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Palm Springs film fest full of pleasant surprises

Event screens movies nominated for best foreign-film Oscars

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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Receiving only a fraction of the worldwide attention of our own Sundance Film Festival is another 12-days-in-January festival in a far more hospitable clime — the Palm Springs International Film Festival.

The days are warm and sunny, festivalgoers wear shorts and sandals, parking is never a major problem and, most important, the wider range of film fare is far less apt to shock and offend.

But that's not to say, just because the local clientele in the Palm Springs/Palm Desert area leans more toward retirees and senior citizens, that the selection of films is more stodgy and sentimental. Not at all. But it does seem to offer a much broader variety of choices.

Best of all, the Palm Springs festival does something that none of the other hundreds of festivals sprinkled all around the world seem to do — it contacts all of the film industries from around the world to see which film each country has chosen to submit to the U.S. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as its nomination for the best-foreign film Oscar.

Then all of those films are invited to be screened, along with two or three hundred other films, at the festival, which is two months before the Academy Awards.

Films from more than 50 countries were shown in Palm Springs last month — and those were just various countries' Oscar nominees!

In addition to the Awards Buzz category, there are several other series offered — including Awards Buzz-Documentaries, Global Lens 2006, Modern Masters Showcase, New Voices/New Visions, Focus Italy, Cine Latino Showcase, Spotlight on Chilean Cinema, World Cinema Now, Supercharged Cinema, Non-Fiction Features and even Archival Treasures.

The variety is absolutely staggering.

All five of the foreign-language Oscar nominees that were announced this week were among those films screened at Palm Springs — "Paradise Now," from Palestine; "Tsotsi," from South Africa; "Don't Tell," from Italy; "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days," from Germany; and "Joyeux Noel," from France.

The French entry is the kind of film the Oscar often goes to, yet the Palestinian movie, dealing with suicide bombers, is a very important topic these days.

My own personal choice among these five would probably be "Tsotsi," which deals with a young black street-gangster with almost no feeling for others, as robbing and even killing trigger little reaction in him. But one night when he shoots a woman in the stomach and steals her car, he soon discovers her tiny black baby is in the back seat, and what happens from that point is life-changing. But director Gavin Hood has been careful to not let the film dissolve into easy sentimentality and schmaltz.

My two favorite films at Palm Springs this year were both screened during the last two days of the festival, and though both were foreign, both also happened to be in the English language — one from Great Britain, the other from New Zealand.

— The U.K. film is the wonderful "Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont," with Laurence Olivier's widow, the brilliant actress Joan Plowright, as the aging Mrs. Palfrey, who moves from Scotland to a senior-oriented residence hotel in London in hopes of being closer to her grandson. But when the grandson seems to ignore her, Mrs. Palfrey not only lapses into disappointment and loneliness but is also somewhat embarrassed, since the other old folks at the hotel continually ask when they might have the opportunity to meet this elusive young man.

One damp and windy day, when she happens to slip and fall on the sidewalk, a remarkable young Bohemian writer is kind enough to come to her aid. In her gratefulness, she asks him if he would join her for lunch or dinner at her hotel. Then the wheels begin to turn inside her head, and she asks if he would also, by any chance, be kind enough to pretend to be her grandson for that short time.

The gradual bonding between these two is the heart of the movie, and what a heart it is. Superbly talented and charismatic newcomer Rupert Frend is incredibly well-suited as the young Bohemian who agrees to pose as her grandson. His performance might cause you to predict that he will skyrocket to instant stardom, and indeed he has already been signed to do four more films this year.

A moving, touching film that seems impossible not to like, "Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont" should be on everyone's "Films to Watch For" list over the next few months.

— The second film that won my heart at Palm Springs 2006 — "The World's Fastest Indian" — concerns another senior citizen, New Zealand's Burt Munro (Anthony Hopkins in one of his most likable roles ever), who, in real life back in 1971 at the age of 72, journeyed all the way to Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming the world's fastest cyclist in his self-modified 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle.

Everything about the film is a joy — from Hopkins himself to the great variety of characters he meets making his way to Utah. Like "Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont," this too ought to be on everyone's "must-see" list.

Other films that stand out from the 70 or more films I screened at Palm Springs are "L'Enfant (The Child)," from Belgium; "Elsa and Fred," from Argentina; "The Hidden Blade," from Japan; "Swindled," from Spain; and "The Cave of the Yellow Dog," from Mongolia.

— The Dardenne Brothers' "L'Enfant" won the prestigious Palme d'or at Cannes last May and is about an ostensibly irresponsible young unmarried couple whose lives are catapulted into turmoil when the girl has a baby.

— The Spanish-language "Elsa and Fred" deals with a very different and much older couple — both senior citizens and both now living alone without their former mates in Argentina. Here. too, it is children, albeit adult children, married and with their own families, who create the tension that complicates an attempt at a relationship between an older couple, the totally charming Elsa and Fred.

— Yoji Yamada's beautiful "Hidden Blade" is a followup to his very successful "Twilight Samurai," which premiered at Palm Springs two years ago. A very dignified and visually gorgeous film to look at, this 19th-century period piece is actually a touching love story more than a typical samurai-action film but one that satisfies on all levels.

— Spain's "Swindled" is a rather classy and entirely engrossing film, with Victoria Abril and an excellent cast, which, much like the American film "The Grifters," keeps you guessing every moment about who is swindling whom. More of a slick commercial film than an art film, it is nevertheless so well done — and so well paced and involving — that it keeps a smile on your face just as much as it keeps you on the edge of your seat.

— "The Cave of the Yellow Dog" is the kind of film that charms audiences who were enamored with "The Tale of the Weeping Camel" a year or two ago. It's a quiet, gentle Mongolian film, which endears itself to you not so much by what happens but by the austerity and simplicity of the lifestyle of these nomads. And, in this case, especially by the totally natural and therefore amazing performances by the three children who are only 5, 3 and 1 1/2 years old. One wouldn't think that watching all the different details of this nomadic family dismantling their home in order to move on would be so interesting, but it's surprisingly so. There's a special and very memorable "sweetness" in this little — and wholly unpretentious — slice of Mongolian life that you rarely find in films from other countries. Especially our own.

But then everything about Palm Springs and its January film festival thrives on pleasant surprises.

E-mail: marshalldj@iveracity.com