Palm Springs International Film Festival part I

I don't know about you, but I can't get enough of election campaigns. So I'm glad that hot on the heels of the Presidential showdown of 2012 comes a contest that really matters, the Oscars.

That race got off to a semi-official start Saturday night at the 24th annual "International Black Tie Awards Gala" hosted by the Palm Springs International Film Festival. I have the good fortune of attending the festival as member of the FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) jury.

At the event they presented twelve honorary awards to a variety of film makers and actors, almost all of whom are in Oscar contention this year. And the winners' acceptance speeches pretty much followed each film's likely Oscar promotional narrative.

Here we got a look at the game plan for "The Silver Linings Playbook," whose star Bradley Cooper accepted the "Desert Palm Achievement Award -- Actor." The film's director, David O. Russell, introduced Cooper, who plays a cute/scary bipolar character. Russell confided that he felt especially close to the project because his own son has the same malady.

Not to be outdone,"Argo" director and star Ben Affleck and his castmates, winners of the "Best Ensemble Performance Award," had the honor of being introduced by the hero whose exploits the film was based on, ex-CIA agent Tony Mendez. In the film, Mendez, played by Affleck, concocts a crazy scheme to rescue Americans stranded in Tehran during the 1979 hostage crisis. Mendez pretends to be a producer of a sci-fi film, also called "Argo," who is scouting locations in Iran. In a rare show of solidarity between the intelligence community and the film industry, Mendez praised both institutions. Explaining how the mission had been code-named "the Hollywood Option," he concluded, "I never imagined our 'Hollywood Option' would be optioned by Hollywood."

A tough act to follow. 

But Tom Hooper, winner of the "Sonny Bono Visionary Award" and director of Oscar juggernaut "Les Miserables," gave it his best shot. In an attempt, perhaps, to downplay the film's themes of class warfare and the revolt of the poor and downtrodden against the rich and privileged, he noted how he was inspired during production by his father's battle against cancer, and that the film was actually about courage in the face of death. 

With death covered, family values next got a plug when Naomi Watts received the "Desert Palm Achievment Award -- Actress" for her role in the harrowing "The Impossible" as a beleagured survivor of the 1999  Indian Ocean tsunami. Graciously introduced by Tom Holland, who plays her son in the movie ("you were a mum to me on screen and off," he said), a tearful Watts thanked and praised the real-life, Spanish family the film is based on.

And so it went: Best Actor Oscar contender ("Arbitrage") Richard Gere accepting the "Chairman's Award" for humanitarianism; Best Actress hopeful Helen Hunt ("The Sessions") receiving the "Spotlight Award" and introduced by her co-star and fellow Oscar aspirant John Hawkes; and the rest. But perhaps the most inspiring acceptance speech from a recipient, at least from the standpoint of FIPRESCI jury members, came from "International Star Award" winner Helen Mirren (probably a longshot for Best Actress in "Hitchcock," but then she's already won an Oscar for "The Queen"). Acknowledging the fact that the festival showcases the forty plus films nominated by their countries for Best Foreign Language Oscar consideration, Mirren cajoled the 2,000 Gala attendees to "Please watch films with subtitles! It's not so difficult."

But my fellow jury members and myself didn't need the encouragement. It's our job: To watch all of the foreign nominees and bequeath on the best an honor more desirable than the Oscar itself: the FIPRESCI award.

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