The 26th annual Palm Springs International Film Festival, Jan. 2-12, included fifty of the Academy Award-nominated foreign films. Here's the best of a fest that includes American studio, independent and overseas cinema.
Wild Tales, Argentia, dir. Damián Szifrón
Winner of 10 Argentine Academy Awards and Best Foreign Language Film from the National Board of Review, Wild Tales is visually resplendent and bleakly hilarious. Szifrón's six short films include a bride going ballistic when she finds out her new husband had a previous affair and two drivers who take road rage to a whole new black comedy level. Script, direction and acting melded perfectly.
Match, USA, Stephen Belber
Adapted from Belber's stage play, Match pits dance instructor Patrick Stewart against two interlopers (Carla Gugino, Matthew Lillard) who pretend they want to interview him about his artistic past. But a sexual liaison and a paternity question turn up the heat in this lovely gem of a work, written and directed with brio by Belber. Stewart's deliciously outrageous role is, well, matched, by Gugino, whose tears prompt our own.
1001 Grams, Norway, Bent Hamer
Writer-director Hamer, a longtime Palm Springs favorite, again mixes quirkiness with carefully depicted emotion. Norwegian scientist Marie (Ane Dahl Torp) takes over from her dying scientist father in caretaking the national prototype of a kilogram. In subtly absurd fashion, she goes to an international convention in Paris and falls in love, while reps from countries carry around their own kilos, as if they were nuclear bombs. Hamer and his actors are masters of subtlety and grace.
The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, Sweden, Felix Herngren
A crazily robust film in which a centenarian (Robert Gustafsson) runs away from his retirement home and his picaresque adventures include drug dealers, a circus elephant, clueless police and a backstory which reveals his mistaken identity as a developer of the atomic bomb, an unwittingly double agent and his chance meetings with Stalin, Franco, Truman and Reagan. Herngren cleverly makes the twists plausible and earns much laughter in this audience favorite.
Tokyo Fiancée, Belgium/France.Canada, Stefan Liberski
Pauline Etienne embodies the charm of a young Audrey Hepburn, as a 20-year-old Belgian girl who wants to be Japanese, until she finds their customs and rules inexplicable. When she falls in love with her handsome, Japanese student of French (Taichi Inoue), their seemingly perfect romance takes a hit from a natural disaster. Liberski has in Etienne a greatly gifted young actress who carries this gorgeously shot feature.
The Duke of Burgundy, UK, Peter Strickland
At first glance, Strickland's portrait of the sadomasochistic relationship between a wealthy mistress (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and her maid (Chiara D'Anna) looks like an artsy throwback to '70s European softcore, with tastefully psychedelic soundtrack by the group Cat's Eyes. But as the film progresses, we realize this couple is controlled by the seeming slave and fissures appear in their nontraditional but loving life together. Strickland's camera wisely creates tension and obliquely suggests how far one woman's fantasies can go, unrestrained.
The Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story, USA, N.C. Heikin
Alto sax legend Frank Morgan had no one less than a family friend, Charlie Parker, bless his horn. But Morgan's history of heroin and criminal behavior kept him away from his music for thirty years, until a triumphant, belated return. Director Heikin has constructed a visually rich, emotionally fulfilling doc, framed by a special San Quentin prison concert by the Frank Morgan Tribute band.
Red Army, USA/Russia, Gabe Polsky
Slava Fetisov is a retired hockey great, who, before his time with the Detroit Red Wings of the NHL, was part of a Soviet hockey team whose greatness and dominance were offset by their virtual imprisonment by their government. Polsky plays with American jingoism, one moment showing the seemingly emotionless Red Army team, the next revealing how their coach, a former KGB officer, mistreated them. By the time the Russians come to the NHL and raise the level of play, Polsky and his charmingly offbeat subject, Fetisov, have captured the viewer's heart and mind.
No One's Child, Serbia/Croatia, Vuk Rsumovic
Like Truffaut's Wild Child, Rsumovic's moving feature is based on a true story, here, a boy living with wolves in the Bosnian mountains. Attempts to "civilize" him in a Belgrade orphanage lead to heartbreak as well as friendship and ironically, the boy winds up enmeshed in the brutality of the Balkan battlefields. Denis Muri's stunning depiction of the animalistic boy is remarkable and Rsumovic sagely leaves us at the end questioning what it is to be a human.
Güeros, Mexico, Alonso Ruiz Palacios
Teen Tomas is sent to live with his older brother Fede, in the midst of Mexico City's normal dangers plus a student revolution. Tomas insists they find a legendary, aging rock star, whose music was passed down by their father to them. This touching slice of life is beautifully lensed in black and white by Ruiz Palacios and his cinematographer, Damian Garcia. The story flows effortlessly, has much to say about both the nihilism and optimism of youth and is most deserving of being named Best First Feature at the Berlin Film Festival.