By Robin E. Simmons
When I was a small boy, one of my first memories was sitting on the steps of my grandmother’s home in Glendale and waiting for a passerby so I could ask that person to sit with me and tell me a story. Palm Springs International Film Festival is a treasure of trove of great stories. This year’s line up is among the best ever. Here are a few titles that struck me as having something unexpected to capture our imagination.
Beautifully photographed in the wilds of Mongolia, this life embracing and empowering non-fiction film tells the story of 13-year-old Aisholpan, destined to teach her clan’s elders that yes, a girl can hunt with a golden eagle just like a boy — only better.
A middle-aged spinster, resigned to a life of loneliness and disappointment, is reawakened to opportunity and love when she grows a tail. Yes, you read that correctly. Part satire on Russian social mores as well as an allegory on intolerance, this weirdly appealing comedy is a believable love story thanks mostly to Pavlenkova’s wonderful performance.
A fiery reverend (Guy Pearce) terrorizes a mute midwife (Dakota Fanning) in this grim and bloody Western that unfolds old in reverse chronological order. Be prepared for a very dark drama that pulls out all the stops. I loved it.
Japanese horror master Kiyoshi Kurosawa (“Pulse”) deftly switches gears in this atmospheric contemporary ghost story, his first film made outside of Japan, and in another language.
Down-on-his-luck Parisian Jean scores a job as assistant to touchy, reclusive photographer Stéphane (Olivier Gourmet), who lives and works in a crumbling old mansion on the outskirts of Paris. Thanks to his fashion photography, Stéphane is well off, but his real obsession is with the 19th-century photographic process that gives the film its title-he repeatedly photographs his beautiful daughter, Marie (Constance Rousseau), forcing her to stay still for hours at a time. In short order, Jean and Marie fall in love and plot to scam the increasingly disturbed Stéphane-who has begun to see the ghost of his dead wife in the mansion-and escape for brighter climes. Naturally, things don’t go as planned. Exquisitely nuanced, this beautiful film reminds of Kurosawa’s best ghost stories. Not to be missed.
Master filmmaker Olivier Assayas and Kristen Stewart re-team after “Clouds of Sils Maria” with another surprising collaboration. Personal Shopper is a most unusual and artful ghost story, a tense and eerie tale of a medium trying to reconnect with her recently deceased twin brother.
With Personal Shopper, master filmmaker Olivier Assayas has created one of cinema’s most unusual ghost stories. Re-teaming with Kristen Stewart after her award-winning turn opposite Juliette Binoche in “Clouds of Sils Maria,” this time their collaboration feels built entirely around her icy, vague disposition.
Stewart plays Maureen, a personal shopper for a high-end model in Paris. But she’s also a medium who can communicate with the dead, and she visits her childhood home in an attempt to reach her recently deceased twin brother. Desperate for a sign, Maureen starts receiving mysterious text messages from an unknown source. Even for someone connected to the spirit world, the loss of a loved one is difficult to reconcile, and Assayas creates a tense and eerie portrait of a character in limbo, bolstered with another surprising performance from Stewart. I was swept away by this tender yet terrifying story of grief, covetous desire with a dollop of signals from the afterlife.
A wordless fable about a man washed ashore on an island and learning to live with nature, here is another mesmerizing work of animated filmmaking from the revered Studio Ghibli. So simple and pure, it feels as if it has always existed.
This irresistible adaptation of Fredrik Backman’s best seller is a touching, wryly comic crowd-pleaser. Through flashbacks, it chronicles the life and times of a stubborn, short-tempered man with steadfast beliefs, strict routines and the sense that everyone around him is an idiot. Bring tissues.
Ove, an ill-tempered, isolated retiree who spends his days enforcing block association rules and visiting his wife’s grave, has finally given up on life just as an unlikely friendship develops with his boisterous new neighbors. Based on the bestselling novel.
This delicious HBO produced double portrait of the late and beloved mother and daughter is a hilariously unguarded, remarkably intimate peek at Hollywood royalty, undying family bonds, and showbiz fortitude. The New York Times said, “This very funny, engrossing movie couldn’t be more mainstream or more delectable.”
A sell out for sure, this affectionate, touching and startlingly candid twin portrait makes it clear from the start that filmmakers Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens are on unusually intimate terms with their subjects. That intimacy results in a Hollywood documentary like no other: it’s as if we’re eavesdropping on a private conversation.
Carrie and Debbie were best friends, next-door neighbors and Hollywood troupers who have seen it all, and seem to have nothing left to hide. And what lives they’ve led: from “Singin’ in the Rain” to “Star Wars,” from the Eddie Fisher/Liz Taylor scandal to Carrie’s battles with drugs and manic depression, and her best-selling memoir, Postcards from the Edge. See her in front of an adoring Vegas crowd, singing one last rendition of “Tammy. Both hilarious and now heartbreaking, here is Hollywood history up close and very personal indeed.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a professional magician. Sometimes I did tricks for my mom’s tea party (not the political kind) lady friends. This fascinating doc showcases what it’s really like being a working magician. You will be wowed by their tricks and, more than that, touched by their dedication.
Filmed over four years, it pulls back the velvet curtain and introduces us to four magicians at different stages of their lives and careers. It strips away the mystique and reveal the dedicated, hard-working dreamers the performers really are. Jon Armstrong is a self-described geek, a true master of close-up magic who still has to hustle like a latter-day Willy Loman. That’s also Brian Gillis’s bag, but “Johnny Carson’s favorite magician” is finding it harder to pay the bills these days, and doesn’t have the repertoire to reinvent himself. David Minkin is still on the up, an illusionist breaking into TV. And Jan Rouven (who lives with his manager, headlines his own death-defying spectacular on the Sunset Strip. If you like magic, you’ll love this whimsical and sometimes mystifying film.
Could it possibly be true? Žiga Virc’s smartly-constructed expose reveals that NASA and the US government paid billions for the “Yugoslav Space Program” in the 1960s—only to find out that what they’d bought was a hoax… I loved it when cult icon Philosopher/sophist Slavoj Žižek unexpectedly weighed in.
A very sly and wonderfully crafted fiction posing as a documentary film, Žiga Virc’s stylish prank arises from the most outlandish of premises: it seems that NASA and the US government were so enamored of the secret “Yugoslav Space Program” in the 1960s that they surreptitiously bought it lock, stock, and barrel — only to find out that what they’d paid billions for was a hoax.
Filmmaker Virc does a fantastic job of selling us on this premise via a careful amalgam of archival footage. There’s Yugoslav dictator Tito and a “Yugoslav scientist who supposedly disappeared when he followed the space program to the US is reunited with the daughter he’s never met. It’s all fake of course but it’s so convincing I was almost moved to tears (real ones). This beguiling film is about cinema and truth and the dangerous power of government sanctioned propaganda. Both a testament to Virc’s skill and a crash course in film’s slippery relationship to truth, especially where government propaganda is involved. The best parts for me are philosopher-gadfly Slavoj Žižek, pops up from time to time to add commentary his two cents re myths and the creation thereof. We are awash in lies and “post truth public figures. “
A scientist and a teacher embark on a journey of survival with a special young girl named Melanie. Set in a dystopian future in which humanity has been ravaged by a mysterious fungal disease. The afflicted are robbed of all free will (!) and turned into flesh-eating ‘hungries’.
Humankind’s only hope is a small group of hybrid children who crave human flesh but retain the ability to think and feel. The children go to school at an army base in rural Britain, where they’re subjected to cruel experiments by Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close). School teacher Helen Justineau (the lovely Gemma Arterton) grows particularly close to an exceptional girl named Melanie (Sennia Nanua), forming a special bond. When the base is invaded, the trio escapes with the assistance of Sgt. Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine) and embark on a perilous journey of survival, during which Melanie must come to terms with who she is. I loved this fascination, visually lush fable. Or is it an allegory about being human? One to see if your tastes are as eclectic as mine.
Paul Veerhoven has been called “a master of perversity.” Here, he leads his audience through a precisely constructed maze of ambiguity, scrambling our assumptions and expectations at every turn. Audiences looking for a lurid slab of art-house exploitation will be taken off-guard by the complex, compassionate, often acidly funny examination of unconventional desires that awaits them. Isabelle Huppert delivers a standout performance as the CEO of a video game company who turns the tables on her rapist in the controversial director’s electrifying and provocative comeback.
This delightfully wicked comedy of manners is actually a country manor mystery adapted from the best-selling novel by Stephen Fry. It’s about a lapsed poet, failed drama critic, “redundant husband” and hard-working drunk, Ted Wallace (Roger Allam in a rare starring role). Recently fired from his newspaper job, Ted leaps at the chance to drown his sorrows at his old friend’s country estate, Swafford Hall.
A series of “spiritual healings” have recently put the household in a tizzy. The purported miracle worker is his hosts’ teenage son, Ted’s godson, David (Tommy Knight). His parents, Lord and Lady Logan, are set on sharing their boy’s “gift” with the world, blissfully unaware that his “laying on of hands” trick involves, well, an emphasis on “laying.” At odds with a colorful party of fellow guests only too ready to swallow anything they’re told, Ted sets out to prove the miracles are a hoax and thus saving he young man from a lifetime of embarrassment. Big laughs here. I promise.
Director Baltasar Kormakur directs himself as a surgeon who resorts to extreme measures when his daughter falls for a drug dealer.
Kormakur enters Liam Neeson terrain in this blackly comic suspense drama. His tough as nails Reykjavik physician protagonist will do almost anything — legal or otherwise — to protect his drug-addict daughter from an enabling boyfriend. Recommended.
Local celeb Udo Kier stars in this crazy funny eight-part Austrian TV series about an industrialist who needs a new liver. He promises the first of his relatives to secure one will inherit his estate. It’s a long movie but worth it. Showing in two sittings.
Pedro Almodóvar mines the stories of Alice Munro for inspiration in this, his 20th feature about a haunted middle-aged woman who tries to solve the great, painful mystery of her life: why her estranged daughter vanished from her life. As always, Almodovar’s films are vibrant and overflowing with color, life and emotion.
This utterly dazzling and supremely satisfying Iranian film is a mix of the best of several genres. A bit of a ghost story, film noir, detective mystery, action adventure and gripping mockumentary. It will tickle your mind and delight your eye. Among the more memorable films showing at this year’s fest.
The street cats of Istanbul work their magic in this charming symphony of sounds and sights taking in its purview the changing nature of the megalopolis as well as the people who love and care for its feline population. Caring for these animals is understood to be a social and religious obligation in Turkey, and it’s believed that there are as many cats as people in Istanbul. Highest recommendation. Heartwarming.
NOTE: Two additional films you might consider that looked intriguing are KILLS ON WHEELS and VERY BIG SHOT (see scene below). I was unable to screen them before press deadline. Look for them in my Best of Fest feature in a future issue of CVW.