New York, NY, April 15, 2010 -- Only in Cannes could a Thai filmmaker with a name nearly unpronounceable by Westerners be the director of the buzz title of the upcoming festival. The latest film by Asian auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul, "Loong Boonmee Raleuk Chaat" (translated as "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives"), has been atop today's indieWIRE quick poll surveying readers on the festival movie they are most excited to see.
Affectionately referred to simply as 'Joe' by many critics and fans, the thirty-nine year old Apichatpong Weerasethakul returns to Cannes after winning awards at the festival for "Tropical Malady" in 2004 and "Blissfully Yours" in 2002. His latest, the story of the final days for a man suffering from acute kidney failure, was described intriguingly by a rep for the film today. "Contemplating the reasons for his illness, Boonmee treks through the jungle with his family to a mysterious hilltop cave -- the birthplace of his first life..."
'Does Cannes Matter?' was the question that indieWIRE asked insiders nearly a year ago as the 2009 festival got underway. The answer to a question we considered rather rhetorical was clearly, 'Yes'. But, we're a specialized crowd.
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As industry types and film critics continue to question their own existence, today's lineup from France underscored why the festival matters, or more importantly, why we should care about cinema today. At the same time, though, it reinforced an almost blue state v. red state divide that separates more mainstream moviegoers from fans of contemporary international cinema.
You can almost read it as, "You're either with us or against us." Claims of elitism will follow.
While Cannes will open with an uninteresting Hollywood studio re-boot (Ridley's Scott's "Robin Hood"), its roster is again filled with movies by filmmakers that most moviegoers in this country have never heard of. "I don't know any of the people in competition," a friend of mine (who doesn't work in film) reacted today.
Cannes preaches to the converted.
Cinephiles expressed enthusiasm for a number of festival titles, even as they wondered about the exclusion of a few others.
"It looks like a Cannes lineup," offered indieWIRE's lead film critic Eric Kohn today, responding to an email soliciting thoughts on this year's selection. "The individual projects are less immediately interesting than the individuals behind them," he added.
Such is the case for much of international cinema today. Without stars or marketable loglines to latch onto, critics, programmers, blog and buyers invest themselves in the filmmakers themselves.
Jean Luc-Godard has a new movie ("Film Socialisme"), screening in the festival's Un Certain Regard section. No one knows much about it or seems to care what it's about. But, we all want to see it. A few thousand people will fight for a seat in Cannes and many will debate it after. Sight unseen, it's a safe bet the film will play at the New York Film Festival this fall.
Asked for his reaction, LA based journalist Greg Ellwood (founder of Hollywood's HitFix) is unimpresed with the Cannes roster. "A collective yawn to be honest," is how he characterized the lineup, "As someone who won't be attending, but will be watching from this side of the Atlantic, I believe I've saved myself a good chunk of money not going." He said he's glad the festival lacks some of the bigger name American and European titles because it means he can catch their premieres at the Toronto International Film festival this fall.
You know there's a canyon separating film fans and aficionados today when a Cannes roster of films and filmmakers unknown to mainstream moviegoers can actually feel a bit predictable for some cinephiles.
"Admittedly, I wish there were a few more surprises," offered Jonathan Marlow from the San Francisco Cinematheque. "That may merely be a symptom that we're all much more aware of what is in production/what is near completion that it isn't all that difficult to guess what will be in and what won't. I certainly cannot complain with their (fairly predictable) choices."
For those of us who are excited about this year's festival, the Un Certain Regard section is particularly compelling, as was highlighted by IFC Center's Chris Wells. The aforementioned Godard film is joined by Derek Cianfrance's "Blue Valentine" from this year's Sundance Film Festival, screening in the Cannes sidebar where "Precious" was seen at last year's festival. Another North American indie that will draw attention is Xavier Dolan's "Les Amours Imaginaires" (Heartbeats), his second film in Cannes in two years (and he's just 21 years old). Eighty years his senior is Manouel de Oliveira, the master filmmaker who will be in Cannes with "O Estranho Caso de Angelica," (Anjelica). Some have groused that it's a 'dis to include him anywhere out of the festival's main compettion (but last time he screened in the Competition, pundits complained that he was taking up a slot that should have gone to an unknown filmmaker).
"Love it that that section includes a filmmaker in his early 20s and one in his early 100s," enthused Mekado Murphy from the New York Times.
"I thought it was a solid, eclectic, mix of regulars the highlight for me being the first collaboration between Cannes superstars Abbas Kiarostami and Juliette Binoche," responded Benjamin Crossley-Marra from Zeitgeist. But, he added that he'd like to see the American indie movement better represented.
American independent titles should get a couple of spots in the yet to be announced Director's Fortnight and Critic's Week lineups that will be unveiled next week.
Meanwhile, hardly a festival known for rich documentary offerings, this year's Cannes fest includes a couple of non-fiction films and Agnes Varda who will be honored on the opening day of Director's Fortnight.
Sophie Fiennes, known for her collaboration with Slavoj Zizek with "Pervert's Guide to Cinema" (as was cited by programmer Thom Powers), will debut "Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow," about artist Anselm Kiefer. Powers also noted the inclusion of Charles Ferguson's "Inside Job," the director's follow-up to "No End in Sight." Cannes programmers have a history of embracing docs with a topical hook. This one examines the economic crisis.
Others have focused on the poignant lack of female filmmakers this year. Sophie Fiennes is one of just a few women on the roster. "The Cannes lineup revealed to me how little effect Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar win has had around the world," reacted Melissa Silverstein from Women & Hollywood. "The fact that the most prestigious film festival in the world could release a competition lineup with not a single female director on the list is shameful."
The debate about the festival lineup is just beginning and the intense opinions that sometimes usher in the annual lineup announcement underscore the importance of the festival and its films.
"Cannes takes a lot of flack each year, and there's always disappointment on the Croisette," noted Ryan Krivoshey of Cinema Guild, "But, by the end of the year a lot of the best films can usually be traced back to Cannes."
Cannes is a brand.
As written in last year's 'Does Cannes Matter?' piece, even for those who have never attended, the Cannes brand has likely been associated with a certain type of cinema: films that are celebrated but sometimes hard to find, movies that are heady and often dense, work that is eclectic but sometimes transformative.
Let the countdown begin.
PREVIOUS WEEKLY COLUMNS:
04.12.10: (Re) Introducing Eric Kohn | 04.05.10: I want it, but what do I *do* with it?? | 03.29.10: “Breaking Upwards”. Breaking even? | 03.17.10: 5 Hot Topics at #SXSW | 03.03.10: The *new* Miramax | 03.01.10: Megabucks v. Made on a Shoestring or “Avatar” v. “Hurt Locker” | 02.10.10: Before Berlin Begins, The Ten Best from Sundance 2010 | 01.11.10: The Doctor Is In | 12.21.09: New Year, New Model | 12.14.09: Tracking the Critics | 12.07.09: The Future of Festivals? |11.30.09: Paris, City of Cinema (or, In Bed with Agnes) | 11.23.09: Frederick Wiseman = The Greatest | 11.16.09: For The Love of Movies | 11.09.09: Building Buzz | 11.02.09: I want it like I wrote it. | 10.26.09: “Precious,” $1 Million or $100 Million? | 10.12.09: Critics (still) Matter | 10.05.09: Is There a Doctor in the House? | 09.28.09: The Indie Summit | 09.21.09: The Oscar Marathon | 09.14.09: DIY v. DIWO | 09.08.09: SPC v. IFC | 08.30.09: Saving Cinema | 08.23.09: Nadie Sabe Nada | 08.16.09: Movies, Now More Than Ever | 08.09.09: It Came From The 80s