Cannes Film Festival 2018 was fierce, fiery, and feminist, offering up a veritable smorgasbord of international cinema that spoke directly to the world we live in today. Tackling topics as diverse as women’s rights, class anxiety, and racial prejudice, the festival expertly took the temperature of the current moment. Where else can you watch a lesbian movie from Kenya one moment, and a quiet drama from Japan the next? It’s like being at an all-you-can-eat international buffet.
The targets for the ire of Cannes’ latest auteurs were plentiful. Everyone from Donald Trump (BlacKkKlansman) to ISIS (Girls of the Sun) to The Kremlin (Donbass) was criticised through the lens of a camera. Other films, such as Capernaum and Shoplifters, depicted the issues of poverty in heavy-handed and subtle fashion respectively, both providing memorable criticisms of a government that has seemingly forgotten their plight. The real-world issues brought up by Cannes were enforced by the fact that two directors — Jafar Panahi and Kirill Serebrennikov — still remain under house arrest in their home countries of Iran and Russia. The festival, therefore, functions as a kind of wake-up call, creating cinema that can raise awareness and become an active force for change.
The selection of the competition line-up was under more scrutiny than usual, coming right in the wake of the #metoo movement. With only three women in the competition out of a possible 21 slots, Cannes still hasn’t done enough to ensure better representation when it comes to competing for the best prizes. To symbolise the dearth of female opportunity, eighty-two actresses took to the Red Carpet to stage a silent protest, each one representing the eighty-two women who have competed for the Palme D’or. This is in comparison to the hundreds of men who have enjoyed plaudits in the process. Cannes may have talked the talk, but as of yet, it still hasn’t walked the walk, prioritizing so-called male genius (including charlatan Lars von Trier) over creating a more inclusive slate. But we are getting closer, and things will hopefully be better next year. Four women perhaps?
Sorting through an entire festival slate is an inglorious task, requiring little sleep and the unique ability to distinguish all the sad European arthouse movies from one another. Even at the most prestigious festival in the world, not every movie can be a flat-out masterpiece, with even competition entries finding difficulty in getting international distribution.
Nonetheless, there were some brilliant and even great films that stood out at the festival, making this a particularly memorable year. Read our top picks below:
1.The Wild Pear Tree, dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan
The bildungsroman is thrillingly captured in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s The Wild Pear Tree, which takes a leisurely three hours in sketching out the portrait of a young writer. The best way to describe this film is like a Thomas Mann novel directed by Richard Linklater, combining thoughtful and earnest dialogue with a certain philosophical weightiness. Unfairly robbed in any of the major categories, it had the thankless task of being the last film of the festival. Coming on at 8pm, part of me expected to fall asleep — instead, I could have easily watched The Wild Pear Tree for another three hours.
2. Burning, dir. Lee Chang-Dong
Acclaimed-novelist-turned-South-Korean-minister-of-culture-turned-filmmaker Lee Chang-Dong has found his greatest subject in the literature of Haruki Murakami, turning his short story “Barn Burning” into a barnstorming inquisition that explores topics as diverse as class, sex, dancing, and jealousy. Alternating between slice-of-life realism and genre tropes that echo The Talented Mr. Ripley in their evil sophistication, Burning is the kind of story that lingers long in the mind way after the curtain has fallen. “Norwegian Wood” next?
3. Climax, dir. Gaspar Noé
Gaspar Noé was in for a big surprise during this year’s Cannes when his techno-musical got the best reviews of his career. Known for provocative and controversial works, Climax sees him dial down on the provocations (despite the film featuring incest, dying children, possessions, and copious sexual acts) and turn up the bass, providing the purest and most exciting movie of his entire filmography. What differentiates it from Lars von Trier’s putrid The House That Jack Built is that it’s all about style — a style almost perfectly realised — while the pathetic serial killer drama is an epic-ly boring slog.
4. Under the Silver Lake, dir. David Robert Mitchell
Under The SIlver Lake proved to be one of the most divisive movies of the festival. Some critics called it a genius inquisition into the reddit generation with a kooky outlook on LA life, while others took issue with its lazy misogyny and underwritten female characters. In all reality, Under The Silver Lake appears to be both of these things. This shaggy dog tale is as thrillingly ambitious as they come, burrowing us down rabbit holes in a manner reminiscent of The Big Lebowski. However, it scuppered its Palme D’or chances by not extending this ambition to rounding out its female characters.
5. Shoplifters, dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda
A great choice for the Palme D’or, Shoplifters pulls on the heartstrings without ever feeling manipulative. Kore-eda tenderly creates a portrait of a poor and struggling Japanese family who take in an abused young girl they find in the street. Asking key questions about the nature of love and who has the right to be called family, Shoplifters was one of the tightest-scripted films in the competition. The genius is in how this plot is never insisted upon, thus allowing its conflict to grow organically from its brilliantly shaded characters.
6. Donbass, dir. Sergei Loznitsa
As grim as it is compelling, Donbass is the kind of film you have to watch through your fingers. A depiction of the Novirussiyan regime in Eastern Ukraine, this non-linear, loopy, episodic movie takes you to hell and keeps you there for two hours. Featuring some amazing mise en scène, as well as incredibly well-choreographed group scenes, Donbass is a scathing indictment of a corrupt and morally bankrupt place that has shades of Bu?uel in its use of absurdity.
7. Ash is Purest White, dir. Zhangke Jia
Shot on five different cameras and taking place over 18 years, Ash is Purest White is another epic geography lesson from China’s greatest modern chronicler. It is a triumph of misdirection, promising a traditional crime story before going off on some beautifully realised forks in the road. While it doesn’t really do enough to stick the landing, thus making some of its more ambitious indulgences feel like over-reaching, the film is made instantly memorable by the central performance of Zhangke’s wife, Tao Zhao. She takes over the story and makes it her own.
8. BlacKkKlansman, dir. Spike Lee
With BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee has delivered the kind of movie his fans have been waiting for. A bitterly funny depiction of the first black person to join the KKK, it sees the auteur working in his most mainstream mode since Inside Man. Never one to shy away from politics, Spike’s latest joint sees him directly take on and expose the absurdity of racism in America during the age of Trump. This is more than deserving as winner of the Grand Prix.
9. Birds of Passage, dir. Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra
The opening film of the Director’s Fortnight, Birds of Passage is not your traditional crime epic. Taking place amongst the Wayuu tribes of Northern Colombia, it is a deeply felt depiction of a culture that becomes slowly corrupted by the eroding influence of the drug trade. Boasting stunning landscapes, expertly realised action sequences, and brilliant costume design, Birds of Passage is a much needed counter to drug trade clichés peddled in TV Shows such as Narcos. Perhaps this film should’ve been in competition?
10. Sorry Angel, dir. Christophe Honoré
A huge hit with both Francophiles and queer cinema fans, Sorry Angel is a beautifully realised period piece about two men finding romance in the early 90s. Boasting a great supporting performance by Vincent Lacoste — who has shades of Timotheé Chalamet in his mixture of good looks and natural charm — Sorry Angel is the kind of refreshing, relaxed, yet deeply intimate movie that gay cinema needed. The question remains whether the very French jokes will translate over to wider audiences.
And the Worst Three:
1.Image Book, dir. Jean-Luc Godard
While there is definite academic interest in the montage-as-cinema compilation Godard has created in this film, it is so basically unwatchable that it feels like some kind of test. Featuring changing aspect ratios, poorly mixed sound, missing subtitles, and random changes in colour, the constant experimentation seems to be designed just to annoy the viewer. I left with a headache.
2. Knife + Heart, dir. Yann Gonzalez
Promising a type of giallo slasher replete with bisexual lighting schemes and a synth-heavy soundtrack by M83, Knife + Heart does almost nothing to realise its premise. Even Vanessa Paradis, star of films such as The Girl on The Train and Heartbreaker, can’t do anything with the material. Never has the set of a porn movie every looked so boring.
3. The House That Jack Built, dir. Lars von Trier.
Lars von Trier was finally back in Cannes after being pronounced persona non grata in 2010 after saying he “understood Hitler.” If there was any sense that something was lost in translation, The House That Jack Built has an entire section praising the beauty of genocide. He might still be trolling, but sorry Lars, the joke’s getting old. This film is not only depraved — it’s pathetic.