01/17/2013 05:44 pm ET Updated Mar 19, 2013

Best of the 2013 Palm Springs Film Fest

The recently wrapped 24th annual Palm Springs International Film Festival had, amongst its 182 features from 68 countries, an exciting mix that drew viewers from the world over. These are the most notable among 38 films viewed:

Blancanieves (Spain/France), dir. Pablo Berger
Writer-director Berger waited more than a decade after his previous Torremolinos 73, a personal favorite of this writer, before releasing this black and white, completely captivating and magical retelling of the fable of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Here, a young daughter of a great torreador (Macarena Garcia) travels with a band of performing dwarves, bullfighting her way into a confrontation with her delightfully wicked stepmother (a perfectly lurid Maribel Verdu). Berger's brilliance was rightfully rewarded at Palm Springs with the Cine Latino Award, to go along with the Grand Jury Prize at San Sebastian. Let us pray we do not have to wait another 10 years or so for Berger's next great work.

War Witch (Canada), dir. Kim Nguyen
Nguyen spent 10 years researching child soldiers in Asia and Africa before writing and directing, in the Republic of the Congo, this simultaneously gorgeous and shattering tale of a 12-year-old girl, Komona (Rachel Mwanza) who is forced to gun down her own parents and join a rebel movement. Nguyen captures the horror of the violence without being graphic and he wisely ameliorates the suffering with poignant moments of joy and childishness among these warriors, robbed too early of innocence. Mwanza won a Silver Bear at Berlin for her work and at Tribeca, she and Nguyen were also honored for their exceptional talent. War Witch has received more nominations, 12, than any other Canadian film this year.

Hannah Arendt (Germany), dir. Margarethe von Trotta
There are fewer great challenges in film than making the philosophical and von Trotta and her wonderful star, Barbara Sukowa, manage wonderfully well in this tale of the author of The Origins of Totalitarianism. Despite Arendt being a survivor of the Holocaust herself, she is attacked for her New Yorker coverage of the 1961 trial in Jerusalem of Adolph Eichmann, in which she called him a bureaucrat and wrote of the "banality of evil." Sukowa delivers her lectures and speeches with galvanizing fire and von Trotta, winner of Best Film at Valladolid, poses with great balance the dissection of Nazi psychopathy.

Suicide Shop (France/Canada, Belgium), dir. Patrice Leconte
One of France's finest directors takes an abruptly different but nevertheless delightful turn in this animated, musical black comedy about a family business in Paris that assists people in committing suicide. But when the Tuvanche family welcomes a baby boy who is relentlessly cheerful and an impediment to business, things take a strange but engaging path.

Mental (Australia/USA), dir. P.J. Hogan
Hogan has reteamed with his Muriel's Wedding star, the phenomenal Toni Collette, who plays a daringly outspoken nutcase who plays nanny to a group of girls whose mother is having a nervous breakdown and whose mayor father (Anthony LaPaglia) has shown them no attention for years. Watch for Liev Schreiber, who plays a shark obsessed ex of Collette's and is just as loony and dangerous. Hogan mines the material for lots of laughter but chokes us up just as expertly, making us see the positive attributes of going a little mental.

Beware Mister Baker (USA), dir. Jay Bulger
Speaking of going mental, this documentary about Cream drummer Ginger Baker opens with him getting angry at filmmaker Bulger and smashing him in the nose, on camera, with a walking stick. There can be no doubt that Baker was one of rock's greatest drummers and the film includes some great clips of him with Elvin Jones, Art Blakey and Nigeria's iconic Fela Kuti. But Bulger also shows the irresponsible and confrontational side of Baker as well, including his weird obsession with polo in South Africa and turning his back on Fela and others battling a repressive political regime in Lagos.

Renoir (France), dir. Gilles Bourdos
Shot on the Cote d'Azur, this biopic of impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, his son Jean and their relationship with a gorgeous and precocious 15-year-old model is as beautifully shot as one might hope. Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bin deserves kudos along with Bourdos, who not only shows the elder Renoir battling his memories and failing body but also the younger Renoir re-evaluating his service as a soldier and his growing attraction to his father's muse.

The End of Time (Canada/Switzerland), dir. Peter Mettler
One of the most perplexing and unusual films viewed, a personal essay by Mettler, who ponders time, space and human consciousness. He includes terrific music and editing in this non-narrative work, which includes footage of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland, the last resident of a South Pacific island being swallowed up by lava and the burnt out shells of homes and buildings in Detroit that seem utterly alien to our experience. Mettler's imagination allows one to let go of story expectations and go along for a philosophical and sensual joyride.

Koch (USA), Neil Barsky
A strong contingent of documentaries at Palm Springs including this balanced look at former New York City mayor Ed Koch. Barsky follows the now 87-year-old Koch, whose charm and energy are unflagging. But the director also poses important questions about his confrontational style and misgivings from the black community and AIDS activists about his lack of action on their behalf during his terms in office.

Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself (United Kingdom), dir. Tom Bean and Luke Poling
George Plimpton became the stories he covered as a journalist and author, temporarily becoming a quarterback (Paper Lion), circus performer, boxer, philharmonic percussionist for Leonard Bernstein and on and on. His friendship with Robert Kennedy and editorship at the Paris Review are part of the ever-shifting, fascinating filmic landscape and Bean and Poling also do not skimp on his inabilities to create a strong family unit, choosing instead the excitement of constant reinvention and media exposure.

United in Anger: A History of Act Up (USA), dir. Jim Hubbard
The footage is sometimes amateurish. There is no central figure. The story is one of the decimation of ten of thousands of Americans due to inactivity in responding to HIV/AIDS during the early days of the pandemic. And yet, Hubbard's doc is the most engrossing and emotional doc seen this year at Palm Springs. Many of the quick-witted activists from Act Up, who appear in this film, knew they would not survive much longer. But when one considers that the confrontational, organized tactics managed things like forcing Burroughs-Wellcome to lower the price of AIDS drug AZT, one is inspired as well as astonished.

Key of Life (Japan), dir. Kenji Uchida
Director-writer Uchida has style aplenty in this comedy about a hitman and struggling actor who wind up following in each other's footsteps, joined by a pretty, driven female magazine executive who has given herself a deadline for getting married. The gentle comedy complements the fairly complex and charming tale, one in which a killer learns compassion and teaches a bad actor how to be more believable.

4Some (Czech Republic), dir. Jan Krebejk
Two married couples, next door neighbors, whose children are also romantically involved with each other, decide to go on holiday without the kiddies. In the process, this sweet comedy deals with open marriage, role reversed children telling their parents how to behave and a constant stream of surprises. Clever, insightful and never lurid or smarmy. In other words, thank God it was not made in the studio system.

Flying Blind (United Kingdom), dir. Katarzyna Klimkiewicz
Helen McCrory, who so impressed as Cherie Blair in The Queen, gets a role worthy of her great talent. Here, she is a British aerospace engineer who falls for a younger man, a handsome Algerian student, who is secretly being investigated as a possible security risk. A brilliant condemnation of our suspicious nature and how lack of faith can destroy love.