(4 / 5)
All things considered, 2019 offers another strong lineup that very well in conversation for the whole year. Only 3 films make it to my “Silver Moon in Full Bloom” status, but this is a year stack full of worthy films that all bring something interesting to the table. If you look closely into this year’s lineup, you can draw some major underlying, themes that lead the discussion. First, SOCIAL SATIRE becomes as relevant as ever, outlined by Parasite winning Palme d’Or that touch on the class inequality in a twisted and smart way. The Dead Don’t Die opens the Festival with its dry satire on the world that has gone mad, not unlike the real world. Bacurau and It Must Be Heaven fall into this spectrum as well with their fresh (and funny) take on social identities. Second, POLICE THRILLER roars like a lion this year, with many films, especially French titles Les Miserables, Oh Mercy, using this format to suggest the ongoing tension between the law and the suppressed citizen. Neo-noir police genre also is on the rise with The Whistlers and The Wild Goose Lake. Third, this is a year where movies about filmmaking, film-within-a-film gain some attraction with the likes of Once upon a Time in Hollywood, Sibyl, Pain & Glory and Frankie. This year also offer wide range of other subject matters, from friendship (Matthias & Maxime), to benefits (The Wild Goose Lake) to friends with benefit (Mektoub Intermezzo). Amongst serious social issues, class conflict (Parasite, Bacurau, Sorry We Missed You, Atlantique), Muslim crisis (The Young Ahmed, Les Miserables) and personal crisis (Pain & Glory, A Hidden alife, Frankie) and queer romance (Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Matthias & Maxime) are hot topics.
Speaking of the depth, which generally means “quality”, this year is one of the richest lineup in years. If you look below for my actual list, the average margin between these films are pretty close. Except for the bottom 3, the others all prove that they are worthy titles to compete for the prestigious Palme. And even then, something like Mektoub still be able to stir up heated discussions. Unlike years before where I can list some titles that the Main Competition missed out, this year I’m quite happy in general. If I have to nitpicks, then the Directors’ Fortnight titles Zombi Child, The Lighthouse and maybe The Halt could be (not necessary should be) placed in the Main Competition.
In term of width, where I’m looking more at the diversity of Main Comp titles, this lineup is also a delight. We have films from Asia (Parasite, The Wild Goose Lake), American art-house (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Frankie, A Hidden Man), even film from Africa (Atlantique) and Latin America (Bacurau). This year has been noted for a record 4 female-directed films, and I’m happy to say that they are at least don’t raise any eyebrow about their inclusion (I’m a bit disappointed in Little Joe but I won’t complain in this context), there are also two films directed by first time directors – a rarity of course, and makes it even more significant when these two films (Atlantique, Les Miserables) earned prizes from the Official Jury.
To add the excitement on top, this year the Jury members (led by Alejandro González Iñárritu) rightly picked Parasite, which is also on top of my own list and many critics’ list (it’s a rare occurrence indeed). It marks the first time Korean movie win the Palme d’Or, despite has been one of major force in well over a decade.
Finally, having watched 20 out of 21 films, with Once upon a Time in Hollywood will be available for theatrical release in July, here’s my comprehensive take at all the films, with a final re-rating and re-ranking (but rest assured that the list won’t be that much of a difference). I’m still intending to give all the proper reviews, but it all depends on my real life schedule (which get much busier now) so don’t hold your breath on it. I hope you all enjoy the piece. And make sure to scroll down to my own Jury Awards at the bottom, without (for now) the participation of Once upon a Time in Hollywood.
Tier 1: Cream of the Crop
Parasite (Bong Joon Ho)
Bong Joon Ho did it again. Known for his genre-shuffeing style with plenty of wits, twists and layers, Parasite once again proves that he’s one of the finest directors around. Playful, light-hearted until it’s not, sometimes within a single scene, Parasite is such a precise piece of work that could step wrong at any time, yet it succeeds in that. In Parasite, Bong again centres on the socioeconomic hierarchy, the class division that one poor family begins to take hold and leech off the rich family like parasites. Special shoutout for the interior designs of the house, where it’s open space but still has many hidden spots. Not only it’s hilarious to watch the progression, Bong has a way to writes characters that are smart, quirky and vulnerable at the same time. And like many of his movies, the story develops in an unexpected direction, the gear switches both in term of genre and tone, but it never feels abrupt or break the flow and still delivers the social satire like none other. At first, after many blockbuster films, it feels as if Bong would go smaller in scale with this film, but instead, it carries the same high ambition. Here in Parasite we get a lot of laugh, but the laugh here is pitch-black, and relevant.
Pain & Glory (Pedro Almodovar)
Pain & Glory is a return to form from Almodovar, but moreover it is his most personal project to date. Many people will assert this tale about a director who experiences both physical and psychological pain as Almodovar’s look at his own self, but I believe that reading would be too convenient. Salvador (played by Banderas) never tries to mimic the director as he plays the role with sensitive and nuance. “Don’t try to cry. Let them see how you fight to hold the tears”. As Salvador argues at one point, this could very well apply to his performance, and to Pain & Glory approach at large. Throughout the course of the movie, Salvador eventually faces the people that influence him at some points in the last, from reconcile with one of his addicted actor, to his ex and his Mom, Pain & Glory is a story about the reexamining the past so that he can moves on to the present. The concept itself reminds you the likes of La Dolce Vita, but this film is one rare time Almodovar goes for restrain. Many of the film’s most effective moments are through the subtle dialogues and even more quiet performance, where looking at the eyes you can ssense how much it effects Salvador, yet except from that there isn’t any big emotional outburst. In addition, Pain & Glory can be playful at times when Salvador becomes more and more independent to drugs, yet these scenes never meant for dramatic exposition. With many other films the lack of dramatic moments can be an issue, but with Pain & Glory there’s no denying that the underlying emotion is powerful.
Matthias & Maxime (Xavier Nolan)
Xavier Dolan returns to his indie roots with another personal and intimate drama about two childhood friends re-examine their relationship after they kiss each other in a movie shoot. He has been one of my favorite directors working today, his drama can be explosive at times, but he has a knack for writing complex, broken characters. This one cut right through the heart of it with the focus on these titular characters making sense with how they are feeling. Clocking around 2-hour mark, Matthias & Maxime ironically is his leanest movie as of yet (well, his films are always messy). The chemistry between the main duo keeps changing shape over the course of its run, and the supporting players do a decent job of shredding new light to the characters, mostly their vulnerable sides. Dolan asserts that he doesn’t regard this film as “queer” cinema, just the tale of love from two people, and I’d agree with that statement. It’s not as emotional wrenching as his best Mommy, but it still carries an emotional weight that cuts deep.
Tier 2: Great Films
The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yinan)
Neo-Noir crime film can’t look any better than this. While the story itself lacks coherence and substance, it more than makes up by the gorgeous visual language and the chemistry of the leads. There are many stunning set-pieces that prove that Diao Yinan’s craft is just as masterful as the likes of Park Chan Wood or Nicolas Refn-Wieding. Two brilliant sequences come to mind. One of which i won’t spoil because it’s such a jaw-dropping moment, the other is the one where he starts the scene in a public park where everyone dances in LED light shoes in harmony and finishes it with these same shoes come towards one central point. At its best, the film can convey the dynamic between its characters and its gritty, violent world purely by visual craft. At its worst, the story doesn’t hold up well and the supporting characters don’t raise above their assigned roles. There’s also one very unnecessary rape scene that leave a sour taste to the mouth.
Bacurau is another steady step in the right direction for Kleber Mendonça Filho, this time he teams up with his previous production mate Juliano Dornelles. Bacurau isn’t necessary a better movie than his previous outputs (it’s close), but rather Bacurau is the film where he experiments with its format the most. The result is not always a smooth ride, as it causes a major genre shifted one hour in, but at the end it manages to hold up. On top of all that, it still pretty much feels like Filho’s feature there. His fascination on exploring the gap between the past and the present, the old and the modern in a self-contained live-in world is right there, so is his exploration of Brazilian identity. In Bacurau, he utilizes a new weapon: the genre-twisting feature that has tons of absurd imaginary. Flying saucer, drug consuming, naked old man and woman, hunting for sports, the ghosts… all make appearance, resulting in a movie that is uneven but never stays out its welcome.
Before Atlantiques premiered, all eyes on her debut feature lie far more interesting in the “landmark”: Atlantiques makes for the first ever black women entering the Palme d’Or (the fact that, the less said the better). Although Mati Diop is more well-known for her acting in 35 Shots of Rums, she has been an up-and-coming short director for years. Watching this movie, there’s a lot to praise for her first full-length efforts. Like Claire Denis, she already has a keen sense of visual storytelling. Atlantiques is poetic, dream-like, haunting and quietly profound. Inspired partly by her same titular short 10 years ago that focus on the people escaping to Europe through sea, this one instead focuses more on the woman that left behind. The image of the waves across the ocean, couple poetic narration, creates a strong sense of sadness and belonging that sinks in all the more. Despite its haunting atmosphere for most of its time, Atlantiques’s finale actually offers some sort of elevating. In one angle, this is a story about a girl who overcomes her grief and be stronger because of it. This is an exciting debut feature for Mati Diop, and I’m certain that when it releases worldwide it’ll pick up fans along the way.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma)
Portrait of a Lady on Fire marks another remarkable women-focus drama by Sciamma. Pretty much on the other spectrum with its screening-mate The Whistlers, Lady on Fire is exclusive with only four characters, all of them women. It’s the leads who are excellent here, played by Adele Haenel and Noémie Merlant. Every look holds weight, every gesture counts. We see the love, the passion gradually progress and spark fire, one visual metaphor that takes shape and transform into the painting. The painting itself is a powerful metaphor of their love, as you can see their passion and their expression of their love purely through the painting, something fleeting but something that can’t become real. Sciamma finds a fresh perspective from the usual period-piece forbidden romance. There’s no outbursting, no moral dilemma, but their love is glittered like a small fire that stay with them for the rest of the lives. While I still left the film wanting a bit more from it, there is no denying that the central love depicted on-screen is achingly profound.
On that topic, listen to this beautiful song “I’m On Fire” that for me fit the theme of this movie perfectly.
The Whistlers (Corneliu Porumboiu)
The Whistlers is a tasty thrillers with a lot of twist and turns, double agenda, and an enjoyable cast. All the narrative beats can be hard to keep up at times, especially when we don’t know most of characters’ true motive, but it benefits from a strong direction and and a thrills of seeing how it all ties up together. Well, it doesn’t tie up all the loose ends, and I personally feel the timeskips at the end clunky, but it closes this film nicely in an satisfying emotional note. Divided by small (color-coded) sections that focus one the main character Cristi’s interaction with characters around him, The Whistlers is a more mainstream one compared to another police thriller that is The Wild Goose Lake. It’s playful, and each character provides some fresh angle to its multiple plot threads. Also, the way the film ties the titular whistle language to the heart of this narrative thread is something I would love to see more in mainstream media.
A Hidden Life (Terrance Malick)
Terrence Malick goes for a more straight-forward storytelling in decades, detailing the life of a farmer Franz (August Dielh) who goes through moral crisis and refuses to salute the Nazis regime, thus is considered a traitor to his own country. Not that his poetic flow of image and voice over is gone, in fact it’s strengthened given the story is much more focus this time around, as oppose to multiple characters all go through crisis like his previous efforts after The Three of Life. While the visual is a wonder to look at (especially the single image of a green field being scythed). The straightforwardness of its story (the entire story can pretty much summed up through the earlier sentence) can also mean that it’s meandering at times, and at almost 3 hours A Hidden Life could benefit better if it cuts down some fat, although in Malick’s case, “meandering” is pretty much in his blood. While I do think this film fits more with the art-house crowd than it will in its home country in its theatrical release, it’s a welcome sign that for many misfires after his Palme d’Or winner, Malick finally gets back on track.
While the title is indeed based on the classic title by Victor Hugo, this is not a direct adaptation to that story. It refers to the neighborhood of Montfermeil in Paris suburban, where Victor Hugo wrote parts of his classic in. As such, Les Miserables isn’t about miserable people, it doesn’t focus about people to begin with, but much more about the neighborhood, a commune where the majority of people are black. It’s all the more telling that the first-time director, Ladj Ly (a rarity for Main Competition), is a local and thus experience all the events that inspired him to make this movie. Les Miserables is told in a matter-of-fact tone of someone who truly experience it inside-out as it details a few days in this community through multiple perspective, but most notably from the Anti-Crime Squad point of view. It’s not merely a black film either, more that it’s a film that examine this little commune to address about a bigger picture, about the conflicts between the citizen and the law that can spark fire if they receive enough fuel. Les Miserables is terrifying because it feels all too real.
Tier 3: Lower Half but are still Pretty Awesome
Watching Sorry We Missed You is like watching the knot slowly tightens itself. Just as to be expected from the veteran director Ken Loach and writer Paul Laverty, his characters just do their best to make ends meet, yet everything gradually slips out of their control. Unlike his latest Palme D’or I, Daniel Blake – which is for all the better – this film isn’t a direct attack to the failure of British welfare system. His concern is still the same on the injustice, but Sorry We Missed You offers a different, and for me more complex, shade. While with I, Daniel Blake, the general mood is anger, this one is more of a desperation. The performances are solid all around, in which we can see their gestures when they’re on their breaking points. The pacing maintains the flow well, and it says a lot when it delivers its dramatic beat from start to finish. At the age of 84, Ken Loach again proves that he is more relevant and urgent than ever. Sorry I Missed You ends on an Intimate and powerful note. Life still goes on, they still keep working, but somehow the debt and their situation just keep getting tighter and tighter.
It Must Be Heaven (Elia Suleiman)
It Must Be Heaven marks Suleiman’s third feature after exactly a decade, and I can see this one serves as an introduction for new generation of film lovers (like myself) to expose and enjoy his unique brand of comedy. It Must Be Heaven is a delight to watch from start to finish. Suleiman’s screen presence reminds viewers strongly to the silent era, where he relies on physical gestures, and deadpan stare, to say it all (in particular, he has a deadpan, inexpressive stare from the great Buster Keaton). Throughout an entire movie, he hardly says anything at all. It Must Be Heaven is a series of gags where the main character (Suleiman playing himself) finds himself in absurd situations surrounding him wherever he goes, be it his homeland Palestine, in Paris or in New York. Think of Roy Anderson’s brand of humor plus Suleiman staring at the screen and you pretty much get the picture. While that notion by itself already sells the film’s unique appeal, it’s the little things that are said in the movie that transfer the important themes across on the concept of this film and his Palestine’s identity. It Must Be Heaven is a whimsical, slight but wise work from a man who manages to say best by not saying anything at all.
The Young Ahmed (Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne)
The masterclass Dardenne brothers is back with another gritty realist drama about a young extremist Islam boy who trying to stab his teacher because he believes her Arabic teaching is wrong. It’s a sensitive and grim subject matter for sure, but it also feels immediate and urgent, boasted by a strong performance from its non-professional actors. There are many gripping moments, and like many of their features the protagonist’s action and motivation demand our attention. The Young Ahmed unfortunately doesn’t quite deliver the punch like their previous efforts, and for me is one of their lesser effort. Well-known for the realist but restrain style, it’s the restraint the film employs that fail to give the serious scope of the story. There’s one moment where he commits a crime and goes to his imam leader, the next moment we already see him spending time in the youth camp. In addition, the Dardenne brothers don’t break any new ground with this feature, resulting in a film that occasionally grabs you, but doesn’t hit you as hard as it aims for.
Sibyl (Justine Triet)
Period to this screening, I have the most worry out of all films in Main Competition as both the director, personnel involved and the synopsis don’t bring me much confident. To my surprise then, Sibyl delivers as a good character study, many solid acting and fun chemistry amongst the cast from start to finish. The film’s snack for dialogue comes right at the first scene, when Sibyl’s partner pisses off about her decision (the delightful Virginie Efira) to quit her psychotherapist job in pursuit for writing. Then come along the trouble actress Margot (Adèle Exarchopoulos) whose personal issues become source of inspiration to the point of obsession for Sibyl. The film’s best asset lie in its character-writing. Here in Sibyl the film all main characters mess up, make contradicted actions and use others for their own gains, yet it’s those bounces, those conflicts that drive their chemistry to many interesting angles. The film’s main message is to suggest the constant roles women have to play and the result when they fail to fulfill the roles. Another theme of Sibyl is how eventually the titular character mixes up between the line between real and fantasy. Sibyl is a well-acted, albeit inconsistent, story about obsession and identity as the titular characters perform many “roles” that result in losing her grips on reality.
Frankie (Ira Sachs)
“Sometimes I wonder why I still stay married”. That line spoken by one character from this lovely ensemble cast is amongst one of the theme that linger throughout the film. Frankie is about them reexamine their relationships, most of them hardened with them. Lies in the centre of this family vacation is the titular Frankie, played by Isabelle Huppert, who shows her vulnerable side beside her usual strong screen presence. While it’s a family vacation with a huge cast, it’s interesting to note that the film focuses instead on one-one-one conversations, where characters showing their different shades and spark different chemistry to other person. There isn’t a dull moment, yet it feels too understated, too small with no big emotional payoff. It’s still a well-acted film excel in small moments but I don’t see it winning any big awards except for Screenplay.
The Dead Don’t Die imprints many of Jarmusch trademarks: gorgeous cinematography, ear-worm tunes, dry sense of humor and deadpan deliveries. It’s also endearing and funny, and it’s a refreshing take from a well-worn zombie genre. But unlike most of his other films, it suffers – instead of gaining – from repetition, too much self-awareness and its social satire lacks bite. Its concept is simple. One day, the globe spins off its axis that causes the day stays longer and the undead raises from the ground. While there’s heap of fun details from the film (as one of the character said: “The world is perfect. Appreciate the details”), its concept unfortunately stays out of its welcome halfway point. At the end of the day, I’d regard The Dead Don’t Die as nothing more than “amusement”. It’s always hilarious but it’s inconsistent, it’s sometimes relevant but it doesn’t pack its punch. It has something to say but it’s content on surfing the water instead of diving down. For filmmaker that is always making things fresh like Jarmusch, the film is a slight disappointment.
The Traitor (Marco Bellocchio)
The Traitor is a well produced, but un-focus crime biography that doesn’t push any boundary. While it never feels dull, it has a tonal inconsistence that it feels like the first half and later half belongs to different story. Moreover, through the course of 2 hour and a half we learn about what the titular character Buscetta did and its impact to the mafia community (played marvellously by Pierfrancesco Favino), but we know little about him, and worse we don’t find the reason to relate to his action. He asserts that his whistleblowing isn’t an act of traitor, indeed those who are greedy that involve in drugs at the cost of their own family members are the traitor to mafia’s code. It makes sense, except that all we see is the court hearing that presents more as a farce; and his life afterward in America. Likewise, there are some neat small moments that inform us about his characters, like he still carries gun at the end of his life, or his flashback about his first kill, but those moments don’t develop into something substantial. The Traitor is a film that provides a surface-level about the life of Buscetta, but never dig deep enough beyond that.
Tier 4: Not Deserved to be in Here
Oh Mercy! (Arnaud Desplechin)
It’s another French police crime movie just after Les Miserables screening earlier, Oh Mercy ends up to be a weaker one, in fact my least favorite film in this stacked Main Competition lineup. The whole time it plays like a regular TV true crime, with better acting and some attempts to flesh out the police officers. The film focuses on the police in Roubaix, Desplechin’s own hometown, one of the poorest province according to the film. As the film goes through several small cases, it showcases how the police force works in their everyday. As such it has one major problem, that is the cases are too mundane that they mostly end up being unremarkable. There is one main case (that involved the reliable Lea Seydoux) that it spends too much time when we already know about the details. Many attempts to give the policers life behind their job are undercooked to say the least. Oh Mercy works as a real look to the police force in the town Roubaix, but apart from that it’s an underwhelmed effort from home-grown director Desplechin. It’s the first title so far that doesn’t belong to the Palme d’Or slot, especially when something better like Zombi Child was ignored by the Official Selection.
Little Joe (Jessica Hausner)
Jessica Hausner has an impressive filmography under her belt, and her debut English-language Little Joe is the first time she competes for Palme d’Or. Little Joe sure has a lot to say, but it wanted to become too many things and struggles to find the right balance between those. The concept reminds you a lot of an episode in The Twilight Zone or even the more recent Black Mirror: a new plant that makes people happy, but getting out of control. At times, Little Joe can’t make up its mind about its final message, instead switching back and forth between the the notion of artificial happiness, mother’s guilt and “new dangerous species that spread out to the world” plot direction. Because these plants are supposed to alter one’s’ mind, the acting likewise has to be inconsistent to create an eerie effect, but it’s awkward and superficial nonetheless. I can’t never understand how the Jury awards Emily Beecham for her lead performance as she acts like a lesser version of Mia Farrow’s Rosemary Baby. Add to that Little Joe has an overbearing ominous score where it ramps up its tune whenever something “bad” happens, and many situations later become too comically awkward it belongs to “camp” territory. On the opposite spectrum, the early scene demonstrates Little Joe at its best. As Chris (Ben Whishaw) looks for the dog in the greenhouse, the plants silently rise up. As a psychological thriller, Little Joe benefits the most from the slow-building tension, so it’s a shame that it fails to do so later on. Little Joe has an intriguing concept, but the plot is too clunky to make a full impact. Sadly Little Joe is a weak entry to a stacked competition this year.
Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo (Abdellatif Kechiche)
Despite Canto Uno, its prequel, was sabotaged by the consensus few years back, I was pretty much on board with it. Self-indulgence, yes. Over-long, hell yeah, but Kachiche’s vision of this summer vacation set in early 90s still brings a lot of great observation to the table. The first one doesn’t work mostly because it is intended as part of his trilogy, so it was at a stage where it was just setting up the plot threads. It seems that Kachiche still isn’t content with what he had, as this second instalment sees the man pushing his picture to a new extreme test of endurance. The first scene of Intermezzo takes place on a beach, where one new character is introduced, that takes place for half an hour. If you think that was excessive, be mindful that the rest of its 3 hour length takes place on a single night at the club, where there’s ass shaking, unsimulated sex scene (well, what did you expect from his films?), and more ass shaking. The plot runs really thin as only one major development is mentioned and nothing else. Effing nothing else. This one has one major issue that is the main guy now attracts a harem of girls eyeing for him. The first instalment was already infamous for its male-gaze, and with this too-convenient set up it’s only get worse. Where Canto Uno manages to introduce the characters, their beach, their farming life, this one offers absolutely nothing under the surface, makes me question why Kechiche focuses on this club night in the first place, let alone running for hours on end. Maybe that’s the point that he wanted to depict an endless summer night in lieu of the spirits of the film. Well, endless it feels indeed, frustratingly and pointlessly so. I left the theatre after nearly 4 hour screening feeling I had learned nearly nothing.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)
(Not yet watched)
Silver Moon’s Jury Picks
With my own Jury choices, I will give same awards as the actual awards, with some minor modifications. The Jury Prize, which normally equals to 3rd Prize, will be altered as “the most original work”. In addition, “Technical Award” will be handed out for movies with best Production Values.
Palme d’Or: Parasite (also won the same prize at 2019 Cannes)
Note: The highest rating out of all films. This black-comedy slash thriller work from Bong Joon Ho deservedly wins the top prize, which also aligned to its actual 2019 Cannes triumph.
Grand Prix: Pain & Glory (originally awarded to Atlantique)
Best Director: Diao Yinan – The Wild Goose Lake (originally awarded to the Dardennes brothers – Young Ahmed)
Best Actor: Antonio Banderas – Pain & Glory (also won the same prize at 2019 Cannes)
Best Actress: Virginie Efira – Sibyl (originally awarded to Emily Beecham – Little Joe)
Jury Prize: Bacurau
Note: let’s just say, its genre-switching totally comes out of left field, but in hindsight that’s what makes this film so memorable.
Technical Prize: A Hidden Life
Best Screenplay: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (also won the same prize at 2019 Cannes)