The following review was provided by Village Voice Media critic J. Hoberman, who was in Cannes for the festival.
The last day screening of Nuri Bilge Ceylan's ruminative, challenging Once Upon a Time in Anatolia strengthened an exceptionally ambitious and coherent competition at this year's Cannes Film Festival--although Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life won the Palme d'Or, Ceylan's late entry shared the second place Prix du Jury with the Dardenne brothers' The Kid With a Bike.
Cannes 2011 yielded more exceptional movies than any edition I've attended since 2007. The festival benefited from a return to form by a number of established favorites--not just Ceylan and the Dardennes, but Bruno Dumont, Aki Kaurismäki, and Lars Von Trier--as well as the continued vitality of Latin American cinema. I had no difficulty pulling together a list of 10 exceptional movies from the 35 that I saw--and regret having to omit another half-dozen.
1. Made under house arrest by an Iranian filmmaker banned for 20 years
from making films (or giving interviews), Jafar Panahi's home-movie
essay This Is Not a Film, put together with the help of Mojtaba
Mirtahmasb (and in some sequences, a cell phone), more than lived up to
its ironic title. Confined to his apartment, Panahi takes phone calls
from his lawyer, explicates scenes from his earlier movies, tends to his
daughter's humongous pet iguana, watches stricken Japan on TV, and
riffs with a young building superintendent who may or may not have been
sent to report on him. All the while, New Year's fireworks are exploding
in the streets. As precisely tuned as it is affectingly modest, This Is
Not a Film is something more--a historical document and a courageous
2. Upstaged by its creator's compulsive buffoonery, Lars Von Trier's
Melancholia is his finest film in the eight years since Dogville. A
disaster film, featuring two disasters: The frenzied first half is
devoted to the appalling disintegration of a storybook wedding; the
startlingly calm aftermath has the bride (Kirsten Dunst), her sister
(Charlotte Gainsbourg), her brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland), and
their young child waiting for the mystery planet Melancholia--a mere
speck of light when the movie opens--to collide with Earth. It's Ibsen as
3. Another meditation on the inscrutable cosmos, Once Upon a Time in
Anatolia has Turkey's finest filmmaker rebounding from the arty
mediocrity of his previous Three Monkeys (2006) to confirm his
international status with an impressive, bleakly comic epistemological
treatment of a police investigation conducted in the dark emptiness of
the Anatolian night. Ceylan seems to have taken a long look at two
Romanian films--Aurora and Police, Adjective--but the pyrotechnics are his
own. Anatolia included my favorite shot of the festival: An apple falls
from a tree, rolls down a hill, plops into a stream and is carried off
by the current, until it's not.
4. As bang-bang as its title, Gerardo Naranjo's third feature Miss
Bala (Miss Bullet) is at once an example of virtuoso action filmmaking,
an impassioned response to the collapse of civil order in northern
Mexico and a horrific Alice in Wonderland in which an aspiring beauty
queen, the new Miss Baja (model Stephanie Sigman), becomes an unwitting
pawn in the international drug trade, as well as a metaphor for her
5. Cannes 2011's greatest comeback was Aki Kaurismäki's warm-hearted
comedy of international working-class solidarity, Le Havre, made in the
French port city with a mixed Finnish-French-Senegalese cast. This
utopian evocation of Europe's refugee problem brilliantly expresses the
director's pessimism by showing everything as it is not. "Even the
loveliest dream bears like a blemish its difference from reality, the
awareness that what it grants is mere illusion," Theodor Adorno wrote of
Kafka's America--a book pointedly cited in the movie.
6. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne do what only they can with The Kid
With a Bike, a gritty, stripped-down action meditation on redemption and
grace, in which a pinch-faced throwaway kid--single-minded, unlovable,
their most remarkable protagonist since Rosetta--struggles to find his
place in the world.
7. Footnote, Joseph Cedar's Talmudic tale of Talmud scholars, father
and son, competing for the Israel Prize, is another sort of parable--a
Kafka story that could have been played out in 18th-century Vilna or
1930s Hollywood. If immersing oneself in the history of the Jews is the
essence of Jewish religion, this profoundly ironic, dryly absurdist
burlesque is the most Jewish movie I've ever seen in Cannes. Fittingly,
it won the prize for best screenplay.
8. Closely adapted from Alejandro Zambra's 2006 cult novella,
Chilean director Cristián Jiménez's Bonsái (shown, like Miss Bala, in
the fest's "Un Certain Regard" section), is the essence of cosmopolitan
provincialism--a superbly grounded, meta-literary tragicomedy of
student-boho life. Deadpan exchanges, shabby locations, and a lively
indie-rock score by the Franco-Chilean band Pánico accentuate the
poignancy of Santiago's distance from Paris: Life Is Elsewhere (but
cinema is not).
9. Shown as part of the International Critics' Week, Pablo
Giorgelli's Las Acacias is a quiet tour de force. Like more than a few
young Argentine films, this minimalist road movie is shot
situation-documentary-style. The camera rides with a taciturn truck
driver as he hauls a load of timber--and a woman with her infant
child--from Paraguay to Buenos Aires. It's part pilgrimage, part love
story (or the idea of one) and the deserved winner of the festival's
Caméra d'Or for best first film.
10. Bruno Dumont ran off the rails so long ago that I thought this
theologically minded Bressonian brutalist would never return to the
bizarre vérité mysticism of The Life of Jesus (1997) or L'Humanité
(1999). Thus Hors Satan (imperfectly translated as "Outside Satan"),
shown in UCR, was a mild revelation. Two non-actors with a matching
absence of affect and complementary hairstyles--his slicked back, hers
spiked up--tramp silently around the beautifully photographed dunes and
marshes of northwest Normandy, engaging in strange rituals and
precipitating peculiar outbreaks (including one of Dumont's trademark
sex acts). It's a Stone Age tale, ascetic, enigmatic, and intermittently
Also noted with pleasure: Markus Schleizner's audience mind-fuck
Michael, Michel Hazanavicius's silent movie pastiche The Artist, Nicolas
Winding Refn's spaghetti-HK-'80s mash-up Drive, Hong Sang-soo's The Day
He Arrives (not just the same movie he always makes, but a movie about
making that same movie), Takashi Miike's well-conceptualized but poorly
realized (or projected) 3-D samurai flick Ichimei, and Sean Durkin's
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spooky Manson family gloss Martha Marcy May Marlene. Like I said, it was
an excellent festival.
-- J. Hoberman