Palm Springs Overview

in 27th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Derek Malcolm

It may seem odd that the three films selected for prizes by the FIPRESCI jury did not even make the shortlist for the Academy’s Best Foreign Film Oscar. But it is rare that the critics and the Academy members agree. In this case, though, it seemed absurd that Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin (Nie Yinniang), a ravishingly beautiful example of the historical martial arts genre, which won the FIPRESCI prize for Best Film, wasn’t considered good enough for the shortlist. Hou is, after all, a world class director whose take on the genre is as original as any by the great King Hu. It is certainly astonishing to look at. But perhaps the complexity of the story-telling stunned the Academy’s voting committees.

There was a similar failure to see the considerable virtues of Iceland’s nomination Rams (Hrutar) for which Sigurdar Sigurjonsson and Theodor Juliusson won a joint acting award as two sheep farmers competing against each other for prize-winning sheep. This was a highly sympathetic account of its slightly arcane subject matter, as was the Czech Home Care (Domaci pece), in which the well-known actress Alena Mihulova plays a carer who puts everyone else’s needs before her own. She justly won FIPRESCI’s Best Actress prize in a film by  Slavek Horak which was an excellently written and directed debut.

Each of these films seemed worthy of the Academy’s consideration. But at least they won FIPRESCI prizes by way of compensation.

The small British tribute also included on the Palm Springs program was dominated by 45 Years and Radiator, both of which had excellent performances from veteran actors. Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling, winners at Berlin, were outstanding in 45 Years and Richard Johnson, now 87, and Gemma Jones, as an elderly couple living a ramshackle life in the Lake District of the UK, carried all before them. These were tiny films in the era of the new Star Wars and the latest Bond, but just as reverberant.

Even smaller, at least as far as its budget is concerned, was Trey Edward Shults’ Krisha, in which Krisha Fairchild, the director’s aunt, plays an ex-alcoholic who takes to drink again to survive her family’s Thanksgiving celebrations. Cassavates is the obvious model but, though not quite up to that mark yet, 26-year-old Shults’ debut has a rough-hewn and sometimes ferocious power, and Fairchild could hardly be better.

The best film I saw during the entire Festival, however, was Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa, his first venture into animation. Co- directed by Stop Motion expert Duke Johnson, this story of an alienated customer relations guru on a business trip to Cleveland has a truth and poignancy that strikes home again and again, particularly in its smaller detail. Brilliantly written as well as superbly animated, Anomalisa (the title is a combination of Anomaly and Lisa) is, for this writer, one of the films of the year. It just maybe a masterpiece, the Palm Springs program note states. I think it is. Not to be missed on any account, even if Kaufman is not usually your favorite director. Principally it shows that even very ordinary lives can seem extraordinary when looked at sideways by someone who understands relationships so well.

Derek Malcolm