2009 Palm Springs International Film Festival

One wonders how much bigger the Palm Springs International Film Festival can get. Unlike our economy, it seems to grow and prosper every year, and the 2009 version sported 208 films from 73 countries and set, once again, records for attendance and box office. Among the Oscar-winning and –nominated celebrities who were honored at the Gala were director Ron Howard and Sean Penn, an odds-on favorite for the lead role he played in Milk.

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$9.99 (Israel, dir: Tatia Rosenthal) This stop-motion puppet animation feature is constantly surprising and extremely evocative. It is set among the denizens of a Tel Aviv apartment building, and based on the stories of Etger Keret, who co-directed last year’s delightful Israeli bit of magical realism, Jellyfish. Here, we have the voices of Geoffrey Rush and Anthony Lapaglia and masterful work from director Tatia Rosenthal who brings an emotional depth to animated features rarely seen on these shores.

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The Baader Meinhof Complex (Germany, dir: Uli Edel) A leading candidate for the Academy Award for Foreign Film, Uli Edel’s sweeping history of the 70s revolutionary movement, the Red Army Faction, features a blistering pace and some absolutely astounding scenes of street violence. Making the true story all the more fascinating is the conviction of German journalist Ulrike Meinhof who gives up her career to join the ultra-violent leftist group, which spawns imitators, even while it is being systematically being taken apart by the state.

Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh (U.S., dir: Roberta Grossman) A heartbreaking and seemingly impossible story lies at the heart of this documentary, narrated by Joan Allen. Hannah Senesh, a 23-year-old Hungarian Jew living in Palestine in 1944, returns to her homeland to fight the Nazi occupation. Her one-day encounter with her brother and imprisonment near the cell of her mother, as well as her execution even as the Reich is crumbling make up a true life tale as tragic as it is hard to believe. Grossman’s recreations are tastefully shot and Senesh’s poetry beautifully completes this harrowing doc.

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Cherry Blossoms (Germany, dir: Dorris Dorrie) Writer-director Dorrie creates a beautifully shot tale of a German man whose wife does not tell him he has a brief time to live. They travel to Japan to visit an estranged son, where the wife suddenly dies and her husband forges a bond with homeless young woman who performs Butoh dance in a public park. Elmar Wepper and Aya Irizuki make a special onscreen, cross-cultural, father-daughter type impact that is undeniably affecting.

A Deal is a Deal (United Kingdom, dir: Jonathan Gershfield) Mackenzie Crook plays an Underground train driver who has two people die in front of his train and learns he can richly retire if a third happens to die in the following week. Enter belligerent Irish rapscallion Colm Meaney, who agrees to commit suicide for money and then makes Crook jump through hoops to accommodate him. Imelda Staunton has a nice turn as a jilted wife in this heartfelt and clever black comedy.

Four Nights with Anna (Poland, dir: Jerzy Skolimowski) After a long absence of more than 15 years, Skolimowsi has come roaring back with a haunting tale of a Polish crematorium worker who may or may not have raped a woman who lives near him in a village. His obsession grows to the point that he continually sneaks into her home, watches her sleep and putters about her home without ever waking her. Having co-written Knife in the Water for Roman Polanski, Skolimowski knows how to create almost unbearable tension, which he does here most ably.

The Friend (Switzerland, dir: Micha Lewinsky) The Oscar submission from Switzerland, The Friend is a drama with a sly wit, as a shy young man (Philippe Graber) falls for a depressed singer who has him pretend he is her boyfriend, just before she commits suicide. Unable to tell her family of their arrangement, he winds up comforting them and getting deeper and deeper into lies, as the dead girl’s sister falls in love with him. Nuanced performances all around make this an engrossing film with a quiet but insistent tension throughout.

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Hunger (Ireland, dir: Steve McQueen) The directorial debut of visual artist McQueen is nothing less than mesmerizing, telling the story of the Irish Republican prisoners in Belfast’s Maze prison in 1981, and the decision of Bobby Sands to starve to death in protest against British policy. The film is elegantly shot, with stunning bursts of raw anger and just when you think you have a handle on the directorial style, a brilliant mid-film discussion between Sands and a priest perfectly explores both sides of Sands’ commitment.

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Last Stop 174 (Brazil, dir: Bruno Barreto) Another Oscar submission that certainly deserved at least a nomination, Bruno Barreto’s Last Stop 174 is a staggering fictional account of an actual bus hijacking in 2000 Rio de Janeiro. But Barreto makes the standoff the very last part of a story in which a woman is convinced that a street urchin (the magnificent Michel Gomes) is her biological son and his spurned love for a streetwalker shatters his hopes for a peaceful and stable life.

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Mermaid (Russia, dir: Anna Melikyan) Magical realism melds with the fertile visual imagination of writer-director Anna Melikyan in this sweetly tragic tale of a young girl (Masha Shalaeva) who stops speaking and only regains the ability when she falls in love with a handsome but nefarious young man in Moscow. The fantasy sequences and telekinetic powers of the lead character perfectly accent this colorful, resplendent feature.

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The Necessities of Life (Canada, dir: Benoit Pilon) Winner of the Palm Springs Jury Award and yet another Oscar submission, this elegiac period piece follows an Inuit named Tiivii who is taken from his family to recuperate from tuberculosis in a 1952 Quebec City, where no one speaks his language. A young, dying Inuit boy, also hospitalized, gives him the strength to perservere in this carefully crafted drama.

No Subtitles Necessary: Lazlo and Vilmos (U.S., dir: James Chressanthis) A terrific documentary about two world-class cinematographers and lifelong friends, Vilmos Szigmond and the late Lazlo Kovacs. Their stunning tale of risking their lives to smuggle out footage of the 1956 Soviet invasion of their Hungarian homeland is in marked contrast to their gorgeous filmwork, including, for Lazlo, Easy Rider and Frances, and for Vilmos, McCabe and Mrs. Miller and The Deer Hunter. Among those honoring their lives and work are critic Todd McCarthy, Dennis Hopper, director Mark Rydell, Karen Black, Sharon Stone and fellow top-notch d.p., Vittorio Storaro.

Tear This Heart Out (Mexico, dir: Roberto Sneider) Among the nine shortlisted films for the Oscar was this sumptuous, 1930s period epic, following the marriage of a beautiful young girl to a brutal, upwardly mobile general who has his eye on the presidency of Mexico. The music, architecture and clothing of the period perfectly accent the fine work of all, especially Ana Claudia Talancon, who portrays the central character, from ages 15-30, amid the murder, betrayal and infidelity she has married into and cannot leave.

Top Ten Films of 2008

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 [Waltz with Bashir]

No top ten film list is really worth one thin dime if it does not grapple with comedy versus drama, animation vs. live action, documentary vs. narrative, studio vs. independent and yes, American versus the rest of the film world. Support these films in their video life and they might just cut back on making lame, bloated superhero cookie cutter epics. Unless you like that sort of thing. In which case, what are you doing reading this?

1. Waltz with Bashir (dir. Ari Folman) Director-screenwriter Ari Folman has created a one-of-a-kind film, with his animated, documentary-style feature. An Israeli soldier has blocked memories of his involvement in the 80s Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and the Phalangist massacre of the Palestinian refugee camps at Sabra and Shatilla. He visits others, trying to piece together his past, intermingled with fantasy sequences that startle and fascinate the viewer. Folman punctuates the search for a solution to Middle East peace with a startling, last-minute transition to live action, made all the more powerful by the recent Hamas-Israeli eruption of seemingly never-ending violence.

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2. The Girl Cut in Two (dir. Claude Chabrol) Not at all a cheesy grindhouse flick, this generally breezy ménage-a-trois, directed by French director Chabrol, and co-written with his former assistant, Cecile Maistre, has assured pacing and some clever editing that accentuates the dark humor. A cute, attractive TV weatherwoman (Ludivine Sagnier), falls madly in love with a respected author (Francois Berleand) who is old enough to be her father. An effete and arrogant, rich young man (Benoit Magimel) not only obsesses about winning her, but when he does, he cannot let go of her previous dalliance and the fear that she cannot truly love another. The briskly told story keeps one smiling, and the somewhat violent twist near the end is topped off with a melancholic irony that is most pleasing and fitting for this brilliant work.

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3. Mister Foe (dir. David Mackenzie) Also known as Hallam Foe, played by Jamie Bell, a 17-year-old who suspects his father of killing his mother, sleeps with his stepmother, runs off to Edinburgh and lives on the street and rooftops, until he spots a woman who is the spitting image of his mother in her late 20s. Kate (Sophia Myles) hires him at the hotel where she is in charge of human resources and finds herself drawn to him, even as she is involved with a married man. Mackenzie’s script captures a young man’s obsession, charm and, inevitably, a surprising twist on his sexuality to boot. Add a terrific UK indie soundtrack that shifts perfectly with the moods of the film—and won an award at Berlin—and you have a coming-of-age story that breaks new ground…and one’s heart.

4. Mongol (dir. Sergei Bodrov) Nominated for a Foreign Film Oscar for Kazhakstan, a winner with the National Board of Review, Mongol is all that an historical epic should be: lushly shot, powerful in its action sequences yet not so oversized that it does not connect to human emotions. Bodrov manages all this in telling the story of the persecution and ascendancy of no less than Genghis Khan, not generally associated with the woebegone. In the process of his conquering half the known world in the 13th century, we see this freed slave in action sequences that are not so much loud and large as thrilling, abetted by the remarkable scenery of Mongolia, at times in places where roads had to be built during production.

5. The Counterfeiters (dir. Stefan Ruzowitzky) Is there anything more treacherous, more deserving of easy condemnation than another Holocaust film that breaks no new ground, but merely elicits simple tears? Ruzowitzky’s unique yet nerve-wracking film of the largest counterfeiting ring in history, run from a concentration camp, is based on fact. Karl Markovics plays the Jewish counterfeiter who must fake UK, then US currency or die at the hands of the Nazis, and he is always engrossing. August Diehl is his equal, as the lone member of the team who would rather die—and jeopardize the lives of all the counterfeiters—than cooperate with the Reich. The film poses a do-or-die dilemma that made other harrowing Holocaust films, like the adaptation of Sophie’s Choice, so excruciatingly memorable.

6. Wall-E (dir. Andrew Stanton) By now, we have all come to acknowledge the artistry—both visually and in storytelling, that Pixar has brought to the moviedoing public. But with Wall-E, they have gone a few steps farther. Not only does the film open with no dialogue and the establishment of a robot, a cockroach and an earth besmirched, but it winds up, astoundingly yet workably, in outer space, lambasting humans who have grown fat, lazy and driven around by technology. Its unique structure, typically gorgeous art design and welcome social commentary all combine to make this a very special jewel in the Pixar crown.

7. Standard Operating Procedure (dir. Errol Morris) No one expects Morris to top his Oscar-winning feature documentary on Robert McNamara, The Fog of War, but with this fascinating examination of the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq, as well its manipulation and coverup, he has again done something both profound and mesmerizing with the form. Not only will those searching for demons find them in the film, but Morris’ “visual analogies” and a tremendous score by Danny Elfman highlight a doc that does so many things: It exposes how widespread the military knowledge was about prisoner abuse, how inadequately run the prison was and, most importantly, how the framing of a photo or an issue determines the guilt or innocence of those involved.

8. Frost/Nixon (dir. Ron Howard) Howard should be roundly commended and future filmmakers should take note that successful stage plays, like Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon will likely do better adapted by the playwright and featuring the same leads, in this case, living legend Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, who has gone from nailing Tony Blair to capturing talk show host David Frost with great acumen. Not only does Langella capture the egotism of Nixon but something more, the sense, inevitably, of failing his mission as a president, and it makes the denouement of this sharply paced and observed film, with great help from Kevin Bacon and Toby Jones and others, strike a deep chord of wounded memory, befitting a film about the legacy of the Watergate break-in.

9. Choke (dir. Clark Gregg) Actor-turned-director-screenwriter Clark Gregg has done justice to novelist Chuck Palahniuk, whose anti-establishment, pro-support group prose yielded the eccentric and marvelous Fight Club. Here, Victor Mancini (perfectly cast Sam Rockwell) is an utter loser, part of a sex addiction program and a colonial America recreator at some lame tourist trap. His mother (Angelica Huston) is an Alzheimer’s patient and Mancini pays for her debts, barely, by purposely choking on food in restaurants and relying on the largesse of those who save him. The whacko story goes into hyperspace as an attractive female doctor (Kelly MacDonald from No Country for Old Men) agrees to help Mancini and winds up bedding him, mostly because a historic text suggests he has divine lineage to Jesus Christ. Flashbacks to his too-bohemian upbringing help bring a nice depth to this charmingly twisted tale, which Gregg handles with just the right sense of ironic detachment.

10. Adam Resurrected (, dir.Paul Schrader) Jeff Goldblum turns in the performance of his career in this powerful adaptation of Israeli writer Yoram Kaniuk’s novel, directed by Paul Schrader (Autofocus). Goldblum shows a haunted, controlled desperation as German comedian Adam Steiner, who is taken to a concentration camp in WWII but kept alive by a commandant (Willem Dafoe) who makes him act like a dog. After the War, Steiner’s mental and physical states crumble at an Israeli institute where mentally unstable Holocaust survivors live together. Add a perverse, sexual relationship between Steiner and a nurse, bleakly humorous dialogue and an attempt to help a boy who thinks himself an animal and you have a film that will stay in the mind long after the final images fade onscreen.

(Honorable Mention: Elegy, In Bruges, Kabluey, Madagascar 2, Milk)