Variety crix debate whether U.S. pics lived up to potential, what titles stood out

Variety’s senior film critics, Justin Chang and Peter Debruge, discuss divisive movies, originals vs. adaptations, and what the jury got right and wrong at the 65th Cannes Film Festival.

Justin Chang: Going into the Cannes Film Festival, the programmers’ decision to slot five U.S. films in competition struck me as something of a statement, attesting to a vital and hopeful future for American cinema. Deliberately or not, the Nanni Moretti-led jury sent an equally strong statement Sunday night: not good enough. I’m neither surprised nor especially bothered that the jury didn’t much go for “Killing Them Softly,” “Lawless” or the clunker of the competition, “The Paperboy,” but I do wish they’d looked closer at Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” and Jeff Nichols’ “Mud,” both of which conceal deep emotional reserves beneath their respectively arch and conventional surfaces.

Peter Debruge: “Mud” was also one of my favorites of a strong, if not exactly stellar, Cannes. Jeff Nichols’ third feature arrives already feeling like a classic, partly because it echoes “Huckleberry Finn,” but also because it so elegantly addresses what masculinity and family really mean in the heartland. The film would make an excellent bill with Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which added a Camera d’Or to its Sundance grand jury prize. Taken together, these two films use a fading way of life on the Mississippi River as a mythic backdrop for stories in which old values struggle against stronger modern forces in the world.

JC: It’s telling that both those films, as well as “Moonrise Kingdom,” are original scripts, unlike the other English-language selections in competition. Nothing against adaptations, but again and again Cannes reminded me of the freedom a filmmaker can have when (s)he isn’t trying to tame someone else’s vision into cinematic submission. Certainly there was no more inspiring mascot for the vitality of cinema as its own medium than Leos Carax’s gloriously original “Holy Motors,” whose failure to win anything suggests a very divided or very unimaginative jury. No less than Michael Haneke’s exceptional Palme d’Or winner, “Amour,” Carax’s uncategorizable oddity reveals the full extent of what movies at their best can do.

PD: At their best, movies make you feel, and I’m not sure “Holy Motors,” sui generis though it is, was much concerned with the hypothetical “end user.” Cannes is nothing if not a shrine to auteur cinema, and like Carlos Reygadas’ impenetrably personal “Post tenebras lux,” “Holy Motors” undoubtedly represents its director’s singular vision, but both films left me somewhat cold. “Amour,” by contrast, applies Haneke’s masterful style to a universally accessible, deeply felt love story. Its equivalent in Un Certain Regard was “Our Children,” in which major young talent Joachim Lafosse embraced a more populist, yet still laser-precise style to convey an equally moving family tragedy.

JC: I dig “universally accessible” as much as the next moviegoer, but I take issue with the idea that “Holy Motors” belongs in some sort of obscurantist ghetto with “Post tenebras lux” (which I quite liked, impenetrability and all). Carax isn’t (just) being weird for weird’s sake; he’s lamenting the state of filmmaking in a digital era that increasingly views actors and celluloid as expendable commodities. Surreal as the film is, its thematic coherence is astounding, and it’s so sincere, so infused with love for the Hollywood genres it pays tribute to, that a second viewing had me in tears. It is, in short, a movie to be seen by the biggest audience possible, not just the critics whose support will be necessary to get it in front of them to begin with.

PD: Second viewings are a luxury at Cannes, as is giving oneself time to digest such passionately personal work before scurrying off to the fifth movie of the day. I look forward to sharing “Holy Motors'” surreal limo ride again at full capacity; the same goes for Abbas Kiarostami’s enigmatic “Like Someone in Love.” As knee-jerk reactions go, my system rejected the latest from Cronenberg pere et fils: David’s skin-crawling “Cosmopolis” and his son Brandon’s hypodermically unnerving “Antiviral.” I found great humor and humanism down the Croisette in Directors’ Fortnight, where Michel Gondry’s “The We and the I” and Pablo Larrain’s “No” were highlights.

JC: The Directors’ Fortnight sidebar seems to have enjoyed a significant resurgence this year under the new direction of Edouard Waintrop. Critics’ Week, also under new management (by Charles Tesson), seems to have had a good year as well with such well-received debut pictures as Antonio Mendez Esparza’s “Here and There” and Meni Yaesh’s “God’s Neighbors.” It’s a reminder that there’s a lot of fine cinema happening beyond the flashbulbs and sky-high expectations of the official selection.

PD: I never made it to Critics’ Week this year, but respect what it stands for, since the official selection was so crowded with familiar names — not only Haneke, but also Grand Prix winner Matteo Garrone and “Beyond the Hills” helmer Cristian Mungiu, have been previously blessed by Cannes. Still, it’s great to see the masters in top form, especially Garrone, whose “Reality,” my fave of the fest, comments on the fantasy of being discovered by reality TV. In the movie, fame doesn’t come easy, while art — well, the films that moved us at Cannes remind just how precious and rare that can be.

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