The 22nd annual Palm Springs International Film Festival is the reigning festival showcase for top foreign films, a sort of Cannes in the desert that takes pride in presenting as many of the official Academy Award Foreign Language entries as possible. This year, Fest director Darryl MacDonald and programmer Helen du Toit managed to corral 40 of the 65 contenders and lured many of their filmmakers to Palm Springs for  Q&As and lots of hobnobbing. Producer Ron Yerxa (Little Miss Sunshine), who’s on the Executive Committee that selects three of the 9 semi-finalists, told me he came to the desert just to catch up with many of these films. The Fest is like one-stop shopping.

Friday night,  I moderated a packed-to-the-rafters turnaway post screening Q&A at the Art Museum with Javier Bardem, the Spanish star of  Mexico’s entry Biutiful. (He had the audience roaring with his impressions of Woody Allen who directed him in Vicky Cristina Barcelona). At the Riviera hotel, I met up with Feo Aladag, writer/director of Germany’s powerful  Oscar hopeful When We Leave followed by a long chat with the large Italian contingent there who had just screened their entry LaPrima Cosa Bella (aka First Beautiful Thing).

Star Micaela Ramazzotti and director Paola Virzi were excited about the standing ovation their movie  received at the Palm Springs High School auditorium. The engaging film also reportedly played very well for the Academy Foreign Language selection committee on December 6th, according to members who told me it drew one of the biggest crowds of the year at those exclusive screenings. Earlier in the year I reported about controversy over its selection instead of the Tilda Swinton starrer, I Am Love among other candidates. But it looks like this could be Italy’s first pic to make the final five since Roberto Begnini’s Life Is Beautiful 12 years ago. Virzi told me he was sorry there was badmouthing about his film which was a big hit in Italy.

Saturday afternoon I caught the intense Romanian entry, If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle and later the Q&A with its director Florin Serban. Before the Saturday night main event, the Gala, I met the Barreto clan supporting their entry, Lula, The Son Of Brazil, another movie that generated controversy earlier this season (as reported here) over its Oscar selection by the Brazilian committee. Producer Paula Baretto says it’s her third time in the running.

At the reception before Saturday night’s Gala, Aaron Eckhart told me he had just  been asked by Mark Johnson, the Academy’s Foreign Language chair, to serve on the 30-person committee that whittles down the 9 semi-finalists to the final 5 nominees. But it’s a three-day commitment during the weekend of January 20th and he couldn’t find the time. Eckhart was able to present the fest’s career achievement award to his Thank You For Smoking co-star Robert Duvall saying, “I can’t believe at this point in my career that I am the one who gets to give this to Robert Duvall. I grew up watching The Great Santini. It was a big inspiration in my family.”

Presenting the ensemble award to his cast was David Fincher with Social Network producer Cean Chaffin and Sony Pictures chair Michael Lynton and Sony boss Sir Howard Stringer showed up, fresh from the Facebook pic’s just-announced National Society of Film Critics wins including for Fincher’s direction. Though he has to return to shooting The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo early Sunday morning, he blew into town for his cast who, with the exception of Justin Timberlake, were all there to accept. Fincher told me he takes all the awards coming his way now “an hour at a time” and has been in Sweden shooting for most of this season. When I said not much has changed since he was on the circuit with Benjamin Button including the faces, he looked around the glammed up room and quipped, “It looks like a few faces have changed here.” 

There’s no question this PSIFF event has grown in size each year and true to form it ran as long as an Oscar show even though there were only 11 awards to hand out. It was surprising how many notables attended. Natalie Portman gave her Goya’s Ghost co-star Javier Bardem the International Star award by saying he used to take her dancing at gay bars while they were shooting. Bardem explained he felt those would be the only places she would be “safe” before giving a romantic shout out to his very pregnant wife. The Fighter’s David O. Russell received Director of the Year from his stars Mark Wahlberg and Amy Adams. The Queen‘s Helen Mirren presented the Actor award to The King’s Speech‘s  Colin Firth (who got the only  standing ovation other than Duvall), while Jake Gyllenhaal presents the Actress trophy to his Brothers co-star Natalie Portman.  “True story. I first met Natalie Portman standing in line at a Star Wars convention to get her to sign my Queen Amidala doll. If she wins the Oscar it will be worth a shitload of money!” he said. The pregnant Portman especially thanked her Black Swan choreographer Benjamin Milliepied by saying, “he partnered me in the film and now also in life”. The Town’s star and director Ben Affleck received the Chairman’s award while Danny Boyle won the Visionary Award and flew in from London to accept. Duvall said about his career achievement award, “You never get too old to get things like this. It’s not the end. I have a few more things to do.” But that was the end of the ceremony which also featured this poignant moment, Frederick Lowe Music award winner Diane Warren’s tribute to slain publicist Ronni Chasen who was hugely responsible for the PSIFF’s growing success.