In preparation for making my annual year’s-best list, I recently caught up with three films that I had missed during their initial theatrical runs. (All of them are now available on DVD and/or on demand.)
Andrew Bujalski’s sly and funny Computer Chess succeeds on a number of levels: as an affectionate depiction of geek culture (it’s set c. 1980 at a convention of computer programmers and chess players); as a painstakingly wrought period piece (Bujalski went so far as to shoot and edit the film using decades-old analog video equipment); and as an existential comedy about romance, artificial intelligence, and the limits of knowledge (the programmers continually cross paths with members of a New-Age couples-therapy retreat being held at the same hotel). As in his previous features, Bujalski’s characters are intricately awkward, and much of the pleasure and humor of Computer Chess stems from watching them interact; they’re technical whizzes, but they often fumble when it comes to more personal matters—as in a hilarious scene in which a bespectacled MIT grad student is propositioned by a pair of middle-aged swingers. Fun fact: film critic Gerald Peary appears on-screen as the conference emcee and chess-master.
Museum Hours, written and directed by the experimental artist and filmmaker Jem Cohen, muses about a different set of existential questions: what is the purpose of art? How do we use it, and where does its value lie? Ostensibly the story of an intellectually curious Canadian woman who, having traveled to Vienna to visit an ailing cousin, strikes up a friendship with a helpful museum guard, its loveliest and most interesting sequences are spent wandering through the galleries of the Kunsthistorisches, gazing at its prize collection of art works. At the film’s center is a beguiling sequence set in the museum’s Brueghel room, where an erudite tour guide invites her audience (and us) to consider the great master’s paintings as windows onto humanity at its most variegated and contradictory.
The term “nature documentary” isn’t really adequate to describe Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s Leviathan. Set on a fishing trawler off the Massachusetts coast, the film is more of a moody, visceral tone poem about the sublimity and violence of nature, as represented by the ocean’s vast, black, churning waters. Its editing, compositions, and use of sound sometimes border on the experimental; there’s almost no spoken dialogue, and many of the close-ups are so extreme as to seem abstract. The low-res image is rough, grainy, almost pixellated in spots. But the images themselves are frequently breathtaking, as during a sequence in which the camera repeatedly breaks through the surface of the water—as if gasping for air—to reveal a sky filled with a swarm of low-flying gulls. As a statement on the relationship between humans and nature, its approach is more meditative than moralistic.