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The Best Movies From the 2018 Cannes Film Festival

Can’t make it to the French Riviera? Be sure to check out our running list of the best movies of 2018 so far. 

The most famous film festival in the world is also the most ridiculous. Only at Cannes will road traffic come to a stand-still as women in evening gowns walk alongside film critics in cargo shorts (like yours truly) as they climb a red-carpeted staircase in the blazing sun, only to nod off during an impenetrable post-Maoist diatribe by an 87-year-old Jean-Luc Godard.  

Along with the usual prestige, this year’s festival is notable for including two competition films with directors under house arrest (Leto‘s Kirill Serebrennikov and Three Faces‘ Jafar Panahi). Panahi is a political prisoner in Iran whose films are technically against the law. Serebrennikov might be a political prisoner, too, or maybe charges of embezzlement are true. When it comes to Russia, any outsider’s guess is as good as another’s.

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Between the official competition and all the sidebars, there are upwards of 90 feature films screening at Cannes, and while I do my best to see all the important ones, some always fall through the cracks. Here’s the lowdown on everything I saw, in the order of their greatness.

18. Girls of the Sun

Cast: Golshifteh Farahani, Emmanuelle Bercot
Director: Eva Husson (Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story))
Why it’s worth seeing: Wow, do I feel guilty placing this movie so low. But don’t misinterpret my shrugs for a lack of rage about the Kurdish women who are kidnapped and held as sex prisoners by ISIS. This film follows a French journalist who embeds herself with a battalion of freed women who take up arms to fight their former oppressors. And when you have a villain as plainly evil as the ones in this story, it affords your film the leeway to be earnest to the point of feeling cringeworthy. One could, I suppose, call the film’s style a “classical” approach, but when a movie in 2018 has all the subtlety of a 1940s propaganda war flick, it just doesn’t connect.

17. Rafiki

Cast: Samantha Muatsia, Sheila Munyiva
Director: Wanuri Kahiu (From a Whisper)
Why it’s worth seeing: One of a handful of very news-y entries at this year’s Cannes, Rafiki (which means “friend” in Swahili) played to big audiences in France but has been banned in its native Kenya for its LBGT theme. The story is simple: Two young women, who happen to be daughters of opposing political figures, exchange glances and quickly fall in love. Living in “the slopes,” a low-income area in the shadow of Nairobi, being gay encourages more than just scorn — it can get you killed. (The implication is that while it isn’t exactly legal to beat the snot out of someone of the same gender, the police aren’t going to go out of their way to stop it.) The setting and design (especially the costumes) are top notch in Rafiki, but the performances and plotting feel more like a student film mimicking grand dramas than a grassroots indie.

16. Everybody Knows

Cast: Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Why it’s worth seeing: The Persian director who won the foreign language Oscar for both A Separation and The Salesman returns to Cannes with Everybody Knows, which is basically the classiest episode of The Young and the Restless you ever saw. While its Spanish wine country setting affords it some visual splendor, this extended family-in-crisis melodrama leans too heavily on a series of sneaky twists. By the time you learn who’s behind the botched kidnapping/ransom scheme, the audience reaction is the same in English as it is in Spanish or the director’s native Farsi: Who cares? Still, Javier Bardem is mesmerizing as a local grape grower/town fixer who rushes to the aid of his lost love, played by Penelope Cruz.

15. The Image Book

Cast: The entirety of visual language
Director: Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless, The Little Soldier, etc)
Why it’s worth seeing: Jean-Luc Godard is a living legend at 87 years old, and one of the most important French artists of the last century (even though he also holds Swiss citizenship, but let’s not get into that right now). As such, the dude has earned the right to do whatever he wants, even if whatever he wants is to serve up a supercut of washed-out VHS found footage while croaking inscrutable blocks of critical theory on the soundtrack. Old Hollywood clips are cross cut with ISIS vids while symphonic chords interject at unpredictable intervals. Some critics have looked at the regent’s latest duds and found some meaning, and that’s totally fine, but from where I’m sitting this is more of an art installation than a movie. I had a whole conversation with someone about what the shifting aspect ratios meant, man, and while we had a hilarious time doing it, the chances of me sitting through this thing again are right around zero. Godard’s films from the 1960s, however, remain great.

14. Climax

Cast: Sofia Boutella, Romain Guillermic
Director: Gaspar Noé (Enter the Void)
Why it’s worth seeing: One of French cinema’s great enfant terribles, Gaspar Noé has made one bona fide masterpiece (the Tibetan Book of the Dead riff Enter the Void) and one bona fide conversation piece (the grotesque rape-revenge tale told backward, Irreversible). His last release, Love, was a 3D romantic saga with unsimulated sex scenes that many dismissed (not I, it’s a good movie). Climax can be considered a response to Love. It’s nonstop action, entirely visceral and extremely electrifying. It is also rock solid stupid. The story, if you want to say there even is one, consists of a dance troupe who gets their punch spiked with LSD at a party. Then they all freak out and writhe around on the floor, yelling. The choreography is remarkable at first, but then it just becomes obnoxious as all hell. It’s a movie for people who are too cool for movies, and while individual moments work, being a brat can only get you so far. You kind of have to see it, but you don’t necessarily have to like it.

13. Samouni Road

Cast: The Samouni Family
Director: Stefano Savona (Tahrir: Liberation Square)
Why it’s worth seeing: Samouni Road mixes lo-fi, fly-on-the-wall footage with elaborate animation to give a sense of a family before and after an indescribable tragedy. The setting is the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City where, in 2009, the Israeli Defense Forces killed 48 people and left a path of destruction in their wake. You can go down the rabbit hole to find out exactly why what happened happened, but the film wisely leaves politics, military strategy, and larger nationalist causes out of it. The primary subject is a pre-teen girl, and all she knows is half her family was killed one day. After the horror of the incident, there’s the added indignity of multiple political factions attempting to exploit the dead for their cause. As a film, the see-saw between the dreamy black-and-white animation (with voice actors) and the mundane reality of the rubble-strewn environment is striking and heartbreaking.

12. Leto (Summer)

Cast: Teo Yoo, Irina Starshenbaum, Roman Bilyk
Director: Kirill Serebrennikov (The Student)
Why it’s worth seeing: Filmed in gorgeous, high-contrast black and white with immersive Steadicam shots, I can now safely say I understand the rock scene of 1980s Leningrad in a way I never did before. Leto puts an interesting spin on what seems, at first, to be a typical rebel’s story. Our main character is likable and warm, but his willingness to do what the government tells him to do in order to keep performing is not exactly in the spirit of his Western heroes. (He is also, in the parlance of current Twitter-speak, literally a cuck.) His protégé, based on Viktor Tsoi, has clearly got the goods, but needs help in finding his footing. The movie is long and a bit formless (and gets weird with some music video sequences), but this is a picture that will appeal both to kids in bands and anyone interested in late-Soviet culture. If you fall into the overlapping section of the Venn diagram, look out!

11. Yomeddine

Cast: Rady Gamal, Ahmed Abdelhafiz, Hardy the Donkey
Director: A.B. Shawkey
Why it’s worth seeing: A first feature from Egyptian director Shawkey, this is something of a straight-down-the-middle vision of what people who don’t watch foreign films think a foreign film is like. In the style of the mid-20th century neorealist movement, Yomeddine stars two non-actors: A 40-something leper and a little boy. They go on a Straight Story-like quest, encountering hardships and meeting kind souls along the way. It’s heartbreaking, it’s uplifting, it jerks some tears and maybe overdoes it a little with the triumphant music. Still, you haven’t seen anything quite like these characters, as this is the type of movie that lives or dies by its specificity. (Now you know what Egyptian leper colonies are like!) Lead actor Rady Gamal has a natural buoyancy, and his good nature prevents the movie from getting maudlin. If marketed right this could be an import that makes an impact in in the U.S.

10. Gräns (Border)

Cast: Eva Melander, Eero Milinoff
Director: Ali Abbassi (Shelley)
Why it’s worth seeing: I’ve been all around this great big world and I’ve seen all kinds of strange sex scenes in movies, but Gräns has one I’ll never forget. I don’t want to spoil too much, but our two lead characters are outcasts. Not meaning they “don’t fit in,” but that they’re not-quite-human. They eat bugs, their sense of smell is so good they can detect a lie, and they have, um, unusual reproductive organs. Gräns is like a Guillermo Del Toro film that goes for dark drama instead of lovey-dovey wonderment. The stranger who sat to my right was repulsed during most of the running time. Shrug.

9. Diamantino

Cast: Carloto Cotta, Cleo Tavares, Anabela Moreira
Director: Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt
Why it’s worth seeing: A Portuguese soccer player/national hero misses the penalty kick at the World Cup, sending his life into a spiral of espionage, fascist propaganda, cloning, and the migration crisis. Not that he’d know any of that, as this chiseled piece of beefcake is far more interested in kittens and “trying to do good” than staying on top of what’s happening around him. Diamantino is probably the weirdest movie at this year’s Cannes, a mix of early John Waters and post-Brexit EU paranoia, and if this thing ever gets released, its scenes with giant fluffy puppies tending goal will delight the people that are able to get on its wavelength.

8. Sorry Angel

Cast: Vincent Lacoste, Pierre Deladonchamps, Denis Podalydès
Director: Christophe Honoré (Love Songs)
Why it’s worth seeing: The year is 1993, and one young man is about to enter the world of adult relationships just as another is going to exit. Set to period music from artists like Ride, the Cocteau Twins and the Sundays, Sorry Angel features Pierre Deladonchamps as a French writer of some renown (but not a superstar) who meets a college kid while off in the north on one of those soul-searching trips writers seem obligated to take occasionally. The plot of this film is minimal; the at-its-own-pace story is all about the people in the orbit of this affair, and the result is a rare film with no villains, just sorrow. (It is 1993, so AIDS is very present throughout.) Unlike recent films BPM and Call Me By Your Name, both of which tell stories set against a European culture not yet comfortable discussing LBGT issues, this isn’t a film with a propulsive sense of urgency. It’s much more about the time spent soaking in a tub or taking a flirty phone call. But after two hours and 12 minutes, you may find yourself surprised just how deeply these characters have gotten under your skin.

7. Arctic

Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, A Wounded Woman
Director: Joe Penna
Why it’s worth seeing: Bring mittens! Many quickly dubbed this All Is Frost, and if you saw the Robert Redford film that inspired the pun, it really does work well. We meet Mads Mikkelsen, a delivery pilot beside a downed aircraft, a few days into survival mode somewhere on a giant ice cube. He eats raw fish and waits. When a helicopter does come, there’s a small snag. It crashes. He decides to hoof it to another ridge, and this time drag the only survivor along with him. (There’s a language barrier, but she’s too weak to say much, so there isn’t much to chat about.) It’s two-steps-forward and one-step-back the whole way, and it involves a lot of grunting, straining, and cursing. Though this is a very what-you-see-is-what-you-get movie, things take a turn toward the end when our boy Mads realizes that his only chance for survival is to ditch the nearly dead woman he’s carrying. It’s heavy stuff (literally and figuratively), and a stressful, but very good, movie.

6. Three Faces

Cast: Behnaz Jafari, Jafar Panahi
Director: Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon)
Why it’s worth watching: This is the fourth film Jafar Panahi has made since the Iranian government told him he can’t make movies anymore. (His first was actually smuggled to Cannes on a thumb drive baked in a cake!) As such, he is limited in what he can do, and Three Faces is mostly shot in and around his car as he drives to a remote area near Turkey. Actress Behnaz Jafari and he play exaggerated versions of themselves as they respond to an email sent to Jafari by a troubled fan. It looks as if she’s killed herself, and it’s because none of her previous messages got a response. The visit to her village plays out like a mystery, but Panahi’s hard, slow realism offers plenty of dead ends and dismaying obstacles. This is ultimately a film about self-actualization versus censorship, but its surface remains an unpredictable trip to an unusual setting. I found it riveting, especially because so many of the scenes appear, at first, to be about nothing at all.

5. Mandy

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough
Director: Panos Cosmatos (Beyond the Black Rainbow)
Why it’s worth seeing: Technically not a Cannes debut (it showed at Sundance), but this is where I saw it. More importantly, I’m not going to be the one to tell Nicolas Cage and his newly smelted demon-slaying blade that it isn’t going to make this list. Director Panos Cosmatos released the psychedelic sci-fi cult fave Beyond the Black Rainbow in 2010, and this has a similar synthesizer-and-color-saturation vibe, but with horror-fantasy. Basically, a pack of hellions brutally kill Cage’s wife, and Cage descends into total bugnuts Cage-mode to enact vengeance. There are images and sequences in this film that I simply can’t believe are in a real movie — starting from when King Crimson’s “Starless” plays in the opening credits. Put bluntly, this is the most Dungeons & Dragons-looking spectacle I’ve seen in a very long time, and metalhead freaks are going to want to watch this one when the mood is hazy and slow. A major work for a certain subset.

4. Donbass

Cast: A cavalcade of faces representing the Ukrainian people.
Director: Sergei Loznitsa (My Joy)
Why it’s worth seeing: Last year Sergei Loznitsa throttled the Cannes crowd with his dark ode to bureaucracy, A Gentle Creature. Now he’s back with a tone poem on war, suffering, inefficient government and the propagation of “fake news.” It’s… kind of a comedy? A dozen or so loosely connected sketches show the buckling society of an exaggerated Ukraine. The vignettes are disturbing, uncomfortable, brutal, and just plain odd. Granted, this would probably mean a lot more to me if I followed news from the region a little more closely, but taking in this enormous film as simply a tableaux of absurd modernity, it works more than fine. The movie starts with a bucket of shit poured over a politician’s head, and just gets stranger from there.

3. Ash is Purest White

Cast: Zhao Tao, Fan Lio
Director: Jia Zhang-ke (Mountains May Depart)
Why it’s worth seeing: The director of Mountains May Depart is back with another lengthy, three-part saga set over a long stretch of time analyzing the recent changes in Chinese society. It also has an action sequence befitting Jia’s other work, A Touch of Sin. The storyline flows between crime drama and doomed love affair, with moments of humor interspersed with tremendous melancholy. It’s certainly a peculiar film, but strangely riveting, even if the characters are somewhat inert. Zhao Tao (who is also director Jia’s wife) is terrific as the put-upon mobster’s girlfriend you think is preparing for an epic act of vengeance, but has something considerably less predictable up her sleeve. Ash is Purest White wins one of my highest compliments: As soon as it was over, I immediately wanted to experience it again.

2. Birds of Passage

Cast: Carmiña Martínez, José Acosta
Director: Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego 
Why it’s worth seeing: Following up on Embrace of the Serpent, the Colombian best foreign language Oscar nominee about Amazonian exploration from the indigenous tribes’ point of view, Ciro Guerra (co-directing with his producer Cristina Gallego) have found a new spin on a typical mafia story. Spanning the late 1960s through the early 1980s, Birds of Passage is set in the desert area home to the Wayuu people. The genre conventions in the story are familiar (it’s a little Scarface here, a little Godfather II there) but what makes the movie remarkable is its deep soak in this little-known culture. Drug deals and double-crosses are one thing, but learning about ritualistic dances, talismans, and intra-clan communications (one must never kill a word messenger!) is far more interesting.

1. Cold War (Zimna Wojna)

Cast: Tomasz Kot, Joanna Kulig,
Director: Paweł Pawlikowski
Why it’s worth seeing: Crisp black-and-white cinematography, Academy ratio, smoky jazz, a blonde girl woozily dancing until she falls in her lover’s arms. These are the things that inspire me to get up in the morning, and Pawlikowski, who won the Best Foreign Language Oscar with Ida, is back with a movie that’s just as good, if not better. A doomed love story (the best kind!) spanning two decades, Cold War moves from a state-run Polish music academy to the artsy ex-pat scene in Paris. There’s the grand sweep of a weighty narrative, but it’s told in a collection of perfect snapshots. At a brisk 84 minutes not a frame is wasted; every image worthy of hanging in a gallery. Joanna Kulig’s evolution from peasant singer to chanteuse to, well, sorry, no spoilers, is a workout for the actress, who carries the picture well. It is not belittling to say her hairstyles do a great deal of work, too. Everything element on screen is part of the perfectly crafted visual storytelling. Film snobs, start your engines. This is a movie you’ll be talking about for a long time to come.

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Jordan Hoffman is a film critic and writer whose work appears in The Guardian, Vanity Fair, and Mashable. Follow him on Twitter @jhoffman.

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