cannes 2019

Our 15 Favorite Movies From Cannes Film Festival 2019

Photo: Iris Productions

This year’s Cannes Film Festival started a bit slowly, with some excellent, important, but relatively low profile films … and then basically lost its mind. There was a shocking new Quentin Tarantino movie, and then a predictably nutty press conference. There were competing standing ovations, each trying to be one minute longer than the previous. There were several masterpieces, some disappointments, and one straight-up pseudo-pornographic catastrophe that had the director apologizing and many viewers enraged. Here are our choices for the best films at the festival:

There’s no better feeling than walking into a movie and realizing, halfway through, that you have absolutely no idea where it’s going to go. That’s what happened to me during Atlantics, which begins as a tragic story about a young Senegalese woman named Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), who’s arranged to marry a rich fuckboi but is madly in love with a poor construction worker, Sulieman. Early on in the film, Sulieman and the rest of the men in the village take to the sea on a dangerous voyage searching for better work opportunities, and when their boat is discovered without any survivors, Ada is devastated. At first, it seems like the movie might play out rather predictably from here — but instead, a mysterious fever settles over Ada’s suburb, and her friends claim they’ve seen Sulieman wandering around town. I won’t spoil the surprises, but suffice to say that Atlantics is a beautiful, unsettling, completely surreal story — made even more exciting by the fact that it’s the feature debut of Mati Diop, the first black female filmmaker at Cannes. — Rachel Handler

The Lighthouse
Robert Pattinson gives us full “Jack Nicholson in The-Shining” in The Lighthouse, the much-anticipated follow up to The Witch from writer-director Robert Eggers. When we first meet his character, he’s resigned himself to four weeks of seaside drudgery, helping lighthouse keeper (or “wickie,” as he calls himself) Willem Dafoe with the more mundane tasks at hand: cleaning the latrines, scrubbing the floors, carrying wheelbarrows of coal back and forth in salty storms. But the damp and the slog soon start getting to Pattison, and he starts to lose his mind. He murders a seagull. He screams about wanting a steak so badly he “would fuck it.” He masturbates furiously to a mermaid figurine. And somehow, things get much, much weirder from there. The Lighthouse, filmed in black and white on 35mm, is an instant classic — a disturbing, darkly comic delight. — RH

Pain and Glory
Pedro Almodóvar gets extremely personal in Pain and Glory, a beautiful, baldly autobiographical look at his own past. Antonio Banderas plays Salva, a clear Almodóvar avatar who lives in an exact replica of Almodóvar’s apartment, wears Almodóvar’s clothes, and sports his signature shock of hair. When we meet Salva, a filmmaker in the throes of several health crises, he’s lingering on his regrets: he mourns the long-ago ending of his first gay relationship, he can’t stop thinking about the life and death of his mother (Penelope Cruz), and he’s quite suddenly decided to start doing heroin. Almodóvar gently transitions between Salva’s past and his present, with quietly moving vignettes of Cruz and a young Salva struggling to acclimate themselves to an underground home in a new village giving way to present-day scenes of Salva falling deeper and deeper into the recesses of his own mind. The film is something of a departure for Almodovar: softer, subtler, more reflective. It’s also one of his best. — RH

Que Sea Ley
It’s hard to say that Que Sea Ley was one of my “favorite” films at Cannes, when in fact, it was one of the most devastating cinematic experiences I’ve ever had. But that speaks to its profound power. The documentary follows the fight in Argentina for safe, legal, and free abortions, beginning in early 2018, just as the country’s House passed a measure to legalize abortion, which was, for decades, illegal and punishable by prison time for both women and their doctors, except in rare cases. For a bill to become a law in Argentina, the Senate must also approve the bill; Solanos’s film follows the months of hearings that preceded the Senate vote, where doctors, officers of the church, rape survivors, and politicians alike take the stand to share their take on the debate. Between scenes from the House debate, director Juan Solanos trains his camera on the women of Argentina: women who’ve barely survived clandestine abortions, women who were mocked and mistreated by doctors after suffering complications from the procedure — and, most horrifyingly, the families of women who didn’t survive, weeping about how they were robbed of their loved one. I’ve never cried harder in a theater. Que Sea Ley is a harrowing but important watch that should be required viewing for anyone who’s ever questioned a woman’s right to make choices about her own body. — RH

What is Bacurau? In the festival’s opening days, buzz swirled around this Brazilian competition title. Was it a horror film? A Western? And what was its name again? (I heard it called “Baracao” more than once.) Things do not get much clearer once the lights go down. We’re in the titular Brazilian village, a few years into the future, as crazy shit starts happening. The highway is littered with broken coffins. Horses stampede down the main drag. A greasy politician arrives bearing gifts the villagers would be wise to ignore. Cell phones stop working. Eventually, the town disappears from Google Maps. Directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles (Filho’s longtime production designer) slowly reveal what they’re up to — it turns out we’re in a dystopian satire about Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro — but it’s hard to beat the tessellating surreality of the first hour, where the movie seems liable to veer off into every single genre imaginable. It’s a master-class in worldbuilding from a filmmaker previously known for smaller, domestic dramas. — Nate Jones

Sorry We Missed You
Given that he’s an octogenarian who makes social-realist dramas about Britain’s working class, Ken Loach is not traditionally considered a horror filmmaker. And yet, with Sorry We Missed You, Uncle Ken’s take on the exploitation and indignity of the gig economy, it may be time to consider his debt to the genre. As in slasher films, his heroes make one mistake — here, signing up to make deliveries for a package service whose drivers are legally considered subcontractors — and find themselves haunted by a cruel, unforgiving villain. As a manager explains to Ricky (Kris Hitchen) that he’ll be able to set his own hours, be his own boss, and not be tied down by the usual protections of an employer-employee relationship, you want to scream at him, No, don’t go in there! That Ricky and his family are being assailed by capitalism, not a knife-wielding murderer, ultimately makes little difference: Either way, any false step means their doom. Complaining that Loach’s characters are constantly being tormented by a faceless, inhumane system (his last film, the Palme d’Or-winning I, Daniel Blake made similar points about the fraying social safety net) seems as pointless as carping about why there are so many serial killers at Camp Crystal Lake. That’s the genre! — NJ

Little Joe
Plants — do you know what they’re up to? Austrian filmmaker Jessica Hausner has an idea, and it’s not good. In this exquisitely aestheticized creepfest, frigid plant scientist Alice (Emily Beecham) has developed a new strain of flower whose scent spurs a rush of happy hormones in the brain if you take care of it. Only two problems: (1) Since the plant is sterile, it’s found other methods of propagating itself, and (2) Alice has just brought one home as a present for her neglected son, Joe (the flower itself is dubbed “Little Joe”), with … well not quite adverse effects on the boy, but effects nonetheless. Is it a metaphor for motherhood? Antidepressants? Both? Critics have not been shy about breaking out the Black Mirror and Invasion of the Body Snatchers comparisons, but Little Joe’s chilly humor, inimitable color palette, and unconventional sensibilities are more than enough to set it apart from its forebears. Those of us who’ve never quite trusted plants can take pleasure in our vindication. — NJ

The Wild Goose Lake
A criminal on the lam. The hooker with a heart of gold who helps him escape. The tenacious police captain and backstabbing gangsters after them both. Diao Yinan’s Chinese neo-noir doesn’t so much revamp tropes as it strips them down to their component parts. After an intra-gang dispute leads to capo Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) accidentally killing a cop, he hightails it up to the titular lake, where he enlists the aid of “bathing beauty” Ai’ai (Gwei Lun-mei) in getting the reward money for his capture to his estranged wife. Noir has always been more about style than originality, and Diao infuses every scene with his utmost: There are rain-soaked train stations and lurid neon cityscapes, genius cutaways that had me laughing out loud, and some of the festival’s most gorgeously composed shots. Plus, the most audacious use of everyday objects as murder weapons since John Wick. Few movies at Cannes were more fun to watch — no wonder Tarantino (whose surprise appearance at the premiere made headlines) wanted to see it. — NJ

The Climb
Cannes is not necessarily the place you expect to find the next great American indie comedy. We have two other festivals for that, and besides, when it comes to U.S. efforts Cannes tends to prefer downbeat naturalistic dramas. But the film’s presence in this year’s Un Certain Regard slate was only the first surprise of The Climb. There’s also the shocking reveal of the movie’s opening minutes, as Mike (director Michael Angelo Covino) chooses a bike trip through the French Alps to reveal he’s been sleeping with best friend Kyle (co-writer Kyle Marvin)’s fiance. There’s the dawning realization that the entire conversation is playing out in one long take. Then every other scene in the movie turns out to be a single take, too, following the guys’ relationship through a funeral, a wedding, a bachelor party, two major holidays, and a hilariously uncomfortable ski trip that had the Cannes audience laughing and gasping in equal measure. It’s not only a thrilling technical achievement, but also a genuinely moving story of friendship and maturity. The Croisette never saw it coming. — NJ

Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho’s nerve-racking masterpiece is an ostensibly symbolic tale of class and grift that becomes sadder, stranger, and even more demented as it proceeds. In telling the story of an impoverished family that insinuates itself into the lives of a far wealthier family, the director mixes allegory and humanism while working a longer, subtler game: He never forsakes his characters’ emotional through lines, so even their strangest, most catastrophic actions feel grounded in psychological reality. Meanwhile, he uses all the narrative and stylistic tricks in his playbook, mixing and matching black comedy and suspense, pointed symbolism and soul-crushing violence, to show how a world built on aspiration, expectation, and need keeps forcing us to change. He’s created a work that is itself in a state of constant, agitated transformation; you keep expecting the film to turn into one thing, but it keeps turning into something else. It mutates, like a real parasite trying to hang on to its host. — Bilge Ebiri

A Hidden Life
With this story of an Austrian farmer who refused to pledge loyalty to Adolf Hitler, Terrence Malick delivers what might be his most narratively-inclined film in years, as well as a surprisingly politically-inflected work. Although the movie opens with images from Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi agitprop documentary Triumph of the Will, Malick is less interested in the specifics of the period and more in exploring the conscience of a man who couldn’t reconcile his simple faith with the growing evil around him. The director remains unsurpassed in his ability to gauge the emotional valence of his imagery: a simple, seemingly happy shot of a family at play can strike the subtlest note of menace; a lone bicyclist disappearing into the horizon can portend deep melancholy. That ability lies at the heart of his collage-like style: He puts together fragments and glances and gestures and fleeting sights to create a sense of his characters’ interiority. Get on his wavelength and this movie will ruin you. — BE

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
A sprawling, dreamy re-creation of a moment in time when both Hollywood and America were changing irrevocably, Quentin Tarantino’s alt-Manson movie evokes the different textures and vernaculars of the director’s obsessions: classic and not-so-classic TV shows, dead-end Westerns and cop dramas, fast-talking showbiz backroom blather, the assorted psychedelia of the 1960s. It’s the most fun the director seems to have had in years, but it’s also, oddly, his most compassionate picture in more than a decade. There’s a lilting sadness at its heart, perfectly encapsulated by the way it intercuts between the world of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a leading man whose time has passed, and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a happening startlet for whom everything feels fresh and new. Meanwhile, as Rick’s loyal body double and best friend, Brad Pitt cuts a compellingly laconic figure. — BE

Portrait of a Young Girl on Fire
Céline Sciamma’s period romance about a young female artist who arrives on a desolate island in order to secretly paint the portrait of a headstrong woman — so that a prospective fiancée in Milan can see what this woman looks like — starts off as an austere, somewhat schematic deconstruction of the idea of gazes and representation. But then, love gets in the way, and the film starts to unravel before our eyes in the best possible way. As Heloise, the woman being painted, who of course winds up turning the tables on the eyes looking at her, the great Adèle Haenel is mysterious, melancholy, and ultimately rapturous. The film’s stunning final shot contains some of the best acting you’ll see in this or any other year. — BE

It Must Be Heaven
Palestinian director Elia Suleiman, playing a variation on himself, leaves his home in Nazareth for exile in Paris and New York, and discovers a world whose absurdities aren’t all that different from the one he left behind. Americans armed to the teeth; Parisians so in a rush that everybody seems to be on a Segway, bicycle, or even electrified wheelchair; a world where the chasm between wealth and poverty is so massive as to be ridiculous. Suleiman employs a style perched between deadpan bemusement and gentle slapstick — he choreographs his scenes precisely, and brilliantly — but also with a subtle sense of despair running through his comedy. In the end, the movie winds up being about a man falling back in love with his devastated homeland. — BE

The Unknown Saint
A thief on the run from the cops finds himself in a desolate stretch of nowhere, and digs a fake grave atop a hill to stash his loot. After years in prison, he returns to the site to claim his money — and discovers that a shrine has been built to the unknown saint buried there, and a whole town now stretches around it. Playing in the Critics’ Week section, this debut feature from Moroccan filmmaker Alaa Eddine Aljem starts off like a droll caper flick, and gradually becomes a tender comedy about home, identity, family, and belonging. — BE

Our 15 Favorite Movies From Cannes Film Festival 2019