The weather was mostly cool and rainy at the 76th edition of the Cannes Film Festival, which is no great hardship when you’re spending most of your days in darkened movie theatres.
The weather app on my phone often added the alarming advisory “moderate avalanche warning,” which seemed ominous but also ambitious for the gentle hills surrounding this Riviera waterfront city.
I prefer to think of the avalanche in terms of the high volume of grand cinema experienced during the festival’s 12-day run, which wraps Saturday with the awarding of the Palme d’Or and other prizes.
It’s one of the best years in recent memory for Cannes, which seemed revitalized as it finally shook off the hangover of the pandemic.
It’s anybody’s guess which film will take the Palme — feature competition jury president Ruben Östlund swore at the outset there would be no leaks from his nine-member panel — but I have my own list of the best movies at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.
Most of these movies are good bets to screen at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. I’m listing them here in order of preference.
The most delicious film at Cannes 2023. Amour to swoon over and cuisine to die for, it’s set in 1885 France and served with seduction by dedicated cook Eugénie (Juliette Binoche) and serious gastronome Dodin (Benoît Magimel). They’re a magnetic pair with both the kitchen and bedroom in mind — although only one of them contemplates marriage, hence some tension. The lengthy food preparation scenes are so alluring I wanted to nibble the screen. You don’t have to be a foodie to enjoy this savoury romance from cinema poet Tran Anh Hung (“The Scent of Green Papayas”), but you’ll love it all the more if you are.
The Zone of Interest
Jonathan Glazer’s first Palme competition entry is a nightmare bathed in sunshine, set during the Second World War. Adapting freely from the novel by Martin Amis, who died during the festival, Glazer matter-of-factly presents the happy Nazi family living in the garden estate on the other side of the razor-wired wall at Auschwitz. Commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) and their five young children ignore the reality of their inhumanity, shutting their senses to the screams of the murdered multitudes (the sound design is devastating) and the lingering smoke and ash. Viewers can’t turn away from this icy masterpiece; to do so would endanger your soul.
Killers of the Flower Moon
Martin Scorsese’s fact-based murder epic, about white human “wolves” preying upon Indigenous Oklahomans in the 1920s, is rich in awards-worthy performances from Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone. By fraud, marriage or murder, the curs are out to get their claws and paws on “Osage money,” the abundant cash amassed by members of the nearby Osage Nation thanks to oil gushing from their land. Gladstone and Canada’s Tantoo Cardinal play two of the many Osage characters drawn from tragic real life. This is a story of historic injustice and inhumanity, resonating with current wrongs, that more people need to know about — it’s not just a Wild West fairy tale.
Anatomy of a Fall
The title of French filmmaker Justine Triet’s psychodrama should begin with “autopsy” rather than “anatomy” because of its forensic approach to marital discord and criminal justice. The set-up: a fatal tumble from a French Alps ski chalet of a depressed and frustrated writer has the earmarks of suicide. The man’s wife (Sandra Hüller, terrific), a successful author whose books include personal glimpses, and the couple’s 11-year-old son (Milo Machado Graner), who is vision-impaired, both exhibit convincing grief. The ensuing official investigation and combative courtroom scenes raise doubts, however, especially after a secret recording emerges. There’s no easy resolution to this battle of perceptions; even the pet pooch needs an alibi.
Grocery worker Ansa (Alma Pöysti) is sad but hopeful, construction labourer Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) is depressed and drunk — what’s not to love? Astringent Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki conjures a touching lonely hearts tale for this unlikely pair, in this fourth chapter of his working-class “trilogy.” The Helsinki duo meet in a karaoke bar where the writer/director’s deadpan humour and precise staging get full sway and Holappa expresses his opinion that “Tough guys don’t sing.” They can, however, inspire empathy when they turn out to be not as tough as they pretend to be. An unexpected crowd-pleaser from a minimalist master.
Strange Way of Life
Pedro Aldomóvar’s queer western “answer” to “Brokeback Mountain,” a movie he almost directed, makes terrific lovers and fighters out of Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal. Jake and Silva are two former hired guns who were once also a secret couple 25 years ago, but times have changed. Jake, now the sheriff of desert town Bitter Creek, has official business that conflicts with the joy of seeing Silva again, when his old flame suddenly rides back into his life. This first release from fashion label Saint Laurent is as gorgeous as you’d expect — ever see a cowboy with designer undies? At a mere 31 minutes, though, it also raises a question: Couldn’t this have been longer? I wanted more of this story and these guys.
There’s a thin line between exploration and exploitation, as any honest actor (or journalist) will tell you. Todd Haynes skilfully walks it in this artfully unsettling drama, inspired by a true story. Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman star as women whose personal and professional lives intersect in unforeseen ways. Moore is Gracie, whose marriage to the much younger Joe (Charles Melton of TV’s “Riverdale”) sparked tabloid headlines 20 years ago. About to enter the empty-nest phase of their surprisingly successful union, they meet Portman’s Elizabeth, a method actor who wants to play Gracie in a film about the couple’s early years together. The subsequent unearthing of secrets and grievances makes for a tense situation for all three.
People don’t talk much about Catherine Parr, a.k.a. Wife No. 6 of Britain’s notorious King Henry VIII, possibly because she was the sole survivor of his brutal marital rampage. Brazil’s Karim Aïnouz is out to change that with this splendidly visceral revisionist history tale, adapted from Elizabeth Fremantle’s 2012 novel “Queen’s Gambit,” in which Alicia Vikander is bottled lightning as Catherine and Jude Law is a piggish, paranoid and infected Henry VIII. Catherine’s covert embrace of public freedoms — radical for the 16th century — sparks suspicion and jealousy in the royal court, with attendant malfeasance. The film looks and sounds like prestige costume drama, with the exception of Hank’s maggot-infested leg, which is like a horror movie unto itself.
This fascinating collection of short stories about daily life in Tehran, with a title referencing Persian poetry and co-directed by Iran’s Ali Asgari and Canada’s Alireza Khatami, is almost extraterrestrial in the bureaucratic perversity it exposes. Citizens of varying ages and backgrounds — among them a father trying to register his newborn’s name, a teenage schoolgirl being interrogated about her boyfriend and a ride-share driver accused of not wearing her hijab behind the wheel — are forced to navigate arcane laws and intrusive cultural edicts policed by sadistic unseen gatekeepers. In another context, these vignettes could be viewed as satirizing daily life; here they’re sadly no joke.
The Sweet East
A star is bored. Screwball antics by Talia Ryder, who played the resourceful pal in abortion drama “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” go down a treat in Sean Price Williams’ feature debut, despite extreme violence and a high body count. Ryder’s Gen-Z Lillian is so fed up with her daily grind she’s willing to confront, just for kicks, neo-Nazis, religious freaks, murderous conspiracy theorists and overzealous indie filmmakers. All of them are encountered on an eastern U.S. road trip that, with anyone less self-assured than Lillian, Ryder’s breakthrough role, might rightfully be viewed as a series of abductions. Featuring a script from the sharp pen of film critic Nick Pinkerton, “The Sweet East” was a pleasure to discover at Cannes 2023.
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