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.

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