Selections prove uneven

First off, there weren’t any great films in Cannes this year. Not that there always are, but we always come here hoping that there may be one or two future classics in the bunch.

Still, this didn’t bother two veteran European critics with whom I compared notes and who expressed virtually identical perspectives on how valuable they consider Cannes to be, even in a middling year such as this. For them, it is enough if they see five or six films in the competition they consider rewarding. “Ninety percent of what I see week in, week out is absolute rubbish,” said my British colleague, “so to come here and see several strong films marks quite an improvement.”

Striking a similar note was my French friend, who observed, “Every year, no matter what, half of the year’s 10 best films come out of Cannes, and I imagine that will be true again this year.”

Whether it pans out that way or not, it’s been an oddly muted festival, with diminished crowds and nuttiness and hucksterism along the Croisette (despite a reported 20% increase in the number of press accreditations, due to the electronic media boom), no Spiegel-Arkoff-Salkind-Grade-Golan-Weinstein-style moguls dominating the town (do any big producers smoke cigars anymore?), no French protesters (except for a nun or two, the police one day) and no Michael Moore or Lars von Trier stirring the political pot either onscreen or in person.

By the time the consummately apolitical “Marie Antoinette” premiered Wednesday evening, followed by a supremely elegant soiree and superb fireworks, it felt like closing night.

In fact, one of the hallmarks of this year’s festival entries over those of recent seasons is a generally less blatant and ham-fisted treatment of politics in favor of working issues implicitly into the storylines.

Fine examples of this in the competition include Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Babel,” which makes telling points about the tendency of everyone — Westerners and Arabs alike — to jump to the conclusion that all trouble today is likely to be triggered by terrorists, as well as about the jumpy mood on the U.S.-Mexican border, but best of all captures the unease that pervades much of life today.

Another example is Ken Loach’s “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” which takes a nuanced look at the fracturing of the Republican movement in Ireland in 1920.

Producing more mixed results were Richard Linklater’s “Fast Food Nation,” whose welcome expose of the junk-food industry could have wielded a sharper knife; Lou Ye’s “Summer Palace,” the first Chinese feature to incorporate the events of Tiananmen Square into a dramatic context; and Rachid Bouchareb’s “Days of Glory,” which used conventional means to spotlight the second-rate treatment of North African troops fighting for France during World War II.

On the low end of the scale were Nanni Moretti’s “The Caiman,” a profoundly unrewarding and now even dated “comedy” about Berlusconi-ism in Italy and, last and least, Richard Kelly’s “Southland Tales,” a madly undisciplined fantasy about near-future civil strife whose handful of supporters, unable to defend it on artistic grounds, seemed to praise the pic specifically for its politics. Sorry, but just being contrarian is not enough.

American cinema got a pretty hard ride this year, which may have been at least as much the fault of fest selectors as of the filmmakers. For all the hoopla they created, “The Da Vinci Code” and “X-Men: The Last Stand” put the accomplishments of Big Hollywood in a bad light. At the other end of the spectrum, John Cameron Mitchell’s sexy “Shortbus” exhibited an enjoyably light-hearted impudence, and such varied and worthy fare as “United 93,” “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Sketches of Frank Gehry” were welcome, as was, as a fashion statement and talking point, “Marie Antoinette.”

Like “Fast Food Nation,” however, Linklater’s second Cannes entry, “A Scanner Darkly,” in Un Certain Regard, felt underachieved, less interesting visually than his previous rotoscoped animated feature, “Waking Life.” And you have to wonder what U.S. indies were rejected by the Directors Fortnight in favor of the three remarkably bad American features it chose to present: William Friedkin’s “Bug,” M. Blash’s “Lying” and Julian Goldberger’s Sundance dud “The Hawk Is Dying.”

The Fortnight, under yet another new regime this year, was a schizophrenic affair, with several entirely indefensible titles balanced by some surprises that ranked among the major hits of Cannes.

Foremost among the latter was Bong Jeon-ho’s Korean monster movie “The Host,” an unabashed genre item that provoked widespread comparison to “Jaws” and “Alien” in its scare-quotient and filmmaking expertise.

Also rating raves was Romanian helmer Corneliu Porumboiu’s sharp political comedy “12:08 East of Bucharest,” followed by Jean-Claude Brisseau’s self-reflective “Exterminating Angels,” Stefan Krohmer’s “Summer ’04 on the Banks of the Schlei” from Germany and Michel Ocelot’s animated “Azur and Asmar.”

Standing out among Un Certain Regard titles were Wang Chao’s “Luxury Car,” which many felt would have been a preferable Chinese competition entry to “Summer Palace”; Aussie vet Rolf de Heer’s “Ten Canoes”; Denis Dercourt’s “La tourneuse de pages” from France; Francisco Vargas’ “The Violin” from Mexico; Garin Nugroho’s “Serambi” from Indonesia; and parts of the French anthology “Paris, je t’aime.”

Overall, it’s a mellow Cannes in advance of a celebration of the fest’s 60th anniversary next May.

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