Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The best movies of Cannes 2018, plus a serious Palme D’Or threat at the end of the festival

Photo: Cannes Film Festival

Apologies to anyone hoping for a first impression on the closing night film of Cannes, Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. It’s premiering right now, as I type this, but I’m on a flight to New York instead, ready to return to real life after 11 days in the bubble. I’ve missed or am missing a few other films, too: Shoplifters, the latest gentle family drama from Japan’s Hirokazu Koreeda, which earned some of the best reviews of the festival; The Wild Pear Tree from Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who won the top prize, the Palme D’Or, last time he was in Cannes; various acclaimed titles from the Un Certain Regard sidebar, as well as Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week. Of course, it’s impossible to see everything at a film festival, and hard to complain about what I didn’t, because 2018 was such a generally strong year for Cannes. There were way more gems than duds, and quite a few great or near-great movies.

Judging from the 15-minute standing ovation it inspired after its premiere, plenty might place the new film from Lebanese actor-turned-director Nadine Labaki in the “great” category. But while definitely a big leap forward in ambition and craft for Labaki, whose previous films, Caramel and Where Do We Go Now?, were gently middlebrow comedies, Capernaum (Grade: C+) is the kind of social-issue sadness pile that confuses nonstop hardship for drama, begging for our tears at every moment. The film’s framing device is absurd: Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), a hardened, streetwise 12-year-old behind bars in Beirut for stabbing someone, has sued his parents for giving birth to him, the idea being that it was wrong to bring another child—one of many struggling under a single roof—into a cruel, uncaring world. It’s hard to find fault in Zain’s logic, given what the flashbacks show of his hardscrabble life and that of his younger sister (Haita Izam), married off at the age of only 11 to the landlord’s son.

Capernaum works best in its middle stretch, as a kind of latchkey-youth movie, following Zain through the hustle and bustle of Beirut in search of work or a solid meal, pairing him off with an Ethiopian single mother (Yordanos Shiferaw) and her toddler-age son (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). The nonprofessional child actors are terrific, and Labaki adopts a ground-level, handheld vantage that suits the film’s vision of a big, indifferent city, looming large over its boy hero. (Who needs the new Koreeda when I have this facsimile of one of his best films, Nobody Knows?) But Capernaum’s neorealist spirit is smothered by its sentimentality and endless string of indignities; it’s as if the film is operating as Zain’s trial defense, every moment making his case that it probably would have been better if he’d never been born. What a strange MO (nihilistic humanism?), and a stranger thing to heartily cheer on.

Knife + Heart
Knife + Heart
Photo: Cannes Film Festival

Will the jury go for Capernaum? It has a real shot. If I were to select the movie with the worst chances of winning the Palme, I might go with Yann Gonzalez’s queer genre curiosity Knife + Heart (Grade: B-), the most legitimately underground of the main competition selections, though certainly not the worst or the least interesting. Set against the Paris gay porn industry of 1979, the film follows a blue-movie producer (an excellent Vanessa Paradis) pining for her editor/ex-lover (Kate Moran), all while a squealing masked killer—a kind of leather-daddy Leatherface—knocks off her regular troupe of actors with a dildo switchblade. Gonzalez directs the murder set pieces like excerpts from a lost Italian giallo—the music swelling with synth grandeur, eyes peaking through holes, blades spectacularly gleaming. But the tone of the film is warmer, celebrating a makeshift family of pornographers, like a DIY Boogie Nights. Knife + Heart sometimes feels as rough around the edges and inelegantly plotted as its pornos-within-the-movie, but maybe that’s just conceptual consistency: It’s the kind of film you could more readily imagine spooled up on the screen of a dingy, rundown red light district theater than in Cannes’ lavish Lumiere Theatre. It’s all part of its scrappy charm.

As in years past, I’m going to wrap up my coverage of Cannes with some predictions and preferences for the major jury prizes handed out tomorrow. Chances are that I’ll do even worse than usual at the former, as I’ve missed more competition titles than usual. Four total, in fact: Shoplifters, The Wild Pear Tree, Stéphane Brizé labor-dispute drama At War, and something called Akya, by Tulpan director Sergei Dvortsevoy. Then again, even having a comprehensive grasp of the lineup wouldn’t help me get inside the heads of the nine jurors, whose decisions could make as much sense as choosing The Tree Of Life in 2011, or as little sense as going with I, Daniel Blake over Toni Erdmann, Paterson, or The Handmaiden two years ago.

Photo: Cannes Film Festival

Palme D’Or

Will win: Capernaum

Last Saturday, jury president Cate Blanchett led a Women’s March up the red-carpeted steps of the Palais, partially to call attention to the fact that only 82 women have ever been eligible to win the Palme at Cannes, with Jane Campion the lone female winner (and she even had to split the award with Chen Kaige). Is it reductive to assume that Blanchett’s jury, which includes more women than men, will use the power it’s been granted to give top honors to a female filmmaker for once? Politics and principle have decided this competition before—just ask Michael Moore. Capernaum, while already critically divisive, went over like gangbusters at its big premiere last night, and social-realist seriousness is often a recipe for success at Cannes. The jury could also go with Alice Rohrwacher’s very well-received Happy As Lazzaro, but I have a hunch Labaki has the edge.

Should win: Burning

South Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s mysterious drama about class, privilege, and unrequited affection casts a spell that’s hard to shake. No movie at Cannes this year put its runtime to better use, and nothing built—quietly, carefully, masterfully—to a more satisfying endpoint. If it’s the movie itself that matters most, Burning deserves this.

Grand Prix

Will win: Burning

Every year, Screen International holds an ongoing poll of the Cannes competition titles, soliciting star ratings from a panel of international critics. Burning hasn’t just topped the 2018 edition of the poll; it’s edged out the record-breaking average Toni Erdmann managed to become, with a 3.8, the most highly regarded film in the grid’s history. It’s hard to imagine the jury ignoring the acclaim showered on this movie; the Grand Prix, or second place, feels like the likeliest acknowledgment.

Should win: Cold War

My second favorite movie of the festival, Gaspar Noé’s nightmare dance party Climax, wasn’t in competition. (It premiered instead in sidebar fest Directors’ Fortnight, and handily won the top prize there.) So I’ll stump instead for Pawel Pawlikowski’s doomed romance Cold War, which condenses maybe a dozen years of life and history into a miniature epic, gorgeous and timely and “old-fashioned” in the best way.

Jury Prize

Will win: 3 Faces

Every new movie by Jafar Panahi, the politically suppressed Iranian director, is a courageous act of rebellion. A win for 3 Faces, perhaps the most dramatically satisfying of the movies Panahi’s made since being banned from filmmaking, is a win for artistic expression in the face of state censorship. Third place could conceivably be its reward.

Should win: Ash Is Purest White

Jia Zhangke draws surprising lines of connection across his body of work in this playful, thoughtful drama about the tumultuous relationship between a gangster and his moll in post-millennial China. You don’t have to be a Jia diehard to get on its wavelength, though fans will get a special rush from what he does in the film’s self-referential second act.

Best Director

Will win: Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman

Back in competition for the first time in 27 years, Spike has made a rollicking and timely crowd-pleaser about pushing back against the enduring horror of white supremacy, then and now and always. I suspect it will win something; given how every frame of the film has Lee’s signature on it, Best Director may be the one.

Should win: David Robert Mitchell, Under The Silver Lake

He hasn’t got a chance in hell, but if I’m spreading the wealth and not just choosing Lee, Pawlikowski, or Jia again, then Mitchell’s mastery of atmosphere and framing is my next favorite directorial achievement here. Remember, even a flawed film can be spectacularly realized.

Best Actress

Will win: Joanna Kulig, Cold War

Although it screened all the way back on day three of the festival, the jury may still find a way to honor one of the lineup’s best and most well-liked films. And even those who find Cold War too remote can’t deny the star-making volatility of Joanna Kulig’s performance as a singer torn across Europe, in and out of a bad romance.

Should win: Zhao Tao, Ash Is Purest White

If they don’t go with Kulig, they may honor Chinese actor Zhao Tao instead. She’s been so good for so long in Jia’s movies, but has never won anything at Cannes. That Ash Is Purest White functions as a kind of career summation, allowing her to connect her past and present roles through a layered, years-spanning performance, is a great reason to choose Zhao.

Best Actor

Will win: Marcello Fonte, Dogman

Fonte, a relative unknown, carries Dogman with his dignity, kindness, and acquiescence—all slowly crumbling as his character, a dog groomer caught in an abusive friendship with a local hoodlum, reaches the limits of his forgiveness.

Should win: Marcello Fonte, Dogman

His really is the best, meatiest male performance in competition—a turn that’s earned comparisons to Pacino, and they’re not ungrounded.

Best Screenplay

Will win: Happy As Lazzaro

Reception to this whimsical Italian family drama was very warm, and the screenplay is a big part of that: Writer-director Alice Rohrwacher nestles a rather seismic, delightful twist into its second half—a gambit that elevates the film from an ambling country charmer to something much weirder and more ambitious.

Should win: Asako I & II

For a while, you wonder where it could be going. Then Ryûsuke Hamaguchi reveals the trajectory of his deceptively insightful romance about a love triangle linking a woman’s first love and her new one.