The recently completed 25th annual Palm Springs International Film Festival, with almost 200 features and most of the Academy Award submissions for foreign film, regularly supplies this writer with a few of the films on my top 10 list. Two of those titles were deemed award-worthy. Berenice Bejo of Asghar Farhadi's brilliant jigsaw puzzle of a film, The Past was given the FIPRESCI prize for best actress of the year in a foreign language film. And Felix van Groeningen's Belgian Oscar longlist nominee, The Broken Circle Breakdown, also on my list, nabbed the FIPRESCI Prize for best foreign language film of the year.
Among the 43 features I saw all or part of, here are those that still resonate, days later:
Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia (USA/Italy, dir: Nicholas Wrathall)
Speaking of awards, this fully fleshed portrait of essayist, novelist and cultural critic Gore Vidal won the audience award for best documentary feature at Palm Springs. From Vidal's friendships with JFK and Jackie to his rivalries with Norman Mailer and William F. Buckley, Wrathall includes it all, moving us with Vidal's loss of his life partner, his exodus from his home in Ravello, Italy and yet, making us chuckle with his acerbic barbs about our tawdry and self-destructive political world.
The Square (Egypt/USA, Jehane Noujaim)
The awards bestowed upon this documentary about the Arab Spring uprising in Cairo's Tahrir Square, including Sundance, Toronto and the Oscar shortlist, are justified by a film both emotionally cathartic and informative. Noujaim not only gives us insight into the downfall of Hosni Mubarak but the difficult position the revolutionary, democratic movement faces in that country, caught between Islamic theocracy and military rule. Inevitably, as the battle for democratic reform continues, we are swept up in the bravery, wisdom and commitment of those highlighted in this transformative film.
In Secret (USA, Charlie Stratton)
An absolutely stunningly shot adaptation of Emile Zola's Therese Raquin, with director Stratton perfectly utilizing Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) and Elizabeth Olsen as the young lovers who conspire to kill her heartless husband in 1860s Paris. Erotically charged, with excellent acting across the board, including support from Jessica Lange and Shirley Henderson. It is the kind of adaptation that feels both authentic and yet fully immersible for audiences today.
Traffic Department (Poland, Wojtek Smarzowski)
Corruption in the Warsaw police department is played out at hyperspeed in this dark though amusing, highly complex policier. Bartlomiej Topa plays a sargeant who like his cohorts is willing to accept monetary bribes or sexual favors during traffic stops, until the death of a fellow officer uncovers even more malfeasance than even he can accept. Smarzowski's script rightfully won the Polish film award and his mind-boggling feature also jumps from normal film stock to cell phone camera footage, just one of many fascinating plot points that keeps the viewers on the edge of their seats.
Like Father, Like Son (Japan, Hirokazu Kore-ada)
The Jury Prize winner at Cannes subtly grows on the viewer until tears ensue, in this story of two Japanese couples who learn very belatedly that their sons were exchanged in the hospital at birth. Their willingness to return the boys to their biological parents does nothing to combat the guilt and heartbreak for those involved. Kore-ada also cleverly makes comments about parenting and whether socioeconomic class really is an advantage in the raising of children. A beautifully moving, carefully observed drama. Steven Spielberg has acquired the rights for a U.S. remake. See this one first.
Circles (Serbia, Srdan Golubovic)
Golubovic's drama moves seamlessly between Bosnia in 1993 -- when the heroic actions of a soldier stops another soldier from killing a Muslim civilian, losing his life in the process -- and Serbia in 2008, where we see a group of people still impacted by that moment. The structure of this script by Srdan Koljevic and Milena Pota Koljevic is as engaging as the mountainous vistas. A winner of the special jury prize at Sundance, Circles goes beyond the typical tragedy-of-war approach to dig into the ability as well as inability to forgive.
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (United Kingdom, Declan Lowney)
Steve Coogan (Philomena) has been playing egotistical, clueless DJ Alan Partridge for 20 years, but his British TV creation gets a hilarious platform in this wild feature. North Norfolk Digital Radio undergoes a format change and Partridge, to save his job, convinces his new corporate masters to fire an Irish DJ (Colm Meaney), who holds the station hostage, putting Partridge in the role of negotiator. Five writers, including Coogan and Armando Ianucci (In the Loop) have given us a cracking good lot of verbal and visual jokes.
Enemy (Canada/Spain, Denis Villeneuve)
Is it horror, psychedelia, allegory? Enemy defies easy categorization and not surprising, as it is based on a book by Nobel Prize winning, Portugese surrealist author Jose Saramago. Jake Gyllenhaal plays both a mousy Toronto history professor and his exact physical duplicate, a struggling actor living nearby. The doppelgangers make an unholy alliance to exchange female partners with fascinating and disastrous consequences. The shocking, symbolic conclusion of Enemy should in no way detract from the fascination it weaves along the way.
Particle Fever (USA, Mark Levinson)
Who knew that a movie about particle physics could be profound, visually engaging, tense and filled with quirky, amusing, non-nerdy subjects? Levinson's documentary about the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland and few well-chosen physicists about to find out if there is such a thing as a Higg's boson, confirming or destroying theories developed over the years, is surprising in its power. Part of its effectiveness is due to the expert editing of Walter Murch (The Godfather I and II, Apocalypse Now) and the camera-ready scientists who represent more than 10,000 men and women from over 100 countries who labored for 20 years for a moment, caught in Levinson's lenses, that would change forever how we look at the universe.