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

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by The Playlist Staff
May 29, 2013 12:57 PM
5 Comments
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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 War" when 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.
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5 Comments

  • A | May 29, 2013 3:21 PMReply

    Weird to read that even in the most prestigious of movie festivals there is a lack of subtitles for the attendees in some movies . I always get frustrated by that.

  • Kevin | May 29, 2013 3:36 PM

    It's actually a rarity at Cannes. 95% of the movie are shown with English and French subtitles. For whatever reason, this particular screening of "Jodorowsky's Dune" just didn't have it.

  • Andy | May 29, 2013 1:41 PMReply

    Kevin, think you mean "Still Walking" for Kore-eda. "Still Life" is the Jia film. Both great, though.

  • JD | May 29, 2013 1:30 PMReply

    Pretty puzzled by JK's assessment, but most of KJ's impressions were true to my experience of the festival. Based on critical response (which is far more reliable in relation to formulaic Hollywood fare than art cinema), you may think Only God Forgives is some kind of mess, but as KJ suggests, it's actually a really lean, precise film. I would put it in the tradition of unfairly trashed Cannes oddities like Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Enter the Void. If you like those films, you have nothing to worry about.

  • Chris | May 29, 2013 1:13 PMReply

    Humor doesn't translate across cultural boundaries? What the fuck are you talking about? Unless you're talking exclusively about comedy where you HAVE to be a part of a certain society to understand all the jokes, your statement is demonstrably false.

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