Best of 2020 Palm Springs Film Festival

Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (Finland/Latvia)

It’s 31 years since the desert resort bloomed a film festival that now presents more international Oscar nominees that any other in the United States. Here are the highlights of the recently completed Palm Springs International Film Festival.

Oliver Sacks: His Own Life (USA/United Kingdom, dir. Ric Burns)

Just as compassionate as he was odd, Dr. Oliver Sacks led a life of sexual confusion and alienation that set him up to show great understanding of patients who either had trouble communicating or could not do so at all. Burns stirs us, especially showing us Sacks interacting with his damaged but always respected patients.

Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (Finland/Latvia, J-P Valkepää)

Years after he and his daughter witness the drowning death of his wife, depressed surgeon Juha (Pekka Strang) falls for dominatrix Mona (Krista Kosonen), whose cruelty ironically alleviates his guilt while making both of them consider a traditional relationship. All this is hidden from his suspicious daughter in a film that manages to be quirky, deeply sad and strangely hopeful.

Coup 53 (United Kingdom/USA/Iran, Taghi Amirani)

Director Amirani, along with his co-writer, film and sound editing master Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now), have added to our knowledge of the CIA coup that toppled Iran’s duly elected leader Mohammad Mosadegh, replacing him with the Shah. Never more timely, this doc reveals the British masterminded Operation Ajax. This shocking film also features Ralph Fiennes reading communications of Brit secret agent Norman Darbyshire.

Rounds (Bulgaria/Serbia, Stephan Komandarev)

Komandarev has elevated wonderfully and movingly the police procedural, following various teams of cops in Sofia, Bulgaria, dealing with dying victims and no ambulance, an affair between partners and varying levels of corruption. Its humanity is undeniable and it makes Rounds an engrossing feature, applicable to law enforcement in most cultures.

The Humorist (Russia/Latvia/Czech Republic, Michael Idov)

Set in 1984, a USSR Jewish comedian, strongly played by Yuri Kolokolnikov, decides to branch out in his material, unwisely taking on the Soviet state itself, which is beginning to collapse. Idov’s screenplay crackles with innuendo and insults, and his ending is a powerful reminder of the limits of free speech in many countries.

Corpus Christi (Poland, Jan Komasa)

Winner of the Young Cineastes Award, this is a gritty rumination on faith and destiny. A 20-year-old boy in a detention center (the magnetic Bartosz Bielenia) escapes and impersonates a clergyman. When circumstance gives him the chance to be a priest for a small village, he inspires those who have lost their belief and are guided by resentment. Corpus Christi leaves us aching for more goodness in the world.

Forman vs. Forman (Czech Republic/France, Helena Trestiková, Jakub Hejna)

Finally, Czech director and two time Oscar winner Milos Forman (Amadeus, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) gets his due in a documentary. Forman’s transcending Nazism and Communism in his youth makes one appreciate even more his cinematic output, both in the Czech Republic and within the Hollywood studio system.

The New Bauhaus (USA, Alysa Nahmias)

Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy was truly ingenious, working in the fields of photography, painting, film, graphic arts, collage and sculpture. When the New York art world refused to embrace him, he set up an institute of art in Chicago, where his design work is still felt today in the commercial realm, where art meets functionality.

Disclosure (Australia/United Kingdom, Michael Bentham)

Disturbing in the best possible way, this intense drama takes place in a lovely, suburban Australian home, where two couples have their friendship detonated when an act of violence between children unleashes staggering revelations. Bentham’s four central actors are very convincing, especially a chilling turn by Geraldine Hakewill, whose buried rage inevitably scorches the screen.

The Artist’s Wife (USA, Tom Dolby)

This is a star turn for actress Lena Olin, who plays the overlooked, peacemaker wife to arrogant, temperamental artist Bruce Dern. When dementia threatens his ability to fulfill his work obligations, it is the artist’s wife who must mend fences and create alliances. Olin has never been more impressive.

The Champion (Italy, Leonardo D’Agostini)

A feel-good comedy-drama, never maudlin, in which a gifted but self-involved Italian soccer star must learn from a tutor if he is to continue playing for his team. The wealth and entitlement of celebrity is nicely juxtaposed with middle class relationship failures in D’Agostini’s attractively shot feature.

Author, screenwriter, journalist, playwright, literary consultant. Books include REVOLUTION’S END and BECOMING JIMI HENDRIX.

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