(director/writer: Patrick Creadon; screenwriter: Christine O’Malley; cinematographer: Patrick Creadon; editor: Douglas Blush; music: Vic Fleming/Peter Golub; Runtime: 94; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Christine O’Malley; IFC Films and The Weinstein Company; 2006)

“A fun documentary about those who make puzzles and those who do them.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A fun documentary about those who make puzzles and those who do them, something I was hooked on at one time and have built up oodles of useless knowledge that I don’t know what I would do without at this point of my life. Former cinematographer Patrick Creadon’s engaging film takes us on a pleasant trip to Stamford, Ct., where ever since 1978 there has been every March, at the Marriot Hotel, a competition of almost 500 of the top puzzlers from around the world in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. The film tells exclusively of the 28th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and it keys in on Will Shortz, the esteemed NY Times puzzle editor and NPR puzzle-master, who has become the main man in the puzzle world. This film explores his passion for puzzles, which began in childhood and led him to major at Indiana University in enigmatology (the study of puzzles), with Shortz being the only person in the world to hold such a college degree. Puzzles supposedly began in newspapers in 1913 and in the NY Times in 1942, and have since become a regular part of most newspapers with the Times being the “gold standard.” In 1993 Shortz became the NY Times’ fourth crossword puzzle editor, taking over from a more stuffy Eugene Maleska, and has become the driving force behind the tournament and making the puzzle more current with the events taking place in the fast-changing world. If the film has any fault (which I’m not sure it does), it is that it drools too much over Shortz and there’s possibly too much self-congratulation coming from the puzzle maven and his puzzler friends.

The film takes delight in showing celebrity puzzlers musing about their daily fix, such as Jon Stewart, filmmaker Ken Burns, New York Yankees ace pitcher Mike Mussina, popular underground folk singers Amy Ray and Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls and Bill Clinton. Merl Reagle tells how he creates a puzzle from scratch. Shortz tells how he receives puzzles from many sources and edits them and ranks them by difficulty, with Monday being the easiest day and Friday or Saturday the toughest. The competitors are all likable nerds (if you please!) who do puzzles for the love of it. Ellen Ripstein is a New York City editor who won the tournament once; Al Sanders a Colorado product manager for a computer firm who has never finished higher than third but usually ends up as one of the three finalists; Jon Delfin is an affable New York City pianist; Tyler Hinman is a 20-year-old Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute student with a good chance of becoming the youngest ever to win; and Trip Payne is a young gay man living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who is a professional crossword constructor. It’s easy to root for any of these bright, genial, and nice folks to win.

The film remains upbeat throughout and becomes sort of interactive as Brian Oakes’ ingenious titling and graphics design allows the viewer to play along with the intense competing puzzle-solvers. I couldn’t imagine a more fun way of taking in a crossword puzzle, unless it’s actually doing the Sunday NY Times puzzle in ink and actually finishing it on Sunday.

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