24th Palm Springs International Film Festival

U.S., January 3 - January 14 2013

The jury

Peter Keough (US), Jacob Lundström (Sweden), Malwina Grochowska (Poland)

Awarded films

* Films awarded at Palm Springs receive the Best Foreign Language Film Award.

The 24th Palm Springs International Film Festival began with its traditional, glittery “International Black Tie Awards Gala”, in which the top Oscar prospects — Ben Affleck from Argo, David O. Russell and Bradley Cooper from Silver Linings Playbook, Tom Hooper from Les Misérables, Naomi Watts from The Impossible, among others — received honorary awards and pitched their movies for Academy consideration. But Helen Mirren, accepting the “International Star Award” and a Best Actress contender for her performance in Hitchcock, went a little off script when she beseeched the 2000 in attendance to “See movies with subtitles! It’s easy!”

She couldn’t have picked a better venue to make this appeal. Every year the PSIFF programs as many of each participating country’s official Best Foreign Language nominees as possible. This year the countries of origin ranged from Algeria to Taiwan and the filmmakers ranged in experience from Michael Haneke and his much touted Amour to first-timer David Tosh Gtonga’s Nairobi Half Life, the first Oscar entry from Kenya.

The latter might be one of the few films in this selection with a happy ending, though it does involve the violent deaths of most of the film’s major characters. But it’s a walk in the park after the movies aboutfascist oppression, violence against children, violence against women, suicide, assisted suicide, old age, and death. They make Haneke’s funereal study of the inevitable woes of senescence seem like an episode of The Golden Girls.

But as depressing as the content of many of these films may be, the quality of the filmmaking inspires optimism about the health of world cinema.This was a mixed blessing, as our jury was hard-pressed to come up with a winner. We narrowed the choice down to seven and finally settled on Israeli director Rama Burshtein’s Fill the Void (Lemale et Ha’halal), a subtle but powerful exploration of loss, loyalty, and identity set in a Hassidic community.

That leaves over a hundred more films to see in the festival, in sections such as “New Voices/New Visions”, which features first films from around the world. The jury for that competition awarded their prize to Peruvian director Adrian Saba’s The Cleaner (El Limpiador),a minimalist disaster movie about a mystery plague decimating the population of Lima. In it the grumpy HAZMAT worker of the title begrudgingly bonds with an orphan boy — in a minimally sentimental way.

As it turned out, for the most part the jurieschose movies with subtitles. But the average festival-goer didn’t seem to take Mirren’s advice to heart, as both their awards went to English language films. For best feature they voted for The Sapphires, Australian filmmaker Wayne Blair’s bio-pic based on the true story of an all-female aboriginal singing group that took the country by storm in the 60s. And for best documentary they went the musical route again, choosing Ramona Diaz’s Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey, recounting the title band’s search for a lead singer to replace Steve Perry.

Also apparently unconvinced by Mirren’s injunction is 70-year-old British enfant terrible Peter Greenaway, represented by his most recent film, Goltzius and the Pelican Company. He’s quoted in the festival catalogue as telling the Guardian that the problem with cinema today is that “everything begins with the text and this is a source of great anguish to me. So please let cinema get on with doing what it does best, which is expressing ideas in visual terms.”

True to his ideals, Greenaway features in his lush, sexy, and inscrutable film a 16th century artist who translates a text into images, taking erotic scenes from the Bible, and turning them into sexually explicit paintings. (Peter Keough)

Palm Springs International Film Festival: www.psfilmfest.org