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Film gems stand out at Sundance Film Festival, Palm Springs Film Festival

Published: Thursday, July 2 2015 11:37 a.m. MDT

The prize-winning documentary The prize-winning documentary "Waste Land," set in Brazil, was a hit at Sundance. (Sundance Film Festival, Associated Press)

Since it started as the Utah and then the U.S. Film Festival nearly 30 years ago, I've been attending what eventually became the now world-famous Sundance Film, held annually in picturesque but usually cold and snowy Park City, Utah.

I've also attended the Palm Springs Film Festival, set among the palm trees and surrounded by mountains, in the warm desert of sunny California for nearly 20 years.

Both are held annually in January, with Palm Springs running for 10 days during the first half of January, followed, two or three days later, by Sundance — which also lasts for nine or 10 days.

And how do they compare?

Let's talk first about their attendees. I would guess the average age of the audience at Palm Springs screenings to be somewhere around 55 — and possibly older, since that particular setting is greatly comprised of retirees.

Daniel Ellsberg is the subject of Daniel Ellsberg is the subject of "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers." (Sundance Film Festival, Associated Press)

Sundance, on the other hand might attract an average age of about 35.

The films reflect the audiences, with Sundance being known for its independent and — this year more than ever — much edgier and more daring fare.

Not that the films at Palm Springs don't cover a wide range of subjects; they do, in fact, feature even more foreign films than Sundance — approximately 50 of which are the submissions from their various countries for America's Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

The films at Palm Springs can certainly be "cutting edge" in many ways, but you'll be much less apt to be bombarded by the graphic sex and profanities that plagued most of the films at this year's Sundance Festival, where two or three films bordered on porn, and wall-to-wall use of the F word was almost a given in several of the films, including the prize-winning "Restrepo."

Nevertheless, each year both festivals come up with their little "masterpieces" — the kind you want to tell everyone about.

Highest on my list from Sundance would probably have to be the very memorable and life-changing documentaries — first of which would have to be the prize-winning "Waste Land." It features artist Vik Muniz going back to his homeland of Brazil and recruiting a select group of lovable "garbage pickers" to help him create (out of the 200 tons of garbage dumped daily in Rio de Janeiro) jaw-dropping art works.

Another exceptional documentary that is bound to move you emotionally is "The Sins of My Father," in which the son of the world's most notorious druglord, Pablo Escobar of Colombia, goes back to his homeland to ask forgiveness from the sons of the two leaders whose assassinations had been ordered by his father.

Also very powerful is the documentary "Climate Refugees," which everyone should see. Startling, disturbing and heartbreaking, it opens our eyes to the need we have, as humans, to do whatever we can to help the many countries that will simply be swallowed up by the sea or shriveled up and destroyed from drought if serious changes are not brought about immediately.

Enlightening as well is the documentary "Smash His Camera," about the earnest, dedicated but now-aging celebrity-photographer Ron Galella, whose jaw was broken by Marlon Brando and who was sued by Jacqueline Kennedy; and sure to give pause for thought is the controversial documentary on gays and the LDS Church called "The Mormon Proposition."

Aside from the documentaries, high on my list is the superbly done and highly atmospheric prize-winner "Winter's Bone," set in the backwoods of the Ozarks and featuring a cast that simply couldn't be more perfect. And for a re-creation of John Lennon's troubled teenage years and the origin of what became the Beatles, "Nowhere Boy" is excellently done.

Australia's prize-winning "Animal Kingdom" may be too rough, hard-hitting and disturbing for some viewers, but it's one of the best films about a family involved in criminal activity that I've seen in a long, long time.

Also deservedly among the best films at Sundance 2010 were the prize-winning feature films "Obselidia," "Cyrus" and "happythankyoumoreplease."

For my money, many of the best at Palm Springs 2010 were also the documentaries — the top being the enlightening "Most Dangerous Man in America," which, as the subtitle reveals, concerns "Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers."

Knowing that it was wrong from the start, five U.S. presidents maintained publicly the myth that we needed to be in Vietnam. And the man who dared to leak the truth to 17 newspapers — told in 7,000 pages he managed to steal from the Pentagon — was in attendance at the screening and received thundering applause and a standing ovation.

A close tie for my festival favorite was "Soundtrack for a Revolution," and I not only teared up the moment it started, but that feeling stayed with me throughout this entire beautiful, dignified and immensely moving documentary about the American civil rights movement and the music that went with it.

Also very memorable — and very gripping as well — is the documentary "Sergio" about the United Nation's diplomatic high commissioner from Corsica, Sergio di Mello, who had been so successful in Bangladesh, Africa, and working with the Khmer Rouge to free 400,000 Cambodians to return to their own homes.

This moving story focuses on his being trapped inside the United Nations building in Iran when it was bombed.

"Nobody's Perfect" — a documentary from Germany that is highly unusual but ultimately immensely fascinating and lovable — concerns several disfigured people who were born in 1961 as Thalidomide babies, now sought out and brought together by one of the group.

Definitely one of a kind, this is a heart-warmer you won't soon forget.

Two other documentaries were also standouts: Narrated by Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes and Natasha Richardson, "The Wildest Dream" chronicles the climb of Conrad Anker to the top of Mount Everest. It also features the backstory of George Mallory, who had first reached the top in 1924 but never returned, and whose body Anker discovers.

Ballet fans will want to see "Only When I Dance" — a touching documentary of a young man and a young woman from Rio de Janiero who dream of becoming a part of the world's best.

Still another documentary — this one called "Dumbstruck" — wisely follows the aspirations of five diverse ventriloquists (one just a little boy, one a beauty queen, another the winner of "America's Got Talent" three seasons ago).

It's a charmer.

And speaking of charm, if you're not won over by "The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls," you've got no heart. An audience favorite, this documentary follows the life and career of lesbian twin sisters from New Zealand. Wonderful as both singers and comedians, they've entertained all around the world, with routines featuring two tough men, Ken and Ken; as the Ramsbottom ladies of high society; and as a hilarious Camp Leader and Camp Mother.

My favorite dramatic film at Palm Springs was, hands down, "Letters to Father Jacob," featuring an old, blind and retired priest and the big, sullen hulk of a woman, serving a life sentence in prison, then pardoned and sent, reluctantly, to serve him. I never talked to anyone at the festival who didn't either light up or almost choke up at the mention of this little gem.

A powerful film from the very moment it starts is "Nobody to Watch Over Me" from Japan, featuring the frenzy that occurs when a young boy is arrested for killing two young girls, and a cop is assigned to protect his school-girl sister from the unruly mass of photographers and reporters who fall upon them.

Very off-beat and very unlike any American romantic film is "Nothing Personal," from Ireland, featuring two definite odd balls who link up far out in the Irish countryside. Still one more highly original film at Palm Springs deserves mention: Although the Canadian film "I Killed My Mother" was ultimately not one of my favorites, it nevertheless just may herald the arrival of a new "Orson Welles." Only 17 years old when he wrote it, the now 21-year-old Xavier Dolan both stars in and directs it. Though definitely not for all tastes, this impressive debut film leaves us wondering where this young "wunderkind" will go from here.

Don Marshall is the retired director of the BYU International Cinema Program.

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