Village Voice Media's Picks From the Strongest Cannes Film Festival in Years

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Not a Film is something more--a historical document and a courageous

moral statement.

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

spooky Manson family gloss Martha Marcy May Marlene. Like I said, it was

an excellent festival.

-- J. Hoberman

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