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Ten Must-See Films from the Cannes Film Festival

I try my best to limit the number of listicles that I post, which simply amount to some number of things ordered for people to bicker over the order or exclusion of particular things. But, this isn’t so much something like “Harrison Ford’s Top 10 Movies (You’ll Never Guess what #3 is!)”, but instead a brief recounting of my highly-anticipated films to come out of this year’s Cannes Film Festival (which closed yesterday). These aren’t presented in any particular order, but I will mention those which have me the most interested. Almost all of the films that I am excited over competed for the Palme d’Or, but a couple of the films shown outside of competition have me intrigued as well. To make this as easy as possible, each film that I mention will contain a link that film’s imdb page. So, if you find yourself interested, you can find more information with a single click.

Official Selection (Palme d’Or competitors)

Carol. Directed by Todd Haynes. Starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.

Carol should definitely be high on anyone’s list after hearing the buzz from its initial screening at Cannes. This film tells the story of a young woman in a loveless marriage (Mara) and her budding relationship with an older divorcee (Blanchett). Set in New York in the 1950s, when the relationship steers towards romance both women need to confront their feelings for each other and try to understand what they want out of life and love in an era where homosexuality was far more demonized than it is today. This movie has already started generating Oscar buzz, especially for Rooney Mara who won the Best Actress award at Cannes. With a December 2015 release date, expect this film to be ideally positioned to make a big push for the awards season, and I anticipate reviewing it here on Plot and Theme as soon as I can.

The Assassin. Directed by Hsiao-hsien Hou. Starring Qi Shu, Chen Chang, and Satoshi Tsumabuki.

I had The Assassin on my radar upon first hearing the synopsis for the Taiwanese wuxia film: set in the 9th century during the Tang Dynasty, the story focuses on a woman assassin roaming the countryside and dealing with the inherent contradiction of being both caregiver and life-taker. The director is definitely an unknown quantity to me, as his work is exclusively Chinese and he has been out of the director’s chair for close to a decade now, but he is certainly a master of his art. Many critics at the festival had The Assassin on their short list for winner of the Palme d’Or, and though it didn’t follow through in that regard, Hsiao-hsien Hou did take home the best director award as a shiny consolation prize. The technical aspects of the fighting sequences and the cinematography are supposedly unmatched, and the characters are nuanced and interesting, despite their archetypal nature (wuxia as a genre is usually very archetypal – an apt comparison might be the Western genre). This one may be hard to find in the States, as the only current release date is for January 2016 in France. It is possible that this film will be chosen to represent China (or Taiwain) in the best foreign language film category at the 2015 Oscars, which could generate sufficient interest to find The Assassin in art house theaters in various locations, so if you find yourself interested in this film, keep your ears to the ground around that time.

Macbeth. Directed by Justin Kurzel. Starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard.

Shakespeare’s story of the Scottish duke who is spurned towards a coup of the king by three witches and his ambitious wife is an absolute classic, and the story has inspired some of the greatest directors to produce absolute masterpieces (see Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood or Polanski’s Macbeth for two examples). Justin Kurzel takes his shot here with the help of two A-listers in Fassbender and Cotillard, and frankly that was plenty enough to get me excited for this adaptation. The initial buzz was positive, but what caught my attention more than anything was the running time: 113 minutes. Despite being one of Shakespeare’s shortest tragedies (it is around one thousand lines shorter than King Lear or Othello, and barely half as long as Hamlet), staged versions of Macbeth routinely runs into the three hour territory. This version of Macbeth seems to approach the story with a brisk, aggressive pace. I am basically always down for interesting adaptation of Shakespeare, and the talent here has me very excited. As with The Assassin, though, a US release is still up in the air, so I don’t know when I get to see this one in the theater, but it should have more of a market that the Taiwanese film merely due to the star power. Of ancillary interest, while director Kurzel has little to his name at this point, he is currently working on the Assassin’s Creed film which is poised to usher in a new era of video game-based franchises (along with the Warcraft movie), so this film may be a good chance to learn a little more about his particular style and voice.

The Lobster. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Starring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz.

The Lobster had me hooked as soon as I heard it allegorical premise: in a dystopian future where society will not abide single people, new widower Colin Farrell is sent to a singles’ hotel where he gets 60 days to meet a new partner.  Should he fail, he will be turned into a lobster and released in the woods. Reminiscent of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, this subject matter is treated matter-of-fact, which generates both drama and some truly dark comedy (I have been warned that the second half of the film, which finds our main characters hunting in the woods, gets pretty brutal). Then, after learning more about Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (this is his first English-language film, but his whimsical and magical realist tone is evident in some of his Greek-language works) I became more and more interested. The fact that this film took home the Jury prize (basically third place for best picture at Cannes) is mere icing on the cake. If I have it in my power to see this film, I will take advantage, but currently only European release dates have been scheduled. It is probably my second-most anticipated Official Selection competitor, after the next film I’ll discuss, Sicario

Sicario. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, and Benecio Del Toro.

I’ll be honest; 90% of the reason I want to see this movie involves the director Denis Villeneuve. I’ve gone on a bit of a Villenueve kick of late, and have completely enjoyed Enemy and Prisoners, the other two English-language films from Villeneuve. Each of his films imposes on the audience an unmistakable tension, and I am particularly impressed by how I often have no idea where a narrative is headed, despite the fact that he tells fairly familiar types of stories. I expect Sicario to be no different. What appears to be your standard crime thriller, with Emily Blunt playing the “by the book” newest member of a Mexican cartel-hunting task force and Josh Brolin her “anything goes” supervisor will most certainly contain many peccadilloes that have become indicative of Villeneuve’s works. The Cannes audience clearly appreciated it:  a standing ovation lasting eight minutes followed the film. Unlike so many of the Cannes films, this one actually has a US release date (September 18, 2015), so I’ve got this one actually circled on my calendar. Further, keep in mind that Villeneuve is currently working on the sequel to Blade Runner, and if he continues to produce spectacular works in the vein of Enemy and Prisoners, then I may be able to shake my Prometheus-inspired fear that a sequel of a beloved Ridley Scott science fiction classic is completely doomed.

Louder than Bombs. Directed by Joachim Trier. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Rachel Brosnahan, andAmy Ryan.

Louder than Bombs looks to be kind of a bummer. It tells the story of a family of men struggling to come to terms with the death of the mother of the family, a war photograher who was killed on the job. Three years after her death, upon the erection of a memorial to her name, the three men spend time together and have to deal with the pain that comes with such tragedy.  Each man is in a different stage of his life and holds a particular opinion about the woman that he lost, and the story focuses on their interactions. I do like a good feel-bad movie, and behind The Social Network (which is kind of a feel-bad), I think Eisenberg’s strongest effort to date was in Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, which for some reason I am reminded of whenever I think about Louder than Bombs. This one didn’t take home any awards and is early on in the career of director Trier, but for some reason I find myself drawn to it.

Dheepan. Directed by Jacques Audiard. Starring Jesuthasan Antonythasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, and Claudine Vinasithamby.

To the surprise of basically everyone, it was Jacques Audiard’s film about a Sri Lankan immigrant that took home the Palme d’Or prize at this year’s Cannes, and I will admit that this film was not on my list as I was perusing the Cannes schedule. After being awarded the best film prize by jury presidents Joel and Ethan Coen and seeing the critical praise flowing from those in attendance, I am sufficiently interested to give this one a look. There aren’t going to be many recognizable names or faces in this French-language film, but that is certainly not a bad thing. Described as expertly dealing with the challenging issue of immigration in modern-day Europe, the film is definitely topical but not heavy-handed. Moreover, the emotion and relationships portrayed in the film are supposed to be of the highest caliber, so this film has definitely won me over with its promise. As with other films, only a French release date exists so far, but Palme d’Or winners tend to be recognized with Oscar Nominations and receive some hype here in the States around that time, so we may get a limited release at some point.

Sea of Trees. Directed by Gus Van Sant. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Naomi Watts, and Ken Watanabe.

Okay, I’ll admit it – I probably wouldn’t want to see this movie if I hadn’t heard the reports about how it was booed at Cannes. The story itself seems fairly interesting: McConaughey plays a suicidal man who travels to the titular forest in Japan notorious for the number of suicides performed there, but his attempt is thwarted Clarence-style from It’s a Wonderful Life when Ken Watanabe’s attempted suicide interrupts him. The two men apparently interact afterwards and rediscover their will to live, but I really don’t have any idea what happens. Initial criticism damns a predictable plot twist, unearned character motivations (apparently McConaughey’s justification for suicide is pretty thin), and a general hokey art-house feeling. Van Sant is known as a bit of a cage-rattler, so it isn’t surprising that his newest film would rub some people the wrong way, and Cannes audiences are known to be quick on the draw with the boos, but could this movie really be that bad? I’ll make at least a moderate effort to find out.

Midnight Screenings

Amy. Directed by Asif Kapadia. Starring Amy Winehouse (documentary).

This documentary on the late performer Amy Winehouse seeks to detail her career and death of alcohol poisoning at the age of 27 using archival footage and Winehouse’s own words whenever possible. Those in attendance familiar with Winehouses music and story have reported that the documentary is very raw and real, and is certainly capable of bringing one to tears due to the emotional weight elicited from some of Winehouse’s songs. The film deals with the Sisyphusean struggle that stardom thrust upon Winehouse, and criticizes a culture too-quick to laud Amy’s talent and paradoxically delight in her struggles.  Under the weight of success, media scrutiny in both her public and private life, and pressures from friends and family, this challenging documentary exposes some ugly parts of our society and one woman’s attempts at an escape. This is definitely not a film to miss, and its presence has encouraged me to revisit Winehouse’s discography in an attempt to provide more context for when I get the chance to see this documentary. Fortunately, this one is scheduled for a July 3rd release, so there’s only about a month to wait.

Love. (NSFW – The posters for the film are present on this imdb page, and they will get your co-workers looking at you funny, I promise) Directed by Gaspar Noe. Starring Karl Glusman, Klara Kristin, and Aomi Muyock.

The latest shocker piece from notorious director Gaspar Noe (Enter the Void, Irreversible) was very high on my list at the beginning of Cannes, but my excitement for it has since abated slightly. Described simply as “a love story between two girls and a boy”, the plot centers around one man (Glusman) who pines for his old, sexpot girlfriend while being married to his current, boring wife. The film contains multiple non-simulated sex scenes and pulls no punches with regards to explicit content.  Noe claims that he means to use the overt sexuality of his characters as a means towards storytelling and characterization, essentially using scenes of sex as emotional conduits into his characters. This idea, coupled with the daring of faithful reproduction of sex between two (and more) individuals has me excited for the possibilities of telling a compelling story of the relationships between these three people, but initial reception has been disappointing. The characters are fairly rote and typical, perhaps even to the degree of caricature, and the plot details appear fairly shallow. That being said, this film has been lauded for its supreme technical composition, inventive camera work (you get another cervix-eye view of an ejaculation, just in case the one in Enter the Void wasn’t enough for you), and the non-linear storytelling that Noe has become known for. Gaspar Noe is at the forefront of challenging audiences and infamous subject matter, but most comparisons find Love to be his tamest piece to date. The film will certainly not escape an NC-17 rating here in the States, and Noe shot the sex scenes in 3D, so one would think he means to find distribution in theaters equipped to showcase the film in all its semen-flying glory, but that seems like a particularly hard sell, if you’ll pardon the pun. No US release date is set as of this writing, and I seriously doubt many will get to see the film as Noe intended. Still, though my interest has calmed somewhat, I am still sufficiently intrigued to keep Love in my cross hairs, mostly likely on some video on demand platform.

So there you have it, ten films to come out of Cannes that have me particularly interested. Notable honorable mentions include Pixar’s Inside Out and also Mad Max: Fury Road, but I have already written at length about those films (Inside Out here, Mad Max here and here). Hopefully you were able to take something away from this list, and have added some of these lesser-known flicks to your movie radar. I will do my best to post news items dealing with the release dates or distributors of these films when they are announced, so be on the lookout for those.  And, of course, once I do get a chance to see them, my reviews will pop up shortly thereafter.

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Derek Jacobs

Chicago,IL 60606

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