Cannes 2017: Best & Worst Films, Trends And Tunes

The Cannes Film Festival 2017 has wrapped, and the four-strong Playlist team have all returned to their respective corners of the planet. But just before we slip entirely back into the real world and catch up on everything we missed while away (it was certainly a glorious fortnight’s respite from politics), let’s run through our festival highs and lows, our personal experiences, and the trends and tunes that will forever mark Cannes 2017 for all its attendees.

You can catch up with any Cannes 2017 coverage you might have missed at this link.

Best Films
“120 Beats Per Minute” [our review]
We’ve seen docudramas about key moments in the gay civil-rights movement before, but for the most part those films have told stories from a U.S. or British perspective. Robin Campillo’s stylishly authentic account of the Paris chapter of ACT UP puts the spotlight on the French protesters whose actions went beyond those of their American brothers and sisters in the battle to speed up HIV treatment in the early 1990s. Campillo spends an extraordinary amount of time going over the minutiae of multiple chapter meetings (and perhaps it does eventually cross a line), but the result is a dynamic portrait of a group of people from different backgrounds simply fighting for their lives. The film also depicts one of the most heartbreaking gay relationships put on the screen thanks in part to a gut-punch of a performance from Nahuel Pérez Biscayart as a young man who slowly comes to terms with the possibility that the cure he’s killing himself for won’t come soon enough. — Gregory Ellwood

“Loveless” [our review]
If “The Return,” “Elena” and “Leviathan” didn’t make it clear already, “Loveless” makes it crystal: Andrey Zvyagintsev is the greatest Russian filmmaker working today. There is so much directorial control in his latest film about a vicious divorce and its consequences on a child that you’re in danger of paralysis from being so conscientiously magnetized to the screen during every single minute. Whether it’s the opening shots of bare trees reflected in icy waters, a conversation about parenting at the hairdresser’s, an awkward talk in a cafeteria while characters fight back gag reflexes, or the single most haunting shot to come out the Cannes Film Festival — a young boy’s reaction behind a door — “Loveless” will stitch you to the seat in awe at the masterful storytelling and fearfulness of the venomous hatred humans can inflict on their “loved” ones. The performances by Aleksey Rozin and Maryana Spivak, who play the soon-to-be-ex-husband and wife, are the stuff acting awards were made for, both actors playing repulsively selfish beings who still have enough traces of humanity to deserve our empathy. Once the story inconspicuously transitions from divorce drama to search-party tragedy, Zvyagintsev (in collaboration with co-writer Oleg Negin, cinematographer Mikhail Krichman and editor Anna Mass) pulls no punches in crafting a scrupulous, symbolic picture of a country in turmoil, a generation lost in cellphones, and the most damaging human condition of all: lovelessness. — Nikola Grozdanovic

“Okja” [our review]
One of the tricky things about film criticism, probably magnified in Cannes with its auteur-heavy lineup, is judging a film for what it is as opposed to what you expected it to be based on the director’s previous work. In some ways, Todd Haynes “Wonderstruck” and Michael Haneke’s “Happy End” were both victims of that phenomenon, and Bong Joon-Ho‘s “Okja” makes it three. It’s admittedly by far the most accessible Bong film to date, and he does keep his trademark genre-melding to a minimum, electing instead to pursue a relatively straight-ahead story of one girl and her pet superpig. But that doesn’t mean it’s not brimful of Bong details, deliberately loopy performances (from Tilda Swinton‘s image-obsessed CEO to Jake Gyllenhaal‘s divisively tic-laden villain) and weird asides, not to mention fabulous creature design and set pieces, such as when the titular GM food source careens through an underground shopping mall. “Okja” is by turns sweet, scathing, horrific and humorous, with spectacular visuals (that deserve a big screen, Netflix!) and a heart as big as its galumphing star. — Jessica Kiang

“The Killing Of A Sacred Deer” [our review]
It’s official: 2017 is the year Michael Haneke handed over his crown to new master of clinical European cinema Yorgos Lanthimos for his masterful “The Killing Of A Sacred Deer.” Surely the most polarizing film on the Croisette this year — and making the constant “What did you think?” conversations just a little more fun — ‘Sacred Deer’ inspires creeping dread with a mere mention. In an edition with numerous stellar performances by young actors, Barry Keoghan is perhaps the finest in his role of sinister interlocutor. While Colin Farrell is clearly an under-appreciated muse to Lanthimos (this being their second collaboration), and with Nicole Kidman giving perhaps the most impressive of her four Cannes appearances, it is Keoghan who most expertly navigates the deadpan acting style, taking ‘Sacred Deer’ out of neutral even for its naysayers. The true concept of the film is so delicious, unexpected and inexplicable, one can’t help but keep it secret in order to traumatize unsuspecting viewers. — Bradley Warren

You Were Never Really Here[our review]
Lynne Ramsay, what in the world have you conjured up in a mere 85 minutes? That’s not as rhetorical a question as it sounds, because of all the films in Cannes, it’s Ramsay’s “You Were Never Really Here” that, despite its length, is bound to linger in the mind longest while one probes and analyzes its immensity. Based on Jonathan Ames’ novel of the same name, and thematically related to violent films about volatile loners in big cities (“Taxi Driver,” “Drive,” “Nightcrawler,” etc.), the film still manages to stand far apart in its own league (as wonderfully expressed in Jessica’s glowing review). Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a war vet and ex-cop who’s lived through the horrors of this world and now roams the nights as a man for hire. He is a damaged angel, saving children from the most abominable type of cruelty, and in Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), he finds an unlikely kindred spirit. Ramsay and her editor Joe Bini redefine the art of editing in this picture, especially in the way they choose to show (and, more importantly, not show) the violence on screen. Johnny Greenwood’s sonorous, discordant score redefines the use of film music as a tool to reflect a character’s interior turmoil; and Phoenix’ gargantuan, minimalistic, physical performance defines an actor’s immersion into his story’s fold in a new light. Through it all, Ramsay manages to add new significance to the topic of on-screen gender representation by de-masculinizing a conventionally masculine world. “You Were Never Really Here” is so full of cinematic redefinitions, in fact, that during its short running time, you will feel like you were never really there for any other film as much as you’re so unnervingly there for this one. — Nikola Grozdanovic

“The Square” [our review]
Having the juries composed of filmmakers rather than critics is a pretty good way to ensure the awards are surprising: the attending press spend two weeks forming a consensus, which is then completely ignored by the awarding panel, to much outrage, delight and, of course, media coverage. But often the downside is that committee thinking prevails and the Palme goes to a film that no one objected to, rather than one that someone passionately championed (yes, we’re subtweeting “I, Daniel Blake” and “Dheepan“). But this year’s jury did us all a solid in that regard: while Ruben Östlund‘s “The Square” would not have been our own choice for the top honor, it’s still terrific — spiky, caustic, blackhearted and featuring a great central turn from the impossibly urbane Claes Bang. A satire on bourgeois values and art-world pretension, what’s so impressive about its win is that it beat odds-on favorite “120 Beats Per Minute,” a more straightforward, sincere and socially important film, for the Palme despite Jury President Pedro Almodóvar hinting strongly that Campillo’s AIDS-activism drama would have been his choice. It would have been a worthy, though slightly predictable, winner (the film is destined for big things anyway), while “The Square” feels like a more daring pick. Plus, it features a grunting Terry Notary pretending to be an ape and wreaking havoc on a benefit dinner: the instant-classic single scene of Cannes 2017. — Jessica Kiang

“The Florida Project” [our review]
Sean Baker’s follow up to the transcendent “Tangerine” transfers his gaze on the invisible homeless of Orlando, Florida’s now-dilapidated motel row. Moonee (Brooklynn Prince, remarkable) is a six-year-old girl whose playground is literally the stairwells, decks and picnic tables of one of those motels. While her single and unemployed mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite, impressive newcomer), struggles to pay the weekly rate through increasingly desperate means, Moonee and her friends still somehow experience the joy of childhood. They play hide-and-seek in the office of the angelic manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe, awards-worthy), who looks out for them when he simply doesn’t have to. But make no mistake: Baker depicts these non-permanent residences realistically. There is crime. There is conflict. But there is also love and a community of people who look out for each other. And despite the film’s heartbreaking finale, there’s an undercurrent of hope in these characters that will leave you breathless. — Gregory Ellwood

“Happy End” [our review]
For a Michael Haneke film, “Happy End” was coolly received by critics overall at the festival in which the Austrian formalist was the reigning Godhead (two Palmes for his last two consecutive films). Perhaps there were a lot of disappointed masochists let down by an experience that is more darkly pleasurable than despairingly punishing. This is Haneke observing the inevitable decay of the French haute bourgeoisie with a kind of deliciously justified irony — a slight grin underneath those white whiskers of his — rather than didactic finger-pointing. Yet his exquisitely austere filmmaking is still in evidence in all its impassive, enigmatic brilliance, and there are performances to be treasured, especially from the cast’s youngest and oldest members (newcomer Fantine Harduin and not-newcomer Jean-Louis Trintignant); as well as Franz Rogowski, whose athletic karaoke to Sia‘s “Chandelier” might be the most surprising scene of Haneke’s career; and of course, Isabelle Huppert, who does a thing with a look at the very end of the film that is both a miraculous acting moment and also very, very funny. Featuring most, if not all, of his recurring preoccupations, like many of Haneke’s films, there’s a definite undertow of doom, like we’re observing the end of the world as we know it, only this time out, we feel fine. — Jessica Kiang

“Jeune Femme” [our review]
Léonor Serraille’s “Jeune Femme” walked away with zilch from the Un Certain Regard awards ceremony, but deservedly won the festival’s Camera d’Or — the top prize handed to feature debuts. And what a strong, focused and furiously entertaining debut it is! Had it found its way to the main competition, Laetitia Dosch would have been a shoo-in for Best Actress (it was a weak year for that category). Her Paula is in nearly every frame and steals your heart like the smoothest criminal thanks to Dosch’s infectiously charming, heartbreaking, hilarious, near-transcendent performance. Following Paula as she rises from a homeless and emotionally battered woman to finding two jobs, meeting a new beau, and handling a pivotal moment in her young life with steely courage is like watching a red-headed phoenix rise from the urban ashes of life’s complications. Serraille’s screenplay zigs and zags with hilarious encounters, awkward faux pas, and devastating realizations, all while balancing the tone of drama and comedy like a writer-director who’s been in the business for decades. It’s a film that easily trumps half the prestigious Competition titles through its deftly energetic and economic pacing, sizzling central performance, and a range of dance scenes that not only feature a brilliant soundtrack but peel layers off Paula’s broken, yet impressively determined, nature. A free-spirited film about a free spirit you’ll likely never forget, “Jeune Femme” also heralds a bold new female director to watch. — Nikola Grozdanovic

The Rider“The Rider”
As the Official Selection’s up-and-comers program Un Certain Regard gets more forgettable with each edition, Cannes audiences look to the Director’s Fortnight (and Critic’s Week) to bring out the real gems. I was only able to catch Chloé Zhao’s sophomore effort “The Rider” late in the festival, yet it overshadowed almost everything beforehand with its winning combination of head and heart. Both the director and DP Joshua James Richards draw inspiration from iconic American cinema to craft their breathtaking portrait of a young cowboy at a crossroads, the filmmakers making John Ford vistas of their own. Challenging the assumption that women filmmakers are exclusively capable of crafting intimate stories about female experience, Zhao brings a nuanced perspective to gendered codes of behavior through soulful non-professional lead Brady Jandreau. “The Rider” shows us what a real man is: conflicted, tender and compassionate. — Bradley Warren

“Claire’s Camera” [our review]
After netting a Golden Leopard at Locarno and Best Actress at the Berlinale, prolific Korean director Hong Sang-soo once again leaves Cannes without hardware. And while black-and-white Competition title “The Day After” may have left the jury cold, Special Screening “Claire’s Camera” was appointment viewing for Cannes cinephiles. Featuring the meatier of the two Kim Minhee performances, “Claire’s Camera” and its meta rumination on Cannes itself is a brisk 69 minutes that swims in the mind, whether your thoughts are dissecting the theme of photography and its ability to capture reality, or you’re wondering if you once passed that resto-bar wandering the city’s back alleys. Even Isabelle Huppert humbly takes a backseat to Hong’s signature style and Kim’s movingly interior performance. It may not have received as much fanfare, but “Claire’s Camera” will certainly go down as one of the fest’s most loving 70th-anniversary gifts. — Bradley Warren

A Gentle Creature” [our review]
Looking at the oddly surprising award winners in retrospect, one of the strangest decisions Pedro Almodóvar’s jury made was shoehorning Sergei Loznitsa’s monumental “A Gentle Creature” out of any prizes. Of course, the relentless tale of a gentle woman’s odyssey into the labyrinthine, Kafkaesque pits of a Russian prison town was surely the toughest film to sit through, and its Buñuelian skid off dense realism towards the end most likely polarized the jury, but the staggering display of the kind of power cinema can yield is surely worth some kind of recognition. In the central role, Vasilina Makovtseva is heart-wrenchingly stoic and systematically ekes out every ounce of your sympathy but, as I’ve noted in my review, she is not Loznitsa’s main character. That role belongs to dirty, dehumanized and utterly doomed Mother Russia herself, which is characterized by its condensed population of degenerates, prostitutes and scumbags as the deep-freeze polar opposite of gentle. The Ukrainian director makes no qualms about his feelings towards the country in a move that can at once be considered daringly political and obsessively one-track-minded, but no film in competition (no, not even Haneke‘s or Zvyagintsev‘s) can compete with this film’s meticulously layered compositions and the immersive claustrophobia that absorbs you from head to toe in sweaty bus rides, spilled vodka and half-bitten pickles. That there is not a single drop of blood in it yet feels like the most violent film to come out of Cannes only speaks more highly to Loznitsa’s accomplishment. There’s simply nothing else like it. — Nikola Grozdanovic

“Good Time” [our review]
If there was one scheduling issue that did a slight disservice to an otherwise terrific film, it was probably the decision to screen both genre-inflected competition titles, Josh and Benny Safdie‘s “Good Time” and Lynne Ramsay‘s “You Were Never Really Here” so close together at the very end of the festival. Those last few slots do not have the pejorative association they might have once (a lot due to Paul Verhoeven‘s “Elle” playing late and being one of the biggest hits of last year’s lineup), but amid a fair few grueling, austere, clinical films, it might have been better to spread out the Good Times a little more. Whatever the case, the film was a welcome jolt of late-fest energy that reconfirms the Safdie brothers’ talents: although their indie credentials and their attraction to stories of New York City lowlife (their excellent last film, “Heaven Knows What,” was about junkies) could easily pigeonhole them as hipster filmmakers, they have a rigor and sincerity to their inventive filmmaking that elevates their storytelling completely. Also giving us the first Robert Pattinson lead role that actually lives up the hype the actor has always generated (he truly arrives with this film), and some typically excellent Sean Price Williams cinematography, “Good Time” is a high-water mark in the botched-heist and one-crazy-night genres, yet it also boasts a surprisingly gentle and melancholic heart. — Jessica Kiang

Honorable mentions: Todd Haynes‘ gentle YA fable “Wonderstruck,” Agnès Varda‘s delightful “Faces Places,” François Ozon‘s silly and sexy L’Amant Double,” Hong Sang-soo‘s Competition title “The Day After,” Rungano Nyoni‘s Directors’ Fortnight breakout “I Am Not A Witch,” Jonas Carpignano‘s “A Ciambra,” Laurent Cantet‘s “The Workshop” in Un Certain Regard, and Sofia Coppola‘s Best Director-winning “The Beguiled.”

You can catch up with any Cannes 2017 coverage you might have missed at this link.