The stars are out at the Palm Springs International Film Festival

PALM SPRINGS -- Over the course of two decades, the Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF) has grown into one of the largest and most prestigious film festivals not only in North America, but the world. The 22nd annual PSIFF runs Jan. 6–17.

The star-studded event draws well over 100,000 admissions annually, and it is pivotal in generating Academy Awards buzz — particularly in the Foreign Language and Documentary Film categories.

In addition, the event focuses international media attention on the city of Palm Springs and pours millions of dollars into the local economy.

This year the festival screens 193 films from 68 countries. The selection includes nine world premieres, 17 North American premieres and 33 U.S. premieres.

The festival begins Thursday, Jan. 6, with the opening night gala screening of Potiche (France, directed by Francois Ozon). This year’s Gay!La for Him film is the Jan. 12 screening of Loose Cannons (Italy, directed by Ferzan Ozpetek); the Gay!La for Her screening is Leading Ladies (USA, directed by Daniel Beahm and Erika Randall Beahm), also on Jan. 12.

The closing night gala screening on Jan. 16 is The First Grader (Kenya, directed by Justin Chadwick).

The festival’s annual Awards Gala Show, hosted by Mary Hart, takes place on Saturday, Jan. 8, at the Palm Springs Convention Center.

This year’s lineup of award recipients includes: Robert Duvall; Colin Firth; Natalie Portman; Javier Bardem; the cast of The Social Network including Jesse Eisenberg and Justin Timberlake; Ben Affleck; Danny Boyle; David O. Russell; Jennifer Lawrence; Carey Mulligan; and Diane Warren.

The stature of award recipients at PSIFF seems to grow with each passing year. “For nearly 50 years, Robert Duvall has transfixed cinematic audiences with his gritty, intuitive performances,” says festival Chairman Harold Matzner.

About Firth and Portman Matzner says, “We are honoring two of the finest actors to grace the screen, both of whom deliver Oscar-quality performances in their most recent films (Firth in The King’s Speech and Portman in Black Swan).”

The festival’s Executive Director Darryl Macdonald says, “These stars agreeing to be here, I think, is a measure of the buzz Palm Springs now has in terms of quality.”

Though the festival lasts only 12 days, planning is a year-round endeavor, with much of the effort focused on selecting films — a far more complex process than one might imagine.

In fact, Macdonald and Director of Programming Helen du Toit rely on both a team of professional programmers and countless volunteers.

“We’re not all in one hermetically sealed room,” Macdonald says. “Our programmers are all over the world, and each of us has a different area that we’re enamored of and knowledgeable in. We travel to all the major festivals, and we take submissions. We also have a network of filmmakers, distributors, and sales agents. Many of them we’ve known a long, long time, and they both send us the films they represent and turn us on to films they know about that we might not have seen. We look at well north of 2,000 films each year.”

“When I look at a film, I think to myself, what is the filmmaker aiming for, and do they hit the target?” du Toit says. “Originality is also really important. That’s an important criterion for me when I look at something. I also want to be intellectually challenged or emotionally moved.”

“A film has to do at least one of three things, ideally all three together,” Macdonald says. “It has to provoke me intellectually, it has to give me an emotional reaction, and it has to give me a visceral reaction.

"In other words, it needs to make me think, it needs to be satisfying emotionally, whether it makes me laugh or cry, and it needs to induce a physical reaction in the sense that I like to be shaken up. A film that does all three of those is the best kind of film, from my perspective. That being said, I’ll always go for a simple comedy that really makes me laugh, even if it’s semi-ridiculous.”

The goal of the programmers, as always, is to stage the most comprehensive film festival in the country.

“We’re interested in providing something for everyone instead of everything for someone,” Macdonald says. “It’s all about bringing together a really broad range of genres, of filmmaking styles, of film-going events, and creating a celebration of cinema on every level.”

That said, the festival always includes a few focus areas. This year the most significant of those is a concentration on African film.

Historically, Africa has not been a filmmaking hotbed, but in recent years the continent has taken a quantum leap forward, culminating this year in several terrific films. Chief among these is the Kenyan film, The First Grader, directed by Justin Chadwick.

Set in a mountain village in Kenya, this film tells the true story of an 84-year-old Mau Mau freedom fighter determined to seize his last chance to learn to read and write. He ends up in a class of six-year-olds, facing resistance from the Kenyan government, which intended its “free education for all” decree to apply to children rather than elderly adults.

“It’s really wonderful and funny,” Macdonald says. “Audiences love this film. It won the Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival, and it also was a huge hit at Telluride.”

LGBT films are also, as always, a focus.

This year PSIFF screens 16 GLBT films from 10 countries.

Among the lighthearted highlights at this year’s festival are: Leading Ladies (USA), directed by Daniel Beahm and Erika Randall Beahm, a zany musical about competition dancing, two very different sisters, one of whom wants to waltz out of the closet, and their overzealous stage mom; and Loose Cannons (Italy), directed by Ferzan Ozpetek, the outrageously funny tale of a wealthy, pasta producing family spinning out of control after the eldest son announces he is gay.

More dramatic LGBT films include: Black Field (Greece), directed by Vardis Marinakis, a delicately crafted period piece chronicling the forbidden love between a wounded Janissary and a novice nun; and 9:06, Slovenia’s Best Foreign Language Film nomination, directed by Igor Sterk, an elegant, genre bending police procedural that won nine Slovenian film awards, including Best Film, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.

Even with its large array of LGBT films, Palm Springs is best known for its abundance of foreign language films, particularly the contenders for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award.

This year the festival is screening 40 of the 65 official submissions to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for Best Foreign Language Film.

“Foreign films have been a mainstay of this festival since year one,” Macdonald says. “We made a conscious decision at the very beginning to focus on international cinema. For one thing, there was Sundance, where the total focus was on American Independent cinema. We didn’t need another Sundance.

"So what this festival charted for itself was to become the best international cinema festival in the country. And we’ve succeeded magnificently. The overall quality of our international selections is very highly regarded within the film industry and amongst filmmakers. That’s one of the reasons we’re consistently able to put together a lineup with the best of the foreign language Oscar submissions. Because, believe me, that’s not easy to do. How many prints with English subtitles do you think exist for most of these foreign films?”

Among Macdonald’s picks for must-see foreign language films is the Turkish film 40, directed by Emre Sahin.

Set in the chaotic streets of Istanbul, this film follows three strangers as they make their way in a city of 12 million. Each of the characters — an illegal immigrant, a nurse with a ne’er-do-well husband, and a gambler in debt to the mob — desperately seeks escape from a difficult life.

“Their stories don’t just intersect, they collide,” Macdonald says. “Overlapping stories is a convention we’ve seen before, but the energy and the freshness the director brings to the storytelling make this film special. Also, we’re seeing Turkey, Istanbul in particular, in a way we haven’t seen before on screen.”

Among du Toit’s foreign language picks is the French film Potiche, directed by Francois Ozon. The film stars Catherine Deneuve as a 1960s housewife who takes command of her husband’s business after an illness leaves him temporarily incapacitated. When her husband returns to health, he pushes her aside, but it seems the workers prefer her leadership to his.

“The husband is quite arrogant, but he’s only in his lofty position running the business because he married her,” du Toit says. “The workers love her. She’s fantastic. It’s a really wonderful feminist film.”

In recent years, documentary films have become an increasingly important part of the festival. As with foreign language films, a significant percentage of the Academy Award contenders are shown. Du Toit touts Irish director Mark Cousins’ film The First Movie (Ireland/Iraq) as a surefire hit.

In this film, Cousins, raised in a Northern Irish war zone, travels with his crew to the Kurdish-Iraqi village of Goptapa and screens five classic, child-centric films for the villagers—The Boot (Iran, 1992); E.T. (U.S., 1982); Palle Alone in the World (Denmark, 1949); The Red Balloon (France, 1956); and The Singing Ringing Tree (East Germany, 1957). Then he gives digital camcorders to the village children and turns them loose.

“He screens the films on bed-sheets hung from the side of a building,” du Toit says. “The villagers come from out of nowhere, and they want him to play the films again and again. Before he leaves they edit and screen the films the children made, making little heroes of them.”

A holdover from last year’s festival is the revamped and wildly popular “Talking Pictures” program, where Oscar contending directors (and this year actors, too) are brought in for a screening and discussion.

“We’ll be showing their film or in some cases perhaps film clips, and then we’ll bring them onstage for an extended moderated interview with a major media film critic or film journalist,” Macdonald says. “We started this new approach to our ‘Talking Pictures’ program last year, and audiences really responded well, so we’re continuing with it this year.”

Another carryover from last year is scheduling certain films to play more than twice, allowing filmgoers more opportunities to see the best films. (Prior to last year, the festival scheduled two screenings for each film, though encore screenings were occasionally added.)

The programmers generally have a good idea of which films will draw a large audience, and they’ve taken that into account by adding numerous third screenings. Macdonald, however, admits that occasionally they are surprised, so they remain flexible, adding extra screenings during the festival as needed. (Additional screenings are announced both online and at the box office.)

Beyond the films, the festival’s biggest draw is the aforementioned black-tie Gala Awards Show.

“The Awards Gala is about having a glamorous centerpiece to the festival,” Macdonald says. “Clearly the festival’s audience loves this event, and it’s also part of being a comprehensive festival. It’s similar to the actual film programming in that we don’t’ believe in presenting everything for someone, but rather something for everyone.

"So the Gala Awards show, along with the film focus on Africa, the LGBT films, and the ‘Talking Pictures’ program, is about bringing together a really broad range of genres, of filmmaking styles, of film-going events, and creating a celebration of film on every level and in every way.”

If you go

For more information on the Palm Springs International Film Festival, visit the website. It is possible to search online for movies by title, genre, screening date, film program, country of origin, director or venue. Tickets and ticket packages can also be purchased online.

LGBT films, listed in alphabetical order

Slovenia/Germany, 71 min.
Director - Igor Sterk
Mon., Jan. 10 – 8:30 pm – Regal
Wed., Jan 12 – 11:30 am – Regal

A coolly elegant one-man police procedural slowly develops into a beguiling psychological mystery in this genre-bender that raises more questions than it answers. Winner of nine Slovenian film awards, including Best Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay.

Anything You Want
Spain, 101 min.
Director - Achero Manas
Sat., Jan. 8 – 7:00 pm – Camelot
Mon., Jan. 10 – 1:00 pm – Camelot

Traditional male and female gender roles are tossed out the window in this intelligent and affecting feature about a newly widowed Madrid father who takes radical action to comfort his grieving four-year-old daughter. Filmmaker Achero Mañas strikes an emotional chord in this film about unconditional love.

Black Bread
Spain, 108 min.
Director - Agusti Villaronga
Thurs., Jan 13 – 4:00 pm – Camelot
Sat., Jan.15 – 5:00 pm – Regal

A 10-year-old boy confronts an adult world of lies, myths, wicked crimes and painful revelations in post-Civil War Catalonia. Be advised the film contains a scene that may offend those with a heightened sensitivity regarding cruelty to animals, though no animals were harmed during the shooting of the film.

Black Field
Greece, 104 min.
Director - Vardis Marinakis
Wed., Jan 12 – 7:30 pm – Regal
Sat., Jan 15 – 2:00 pm – Regal

This gorgeous, delicately crafted period piece chronicles a forbidden love story, set in 1654, when Greece was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. When a wounded Janissary and novice nun take refuge in a forest, some surprises are in store.

Born to Suffer
Spain, 112 min.
Director - Miguel Albaladejo
Fri., Jan 7 – 10:30 am – Regal
Wed., Jan. 12 – 4:00 pm – Palm Springs High School

A gentle, bittersweet dramatic comedy of female solidarity and subterfuge set in rural Spain. It centers on 72-year-old Flora, a spinster fearful that her relatives won’t care for her in her old age, and who marries her faithful female housekeeper in order to keep her covetous nieces at bay.

Dog Sweat
Iran/USA, 90 min.
Director - Hossein Keshavarz
Fri., Jan 7 – 2:00 pm – Camelot
Sun., Jan. 9 – 5:00 pm – Camelot

Secretly shot in Iran, this courageous film provides a fascinating glimpse of the quiet rebellion among the youth of that country, and the startling similarity of their quest for happiness.

Family Tree
France, 105 min.
Directors - Olivier Ducastel, Jacques Martineau
Mon., Jan. 10 – 7:00 pm – Annenberg
Wed., Jan. 12 – 10:00 am – Camelot

A half-century-old secret casts its shadow over a French family. When patriarch Frédérick chooses not to attend the funeral of his son Charles, the fall-out reveals the damage to a family that decades of living a lie can cause.

For 80 Days
Spain, 105 min.
Directors - Jon Garaño, José Mari Goenaga
Fri., Jan. 7 – 11:30 am – Regal
Sat., Jan. 8 – 1:30 pm – Regal
Tues., Jan. 11 – 2:30 pm – Regal

The nuance of an intense childhood friendship is re-explored decades later when two 70-year-old friends are unexpectedly reunited. Despite having lived very different lives, Axun and Maite find themselves spending more and more time visiting ailing relatives in the hospital as an excuse to spend more time together.

Canada, 102 min.
Director - Xavier Dolan
Fri., Jan. 14 – 8:00 pm – Regal
Sun., Jan. 16 – 2:00 pm – Regal

A blackly comic romance from the director of I Killed My Mother in which twenty-something hipsters Francis and Marie complete for the affections of new kid in town Nicolas, who plays them off against each other until a weekend in the country resolves things once and for all.

Leading Ladies
USA, 102 min.
Directors - Daniel Beahm, Erika Randall Beahm
Wed., Jan. 12 – 7:00 pm – Annenberg
Fri., Jan. 14 – 10:00 am – Annenberg

This intoxicating musical explores themes of personal liberation, sexual exploration and the lure of the ballroom dance floor with its tale of two distinctly different sisters and the overbearing mother who holds each of them back from attaining their heart’s desire.

Little Sparrows
Australia, 88 min.
Director - Yu-Hsiu Camille Chen
Wed., Jan. 12 – 1:00 pm – Regal
Sat., Jan. 15 – 2:00 pm – Camelot

Celebrating life--and the unconditional love of a mother for her three daughters--Little Sparrows centers on a family coming to terms with the matriarch’s impending death and the reality of their last Christmas together.

Loose Cannons
Italy, 110 min.
Director - Ferzan Ozpetek
Wed., Jan. 12 – 7:30 pm – Camelot
Fri., Jan. 14 – 1:30 pm – Camelot

The wealthy, pasta-producing Cantone family is well respected in their beautiful Baroque town in southern Italy. But situations spin out of control when eldest son Antonio announces he is gay leaving younger brother Tommaso as the family’s only hope for the future in this outrageously fun family comedy.

Out For the Long Run
USA, 78 min.
Director - Scott Bloom
Wed., Jan. 12 – 4:00 pm – Palm Canyon Theatre
Fri., Jan. 14 – 1:00 pm – Palm Canyon Theatre

Being a gay athlete in high school or college is still a very difficult road to travel. Bloom takes his camera into the campus locker room to record the stories of a new generation of courageous young people as they battle stereotypes and homophobia by speaking out.

The Owls
USA, 66 min.
Director - Cheryl Dunye
Tues., Jan. 11 – 7:00 pm – Palm Canyon Theatre
Thurs., Jan. 13 – 10:00 am – Palm Canyon Theatre

With a sly nod to the acronym for “older, wiser lesbians,” Cheryl (Watermelon Woman) Dunye’s neo-noir head twister brings together two forty-something lesbian couples that share a convoluted incident in their past, an unexpected predicament in their present lives and a seriously uncertain future.

Paper Birds
Spain, 115 min.
Director - Emilio Aragón
Fri., Jan. 7 – 4:30 pm – Regal
Sat., Jan. 8 – 1:00 pm – Regal

This touching tale of the bonds of friendship amongst the members of a traveling entertainment troupe in a post-civil war Spain celebrates the lost art of vaudeville and features superb performances from Spanish acting royalty: Imanol Arias, Lluis Homar and Carmen Machi. Winner, Audience Award, Montreal World Film Festival.

France, 103 min.
Director - Francois Ozon
Thurs., Jan. 6 – 6:30 pm – Palm Springs High School

Catherine Deneuve commands the screen with a regal wink as Suzanne Bujol, a trophy wife (“potiche”) whose mettle is tested when catastrophe strikes in her husband’s umbrella factory. Under the assured direction of prolific French filmmaker François Ozon, this stylish French farce is an irresistible romp through 1970s kitsch, politics and female emancipation.

The Sons of Tennessee Williams
USA, 75 min.
Director – Tim Wolff
Mon., Jan. 10 – 1:00 pm – Palm Canyon Theatre
Fri., Jan. 14 – 7:00 pm – Camelot

Mardi Gras, drag balls, and politics – where else could these elements come together but in New Orleans? This lively documentary charts the evolution of the gay Mardi Gras krewe scene over the decades, illuminating the ways in which its emergence was a seminal factor in the cause of gay liberation in the South.

Peru/Colombia, France, Germany, 110 min.
Director - Javier Fuentes-León
Sat., Jan. 8 – 1:30 pm – Camelot
Sun., Jan. 9 – 7:30 pm – Camelot

This bisexual triangle set in a Peruvian fishing village combines elements of magic realism with a beautifully realized romance. It follows the hidden love of a married coastal fisherman for an urbane (male) photographer. Winner, Audience Award, World Cinema, Sundance Film Festival.