The 2017 Cannes Film Festival wrapped up last Sunday with a slate of generally predictable (and perfectly worthwhile) awards. And while it may have been a somewhat lackluster year for the festival’s main competition, there were plenty of cinematic treasures to be found on the Croisette — even a couple of outright masterpieces. Here are twelve of my favorites.
Playing in the “parallel section” of Directors’ Fortnight, Chloé Zhao’s mesmerizing drama was the best film I saw at Cannes. It follows a young rodeo cowboy of Sioux descent who’s been sidelined by a grave injury, the result of a ghastly fall off a horse, as he wrestles with the prospect of a future devoid of the one activity that gives him meaning. Working with a cast of nonprofessionals who play themselves and are often re-enacting events from their own lives, Zhao achieves a lovely balance between unflinching realism and haunting lyricism.
You Were Never Really Here
Lynne Ramsay’s electrifying, 88-minute nervous breakdown of a movie, based on Jonathan Ames’s novel, follows the agitated, fragmented inner journey of Joe (Joaquin Phoenix, who won the Best Actor award), a kind of vigilante for hire who finds missing people, as he searches for the daughter of a local politician. Thanks to Ramsay’s frenetic, staccato editing style, the film is a tangle of memories, flash-forwards and what-ifs, all rendered in short, sharp, shock cuts. And Joe’s world is a kaleidoscope of failures both real and imagined: He’s like a superhero whose special powers are self-loathing and self-negation.
Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s despairing tale about the search for a troubled, missing child mixes raw emotion and political allegory. As the hunt takes the characters through apartment blocks, dense forests, abandoned wastelands, and, most notably, a decaying Soviet-era complex that once housed conference rooms, a movie theater, and a basketball court, we sense that the director is creating a broad tapestry: a portrait of a huge, heartless world where solitary souls are not allowed to exist.
An adaptation of a young adult novel by Brian Selznick, Todd Haynes’s film follows two deaf children, one in 1927 and the other in 1977, as they flee to New York City and discover its riches and dangers. Switching between silent-film aesthetics and Seventies grit, and constantly teasing us with what its intricate narrative might be building to, this is simultaneously the densest and loosest picture Haynes has made. The deeply emotional payoff serves as a tribute to storytelling itself — and to the wonders of following your dreams and maybe even your nightmares. It’s a nakedly heartfelt work about finding your people and your passion.
Sofia Coppola’s Civil War–set gothic drama about a wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrell) who’s taken in by the headmistress (Nicole Kidman) and students of a secluded, all-female Virginia seminary is a tale of repressed desires and sexual power dynamics. But Coppola’s a master at taking something that could be portentous and rendering it delicate, thereby reclaiming its depth. Her use of style and texture here is nuanced, playful, and thoughtful.
BPM (120 Battements Par Minute)
This drama about the efforts of the Paris branch of ACT UP in the 1980s is the kind of story that too often gets told on-screen only in a shallow, made-for-cable social history, but director Robin Campillo’s drama, which achieves a touching and pointed mixture of styles, won the festival’s Grand Jury Prize — effectively, second place — and many felt it deserved the Palme. Early scenes focus on ACT UP’s weekly meetings, their attempts at direct action, as well as debates over strategy and tactics and process. But this clear-eyed, consciously didactic approach eventually gives way to something more personal, romantic, and tragic.
Ruben Östlund’s often hilarious Palme d’Or winner follows the preparations for a conceptual art project that seeks to create “a sanctuary of trust and caring” on the grounds of a former royal palace. Guess what happens when utopianism and rationality meet the real world? Through its interlocking vignettes, The Square questions our understanding of honesty, trust, and fellowship, suggesting that our ideas about integrity and community might be a lot more fragile than we think.
In Anahita Ghazvinizadeh’s lovely, understated feature, J (Rhys Fehrenbacher) is in the midst of transitioning from male to female but has chosen to delay puberty, leading to an odd sense of displacement to go along with all the other problems of being a kid. But this isn’t so much a movie about gender dysmorphia as it is about life in an in-between state — even as J looks to find a place in the world, their sister’s boyfriend’s Iranian family struggles with a different kind of uprooting. A bewitching little movie, with a haunting central performance by Fehrenbacher, a young performer who is transitioning from female to male.
Set in 1998, Russian-Kabardian director Kantemir Balagov’s striking debut feature follows the tomboyish daughter of a Jewish family in the desolate Russian town of Nalchik in the wake of her brother’s kidnapping. It’s not a thriller, but rather a look at a spirited young woman’s efforts to carve out her own identity in a land ruled by runaway tribalism. And director Balagov’s technique is dazzling: This had more moments of pure cinematic rapture than almost any other film at Cannes this year.
In the Fade (Aus dem Nichts)
The first half of Turkish-German director Fatih Akin’s intense drama is emotionally harrowing, as Katja Sekerci (Diane Kruger) discovers that her Turkish husband (Numan Acar) and young son have been killed by a terrorist’s bomb. Every terrifying and unbearable beat of Katja’s emotional journey is rendered in acute detail, and Kruger (who won Cannes’s Best Actress award) brings the grief and anger and pain to life. As the story transforms into a courtroom drama and finally a revenge thriller, we may wonder what exactly we’re watching — until a finale that subtly calls into question the perspective through which we’ve seen it all.
Director Tony Zierra’s documentary looks at Leon Vitali, the British actor who made such an impression as Lord Bullingdon in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and then turned around and became Kubrick’s assistant for the rest of the director’s career. Cleverly using scenes from Vitali’s many film and TV appearances, the picture makes clear the enormous personal toll this all-consuming work took on the actor-turned-assistant. It is both a cautionary tale and a tribute to this kind of compulsion.
Director Eugene Jarecki explores the myth and meaning of Elvis Presley by driving the King’s Rolls-Royce across the country, visiting key locations in the singer’s journey and interviewing historians, artists, and others — including David Simon, Van Jones, and, yes, Chuck D. But as the title hints, this is a movie that uses Elvis to explore the state of the American Dream. Though it sometimes bites off more than it can chew, this often beautiful documentary is never short of riveting.