By Robin E. SImmons
In this searing Chechyan war drama, Academy Award®-winning director Michel Hazanavicius (THE ARTIST) tackles a loose remake of Fred Zinnemann’s 1948 classic, but tracking the contemporary and parallel stories of a nine-year-old Muslim orphan and a 19-year-old Russian soldier. Hazanavicius boldly examines the brutal impact of war on both victims and aggressors.
Set in the foothills of the Caucasus during the 1992 bloody conflicts between Georgia and the Russia-supported republic of Abkhazia when the majority of Estonians were forced to return to the country of their forefathers, the villages turned into ghost towns. When aging carpenter and tangerine farmer Ivo, who has stayed behind takes in two badly wounded men — Achmed, the Chechen, and Nika, the Georgian — he soon discovers that housing deadly enemies has few rewards. Zaza Urushadze directs this Estonian war drama with an eye for realism.
KEEP ON KEEPIN’ ON
Jazz trumpeter as Clark Terry’s greatest gift is as a teacher and mentor. He was12-year-old Quincy Jones first teacher. And he later mentored Miles Davis. Now, at the age 93 (and fighting a serious illness) he continues to bestow his great gift on young musicians like his current student, prodigy Justin Kauflin, a 23-year-old blind jazz pianist. Alan Hicks directs with a compassionate eye for beat and meaning.
I couldn’t help but think of Clint Eastwood’s PALE RIDER when I saw this Austrian western in which a stranger with a mysterious agenda rides into town to right decades old wrongs. I loved this bloody, gothic, 19th century western revenge hybrid set in a remote mountain village in a majestic alpine mountainscape. Andreas Prochaska directs.
Directors Jose Mari Goenaga and Jon Garaño explore the lingering consequences of the simple gesture of giving flowers, and the residual power embedded in something so fragile. Jonathan Holland in the Hollywood Reporter accurately called this film: “Emotionally precise, subtle, and quietly gripping… This is cinema for grown-ups, made for viewers with the life experience making them capable of recognizing its truths – but at the same time accessibly structured, like a thriller.”
Philippe Muyl’s ravishing movie is a Chinese road trip through spectacular mountain villages that follows Zhigen’s return to his native village – bringing with him the bird that has been his constant companion for decades. But alas, he has been asked to bring his granddaughter with him. Brought up in the lap of luxury, she is more familiar with iPads than trekking through forests and rice paddies. The trip causes her parents to re-evaluate their materialistic lives as well. This film is China’s submission to the Academy Awards®.
WALKING UNDER WATER
This real-life adventure story is about Alexan, a Badjao nomad who lives on the edge of the Sulu and Celebes Seas in Borneo. Getting older, Alexan wants to pass on his skills to young Sari. But compression diving is dangerous and not a reliable source of income. We wonder if Sari will follow in Alexan’s footsteps or turn to the encroaching tourist industry for employment? Will Alexan be forgotten as the last of the Badjao divers? Polish filmmaker Eliza Kubarska has created a dreamlike narrative that is poetic, magical and unforgettable.
Writer director Damián Szifron’s dark comedy is a collection of six short revenge stories that left me numb with shock and laughter. Absurd, violent and over-the-top these tales are rooted in relatable human actions that we recognize all too clearly. This dangerous farce was among the best of the films I saw at PSIFF this year.
HOW I GOT OVER
Nicole Boxer’s emotional documentary looks at the everyday triumphs and setbacks of a group of 15 formerly homeless women in Washington D.C. as they create an original play, based on their true-life stories, for a single performance at The Kennedy Center. This memorable film is about how art can transform a dark experience into something uplifting and even life enhancing. This film celebrates the persistence of the human spirit.
From filmmaker Mark Titus, a true tale of human stupidity and a looming ecological crisis so dire that viewers will be left praying that it’s all just fiction. Titus, a long-time fishing guide, watched the wild salmon populations dwindle until he demanded answers that clearly identified the environmental devastation wreaked by dams, mines and fish farms. This jaw-dropping documentary demands the widest audience. It reminds that we are one species on a very small planet.
The meandering Inguri River forms the border between Georgia from Abkhazia. Tensions remain strong since the 1992–93 war. This beautiful fable follows the cycle of life as an elderly Abkhaz famer builds a hut and his granddaughter blossoms into womanhood amidst the lingering political tensions. Shot on 35mm film. Directed by George Ovashvili.
Set in the late 19th century in rural France, this astonishingly beautiful tale of a deaf, nearly feral child and her interaction at a Catholic school for deaf girls allows us to experience textures and colors and light as Sister Margaret leads young Marie into a grander, calmer world. Kindness on the big screen is rare and that fact that this film captures an inspiring true story is miraculous. Jean-Pierre Améris directs with a clear eye to the ephemeral.
KURMANJAN DATKA QUEEN OF THE MOUNTAINS
This thrilling and exotic epic follows, based on a true story, follows a young woman who, after the death of her ruler husband, unites the warring tribes of her Central Asian nation and leads them into battle against the Russian Empire’s conquering forces. But this is only the start! Space does not allow a detailed recounting of the incredible events that shape her life. What an incredible story and unexpected adventure so stunningly filmed. Directed by Sadyk Sher-Niyaz.
MARGARITA WITH A STRAW
This supremely engaging romantic coming of age story follows a fiercely independent young woman with cerebral palsy who departs Delhi University after a break up and eagerly accepts a scholarship at NYU. Her enthusiastic sense of discovery and sexual exploration connects her with a woman who challenges her presupposition about life itself, much to her mother’s dismay. From director Shonali Bose.
PACKED IN A TRUNK: THE LOST ART OF EDITH LAKE WILKINSON
When Edith Lake Wilkinson was committed to an insane asylum in 1925, all her possessions were packed into trunks. Edith was never seen or heard from again. This film takes a look at Edith’s life and her remarkable art thanks to Edith’s great niece, Emmy Award®-winning writer and director Jane Anderson, grew up surrounded by Edith’s paintings. From director Michelle Boyaner.
THE 100-YEAR-OLD MAN WHO CLIMBED OUT THE WINDOW AND DISAPPEARED
This dark but life-affirming comedy from Sweden is an adaptation of Jonas Jonasson’s international bestseller. Hard to categorize, my first impression is that it’s a little lie FOREST GUMP in tone. The story follows Allan Karlsson (Robert Gustafsson), who, as his 100th birthday approaches, decides that life in his retirement home is less than ideal. So he takes off. His literally fantastic adventure – with flashbacks to his youthful days — unfolds in the most wonderfully incredible way imaginable. Felix Herngren directs with a sly comic sensibility.
NO ONE’S CHILD
Set in the Balkan wars near the end of the last century, this fabulous coming of age war drama is about a feral boy confronting civilization. Based on real events, the big theme here is: What makes us human? From director Vuk Ršumovic.
Directed by former documentarian Ernesto Daranas, this sensational Cuban film tracks the relationship between Chala, a poor 11-year-old boy who lives with his single alcoholic mom and an elderly teacher who sees something in him no one else does. Chala sells carrier pigeons and trains mutts for a neighbor’s illegal dogfights. The authorities send him off for what is euphemistically referred to as “re-education”. But his teacher fights to get him back in school in this beautifully crafted, poignant gem.
Lightweight magical realism from Canada has hints of AMELIE in tone and composition. When young adult Henri Henri is forced to leave the orphanage he has lived in since a child, his only skill is changing light bulbs. He’s told he has a “gift” of bringing light to people. His blissful innocence somehow protects him in the scary real world and he finds love with a blind girl who takes tickets at a porno theater with the help of an elderly pickle king. Yes, it’s that kind of feel good movie and strangely enough, it works. From director Martin Talbot.
This deliciously tense thriller is based on the case of Dutch intensive care nurse Lucia de Berk, aka “The Angel of Death.” When ambitious assistant district attorney Judith sees Berk’s case as a golden opportunity to make her career, she aggressively pieces together the case against her as a killer nurse. But the evidence is circumstantial and in actual fact Berk is innocent. Soon, the case starts troubling Judith, but can she reverse the gears of “justice” already set in motion? From director Paula Van der Oest.
Set in the Arabian Desert, circa 1916, young Theeb — his name means “wolf” — lives with his Bedouin tribe in a remote corner of the Ottoman Empire. When he sneaks along with his big brother to escort a British Army officer, he finds himself caught up in a dangerous, adult world of mercenaries, raiders and revolutionaries. This fabulous adventure is set in a visually stunning world where Theeb must find a way to live up to his name. From director Naji Abu Nowar. This was among my top favorites.
THE SOUND OF REDEMPTION: THE FRANK MORGAN STORY
Frank Morgan was a prodigal alto sax player was a heroin addict who committed crimes to support his habit. For 30 years he was in and out of prison and became a regular member of the warden’s San Quentin All-Stars band. This unexpected story of redemption and the transcendent power of music is highlighted with an enthralling cinema vérité San Quentin prison concert. Tightly directed by NC Heikin, it was produced by James Egan and crime novelist Michael Connelly.
From director Thomas G. Miller, this film celebrates a 40-year love story about one of the first same-sex marriages in the world that’s still trying to find its “happy ending.” Heartrending and joyful true story that keeps asking: Does love really conquer all?
This complex tale enters the life a schizophrenic and two women who tug at his life: his fiercely protective mom and an enigmatic young woman who claims to have his best interests at heart. Or does she? Absolutely riveting on every level. From writer director Terry McMahon.
Incredibly relevant, this slick, tense and streamlined police procedural is based on true events and captures what some consider a pivotal moment in a wave of anti-Semitic sentiment and violence that swept France in 1986 when the kidnapping of 24-year-old Ilan Halimi by a Parisian gang of thugs became a cause célèbre.
Directed by Alexandre Arcady.
THE DARK HORSE
New Zealand legend Genesis Potini is a bipolar Maori who spent time in and out of institutions. When he joined the Eastern Knights chess association, he discovered a path to redemption and used chess to turn around his own life and the lives of some 15,000 Maori kids. Director James Napier Roberston’s ably tracks Potini’s life, but it’s the damaged and innocent kids he helps who carry the humor and drama straight to the gut.
This brave fable captures the Putin era in the form of a Biblical Job story. Lots of corrupt Russians sitting around drinking vodka as a bad situation explodes into a real tragedy. Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev
This next Palm Springs International Film Festival will start on December 31, 2015.