All three were so distinct that there’s really nothing else like them. One was the “shot in Disneyland” breakdown Escape From Tomorrow (coverage here); another was Charlie Victor Romeo (review), sourced from flight recorder transcripts of cockpit conversations in flights that ended in disaster. And the last was Computer Chess, from writer/director Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha and Beeswax)

Shot on Sony AVC-3260 video cameras from 1969, the film is grainy and black and white, and has some strange glitches and artifacts that occasionally seem to have more deliberate life than you’d expect. Ostensibly documenting a small convention of software developers who pit their chess-playing algorithms against one another, the film really looks into a strange crossroads where socially cloistered personalities seek to develop early artificial intelligence. How can people who know so little about life seek to create intelligence from scratch?

I still don’t know if I like Computer Chess, exactly, because I don’t think it fully follows up on some very promising ideas. But I found it to be memorable, and I greatly respect the film. It takes a certain sort of drive and vision to craft a film with a personality as unique as this one. Check out a bit of footage below.

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