A-listers attend as auds award foreign films

The 20th edition of the Palm Springs Film Festival came to a close Monday on a high note, as surprisingly robust attendance betrayed few signs of a sagging economy.

Topics like the global recession and the imperiled indie film biz seemed far away, as more than 125,000 attendees flocked to the two-week event to see more than 208 films from 73 countries, including 14 world premieres.

“Audience balloting has been almost universally positive,” remarked fest director Darryl Macdonald, “which is all the more remarkable because there’s never been a more difficult environment facing foreign and independent films.”

Macdonald attributes much of the fest’s success to the over-40 audience sector, currently the fastest-growing movie aud.

Whereas Palm Springs has sometimes found its availability of grade-A pics curtailed by the simultaneous Sundance fest, this year there was no sense that the lineup consisted of second-tier films. What’s more, the pics’ market potential was palpable.

Macdonald noted that buyers, sales agents and filmmakers have reported positive meetings. “It’s finally starting to gel,” he said of the sales activity. “I know of at least one distributor that’s circling three different films.”

As the first major fest of the new year, Palm Springs has come to be regarded as much for its unparalleled wealth of foreign films as for the glittering star turnout of its annual opening gala.

This year was no exception: Fifty of the 67 Oscar foreign-language applicants unspooled during the festival fortnight. A Fipresci critics jury named the heist drama “Revanche,” from Austria’s Gotz Spielmann, as best foreign film and presented acting kudos to Natar Ungalaaq for “The Necessities of Life” (Canada) and Martina Gusman for “Lion’s Den,” from Argentina. The aud nod for feature went to “Departures,” a comedic rumination on morticians from Japan’s Yojiro Takita. Doc favorite was American Eric Bricker’s “Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman,” about the preeminent architecture photog.

A separate jury, comprising acquisitions executives, presided over sidebar New Visions/New Films. That section, devoted to the task of spotlighting up-and-coming talent, featured 12 works from rising international helmers. Its jury named Adrian Sitaru’s “Hooked” (Romania/France) as its top pick, citing its “superb writing, acting and direction, all achieved on a Dogma budget, ” and added a special mention for Bahamian Maria Govan’s “Rain.”

Meanwhile, Jordan’s Amin Matalqa picked up the fest’s John Schlesinger Award for first feature for “Captain Abu Raed,” and Israel’s Ari Folman won the Bridging the Borders prize for “Waltz With Bashir.”

If the caliber of films was even better than usual this year, its opening gala yielded a reliable roster of star power. An essential stop on the Academy’s balloting circuit, the gala offered headliners including Sean Penn, Clint Eastwood, Leonardo DiCaprio, Anne Hathaway, Amy Adams and Freida Pinto.

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