Tuesday, January 02, 2007

2007 PSIFF—Anticipating Palm Springs

Contributing Evening Class writer Michael Hawley offers anticipatory comments regarding our upcoming exploration of the Palm Springs International Film Festival and a rundown of the films he'll be catching.

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If you follow the world of film festivals over the course of a year, which for me at least seems to begin with Cannes in May and ends nearly a year later with our own San Francisco International Film Festival ("SFIFF"), it's possible to tally quite an extensive list of films, films one feels it necessary to see in order to remain cinematically savvy. Last year, after the schedule was announced for the SFIFF, I noticed that the number of films on that list which had not screened (and therefore would possibly never be screened) in the Bay Area was longer than ever. A friend had been suggesting for a few years that I check out the Palm Springs International Film Festival, a notion I never took seriously. Of what merit could a film festival in Palm Springs, of all places, be? Out of desperation and curiosity, I checked out the festival's 2006 line-up. Lo and behold, listed there were many of the films that were Bay Area M.I.A.: Kornél Mundruczó's Johanna? Check. Amat Escalante's Sangre? Check. Jean-Marc Vallée's C.R.A.Z.Y.? Check. Obviously, some re-evaluation of the situation was in order, and with that, Michael Guillén and I made plans to attend Palm Springs in 2007.

2007 is here and we'll be leaving for Palm Springs in a few days. This is the first time I'll be traveling to an out-of-town film festival, unencumbered by the distractions of work and home, free to indulge in an orgy of movie-going. So the question becomes then, how many films can I possibly see in nine full days if I really apply myself? Well, Palm Springs, as it turns out, is a really large festival. This year they'll be showing a record 254 films (only eight of them are shorts) from 73 countries. How does one choose a few dozen films from a list of 254?

The process began several weeks ago when we received a clandestine 130-film "initial" list from a source who shall remain nameless. This list was scrutinized and on-line reviews of unfamiliar films were sought out . . . thank you Variety! Must-see lists were then drawn up and speculation made as to which 100 or so films might make up the balance of the final line-up. When a "final" list appeared, however, it became immediately apparent that the "initial" list was loaded with red herrings! Nowhere to be found were such initial "must-sees" as Bruno Dumont's Flanders, Lucas Belvaux's The Right of the Weakest, Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Asger Leth's Ghosts of Cité Soleil, Carlos Sorin's The Road to San Diego and Jia Zhangke's Still Life.

Armed with this "final" list, new lists of must-sees and want-to-sees were compiled and revised. We looked into our crystal ball and tried to surmise which films were likely candidates for future Bay Area festival screenings and theatrical releases, and could therefore be passed over in favor of something more esoteric and obscure. All this while knowing full well that much of this would be rendered meaningless when the actual festival schedule was revealed, as it was on Christmas Day.

That's when you find out that such-and-such a film is only being screened on the same day and at the same time as such-and-such a film, and so on. But in the end I think I've done very well for myself. I'm getting to see 18 of the 21 films on my must-see list, and 13 of the 25 films on my alternative want-to-see list. My biggest disappointment is that I'm missing Royston Tan's 4:30. I was a huge fan of his first film 15, and I can only hope this new one shows up at the San Francisco Asian American International Film Festival or the SFIFF. The same goes for my two other must-sees, Invisible Waves and DarkBlueAlmostBlack. Among the films on my want-to-see list, I especially regret missing Monkeys in Winter and Lady Zee, a pair of Bulgarian films about which I've heard excellent things. The same goes for Children and Sons, from Iceland and Norway respectively. And I have to believe that Jafar Panahi's Offside and Im Sang-soo's The Old Garden will turn up in the Bay Area eventually.

But enough grousing about the movies I won't be seeing at Palm Springs. Here are the movies I will be seeing, in the order I'll be seeing them.

The Yacoubian Building (Egypt)—This is probably the film I'm most looking forward to. When Alaa Al Aswany's sensational novel came out in 2002, it became the second most widely read book in the Arab world, after the Koran. I finally read it this summer and was struck by the frankness with which it explored such forbidden topics as homosexuality, government corruption and religious hypocrisy. The film adaptation is reported to be the most expensive production in Egyptian movie history and the cast is an amazing who's who of contemporary Egyptian cinema. This was originally slated to be the gala opening night film of this year's SF Arab Film Festival, complete with cast members being flown in from Egypt, but the French distributor ended up backing out. I'm therefore especially grateful to the Palm Springs festival for including it this year. This is also Egypt's 2006 Oscar submission.

OSS 117: Nest of Spies (France)—Set in Cairo in the 1950s, this espionage comedy is being described as a French James Bond meets Maxwell Smart. This will be one of the few moments of levity in my festival schedule and was chosen on the basis of its Egyptian setting, a favorable Variety review and a cool trailer.

Strike (German/Poland)—The latest from Volker Schlöndorff is a biopic on Agnieszka Kowalska, who was an instrumental catalyst in the Gdansk shipyard strike and the resulting Solidarity movement in Poland.

Beauty in Trouble (Czech Republic)—Jan Hrebejk's 2004 black comedy Up and Down was one of my Top 10 films of last year, so it was a given that his new feature would be near the top of my festival must-see list.

The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros (Philippines)—Like Michael Guillén, I also missed out on seeing this when it played at several festivals here in the Bay Area. How interesting that the Philippines would choose a movie about a gay kid who falls in love with a cop for its Oscar submission.

Forever (Netherlands)—A documentary about my favorite cemetery in the world (Paris' Père Lachaise) by one of my favorite documentary filmmakers in the world, Heddy Honigmann (Metal and Melancholy, Dame la Mano). What's not to love?

In the Pit (Mexico)—This documentary about construction workers who are building a second deck on a Mexico City freeway has been unanimously praised for its humanity and lyricism. A Sundance jury winner for best international documentary.

Fair Play (France)—This black comedy is one of several films I'm seeing simply because there wasn't anything more interesting in its time slot. It's about a group of employees who go on a company retreat and compete in various sports activities. Variety calls it, "a guilty pleasure for fans of anybody in the name cast," which for me would include Benoît Magimel (The Piano Teacher) and Jérémie Renier (L'enfant).

12:08 East of Bucharest (Romania)—One of two Romanian films that grabbed a lot of attention on the festival circuit this year, I caught this at the Mill Valley Film Festival and am pleased to be taking a second look. One of the most enjoyable times I had at the movies in 2006.

Waiter (Netherlands)—A miserable middle-aged waiter implores the screenwriter who controls his destiny to lighten things up a bit. Sounds a bit too much like Stranger Than Fiction, and one IMdb user compared it to (shudder) a Pauly Shore comedy, but the subject matter is too near and dear to give this one a pass.

A New Day in Old Sana'a (Yemen)—I let out a cry of delight when I saw this on the Palm Springs schedule. Just as I never expect to travel to Yemen, I never really expected this obscure film to ever appear on my horizon. I've long been fascinated by photos of the wedding cake-clay architecture of this Yemeni capital city, so even if the film is less than engaging, it should make for a great travelogue. This is allegedly Yemen's first narrative feature film.

Aviva My Love (Israel)—A rave review in Variety, plus the fact that I haven't seen a bad film from Israel in years, made this black comedy the logical choice for its time slot. Winner of six Israeli Oscars.

The Missing Star (Italy)—In 1994 I was blown away by director Gianni Amelio's Albanian-set drama L'America, which went on to win the European Film Award for Best Picture that year. He's made three features since, none of which appear to have made it to the Bay Area. This is his latest, about a man (Serge Castellitto) who journeys to rural China in order to repair a defective blast furnace manufactured by his company.

One to Another (France)—I selected this piece of sex and nudity filled Eurotrash after the film I originally chose for this time slot was rescheduled. The reviews are uniformly horrible, but hey, there's going to be lots of sex and nudity.

Men at Work (Iran)—Great reviews all around for this absurdist comedy about four men who encounter a phallic rock at a scenic highway overlook and decide they simply have to topple it. From a story by Abbas Kiarostami.

Family Law (Argentina)—I really enjoyed director Daniel Burman's last feature Lost Embrace, and am looking forward to this, his latest. Originally slated for a limited US release, the film performed so poorly in its NY opening that a further release is now in doubt. This is Argentina's 2006 Oscar entry.

The Page Turner (France)—This revenge thriller attracted a lot of attention when it premiered in Un Certain Regard at Cannes this year. It stars one of my three favorite French film actresses, Catherine Frot, plus Déborah François (L'enfant)and Pascal Greggory.

The Education of the Fairies (Spain)—Another film chosen because it fit nicely into my schedule and was well reviewed in Variety. And it stars the always excellent Argentine actor Ricardo Darin.

The Way I Spent the End of the World (Romania)—The other Romanian festival favorite of 2006.

Transylvania (France)—I've been a big fan of French-Roma auteur Tony Gatliff since 1993's Latcho Drom. His films aren't always great, but they're never without merit. This one returns to the Romanian countryside last explored in 1997's Gadjo Dilo, and stars Asia Argento (of all people) and Head-On's Birol Ünel.

The Free Will (Germany)—The most controversial film shown at last year's Berlin Film Festival, this acclaimed 163-minute tale of a recently paroled rapist and his relationship with an abused woman will be the grim finale to a five-film-day in Palm Springs.

Bamako (Mali)—I'll see anything from sub-Saharan Africa, and have heard only great things about this, Abderrahmane Sissako's follow-up to 2002's exquisite Waiting for Happiness. Near the top of my festival must-see list.

Paraguayan Hammock (Paraguay)—An elderly couple, filmed in long shot, sit in a hammock and bicker for 78 minutes. And that's it. The advance word is that you either love or hate this piece by Paz Encina, which was commissioned for the New Crowned Hope Festival and the Vienna Mozart Year 2006. Interestingly, this is the only film in the series—which includes new films from Tsai Ming-liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul—that is being shown in Palm Springs.

Falkenberg, Farewell (Sweden)—Extremely well received at both Venice and Toronto, and effusively praised in Variety, this tale of five friends-since-childhood who spend one final summer together is Sweden's 2006 Oscar entry.

Black Butterfly (Peru)—Another film chosen on the basis of a rave review in Variety, and a general interest in Latin American cinema. This is the story of a schoolteacher avenging the politically motivated death of her jurist fiancé.

The Summer Palace (China)—I missed seeing Lou Ye's latest at Mill Valley this fall, so once again I'm grateful to be seeing it here in Palm Springs. The only Asian film to screen in Cannes' main competition this year, the director's refusal to pre-screen the film for government censors has earned him a five-year ban from filmmaking. Adding to the controversy is the film's unusual sexual frankness, and the use of footage from the Tiananmen uprising.

Beyond Hatred (France)—This well-received documentary caught my attention when it played at Berlin. A young, gay man is beaten and drowned by a gang of skinheads, and this film documents the devastating effect this has on the young man's family, as well as the resulting court trial for the skinheads (whose original intent was to kill a foreigner).

Taxidermia (Hungary)—I adored György Pálfi’s wildly inventive debut feature Hukkle, and the outlandish trailer for his follow-up seems to promise more of the same. After The Yacoubian Building, this is the film I'm most looking forward to.

Lights in the Dusk (Finland)—My feelings for the films of Aki Kaurismäki range from outright loathing (Leningrad Cowboys) to pleasant indifference (The Man Without a Past), so I could have easily skipped seeing his latest. It is, however, playing at a time when nothing more interesting is going on. Besides, Kaurismaki gets points in my book for refusing to let this film be Finland's 2006 Oscar entry, due to continued U.S. involvement in Iraq. And he refused to attend the Oscars in 2004 when The Man Without a Past received a Best Foreign Language Film nomination for the same reason.

The Boss of It All (Denmark)—This is Lars von Trier's latest and because it will certainly be screened in the Bay Area at some point, I would have given it a pass had there been something more pressing showing. But there isn't, so I'll be amongst the first to catch this at its U.S. premiere.

Day Night Day Night (U.S.A)—I've read great and awful things about this film, but the premise is too hard for me to resist: A young woman prepares to end her life as a suicide bomber in Times Square.

Heaven's Doors (Morocco)—An interest in North African cinema and a rave Variety review made this an easy choice.

To Get to Heaven First You Have to Die (Tajikistan)—The title alone makes me want to see this, but a handful of positive reviews from Cannes and Toronto tell me this is something I shouldn't miss. A young newlywed goes to the city to see a doctor about his impotency problem. There he meets and sleeps with a married Russian factory worker and consequently—through her husband—becomes embroiled in a world of gangsterism and thuggery.

The Family Friend (Italy)—Director Paolo Sorrentino's highly acclaimed 2004 film The Consequences of Love never came to the Bay Area, so I'm really excited to see his new film, which screened in competition at Cannes.

Chronicle of an Escape (Argentina)—A thriller based on the true story of four men who escaped the tortures of Argentina's military regime in 1977. The film was originally slated for Cannes' Un Certain Regard, but at the last minute was deemed worthy of inclusion in the main competition. This is another film I missed at Mill Valley.

The Caiman (Italy)—The latest from two-time Palme d'Or winner Nanni Moretti, and another Cannes competition entry from this year, the film is a skewering of corrupt media magnate and (former) Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.


Anonymous said...

So here I am, reading your post at and I get to the part where you say "the number of films on that list which had not screened (and therefore would possibly never be screened) in the Bay Area was longer than ever" and all I can say is "arghhhh ..." If you think it's hard to be film savvy in San Francisco, try it in most of the rest of the country.

Case in point, try it in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. We have a 16-screen multiplex, a discount 6-screen multiplex, and one refurbished theatre screen where they show about a dozen art-house films and indies a year. We will not even get a (relatively) mainstream film like "Volver," much less "Taxidermia" or "Men at Work." Again, I say "arghhhh ..."

Thank God for "Netflix" and DVD.

Anyway, love your blog, even though it leaves me seething with jealousy.

Marina said...

Hey, Happy New Year to you too! And all the best!

I decided to write in this post because, well, I'll probably forget to check back the other one.

I'm happy you liked Boni (oh, finally managed to upload the video - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UnKSrOqnF5E), she really is quite emotional. :)

And thank you for telling me of Asya. I remember hearing about her but never anything by her. Of what I heard on youtube, not only is she beautiful but also very talented.

Pacze Moj said...

Volker Schlöndorff's Strike is a biopic about real person Anna Walentynowicz. Agnieszka Kowalska is the name Schlöndorff adopted for his character (perhaps for legal reasons) because he chose to make some substantial changes to Walentynowicz's character -- such as making her illiterate, even though she wasn't. In fact, it was Lech Wałęsa who boasted about not having read a single book!

But, Strike's not much of a "biopic", anyway.

Brian said...

Michael, this preview makes it look like you're in for a terrific festival. Wish I could be there, but instead I'll hope that titles like the Yaboubian Building, Forever, Men At Work and Paraguayan Hammock get screened here in Northern California as well.