With most of the major movie stars having decamped, and the French Riviera on the verge of plunging into its torpid summer season, it's a good time to take stock of Cannes 2007. The Palme d'Or ceremony is still to come on Sunday night (and I'll have a report on Monday morning), but while that will create international headlines and look great on the DVD case, Cannes' big prize has long since stopped being a box-office difference maker outside continental Europe. Still, it's not as if this festival has no reach. "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Volver" emerged from Cannes last year with worldwide buzz, and went on to find a wide audience in the English-speaking world that was never before accessible to Spanish-language cinema. "An Inconvenient Truth" had actually premiered at Sundance, but the media coverage surrounding Al Gore's visit to Cannes came right before the film's U.S. opening and helped push an unlikely hit. If pictures like Rachid Bouchareb's World War II drama "Days of Glory," Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Bergman-esque domestic drama "Climates," Andrea Arnold's erotic noir "Red Road" and Abderrahmane Sissako's confrontational docudrama "Bamako" never found the audiences they merited, they still got their shot, largely because of what happened here.
Of course, it can run in the other direction sometimes too. If you'd told me a year ago that well-liked Cannes films such as Aki Kaurismäki's "Lights in the Dusk," Israel Adrián Caetano's "Chronicle of an Escape" (aka "Buenos Aires 1977"), Wang Chao's "Luxury Car" and Pedro Costa's "Colossal Youth" would remain virtually unreleased and unseen in the United States, I'd have -- well, OK, I'd have believed you.
All of that is to state the obvious: Picking the hottest films out of any film festival is an inherently subjective matter of guesswork and taste, and I'm certain to be dead wrong about something on this list. I've included the films that were my personal favorites at Cannes this year, but of course I'm also reacting to the tides of gossip and innuendo and thirdhand enthusiasm that flow through any large group of people. I'm including a couple of films I haven't seen yet, based on the overwhelming reaction of those who have. (It's possible to see about half of the official selection at Cannes, and maybe more if you literally don't do anything else, but everybody leaves here regretting the movies they don't catch.)
A few words about the movies that aren't on my list, because in some cases their absence requires explanation. I'm not including Hollywood movies that screened here out of competition, like "A Mighty Heart" and "Ocean's Thirteen." I'm also not counting movies that have been extensively covered here and that will clearly get a mainstream or near-mainstream level of release. Those would include Wong Kar-wai's "My Blueberry Nights" (the opening-night feature here), along with the Coen brothers' "No Country for Old Men" and James Gray's crackerjack 1980s New York cop thriller "We Own the Night."
I'm essentially looking for this year's art-house surprises: challenging and adventurous films likely to appeal to a small but serious audience of cinema buffs all over the world. To my own surprise, I'm not going to include Korean director Kim Ki-duk's "Breath," Hungarian art-god Béla Tarr's "The Man From London," Alexander Sokurov's "Alexandra" or Gus Van Sant's "Paranoid Park." Those are all important directors, and those movies -- all respectfully received here -- are worth discussing in more detail. But none of them, to my mind, is a startling or exceptional work likely to reach beyond those filmmakers' existing fan bases. ("Paranoid Park," for instance, will play better in Europe than in America. "The Man From London," like most Tarr films, will barely escape the festival circuit.)
I'm fairly sure all of these will actually see U.S. release in the next year, but there can be major differences of scale. Pictures like Julian Schnabel's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" or Juan Pablo Bayona's "The Orphanage" will be rolled out as potential foreign-language hits, while Carlos Reygadas' "Silent Light" may play half a dozen big-city venues. My advice is to catch them all, if and when you can. (The list is alphabetical and otherwise unranked.)
"Control" Star photographer Anton Corbijn's feature-film debut played on opening night of the Directors' Fortnight festival, and the murmur has been quietly building ever since. Corbijn's film is a glum, black-and-white period piece about Ian Curtis, the late singer in the legendary English post-punk band Joy Division, and there are only two possible reactions to that information. It's either "Who cares? or "What do I have to do to see it?" Samantha Morton stars as Curtis' wife, Deborah (the film is based on her book), with unknown Sam Riley as the espresso-depresso gloomster champion of his time.
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" I've already hyped the hell out of Julian Schnabel's French-language film about a severely paralyzed magazine editor (played by the great Mathieu Amalric). It remains my personal pick for the Palme d'Or. But let me just insist that this is a picture that needs to be seen to be believed, and that it's not an earnest, vitamin-enriched film about overcoming disability and the triumph of the human spirit. OK, it is about those things. But it's also fun, funny, exciting to watch and driven by a luminous, worldly spirituality.
"The Flight of the Red Balloon" To me, Hou Hsiao-hsien's lyrical, graceful riff on Albert Lamorisse's 1956 children's classic was unmitigated joy. But based on the indifferent and sometimes baffled reviews here, I can only conclude that my joy is somebody else's tedium. If one is sufficiently patient with Hou's long, carefully orchestrated shots, and with Juliette Binoche's wonderful performance as a harried single mom on the edge of total meltdown, I still feel this movie delivers a gentle magic found in no other movie this year. It probably helps to be a fan of Hou's Chinese films and of classic French cinema, and to be a parent, and not to be terribly concerned about plot. I guess that's me.
"4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" There was a lot of downer cinema at Cannes this year, but Romanian director Cristian Mungiu's tale of two young women seeking an abortion during the latter days of the Ceausescu dictatorship was a clear standout. Very much in the tradition of his countryman Cristi Puiu's international award winner, "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," Mungiu's film is shot in a series of long takes, and written and acted without a hint of self-consciousness or theatrical fakery. Despite the evident pain and difficulty of its subject matter, "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" will get people talking wherever it's seen.
"The Orphanage" This debut film from Juan Antonio Bayona, a young protégé of "Pan's Labyrinth" director Guillermo del Toro's, is a Spanish haunted-house fable with a distinct resemblance to Alejandro Amenábar's international hit "The Others." I guess that's just saying it's constructed from the same Gothic source material: an old house full of secrets, a mother who's cracking up, sinister children who may or may not be real. There's really nothing new about "The Orphanage," but Bayona handles the creepy buildup and the short, sharp shocks adroitly. Atmospherically filmed on the rocky, rural coast of northern Spain, with a fine lead performance from Belén Rueda (and a great cameo from Geraldine Chaplin).
"Persepolis" Iranian-born Marjane Satrapi brings her autobiographical graphic novel to the screen with the help of French underground cartoonist Vincent Paronnaud, and the result is graceful, delightful and disarmingly simple. Kids from about age 8 or 9 should love it for its plucky and passionate heroine, surrounded by her eccentric family of heretics, communists and charmers. Satrapi's life story as she bounces from East to West, from Islamic zealotry to Western alienation, will of course have a different resonance for adult viewers. And then there's the "Eye of the Tiger" musical number! The U.S. version will feature the voices of Catherine Deneuve, Gena Rowlands and Satrapi herself.
"Promise Me This" OK, I haven't seen this new film from Emir Kusturica, the tragicomic, big-canvas Serbian filmmaker who has twice won the Palme d'Or here (with "When Father Was Away on Business" in 1985 and "Underground" in 1995). Nobody else has either; it doesn't screen until Saturday, as the final film in competition and thus the last film this year's jury will see. Hmm. Anyway, Kusturica may well be my favorite living filmmaker, so I can't leave him off. This is a purportedly hilarious yarn about a boy from a backwoods village whose grandfather sends him to town to sell the cow and find (or purchase) a wife. It's bound to be tragic, hilarious and cruel at some moments and bordering on manic surrealism at others.
"Savage Grace" All week I've been meaning to write about "Savage Grace," the long-awaited follow-up to "Swoon" from Tom Kalin, a quasi-legendary figure in New York art-film circles. It features Julianne Moore (yes, her!) playing what will very likely be the most screwed-up and unappetizing character of her entire career. That would be Barbara Baekeland, wife to the scion of the Bakelite fortune, and while I can't really be accused of "spoiling" a real-life scandal from 1972, I'll be circumspect about the details. Kalin constructs Barbara's jet-set socialite world with terrific precision. And let's just say that Barbara's highly inappropriate relationship with her son Tony (Eddie Redmayne) is delivered with both exemplary taste and maximum shock value.
"Silent Light" When I say that this could be the breakout film for Mexican director Carlos Reygadas, I only mean that a measurable number of people might see it, which was not the case for his first two films ("Japón" and "Battle in Heaven"). Once again Reygadas works with nonprofessional actors, once again plot is circumlocutory, if not nonexistent, and once again he is revealed as a distinctive and perhaps frustrating visionary. "Silent Light" takes place in a remote Mennonite community in northern Mexico whose inhabitants still speak an 18th century German dialect. The confrontational sex of "Battle in Heaven" is absent, and thankfully so is the Tarkovsky-grade obscurantism of "Japón." While the plot is a standard-issue fable of adultery, this spectacular wide-screen film focuses on these unlikely, lonely figures and the beautiful, almost empty landscape around them.
"Une Vieille Maîtresse" ("An Old Mistress") It's still not clear whether U.S. distributors will want a French or an English title for Gallic provocateuse Catherine Breillat's latest, so here are both of them. Partially disabled after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage five years ago, Breillat appears to have lost her desire to shock (by showing actors actually having sex, for example), and that's all to the good. In fact, "Une Vieille Maîtresse" may have more erotic smolder than any film she has made before. A worldly period piece adapted from a classic 19th century novel, the film tracks the self-destructive "amour fou" between a handsome Parisian nobleman (Fu'ad Aït Aattou) and the vulgar Spanish adventuress (Asia Argento) who has conquered him. It's often outrageous and melodramatic, but is loaded with all Breillat's sexual obsessions and queer-theory dynamics despite its hoary, bewigged and theoretically hetero setting.
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