Highlights of the 2016 Palm Springs International Film Festival

Among the joys of attending the Palm Springs Film Festival is the opportunity to talk with cineastes from far-flung locations while in line, as well as meeting world class filmmakers up close. Thus, one can eat barbecued chicken in the press suite while chatting with two-time Oscar winning documentarian Barbara Kopple about her latest subject, Miss Sharon Jones!, whose bravery despite pancreatic cancer led to her returning to high energy, soul singing in live performance.

Many a festival whisks away talent after a Q and A but Palm Springs has a different vibe. It is in keeping with the relaxation of the desert that director Giulio Ricciarelli, after talking with the audience in the theatre about his powerful German feature Labyrinth of Lies, detailing that country's legal efforts in the 50s to hide the circumstances inside Auschwitz, took the discussion into the lobby. A cluster of knowledgeable film-goers included an elderly woman in a wheelchair, who commended Ricciarelli for making a film about the attempt to destroy the facts of the Holocaust. She had been in Auschwitz and her appreciation choked up the onlookers.

The Brand New Testament (Belgium, Jaco Van Dormael)
This visually resplendent fable about a cranky God in a bathrobe wreaking havoc on Earth, while his young daughter tries to amend the misery was a Palm Springs favorite, and well worth its Golden Globe nomination. Van Dormael's funniest movie also has plenty of profundity in its back pocket, raising thoughts about fate and self-determination, laced together with wildly imaginative and expertly placed special effects.

Virgin Mountain (Iceland/Denmark, Dagur Kári)

Gunnar Jónsson is fascinating as Fusi, overweight, balding, shy, dominated by his mother and yet, with remarkable mechanical skills. His one chance for freedom comes when he meets a woman into Western line dancing. But when her depressive side comes to the fore, Fusi shows a depth of love and sacrifice beyond the everyday, in this powerful film.

Mountain (Israel/Denmark, Yaelle Kayam)
Shani Klein's acting is seamless, as a sexually frustrated young women who lives on the edge of the Jewish cemetery in Jerusalem's Mount of Olives. Director Kayam subtly shows her psychological erosion into madness, as she deals with prejudice against Palestinians, the unending needs of her husband and children and finally, hedonistic young Israelis who have sex and get high in the cemetery late at night.

My Internship in Canada (Canada, Phillippe Falardeau)
Falardeau, the director of the brilliant Oscar nom Monsieur Lazhar, scores a comedy goal here in this uproarious story of a Haitian intern (Irdens Exantus) who constantly quotes great political theorists while trying to help an MP (Steve Guibord), a former hockey player who has trouble navigating his country's debate about entering a war. Falardeau's writing is as clever and amusing as his direction is assured.

Full Contact (Netherlands/Croatia, David Verbeek)
Writer-director Verbeek has created a surreal but highly accessible drama about a lieutenant (Gregoire Colin) who pilots drone strikes against Afghani targets from the safety of a Nevada base. But when he sees he is responsible for taking the lives of children as well as adult targets, he enters into a constantly shifting relationship with a stripper (Lizzie Brocheré). Then, the second third of the movie shifts to the seeming psychological chaos of the lieutenant in a strange, rocky landscape. Finally, Colin and Brochere play out yet another alternate life, as co-workers in baggage handling, while he purposely suffers the punishment from an Arabic kickboxing gym. Unsettling and mesmerizingly shot, thoughout.

11 Minutes (Poland, Jerzy Skolimowsi)
You dare not blink during writer-director Skolimowski's intriguing puzzle of a film, gorgeously lensed. A disparate group of people cross paths in a downtown district, ranging from motorcycle drug dealer to struggling actress to paramedics responding to crises. Skolimowski brilliantly holds your interest with different views of these interlocking stories, increasing a sense of dread until a shattering climax makes clear why these different people were followed.

The Fencer (Finland, Klaus Härö)
This stirring tale follows a former fencing great, fleeing the Soviet secret police, as he settles into an Estonian village in 1952. As he takes on a job as teacher, he begins to develop bonds with the local children, many of whom lost fathers in the War, and teaches them fencing. But his return with some of the children to the Soviet Union for a youth fencing competition puts his own freedom at risk in this quiet, lovely film, featuring some remarkable performances by the young actors.