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The Conversation: The Best of Cannes 2019

The Conversation: The Best of Cannes 2019

Zombies. The Undead. Reincarnation. These were some of the central themes and motifs displayed throughout an alarming amount of films in the 2019 official Cannes Program, a precedent which started with its opening film, Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die. Likewise, Mati Diop’s Atlantique. And then, the Director’s Fortnight thought it fitting to premiere something like Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child alongside Alice Furtado’s debut Sick, Sick, Sick. Critics’ Week contemplated similar issues with Heroes Don’t Die. On paper, the 2019 program held much promise—however, masterworks (the notion of a ‘masterpiece’ has taken on a lugubrious exaggeration) have been few and far between. Members of the Old Guard presented well-made, hopelessly self-involved re-hashes of familiar craftsmanship (Almodóvar, Malick), while some celebrated newer invites to the main comp benefitted from the desire to spot anything remotely deliberate and anoint it with immediate, indubitable acclaim (such as Sciamma’s handsomely attenuated lesbian period piece, Portrait of a Girl on Fire).

Many offerings were a mixed bag, offering highlights (like the Roschdy Zem/Sara Forestier performances in Desplechin’s Oh Mercy!; Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood) in films which were difficult to be excited about as a whole. In fact, some of the more divisive offerings (Dolan, Kechiche) at least had an audacity which required some kind of thoughtful response from the press choir, indicating a notable discord between European and English language journalists.

The Alejandro G. Iñárritu led jury surprised with their doling out of awards, usually the most disappointing moments of every Cannes Film Festival (though nothing beats the travesty of George Miller’s 2016 run in recent memory). Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (making him the first South Korean to win the Palme d’Or) triumphed over the other critically touted titles, such as Almodóvar (which took home a Best Actor award for Antonio Banderas) and Sciamma (which won Best Screenplay). Three of the four competing women directors took home something, including a surprise Best Actress win for Emily Beecham in Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe (other strong contenders had been Adele Haenel, Sara Forestier and Debbie Honeywood of Loach’s Sorry We Missed You) and the Grand Prix for Mati Diop with her debut Atlantique.

And while Bacurau received the Jury Prize, it unfortunately had to be tied with Ladj Ly’s well-intentioned but contrived Les Misérables (a film similar in scope and tone to Maiwenn’s 2011 Polisse, which took home the same prize that year). Elia Sulieman received a Special Mention for his It Must Be Heaven, a droll comedy riffing on Tati and Roy Andersson which ends up being a bit overt and, ultimately, a patronizing film. The Dardenne Bros. took home Best Director for their more divisive The Young Ahmed. Of all the competition titles which went home empty-handed (including new films from Malick, Tarantino, Porumboiu, Loach, etc.), Marco Bellocchio’s highly enjoyable The Traitor stands out as the only real strong showing left completely out in the cold.

Discord among the Un Certain Regard jury seemed more evident, judging from the many awards and mentions doled out by Nadine Labaki’s jury, which also included directors Lukas Dhont and Lisandro Alonso. Bruno Dumont received a special mention for Jeanne—but by some amazing feat, the sidebar’s other strongest, boldest offering also received distinction, including a Special Jury Prize for Albert Serra’s daring Liberté and a Jury Prize for Oliver Laxe’s Fire Will Come. Brazil’s Karim Aïnouz took home the top prize for the well-made melodrama The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão. The only real complaint amongst the many UCR awards was a tied Coup de Coeur Du Jury prize for Michael Angelo Covino’s The Climb and Monia Chakri’s debut, A Brother’s Love. And, Kantemir Balagov won Best Director here for stellar sophomore film Beanpole (which should have been in the main competition).

While ultimately a lukewarm year, the program as a whole offered several notable items, and here’s a glance at my favorite offerings of the fest (with special mentions to stellar lead performances from Wu Ke-Xi in Midi Z’s Nina Wu and Chiara Mastroianni in Christophe Honore’s On a Magical Night (Chambre 212), who was awarded Best Performer in UCR.

#1. Bacurau – Dir. Kleber Mendonca Filho & Juliano Dornelles (Brazil) – Main Competition
#2. Beanpole – Dir. Kantemir Balagov (Russia) – Un Certain Regard
#3. Liberté – Dir. Albert Serra (France/Spain) – Un Certain Regard
#4. The Traitor – Dir. Marco Bellocchio (Italy) – Main Competition
#5. Lux Aeterna – Dir. Gaspar Noe (France) – Midnight
#6. The Lighthouse – Dir. Robert Eggers (US) – Director’s Fortnight
#7. A White, White Day – Dir. Hlynur Palmason (Iceland) – Critics’ Week
#8. First Love – Dir. Takashi Miike (Japan) -Director’s Fortnight
#9. Parasite – Dir. Bong Joon-ho (South Korea) – Main Competition
#10. Zombi Child – Dir. Bertrand Bonello (France) – Director’s Fortnight

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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