By Steve Greene | Indiewire January 14, 2014 at 9:42AM
Much of the attention that visits the Palm Springs International Film Festival every year centers on the annual gala, a prime stop on the awards season circuit in the early days of the calendar year. But among its slate of films lies a bevy of documentaries, American indies and global cinema offerings, including premieres and choice selections from other international showings.
The winners of this year's festival were announced over the weekend, with audience prize winners "Lakshmi" and "Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia" shown as part of the festival favorites slate on Monday. "Finding Vivian Maier," "Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed," "Heli" and Felix van Groeningen's "The Broken Circle Breakdown" were also recognized in their various categories.
Beyond the hits with festival-goers and critics were a handful of other titles worth seeking out. Some have already received international distribution and seen impressive returns in their home countries and others have deals in place for North America but are awaiting final release dates. Until they become available in theaters or via VOD, here are four titles from PSIFF 2014 to watch out for in the months ahead.
There's nothing false about the title of Chloé Robichaud's debut film. A perfect distillation of a character's main drive, "Sarah Prefers to Run" is, like many other carefully observed tales of college life, a look at all the unexpected ways that life threatens to complicate the simplest of passions. Sarah (Sophie Desmarais) does indeed have a penchant for long-distance running, but is stuck in an empty home life in Quebec City. When her mother is less than enthusiastic about her attending McGill University, even on scholarship, Sarah makes an impulsive decision to move out to Montreal. Not only does she go with little fanfare, but does so with a newly met, twentysomething acquaintance named Antoine who also floats the idea of a quick marriage as a means of financial assistance.
Rather than use the concept of running solely as a neat metaphor for young adulthood, the scenes of Sarah in competition and training when she arrives at university help show her in a safe environment without magically transforming her into a chatty, exuberant freshman. Off the track, Sarah doesn't communicate much more than necessary to Antoine, her teammates, her coach or her family. But Robichaud finds other ways to convey the changing nature of her various relationships. Fortune cookie advice hung on her apartment walls and voicemail messages from back home serve as markers along Sarah's journey to capturing the joy of her athletic pursuit in her everyday life.
In a film that has the idea of discovery built into its every development, nothing embodies that idea better than Desmarais’ performance. Even when she’s out on the track, being confronted with the cost of training equipment or witnessing life-changing karaoke, nothing cracks Sarah's quiet, observant façade. They instead hint at the untold desires and misgivings that lie somewhere behind them. Even a poorly-timed hospital visit doesn't constitute a massive change in Sarah's approach to her life and her craft, a demonstration of the film's patience and commitment to showing her progression as a gradual one.
While we hardly see our protagonist inside a McGill classroom, "Sarah Prefers to Run" still feels like a college movie in the way it captures the social hurdles and the tendency for a new way of life to unearth some dormant feelings. That time of transition usually brings tumult, and the film's ability to make those changes internal and small-scale rarely feels like the simmering isn’t hinting at something more. Robichaud approaches storytelling much the same way that her star approaches Sarah: measured, unadorned and with few easy crutches.
The only thing scarier than a monster is one that can earn your trust. Though not addressed by name until far into the film, the titular "German Doctor" is high-ranking Nazi scientist Josef Mengele, shown here in a fictional version following his fleeing to Argentina in 1960. It's there that he befriends the proprietors of a hotel near Bariloche, an area with enough sympathizers to keep Mengele from being too much of an outsider.
The family soon takes the enigmatic doctor as a tenant, much to the dismay of the wary and disapproving father Enzo. But the mother Eva, raised in a German school, and the wide-eyed daughter Lillith, who latches onto the man’s fascination with (in her eyes, harmless) experimentation indirectly create a haven for him so safe that they become unwitting subjects for his genetic tinkering.
Even without the historical knowledge of Mengele's transgressions, there's something amiss about the specter-like form he takes in the shadows. That the film doesn’t name him is an indication that it doesn’t want to use history as an easy shortcut to characterization, letting Àlex Brendemühl’s interpretation of the man do most of the work. But the film doesn't overemphasize his monstrous behavior with heavy music cues or jump scares. We mostly see him as young Lillith does, with the realization of his true intentions for the family coming too far after potentially tragic events have been set in motion.
Mengele uses Spanish to ingratiate himself with Lillith, only to speak German with Eva to hide certain decisions from her husband. There's human nature, in its most demented, skewed form, set against the backdrop of a gorgeous Argentinian lakeside landscape. A Mossad informant (Elena Roger, whose underuse is the film's biggest misstep) undercover in the insular school community even lends the film a dual genre. Carefully balanced between family drama and political thriller, "The German Doctor" never overly indulges one or the other, keeping the uncertainty of the family’s fate intertwined with a larger international search for justice. Setting all these ideas in opposition leads to a murky portrayal of morality consistent with some of its main characters' struggles.
Hijinks ensue in the opening sequences of Wojtek Smarzowski's "Traffic Department," as members of the central highway patrol unit welcome us in to a world where rules seem to exist as mere suggestion. Affairs between officer partners, encounters with prostitutes on department property and bribery at routine traffic stops are all presented as commonplace, much to their higher-ups' chagrin. But when this pattern of behavior becomes both a front for a case of blackmail and the root of a disjointed narrative, the frivolity soon gives way to something far more sinister.
The film magically crafts tension while laying the groundwork for its eventual amplification by doubling down on departmental debauchery. One particular montage of booze, drugs and sex tapes serves as the film's pivot point between a broader story of the department and one focused on Sergeant Krol (Bartlomiej Topa), the officer implicated in a governmental conspiracy. As Krol seeks to clear his name of a mounting list of accusations that extend far beyond trading a few zlotys for favorable treatment, the film's second half becomes a Jason Bourne-like exercise in individual-against-the-system manhunt evasion. Topa is able to deftly meet the physical challenges that come with the genre territory while giving focus to Krol's relentless sleuthing endeavors.
As Krol looks to clear his name, the film manages to use security and camera phone footage not merely as a narrative convenience but as a way of mirroring the mental and psychological state of someone the night after an ill-fated bender. Cutting between these multiple stories is occasionally jarring, but it also illustrates the false sense of privacy and security threatened not only by video evidence acquired from government entities, but manipulative individuals.
While the final sequence may be one too many, "Traffic Department" features a handful of shocking moments that are unrestrained as the characters they feature. Few films can pull off the suspense of a rooftop manhunt in close proximity to an outrageous gag that makes Marvin's demise in "Pulp Fiction" look tame by comparison. Like Maïwenn's "Polisse," it's a style of storytelling that uses comedy teetering on the edge of outrageousness as a foil to the heavy subject matter that surrounds it. The result is a thriller that's able to maintain its vivacity, even as darkness intrudes.
In the few moments we see of Erika (Alicia Vikander) before her life is upended by a problematic delivery, it's clear that she's a woman uncomfortable with relinquishing control. But when her pregnancy ends with unforeseen complications (in one of the most unsettling birth sequences this side of John Hurt and “Alien"), her struggle switches to psychological recovery. Reluctantly and almost devoid of emotion, Erika joins a support group intended to help her embrace a new family situation and a life that doesn't afford her the same level of careful preparation.
With one central anxiety as her driving force, Vikander keeps Erika from falling into a purely repetitive state of mourning. And even as she shows signs of overcoming her mental fragility, Vikander captures the attitude of someone in danger of self-delusion. Equally impressive is David Dencik as Rikard, a pain-fascinated member of the group dealing with a fractured relationship with his mother. Dencik shows how psychological roadblocks narrow his expressive abilities and social connections without indulging those tics to the point of making Rikard a laughingstock.
Erika's idea of a healing retreat leads the group on a rotating series of hotel stays, complete with all the relaxing amenities of a vacation, but all the potential for misunderstanding when dealing with strangers. Through the exploits of this support group, the film explores how people looking to recapture the socially ordained idea of normalcy can find strength in addressing each others' problems. But sometimes it’s the group's tiny, uninhibited decisions that lead to film's genuine comic situations.
The introductory stories at the initial support group meeting help give these characters understandable backgrounds and logical reasons for some impulsive behavior, but the film doesn’t skimp when showing some of their actions' consequences. That conundrum of a potential cure only dredging up more reasons for anxiety keeps “Hotell” from becoming merely a precious look at dealing with trauma. It earns its moments of smiles without belying the overwhelming possibility that its characters' momentary escapes from reality might be doing more harm than good.
Ultimately, the characters have no easy courses to completely alleviate the cause of their suffering -- but the film realizes that it doesn't, either. A handful of late-film epiphanies lead some members of the group to a greater understanding of how to deal with the troubles of their past, but it's clear that nothing is final.