The 19th Palm Springs International Film Festival ("PSIFF") starts in a few days, and I've spent the last week concocting a strategy that will allow me to see as many films as possible during my nine days there. If all goes according to plan—which it won't—I'll be seeing 40 films. That may sound like a lot, but it's only a fraction of the total 222 films from 60-plus countries on offer. That's 32 fewer films than last year, which is reflected in the fact that there are no screenings that begin after 9:00PM this year. At least I should be getting to bed at a decent hour. So without further ado, here's a look at which films I'll be seeing and which ones I'll regrettably be missing during this year's trip to the California desert.
The PSIFF is probably best known for its Awards Buzz—Best Foreign Language Film section, so let's begin there. This year the festival will be showing 55 of the 63 films submitted as Oscar hopefuls in this category, and I'll be coming to the festival having already seen seven of them (Exiled, The Orphanage, The Silly Age, The Year My Parents Went on Vacation, The Edge of Heaven, Taxidermia and Silent Light). It's interesting to note that the festival is screening the Hungarian film Taxidermia for the second year in a row, and that they've mysteriously opted not to show Mexico's submission, Carlos Reygada's Silent Light. (Other conspicuous omissions include Jiri Menzel's I Served the King of England from the Czech Republic and Andrzej Wadja's Katyn from Poland). I've decided not to see heavy hitters 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days and Persepolis in Palm Springs because they're due to open in Bay Area theaters shortly after my return.
The 17 films that I will be seeing from this section are literally all over the map. I'm most excited about Takva—A Man’s Fear of God (Turkey) and Lee Chang-dong's award-winning Secret Sunshine (South Korea). 12 and 881 are, respectively, Nikita Mikhalkov's Russian adaptation of 12 Angry Men, and Singaporean maverick Royston Tan's tribute to Getai, an outlandish form of musical revue performed during the island nation's Ghost Festival. Other films high on my list include Israel's Beaufort (Silver Bear winner at Berlin), I Just Didn’t Do It (Masayuki Suo's examination of the Japanese legal system), Icelandic crime thriller Jar City, Argentine drama XXY about a teenage hermaphrodite and You, the Living, Swede Roy Andersson's follow-up to 2000's amazing Songs From the Second Floor.
My remaining eight films from this section are slot-fillers—movies that sound somewhat promising and fit nicely into my festival schedule. They are Ben X (Belgium), Caramel (Lebanese chick-flick), Eduart (a gay-themed film from Greece), Eklavya: The Royal Guard (a Bollywood film starring Amitabh Bachchan that clocks in at an amazingly short 107 minutes), Gone With the Women (Norway, from the same director as 2001's Elling), The Pope's Toilet (Uruguay) and The White Silk Dress (Viet Nam). Two films I strongly regret not being able to fit into my schedule are Mongol from Kazakhstan (directed by Russian Sergei Bodrov and starring Japanese heartthrob Tadanobu Asano) and Canadian Denys Arcand's Days of Darkness, which completes the trilogy he began with Decline of the American Empire and The Barbarian Invasions.
Because French cinema is my favorite in the world, I was anxious to see what Palm Springs would come up with this year. Quelle déception! Sixteen French films are in the line-up—but I'd happily trade the entire lot of them for a look at Catherine Breillat's The Old Mistress, Abdellatif Kechiche's The Secret of the Grain (his follow-up to 2003's Cesar-winning L'esquive), actor Jalil Lespert's directorial debut 24 Measures, Gaël Morel's Après lui, François Ozon's Angel, Olivier Assayas' Boarding Gate, Jacques Nolot's Before I Forget (his follow-up to Porn Theater) and Claude Chabrol's A Girl Cut in Two. Alas…
Of those 16 French films that indeed are in the festival, I'm sure I could do worse than the five I've selected. The first two are new works from old masters Jacques Rivette (The Duchess of Langeais) and Claude Lelouch (Roman de Gare). Then I have high hopes for the well-reviewed Sylvie Testud/Pascal Greggory WWI drama La France, and the Mathieu Amalric/Michael Lonsdale Nazis-in-the-corporate-boardroom drama Heartbeat Detector. My fifth selection is a wild card from the festival's New Voices/New Visions competition, Micha Wald's In the Arms of My Enemy, aka Voleurs de chevaux. The first sentence of Lisa Nesselson's Variety review clinched it for me: "Finely muscled hairless young men treat each others' bodies like piñatas in Horse Thieves, a rustic revenge tale set 'somewhere in the East' in the early 1800s, when most men's lives were smelly, brutish and short." Bonus points were given because one of those muscled young men is Grégoire Colin, who's given such great performances in the films of Claire Denis and Catherine Breillat.
None of the remaining French selections held any interest for me, except for André Téchiné's excellent The Witnesses, which I caught at Frameline 31. Looking over the list of titles, I found myself asking at what point did Daniel Auteuil (Conversations With My Gardener) and Audrey Tautou (Priceless) become reasons not to see a movie? Actor Guillaume Canet's second directorial effort, Tell No One, is in the line-up, but given that I walked out of his debut—2003's My Idol—I decided to take a pass. There's a Klaus Barbie documentary, My Enemy's Enemy, but if you've already seen Marcel Ophüls' five-hour, Oscar-winning Hôtel Terminus, what would be the point? Lastly, there's one French film that sounds so horrible it could actually be kind of fabulous, but it doesn't fit into my schedule. That would be Poltergay, about a young family that moves into a haunted mansion that used to be a gay disco!
The festival's 17-film Cine Latino section, which includes works from Latin America, Spain and Portugal, was also a bit of a disappointment for me. Of course I was thrilled to see universally acclaimed In the City of Sylvia in the line-up. But the remaining selections are unknown entities, with the exception of 99-year-old Manoel de Oliveira's Christopher Columbus, The Enigma and the feature film adaptation of Brazilian TV series City of Men, neither of which terribly interest me. Where, I ask, is the Brazilian blockbuster Elite Troop or the documentary Manda Bala? Or any of the Argentine films that have been winning festival prizes this year, such as El Custodio, Mientras Tanto or El Otro? In the end, I'll only be seeing the aforementioned In the City of Sylvia, Spanish film Solitary Fragments (which Michael Guillén has convinced me is a must-see) and a Mexican film called Burning the Bridges.
To help celebrate Israel's 60th birthday, the festival is presenting a special 10-film sidebar titled New Israeli Cinema: L'Chaim! In addition to the previously mentioned Beaufort, notable selections include this year's Camera d'Or winner from Cannes, Jellyfish, and last year's Israeli Academy Award-winning Best Picture, Sweet Mud (both of which I've seen and was under-whelmed by). Regrettably, I'm not able to schedule in Amos Gitai's latest film, Disengagement, which has garnered some excellent reviews. I am, however, looking forward to My Father, My Lord, which won Best Narrative Feature at Tribeca this year. I should also mention that the festival, in a Special Presentation, is screening The Band’s Visit (Israel's original Oscar submission that was disqualified for having too much English dialogue). The film opens soon in U.S. theaters, so I've decided to wait until then.
There are a dozen Italian films in the festival, but the only one I’m seeing is In Memory of Myself. This is the latest from director Saverio Constanzo, whose debut feature Private, was one of my 10 favorite films of 2004. Two Italian films I would have seen had my schedule allowed are Daniele Lucchetti's My Brother is an Only Child (presented as a Gala Screening) and master Ermanno Olmi's One Hundred Nails. Interestingly, Italy's submission for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Giuseppe Tornatore's The Unknown Woman, is not in the festival line-up.
The remaining contemporary narrative features I plan to catch can all be found in the festival's World Cinema Now section. Of the better known directors with new films at the festival, I’ll be seeing Kim Ki-duk's Breath, Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Ploy, Youssef Chahine's Chaos and the one I'm anticipating most, Peter Greenaway's Nightwatching (in which the director unravels a real-life murder mystery hidden in a Rembrandt painting). Documentary filmmaker Chris Smith (American Movie, The Yes Men) has gotten raves for his narrative feature debut, the Goa-set, Hindi-language The Pool. And in Irina Palm, Marianne Faithful plays a grandmother who turns to prostitution to help pay for a grandson's operation. Rounding out my World Cinema Now experience will be The Art of Negative Thinking (Norway), Parents (Iceland) and Those Three (Iran).
One doesn't really think of the PSIFF as a place to see restored-print revivals of older films, but this year's Archival Treasures section is presenting three worthy selections. Unfortunately, I'll have to miss the first one, Josef Von Sternberg's 1935 Crime and Punishment. But I will be on hand to see San Francisco's own "Czar of Noir" Eddie Muller present a new 35mm print of John M. Stahl's 1945 Technicolor film noir, Leave Her to Heaven, with Gene Tierney and Cornel Wilde. I also look forward to seeing Romanian director Lucian Pintilie's 1968 Reenactment, to be presented by film historian Milos Stehlik. This long-banned social drama is credited with being an important inspiration to today's generation of acclaimed Romanian filmmakers.
In addition to showing most of the films being considered for Best Foreign Language film, PSIFF screens Oscar-worthy documentaries in its Awards Buzz: Best Documentary Feature section. This year the festival will show 12 docs on the AMPAS 15-film shortlist, five of which will become official Oscar nominees. Considering that I saw over four dozen feature documentaries in 2007, I'm kind of shocked that I've only seen one of the films on the shortlist (No End in Sight). I'll see one more in Palm Springs, Tony Kaye's acclaimed look at abortion in America, Lake of Fire. Had they fit into my festival schedule, I would have also welcomed the opportunity to see Nanking, Please Vote For Me, The Price of Sugar, Taxi to the Dark Side and White Light/Black Rain, all of which I understand are excellent. Along with the Awards Buzz films, the festival presents 24 more documentaries in its True Stories section, none of which I'll be seeing. Of those, I most regret missing Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World, on the subject of Antarctica, and Black White + Gray, which examines the relationship between art curator Sam Wagstaff, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and rocker Patti Smith.