Beyond the Multiplex: Cannes

Forget the air kisses, the yacht parties and the Hollywood buzz. Here are 20 great films to look for at an art house near you.

Published May 27, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

Film festivals, and this one above all others, encourage you to inhabit an alternate universe. This universe is one in which Hollywood films, the studios that make them, and the bazillion-dollar deals that process demands, all exist -- but somehow aren't really important. Yes, the American studios throw parties on their yachts and in their gingerbread hotels, and everybody pines for an invitation. Yes, major movie stars and big-name directors are treated the way royalty once was on the Riviera, in glorious days gone by. But we all tell ourselves we really care more about that new movie, the one from Kazakhstan or Ireland or Arkansas that will clear our heads and put all this excess in some perspective and leave us weeping in the merciless sunshine of the Croisette.

Let's pretend for a few minutes that those illusions are real, and that the alternate universe of art film still matters. Because if Cannes can tell us anything (an endlessly debated question), it can show us a roster of relatively small-scale, relatively adventurous movies that educated, upscale audiences all over the world are likely to absorb over the course of the next year or two. Here are my 20 picks for the art-house discoveries at this year's Festival de Cannes, ranked according to a strictly informal and incoherent combination of my personal taste, the last two weeks of buzz and drunken gossip, and some guesswork about the market.

I'm not covering the major competition titles, most of which I've already hacked up in earlier dispatches. There's not much doubt about the status of Pedro Almodóvar's "Volver" or John Cameron Mitchell's "Shortbus" (hits, hits, hits!) or for that matter about Bruno Dumont's "Flanders" (solely for art-film nutjobs like me) or Richard Kelly's "Southland Tales" (unmitigated and unsalvageable disaster). But you will discover herein my personal favorite among the competition films, and my Palme d'Or vote.

And, of course, when I use the word "market" here, it is to laugh. Ha! The gross proceeds of all 20 of these films, bundled together, might hit 20 percent of what "The Da Vinci Code" made in its worldwide opening weekend. (Or might not.) But some of the films on this list might surprise us and reach unexpectedly large audiences in our great and illiterate land, just as Michael Haneke's "Caché," a Cannes smash last year, has done. Anyway, I love the alternate universe. I live there whenever I can. So pass the champagne, don't step on my Hugo Boss shoes, and prepare to shed tears of profound sincerity.

Hits! Hits! Hits!
"Pan's Labyrinth" -- Hands down the most exciting and original film I've seen here, and the one that had me in tears during its final scenes. Mexican director Guillermo del Toro is best known as the director of such fanboy classics as "Hellboy," "Mimic" and "Blade 2," which are cool enough in their way. "Pan's Labyrinth" is something else again, and something far more powerful and original. Combining a fully convincing fantasy universe (drawn from a lifelong obsession with classic fairy tales) with a completely realistic story about the endgame of the Spanish Civil War, this film features a heart-rending performance from young Ivana Baquero as Ofelia, the teenage stepdaughter of a vicious Fascist officer (Sergi López), who's fighting a ragtag band of Republican guerrillas in a remote mountainous area. Ofelia's ailing mother tells her that she's too old for fairy tales, but the array of friendly and terrifying creatures she meets in the woods don't seem to agree. If she can face a series of trials against the various monsters and demons of the region, she can prove herself as the King of the Underworld's long-lost daughter. But neither the giant evil toad nor the eyeless child-eating gargoyle is as frightening as her stepdad, with his spit-shined shoes, his cracked watch and his revolver.

"The Host" -- In a particularly strong year for the Directors' Fortnight (one of the two autonomous sidebar competitions staged right next to the Cannes festival), Bong Joon-ho's crackpot horror film, which plays something like a combination of the original "Godzilla" and Italian neorealism, may have been the standout. A mini-bidding war for U.S. rights ensued, with Magnolia Pictures emerging the winner and Magnolia president Eamonn Bowles asserting that "The Host" could become a horror classic.

"A Scanner Darkly" -- This is Richard Linklater's other film at Cannes, besides "Fast Food Nation," which premiered in competition. (No director has ever had two films here in the same year before.) A rotoscope animation in the mode of Linklater's culty "Waking Life" -- that is, a perversely hypnotic blend of cartoon and live action -- this is adapted from Philip K. Dick's novel and features a delightful cast as a household of drug-addled Southern California lowlifes. Keanu Reeves is the brooding special agent in a shape-shifter suit, assigned to spy on his own friends; Robert Downey Jr. is the more-than-slightly-sinister (and hilarious) alpha male know-it-all; Woody Harrelson is the Lebowski-esque goofball; and Winona Ryder is the cute chick with a secret (or several, as things turn out). On one hand, "Scanner Darkly" is a paranoid futuristic thriller, but on the other it's a pitch-perfect portrait of life in deadbeat slackerdom and Linklater's funniest, loosest movie in years.

"Bug" -- Another Directors' Fortnight film, this one from Hollywood veteran William Friedkin ("The Exorcist," "The French Connection"), who's been virtually drummed out of the business in recent years. That made him perfect for a Gallic rediscovery, but I can't claim he didn't earn it. This paranoid, surreal thriller is a bit arty and claustrophobic, but check out the casting: Ashley Judd is a waitress fleeing a violent ex-husband (Harry Connick Jr.) and hooking up with a mysterious loner (Michael Shannon) in a dead-end residential hotel. Yes, there are bugs. Or perhaps I should say maybe there are bugs.

"Jindabyne" -- Ray Lawrence, the Australian director whose last film was the 2001 international hit "Lantana," was back at Cannes (after 21 years) with this tale of four Aussie locals on a fishing trip who find a dead body. As with a similar discovery in "Lantana," this event sets in motion an unexpected chain of circumstances. The setting here is rural rather than urban, and one could argue that Lawrence has restaged the basic subject matter of his earlier film in new surroundings. Still, it's a powerful, compelling blend of thriller and character drama that should have long legs and a broad reach.

"Free Jimmy" -- International Critics' Week, the other Cannes sidebar competition, closed out its proceedings with this Norwegian-British adult animation about a pill-popping elephant in a mismanaged Russian circus who escapes and leads a cast of scumbags on a cross-country chase. Characters are voiced by Woody Harrelson, Kyle MacLachlan and Jim Broadbent. Haven't seen it, but can't wait.

Just Maybe
"Princess" -- Another dark animated film, and another from the Directors' Fortnight, this clammy tale from Danish director Anders Morgenthaler follows a former missionary priest who sets out to avenge his dead sister, a porn star known in the trade as Princess. Violent, explicit and passionately moralistic, this isn't likely to reach anything resembling a mass audience. But I have a hunch it could be a midnight movie that generates talk.

"Exterminating Angels" -- Director Jean-Claude Brisseau, something of a minor bête noire in French cinema, got in trouble a few years ago for requiring aspiring actresses to bare both flesh and fantasies during auditions. So this is the semi-autobiographical tale of a filmmaker who discovers that the hot young things he's screen testing are eager to test sexual taboos, mostly by making it with other hot young things. It's highbrow French trash, but there's definitely an audience for that.

"Red Road" -- The only first film in the main Cannes competition, British director Andrea Arnold's "Red Road" is a gritty, surprising and well-crafted tale of crime, retribution and forgiveness, set in the notoriously scary housing projects of Glasgow. British films have played well in the United States lately, and "Red Road" offers a compelling central performance by Kate Dickie, and a side of Scottish life tourists never see.

"Days of Glory" -- Algerian-French director Rachid Bouchareb's gripping combat drama follows a group of Algerians who fought in de Gaulle's free French army during World War II, even though many had never set foot in France. It has obvious topical relevance here, amid national soul-searching after last year's riots in the Arab neighborhoods of suburban Paris and other cities. Does any of that translate to non-Gallic audiences? Not much, but "Days of Glory" is unquestionably a powerful film shedding light on a dark corner of French history. With the right handling, upscale Americans could become interested.

"Buenos Aires 1977" -- This saga of abduction and torture under Argentina's infamous police-state dictatorship of the '70s, based on a real event that befell a minor-league soccer goalkeeper, was just picked up by the Weinstein Co. for U.S. distribution (and given its new English title). Viewed as the last strong Palme d'Or contender in competition, this still has been seen by very few people in Cannes, but the word-of-mouth buzz is considerable. Rodrigo de la Serna (of "Motorcycle Diaries") reportedly gives a devastating performance as the kidnapped athlete.

"Day Night Day Night" -- According to director Julia Loktev, who's been self-marketing with a vengeance, this is the only American film at Cannes this year without a big-name actor or director attached. I haven't triple-checked her claim, but "Day Night Day Night" is an extraordinary low-budget accomplishment. Loktev tells the hair-raising story of a would-be suicide bomber in New York's Times Square, but this isn't "Paradise Now, American Style." The young woman (astonishing newcomer Luisa Williams) is ethnically and linguistically non-specific; although she belongs to some group and is clearly religious, we never learn anything about her motives or goals. Instead, "Day Night Day Night" takes us through the painstaking preparation for her attack, in near real time, and concludes with guerrilla footage shot without a permit on the New York streets. A challenging, intelligent film, it got an explosive ovation at its Directors' Fortnight premiere.

Specialists Required
"Climates" -- To some cinema purists here, Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's intimate study of a pair of lovers trying to resuscitate a perhaps-doomed relationship was the film of the festival. It's unquestionably a powerful and absorbing work for those with patience, and it's stunningly photographed. Ceylan and his haunted, androgynous, real-life wife, Ebru, play the film's two characters, a fact that ramps up the intensity, the artiness and also the tenderness. No, this won't become a U.S. hit -- it's too personal for that, and will strike some viewers as pretentious -- but somebody, somewhere in our country, will realize that this is an important film that deserves to be seen, if only by the few thousand people who will eat it up.

"Luxury Car" -- This doesn't seem like a great year for Un Certain Regard, the section of Cannes reserved for artier, smaller films. But the whole town loved Wang Chao's "Luxury Car," a note-perfect realist drama about life in postmodern capitalist China. An aging schoolteacher's quest for his son, in the city of Wuhan, becomes an exploration of various social roles and interactions: The teacher's daughter is a karaoke escort (that's about a half-step above street hooker) with a sympathetic cop friend and a shady older boyfriend who owns the eponymous vehicle. Although "Luxury Car" is a small and not amazingly ambitious film, it works wonderfully.

"How I Spent the End of the World" -- Romania is suddenly flavor of the month in European film circles, perhaps because of the international acclaim accorded Cristi Puiu's "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," which played here last year. I haven't seen Catalin Mitulescu's debut feature, a comedy about a 17-year-old girl experiencing adolescent life crises and the collapse of the Ceausescu dictatorship in 1989, but it's been racking up rave reviews and European awards (and both Martin Scorsese and Wim Wenders have signed on as producers). There's still no real market for these movies in America, perhaps because we lack any significant Romanian population, but this will eventually show up in big cities and festivals.

"The Violin" -- As the failure of Fernando Eimbcke's wonderful "Duck Season" demonstrated, Mexican art movies are still a tough sell in the U.S. "The Violin" isn't likely to be an exception, but it's both a passionate tale of violence and music and a beautifully crafted work of black-and-white cinema. At the right (very modest) level, this will find its audience.

"The Bothersome Man" -- I'm probably an idiot for suggesting that anyone outside Scandinavia will want to see Norwegian director Jens Lien's black comedy, in which the afterlife is presented as a parody version of the welfare state, sort of a Scandi-Stepford. But on first viewing I thought it was great, or at least highly original, or at least funny and creepy and highly worth seeing. Fans of this particular kind of dystopian satire (e.g., the cult British TV series "The Prisoner") should put this in their Netflix queue today.

"Poison Friends" -- Well-respected French screenwriter Emmanuel Bourdieu (he wrote Arnaud Desplechin's "My Sex Life ... or How I Got Into an Argument") turns to directing with this story of two boys approaching manhood who fall under the spell of a charismatic but dangerous friend. I didn't see it, reviews were mixed, and it's likely to come and go quickly in the American art-house market. Still, for Francophile film buffs, this will be a must-see.

"Drama/Mex" -- In a banner year for Spanish-language films in Cannes, Mexican director Gerardo Naranjo's colorful character drama of intersecting lives and romantic destinies, set against the faintly seedy backdrop of contemporary Acapulco, didn't get the love it deserved. Yes, it may be time for Mexican filmmakers to move away from the three-part structure and the "Amores Perros" narrative tricks. Or almost time: This is a sexy, sultry, sharply observed picture, well worth watching out for.

"The Family Friend" -- It hasn't been a great Cannes for filmmakers from nearby Italy, and it's not like Paolo Sorrentino's strange, dark, rather misanthropic story about an ugly, 70-ish, stinking rich and thoroughly unlikable loan shark is going to make many friends. ("The Family Friend" played in competition and reviews were respectful, but awards are unlikely.) In America, this will be strictly a work for festivals and a few big-city venues, but Sorrentino is a distinctive figure in contemporary Italian cinema -- a world almost impenetrable to outsiders -- and Giacomo Rizzo gives an unforgettable if not precisely enjoyable performance.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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