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Cannes 2017: The 10 Best Movies of This Year’s Festival

We dug through high-profile competition titles, sidebars and special screenings to unearth the very best that this year's overwhelming festival had to offer.

“The Beguiled,” “Makala,” “The Florida Project,” “Happy End”

You know you’re experiencing a strong year at the Cannes Film Festival when everyone has a different favorite movie. For some critics and journalists, the best was saved for the end, with Lynne Ramsay’s post-modern detective story “You Were Never Really Here” standing out in the competition; for others, the competition peaked early with Andrey Zyvagintsev’s kidnapping drama “Loveless.” And some people looked far beyond the competition for festival highlights, singling out selections from Un Certain Regard, Directors’ Fortnight and Critics Week, not to mention the out of competition screenings that were part of the Official Selection.

In other words, Cannes is a lot of things to a lot of people, and each member of the IndieWire team attending the festival this year experienced the program in different ways. The following list is by no means an exhaustive account of the program’s highlights, but rather a breakdown of our very favorite films from 10 days of packed screening schedules, the ones that will unquestionably stick with us long after the 70th edition of Cannes has been relegated to the history books.

“The Beguiled”

Nicole Kidman Sofia Coppola the beguiled

“The Beguiled”

Ben Rothstein / Focus Features

Ruthlessly shorn from Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel of the same name (and not remade from the Don Siegel adaptation that first brought its story to the screen), “The Beguiled” is a lurid, sweltering, and sensationally fun potboiler that doesn’t find Sofia Coppola leaving her comfort zone so much as redecorating it with a fresh layer of soft-core scuzz. Set at an all-female Virginia seminary circa 1864, the story begins with the youngest of the students coming across a wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrell). Taking him back to the house for safekeeping and leaving him to the mercy of the seminary’s severe headmistress (Nicole Kidman), the girl turns her home into a hothouse of repressed desire. Not only is this the funniest and most conventionally entertaining film that Coppola has ever made (as she plays even its defining character beats for gently sadistic laughs), but “The Beguiled” also features a dynamite turn from frequent muse Kirsten Dunst, whose performance as a deeply conflicted Southern belle becomes the story’s emotional core. By the time Coppola unveils her haunting final shot and lets it linger for a minute, her wildly thrilling new movie has made one thing very clear: Even the most prim and possessed of women have always had needs, but men ought to be careful who they fuck with. — DE

The Florida Project

Sean Baker’s followup to “Tangerine” doesn’t disappoint. The director has staked his career on working with nontraditional actors, this time coaching a remarkable performance out of six-year-old Brooklynn Prince as the eager resident of a budget motel on the outskirts of Disney World. The story of the girl and her single mother finds them intermittently at odds and supported by the motel’s tough-love manager (Willem Dafoe) while causing a ruckus around the limited environment. The adjacent theme park becomes an apt metaphor for the way these lively but at times despondent characters live in the shadow of an unobtainable American dream, and the movie brilliantly inhabits their world by transforming it into a lively adventure. Acquired by A24 out of the festival, it’s the rare case of an audacious storytelling experiment with mainstream crowdpleaser potential. We can only hope. —EK

“Faces, Places”

Agnes Varda Faces Places

“Faces Places”

Unaccountably missing from the Competition lineup, heart-tugger “Faces, Places” from French cinema icon Agnès Varda is a testament to the creative imagination. This indomitable 88-year-old woman brings her powerful personality, boundless visual acumen and canny documentary instincts (her lauded documentaries include “The Beaches of Agnès”) to this pop-up road movie made in collaboration with deferential younger artist JR. He shoots large-scale photos of people via his rolling photo studio, prints them out and pastes them on walls and buildings. He and Varda pick a number of winning subjects, some whimsical, some improvised, along with selected staged set-ups from Varda’s past. She knows how to illicit delightful interviews from their multiple encounters, and splices in moments of memoir as she embraces old friends. Visually stunning, artfully surprising, and movingly humane, “Faces, Places” could be Varda’s last movie. At one point, the filmmaker, who leans on a cane, arranged a bobbing human pyramid of an eye-exam chart to show how her eyesight is failing. Winner of the third annual jury prize L’Oeil D’Or” (The Golden Eye) in Cannes, which selects the best documentary among all the competitive official selections, “Faces, Places” comes out of the festival surrounded by love and valentines. The Cohen Media release will also play well on the documentary awards circuit en route to an inevitable Oscar nomination, and it deserves that. —AT

Good Time

Filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie’s gritty, rambunctious heist movie transforms into an “After Hours”-like black comedy set over the course of an unruly New York night. Robert Pattinson delivers a career-best performance as the fierce, driven brother of a mentally disabled man (Benny Safdie, in a risky but ultimately effective supporting role) who winds up incarcerated as a result of their crimes. As the Pattinson character careens from one daring attempt to correct their situation to the next, the movie continues to reinvent itself, the tone opening up to new possibilities along the way. This is a familiar routine for the Safdies, whose “Heaven Knows What” and “Daddy Longlegs” put them at the forefront of New York independent filmmaking, but “Good Time” represents the best consolidation of their technique to date — a blend of gritty realism and fantasy in which emotional circumstances lead to gripping suspense and disarming comedy in equal measures. Already gearing up to make another bigger movie — “Uncut Gems,” which is produced by Martin Scorsese and set to star Jonah Hill — the Safdies are on the right track to solidify their reputation as some of the best American directors working today. —EK

“Happy End”

Michael Haneke is no stranger to unlikable characters trapped by their despair, but “Happy End” may be the most extreme version of that vision to date. The Austrian director’s followup to “Amour” is a pointed, fatalistic look at festering anger percolating throughout a wealthy European family in which nobody seems capable of feeling good about themselves, each other, or the world in general. The story finds several generations arguing about infidelity and job expectations in a constant cycle that never slows down. Some critics resisted this consistency from the Austrian director, but it’s actually a remarkable show of confidence from the 75-year-old storyteller, one that illustrates his tight control over performances (which include enjoyably nasty turns by Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant and newcomer Fantine Harduin) and his modern perspective. With plot threads that include sexting and smartphones, the narrative careens through a series of grim circumstances as it illustrates the self-destructive tendencies inherent to modern bourgeois life. Yet there is also an undercurrent of black comedy to Haneke’s approach, a wry sense of calculation to the way he sets up his characters for engineering their own dissatisfaction. “Amour” was a comparatively gentler look at an aging couple facing their mortality; “Happy End,” which borrows some names and circumstances from that earlier work, proves that Haneke’s dour filmmaking vision shows no sign of brightening up. For his fans — and there are many of us — that’s great news. —EK

“Loveless”

loveless cannes 2017

“Loveless”

Scoring the most critical praise at Cannes was the Screen Jury’s top-ranked  “Loveless,” Andrey Zvyagintsev’s damning portrait of selfish Russians, which was scooped up by “Leviathan” distributor Sony Pictures Classics. During filming, the writer-director unaccountably felt compelled to shoot a snowy riverside panorama of water and trees. He wound up bookending the movie with this enigmatic landscape that draws us in, makes us wonder, “What happened here?” The movie shows us why an unloved child, caught between two warring parents ( (Maryana Spivak and Aleksey Rozin) who have found other lovers and want to divorce, could leave home and disappear. In one damning shot, the camera moves away from his parents angrily debating who should take him to reveal their 12-year-old unwanted son, hidden in the dark, weeping uncontrollably. It’s a body blow to the audience, as the search for the child reveals the sources of this family’s unrecoverable anguish. While some critics found “Leviathan” hard to top, this master filmmaker, now working independently from Russian government largesse, is speaking freely about a culture that he observes with pitiless clarity. A likely top Cannes award will force Russia to make another tough choice about its next Oscar submission. —AT

“Makala”

Emmanuel Gras’ experimental documentary won the Critics’ Week section this year for good reason: It’s an ambitious experiment with film form that also resonates on a powerful emotional level. The movie follows the plight of a Congolese coal salesman through every step of his process, from chopping down trees to journeying across a sun-baked landscape in a grueling trip to support his family back home. The poetic imagery and elegant sound design all contribute to a mesmerizing, lyrical descent into this cycle of survival, which ultimately embodies a universal struggle. While Cannes 2017 was dominated by conversations about Netflix and the future of the moviegoing experience, “Makala” makes the case that some cinematic achievements demand the big screen experience, and on some level contribute to its continuing relevance. —EK

“Promised Land”

A documentary as sprawling and brilliant and flawed as the country it traverses, Eugene Jarecki’s “Promised Land” is a fascinatingly overstuffed portrait of America in decline. In the process, it’s also: a road trip in which the director drives Elvis Presley’s 1963 Rolls-Royce Phantom V across the United States, a biography of the 20th century’s most famous musician,; a story about how a man became king of a democratic nation; a nuanced analysis of cultural appropriation in a multi-racial society; a southern-fried rock n’ roll performance piece; a horrifyingly sober look at the rise of Donald Trump; a closed-casket funeral service for The American Dream; the best recent film about how the hell we got here; and more. So much more. But the more strains to get there, the more it seems to all make sense. Elvis was so many different things to America that the film’s exhaustingly kaleidoscopic attack proves more revealing than a straightforward approach ever could. Whether arguing the degree to which Elvis stole (and profited from) black culture, or contrasting his cushy military service against Muhammed Ali’s refusal to fight, or offering a sympathetic take on how easily the King was ruled, Jarecki paves the last 70 years of American history so that every road leads back to a poor kid with black hair and high cheekbones. The result is the most insightful and comprehensive profile of the icon ever been captured on camera. — DE

Top of the Lake: China Girl

“Top of the Lake: China Girl”

SundanceTV

How perverse, in our fraught cultural climate where the medium seems almost as important to people as the message, that one of the best things at the Cannes Film Festival was a television show? Playing like more of a sequel than it does a second season, Jane Campion’s follow-up to her 2013 miniseries “Top of the Lake,” this new sextet of episodes follows the continuing adventures of detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) as she trades in New Zealand for Sydney and tries to solve the case of a murdered Thai prostitute while reconnecting with the daughter she gave up for adoption 17 years earlier. Deeper, richer, wider, and darker than the first series, “China Girl” touches upon everything from sex work and surrogacy to patriarchy in the digital age and the instinctive push towards parenthood. But most of all, this extraordinary work of character-driven crime fiction is a story about bodies, and the stories that bodies tell us. Call it television, call it a six-hour movie, call it “the future,” it doesn’t matter. Whatever the hell you call it, this is as beautiful and soul-stirring as anything you’ll see on any kind of screen this year. — DE

“Wonderstruck”

Author Brian Selznick (“Hugo”) was inspired to adapt his graphic novel intertwining two stories from 1927 and 1977 when costume designer Sandy Powell pulled it off a shelf and said, “This should be a Todd Haynes movie.” The director found the screenplay’s potential irresistible. “Wonderstruck” is the perfect match of rich source material and cinema. Haynes’ ambitious cross-cutting of two narratives wowed Cannes critics and audiences with its cinematic prowess. It was a daunting task to wed a black-and-white silent film told from the point of view of a deaf teenager (poignant 14-year-old rookie Millicent Simmonds) searching for her mother in Manhattan (Haynes regular Julianne Moore) with a 70s color narrative about a 12-year-old boy (“Pete’s Dragon” star Oakes Fegley) who suddenly goes deaf. Haynes and his editor Affonso Gonçalves artfully weave a propulsive mystery, throwing the audience clues as the two deaf kids in different time zones inevitably wind their way toward the Museum of Natural History in New York, where the two narratives collide. Cinematographer Ed Lachman nails the look of the two distinctive time periods, supported by impeccably detailed designs from Powell and production designer Mark Friedberg. Playing an enormous role in keeping “Wonderstruck” on track is the textured and informative score from composer Carter Burwell.  — AT

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