The benchmark 20th anniversary edition of the Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF) gets going on Tuesday, January 6 and runs until Monday the 19th. During the past two decades, this annual celebration of cinema in the California desert has established itself as the first major U.S. film festival of the calendar year. I had the great pleasure of attending as press in 2007 and 2008, but will regrettably have to miss out on 2009.
When I learned that I couldn't come this year, I vowed not to torture myself by looking at the schedule when it was announced December 27—a prohibition that lasted all of two days. The good news is that of the 80-some films still lingering on my 2008 wish list, only 25 of them are being screened at Palm Springs. The bad news is exactly the same as the good news. So here's a somewhat forlorn, section-by-section look at what I'll be missing at PSIFF 2009, along with a fervent hope that these 25 films will turn up in the Bay Area in the months to come.
The first thing I noticed about this year's program is that it's considerably leaner – down to 209 features from 2007's all-time high of 252. This particular section, which compiles the submissions for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and is PSIFF's claim to fame, is no exception. Last year, 55 out of 63 possible submissions were screened, and this year it's down to 50 out of 67. Still, there's an amazing selection of films here, including nine from my list.
1. The Baader-Meinhof Complex (Germany) A historical drama about the 1960s/1970s German terrorist group RAF (Red Army Faction), starring my favorite German actor, Moritz Bleitreu as Andreas Baader.
2. Eldorado (Belgium) A junkie and a car dealer hit the road in a film that won rave reviews when it screened in Cannes' Director's Fortnight. With French boogeyman Philippe Nahon (I Stand Alone, Calvaire, High Tension) in a featured role.
3. Last Stop 174 (Brazil) Veteran director Bruno Barreto (Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, Four Days in September) has made a narrative feature of the events depicted in José Padilha's astounding 2002 documentary Bus 174 (about a Rio bus hijacking that became a major media event).
4. Lion's Den (Argentina) It seemed as though every major Argentine director released a new film in 2008, making it an unenviable task to choose just one for Oscar consideration. The winner was this women's prison drama from Pablo Trapero (Crane World, Rolling Family).
5. Snow (Bosnia and Herzegovina) A Bosnian village populated by war widows is the setting for this Cannes' Critics Week Grand Prize winner.
Three Monkeys (Turkey) The country's leading auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Distant, Climates) left Cannes with the Best Director's Prize for this familial thriller. One of the films I'm most desperate to see.
7. Tony Manero (Chile) Another must-see. In 1978 Santiago, a Saturday Night Fever-obsessed psychotic is determined to win a John Travolta look-alike contest, even if it means bumping off the competition. And during Augusto Pinochet's reign of terror, who'd notice?
8. Tulpan (Kazakhstan) A young sheepherder recently released from the army struggles to find a wife in this top prize winner from Cannes' Un Certain Regard.
9. White Night Wedding (Iceland) The latest from Baltasar Kormákur (101 Reykjavik), whose Jar City was one of my ten favorite films of 2008.
Also screening in this section are several films I've already seen. Strongly recommended are France's Palme d'Or-winning The Class, Italy's Neapolitan mafia exposé Gomorrah and Israel's genre-busting animated documentary Waltz With Bashir (seen respectively at the SF Film Society's French Cinema Now, New Italian Cinema and SF International Animation Festival). Less successful, but still of interest are Switzerland's The Friend and Jordan's Captain Abu Raed. Austria's Revanche is one I look forward to seeing later this month at our local Berlin & Beyond festival.
If I'd found myself with extra time on my hands in Palm Springs, I might have been tempted to also look at these: Everlasting Moments, the latest from Swedish master Jan Troell (The Emigrants, The New Land); Norway's O'Horten from Kitchen Stories director Bent Hamer; Iran's The Song of Sparrows by Majid Majidi, a director I've both loved (Children of Heaven, Baran) and loathed (The Color of Paradise, The Willow Tree); Spain's The Blind Sunflowers, a Spanish Civil War film that just received a hefty 15 Goya Award nominations; and Tear This Heart Out, the big-budget historical epic Mexico bizarrely chose as its submission instead of its smaller, international prize winners.
It's worth mentioning here that the Bay Area has its own series of Best Foreign Language Film contenders at the Smith Rafael Film Center. For Your Consideration runs from January 15 to 22, and features 13 films. Unfortunately, the series runs about a week shorter than in years past, and of the 10 films mentioned above, only Eldorado has been included.
Three films from this section are on my list:
10. Four Nights with Anna (Poland) Jerzy Skolimowski, last seen playing Naomi Watt's uncle in Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, directs his first film in 15 years.
11. Of Time and the City (UK) Terrence Davies' (Distant Voices/Still Lives, The Long Day Closes) love/hate cinematic ode to his native Liverpool, England. Highly anticipated.
12. The Window (Argentina) I mentioned 2008's wealth of new releases from this country's top directors—here's another one, the latest from Carlos Sorin (Intimate Stories, Bombón el Perro, The Road to San Diego).
There are two additional films in this section I would also be tempted to see: Modern Life, Raymond Depardon's most recent documentary on rural living in contemporary France; Kabei, in which Yôji Yamada follows up his recent Samurai trilogy (The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade, Love and Honor) with this, his 80th feature film. There are also new films from Paul Schrader (Adam Resurrected) and Germany's Doris Dörrie (Cherry Blossoms), which I would not be tempted to see.
WORLD CINEMA NOW
It's worth noting here that the PSIFF has eliminated its Cine Latino section for 2009 (not that there's a dearth of Latin American films to be found). Also, there are no special sidebars, such as 2007's SKØL: Scandinavia and 2008's New Israeli Cinema: L'chaim! That said, World Cinema Now is where I'd be spending most of my time this year, with 12 films from my list.
13. The Desert Within (Mexico) Rodrigo Plá's follow-up to La Zona, this tale of religious madness won all the major awards at last year's Guadalajara Film Festival.
Goodbye Solo (USA) An unlikely friendship develops between a suicidal, 70-year-old white southerner and a Senegalese taxi driver half his age in this Venice FIPRESCI prize-winner from Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart, Chop Shop).
15. Heaven on Earth (Canada) An unhappy woman in an arranged marriage enlists sorcery to solve her problems in Deepa Mehta's follow-up to 2006's Oscar-nominated Water.
16. Hunger (UK) The last six weeks in the life of Irish republican hunger striker Bobby Sands is the subject of this Cannes Camera d'or winner for best first film.
17. Il Divo (Italy) Director Paolo Sorrentino won Cannes' Prix du Jury for this saga of infamous Italian politician Giulio Andreotti.
18. It's Not Me, I Swear! (Canada) A 10-year-old boy wildly acts out against his dysfunctional family in Philippe Falardeau's follow-up to 2006's fanciful Congorama.
19. Lake Tahoe (Mexico) A small town car crash is the catalyst for this minimalist, deadpan comedy from Fernando Eimbcke, director of 2004's wildly creative Duck Season. Winner of the Alfred Bauer Award and FIPRESCI Prize at Berlin, it's the 2008 film I'm anticipating most.
20. Moscow, Belgium (Belgium) A Cannes' Critics Week favorite, in which a 40-year-old working class Mom is romanced by a young truck driver. This dramedy has been favorably compared to early works of Mike Leigh.
21. Pedro (USA) Biopic about Pedro Zamora, the openly gay, HIV-positive AIDS activist and cast member of MTV's Real World—San Francisco.
22. The Sea Wall (France) Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Rithy Panh (S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine) directs Isabelle Huppert in an adaptation of Marguerite Duras' novel set in 1930s Indochina.
23. Sugar (USA) Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's follow-up to Half Nelson, in which a Dominican baseball player emigrates to Iowa to play for the minor leagues.
24. Tokyo Sonata (Japan) Genre master Kiyoshi Kurosawa leaves the metaphysics behind for a different brand of modern day horror: the unraveling of a family caused by a father's loss of employment. Also highly anticipated.
I've seen two films in this section that I can easily recommend: Turkey's My Marlon and Brando and Italy's Black Sea. Cloud 9 is another film I look forward to catching at Berlin & Beyond.
25. Public Enemy Number One (Parts I and II) This is the epic tale of notorious French career criminal Jacques Mesrine, who was gunned down on the streets of Paris in 1979 after 20 years of bank robberies and prison breaks. Starring Vincent Cassel, with an all-star supporting cast that includes Ludivine Sagnier, Mathieu Amalric, Olivier Gourmet, Anne Consigny, Cecile de France and Gerard Depardieu.
Another program you won't find at this year's PSIFF is the Awards Buzz: Best Documentary Features and Shorts. In recent years the festival made it a point to screen all (or nearly all) of the docs shortlisted for Oscar consideration. This year they'll only be screening three of them: Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh, The Garden and Pray the Devil Back to Hell. This section contains a total of 34 documentary features, of which I can recommend two I've seen: Be Like Others and Walt & El Grupo.
There are a few remaining PSIFF sections I should touch upon. ARCHIVAL TREASURES will feature three screenings, including John Schelsinger's Midnight Cowboy. A dozen films by first or second-time directors can be found in NEW VOICES/NEW VISIONS. VALLEY VIEWS offers eight films that have a major connection to Palm Springs and the surrounding Coachella Valley, whether they were shot or take place there, or were produced or directed by a long-time resident. Finally, there are five GALA SCREENINGS, including opening nighter Last Chance Harvey and festival closer The Burning Plain, which is the directorial debut of screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Babel).
Cross-published on film-415.