In the dreary apartments of film journalists across the world, suitcases overflowing with dirty clothes sit in bedrooms reproachfully. Tote bags overrun with swag litter our hallways, and most of us have sudden colds. Many have googled “symptoms of scurvy” or “how can I tell if I have gout?” in light of a fortnight of subpar pizza and pink wine. It can only mean the glorious/tedious amazing/depressing cinephile wonderland that is the Cannes Film Festival has ended for another year and all that’s left for us to do is round up our time on the Croisette, take some vitamin C and put a goddamn wash on. We’ll have another post on a few of the trends and themes we saw emerge this year coming later, but for right now, we’ll try to remember the whole palaver is actually supposed to be about —the films.
Somewhat contrary to the prevailing opinion that this year’s lineup was not one for the ages (which we’re beginning to suspect prevails toward the end of every Cannes as the fallback position of world-weary seen-it-all-before veterans), your intrepid reviewers Jess and Oli found a huge amount to admire. Perhaps we were a little cleverer or luckier or more discerning in what we chose to see this time than previous years, or perhaps with neither of us being complete newbies we were able to be a bit savvier about the whole circus. But for us at least, Cannes 2015 was a joy. Here are the top ten films we saw, and a couple of extra personal favorites, but you can find all 45 of our reviews plus all other Cannes coverage here.
10. “The Assassin” (Jess’ Review)
Completing a trinity of internationally-respected Asian filmmakers making wuxia pictures starring actor Chang Chen —first Ang Lee (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), then Wong Kar-Wai (“The Grandmaster“) and now Hou Hsiaou-Hsien— “The Assassin”‘s considered, ancient-feeling beauty really has to be witnessed to be believed. One one level, it’s narratively unsatisfying: the storyline is convoluted and more or less unexplained, and the characters are less creatures to be related to and more elaborate parts of the film’s meticulous design and construction. But on another level, one rarely attained elsewhere, “The Assassin” may be the richest narrative you’ll find in modern cinema —every shot is packed with story and beauty, and every scene is a self-contained miniature of its enveloping, sensual, mythically beautiful, yet immediate and real world. Loosely following a female assassin (Shu Qi) who has been sent to dispatch her old lover, the fights are graceful but few and brief and will in no way satisfy the chop-socky addict. This is a Hou Hsiaou-Hsien take on wuxia, and thus primarily the work of a man fascinated with time and history and a kind of collective memory of China’s distant past as a place of extraordinary beauty, perhaps largely because it is so out of reach. This film moves infinitely slowly, on quiet feet, and like its heroine, it spends most of its time observing and listening, but this is time you need to spend with nearly each and every scene so that the full force of the miracles therein can work on you.
9. “Green Room” (Oli’s review)
We were oddly cautious heading into “Green Room” —“Blue Ruin” was a terrific breakthrough for director Jeremy Saulnier a few years back, but he wouldn’t be the first genre filmmaker to come unstuck with a difficult second (or in this case, third) album. But our fear was misplaced: “Green Room” is a significant step-up from Saulnier’s grimy, darkly funny revenge flick, a brilliantly executed siege horror/thriller with some of the most gruesome violence seen on the Croisette in quite some time. Essentially, it’s punks vs. skins, with a struggling band (Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole and Callum Turner) fighting for their lives in a dingy club after witnessing a murder being covered up by skinhead owner Patrick Stewart. But that doesn’t quite hint at the insanity that unfolds —Saulnier carefully ratchets up the tension in the early stages before letting it explode in a mess of near-severed arms, throat-ripping dogs and shotgunned faces, drawing on peak-period John Carpenter without imitating in the manner of other recent pictures. There’s a lived-in authenticity to the contemporary punk world setting that might have descended to cliches in a more mainstream movie, while giving the story and characters enough room to breath that it doesn’t become too lean. The cast are pretty much impeccable here — “Blue Ruin” holdover Macon Blair, and indie stalwart Mark Webber are among the standouts— and it even wraps up in satisfying fashion, never seeming cheap or leaving you feel cheated. If he can keep up this level of consistency, Saulnier might be the most exciting filmmaker in genre cinema going forward.
8. “Embrace of the Serpent” (Jess’ review)
In a year when many of the big Cannes films seemed to favor mood or beauty over narrative, the third feature from Colombian director Ciro Guerras stands apart as the moody, beautiful work of art that had perhaps the most heft to its themes and deceptively simple story. Shot in lovely black and white, the film follows two different journeys into the Amazon in two different time periods —the 1900s and the 1940s— that both feature one shared character. This native shaman/the last of his tribe is one of the most unforgettable characters in any Cannes film this year —his younger self is brash, clever, quick to anger and quick to laugh, and his older self is a tragic figure full of self-recrimination and regret for being unable to carry the burden of keeping alive all his tribe’s centuries of knowledge. The film could be trimmed of 15 minutes and its “2001“-style hallucination sequence is a divisively self-conscious flourish in a picture that doesn’t necessarily need it, but it ‘s undoubtedly one of the most singular, peculiar and resonant, resolutely arthouse films of the festival. Playing in Director’s Fortnight on the opening day, it’s exactly the kind of film it would have been very easy to miss, but for once serendipity worked the way it’s supposed to. It went on to win the biggest prize awarded in the Fortnight sidebar, in a year when again the selection here showed a broad-ranging strength that rivalled or maybe even put to shame some of the main-brand Official Selections.
7. “My Golden Days” (Oli’s review)
“I like the film a lot but we decided to put people into competition who had never come before,” said Thierry Fremaux regarding the exclusion of Arnaud Desplechin’s latest film from Competition, in a year with five other French movies as such and another opening the festival. That Gallic movies took the Palme, Best Actor and Best Actress might have validated the festival head’s decision for some, but since Desplechin’s latest was almost universally hailed as better than ninety percent of films in the Official Selection, it suggests it was something of an error. Luckily, Directors Fortnight stepped up to showcase the picture, and so we got a chance to see a major return to form for the “Kings & Queens” helmer after English-language misfire “Jimmy P.” Few would have thought there was anything new to mine in the white-boy first-love Bildungsroman genre, but Despelchin finds it in a gorgeously literary story of the early years of Paul Dedalus (Quentin Dolmaire), jumping deftly from a curious Cold War story to the formative romance with Esther (the superb Lou Roy-Lecollinet), heading down various detours or transgressions along the way. It could have been sprawling, overstuffed and unfocused, but Desplechin’s featherlight, unpredictable touch makes it enormously palatable in a way that Gaspar Noé’s superficially similar “Love” (bar the explicit sex, obviously) proved not to be. Deft, dense and featuring a host of actors that we’re sure to see in French cinema and beyond for years to come, this felt like a sort of back-to-basics palate cleanser for Desplechin, one that’s seen him come back reenergized and revitalized.
6. “Cemetery Of Splendour” (Jess’ review)
Some critics came away from Cannes feeling disappointed. We didn’t (the top five or six films at least here are better than anything we saw last year), but you could certainly make an argument that the Official Competition, while it had some dizzying highs, was sort of heavy on filler. Which makes it particularly baffling that “Cemetery Of Splendour,” Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s follow-up to his Palme D’Or winner “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” was overlooked and instead turned up in the less prestigious Un Certain Regard section —it was easily as strong as its predecessor, as well as most of what was competing for the Palme, and one of the most beguiling, haunting films of the festival altogether. You can tell a Weerasethakul (or “Joe,” to his friends) picture from a hundred paces: he has a unique mood and style that’s in full force here, as a middle-aged woman (the wonderful Jenjira Pongpas Widner) tends to a group of soldiers stricken by sleeping sickness and wanders the streets with a psychic possessed by a man named Itt. No, it doesn’t make much sense on paper, but it makes perfect sense when you watch it, similar to how a dream in which you hang out with Abraham Lincoln, your long-dead great aunt and a talking dolphin makes perfect sense at the time: the woozy, ever-shifting mood created here is entirely hypnotic, proving again that the filmmaker is better than anyone at evoking a semi-conscious state. Rich, utterly gorgeous and yet oddly entertaining, if this film had made the Competition, it surely would have been gunning for Weerasethakul’s second Palme.