As with most film festivals, the identity of the Palm Springs International Film Festival is set, in no small measure, simply by its place on the calendar. Coming at the beginning of the year but also in the heart of Hollywood's award season, the festival captures an unlikely combination of brightly glamorous, high-wattage star power and time spent in dark rooms watching relatively obscure yet richly rewarding movies.
The festival's official opening night is Thursday, with the world premiere of "The Sense of an Ending," an adaptation of Julian Barnes' Booker Prize-winning novel, directed by Ritesh Batra and starring Jim Broadbent and recent Oscar nominee Charlotte Rampling. This past Monday night was the festival's fundraiser awards gala, a high point of the region's social season and the first awards show of the calendar year, which drew a lineup of stars that included Tom Hanks, Octavia Spencer, Annette Bening, Natalie Portman, Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Ruth Negga, Amy Adams, Casey Affleck, Mahershala Ali, Andrew Garfield, Janelle Monáe and Ryan Gosling.
A cornerstone of the festival's programming is that it shows as many of the films submitted for the foreign-language Oscar as it can; this year it's screening 43 of the 85 submissions. That includes all nine of the films that made the academy's recent shortlist, including "Toni Erdmann," "The Salesman" and "Land of Mine," along with films surprisingly left out of contention such as "Elle," "Neruda," "The Age of Shadows" and "Julieta."
"I think the foreign-language Oscar films are definitely something people talk about. I don't think anybody is culling it together like we are," said Michael Lerman, artistic director of the festival.
At a time when box office returns for most foreign-language films seem to be dwindling and there are concerns over whether there will a continued theatrical audience for them, Lerman, who is also part of the programming teams at the Toronto International Film Festival and the Philadelphia Film Festival, sees the role of film festivals like PSIFF as more important than ever.
"To me it comes down to, where is the place where we're all talking about the same thing?" Lerman said. "And festivals are the only place right now where we're all talking about the same thing."
"The Sense of an Ending" is the second feature by Indian-born filmmaker Batra and his first in English. Batra feels his new film is less of a departure than it might look on first glance, following the success of his debut feature, "The Lunchbox," which was in part buoyed by acclaim from the festival circuit.
"Traveling with that movie and seeing people reacting to that movie, I feel like I learned that the work that I would like to do is something that strikes a universal chord," Batra said in a recent phone call from Bombay. He also recently completed shooting another English-language feature, "Our Souls at Night," starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda.
"The work that I do, I hope that it speaks to everyone," said Batra of his unexpected turn to English-language filmmaking. "And I'm not sure if I see myself as an Indian filmmaker or I see myself as something beyond that. But I do hope that I keep getting to do the work that really resonates with me, whether that's in India or elsewhere."
Another highlight of the program will be a screening of the two-hour premiere episode of the seven-part docudrama "When We Rise," which re-teams director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black from "Milk" for a look at the gay liberation movement.
Elsewhere in the festival is a six-film spotlight on Poland, including two films from the late filmmaker Andrzej Wajda.
"We really know our audience," said the festival's lead programmer, David Ansen. "They really are faithful and very adventurous and trust our judgment. It's encouraging that there is still an audience for these movies."
The festival had scheduled screenings of the documentary "Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds" before the recent deaths of both Fisher and Reynolds just one day apart.
"This was going to be a great celebration of their careers and longevity, and now it feels like something else," said Ansen. "It's very candid; Carrie is incredibly open. Fisher Stevens was a co-director, and he's an old friend of hers and that really makes a difference. You can tell she's completely open and loose with him. It's a very good film, but it's going to be a very emotional screening now."
Ansen pointed out that another documentary in the program features a subject who recently and quite unexpectedly died: "Franca: Chaos and Creation." The film looks at the life and career of Franca Sozzani, the influential longtime editor of Italian Vogue who died in December. The film was made by her son Francesco Carrozzini.
Notable world premieres at the festival include Andrew Wagner's "Breakable You," starring Holly Hunter, Tony Shalhoub and Alfred Molina, and the Colin Hanks documentary "Eagles of Death Metal: Nos Amis (Our Friends)" about the rock band who were onstage when terrorist attacks broke out in Paris in November 2015.
The festival also will feature the U.S. premiere of Amma Asante's "A United Kingdom," starring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike, the true story of an African prince and a white Englishwoman who married in the 1940s, causing an international uproar.
Two other films screening in the area for the first time will be the controversial "Una," an adaptation of David Harrower's stage play "Blackbird" directed by Benedict Andrews and starring Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn. Olivier Assayas' "Personal Shopper," starring Kristen Stewart, also will screen.
The festival will close on Jan. 15 with a screening of Taylor Hackford's "The Comedian," starring Robert De Niro.
No single film or evening can define the festival. Rather, it is the broad range of films from around the world that best captures its spirit.
"When you have a film festival, it says pay attention to all the things that are happening here, not just this one movie," Lerman said. "It says, take time, take a few days even, and pay attention to several different things. And that's always been my favorite part of film festivals, the conversations between different cultures and different styles of artistry.
"I always encourage people when they go to a festival to go to things they either know nothing about or to go to things they are not naturally drawn to," Lerman added. "Because you've gifted yourself the ability to discover something. To me there is nothing more beautiful than that."
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