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10 Movies that Premiered at Sundance 20 Years Ago

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Today, the Sundance Film Festival kicks off in beautiful Park City, Utah. Since 1978, the fest has been a launching point for independent filmmakers and a staple of American cinema. Many notable American directors—including Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Steven Soderbergh—have shown films at Sundance over the past 38 years, and it continues to be the home of fresh and exciting young independent voices. Here are 10 movies that premiered at Sundance in 1994.

1. Clerks // Director: Kevin Smith

Director Kevin Smith’s debut feature film Clerks was a labor of love and devotion. After selling his comic book collection, maxing out a few credit cards, and collecting insurance money for a car he lost in a flood, the then-23-year-old director made the black-and-white feature film. But Smith's dedication paid off: Clerks won the festival's Filmmakers Trophy (in a tie with Boaz Yakin’s film Fresh), and Miramax purchased the film’s distribution rights. Ultimately, the film launched Kevin Smith’s career in Hollywood and inspired many film school students to make their own low budget movies.

2. Reality Bites // Director: Ben Stiller

Reality Bites, which took a look at a group of new college graduates struggling to find meaning during an economic recession, helped to make its young cast—including Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, and Ben Stiller—household names after it premiered out of competition at Sundance in 1994. For many 20-somethings, Reality Bites was a cultural touchstone, and became one of the films that defined Generation X.

3. Spanking the Monkey // Director: David O. Russell

While director David O. Russell is receiving critical and commercial success for his latest film, American Hustle, the New York City-born director got his start with the film Spanking the Monkey at Sundance in 1994. The witty and surprisingly touching film about a mother and son developing a deep and emotional relationship won over audiences with its sharp dialogue and irreverent comedy. Monkey won the Audience Award and started Russell on a path towards making celebrated American movies. The film later won an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay.

4. Fresh // Director: Boaz Yakin

Following the life of a 12-year-old boy who starts to sell drugs in a New York City housing project, Fresh virtually went unnoticed among general audiences, but received critical acclaim during its premiere at Sundance. Writer and director Boaz Yakin’s debut film earned the then-27-year-old New York City native the Filmmaker Trophy (which he shared with director Kevin Smith), while star Sean Nelson—who played the titular character—won the festival’s Special Jury Prize for Acting.

5. Four Weddings and a Funeral // Director: Mike Newell

While the light-hearted and breezy Four Weddings and a Funeral was not in competition during the Sundance Film Festival, the romantic comedy from director Mike Newell and screenwriter Richard Curtis was the fest’s opening night selection. The film went on to gross $245.7 million worldwide, and earned a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Picture in 1994.

6. Mi Vida Loca // Director: Allison Anders

Allison Anders' Mi Vida Loca took a look at Los Angeles Mexican street gang culture from a young woman’s point of view. While the film is still one of the very few movies about Hispanic young women, Loca is notable for featuring real-life gang members from Los Angeles' Echo Park and depicting street life in a brutally honest and realistic way. Anders, who also served on Sundance’s dramatic jury that year, would later direct a segment of The Room and the films Grace of My Heart and Sugar Town.

7. The Hudsucker Proxy // Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Joel and Ethan Coen’s first big budget movie, The Hudsucker Proxy, was also the brothers' first and only box office bomb. Garnering a mixed critical response out of premiere screenings during Sundance, the screwball comedy grossed a disappointing $2.8 million when it was officially released in March 1994. The story about a dopy aspiring inventor, Proxy was a collaboration between the Coens and director Sam Raimi, who was a co-writer on the film, which is seen today as an underrated movie in the Coens' filmography.

8. Clean, Shaven // Director: Lodge Kerrigan

Clean, Shaven follows a man who suffers from schizophrenia trying to get his daughter back from her adoptive mother. Lodge Kerrigan’s debut film experienced a rocky two-year production that saw the first-time director persistently running out of money during shooting. Clean, Shaven failed to find a general audience upon its release, but later saw success as part of the prestigious Criterion Collection.

9. River of Grass // Director: Kelly Reichardt

Director Kelly Reichardt has built an outstanding career over the years that includes films like Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, and Meek’s Cutoff. Her debut feature film, River of Grass, followed a young couple on the run throughout Florida after a shooting. While the film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize during the Sundance Film Festival in 1994, Grass lost to Tom Noonan’s Whatever Happened Was…

10. Hoop Dreams // Director: Steve James

Director Steve James’ documentary about two inner city high school students in Chicago with aspirations for the NBA is, arguably, one of the greatest American movies of all time. The film Hoop Dreams was the end result of over five years of filming. James and his editors Frederick Marx and Bill Haugse managed to whittle down over 250 hours of footage into a very comprehensive and engaging documentary that clocked in at nearly 3 hours; Hoop Dreams won the Audience Award Documentary at Sundance in 1994.

While Hoop Dreams wasn't nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, the film was nominated for Best Editing, but lost to Forrest Gump. The film is now part of the Criterion Collection and is considered the benchmark for sports documentaries today.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]