With the Palm Springs Film Festival’s showcase of some 170 films and everything going for it in terms of geographic appeal — close proximity to Los Angeles, pleasant winter climes and golfing, pools and resorts galore — the typically sold-out sprocket opera, held Jan. 1-11, is, in a vein similar to Sundance. It’s a global destination fest for some 135,000 filmgoers who come to party at its opening night awards gala and view its buzzy lineup of features and documentaries poised for serious awards contention.
Steered by festival chair Harold Matzner, the fest, now in its 27th edition, screens celebrated American releases — “Brooklyn,” “Black Mass” and “Room” are featured on this year’s menu. But its main calling card has always been foreign-language titles, which lend Palm Springs a colorful, multicultural feel that feeds the cinematic and creative visions of leading filmmakers from around the world. And with today’s world such a broken one, rife with political strife and ravaging violence, the fest’s beneficent message of international inclusiveness seems more crucial and apt than ever.
“Foreign-language films and international cinema have always been the chief domain of the Palm Springs festival,” says executive and festival director Darryl Macdonald.
“The intention was to create a bridge between the film industries of the U.S. and the rest of the world, and at the same time to provide filmgoers in this country with the opportunity to gain exposure to a much wider variety of voices and visions than what they were used to seeing — films that provoked thought and provided different points of view than those that were available to us on a year-round basis at the time. That imperative has become even more crucial with the passing of time.
“While the nations of the world have become increasingly interdependent
upon each other for economic, political and material needs, vast cultural, religious and traditional differences have created friction and fissures between countries and peoples. Exploring human stories and characters we can relate to — whether set in a remote encampment in Africa, a town under siege in the Middle East or anywhere you care to focus your compass or attention span on — opens a door to understanding our world in a better way and enriching our experience of this world.”
Since its inception in 1990, the fest has been a strikingly accurate litmus test for how Academy members will vote and boasts an impressive track record in terms of predicting what foreign-language films will go on to win the Oscar, even when those films weren’t currying favor among film critics or audiences prior to landing in Palm Springs.
“We have actually had a crazily high success rate in terms of predicting the Oscar based on high scoring films from our own audience,” says artistic director Helen du Toit. Case in point: Yojiro Takita’s Japanese drama “Departures” barely registered above a whisper within critical circles when it first came out in 2008. Then it screened at the fest and the industry took notice.
“‘Departures’ was really not on anybody’s list,” says du Toit. “None of the critics were really talking about the film, but it won the audience award when it was here, and then it went on to win the foreign-language Oscar award. The audience here syncs very closely with the foreign-language Oscar selection committees.”
This year, the fest will screen 40 of the 80 total Oscar submissions for foreign-language film — confirmed movies include Deniz Gamze Erguven’s “Mustang,” Hungary’s harrowing Holocaust drama “Son of Saul” from director Laszlo Nemes and “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” from Sweden’s Roy Andersson. There’s great enthusiasm among attendees for these independent, lesser-known films, especially since many moviegoers have traveled from cities and towns where they don’t necessarily have access to seeing the films play on the big screen.
“It’s a very adventurous audience,” says lead programmer David Ansen, who comes to the fest following a five-year stint as artistic director of the Los Angeles Film Festival and nearly 30 years as a film critic for Newsweek. “The Palm Springs fest is very foreign-film friendly, and we curate the best of those and this is probably for our audience, because for many of these movies it may be their only opportunity to see them. We turn people away from fairly obscure (sold-out) movies.”
Of course, the fest offers plenty of mainstream fare as well. Besides the U.S. films and docs in the slate, there is the black tie awards gala where the honorees represent potential top contenders in varying Oscar categories, including Johnny Depp (“Black Mass”), Cate Blanchett (“Carol”), Rooney Mara (“Carol”), Michael Fassbender (“Steve Jobs”), Tom McCarthy (“Spotlight”), Brie Larson (“Room”), Saoirse Ronan (“Brooklyn”), Alicia Vikander (“The Danish Girl”) and Matt Damon (“The Martian”).
“It’s really an interesting award show because every single honoree has attended the show for the past 15 years,” Matzner says. “That’s an amazing record we’re talking about: 150 people, 150 stars. It’s a very upscale presentation. But the real key to it is that it generates such tremendous press. It’s got 300 major media people on the red carpet — the press that this event generates is amazing. It’s a huge event, probably the biggest event of its kind in the country. That puts the event on a very unique footing in terms of what it can do for the prospects of an Academy Award contender.”