Cannes 2012: The great and the terrible

Going to Cannes for the first time is a daunting, humbling endeavor.  From the moment I arrived at the festival grounds to ten days later when I left, the only language that was spoken was that of movies.  I’ve heard complaints from other critics that being rushed from one screening to the next doesn’t let a movie fully digest, and I can completely understand that.  But for a first festival experience, being able to see so many of the movies that will likely be some of the best of the year all at once was completely and utterly thrilling.

Seeing movies back-to-back like this can also help you appreciate one more than the other.  One morning I went to the debut screening of Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy, which I enjoyed but drew loud boos from other people in the theater.  Immediately after walking out of that one, I got in line for an afternoon screening of On the Road, which was terrible.  Because I had seen the atmosphere of the 60s so effortlessly recreated in Paperboy, though, I was able to immediately point out the complete lack of any time period in On the Road.

After seeing more movies in two weeks than I’ve seen in all of 2012 so far, here is my report card from the 65th Cannes Film Festival:

Amour (Michael Haneke)– This movie won the biggest award at the festival (the Palme d’Or), marking director Michael Haneke’s second win in four years.  It is, as many other critics have remarked, his most sincere and emotionally engaging film to date, telling the story of an elderly couple facing death as the woman suffers a series of increasingly crippling strokes.  Most of the movie is just these two in their apartment, with the occasional intrusion from their daughter.  Haneke structures the movie with almost no suspense (we’re shown that the woman dies at the beginning) so that what we’re left with is the story of love at the end of life.  It is a beautiful, deliberately paced movie that isn’t for everyone.  In fact, it’s a pretty good summation of why many Americans won’t watch foreign films.  Grade: B

Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)- By far the best movie I saw at Cannes this year.  No other movie completely transported an audience to a different world than this one.  It is the story of Hushpuppy (shockingly talented newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis), who lives on the nearly-deserted side of a levee in Louisiana.  She creates the idea that fantastical beasts are to blame for the increasingly disparate living conditions, though she also learns about global warming in school.  Director Benh Zeitlin blends the worlds of fantasy and reality seamlessly into one extraordinary vision, and together with a talented team of mostly newcomers creates what may just be the best movie of 2012.  Grade: A

Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg)- This was my most anticipated film of the festival, and while I enjoyed parts of it immensely, I was let down by the whole.  Cosmopolis tells the story of a wealthy billionaire venturing across the city in his limousine to get a haircut.  All of this happens amid an economic collapse that sees the world and his fortune going to hell.  David Cronenberg is one of the best and most underrated filmmakers working today, and last year’s A Dangerous Method is better proof of that.  He knows how to let the endless conversation in Cosmopolis breath, and as Eric (played by Robert Pattinson) becomes more and more unsettling, the movie gets better and better.  Pattinson’s uneven performance makes the largely one-on-one conversational structure of the movie dependent on whoever he’s talking to, though.  Grade: C+

In Another Country (Hong Sang-soo)- I walked into this film knowing nothing about it other than venerable French actress Isabelle Huppert starred in it, and it ended up being one of my favorite films of the festival.  Its lighthearted tone was a terrific break from the often morbid narratives that take root in much of the Competition films.  In Another Country is all about narratives; how they begin, and how they are perfected and changed so that they have the most impact.  It is about a woman who is writing a story, and what we see are three variations of that story with the same woman, named Anne (Huppert).  Characters go in and out with various degrees of importance in each story, and Anne’s role and worldview also change.  Though it is directed by a Korean man and stars a French woman, much of it is in English.  Despite this, it probably won’t find a large audience in the U.S. because of its decidedly weird narrative structure.  Grade: B

Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik)– A far cry away from the greatness of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, this latest collaboration between Brad Pitt and director Andrew Dominik is a pretentious, overly-violent American allegory.  Large segments of the movie are narrated by audio footage from the 2008 presidential election, as if to give some sort of meaning to Pitt’s mob enforcer going from place to place killing people responsible for a robbery.  Instead, it’s just an energetic exercise in futility that only occasionally hits its target.  Grade: C-

Lawless (John Hillcoat)- Another empty, violent movie meant to showcase American greed is this latest film from John Hillcoat.  Lawless takes place during Prohibition, which means that rampant violence and misogyny were commonplace.  It seems, though, that the movie was set during that time period simply to revel in those things instead of actually making a statement about them.  Though there is the occasionally well-done action sequence, the bloodshed soon becomes redundant.  Grade: D+

Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami)- After seeing the fantastic Certified Copy last year, I was excited for the latest venture from Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami.  Like Someone in Love is a slower, more somber depiction of misguided identity and has also been met with a much more divided critical reception.  While beautifully shot and acted, its mystery surrounding a Japanese call girl and an elderly client simply isn’t engaging enough to warrant a full-length feature.  The imagery is much more compelling than the conversations.  Grade: C

Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)- This year’s opening film was another entry in Wes Anderson’s dysfunctional family catalog.  Filled with a cast of disgruntled, mumbly characters, Anderson fills a tale of childhood love with beautiful imagery that is sorely lacking when it comes to narrative.  In telling a tale of childhood love, he continues his ideal that growing up does indeed suck, but he does it in a way that doesn’t really do anything new.  It is funny and at times poignant, and the acting is uniformly excellent, but it will likely underwhelm even his most arduous admirers.  Grade: C

Mud (Jeff Nichols)- Like Beasts of the Southern Wild, Jeff Nichols’ film succeeds in transporting us to the swampy rural environment of the American South.  Unlike that film, though, it tells a coming-of-age story that is much more straightforward and less nuanced.  With wonderful performances from Matthew McConaughey and child actor Tye Sheridan, Mud succeeds in engaging on an emotional level, which helps elevate the familiar story to make the audience actually care.  Grade: B-

On the Road (Walter Salles)- This was the only outright disaster I sat through during the festival.  In bringing Jack Kerouac’s stream-of-consciousness narrative to the screen, Walter Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera do little more than set up a slew of celebrity cameos for main characters Dean (a terrific Garrett Hedlund) and Sal (a forgettable Sam Riley) to smoke with.  It is beautifully shot, but this renders it more a series of sexually-charged postcards than an actual movie.  Grade: D

The Paperboy (Lee Daniels)- Lee Daniels’ follow-up to his much-discussed film Precious is likely to be even more divisive, and it will certainly have a difficult time finding a receptive audience in the U.S.  Despite flaunting a plethora of star actors (Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, John Cusack, Zac Efron), it is a decidedly weird and tonally rambunctious murder mystery set in 1960s Florida.  Filtered through the eyes of the James family’s black maid (Macy Gray), we are meant to see this world of privilege as mostly degenerate, incompetent outcasts.  It was certainly one of the most interesting films I saw at the festival, but many of the sequences, including one where Kidman urinates on Efron after he’s stung by jellyfish, were more obnoxious than engaging.  Grade: C+

Rust & Bone (Jacques Audiard)- Jacques Audiard’s latest was one of the most surprisingly beautiful films of the festival.  He gained critical acclaim for his gritty 2009 prison drama, A Prophet, and though this too is a tale of identity and rebirth, it is also a love story of sorts.  It centers on two contrasting archetypes and how they interact: someone disabled emotionally (Matthias Schoenaerts) and someone physically (Marion Cotillard).  They help each other grow and flourish, but the storytelling and acting are so uncompromising that the narrative staleness isn’t immanently noticeable.  The cinematography is also some of the best you’ll see all year.  Grade: B

The Taste of Money (Im Sang-soo)- Marketed as a sleek expose of Korea’s wealthiest family, The Taste of Money was ultimately just a beautifully filmed disappointment.  There’s nothing in this movie that you can’t find in many daytime soap operas, though the acting is decidedly better.  Instead of being layered and nuanced like you’d expect a film in Competition to be, though, it goes for shocks we’ve seen before and plot twists that go nowhere exciting.  Grade: D+