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Award season begins with The Palm Springs International Film Festival Gala

Each year the film award season begins not in Hollywood, but in a desert city that has a long connection to the biggest stars and filmmakers in film history - Palm Springs. So, it is only fitting that The Palm Springs International Film Festival Gala is truly the first step in a myriad of award events that highlight the best in film from the previous year. The hottest in filmmakers and stars from films released in 2014 were honored at the prestigious event on Saturday, January 3, 2015, which the Movie Awards Examiner was privileged to attend in person.

No one knows how festival board members are so accurate at acknowledging the best in film - their announcements of those being honored are often released before the SAG and Golden Globe nominations that are released in early December. Last year 10 out of 11 honorees received Oscar nomination!

The honorees for the Breakthrough Performance Awards were Rosamund Pike for her role in "Gone Girl" and David Oyelowo for his performance in "Selma." Both actors have been nominated for Golden Globe Awards and stand a very good chance to be honored with an Oscar nomination.

"Gone Girl" actresses Carrie Coon and Kim Dickerns were on hand to present Rosamund Pike with her award, Pike said "I have no idea how to behave. I wanted to be in a David Fincher film early on in my career, and I was told that being Bond girl would not be in my favor. But after waiting for 12 years, he finally called."

Brad Pitt, the producer of "Selma" was on hand to present the actor that portrays Martin Luther King Jr. in "Selma," David Oyelowo his award. He brought to attention what red carpet gurus would never would have the guts to admit: "How in the world do you pronounce his name?"

So, Pitt took on the task to make sure all 4,000 people in attendance knew how to do just that by having the audience sing it, until we all remember it. And by gosh, he was right!

Mr. Oyelowo accepted his honor saying, "You know you have made it in this industry when Brad Pitt is singing your name."

J.K. Simmons is the first male actor to be honored with the Spotlight Award and on hand to present him with his award was director Jason Reitman. The two worked together in the very popular film "Juno."

Taking a decisive turn in "Whiplash," J.K. Simmons is nothing like his character in "Juno." In the film "Whiplash," Simmons' takes on a character that has the quest to find a musical student with the rarest gifts, he deploys a maniacal way of teaching. One that almost ends his career and kills one of his students. Of all in attendance at the Gala, Simmons is receiving the hottest of Oscar buzz - all know he will win.

Robert Downey Jr. was next on stage to present his co-star from their film "The Judge,"Robert Duvall with the Icon Award. He called Duvall "the American version of Laurence Olivier."

Upon a standing ovation, Duvall accepted his Icon Award admitting that he had no idea what an Icon was, but that the ride to becoming an Icon was a good one, although sometimes difficult. He thanked his parents for pushing him into the acting gig. He spoke about his career with a nostalgic take that made all attendees feel a part of his journey.

The lovely and talented Julianne Moore received the Desert Palm Achievement Award - Actress for her performance in "Still Alice," - a film that could finally bring this four time Oscar nominee her first Oscar win. On hand to present her award was actor Steve Carell. The two were cast mates in the 2011 film "Crazy, Stupid, Love" and Carell admitted that Moore was one of his favorite fake wives and girlfriends. But being a true gentleman listed off his other fake wives and girlfriends that he also held dear.

When accepting her award, Moore spoke to her performance in "Still Alice" (a film about a woman facing early onset Alzheimer's Disease) is “not in the spirit of loss or diminishment but in the spirit of really thinking about who and what we value and why we value it and really attempting to cherish it.”

The legendary actress Shirley MacLaine also brought the audience to their feet as she walked on stage to honor Director Richard Linklater with the Sonny Bono Visionary Award for his visionary film "Boyhood." Shirley had worked with Linklater on the film "Bernie," a roll that she indicated she had to play a bitch and that Linklater was able to help Shirley find her own bitch in order to portray one.

Linklater accepted his honor and told MacLaine that he really was directing her in another realm at night - which refers to MacLaine's take on spirituality that she has written about quite a bit in her lifetime.

Julianne Moore returned to the stage, this time to give an award to Eddie Redmayne for his brilliant turn in "The Theory of Everything," portraying the extraordinary life of Stephen Hawkings. Moore had first met Eddie when he was still very young in the movie "Savage Grace." Eddie played the son of Moore's character Barbara Baekeland. She said it was obvious he was right for the role immediately after he read for the part for the first time.

Redmayne, who has found fame in "My Date With Marilyn," and sang a beautiful rendition of "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" in the "Les Misérables" is now a Golden Globe nominee for "The Theory of Everything" and a pretty safe bet to be on the nomination list for the next Oscars.

The newlywed (Redmayne was just married to Hannah Bagshawe) thank his wife and remarked that when he met Moore he was grateful to look a bit like her in hopes of being cast along side of her in one of his first film roles.

Actor Michael Keaton was next to the stage to present his director from "Birdman," Alejandro G. Iῆárritu with the Director of the Year Award. And it was Michael Keaton that told the story of the visionary filmmaker Mike Nichols had told Iῆárritu that he would never be able make "Birdman."

Iῆárritu came to the stage and called Keaton a "coo coo" - but seemed to mean it in a flattering way. He said "between his coo-coo and my broken English we had some fun times."

He also talked about his own inner "Birdman" voice and how he wavers in his own belief upon himself.

Receiving the honors for an the Ensemble Performance Award were the cast of "The Imitation Game," which Benedict Cumberbatch received for his cast (Keira Knightley was on list to attend, but was too ill to attend).

Receiving the last honors of the evening was Reese Witherspoon. She is the first woman to receive the Chairman's Award, or more appropriately renamed the Chairwoman's Award. This Oscar-winning actress has been the talk of the town while producing one of the biggest hits of the year "Gone Girl" and starring in and producing the film "Wild."

Presenting Witherspoon with the Chairwoman's Award was her "Wild" co-star Laura Dern. "The most exciting thing news about Cheryl Strayed's story was that if found a home with Reese Witherspoon. I knew that I wanted to be a part in any party Reese Witherspoon was having."

Reese came on stage in a short black and white dress and really still look like the young girl that we all first remember when she was a child actress. But this woman had come into own, learning that the best voyage comes from a ship steered by herself.

Witherspoon, in the true sense of being a Chairwoman, deflected her own personal course and described the path that all of those that worked on the film "Wild" had to go through to make the film. Boasting an Australian producer and a Canadian director “this international group of people that were making this movie about an American woman’s journey across the Pacific Northwest. And in that way the film became more than just a woman’s film about a girl hiking, it became a human story of redemption and sacrifice and learning what true north is in this world.”

The 26th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival runs January 2-12, 2015.

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