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Memo to Distributors: Buy These 2021 Cannes Movies

Cannes may have brought some exciting new movies into the conversation, but these highlights still need homes.

“Cow,” “Drive My Car,” “Hit the Road”

This year’s Cannes Film Festival may have marked a big comeback moment for cinema, but dealmaking was a different story. All the usual North American players were at the festival, but only a handful of major deals materialized over the course of the 10-day event.

These included Neon’s acquisitions of Norwegian Competition entry “The Worst Person in the World” and Directors’ Fortnight winner “A Chiara” as well as Sony Pictures Classics’ pickup of the Finnish crowdpleaser “Compartment No. 6.” However, by and large, this year’s buzziest Cannes movies already had their distribution plans sorted at the start, from Palme d’Or winner “Titane” (Neon, again) to Sean Baker’s “Red Rocket” (A24).

There were plenty of lower-profile Cannes highlights that ended the festival without any North American plans announced. As theaters reopen and distributors eye new opportunities to experiment with an evolving arthouse market, we implore buyers to give these Cannes highlights a chance.

“Ahed’s Knee”

Nadav Lapid has now made four searing films about his self-conflicted relationship with Israeli national identity and all that comes with it, but “Ahed’s Knee” (his follow-up to the astonishing 2018 Berlinale winner “Synonyms”) is more palpably wracked by mixed feelings than any of his previous semi-autobiographical work for the simple reason that it’s about a filmmaker grappling with the failures of his own lost cause. Lapid’s cinema has never been presumptuous enough to think that it could help save Israel from being swallowed into the Dead Sea, but this latest example — the story of a director who confronts Israeli censorship and the three-dimensional people who enforce it when he attends a screening of one of his movies in a remote desert town — is his first movie to resign itself to life aboard a sinking ship. It’s less concerned with survival than it is with how people manage to keep their balance and stay on their own two feet as the whole country rolls to the right underneath them.

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s festival (it tied with “Memoria”), “Ahed’s Knee” was perhaps the most formally and politically audacious film in Competition, and would be difficult for any American company to position for both of those reasons. But this is also the explosive kind of cinema that helps spin the world forward on its axis; it’s a good-faith hand grenade of a movie that might be too volatile for some of the higher-profile boutique distributors, but one that a more nimble shop used to niche fare (like “Synonyms” distributor Kino Lorber, for example) could handle with requisite care. —DE

Sales Contact: Kinology


"Cow" cinematographer Magda Kowalczyk

“Cow” cinematographer Magda Kowalczyk

Kat Mansoor

“Cow” opens with the closeup of a gooey calf yanked from the vaginal canal, and follows its mother all the way through her rough, solitary existence. The small miracle of director Andrea Arnold’s experiential documentary is that it enacts its simple premise in straightforward terms, but assembles them into a profound big picture. Her subject, a dairy cow named Luma, grows up under the tutelage of farmers who seem, for all intents and purposes, looking out for her best interests. However, with Arnold centralizing her subject’s gaze, even their kindly background roles come into question.

As Luma endures the monotony of her routine, “Cow” grows into a stirring, often sad contemplation of a life reduced to resources. Like last year’s “Gunda,” Arnold has crafted a plea for humanitarianism and animal empathy without the slightest bit of didacticism, relying on the simplicity of her character’s journey to render it in universal terms. That means that “Cow” is more accessible than meets the eye, and a savvy distributor could lean into its immersive qualities by creating the impression of an essential theatrical experience (one that was denied to “Gunda” last year). —EK

Sales Contact: Submarine/MK2

“Drive My Car”

“Drive My Car”

Adapted by “Happy Hour” and “Asako I & II” auteur Ryûsuke Hamaguchi from a short story by Haruki Murakami, “Drive My Car” is a head-on collision between an emerging filmmaker fascinated by the interior lives of women, and a famous author who… is not (to say nothing of his other charms, Murakami is more into mysterious pixie dream girls). But these two wildly disparate storytellers aren’t the only people vying for control of the wheel in this beguiling three-hour gem about a grieving theater director who stages a multi-lingual version of “Uncle Vanya” two years after his wife’s sudden death, as Anton Chekhov is as strong a voice in Hamaguchi and co-writer Takamasa Oe’s Cannes-winning script as anyone else. Together, these voices pool into an intimate and lingeringly resonant stage whisper of a film in which every scene feels like a secret; a drama about a man who projects certain assumptions onto the women in his life because he’s scared to death of learning their truth.

When Yūsuke (Hidetoshi Nishijimai) agrees to mount his unique version of Chekhov’s play in Hiroshima, he still listens to his dead wife’s recordings of the text while driving around. Yūsuke is reluctantly forced to extend his trust to the 23-year-old driver (Tôko Miura) who’s been assigned as his chauffeur; he puts her life in his hands, and she controls that Saab with such assurance that Yūsuke often forgets he’s in a car at all. If only the actors in his play could sync up so well. For all of the material’s loquaciousness and literary flow, Hamaguchi never loses sight of the psychosexual intrigue that fuels Murakami’s story, and his movie remains spry and entertaining for all 179 of its minutes.

While obviously a tough sell all the same, “Drive My Car” would get still a boost of momentum from Murakami’s huge America fanbase. It’s already a major critical favorite that’s sure to traffic in year-end honors, and a savvy, upscale distributor who knows how to get a lot of mileage from their pick-ups could have a decent shot of scoring a coveted Best International Film nomination at the end of the road. —DE

Sales Contact: The Match Factory

“Hit the Road”

Panah Panahi may be the son of Iran’s most celebrated living filmmaker — “Offside” and “This Is Not a Film” auteur Jafar Panahi, who is banned from working within his country or traveling outside of it — but his sweetly beguiling debut but makes it clear from the opening shot that he didn’t get into Cannes on the strength of his father’s name alone. A major standout from this year’s stacked Directors’ Fortnight, “Hit the Road” begins with an irrepressible little boy (Rayan Sarlak, continuing the Panahi tradition of unforgettable child performances) playing the piano he’s drawn on his father’s leg cast, and from there it unfolds into a deadpan family road trip towards a mysterious destination somewhere along the stunning mountainous outskirts of Iran.

The where and why of it remain at least somewhat uncertain to the very end, but the journey is everything in this dry and funny and crushingly bittersweet car movie about a bickering family who’ve left their past behind in the hopes of a future that only one of them may get to have. Political and cosmic at the same time — the kind of movie that follows one of the most unforgettable wide shots you’ll ever see with a drifting monologue about Batman — “Hit the Road” is a lovable and affecting crowd-pleaser with universal appeal and real potential to become a word-of-mouth hit, either in theaters or on a streaming platform that knows how to put a small film at the center of the universe. —DE

Sales Contact: Celluloid Dreams

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