More than 180 films light up the big screen at the 31st annual Palm Springs International Film Festival, Jan. 2-13. As it has in previous years, the festival has already stoked the award-season fires and will offer plenty of celebrity eye candy with special awards being handed out to Martin Scorsese, Jennifer Lopez, Robert DeNiro, and Laura Dern, among others.
“I think one of the great things about film festivals is that there are so many different films to see and explore — films from all over the world,” says Lili Rodriguez, artistic director of the Palm Springs International Film Festival. “I hope our attendees find something very special to them from this year’s line-up.”
That seems inevitable.
From screenings of big buzz films like foreign language darling Parasite and Q&As of book-to-screen hits like Hustlers and Motherless Brooklyn (with writer/director/producer/actor Edward Norton in attendance) to 51 official submissions in the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar category, the cinematic smorgasbord is vast.
There are even three films selected as part of the fest’s Local Spotlight program, which highlight entries from the Coachella Valley (The 11th Green, USA; House of Cardin, USA/France; Iconicity, USA).
Other notables include: Opening Night’s An Almost Ordinary Summer (Jan. 3) with director Simone Godano expected to attend; Closing Night’s Military Wives, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, with director Peter Cattaneo expected to show (Jan. 12); a special focus on cinema from Italy this year; A VFX panel with Weta Digital (Jan. 5) — Weta is the innovative studio that created memorable on-screen characters and cinematic worlds over the last 25 years; expect creative leaders discussing some of the year’s standout digital characters, including those from Alita: Battle Angel, Gemini Man, and Avengers: Endgame.
Rodriguez admits that it’s not often easy pinpointing 10 must-see films, but she has tallied a list of cinematic jewels especially for Palm Springs Life. Read on:
Arab Blues: The light-hearted French-Tunisian comedy toys with rom-com conventions and works as entertainment and a deeper exploration of identity and belonging. Rodriguez says it asks: “Can we really ever go back home again and what does that even mean?” (Screens Jan. 3, 10, 11)
Atlantics: The film revolves around star-crossed lovers Ada and Souleiman as she is about to be married off. When Souleiman disappears one night from Senegal without saying goodbye, Ada is deeply torn. This is Mati Diop’s directorial debut, which Rodriguez calls, “a genre-bending political ghost story that works great in concept and execution. I’ve thought about it so much since I first saw it in Cannes.” (Screens Jan. 3, 6, 8)
Bacurau: What happens when the citizens of the mysterious Brazilian village mourn the passing of a matriarch? An ominous plan is set in motion that threatens their very existence. Think: satirical/genre mash-up. “It’s a good pick for our adventurous filmgoers,” Rodriguez says. “It is political, uncompromising, and so much fun. It’s a film that’s played the regular film festival circuit as well as genre fests which should give you a sense that it’s anything but mild.” (Screens Jan. 3, 6, 11)
Gay Chorus Deep South: Part of the festival’s Gayla Presentations along with the equally powerful Portrait of a Lady on Fire, “the documentary has an essential message,” Rodriguez muses. Take note: A special performance by the Palm Springs Gay Men’s Chorus follows the screening. (Screens Jan. 9, 10, 11).
House of Cardin: One of the three films in the festival’s Local Spotlight, Rodriguez calls the doc, “excellent,” from locals P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes. The lowdown: It’s a tribute to French fashion icon Pierre Cardin, who democratized and forever changed the world of haute couture. (Screens Jan. 5, 6, 11).
Litigante: “This is a slow-burn that completely envelops you with naturalistic performances and elevates the courtroom drama,” Rodriguez says of writer/director Franco Lolli’s second feature. The film packs a double punch as it charts implosion of high-powered attorney life when she is accused of misappropriation of public funds. Meanwhile, her prickly mother’s cancer returns. (Screens Jan. 3, 6, 9)
Patrick: “The premise itself is enough to pique your interest but after that settles in, it’s a story with a lot of emotion — but turns heartfelt and funny,” says Rodriguez of a film that introduces audiences to handyman Patrick, who works on his parents’ naturalist campsite. During Patrick’s free time he spends time in a rigid workshop creating furniture. Two major turning points loom on the horizon: his father’s death and … his favorite hammer goes missing.(Screens Jan. 8, 9, 12).
Rewind: In a unique turn, director Sasha Joseph Neulinger, who is also the subject of the film, offers an illuminating perspective through countless hours of home video footage as he recounts the sexual abuse he endured at the hands of his relatives. “It’s a difficult subject matter, but it’s a film that must be seen,” Rodriguez notes. “It’s an advocacy piece and a deeply personal film.” (Screens Jan. 7, 8, 12).
The Seer and the Unseen: “We saw a lot of films dealing with the environment this year and this one is certainly one that stayed with me,” Rodriguez says of this “timely and sincere documentary.” The outing charts “Ragga” Jonsdottir, a grandmother/environmental activist/seer who can glimpse and chat with elves,trolls, and fairies who have long been part of Icelandic mythology.(Screens Jan. 3, 10, 11).
South Mountain: Audiences may be intrigued with Lila here, the film’s steadfast hippie matriarch played by Talis Balsam (Mad Men). The film chronicles Lila and her family’s life as it begins to dismantle when a painful secret is revealed. “Quiet and sensitive, this is a film about women and family dynamics that exudes authenticity, both by the director’s hand and by Balsam’s lived-in performance,” Rodriguez says. Balsam will appear for the opening screening Jan. 3. (Screens Jan. 3, 8, 9.
The Palm Springs International Film Festival runs Jan. 2-13 with films being screened at several locations in Palm Springs. For tickets, festival passes, and additional information on all screenings, events, discussions, and more, visit psiff.org.