Oscar's Desert Warmup

1 FEA Palm Springs Gary Oldman Glenn Close
Michael Buckner/Getty Images; Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Oldman and Close are among 11 stars receiving honorary awards at this year's festival.

Palm Springs' festival is a global affair, offering U.S. moviegoers a rare look at the year's best international films.

As the first major awards season ceremony of 2012, the Palm Springs International Film Festival could easily be seen as a precursor to the Oscars -- but is it really? Thanks in no small part to its proximity to Los Angeles and the need to generate some positive awards season publicity, every year A-list stars and high-powered execs make the trek to the desert to collect honorary awards and take their potential Oscar speeches (not to mention their outfits) for a test drive.

There may be very little suspense, but that's not really the point.

The purpose of all that star power is simple: Stars generate buzz, buzz generates attention, and attention is what every festival needs. This year, of course, is no exception. With 11 stars receiving honorary awards, including George Clooney, Glenn Close and Gary Oldman, Palm Springs' gala on Jan. 7 will not disappoint anyone looking for a little old fashioned Hollywood glamour for glamour's sake. 

This is not to say the Palm Springs fest is without substance. On the contrary, as a yearly showcase for many of the official submissions in the foreign language Oscar race, Palm Springs screens some of the most acclaimed -- yet hard to find -- releases of the year. This year's official program is no exception: In addition to front-runners like Iranian director Asghar Farhadi's universally beloved A Separation, Aki Kaurismaki's quirky Finnish entry La Havre and Polish helmer Agnieszka Holland's Holocaust drama In Darkness, the weird and wonderful also will be on offer in the form of Omar Killed Me from Morocco, Attenberg from Greece and Alois Nebel from the Czech Republic.

All told, the event -- which runs Jan. 5 to Jan. 16 -- will screen 187 films from 73 countries, including an opening-night screening of Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom's Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Among the fest's other highlights is a new Arabian Nights sidebar that, in keeping with Palm Springs' focus on emerging talent from around the world, will feature 11 films from the Middle East, including Susan Youssef's Habibi, the first feature set in Gaza in more than 15 years and a co-production among the U.S., Palestinian Territories, the Netherlands and the United Arab Emirates.

"First and foremost, what the films are about are the same subjects that we see independent filmmakers all over the world tackle," says festival director Darryl Macdonald of the event's eclectic program. "That's a really positive thing and reflects what's going on in those societies themselves."