My favorite former newspaper co-workers share lists of their favorite 10 movies each year. I hardly keep up with current film, and my participation has compensated in the past by being overly creative with my lists. Considering that I just chucked my journalism career to pursue a Ph.D., for whatever the hell it’s worth, here are 10 films and film-ish bits I saw this year — a few of them definitely not from 2013 — that are somehow related to the virtual performance, human-computer interaction, digital projection branch of my evolving research interests …
“Robot and Frank”
From 2012. Nifty tale, if awkwardly constructed on screen. Frank Langella is an old burglar with advancing dementia. His family buys him a humanoid robot (with advanced AI, and Peter Sarsgaard’s smooooooth voice) as an assistant and companion, then alibi and accomplice. Can a human bond with a machine? More importantly, can the opposite happen? Even more importantly, is the love interest with Susan Sarandon somehow unnerving…?
“The Blue Umbrella”
Every Pixar movie is preceded by an experimental short film, and this year’s offering — in front of “Monsters University” — was “The Blue Umbrella.” It’s the subject of a portion of my thesis. This seven-minute love story depicted between two sentient umbrellas nudges boundaries in animation (the “global illumination” tech used here is stunning, making digitally animated light look more realistic than you’ve ever seen) and extends a bridge across the “uncanny valley” (a theory about why stylized animated figures like the Simpsons are acceptable and funny but the attempts at realism in, say, “The Polar Express” are creeptastic).
Joaquin returns and rocks the ’stache. Falls in love with his OS, which talks back and evolves. Digital systems become parts of love triangles with human beings. Much to love.
Didn’t see the movie itself, but over Thanksgiving we were at the California Adventure side of Disneyland, where they put on a dancing-waters kind of show at night. The current version used digital projection onto “screens” of water spray, in the same general manner as the Tupac “hologram” technology and more like this tech that made the rounds on social media a couple of weeks ago. The star of these fuzzy images was that snowman thing from “Frozen,” who asked for hugs so incessantly I found myself wanting to punch him.
It’s a remarkably difficult effect to capture on video, but here’s one that does a pretty great job …
OK, this one’s 12 years old now. Al Pacino plays a tech-savvy movie director who creates a wholly realistic digital version of a human actress (in order to replace, hilariously, Winona Ryder). Of course, he wrestles with emotional attachment to the simulation as well as attempts to control the willful AI. A fairly terrible movie, really, but chock full of prescient bits of dialogue that make for great epigrams. Like: “Our ability to manufacture fraud now exceeds our ability to detect it.”
Yes, from 1976. Had to watch it because, not only is it kinda great, it contains the first-ever appearance of actual laser holography in a movie — those turning heads in the interrogation chamber crying out, in a ghastly flanged voice, “There … is … no … Sanctuary …!”
Trailers for “The Congress”
Absolutely salivating over this film, which has hit some festivals and is alleged to have a U.S. release this year, though nothing’s on the books yet. It’s a mix of live action and stylized animation, directed by Ari Folman (“Waltz With Bashir”). It’s “S1m0ne” done right — an actress becomes so difficult to work with that her studio asks if they can just digitize her. She agrees, and they do (using a spherical system based on the light stages created by Paul Debevec at USC, who’s interviewed as part of my thesis). The studio employs the digital version of her in several successful films — then they sell the digital version as an avatar to anyone who wants to “be” her. Philosophy and speculative tech entwine in some heady animated sequences. Plus, Paul Giamatti, Jon Hamm, Harvey Keitel!
Direct interfacing with machines is intense, so it takes two pilots — psychically linked. Humans become more intimate with each other via the same tech they’re employing to battle and destroy someone else’s tech. The links — temporary but lingering singularities — nurture empathy, and there’s a whole in-another-man’s-shoes mini-theme in the film’s running gag about missing footwear.
“Inside Llewyn Davis”
Fine enough film here, illuminating of numerous folk tropes (and still relevant to me as I’m still wrapping up a research project about contemporary folk music, particularly the protest songs that were created around Occupy Wall Street). However, in no universe is it believable that Oscar Isaac has done any hard travelin’. Lawd!
Relevant to my research in that I really needed the break that Saturday, and this movie was an absolute peach.
I'm THOMAS CONNER, Ph.D. in Communication (Science Studies) and culture journalist.