Two years ago, when I was chief film critic at the Carletonian, my first duty was maintaining a weekly film review. My second order of business has been allowing a younger writer to try his hand at film criticism for the past year, as I have been occupied by my European fashion magazine job. My third and final job was to attend Cannes as a final coup-d’état to any of the Carletonian’s future film critics. Never again will this paper publish a fresher or more groundbreaking review. And here you are reading about it: The Carletonian has sent a reporter to Cannes.
I jest. In fact, I was lucky enough to attend the festival’s three-days-in-Cannes program for young filmy people. The festival happens over two weeks, with two competition screenings a night and a plethora of other daytime programming that I will delve into. You must have a press pass to go, and passes cannot easily be purchased. I was not on a press pass, so this article is unlicensed, and you are all getting a hot scoop. Cannes is by far the world’s most important film festival. Berlin, Venice, Toronto and New York all host good film festivals too, but Cannes is Cannes. Some of the highest billed films this year were “Killers of the Flower Moon,” “May December,” “Asteroid City,” , and “Club Zero.” In addition to being a glamorous red carpet charade, the festival is a competition, and the aforementioned projects are in the running for the Palme d’Or, the most prestigious prize a new film can win. (Yes, more than an Oscar. The Oscars are fodder for the masses and the industry.) I spent a lot of time screening out competition films and parallel sections. The two most notable parallel sections (that is, secondary competitions that are important in their own regard) are Un Certain Regard (twenty official selection films with unusual styles and non-traditional stories seeking international recognition) and The Directors’ Fortnight (Quinzaine des cinéastes, in French, an independent selection of films started in 1969 by the French Directors Guild after the events of May 1968 resulted in cancellation of the Cannes festival). These parallel programs are often where new talent makes the biggest waves, and where, in my opinion, the best programming is happening.
I will begin on a sour note. The festival also has an “Out of Competition” official selection section, which had some of the most abhorrent films I have seen in some time. The films this year were “Project Silence” and “Kennedy,” both screenings which I left early. If you like a cheesy action movie masquerading as political critique (i.e. if you are a Marvel fan) then you might have fun seeing these. Screening mega-blockbusters is not a new tradition for Cannes. In fact, last year, “Top Gun: Maverick” was an official Out of Competition selection, and it received a five-minute standing ovation from audiences (more on that in a bit). “Project Silence” picks up where “The Host” (2013) left off, with an exciting, action-packed Korean thriller about man versus a strange beast. It is the most derivative thing I have seen in years. Think “The Host” meets “Cujo” meets “Sharknado” meets “Jaws” and then you might get close. Korean thriller films have become so massively successful over the past two decades that they have become a genre unto themselves. This was almost a parody of that genre. Plot twists came in as punchlines; people laughed where I suspect they should have been tense. So, do not be too awed by an “Official Selection” distinction. The festival is more of an industry event than it is a critical forum, and some of the programming reveals that.
So, for my top picks. I am including my personal favorites. This is not an objective assessment; rather, it is just this critic’s taste.
“Los Colonos” is a Chilean film In Selection by Un Certain Regard about the killing of the Selk’nam people, renamed the “Onas” by white Chileans, as the country was colonized. The film is director Felipe Galvez’s feature-length debut. The film follows a mixed-race young man as he travels with a British colonel and an American mercenary under the support of a wealthy landowner. While keeping Tarantino’s best stylistic flairs (less gratuitous violence, although there is still that), the film uses the form of a Western to intentionally subvert audience expectations and lead to critical conversations. Galvez spoke prior to the screening about his desire to reveal a history that is undiscussed in Chile: that of the genocidal ethnic cleansing upon which the country was founded. This aspiration can often lead to sterile, didactic films, which “Los Colonos” avoids at every turn. The film contains complexities, and matters are often left unresolved rather than running the risk of turning trite. It is a must-watch, and a promising entry from a new director.
“Banel & Adama” is a competition film from first time Senegalese-French director Ramata-Toulaye Sy. Sy’s film is the only competition film from a first-time director in this year’s program. It is slow, beautiful and lyrical, telling the fraught love story of a young man and a woman who live in a small village battling a drought. The characters navigate their place within tradition as well as the pressures of an unpredictable climate. The film was one of the freshest of the competition films and left me contemplating how climate change will manifest differently in different places depending on their traditional knowledge.
“Asteroid City” is the new Wes Anderson movie. Wes Anderson makes good, fun movies. This one is no exception. It is a good and fun movie. Not his best, not his worst, “Asteroid City” takes us to the 1950s in an American desert conducting nuclear tests. The film does some interesting things formally and narratively, but, at the end of the day, it is a damn fun movie.
“Augure (Omen)” is the first film by Belgian rapper and performer Baloji. Between Brussels, Kinshasa and Lubumbashi we follow Koffi as he returns home to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in an attempt to deliver his father a dowry as he prepares to marry his white Belgian wife. In returning, he is confronted by a haunting omen which has followed him since he was a child. In interwoven yet distinct stories, the film’s vibrant cast of characters navigates a fractured world balancing tradition, modernity, personal strife and resentments. Visually and sonically, it was one of the most exciting projects I watched and listened to. An absolute tour de force, the film is in the Un Certain Regard competition.
Some other favorites include the short film “Lemon Tree” by Rachel Walden. Part of the Fortnight’s shorts program, this is one of the best things I watched at the festival. A promising film from a director who has yet to debut a feature length project.
“L’Autre Laurens (The Other Laurens)” is a stylish detective story of a private investigator investigating his brother’s death for foul play. It is an astonishingly well-shot film also in the Fortnight program. It is tight, well-conceived and very watchable.
Finally, the most unexpected treat of the festival for me was “Return to Reason,” a new 4k restoration and scoring of four Man Ray Dadaist and surrealist films, produced and scored by Jim Jarmush and his bandmate Carter Logan. The restoration was remarkable, and the score complemented the psychedelic, associative films. The director opened with this imagined quote from Man Ray: “Elephant lawnmower female molecule.”
In short, the festival’s program was fantastic. Many of the competition films will be available for streaming shortly (“May December” already got purchased for a king’s ransom by Netflix), but do try to see them in theaters if you can. Films should be watched with other people and on a big screen.
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