It's like caramel and salt, the way the Palm Springs International Film Festival pairs the glitz and glamour of Hollywood with sometimes obscure foreign film offerings. On Friday night, the festival opens with the "The Fencer," a Finnish production set in 1950s Estonia about a man who starts his life anew as a children's fencing teacher. On Saturday, the festival will throw a massive fundraising gala that will attract some of Hollywood's biggest names for what has become an important stop on the annual awards tour.
It's that unexpectedly exquisite combination of plucky upstarts and major stars that makes the festival unique.
The festival will screen more than 170 films from 60 countries before closing Jan. 11 with the U.S. premiere of the Australian film "Last Cab to Darwin."
Awards will be given at Saturday night's gala to Johnny Depp, Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Michael Fassbender, Brie Larson, Rooney Mara, Tom McCarthy, Saoirse Ronan, Alicia Vikander, Bryan Cranston and "The Big Short" coterie of Steve Carell, Christian Bale and Adam McKay.
"They complement each other perfectly," said festival director Darryl Macdonald of the star-studded gala and the smaller-scale international films in the festival. "Particularly where our mission is concerned in terms of showcasing the best cinematic achievements of the year."
There were about 135,000 attendees at last year's festival, with some 70% coming from outside the region. Organizers say their numbers make it the most highly attended film festival in California and among the most highly attended in the U.S.
"They turn people away from the most obscure foreign films," said longtime festival attendee and critic David Ansen, who's in his first year as lead programmer with the festival. "It's wonderful to see. People are hungry for it.
"Part of the draw is Palm Springs itself, but obviously these people are not coming to lie by the pool. Because they are going to movie after movie in the middle of the day."
Titles playing the festival that have generated excitement around the circuit include "February," with Kiernan Shipka and Emma Roberts; "Louder Than Bombs," with Jesse Eisenberg and Isabelle Huppert; "Men & Chicken" with Mads Mikkelsen; "Hello, My Name Is Doris" with Sally Field; director Karyn Kusama's "The Invitation" and Trey Edward Shults' "Krisha."
The festival's popular "Talking Pictures" section includes a film screening followed by a conversation with stars and/or filmmakers. This year's lineup includes "Concussion" and Will Smith, "The Martian" with Matt Damon and Ridley Scott, "Grandma" with Lily Tomlin, and the documentary "Amy" with Asif Kapadia and Nick Shymansky.
Screening as part of the "Modern Masters" section will be recent films by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Jacques Audiard, Barbara Kopple, Jia Zhangke, Arnaud Desplechin, Terence Davies, Gillian Armstrong and others.
The festival places special emphasis in its programming of foreign language filmmaking. This year, 40 of the 80 films submitted for the foreign language Academy Award will screen, including all of the titles recently announced to go forward on a shortlist of nine. Directors of those films are scheduled to appear Wednesday at a festival event.
"It's a very important section to us," said Helen du Toit, the festival's artistic director. "It's a part of the Academy Awards that doesn't get as much airtime as the films with big American stars, for obvious reasons, but for us it's the most exciting part of the Academy Awards."
The opening night film, "The Fencer," is director Klaus Härö's fifth feature, and his fourth to be selected to represent Finland at the Oscars. Based on true events, "The Fencer" is the story of Endel Nelis, who left Russia to settle in Estonia where he founded a fencing school and would become a de facto parent to many of his young students.
The film has been nominated for a Golden Globe and made it through on the academy's shortlist. The wave of local support following this recent surge in awards-season recognition has for Härö only highlighted how the international spotlight for him and his film also shines on all Finnish filmmakers.
"If you have any success in this game," Härö said recently from his home in the Finnish city of Porvoo, "it means good things for this small, struggling industry."
Perhaps drawing from both sides of the festival is the documentary "The Seventh Fire." Directed by Jack Pettibone Riccobono, it tells the story of Rob Brown, a Native American gang leader on a reservation in Minnesota who comes to a personal reckoning for his actions. Among the film's executive producers are Chris Eyre, Terrence Malick and Natalie Portman.
"It's important to me to use my experience in the industry to support strong creative work at every level," said Portman, who received an award at the 2011 festival, via email. "I want to make sure 'The Seventh Fire' reaches the widest audience possible because I think it's an important story told with real beauty and power."
But it's not all about the Oscars. Showing foreign language films that are no longer competing for the Oscar, the festival still provides a valuable showcase.
"Filmgoers here have a natural inclination to want to see the films that are considered 'the best' of their countries of origin in any given year," said Macdonald, "so there's a keen interest in seeing as many of the films in that section as possible, rather than just focusing on the nine films on the [academy] shortlist."
The Oscar entry from the Czech Republic, "Home Care," is the debut feature film from writer-director Slavek Horak. Wry and bittersweet, the story of a home-care nurse and her family is based in part on Horak's own mother and father and was shot in his parents' house.
Besides being part of the "Awards Buzz" lineup of academy foreign language submissions, the film is also showing as part of the "New Voice/New Visions" competition, which features a jury made up of executives from film distribution companies. So even though the film did not make the academy shortlist and is without a U.S. distributor, the appearance in Palm Springs may not be the end of its run.
"Of course we were hoping for the shortlist," said Horak. "We had our hopes up, even if it didn't work out in the end. At least it reminded me that it's all about the work and not about the awards. Not being shortlisted means that it's now fun to go to festivals until I get back to work and write another one."
Also among the 12 films in the "New Voices/New Visions" section are "Five Nights in Maine," directed by Maris Curran and starring David Oyelowo; the Greek film "Interruption," directed by Yorgos Zois; and the Indian film "Thithi," directed by Raam Reddy.
The mix of low-key multi-generational family story with light comedy in "Thithi" is distinct from the splashier filmmaking more typically thought of as coming from India. The film, which won two prizes when it had its premiere at last year's Locarno International Film Festival, is the first feature from the 26-year-old Reddy.
Citing the American TV show "The Wire" and German-Turkish filmmaker Fatih Akin as influences, Reddy hopes his film will expand ideas of what Indian cinema can look and feel like for international audiences.
"I'm a little bit frustrated by the one kind of cinema a country as kaleidoscopic as India is producing," he said by phone from Mumbai. "Everyone has gotten used to the template, and it's a stylistic choice, but just one from a million possible choices. In India, there are a million stories that could be told."
With its mix of Hollywood star power and deep support for international filmmaking, the Palm Springs International Film Festival may be just the place for a filmmakers like Reddy, Horak and Härö to spread the word.
As Du Toit added, "We often say, if you can't afford to travel, come here and see the world."