Filmgoing Frenzy About to Start at Palm Springs Film Festival

With a focus on Italian films accompanying a large selection of international features, most of which are competing for Oscars, the 31st annual Palm Springs Intl. Film Festival will run Jan. 3-12.

“An Almost Ordinary Summer,” directed by Simone Godano, will kick off the festival on Jan. 3. Other Italian films to unspool are “The Champion,” “Simple Women,” “The Disappearance of My Mother,” “A Soul Journey,” “Martin Eden,” “Sole” and “The Traitor.”

The festival will close Jan. 12 with “Military Wives,” directed by Peter Cattaneo.

Last year, PSIFF attracted more than 136,000 attendees and festival organizers anticipate just as many in 2020.

“Some of our guests get a chance to see 40 movies in 10 days,” says festival chairman Harold Matzner. “I don’t know how they do it, but they do, and it’s an incredible cultural experience.”

For her inaugural year, artistic director Lili Rodriguez added big awards season contenders including “Pain and Glory,” “Clemency,” “Hustlers,” “Jojo Rabbit” and “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”

“This is my first year in this position and I’m thrilled to take on this job,” Rodriguez says. “We’ll be showcasing many of the Oscar shortlisted films in the foreign-language category, and in general, this year’s terrific crop of work highlights great stories from diverse backgrounds.”

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She is especially excited for screenings of “Atlantics,” “Les Miserables” and “Corpus Christi.”

Besides the focus on Italy and the awards hopefuls, the 188 films from 81 countries are in categories such as Talking Pictures, New Voices New Visions, Modern Masters, Queer Cinema, True Stories and World Cinema Now.

PSIFF will also feature a panel event with various shortlisted directors from the newly dubbed international film Oscar category, while Edward Norton will participate in a Q&A screening of “Motherless Brooklyn,” alongside author Jonathan Lethem, as part of the Book to Screen panel.

Variety will again host a reception for its 10 Directors to Watch and Creative Impact honorees: Todd Phillips, Lena Waithe and Robert De Niro.

The film awards gala, hosted by Mary Hart, gives hopefuls a chance to try out their acceptance speeches. “Our list of honorees is very exciting this year, and the event is always sold-out, which raises money for education and sustaining the festival,” Matzner says. Renée Zellweger (“Judy”) will receive the Desert Palm Achievement Award while Joaquin Phoenix (“Joker”) will be honored with the Chairman’s Award. Charlize Theron (“Bombshell”) and Antonio Banderas (“Pain and Glory”) will be bestowed with Intl. Star Awards, and director Martin Scorsese (“The Irishman”) is set to receive the Sonny Bono Visionary Award. Laura Dern (“Marriage Story,” “Little Women”) will receive the Career Achievement Award. Jennifer Lopez (“Hustlers”) will be presented with the Spotlight Award.

“Being a part of a movie starring all women, directed by a woman, written by a woman, produced by women — that was and is an anomaly and one that I hope sets a new standard,” Lopez says. “You could feel it when you were on set. There was a new level of comfort and camaraderie. And I’m not sure it would have been made if these women weren’t involved.”

Up-and-comer Zack Gottsagen (“The Peanut Butter Falcon”) will get the Rising Star Award. “I loved acting in a feature movie,” he says. “Everyone should follow their dreams and follow their hearts.”

Steven Wilson, president and co-founder of Scenario PR, has handled the festival for the past 20 years, and has seen it evolve into something special.

“The Palm Springs Intl. Film Festival was one of my first-ever agency clients and my first festival client,” Wilson says. “I was assigned to the account and worked on it with my colleagues Ron and Lynda Dorf, who mentored me and gave me great advice. It was such a smaller festival then and it’s become my baby. Just as I’ve grown in my career, the festival has grown with me, and I am so proud to be an integral part of it.”

Notable and timely documentary “Changing the Game” follows three transgender teens as they fight to compete in gender-segregated sports on their own terms. The well-reviewed doc has had a long festival run, opening up avenues for discussion.

“This project could not be more important right now, and we’re thrilled to screen at the festival as they’ve always shown strong support of LGBTQ cinema,” says producer Alex Schmider. “Inclusivity in the world of sports is the next civil-rights battleground.”

“Standing Up, Falling Down,” from director Matt Ratner, concerns a struggling standup comedian (Ben Schwartz) who moves back home to Long Island, and strikes up an unlikely friendship with his eccentric dermatologist (Billy Crystal), while trying to rekindle romance with his now-married ex-girlfriend (Eloise Mumford).

“Being able to work with people I’ve spent my life admiring on my first feature as a director exceeded any possible expectations,” Ratner says. “At first, it is obviously a bit surreal, but very quickly it became about the work. Billy was such a gracious and willing collaborator, and his instincts and barometer for truth as an actor are unparalleled.”

Maryam Touzani’s emotionally hard-hitting drama “Adam,” serves as her feature directorial debut and is Morocco’s entry in the Oscar international film race. “This was a story that was born out of a personal need to tell it,” Touzani says. “I felt like I had to make this film.”

The Moroccan-French production, with dialogue in Arabic, is set in the streets of Casablanca, and concerns two women whose lives become linked forever in ways they could never have anticipated. The narrative stems from a person that Touzani had met years ago.

“I carried around this story with me for 15 years until I got pregnant, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how awful it would have been for this woman to give up her newborn. Women’s voices from this part of the world are rarely seen or heard on-screen, so my hope is that the film can help trigger change and open up a debate over various laws.”

“South Mountain,” from writer-director Hilary Brougher, takes a look at a fiery summer in which a middle-aged woman living in the Catskills finds her life completely thrown into disarray when she learns the truth about her philandering husband, who has fathered a child with another woman.

“I wanted to see what kind of creative horizons I could broach with a small production footprint,” Brougher says. “I built the story around the location, a little house on the side of a mountain and what happens to the woman who lives there when her family disperses. I didn’t anticipate the immense creative freedom of working with less money and less people.”

And yet with limited resources, she accomplished what she set out to do. “Was it hard? Yes. But somehow there was more room for collaboration and discovery in the moment.”

PSIFF will also play host to the world premiere of “Stage Mother,” from director Thom Fitzgerald and starring Jacki Weaver, Adrian Grenier and Lucy Liu. The plot follows a conservative church choir director who inherits a drag club in San Francisco. It was founded by her now-deceased son, from whom she was estranged after he came out as gay.

“This is the ideal place to debut our film, as the Palm Springs area has always had a vibrant LGBTQ and drag community. I wanted to create a story that married various elements, and our hope is that audiences will laugh and cry,” says screenwriter-producer Brad Henning.

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