Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

Josh Bell

Love for the Coachella Valley was a running theme during the Local Spotlight series at the Palm Springs International Film Festival—whether it was expressed by filmmakers who live in the area, or by the onscreen showcases of local landmarks and institutions.

The three Local Spotlight films come from different perspectives and have different goals—but all of the filmmakers involved clearly have a passion for the community.

Co-directors (and married couple) P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes joked about the surprisingly strong turnout for a 7:30 p.m. screening in Palm Springs at the festival debut of their documentary House of Cardin, a tribute to legendary fashion designer Pierre Cardin. Palm Springs residents for the past five years, Ebersole and Hughes developed a love for Cardin’s work thanks to the prevalence of his designs in midcentury modern furniture, setting them on a journey that culminated in the first authorized biography of the notoriously particular fashion icon.

Once Cardin agreed to participate in the film, that opened doors to celebrities including Naomi Campbell, Sharon Stone, Dionne Warwick and others. House of Cardin is a comprehensive look at Cardin’s prolific career in fashion, home furnishings and branded items of all kinds. (Ebersole and Hughes themselves own the Cardin AMC Javelin featured in the movie, shown in a distinctively Palm Springs driveway.) The movie is slick and informative—the kind of thing you could easily imagine streaming on Netflix—and it conveys just how massive the Cardin brand was at its height.

Cardin—still working at the age of 97!—has been involved in so many projects in so many phases of his career that the movie can be a bit unwieldy as it attempts to encapsulate his entire life. For viewers who know nothing about Cardin, the movie offers a sense of the scope of his work and his desire to encourage ethnic and economic diversity in fashion. It’s also relentlessly positive, and can feel a bit overly promotional, especially in the brief sections about Cardin’s personal life that gloss over his complex relationships. Still, the filmmakers could only include as much as they were allowed access to, and as a love letter to the Cardin empire, the movie succeeds.

Director Leo Zahn’s Iconicity (which had its world premiere at the festival) is also a love letter to artistic achievement, in this case to the many quirky art movements in the Coachella Valley and the Mojave Desert. Zahn, who’s lived in Rancho Mirage since 2010, previously made two other documentaries dealing with the cultural history of the Coachella Valley—2016’s Desert Maverick (about architect William F. Cody) and 2018’s Sinatra in Palm Springs—and Iconicity rounds out what he refers to as a loose trilogy. It’s a travelogue of sorts as Zahn visits artists in places including Joshua Tree, Borrego Springs and the Salton Sea’s Slab City and Bombay Beach, chatting with artists in each place, many of whom create unconventional, location-specific works.

Zahn has a clear enthusiasm for the art and artists he features in the movie, and his passion for the material carries the unevenly structured film. Zahn devotes nearly half of the running time to Bombay Beach, which has been extensively transformed by the artists who have colonized the town in recent years. Bombay Beach and its Biennale art festival are fascinating enough subjects that they could easily support their own feature, and Zahn simultaneously takes on too much and not enough by trying to incorporate multiple art communities and movements in the film. At the same time, the movie succeeds in creating a desire to learn more about the artists and their work—and it continues Zahn’s efforts to bring local culture to a wider audience.

The third movie in the Local Spotlight section, Christopher Munch’s The 11th Green, doesn’t have much in common with House of Cardin or Iconicity … or any other movie, for that matter. It’s a narrative film from the writer-director behind cult movies including The Hours and Times and Letters From the Big Man, and while it was mostly shot in Palm Desert and the surrounding areas, it’s not specifically about the Coachella Valley. It’s tough to say what the movie actually is about, since it feels like it was crowd-sourced from conspiracy-theory message-board posts about a government cover-up of UFOs.

Campbell Scott plays a journalist who investigates his late father’s involvement in the alien conspiracy, while staying in his family’s sprawling Palm Desert mansion and working/sleeping with his father’s former assistant (Agnes Bruckner).

Meanwhile, Barack Obama (Leith M. Burke), on vacation in Hawaii, convenes on the astral plane with the ghost of Dwight D. Eisenhower (George Gerdes) to learn about the history of alien involvement in human affairs and decide whether to reveal the truth to the American people. (The movie takes place during Obama’s presidency.) These two completely bonkers storylines never quite fit together, although they sort of converge toward the end of the movie.

Munch takes advantage of the beauty of Palm Desert, shooting in plenty of picturesque outdoor spaces and setting scenes at local businesses, but the location is incidental to the plot. Veteran performers Scott and Bruckner do as well as they could with the absurd storyline, but the best this baffling oddity can hope for is a sort of ironic cult following, along the lines of movies like The Room and Neil Breen’s Fateful Findings.

As far as local culture goes? It’s in a class entirely of its own.

As the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has kept tinkering with the way the nominees for the Oscar for Best International Feature Film (recently renamed from Best Foreign Language Film) are selected, the initial shortlist of selections has gotten longer.

That’s a good thing for the Palm Springs International Film Festival, which has become the destination where film-goers can see the largest number of submissions for the award. This year, the festival programmed 51 of the record 93 submissions, including all 10 movies that ended up on the shortlist. The final five nominees were announced Jan. 13, on the last day of the festival.

Several of the shortlisted films were among the festival’s hottest tickets—I got stuck sitting in the front row for two of them—and there’s a general sense of excitement among attendees about seeing these movies before their big awards spotlight. Two of the shortlisted movies, Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite (from South Korea) and Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory (from Spain), already enjoyed pretty extensive theatrical releases before the festival, garnering plenty of attention and prior awards (and deservedly so; they each made the Oscar nominee cut, too). But the other eight were all genuine discoveries, even if they’ve been making the festival rounds for several months now.

The category is still dominated by World War II and WWII-adjacent narratives, and three of this year’s selections (Russia’s Beanpole, the Czech Republic’s The Painted Bird and Hungary’s Those Who Remained) take place in the immediate aftermath of the war. Beanpole and The Painted Bird are both bleak, often-punishing stories about despair and cruelty, while Those Who Remained is warmer and more optimistic, albeit still tinged with darkness.

Beanpole features a haunting lead performance from Viktoria Miroshnichenko as the title character, a tall, pale, soft-spoken young woman working as a nurse in Leningrad after fighting in the war. Miroshnichenko’s Iya is so traumatized by the war that she suffers paralyzing seizures, one of which leads to a horrible tragedy as she cares for the 3-year-old son of her friend and wartime companion Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina). The dire future prospects of the two women are balanced a bit by their strong emotional connection, and Beanpole embeds a tender, well-acted story of queer intimacy in its exploration of postwar misery (although the misery usually wins out).

There’s nothing but misery in Václav Marhoul’s deeply unpleasant adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 novel The Painted Bird, which follows a young Jewish boy’s odyssey across an unnamed Eastern European country in the final days of World War II. At nearly three hours long, the movie is an unrelenting parade of grim torture, as young Joska (Petr Kotlar) drifts from one horrific ordeal to another, taken in by a series of adults who beat, rape, abuse and enslave him, without even a sliver of kindness until the very end. Rather than illuminating the inherent cruelty of human nature, The Painted Bird just wallows in sadism, and its lurid acts of violence quickly become laughable. The black-and-white cinematography is sometimes gorgeously composed, but like the periodic appearances from famous faces (including Udo Kier, Harvey Keitel and Barry Pepper), it’s just superficial gloss on deep, abiding ugliness.

The gentle Those Who Remained is almost the exact flip side of The Painted Bird. It is a sweet story about two traumatized people forging a connection after losing nearly everything. Set in Budapest in 1948, Those Who Remained walks a fine line between heartwarming and uncomfortable in its story of a teenage girl and a middle-aged doctor, both of whom lost their entire immediate families in the Holocaust, connecting with each other in what could be a surrogate father-daughter relationship … or something more. Director Barnabas Toth pulls off a tough balancing act, keeping both main characters sympathetic while subtly questioning whether their relationship is appropriate. Those Who Remained is a quiet and contemplative movie, sometimes to its detriment, when characters’ motivations are unclear. But it points to the possibility of hope in the darkest times, without coming across as treacly or disingenuous.

Moving away from World War II, other shortlisted films grapple with equally serious issues, often in stark and harrowing ways. My favorite of the entire slate is the Polish religious drama Corpus Christi, which takes a seemingly contrived premise (an ex-con poses as a Catholic priest) and uses it as a meditation on the nature of faith and forgiveness. Bartosz Bielenia (who received the festival’s FIPRESCI Prize for Best Actor in a International Feature Film) gives a fantastic performance as a genuinely devout young man whose criminal record prevents him from attending seminary. When he’s mistaken for a priest in a remote small town, he embraces the chance at a new start both for himself and for the town’s residents, who are still healing from a devastating car accident that killed multiple local teens. What could be a story about a criminal taking advantage of trusting small-town residents is instead a celebration of compassion and forgiveness. It was deservedly one of the five Oscar nominees.

That’s more optimism than you’ll find in any of the other selections, although each has its positive moments. The French drama Les Miserables, also one of the five Oscar nominees, is not yet another adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel, but it does feature many Hugo references in its story of tensions between police and residents of one of Paris’ poorest neighborhoods. A thriller with elements of Training Day, Do the Right Thing and landmark French film La Haine, Les Miserables finds room for sympathy on both sides, while still depicting police power as largely destructive. It’s tense and chaotic, although a little thin on characterization and narrative structure.

Class differences are also central to the Senegalese magical-realist fable Atlantics, which is already available to a wide audience on Netflix. Mati Diop’s debut feature pits poor workers against exploitative capitalists in the form of a supernatural romance of sorts. A group of construction workers who drown on a dangerous journey across the Atlantic to Spain looking for work return as spirits to torment the rich businessmen who denied them fair wages at home. The core of the story, though, is young Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), whose longing for her drowned boyfriend grounds the political story in identifiable emotions.

Estonian historical epic Truth and Justice is the stodgiest and most old-fashioned movie on the shortlist, and the one likely to generate the least amount of interest from critics and audiences. Based on the first volume of a five-novel series that is considered Estonia’s defining national work, it’s a slow-moving period drama about rival farmers, spanning nearly 25 years of bitterness between rural neighbors in 19th-century Estonia. It’s handsomely crafted (with some sweeping vistas) but mostly dramatically inert, and while it’s become the biggest box-office success in Estonia’s history (recently toppling James Cameron’s Avatar for that position), its appeal is unlikely to transcend borders.

The biggest outlier on the list is Honeyland, a documentary from North Macedonia that also made the shortlist for documentary feature (and was nominated in both categories). Documentaries aren’t usually submitted in the foreign language/international category, although Honeyland does offer a distinctive representation of rural Macedonia in its portrait of an aging beekeeper and her clashes with a neighboring family who disrupt her time-honored honey-gathering techniques. It’s the kind of perfectly encapsulated conflict between tradition and modernity that makes you question how the filmmakers simply stumbled onto it, and it unfolds with the deliberate (and sometimes tedious) pace of a naturalistic drama, leading to an ambiguous but dramatically poignant conclusion.

Maybe it belongs on this list after all.

As more and more countries submit official selections to the Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film category, the showcase for those submissions at the Palm Springs International Film Festival has taken on greater prominence within the festival.

This year’s recently concluded event featured 43 of the 87 submissions, including all nine movies that have progressed to the shortlist for nominations. (Five films will be ultimately be nominated; nominations will be revealed Tuesday, Jan. 22.)

Some of those shortlisted movies have enjoyed relatively widespread release in advance of their potential nominations, including Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (the submission from Mexico), which is available to anyone with a Netflix subscription and has played in theaters across the country. Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War (from Poland), Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters (from Japan) and Lee Chang-Dong’s Burning (from South Korea) have also been making their way to audiences, at least in art-house movie theaters, over the last few months.

Eight of the nine filmmakers (all but Pawlikowksi) appeared at the PSIFF: Cuaron and Kore-eda were both on-hand for in-depth discussions of their films, and Kore-eda joined the other six filmmakers for the panel “Eyes on the Prize: Foreign Language Oscar Directors in Discussion.” Audiences probably didn’t need to be prodded to see Roma, but the festival still performed an important service by playing Cuaron’s expansive family drama on the big screen, where its lovely black-and-white cinematography, meticulous shot composition and immersive sound design can be most effectively appreciated.

Cold War also features lovely black-and-white cinematography and meticulous shot composition, but its constrained, boxy Academy ratio provides a contrast to Roma’s enveloping wide-screen images. Both movies tell deeply personal stories inspired by their directors’ family backgrounds, and both are clearly delivered with passion and care.

Veteran directors Kore-eda and Lee returned to familiar themes with their latest films, with Kore-eda once again tenderly exploring the idea of makeshift families in his affecting drama Shoplifters, and Lee delving into the darkness of human relationships in his Haruki Murakami adaptation Burning. Shoplifters follows an extended family of grifters who turn out to have dark secrets in their past, but it’s mostly about how people neglected by the system can come together to support each other. Burning is a bit more inscrutable, with its ominous love triangle among young people in Seoul, but it also highlights the way that lonely people latch onto each other for support (in this case, with disastrous results).

The other five movies on the Oscar shortlist have yet to reach American audiences as extensively, but some of them will be worth seeking out when they do. The Danish selection The Guilty and the Colombian selection Birds of Passage, both unconventional crime dramas, are the best of the lower-profile movies on the shortlist, with fresh approaches to familiar genre material.

Made on a shoestring budget, Gustav Möller’s The Guilty is set entirely in a small office and focuses almost exclusively on star Jakob Cedergren, who plays a police officer recently demoted to working as an emergency-services operator. When he gets a call from a woman who says she’s been kidnapped, he takes increasingly dangerous risks to do what he believes is necessary to help her. What at first seems like the story of a man determined to do the right thing, no matter what the consequences, eventually reveals itself as a character study of someone who is so desperate to prove himself that he’s willing to put other people in danger. Möller manages to build consistent tension via nothing more than a series of phone calls, and Cedergren, who’s onscreen for nearly every second of the movie, is captivating as the morally compromised cop.

Birds of Passage, co-directed by Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego, also offers a fresh perspective on a familiar crime narrative, with its real-life-inspired story of indigenous Wayuu families who get involved in Colombia’s drug trade in the 1960s and ’70s. Structurally, the movie hits nearly every beat of the well-worn rise-and-fall crime-lord story, as the ambitious Rapayet (José Acosta) builds an empire selling marijuana, first to Colombians and later to Americans. There are the clothes and houses and cars that get fancier and fancier; there’s the long-suffering wife whose function is mainly to bear children and worry; there’s the escalating bloodshed leading to inevitable tragedy; there’s even the screw-up brother-in-law whose idiotic actions get people killed. What makes Birds of Passage stand out is the way it combines a naturalistic study of indigenous culture with the grittiness of something like Goodfellas, highlighting universal human tendencies toward greed and pride, as well as the unique qualities of Wayuu life that influence their building of a criminal enterprise.

Both Sergey Dvortsevoy’s Ayka (from Kazakhstan) and Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum (from Lebanon) are less successful at portraying marginalized people in a way that draws in the audience. Instead, both movies are essentially unrelenting parades of misery, putting their destitute main characters through an endless string of misfortune.

In Ayka, the title character (Samal Yeslyamova) is an immigrant from Kyrgyzstan living illegally in Moscow, and the movie opens with her abandoning her newborn baby at the hospital. Things only get bleaker from there, as Ayka attempts to secure meager employment, runs from a loan shark’s enforcers, suffers the health consequences of leaving the hospital too early, and tries to stay one step ahead of immigration authorities. Shot in a series of often nauseating hand-held close-ups, Ayka is thoroughly unpleasant without being illuminating or transcendent, and its treatment of its lead character feels more sadistic than sympathetic.

Capernaum has more visual beauty, and even moments of levity, but it too spends most of its running time torturing an innocent protagonist. In this case, that’s 12-year-old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), who runs away from his abusive home only to end up facing more poverty, starvation and mistreatment. In an absurd framing device, Zain is in court suing his parents for giving birth to him, with an argument that comes dangerously close to advocating for sterilizing the poor. Labaki relies on the cuteness of her lead actor (as well as an even cuter baby that Zain sort of adopts in the movie’s second half) to elicit cheap sympathy, and throws in a stream of plot developments that get more melodramatic as the movie lurches forward to its overwrought present-day courtroom showdown.

The final movie on the shortlist is the most old-fashioned, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s three-hour-plus German historical epic Never Look Away, loosely inspired by the life of renowned artist Gerhard Richter. The film fictionalizes Richter as Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling), and he’s a bit of a cipher as his life and career parallel the development of Germany from just before World War II through the erection of the Berlin Wall. Von Donnersmarck, who also directed the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others, seems more interested in the evolution of German politics than he is in art, using Kurt as a point-of-view character to explore Nazi atrocities, Communist repression and capitalist decadence, as the character moves from one regime to another. The filmmaker also invents a rather cartoonish villain, a Nazi-affiliated doctor played by The Lives of Others’ Sebastian Koch, who torments Kurt in every phase of his life, as a sort of avatar for the darkness of the German character. The stately, slow-moving film is the opposite of the daring art produced by its main character.

It’s also unlikely to take home an Oscar, as one of the higher-profile movies on the shortlist is all but guaranteed to be the winner. (Really, Roma is pretty much impossible to beat.) But there’s more to foreign cinema than lavish productions from major directors financed by huge corporations—and the PSIFF does a great job of letting audiences discover that.

One of the highlights of the Palm Springs International Film Festival is its extensive program of films submitted for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar—giving audiences a taste of the best movies from around the world (or, well, at least what government agencies around the world have decided are the best movies).

This year’s festival featured 43 of the more than 80 Best Foreign Language submissions for the upcoming Oscars—including eight of the nine movies on the Academy’s shortlist. The five nominees, as well as the nominees in all the rest of the categories, will be announced tomorrow, Tuesday, Jan. 24.

The nominees in the category generally tend toward the middlebrow, with serious historical dramas—often focusing on World War II—reliably taking up a few spots each year.

Such is the case this year—three of the eight shortlisted movies shown at the PSIFF deal with World War II and its aftermath: Denmark’s Land of Mine, about young German POWs forced to clear land mines in Denmark after the war; Norway’s The King’s Choice, about the first days of Germany’s invasion of Norway in 1940; and Russia’s Paradise, about a Russian resistance member in Nazi-occupied France.

Of these three, Paradise is the most artistically successful, doing more than just dramatizing sections from a history textbook. Shooting in black and white, in the constrained Academy ratio, director Andrey Konchalovskiy combines dreamlike imagery and magical-realist plotting with stark, clear-eyed depictions of life in a concentration camp, and the balance of power between Nazi officers and prisoners. The movie’s conceit of “interviews” with three main characters after their deaths is sometimes a bit heavy-handed, but it allows for poetic moments and quiet reflection that more straightforward historical dramas often lack.

Both Land of Mine and The King’s Choice take a more straightforward historical approach, and while they tell stories that have been underrepresented in historical accounts (at least outside their native countries), they only intermittently bring those stories to life. In Land of Mine, a group of young (most appearing to be in their early teens) German soldiers are kept as POWs in Denmark following the war, and are forced to clear the tens of thousands of land mines along the Danish coast. The movie offers a welcome perspective in which the Germans are sympathetic, scared young men who don’t necessarily understand the consequences of their actions; it’s the often vindictive Danish military personnel are the villains. But the young characters are nearly interchangeable; their eventual emotional connection with their Danish commander is predictable; and the suspense built around periodically exploding kids seems a bit exploitative.

The King’s Choice doesn’t have any exploding kids, and it’s a bit dry in its ploddingly procedural account of the few days between the time when Germany invaded Norway, and when the country’s King Haakon VII made an historic break with Parliament and refused to surrender to Germany. As director Erik Poppe explained before the screening, the king’s actions are an important part of Norwegian history, taught in schools—but without that inherent Norwegian pride, it’s hard to get worked up over this fairly minor military aspect of the war, or to get invested in the principled stands of a pampered (if likable) royal family.

After war movies, the next most-popular genre for the Foreign Language Oscar is possibly the intense domestic drama, represented by Canada’s It’s Only the End of the World and Iran’s The Salesman, both from acclaimed international auteurs. It’s Only the End of the World was adapted from Jean-Luc Lagarce’s stage play by prolific filmmaker Xavier Dolan, and despite its cast of French superstars (Gaspard Ulliel, Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard, Léa Seydoux, Nathalie Baye), it remains stagebound and claustrophobic, with the characters tediously talking in circles during a tense family gathering over the course of a single day. Dolan is known for bold, visually inventive films, but here, he sticks mostly to uncomfortable close-ups and stands back as his actors chew the scenery.

The Salesman, from A Separation Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi, is more restrained, even as its subject matter is darker. It’s a slow burn about a married couple whose relationship is strained when the wife is attacked in their apartment, and her husband becomes consumed with finding the perpetrator. But this isn’t some action-packed revenge thriller; it’s a contemplative story about responsibility and empathy, a rumination on the value of vengeance and a look at how seemingly strong relationships can be destroyed in a moment. The lead performances from previous Farhadi collaborators Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti are very good, and while the connection to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (a production of which the couple star in during the events of the movie) is a bit tenuous, both are thematically rich family dramas with satisfyingly downbeat endings.

Thanks to the creation of an additional executive committee several years ago, the selections for the Foreign Language Film Oscar category have gotten a little more diverse, and a few of this year’s shortlisted films fit less neatly into familiar genres. Sweden’s A Man Called Ove, Germany’s Toni Erdmann and Switzerland’s My Life as a Zucchini are all lighter than their fellow shortlist selections, with more emphasis on unique artistic visions. Ove is the most conventional, a feel-good dramedy about a grumpy old man who comes to appreciate life thanks to the efforts of his friendly neighbors. It’s the kind of crowd-pleasing, gentle movie that could star Tom Hanks if it came from Hollywood, and while star Rolf Lassgård makes for an appealing curmudgeon, the flashbacks slowly illuminating his tragedy-filled past eventually tug way too hard on the heartstrings. But Academy voters seemingly love to have their heartstrings tugged, and with its mix of the heavy and the heartwarming, Ove comes across as typical Oscar bait.

The most critically acclaimed movie on the shortlist, Toni Erdmann, is the frontrunner to win the Oscar, and it’s certainly the strangest and most challenging film of the eight shown at the festival. Running nearly three hours, Maren Ade’s film is a combination of cringe comedy, family drama and sociopolitical commentary, with plenty of strange detours along the way. The title character is the alter ego of Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), an eccentric, lonely old man who wants to reconnect with his corporate go-getter daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller). It takes almost an hour for Toni to emerge, as Winfried follows his daughter to her work assignment in Romania, and the movie unfolds at a meandering pace, with dry corporate meetings next to uncomfortable scenes of Winfried’s attempts to insert himself into his daughter’s life. Many have found the film moving, funny and profound, but for me, it was like listening to a long, rambling joke with no punchline.

The best of the eight shortlisted movies I saw at the festival is also the unlikeliest selection, the Swiss stop-motion animated movie My Life as a Zucchini. It’s also eligible for the Best Animated Feature award, but it’s a bit of a dark horse in both categories. That’s a shame, because director Claude Barras’ film is utterly charming, beautiful to look at and sweetly affecting. It’s the story of a young orphan (who goes by the name Zucchini) adjusting to life in a group home and eventually finding a makeshift family. The material isn’t groundbreaking, but the hand-crafted animation gives it a wonderfully skewed perspective, while the dialogue is funny and realistic, and the characters are very likable.

It was the last movie I saw at the festival—and it ended my experience on a high note. Hopefully Oscar voters will feel the same way.