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The 21st Palm Springs International Film Festival: Cinema’s United Nations

Lots of festivals have "international" in their name, but don't really mean it. Not so the Palm Springs International Film Festival, cinema's answer to the UN.

PSIFF assembles the films that have been nominated by their countries of origin as the year's surest shot at winning a Best Foreign Language Oscar. The Festival's 21st session, running January 5-18, 2010, will show more than 200 films from 60 countries. From rogue nations to close allies, much of the global community will vie in a juried competition decided by majority vote.

PSIFF also presents American independent and international films launching their world, North American or domestic premieres, as well as filmmaker tributes, industry seminars and cultural do's.

The centerpiece of the Festival is its annual Awards Gala, which serves as "a precursor to the Golden Globes and Oscars," per Festival Director Darryl Macdonald. Three of last year's honorees - actor Anne Hathaway, director Gus Van Sant and composer Alexandre Desplat - were nominated for Academy Awards, and another, Sean Penn, took home Best Actor statuette.

Attendees of the January 5, 2010 black tie affair at the Palm Springs Convention Center can hope to rub shoulders with the likes of Mariah Carey, Anna Kendrick, Morgan Freeman and Helen Mirren. Ms. Carey will receive the Breakthrough Performance Award for her supporting role in Lee Daniels's Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" By Sapphire, while Ms. Kendrick's performance in Up in the Air, directed by Jason Reitman, will land her the Rising Star Award. Mr. Freeman and Ms. Mirren will add the Career Achievement Award to their mantle of trophies, touting their respective star turns as Nelson Mandela in Invictus and as Countess Sofya Tolstoy in The Last Station, among a combined body of work spanning eight decades.

Aside from garnering for the Festival what Macdonald terms "credible attention," the Gala also plumps its coffers. Last year's swank soiree mobilized more than a million dollars for the desert jamboree founded in 1990 by then Mayor Sonny Bono. Ticket sales reportedly brought in another $1,126,900, and the Festival's 15 plexes seated nearly 130,000 bottoms, 3 percent more than in 2008. Not bad for the toughest times since the Great Depression.

How is 2010 shaping up? Though Festival passes are selling more briskly this year and sponsorship is holding steady, the mood remains "cautious," said Macdonald. He cited the dramatic dip in ticket sales and sponsors incurred by the Seattle Film Festival, which he founded, and Sundance's recent loss of wine and beer sponsors as but two examples of economic fallout on the festival circuit.

Thanks to its strategic position in the annual film cycle, PSIFF serves as an oracle and a marketing tool for awards contenders. Consulates and film companies from around the world throw resources at it, from glitzy parties to glossy ads touting their submissions. Palm Springs is the last chance for members of the Foreign Oscar committees to catch an Academy-recognized screening.

Beyond the industry, film buffs come to the winter happening for its quality slate, balmy temperatures and resort atmosphere. "You've got warm weather and a lot of decent pictures to see," said film critic Harlan Jacobson, who leads festival tours to Palm Springs through his national cinema forum, Talk Cinema. "It's the official summation of the year that has just ended...and of what's headed to that Oscar gateway," he continued.

Films that come to PSIFF 2010 amid quickened whispers include Argentina's The Secret of Their Eyes, a thriller by Juan Jose Campanella about a man trying to crack a murder case gone 30-years-cold, and South Africa's White Wedding, a post-apartheid road comedy by Jann Turner in Afrikaans, English, Zulu and Xhosa . From Peru, there's Claudia Llosa's The Milk of Sorrow, which took the Golden Bear at Berlin for its fable of rape and trauma. Berlin's Silver Bear went to suspense drama About Elly, Iran's official submission directed by Asghar Farhadi. Terribly Happy also carries advanced buzz. Henrik Ruben Genz did Denmark proud when his stylish noir bagged the Grand Prix Crystal Globe at Karlovy Vary.
Australia's official Oscar submission is Walpiri-language Samson & Delilah. The debut feature by indigenous filmmaker Warwick Thornton won the Camera d'Or at Cannes. According to Macdonald, PSIFF will celebrate Australia's "standout" year with a special showcase of the country's emerging directors. "One of the tasks we set ourselves is the discovery of new talents who have a fresh voice in storytelling," said Macdonald, adding that more than 50 of this year's films are by first-time directors.

As the globe shrinks, are Americans becoming more - or less - drawn to the sort of international fare shown at Palm Springs? "Festival audiences by and large have a higher gross income, and are interested in exploring the universe," noted Macdonald. Translation: PSIFF may be one of North America's largest festivals, but it's no gauge of mainstream enthusiasm for subtitles.

Written by Laura Blum
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