My Oscar Adventure -- 67 Movies in 9 Days

03/23/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

By Lisa Nesselson

Esquire's popular feature "What Does it Feel Like?" has covered topics from the desirable ("What's It Like to Have Tantric Sex?") to the less so ("What's It Like to be Bitten by a Shark?").

They've overlooked one I know you're curious about: What's It Like to See All 67 Films Submitted for the Foreign Language Oscar? In 9 days.

Actually, it's exhausting but a lot of fun. I know because that's the task I accomplished with two colleagues at the invitation of the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January.

Now, in my year 'round capacity as a professional film critic, I am often asked "How many movies do you see?" followed by "How can you DO that?"

I usually reply that I may see 600 or so feature films a year, but I don't watch television. Statistics tell us that most people devote at least two hours a day to watching TV -- so that's the equivalent of 365 movies right there.

A Harvard Medical School and University of Pittsburgh study published on February 3 in the Archives of General Psychology links TV watching to depression -- so even though I watch "too many" movies, I'm probably in a better mood right now than you are.

But asking a film addict, "However do you find the time to see so many movies?" Is a bit like asking a heroin addict, "Tell me, how do you fit scoring and injecting drugs into your busy schedule?"

As a member of the French Union of Film Critics, I am also a member of a venerable organization called FIPRESCI. The Fédération Internationale de la Presse Cinématographique (International Federation of Film Critics) has its headquarters in Munich and fields juries at roughly 60 film festivals. Some you've heard of (Cannes, Venice, Berlin) and others you probably haven't (Lecce, Italy; Oberhausen, Germany), including the Palm Springs International Film Festival.

It has been 20 years since then mayor, the late Sonny Bono, initiated the event that now shows some 200 films, most of which sell out. Palm Springs is distinguished by its mission to show all the films submitted in the Oscar category of Best Foreign Language Film.

Much as any country may send a team to the Olympic Games, any country may submit one film to represent it in the Foreign Language Oscar race. (Please note: The USA, until further notice, is an English-speaking country. The award is not for a "foreign" film but a "foreign LANGUAGE" film.)

Then, using a system no more complex or unwieldy than building the pyramids and transporting them up Mt. Everest, committees comprised of voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences watch the submissions and whittle them down to 9 semi-finalists from which the 5 finalists are chosen. On February 22, 2009 one of those titles will be proclaimed the best film of 2008 not in English.

Palm Springs, a two hour drive to the east of Los Angeles, is a lovely desert town. Native Americans own most of the land. Not a lot of places with major film festivals fit that description.

The Native Americans have a special rapport with nature, but even they can't stop the earth from shaking like a roller coaster with a bad chest cold. Soon after I checked into my hotel room I felt a queasy ripple beneath my feet, and watched in surprise as my laptop computer danced halfway across the desk. The epicenter of this 5.0 earthquake was 45 miles away from Palm Springs. Even the unflappable locals noticed.

My fellow jurors came from London and Boston. I live in Paris. I'm not sure we could broker peace in the Middle East, but we got along well, respected each other's taste and made our decision without resorting to violence. Fortunately, we had each already seen some of the titles leaving "only" 50.

Watch enough movies in quick succession and you may conclude that the world is a strange and wonderful place where the new pastime of photography can salvage a marriage (Everlasting Moments from Sweden); an airport janitor can delight poor children with imaginative tales of his adventures as a pilot (Captain Abu Raed from Jordan); or an unemployed cellist can find handling dead bodies as satisfying as playing in an orchestra (Departures from Japan).

Or, conversely, watch enough movies in quick succession and you may conclude that the world is a strange and horrible place where organized crime rules every citizen's life on a near molecular level (Gomorrah from Italy); the decrepit chemical plant is poisoning the perpetually frustrated residents of a depressing town (I Am from Tito Veles -- one of two films made in Macedonia last year); or a pregnant mother's nasty cough in a famine struck North Korean mining town leads to the heartbreaking demise of everything she loves (Crossings from South Korea).

Watch enough movies close together and strange patterns start to emerge. In less than 48 hours we saw two films in which couples have torrid sex and then eat pizza in bed: Revanche from Austria and Last Stop 174 from Brazil. ( We waited in vain for the breakthrough opus in which a couple has torrid sex WITH a pizza.)

With a population of roughly 40,000 people, a great many of whom are retired, Palm Springs is also home to an above-road bridge referred to as "The Nude Bridge". That's because a nudist colony operates on both sides of the road and members routinely cross it. To eliminate the possible distraction of naked people in plain sight, the sides of the bridge are opaque, like a covered wagon. But anybody driving a visitor still takes their eyes off the road to say, "And up there is the Nude Bridge.....naked people may be crossing it this very minute." And the visitor believes them and sometimes even repeats it in a major online publication.

The festival boasts over 500 volunteers. Given Palm Springs' substantial gay population, pre-film announcements are sometimes more colorful than at more staid festivals. At one screening we were told to "Please turn off anything that rings or hums -- cell phones, pagers, vibrators."

Palm Springs makes a compelling case for senior citizens as the future of filmgoing. Audiences skew very clearly toward the over 60 demographic. They are rabid, dedicated filmgoers, who plainly feel energized by exposure to stories from far flung locales -- however challenging or obscure. Individuals in wheelchairs or using canes think nothing of lining up over an hour prior to showtime. And, if you think jousting went out of style when horses lost market share as a means of transportation, you have not witnessed the spectacle of ferociously wielded canes when demand for seats at a given screening exceeds the supply.

Also, judging from conversations overheard in the Ladies rooms of Palm Springs'
cinemas, I'd say the concentration of film-gleaned geopolitical savvy rivals that in all but the Ladies room at UN headquarters. It slams home how little Paul Blart: Mall Cop has to offer in the way of haunting historical context compared to, say, Waltz With Bashir.

People whose optic nerves have been functioning for 60, 70 or 80 years are perfectly happy to read subtitles. That may be because they are perfectly happy to read, period. A national report released the first week of the fest revealed that 32 million Americans (1 in 7) over age 16 are illiterate.

Why doesn't this ever get mentioned when it's said that newspaper readership is down? I mean, picture if the combined populations of Denmark, Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg couldn't read. (Actually, they'd be ripe for mainstream movie going, except they'd never be able to figure out which movies were showing where or at what times. And if you're not sure where to find the aforementioned countries on a map, just duck into a Palm Springs restroom. I'm confident a festival badge-holder will be able to sketch an accurate diagram of Western Europe in lipstick on the nearest mirror before a stall becomes available.)

On Sunday January 18 we announced our choice: unconventional murder mystery Revanche from Austria. And on January 22, "Revanche" was named one of the final 5 contenders for the Oscar.

I would like to think that our decision directly influenced the members of the Academy but I suspect that they -- much like you, until you started reading this article -- had no idea we exist. They watched the international submissions over a period of three months. We had to make up our minds in 9 days.

You will be happy to know that after leaving Palm Springs, I took a break. I waited 24 hours before I went to see a movie.