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The 5 Best Films Plus The Highs & Lows Of The Playlist’s Cannes 2013

The 5 Best Films Plus The Highs & Lows Of The Playlist's Cannes 2013

And so it’s time to wrap up our time at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and gently put it to bed. The consensus that seemed to emerge, and that we’re on board with, was that this was a strong year at the festival, and if there was no single, unexpected, left-of-field standout (no “Holy Motors” leapt out of the bushes and startled everyone) that was more than compensated for by the base standard being higher than in previous years.

This year, The Playlist sent two staffers to the festival, meaning we got to cover more than usual, but of course we didn’t have identical schedules. However where we disagreed on films we both saw, we’re happy to say the disagreements were minor, and where one passionately made a case for a film the other had not seen, well, we engaged in mature, mutually respectful debate (arm wrestle). So how we’ve designed this recap is that we’ve worked together to agree our joint top 5 films of the festival, and then gone off into separate rundowns of our highlights and lowlights, reflecting, we hope, our different but complementary experiences. So just before we say goodnight and turn off the lights on the Croisette, here’s our final Cannes lullaby. (Catch all over coverage by clicking here).

The Playlist’s 5 Best Cannes Competition Films

Blue is the Warmest Color
There’s not a lot more we can say about Abdellatif Kechiche‘s Palme d’Or-winning “Blue is the Warmest Color” (review here) except that we were hugely impressed with the jury’s (probably hard-fought) decision to get around the weird Cannes rule that the Palme winner can’t also take an acting award, by giving the Palme to the director and the two principal stars. As a Cannes experience, it was gratifying to sense how much the film’s stature grew in the days following its screening; we had stumbled out of that initial screening totally transported, but with the passage of time the film became no less lovable in retrospect. Continuing debate about its sex scenes aside (see below), ‘Blue’ simply towered in its humanist, compassionate way, above everything else we saw and the fact that the Spielberg-headed panel worked so unprecedentedly hard to see full justice done in face of regulations, makes us oddly proud of them as a jury.

Inside Llewyn Davis
There’ve been plenty of songs about trying to make it in the music biz, and movies too, but the latest from the Coen Brothers (review here) might be the definitive portrait of the struggle just to make your artistic voice heard. The loosely plotted, immensely enjoyable, packed-with-great-tunes “Inside Llewyn Davis” is every bit as great as you’ve heard and then some. Oscar Isaac — who pretty much appears in nearly every scene in the movie — makes the most of his first major lead turn, and plays the struggling Llewyn with a rumpled grace, perfectly capturing a man who is always just on the outside edge of the spotlight. The film chronicles a week in the life of Llewyn, which feels like a lifetime, as he juggles an ex-girlfriend, career opportunities and yes, a cat, as he tries move a simple rung up the ladder, while hampered by his own self-sabotaging tendencies. Melancholy, certainly, but “Inside Llewyn Davis” isn’t sad and is frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious. Ultimately, it’s a movie about the essential act of creating art for its own purpose, and how the rewards that follow are the icing on the cake that is granted to but a select, lucky few.

The Past
There is no movie at Cannes that we didn’t want to end as much as Asghar Farhadi‘s “The Past” (read our review here). The latest from the filmmaker behind the Oscar-nominated “A Separation” is an unbelievably well-written, character-rich portrait of a woman caught in the crucial juncture between moving on from ex-husband, and into a new life with a single father. The dramatic opportunities are endless and Farhadi seems to find every note to play just perfectly, and is blessed by an array of fantastic performances from Bérénice Bejo, Ali Mossafa, Tahar Rahim and rising Pauline Burlet that it’s hard to pick a favorite. But the biggest masterstroke from Farhadi is that each of these characters is flawed and deeply human, sympathetic at times, unlikeable at others, but real in a way that few movies ever reach. The final act may not hit the same high notes as the rest of the movie, and may move into more melodramatic territory than some are comfortable with, but Farhadi’s vision is so complete you don’t mind going there anyway. The greatest praise we can heap on the film is that we truly want to know what happens to these characters after the credits roll.

While Alex van Warmerdam‘s chilly, mischievous sorta-home invasion oddity “Borgman” (reviewed here) didn’t gain a lot of traction, especially as the festival wore on and some of the bigger movies delivered, we’re happy to cheerlead for it, as it proved one of the more unexpected pleasures of our Cannes. While we could tell by its kind of misanthropic tone that it wouldn’t have a hope in taking home much in the way of awards, looking back now we admire it all the more for how very different it was happy to be in its fantastical and rather cruel outlook, from the more mature, adult-drama focussed selections elsewhere. It’s absolutely not for everyone, but fans of “Dogtooth” should find plenty to enjoy, and for ourselves, we’re happy to forgo warmth and universality when the results are as stylishly off-kilter as this.

Behind the Candelabra
We don’t want to be those guys who come home from Cannes raving about nothing but American movies, but neither do we want to be the guys who try and prove their bona fides by overlooking them when worthy. And for us, Steven Soderbergh‘s “Behind the Candelabra” (reviewed here) was a terrific experience, and one we feel privileged to have seen in all its lovingly detailed luxuriant kitch excessiveness on the big screen. It’s hardly experimental or groundbreaking in format it’s true, but when every single aspect of a classic production sings the way it does here, from the astonishing performances to the lovely fluid, confident camerawork, to the funny/sad/insightful/snappy script, we don’t care about a lack of formal experimentation. This is classy, rich, absorbing storytelling and we enjoyed the hell out of it.

Highlights And Lowlights — Jessica Kiang
This was my inaugural Cannes, and at least initially, I felt a bit like a straw-munching country rube coming to the Big City for the first time — the lights! The scale! The intimidating savoir faire of everyone else! But thanks to the kindness and friendliness of some lovely fellow journalists (big thanks especially to Playlist contributor/Video store owner Aaron Hillis, Variety reviewer Guy Lodge and Film4 doyenne Catherine Bray) and the wise counsel of sagelike Playlist puppetmaster Kevin Jagernauth, I didn’t immediately lose my life savings in a game of three card monte. Cannes is remarkable for having such a sense of itself as the Big Show; it’s an undeniable kick to feel so much like you’re at the epicenter of things for a couple of weeks, especially for those of us who don’t necessarily live in a major cinematic hub year-round.

It was also a strangely stratified experience. I remember at one point looking up at the screen in the press room at the live feed from the Red Carpet to see Jennifer Lawrence posing for photos, and really not making any sort of connection to the fact that that was happening maybe 50m away. There’s the Cannes of frocks and celebrities and people showing up to be seen, and there’s the Cannes we attended — they happen at the same time, but almost feel like parallel, overlying universes that don’t really have much bearing on each other. I did see Brian De Palma beetling around though, because he seemed to be there for the screenings, which is endearing.

As much fun as it is to be a part of (and it really is, I know how lucky I am), there are a few aspects of the experience that I learnt to be wary of: within the bubble, reactions tend to polarize to extremes through the magnifying lens of a film’s post-screening “buzz.” And when a great deal of chatter is going on around you it takes concentration, and perhaps a little bullheadedness (and a good pair of headphones) to stay strictly true to your own experience of the movie.

Mostly though, as a film lover, Cannes was a splendid, uplifting, affirming experience when time and again the sheer quality of the films overcame any tiredness or disenchantment I may have been feeling (in fact my two longest, wettest and most dismal queueing experiences were for my two very favorite films of the festival, so totally, totally worth it). So enough chit chat, here are the films that, aside from those listed above, made the biggest impression, good or bad, on me this year.

Best During-Cannes Discovery: “Stranger By The Lake”
Alain Guiraudie‘s film (review here) was nowhere near our radar before it screened in Cannes, but general word of mouth was so intriguingly positive that I snaffled a ticket to a private Market screening later on, and I’m very glad I did. Despite the strength and breadth of the competition line-up, it would have been a shame to come away from Cannes without at least one film that you feel a genuine sense of discovery over, and while I was perhaps not quite as bowled over by it as some friends for whom it proved their favorite Cannes film, I found it very impressive and enjoyable, and totally unlike anything else I saw at the festival.

Biggest Disappointment: The Weinstein Company Sizzle Reel
It’s hard to classify even those films I didn’t enjoy as much as I might have hoped as major disappointments because most of them didn’t fall so very far short of expectations. But last year’s Weinstein presentation (which included early looks at “The Master,” “Django Unchained” and “Silver Linings Playbook“) was one of the festival’s highlights for those attending, to the point that it was deemed worthwhile for me to skip a competition screening (“Like Father Like Son” — see Biggest Regret) to attend what is essentially a baldfaced marketing exercise. I guess it’s just that the biopic-heavy slate this year, as repped by the clips we saw, is simply not as exciting as last year’s, which was especially brought home when the biggest/only reaction of the night went to “Only God Forgives,” a film due to premiere within days of the presentation. Additionally, aside from a full scene from “The Immigrant,” which was also about to play In Competition, and an extended push for Cannes Jury member Nicole Kidman‘s “Grace of Monaco,” a lot of the the other titles showed little new footage, and in several cases just the existing trailer. Still, Kidman took time out from her judging duties to put in an appearance at the start, and Rooney Mara, Naomie Harris, Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer, among others, all showed up to stand in an awkward, largely mute line at the end, so we did get a little star spotting done.

Most Memorable Scene:

3-way tie between the first lesbian sex scene in “Blue is the Warmest Color,” the finale of horror movie “We Are What We Are and the finale of “The Immigrant — for enormously different reasons.

Having already spoken in the review of my issue with the sheer length of the first lesbian sex scene in Abdellatif Kechiche‘s otherwise wondrous, deservedly Palme d’Or-winning “Blue is the Warmest Color,” I probably wouldn’t have mentioned it here again were it not for the fact that the scene is already the most talked-about of a Cannes peppered with unsimulated sex scenes and fiery genitalia. With some commentators, notably the source graphic novel’s author, accusing the film of heteronormative prurience as regards the depiction of lesbian sex, it’s a scene that we’d be very sad to see dominate the discourse around this astonishing movie, but since we too felt it was sort of the sole fly in the ointment, we can’t really argue too forcefully against that. One thing’s for sure: the debate around it won’t end soon, so this scene will be undoubtedly one of the most memorable of our Cannes, if maybe for the wrong reasons.

Memorable for the right reasons, however are the closing scenes of cannibal horror “We Are What We Are” and “The Immigrant,” both of which work in immensely satisfying ways to round off their respective films’ (incredibly different) themes and stories. The closing of the third act is a delicate art and one that feels like these days has become almost unfashionable. Time and again recently, not just in Cannes but there too, we’ve seen films that stumble at the final hurdle, and that leave us on an unresolved, ambivalent note in a nod to a kind of narrative modernity that half the time I suspect of being a symptom of the the filmmaker just not knowing how to end their story. It’s a personal bugbear and so two of my personal highlights were films that absolutely didn’t do this. Jim Mickle‘s “We Are What We Are” (reviewed here) has a visceral funny-gross-excessive climax, while James Gray‘s “The Immigrant” (reviewed here) has a more emotionally devastating finale that shifts our perspective on the whole film to that point. The scenes couldn’t be more different, nor could the films they serve, but they gave me a similar feeling of closure and satisfaction with regards to their respective stories.

Biggest regret: Tie between missing out on Kore-eda‘s “Like Father Like Son” (which Kevin did see, review here) due to scheduling issues, and also on British film “The Selfish Giant” which I tried valiantly to get to, but timing just didn’t work out. About the latter we’ve heard great things and hope to catch up with it very soon.

Weirdest film: “The Congress”
Ari Folman‘s messy but sometimes inspired follow up to “Waltz with Bashir” should be admired for its sprawling ambition that doesn’t just gross genre and thematic boundaries, it strays from live action into animation and back again. It doesn’t at all work as a whole (read our full review here) but the some of the parts are individually delicious, especially the fairly caustic Hollywood satire that he delivers in the film’s live action segments. Seeing as those parts are apparently Folman’s own invention, and the animated section, which is where the film loses the narrative run of itself, is the part directly taken from Stanislaw Lem‘s novel “The Futurological Congress,” it’s a shame Folman didn’t simply write and direct an entirely original film. Still there’s enough exuberance on display here to make us anticipate whatever the hell (and we can have no idea based on this) Folman might have in store next.

Why was this in Competition? “A Castle In Italy”
While I’d second Kevin’s pick of “Shield of Straw” (below) for this ignominious slot, I’d also like to shout out Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi‘s remarkably disposable and unenlightening “A Castle In Italy.” Even if one can overlook the film’s un-self-aware haute-bourgeois apologism (we hate to harp on, but seriously, are we supposed to relate to the heartbreak of having to sell ones Breughel for 2.6m euro?), at best what you’re left with is a frothy life-and-loves comedy in a sub-Woody Allen vein (and we mean sub-late period Woody Allen, so not even that funny). Its lacklustre nature (review here) means we now really don’t know what to make of the festival’s assertion that gender played no part in the selection of the Competition films, but if they were going to go for a token female director, there would have been several less vapid choices they could have easily made. 

Why was this in Cannes? “Blind Detective”
OK, we lasted exactly 25 minutes into Johnnie To‘s “Blind Detective,” and it was longer than many. As a fan of To’s procedurals (I liked his gritty police story “Drug Warwhen I saw it in Rome), I guess I was expecting more of the same here, but in fact “Blind Detective” is a knockabout action comedy, and if there’s one thing that doesn’t always translate well across cultural boundaries, it’s sense of humor. So it’s possible “Blind Detective” will go down a storm in Hong Kong, but its shrill, graceless slapstick, telegraphed performances and hammy camerawork and plotting just gave me a headache. Featuring the clearly-not-blind Andy Lau as the titular blind gumshoe who can literally sniff out crime, as he partners up with kick-ass but self-confessed dummy policewoman (Sammie Cheung), the film had begun to careen off into some incomprehensibly noisy plot about a bank robbery before I decided that life, and my four-movie Cannes day, was just too short and fled.

Highlights And Lowlights — Kevin Jagernauth
2013 marked my fourth year stomping the grounds at the Cannes Film Festival, and as always it’s a disorienting, exhausting, excellent, amazing experience that I hope to do again. Of course, the films are always the draw, but it’s also the atmosphere. And no, I’m not talking about the red carpets, parties or endless array of celebrities and events. It’s actually the people.

Cannes is unique in that because the lineup is so select, almost everyone sees the same thing at the same time, and the immediate discussions, buzz and reaction that follow is pretty fascinating and fun to be a part of. It’s also one of the rare fests I’ve experienced where press are so welcoming and outgoing with one another; Cannes just wouldn’t be the same if not for rubbing elbows and sharing conversations with folks from all over so special shoutouts to: Aurelien and Emma from CinemaTeaser (France); Brad from Rope Of Silicon (USA); Eric from IonCinema (Canada) and Lieven from Metro Belgium. (You see what I mean?) Speaking of international flavor, The Playlist was also helped on the Croisette this year by our roving Euro reporter Jessica Kiang who has previously contributed dispatches from far flung locales like Marrakech, Goteburg and Karlovy Vary; and that she handled her first time at Cannes like a pro. She’s also as whipsmart and delightful in person as her writing would suggest.

Note: I was only on the ground for the first seven days of Cannes (boo hoo, poor me) so I missed some key films (“The Immigrant,” “Nebraska,” “Only Lovers Left Alive“). Nevertheless, I saw all kinds of other stuff, so here are some of other movies that left an impression within the whirlwind that is Cannes.

Director whose next film I can’t wait see: Amat Escalante
It’s hard for movies shown at the beginning of any festival to stick in the memory, as schedules and screenings get busier and busier as things get underway. And yet, the very first film I saw at Cannes showcased a talent I’m eager to see more of. The methodically paced and at times brutally unforgiving (I’ll get to that) “Heli” (review here) tells the story of one small family who are ripped apart and scarred forever by Mexico’s drug war. But this isn’t a slick bullets-and-messages movie. Instead, director Amat Escalante tells his story with Michael Haneke-like precision, with gorgeously shot composition and long takes, building to some devastating conclusions. As I noted in my review, it doesn’t all work, but the directorial hand is assured and there is much to admire in the picture from the cinematography to the powerful drama that unfolds with an economy of storytelling. I was so compelled by Escalante’s work that I’ll be there to see what he does next. In the meantime, I’m going to try and track down his previous efforts “Los Bastardos” and “Sangre,” which also played Cannes in previous years.

Most disturbing scene: TIE between final sequence of Claire Denis‘ “Bastards” and the torture sequence in “Heli.”
SPOILERS There were a lot of genitals on display this year at Cannes, and it seemed you couldn’t go a day without a vagina or penis crossing your field of vision on the big screen. And while they were mostly in the service of romantic interludes, in two movies, the scenes left you crossing your legs in discomfort. You will probably lose your appetite for corn on the cob after the final climatic sequence in Claire Denis‘ already jarring sex-trafficking-revenge-movie-or-whatever “Bastards” (our review is here). The final scene, shot in grimy, sleazy digital video, is almost like a snuff movie, with a young girl engaging in a sexual transaction with a much older dude. The line between discomfort and disgusting is quickly crossed when a corn on the cob becomes the newest vegetable I’ve seen used to enter an orifice below the equator and my eyeballs nearly fell out of my skull. And that would’ve been the same reaction I had during the unbroken and vicious torture sequence in “Heli” (review here) that marks a major turning point in the movie. It’s one thing to see young men bound, gagged, stripped, hung from a hook in the ceiling and then beaten with a heavy cricket bat (or something similar). It’s another to watch someone pour lighter fluid on a penis, set it on fire and watch the victim writhe in agony. Like I said, I would’ve been looking for my eyeballs on the ground had I not sat there oddly fascinated, wondering how on Earth the director got that shot. Stunt penis?

Best movie to start great only to go downhill from there:The Bling Ring
Opening Un Certain Regard, which tends to be the “edgier” lineup of the official Cannes slate, Sofia Coppola was bringing some swagger with “The Bling Ring.” And damn if the opening wasn’t promising with Sleigh Bells‘ red-line-pushing “Crown On The Ground” helping to tie together the garish credit sequence. It immediately gets that youthful adrenaline pumping and brings an energy that the rest of movie mostly fails to live up to. As outlined in my review, from here on out it’s an endless string of repetitive heists, with the notion of pushing the emptiness of celebrity culture becoming an empty exercise in and of itself.

Most disappointing movie:Blood Ties
How could this not work? A ’70s styled crime flick with Clive Owen, Billy Crudup, Mila Kunis, Matthias Schoenaerts, Zoe Saldana, James Caan, Marion Cotillard, Noah Emmerich and Lili Taylor, directed by Guillaume Canet, co-scripted by James Gray and featuring the most dazzling facial hair of any movie on the Croisette? And yet, as I noted in my review it’s somehow overplotted to death, with “Blood Ties” being the rare remake that is 40 minutes longer than the original (the 2008 film “Les Liens De Sang“) for no discernible reason. And it’s a real shame given how good Owen and Crudup are and how great some individual scenes are as well. But for all the star wattage, vintage cars and authentic New York locations (and though many actors struggled with authentic accents, sorry Cotillard) this was the movie that faded fastest after seeing it, and lingers as the biggest missed opportunity of any movie I saw.

Movie that many were too quick to dismiss:Only God Forgives
The word that quickly came out of Cannes regarding Nicolas Winding Refn‘s “Only God Forgives” was that it was booed, and the mixed to negative reviews that followed quickly cooled the excitement around the movie. But I think many were too quick to dismiss this one. Firstly, let’s get the record straight — yes, there was some booing, but there was also applause as well. But that kind of kneejerk stuff in either direction is kind of bullshit most of the time. For me, Refn’s film is a highly stylized, but also really well thought-out and wickedly lean tale of one damaged man trying to escape a cycle of violence, created by his family, that has ensnared him. Does the style get in the way of itself at times? Sure. Does Refn’s stripping away of narrative almost go too far? Yes. But for me, it all worked and I was hooked by his slow, slow burn, felt rewarded by the payoffs and thought the audacity of the entire thing was really impressive (you gotta love Refn giving Ryan Gosling even less to say here than in “Drive“). I almost wonder how this movie would’ve played if it was screened in the evening like some of other competition titles were for press, instead of first thing at 8:30 a.m. Either way, for the Refn faithful, don’t be swayed by whatever you heard out of Cannes — this is one I hope will get better appraised away from the expectations foisted upon the previous winner of the Palme d’Or for Best Director, expectations we tried to somewhat address in our Cannes review.

Movie you should make an effort to track down:Like Father, Like Son
Most of the sizzling, big name movies that debuted at Cannes have distribution locked up, starry casts and bold visions guaranteeing an audience when they finally debut stateside. But one film moving at different beat is Hirokazu Kore-eda‘s lovely, low-key and beautifully told “Like Father, Like Son” (reviewed here). The plot hinges on two couples discovering their respective sons were switched at birth, but instead of a soapy melodrama, what emerges is a potent and moving portrait of parenthood, and what it means to truly raise a child. Subtly touching on issues of class as well, Kore-eda’s picture is layered and rich, slowly building to a finale that have you wiping tears from your eyes, while also keeping the fates of these characters open-ended as well. It’s one of the best crafted movies I saw at Cannes, and when Sundance Selects releases it (hopefully later this year?), do what you can to see it. And until then get (re)acquainted with Kore-eda’s filmography by checking out “Still Walking,” “Nobody Knows” and “After Life.”

Best movie I can’t wait to see with complete English subtitles:Jodorowsky’s Dune
While I unfortunately missed Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s first movie in over two decades, “The Dance Of Reality,” I sorta did the opposite by catching the documentary “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” a chronicle of the movie he never got to make. As I outlined in this feature, there is a staggering array of great information in the film, but I likely missed even more during my screening, due to a lack of English subtitles (Jodorowsky spoke mostly in English, but some of his collaborators spoke only French or French-subtitled Spanish, leaving me to my high school lessons to get the gist of it). But there are few movies about movies with a story as fascinating as “Jodorowsky’s Dune” and few people whose love of filmmaking is as infectious and hilarious as Jodorowsky’s, so I’ll be eager to see it again, this time with English subs to help get the whole picture.

Why was this in Competition?Shield of Straw
While Cannes has the distinction of being the most prestigious film festival in the world, let’s face it, sometimes their choices are head-scratchingly bizarre. And after Takashi Miike’sShield of Straw,” I was left wondering if anyone actually watched this movie before placing it in the lineup (our review is here). There is the side-issue that it had already opened in Japan a month earlier and thus wasn’t truly a premiere, though it wasn’t the first time Cannes bent the rules for an auteur. Simply put, this movie is terrible. The thing with Miike is you just never know what director you’re going to get — the gonzo filmmaker who made international waves with stuff like “Ichi The Killer” and “Visitor Q” (among many more) or the workmanlike drone, cranking out genre movies because he had nothing better to do that week. And the latter was in effect here, with “Shield Of Straw” taking a great premise (cops have to protect a criminal with a billion dollar bounty on his head) and turning it into a dull movie that is essentially “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” but with lots of standing around and debating (in the most mindnumbingly simplistic terms possible) the ethics of protecting a murderer. There’s no depth, no filmmaking verve and very little of anything worth latching onto with what must have been the most direct-to-DVD movie I’ve ever seen in competition.

So that’s our wrap-up, um, wrapped up. We’ve had an amazing time of it this year in Cannes, and thank you all for reading. You can find all of our Cannes coverage — reviews, news and more — by following this link. À bientôt!

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