There are many categories that films may appear in at Sundance in addition to the dramatic and documentary film competitions. One of the most interesting this year is the sidebar called NEXT, where the selected films seem to have an edgier and less conventional bent. It’s in this category that three of the films originating in Austin can be found.
One of them is Hannah Fidell’s A Teacher, which I wrote about in my Day 2 coverage. The other two are Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess and Yen Tan’s Pit Stop.
Both films are unorthodox, to say the least. Shot in black-and-white with what appears to be early videocam technology, Computer Chess could be mistaken at first for newsreel footage before it becomes evident that it is a fictional feature. Austin viewers might have a leg up on this, however, as familiar faces such as those of Wiley Wiggins and Bob Sabiston come into view as characters. Boston film critic and frequent SXSW attendee Gerald Peary also plays a central role. The film is set in 1980 at a nondescript hotel where a computer chess tournament is taking place. Bujalski’s film captures a moment in time when people still wondered if there might ever come a time when the artificial intelligence of a computer might best the human brain in a game of chess – and, eventually, other forms of reasoning. In addition to this milieu of nerdy men and the competition’s first female team member, the film is shot through with surrealistic tones and inexplicable imagery. Also in the hotel is some sort of primal-scream therapy group and dozens of cats. The unique vision of Computer Chess makes it one of the festival’s standouts.
Yen Tan’s Pit Stop is an evocative study of the search for love and romance among gay men in a small Texas town. Previously featured in an Austin Chronicle cover story, “Sleight of Hand,” for his work as a film-poster artist, Tan shows in his third feature film that he is a multitalented creator. Two gay relationships are depicted in their post-breakup period. After the end of a four-year relationship with a married man, Gabe (Bill Heck) spends more time with his former wife and young daughter, to whom he is still inexorably connected. Unusual for a film like this, great attention is paid to Gabe’s ex-wife Shannon (Amy Seimetz) and her struggle to also find love again. Meanwhile, Ernesto (Marcus DeAnda), a blue-collar worker who allows his younger ex-lover to remain living with him, visits a former love who has been in a coma in a hospital for the last two months. In bits and fragments, the film reveals some of the depths of life’s sadness, while also retaining a certain romantic hopefulness.
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