(4 / 5)
Upon announcing the competition lineup, Frémaux noted that his team purposely picked lesser-known films rather than went with the big names. The final lineup reflects that sentiment with only a handful of Hollywood films – only 2 compared to say, 2012, where 7 films produced by the States premiered In Competition and a list with many new faces.
The main narrative during the event revolves around the ongoing dispute between Cannes and Netflix. As Frémaux mentions, Cannes established a rule this year saying films must receive French theatrical distribution if they want to be eligible to premiere in the Competition lineup. The rule prevents Cuarón’s Netflix-backed Roma from premiering in competition and as a result, Netflix pulled out all their films, most notably Roma and Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind. The Mexican film would later claim the Golden Lion at Venice and become a major player at that year’s Oscar.
The war-of-hate from Harvey Weinstein that sparked the #MeToo movement also casts a shadow to the festival. It tied to the event where 82 film industry women paraded the red carpet to protest gender inequality. For its 71 years history only 82 films directed by women have been in Cannes’ Official Competition. It also happened on the day when this very blog came into existence. It’s fitting that the Festival follows this with the screening of The Girls of the Sun – a feminist film about women’s struggle and empowerment.
About the Palme D’or shortlist, it’s another strong year. There are some install classics – you can read below to find out. But more importantly, all these 21 films are very close in terms of quality, making it an exciting year where I can argue that every film has its merits to be included in the lineup. If I have one minor objection, it’d be that the French selection isn’t strong, as you can see below where they placed at bottom of my list.
It’s interesting to note that at the time of the event, there were 2 directors In Competition list placed under house arrest for making films their governments despise (Jafar Panahi and Kirill Serebrennikov). I feel it makes sense then that this programme has 3 road movies on the list (3 Faces, Yomeddine, Carpenaum). It is, after all, a reach for freedom and a rebellion against conservative social norms (all 3 films touch that issue). Realism is back in fashion in this 2018 edition, utilized by nearly half of this list, with documentary-like realism (Carpenaum, 3 Faces, At War), neo-realism (Ayka, Dogman, Yomeddine) and even magical-realism (Happy as Lazzaro). As a result, this list introduces us to many lesser-known and non-professional cast, most notably the acting winners Samal Yeslyamova (Ayka), Marcello Fonte (Dogman), the child actor Zain Al Rafeea in Capernaum and the disabled actor Rady Gamal in Yomeddine.
The prestigious prize eventually went to Shoplifters by Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan’s first win after 1997’s The Eel. The jury also made an unprecedented decision to create a new “Jury Distinction” award for The Image Book. I’m fine with both decisions, in fact except for Burning got completely shut out, the jury did a pretty decent job of picking out the winners.
Finally, as much as I enjoyed the selection, Cannes still left out a range of other worthy titles, for one reason or another. Here are some glaring examples:
- Roma (Aflonso Cuaron) – opted out: It was originally in the main list but Netflix pulled out to make a statement. If Roma were in, I would’ve raised the 2018 Cannes rating to 4.5 star. It would’ve been incredible: 3 Black & White films, the Latin-representative pick, the first Cuaron’s In Competition selection… and they blew it up.
- Climax (Gaspar Noé) – Directors’ Fortnight: the enfant terrible, the provocateur and also one of the boldest working auteurs in our time. While I understand why Cannes put Love in Midnight Session, the fact that they left out Climax (arguably his best work) is such a crying shame.
- Long Day’s Journey into Night (Bi Gan) – Un Certain Regard: It was placed in a smaller league for more accomplished Asian’s names (it’s a great year for Asian films). The film is purely an auteur expression – a 59-minute unbroken longshot in 3D that puts many of the Main Competition to shame.
- The House that Jack Built (Lars von Triers) – Special Screening: More of a “political move” to welcome Triers after his “persona non grata” status in 2011. Cannes decided to bring him back to the Croisette, but not quite there. While this film is more mixed than the three films above, it’s still a audaciously bold film that has a power to spark conversation.
It’s easy to see why Yomeddine is the least prolific title out of this competition: it’s a film by a first-time director (A. B. Shawky) with non-professional actors and a simple road movie at heart. But it’s precisely this simple approach that makes this trip fun, authentic and uplifting. About a man living in a leprosy colony who decides to set out on a journey in search of his estranged family, Yomeddine benefits from the strength of its two main characters, whose effortless acting makes them feel like fully-fledged characters. In their trip across Egypt, Beshay and Obama encounter all kinds of people and receive all kind of treatments: friendship, companionship, together with prejudice, discrimination, and full of poverty.
Yomeddine is about returning to the origins in search of answers, and about finding freedom within ourselves to embark on new roads. The film is at its most effective when it refrains from taking itself seriously. There are a handful of light touch moments that are both fun, touching and pointed (when Beshay and the religious man, chained together, run for their lives from the police, for example). But Yomeddine can’t escape from becoming too sentimental and preachy at times. The scene where Beshay on the train screaming “I am a human being” hammers hard to its message that it’s hard to swallow. I consider the plot thread where our duo gets helped by the disabled beggar groups the most effective, in a way we see real people, despite their disadvantages, acknowledge their differences and thrive to live all the same. Modest in scale but it has full of heartwarming moments, Yomeddine is slight, but still provides a great window to the lives we don’t see very often.
20. Girls of the Sun
With the Harvey Weinstein scandal that plagued the industry prior to the festival, it’s appropriate that the In Competition lineup incorporates a film about women empowerment and resilience. Girls of the Sun takes a look at the all-women Kurdish battalion who are all escaped prisoners. It’s an authentic look, if a bit overblown, into the Middle-East conflict, especially the victims who have little to do with it in the first place. Girls of the Sun peaks when it mines from interaction between 2 very different female leads, each of them have their own complex backgrounds and their own reasons to be in this battlefield. Based on a script where Husson recorded the experience of the real escapees, the stories behind these characters have a level of genuinity in them.
It’s the “romanticize” that unfortunately bog the stories down. Split into 2 parts, the flashback of the battalion leader Bahar and the current time where they take matters into their own hands, each part unfortunately has its own issues. The flashback is guilty of many “too-obvious” expositions (the small subplot about Bahar’s sister for example), and the scene where they cross the border definitely raises some eyebrows. The present day plot doesn’t feel that they reach their potential, especially the event at the end where Bahar conveniently saves her boy. “The only thing they killed is our fear.”, said Bahar. Girls of the Sun shines when it focuses on women who have lost everything but still raise their heads high and fight so that others don’t have to go through their experience. As the monologue plays out at the end credits, however, it becomes clear that the film frames Bahar and her squad more as role models than full-fledged characters, which for me is a missed opportunity.
19. The Image Book
For me, The Image Book is a failed experiment and I’m personally torn by it. On the one hand, I respect the way Godard plays with the visual medium. He has always been a director who breaks the rules and pushes the boundary that this medium has to offer since his debut 60 years ago (goddamn). The Image Book finds himself as risk-taking as ever, where he eschews all the conventional narrative in focus for audiovisual rhythms. On the other hand, The Image Book feels so scattershot, so random and overtly lacking in substance. There’s no shortage of innovative ideas here, but it’s always at the cost of viewers’ engagement.
Although having a narrator (himself), Godard intentionally omits a good chunk of subtitles. It feels as if like the shoegaze music scene, he intends to bring the narration to the background and lets us focus instead on the flow of the images. Secondly, he implements highly saturated pictures that look insanely gorgeous, especially in 3D format (I watched this in theatre). The film splits into several small chapters as Godard goes through different topics. In one chapter he compares cinema medium to painting, at other segment he uses it to contrast with real-life war footage, most notable the Holocaust, Iraq war and so on. These segments have their moments for sure, but they all feel disjointed and too scrambled to draw any concrete statement on what he wants to say. Ultimately, you could see The Image Book as the gateway to get into Godard’s own thought process. It feels like we are in his editing room and witness how he scrambles on these moving pictures together, as well as his inner thoughts. It may sound tempting for some but it does beg a question, is there any reason to care at all?
18. Sorry Angel
Fresh off the heels with the success of last year’s BPM, Sorry Angel can serve as an adequate companion piece. France in 1993 is bathed in blue hues in this queer-romance-drama about 2 men in different points of their lives. One of them is a 30-ish established novelist Jacques who is dying of AIDS, and the other one Arthur is in his early 20s interested in making films and is figuring out his sexual orientation (he might serve as Honoré’s own alter ego). While the story touches on Jacques battling his disease, Sorry Angel refrains itself from any sort of sentimentalism, even the word “AIDS” isn’t mentioned once throughout its run. Sorry Angel instead explores both their romance and their separate lives. It‘s never supposed to be a full-on romance, as Jacques knows he has little time to live, but they can’t help but be attracted to each other.
What the film does best is how Honoré encapsulates many tender, endearing moments, especially from the leads. The sequence where the two of them along with Jacques’s closet neighbour dance and sing together is pure joy. In addition, the film knows how to spark the main leads’ chemistry through their conversations about art and culture. However, the film does meander a bit and the narrative becomes disjointed as occasionally we don’t get a good sense of how much time progresses, and the subplot between Jacques and his ex-lover Marco is both too much and too little at the same time. The early 90s France era feels like another character in the film, as Honoré goes all out on showing posters from the era, the music, and even “The Piano” screening when the two first met. It’s quite bittersweet knowing how much has changed, and would change in a few years from when this took place.
17. Asako I & II
I consider Asako I & II as Hamaguchi’s misstep, after his 4-hour long drama Happy Hour, which I regard as one of the strongest films of the last decade. And even with the film as flawed as this, he still demonstrates good eyes for craftsmanship and a keen observation to the character’s inner psyche. Clocking for 2 hours, it certainly feels longer than needed be, especially with this film’s simple premise. Asako I & II’s story is about a girl (played by the beautiful Erika Karata) who comes to terms with whom she loves (played by the same actor). On the one hand, there’s Baku who likes the force of nature. Hamaguchi frames this relationship as abrupt, as he goes in and out of Askao’s life like a fever dream. On the other hand, with Ryouhei, it’s methodically built. Ryouhei cares deeply for her and their relationship is positive, but it’s clear that her heart is not set on it.
While films like Happy Hour or Hanaguchi’s past works give a complex look at character’s at their crossroad, the thing that keeps Asako I & II from being resonant is that there’s simply very little conflict to the titular Asako. It doesn’t help that Karata’s portrayal of Asako is a mixed bag. While the character herself is stoic in nature, she’s totally muted and unconvinced when it comes to emotionally-heightened scenes. Higashide’s performance as a double-bill Baku and Ryouhei, on the other hand, is full of nuance and grace. In addition, for a film that spends a great deal setting up the conflict, the resolve is still underwhelming as it doesn’t commit to give a proper answer. Maybe that’s the point, most of us are always split on what we want, and it takes a lifetime to learn from that.
16. At War
At War finds Brizé exploring the topic he knows best – the life and condition of a working class. It’s akin to his 2015 The Measure of a Man (also starring Lindon), but while the 2015 feature is more sober, At War is more urgent and much more angry. The film documents the workers in a factory going on strikes against the business owners after their decision to shut down the plant. The workers are in a bad situation and are being exploited to begin with, given they already signed an agreement to work extra time with pay cuts.
There are two important notes in regards to the film: the focus of At War is squarely from the point of view of the workers, led by the powerful Vincent’s Laurent (the only paid actor in this film), as a result it is decidedly biased. But by saying that At War is excellent at portraying the mindset of the working people. At one point, exhausted by never-ending strikes, some workers start to have second-thought and turn against each other. The conflict raises a debate of what length should the workers go, and at what cost. The second factor is that the lengthy debates that serve both the film’s biggest strength as well as its shortcomings. On the one hand, they are realistic, engaging and wholly believable. These negotiations, on the other hand, become repetitive and weary, and frustrating at the end. And I suppose the “frustrating” part is intentional, given At War raises big questions but it doesn’t offer any resolution. The bold ending surely splits the viewers and I take it as a cry from frustration – unless something dramatic happens, their voice and their concern won’t ever be heard.
Ayka is bleak, but not without its power. Following a titular girl in a quick snapshot of her life desperately trying to make ends meet, many could connect this film to Dardene’s brothers’ (better) Palme D’or winner Rosetta. It’s similar in concept, but where Rosetta is a sympathetic character, this film makes it clear that Ayka isn’t during its first 10 minutes. Ayka is desperate. She’s in debt, her work permit expired a year ago, the jobs she works at don’t pay her and as night goes on her physical condition gets worse. The camera sticks closely to Yesyamova’s character (who gives a fully committed performance) most of the time, making sure that we really see her. The film follows her in lengthy handheld takes through the snowy Moscow streets, or in cramped rooms where she works or lives – it’s like the situation she is in: trapped with no way to turn.
Despite the close-ups, the story the film tells is almost as anonymous as its main character. Ayka is not personalized but is a kind of combined portrait of migrant women. She could exist almost anywhere. The film tells us almost nothing about her past, her future or her dreams, but is very much about the present, the current she’s in. While Ayka undoubtedly uses the character to comment on the terrible conditions of migrant workers in Moscow, the film also addresses another main theme, that of a maternal instinct. Even after Ayka abandons her child, her breast keeps leaking milk and as she’s milking her baby at the end, it can be seen as her triumph towards motherhood. The camera gives no empathy to the human characters, given animals are given extended time along with greater sympathy than the bleak and soulless human. Reportedly Dvortsevoy took 6 years to complete the film, which is kind of both ironic – since the film itself takes place over the course of 5 days – and fitting. Like the film, the shoot feels like a fever they can’t sweat out of.
Considered as one of the biggest sensational breakouts from Cannes this year, Capernaum is what Slumdog Millionaire would be if the first (easily best) part extends to the whole feature. And while there are undoubtedly many affecting raw moments, Capernaum falls short for me in several ways.The film’s biggest downfall lies right there at the beginning: the trial when Zain sues his own family for “giving him life”. Capernaum has something neat to say about child neglection, and its main message is that “if you can’t provide your kids with their most basic needs, just don’t give birth at all” – a message which I happen to agree with. What I found appalling, however, is the heavy-handed approach the film takes to get that point across, especially towards the trial part.
In fact, when Capernaum calms down from its angry message and focuses instead on Zain and his dire situation, it’s where the film takes flight. Labaki successfully paints a depressing, stark picture about impoverished children who, despite their great efforts, can’t get out of that vicious cycle of life. There’s no shortage of great performances in there, especially from the non-professional lead Zain Al Rafeea who carries the film with grace. Impossibly skinny for a 12-year-old boy, his presence is both natural and devastating and sometimes it’s his eyes that convey many complex emotions. Capernaum hits hard, especially when it gets to the section where Zain has to cater for a hungry baby all by himself. In the end, Capernaum’s message and its greatest strength are at odds with each other. While Capernaum successfully gives this nobody an authentic voice with a keen and compassionate observation, it also argues that they are better off not being born in this world at all.
Whereas I regarded Happy as Lazzaro as a fable about a man who is unaffected by the society and its times, Dogman could be viewed as a fable for a good man who IS affected by the bad deed, albeit with far more straightforward and far more obvious. Employing his neo-realist approach to this small rural Italian town, Dogman’s best strength is that it feels all too real. Dogman benefits greatly from Matteo’s strong handle to his material and Marcello’s commanding performance. Sadly, it’s the writing that also has some issues with about 20 minutes too long. First, it’s a portrayal of Simone. Simone is a bully from start to finish. He’s loud to the point that he doesn’t feel like an actual character, which in turns somewhat deflates Marcello’s various decisions. And it throws both the realism, and the complexity out to the window since Matteo Garrone and his team clearly dictate us what to feel here.
To be fair, Dogman remains a character study of a good humble man who breaks his own code due to the evil deed of another man. He’s convincing in every decision he makes, which I credit mostly to Marcello’s outstanding performance rather than the nuance of the script. It’s a vivid portrayal of the man who is submitted to his abuser, to the point of sacrificing everything he had built up to: his shop, his community, his daughter, his own freedom. And to prepare for the film’s climax, Dogman unfortunately glosses over some contents (regarding him buying the uncut coke) that takes us out a bit from connecting to Marcello. If you want us to totally get under Marcello’s skin, you have to show us every step of the way – not skimming it. Like its villain Simone, Dogman doesn’t have a subtle bone in its body.
As its director Serebrennikov is placed under house-arrest at the end of the shooting, Leto ironically (or unironically, depends on how you look at it) is a film about freedom. It’s about individuals who are eager to break the mould of the oppressive Soviet-era from their attitude towards “punk” culture. For a “musical / biopic” film, Leto has all the styles, and most importantly, energy, to carry the story through. The film follows an up-and-coming band Kino and the underground rock scene of Leningrad of the 80s. The film is less interested in documenting their achievements but more in capturing the youthful spirits, and its spirit is hard to deny. Serebrennikov effectively uses a range of tricks to express that atmosphere: there are no shortage of tap-along rock songs, both in their acoustic performances and in their highly-stylized musical numbers. Its black and white aesthetic matches the old feel of the era, but on occasions the film uses animations, limited technicolors and breaking the fourth wall technique to mess with the reality. They even go so far of creating a character whose role is to remind us that the musical sequences aren’t real.
It’s such an energetic experience that it’s a shame the last 20 minutes or so Leto loses its focus. While the main trio displays some great chemistry early on, the film doesn’t fully commit on their developments. The main lead Viktor suffers from that. It doesn’t feel like he’s active in his professional pursuit (Mike arranged the recording for him), in his romantic swing (Natalia decides it for him) and that lack of depth makes us wonder how much he cares for any of this, if at all. The early part sensitively infuses his musical sensibility that points out how much he’s different from the rest, but later on it fails to build on that. In addition, Leto distracts itself on a side character and a hint of his suicide that is fascinating on its own but feels removed from the rest of the story. All in all, despite its inconsistency, Leto is stylish and full of energy and a solid addition to the art-house musical biopic scene (populated by I’m Not There, Control).
11. 3 Faces
Panahi has had an intriguing (and honestly, inspiring) career after he was placed under house arrest back in 2010. Since then, he has made 4 films and there’s no sign of him slowing down. Appropriately, his movie-making style becomes much more restrained because he has to film them in secret: he prefers long static shots, he uses natural lighting and sounds akin to documentary and he turns the camera on himself. As a result, his works become meta-docu-fiction of sorts, and precisely it’s these restraints that makes his works immersing, innovative and interesting to follow. In 3 Faces, Panahi once again plays himself, and he’s joined by actress Behnaz Jafari as they seek to solve the mystery of a young girl’s video.
Although the film is once more presented as a middle ground between fiction and documentary, 3 Faces feels the most scripted, and most controlled of all, but even then there’s this looseness in form and in writing in 3 Faces. There’s a lot of dead air in 3 Faces, for example, when the actors take their time to walk from one end to another. What I found really immersive is how effortless it feels. As the duo gets closer to the “truth”, we see them interacting with the local community and it serves as a perfect opportunity for Panahi to explore the conservatism and close-mindset of the local villages. That might sound typical but here, he achieves it by never going overboard. The conversation between Jafari and one of the locals about the “good luck charm”, for example, is quirky, full of laughter but relevant. In another scene, they encounter an elderly woman lying in her grave. It’s moments like these, where 3 Faces doesn’t take itself seriously, reveal its relevant social commentary without feeling like a lesson. But the issue at heart doesn’t lose its weight. The girls are from the town who downright dismiss art performers. It’s a cry for freedom to express, freedom to live the way they like.
10. The Wild Pear Tree
Arguably the most celebrated Turkish temporary director at this moment, Ceylan’s films have become increasingly longer and much talkier. Clocking in over 3 hours, The Wild Pear Tree, feels more like a poem with many philosophical, religious ideas peppered on top. Which might be appropriate, since the main character is an inspirational writer who just came back to his hometown and doesn’t know which direction he should take for his life. Designed more as a snapshot to this specific stage of his life, the movie, like many of its sequences, is a long, static focus on him as he navigates around town with the people around him. ‘Meandering’ is a proper word to describe this film. If there is one main theme of The Wild Pear Tree, it’s the frustration of the young generation and the immature dismissal of the older generations. Hence, the epilogue section, where our main character, after some time-skip, begins to notice and understand his father better, is where the film achieves its thematic goal.
In addition, The Wild Pear Tree leaves the strongest impact when it conveys its themes visually in a poetic and sensual touch. The silences in between these talky heads, and most notably the stunning lyrical images during each segment, all further showcase why Ceylan remains one the finest directors working today. From the baby laying on the wild tree with ants crawling all over his face, to the main protagonist finding himself inside the Trojan horse, each image is so striking it engraves to the memory like nails holding the shape of the big picture. In the end, it’s still a very worthy film and fans of Ceylan’s previous works will find plenty to enjoy. While the film for me doesn’t always justify its long runtime, it’s still a visually rich and dense film – dense both with the amount of dialogues and the amount of ideas, for better or for worse.
Knife+Heart comes from such a niche market that its inclusion in the Main Competition is quite inspiring. Knife+Heart infuses the looks and sensibilities of giallo, queer and erotic cinema, combine and reconstruct them into something its own. The result is an original film that goes to unexpected territory, with a gorgeous visual and score. Vanessa Paradis is so perfect in this role that it’s hard to think of anyone else who could top her. The film has a lot going on though: it’s both about Anne in the midst of murder spree, about her in the gay porn industry and about her recovering from failed relationship. Because of that the plot feels disjointed at times, sometimes to the point of incomprehension.
But while it might be lacking in the story department, it more than makes up in providing a dreamy atmosphere, lush color designs, visually elegant framing and some effective character moments. Also, it’s interesting to note that for a film about gay porn industry where the killer literally stabs victims with a dildo-shaped dagger, Knife+Heart is not at all explicit. Most of the erotic and slasher scenes are implied but the film nails it on the “sensual” part. Knife+Heart has its own identity and is proud to wear its influences on its sleeves. It’s the film like this that reminds me why I love the Cannes selection in the first place.
8. Everybody Knows
Asghar Farhadi’s films are something akin to those of Ang Lee. Doesn’t matter which cultures they base their scripts on, there’s always an universal truth behind their story that translates across. Everybody Knows finds Farhadi branching out to Spain, and while the result is not as gripping as his previous works, it’s still a damn fine drama with lots of great individual moments. The story takes its time for the main event to kick in, and it’s important to do so as we learn about the characters, and Everybody Knows establishes the “comfort zone” before that comfort is taken away from us with the kidnapping. And the master of writing Farhadi uses that opportunity to examine “cracks” behind the facade: there are hidden truths that soon to be exposed, there is resentment and prejudice, there is manipulation when something is at stake.
Real-life husband and wife Bandern and Penelope Cruz give convincing performances as ex-lovers who are now in the middle of this crisis. Not only them but the ensemble cast all have their moments, in particular Paco’s wife Bea and Laura’s husband, Alejandro. Everybody Knows is at its best when it explores just about enough to its character’s moral dilemma: almost everyone in the cast is believable, and the drama is escalated in such a believable way that when the decision is made, doesn’t matter how ironic it might sound, it feels legit. The film is not about the kidnapping but more on using it as a catalyst for more grey-area dilemma, that’s why I consider the scene where it revealed the people behind the kidnap totally unnecessary. Everybody Knows remains a rich melodrama, and while it can’t top Farhadi past masterpieces, there’s still a lot to be admired in this compelling tale with great acting chops.
7. Ash is Purest White
Ash is Purest White feels like a flowering of all Zhangke’s past works. You can see bits and pieces of his other films here: a tryptic structure of Mountains May Depart, Three Gorges Dam calls back to Still Life… By saying that, Ash is Purest White is not merely a “greatest hits”, and a sense of familiarity from his works actually deepens this tale of doomed love. The film has the same fascination with China’s rapid westernization, with the characters either stuck to the old times or adapt and thus loose their own identity. Here, the fast changing China serves as only a backdrop, but Zhangke hints in no subtlety on these changes through a passage of time: he shot the film in different camera models to suit the era, the characters switching from flip phone to Iphone as time passes, the overhead shots of the towns before and after the industrialization.
But the heart and soul of Ash is Purest White lie on the two main characters’ shoulders and they more than nail the parts. Zhao Tao is such a precious actress and she elevates the material with flying colors. Just look through her gaze we can see the depth in her emotions when she stays by her gang-leader boyfriend, and later when she gets out of jail looking for him. Her boyfriend, Guo Bin, lives in his past glory and can never move on. Ash is Purest White is much more interested in delving in Zhao Tao’s personal issues, and I found the second part – when she loses everything and tries to navigate herself in the changing society – to be incredibly moving. I’d personally love to see more focus on her boyfriend – the film gives so much sympathy to Zhao Tao’s character but not enough on the other. The final, almost silent ending perfectly brings their relationship to a conclusion. Ash is Purest White is a seeming realization of Zhangke’s entire career’s work. It might not surprise you in terms of bringing something new to the table, but it is amongst his most personal and emotional works.
6. Under the Silver Lake
Remains one of the most polarizing titles of this year, Under the Silver Lake is an acid trip that raises lots of questions but gives little attention to answer them, if at all. The director Mitchell has a lot to say about the seedy Hollywood, conspiracy theory, hidden messages obsession and so much more. While it sounds like Under the Silver Lake resembles Mulholland Drive, it is more similar to Richard Kelly’s puzzling Southland Tales. In the middle of all the chaos is Sam (played by Andrew Garfield who gave his all) as he investigates the disappearance of his neighbor, the girl he only met the day before and strange events keep popping around him. How much we can take as face value and how much lies in Sam’s imagination are never quite clear, but there’s a beauty in it. More than any title this year, I feel baffled, frustrated by it but Under the Silver Lake gives a lot of room for thoughts.
What is the Owl’s Kiss? Who is the Dogkiller? How real is The Songwriter?
For two/third of its run, the film builds up too much with many impressive sequences, it can’t be helped that the actual ending kind of cheapens the narrative. That ending reads more as a satire between the rich, powerful side against the poor, hapless Sam, but most frustrating of all there are many questions that are intentionally left open. I guess the whole point of Silver Lake lies in how much we know the pointlessness of looking for clues and hidden messages, but we, like Sam, attempt to do it anyway. In fact, the film sparks endless conversations online looking to solve the film’s mysteries. My take for it is that there are multiple endings, and the one provided is just one possible end route. Some would say that Under the Silver Lake is too much, but you can’t fault it for its ambition.
In a way, you can sort of see why Blackkklansman becomes Spike Lee’s late critical hit (not a return to form like many suggested given he has never truly gone). Blackkklansman has his signature passionate voice, it’s about racial issues that have been his backbone and it’s one of his broadest strokes, engaging in a Hollywood black comedy thriller style that is both entertaining and has a burning central message. The film examines the first black police hired by the Colorado Springs Police Department, as he gets himself into the two extreme racial groups: a white-power white-superior Ku Klux Klan and black-power national civil right movement. This story really takes flight when we know the fact that these events did happen in real life.
BlacKkKlansman is also successful in keeping the tension throughout the film. The film is at its best when Lee intercuts between the two forces when each of them is at their most-extreme states. It offers the contrast between two opposing forces that would raise the ongoing conflict for years to come. The film is at its worst when it tries to glorify Ron as a hero figure and when it attempts to paint the white racist in the most obvious way. The subplot regarding the racist cop for instance, doesn’t need to be there, as well as many stupid remarks from the Grand Wizard. Blackkklansman might have a wider appeal than his usual joints but all his signature touches are there. Especially, the ending scene remains the most unsettling moment and it closes up the film and connects to the real life footage perfectly. As Lee points out almost 40 years later in a string of events in 2017, things have not improved much. The hate that pulls people apart comes loud and clear, and Lee’s angry voice has never been that direct and demanding.
4. Happy as Lazzaro
Alice Rohrwacher raises a bar again with her third feature, Happy as Lazzaro, which is often considered as a fable with a touch of magical realism. Happy as Lazzaro is her loosest film in terms of narrative, as well as her best film so far. Like in The Wonders, Rohrwacher has a knack of portraying a rural life pressured by the weight of modernity. In Happy as Lazzaro, it’s the timelessness that counts. The town’s rural life brings the impression of the older era until you see a flip phone, a car or a helicopter pass by and realize it happens in real time. People in the film perceive time differently, as if for them time has ceased to move forward. It is especially true for Lazzaro, who remains unaffected by the ever-changing environment around him, who remains the same age even though his friends have grown old.
The magical touch here is nothing but a stroke of genius. We don’t know how much time has gone. We do know that it doesn’t matter anyway as Lazzaro remains the same, it’s the world around him that speeds up rapidly. The film frames him as a holy figure whose naive, innocent air carries an otherworldly power. He’s the constant reflection of how petty we humans can sometimes be. The magical realism remains whimsical at times, but underneath it, it’s a sad portrayal of a community who can’t seem to adapt to modernity, and thus, are left behind by the present time.These two half is linked by the parable of the wolf and the Saint, to a lesser degree of success. The film isn’t meant to be taken literally, after all. It’s that strangeness, without any dash of sentimentality, makes Happy as Lazzaro a compelling and rich film from start to finish.
3. Shoplifters (Palme D’or winner)
Leave it to Kore-eda to deliver another touching and heartbreaking tale about family bond and what family is ready made of. You can see many elements from his early films in Shoplifters, but what makes this one stick out is the way he injects just the right doses between them, making this a roller coaster of emotions from laughter to achingly sad to tender moments without losing its balance. That marks the core concept that Shoplifters focuses on: explore the dynamic in this “makeshift family”. We see how Rin, whose scars and bruises are visibly seen all over her body, slowly gets accustomed to this new home. It helps that they’re all likeable bunch. Not only does Kore-eda allow the other members to spend time with this girl and treat her dearly, he explores the dynamic from every single pair of this household, as a result each pair sparks their own chemistry.
These building ups are important, in hindsight, because afterwards Shoplifters make a sharp turn that very much puts these bonds into test, breaking apart and turning everything upside down. The film consistently challenges these characters into betraying their own belief, breaking their own trust so that whatever remained is the core truth. The latter half cuts deeper and deeper as one detail unfolds upon another. I don’t mind seeing a second chapter out of this story where the family reconciles, or I won’t lie that I already imagine about the story of these three siblings grabbing on ten, twelve years from now. At the same time, Shoplifters feels wholly satisfied. That speaks to the very strength of what could be Kore-eda’s most accessible work, a balanced piece of work that makes you laugh, makes you cry and makes you think hard, and these characters stay with you afterward.
2. Cold War
“Time doesn’t matter when you’re in love”
I can’t think of a more appropriate title for this movie than Cold War, both as a specific era our two leads live in, and as their romance themselves. Inspired by Pawel Pawlikowski’s own parents’ tale, with the same style of his previous sleeper hit Ida (the film I am very fond of), Cold War still stands out as its own and proves as a worthy addition to his already impressive filmography. At first, I mistook this film as an anti-romance, but in truth, this is a romance story of broken people in the broken country of the broken era. The sort of self-destructive, star-crossed romance to begin with. Doomed without each other. Doomed when staying together. Their time spending together is all too brief and often it gets harder and harder to reach each other. And yet their love shines mostly through those brief sparks, those fleeting moments. It’s the desire to be together that somehow becomes their blessing, as well as their curse.
And then there is the Cold War in the settings. It’s the era where artistic freedom expression is almost equal to propaganda message, where in order to move up the ladder you would need to build good relationships, where defecting the country means you have no way to go back. Both the leads command their screens marvelously, and the crisp black and white photography, clean editing, simple but skillful cinematography and solid jazzy soundtrack make Cold War a top-notch production all around. Minimalist in style, emotionally distant in tone, Cold War tells a seemingly simple tragic love story, but it’s anything but simple. I’m about to use the word “bittersweet” love story here, but in truth it’s bitter all the way. The only sweet part out of this story is that they know that they love each other and they want to be together, even at the cost of their individual self. And maybe, just maybe, it justifies everything else.
Burning, like many of Lee’s previous films, is a feature that explores many different themes neatly into one package. It’s all built up to the climax that is unexpected, but sums up beautifully what all the plot threads are building up to. Adapting from a short story from Haruki Murakami, one aspect that both Murakami and Le Chang Dong have in common is their depiction of loneliness and alienation, and Burning feels like a natural material for Lee. There’s a sense of alienation anywhere in this picture. And the act of titular “burning”, burning away all the existence of things, or person, building up as the story progresses.
It’s all spiritually speaking of course, and it’s just one of many possible outcomes of this complex tale that just put up some major details and demand us to interpret the events ourselves. Instead, ambiguity and uncertainty make up another central theme of Burning. Throughout the course of this film, Jongsu receives many contradicting information as the story progresses, from the “invisible cat” he comes to feed everyday, to Haemi’s tale of her childhood memories, to the rich man Ben who claims he has a passion for greenhouse burning (which was an update from Murakami’s the Barn Burning) to the possibility of Haemi’s disappearance. Everything that happened is just a tip of an iceberg, there’s a sea of emotions buried underneath that keep boiling up.
From the technical standpoint, the constant plot twist turns this story in unexpected directions, which is one of the reasons why it keeps maintaining our interest even with 2 hour plus running time. It has all the ingredients of a solid suspense mystery, but it’s decidedly more of a psychological slow-burn drama with much more interest in characters’ headspace. And delving deep into character’s headspace also means that our characters might be unreliable narrators. Lee Chang Dong again delivers another emotionally, thematically complex, poignant film where you feel the sense of despair and unsettling keep piling up as each minute passes. It ranks amongst the best works from an exceptional director at the top of his game. It’s a slow-burn fire but the fire, once there, won’t be put out anytime soon.
Silver Moon’s Jury Picks
With my own Jury choices, I will give the same awards as the actual awards, with some minor modifications. The Jury Prize, which normally equals the 3rd Prize, will be altered as “the most original work”.
Palme d’Or: Burning (originally awarded to Shoplifters)
Note: It makes the second consecutive year where a Korean film tops my list. Burning got shut out for the real awards. Shoplifters was a great choice. In fact I’m happy with any of the top 3 winning this.
Grand Prix: Shoplifters (originally awarded to Blackkklansman)
Best Director: Paweł Pawlikowski – Cold War (also won the same prize at 2018 Cannes)
Best Actor: Andrew Garfield – Under the Silver Lake (originally awarded to Marcello Fonte for Dogman)
Best Actress: Vanessa Paradis – Knife+Heart (originally awarded to Samal Yeslyamova for Ayka)
Jury Prize: The Image Book
Note: In an unprecedented move the Jury created this award just to honor The Image Book. As much as the film doesn’t work for me on an emotional level, I can appreciate its desire to push the boundary of this medium.
Best Screenplay: Alice Rohrwacher – Happy as Lazzaro & Jafar Panahi and Nader Saeivar – 3 Faces (also won the same prize at 2018 Cannes)
Note: The Jury gave a rare tie for this category. I didn’t care for this at first but now I feel both decisions work in support of each other. Both are loose in form, but dare to go unexpected places.