Cannes: 21 Films That Stood Out at the 2015 Festival

Variety critics Scott Foundas, Justin Chang, Peter Debruge, Guy Lodge, Jay Weissberg and Maggie Lee weighed in with their choices for the 21 best films at this year’s Cannes Film Festival (listed in alphabetical order):

1. “Amy.” British director Asif Kapadia followed up his 2010 “Senna” with this even more daring and revealing portrait of the brilliant but tragic jazz diva Amy Winehouse. Drawing on a wealth of professional and user-generated video, Kapadia again eschews the usual talking-heads interview format to keep WInehouse front and center for two harrowing hours, during which we come to understand how thoroughly the troubled singer lived her life under the camera’s relentless and unforgiving gaze. The result is an unforgettable portrait of the cult of celebrity in the iPhone era. (Scott Foundas)

2. “Arabian Nights.” Even this year’s most impressive competition films couldn’t match Portuguese auteur Miguel Gomes’ magnum opus for brazen ambition and conceptual heft. Screened in three parts across one week in Directors’ Fortnight, this six-hour allegorical meditation on the current European economic crisis bristled with invention, ribald wit and flashes of heated fury. Knotting stories of ghost dogs, mermaids and laid-off shipyard workers into one vast tapestry, Gomes made one of the festival’s most daunting-looking pics into one of its most unpredictably entertaining. (Guy Lodge)

3. “The Assassin.” While viewers were rightly mesmerized by the film’s ravishing visuals and exquisite period details, most have overlooked Hou Hsiao-hsien’s subtle and timely political allegory on the uneasy yet symbiotic relationship between Taiwan and China, obliquely yet poignantly evoking the conflicting loyalties and sense of estrangement felt by Taiwan’s settlers and their homegrown offspring. (Maggie Lee)

4. “Carol.” The jury may have fobbed it off with half a best actress award (for half its exemplary star duo, to add insult to injury), but Todd Haynes’ tender take on Patricia Highsmith’s lesbian romance ranks among the director’s most immaculate achievements: Though it’s composed and constructed with metric precision, a raw, reckless heart beats fast beneath its exquisite wintry surface. It also takes an immediate place in the canon of great melancholy Christmas films; one hopes and expects that American awards bodies will give generously in the holiday season. (G.L.)

5. “Cemetery of Splendor.” As familiar as home and as mysterious as a dream, the lush and hypnotic world of Apichatpong Weerasethakul — let’s call it Joeburg — is a place to which I always long to return. His latest film, a melancholy melding of the personal and the political, is a calmer, gentler thing than his previous films, yet it’s no less remarkable in its ability to find a strange, otherworldly magic in the everyday. (Justin Chang)

6. “Disorder.” A drum-tight home-invasion thriller fiercely anchored by the increasingly ubiquitous Matthias Schoenaerts, Alice Winocour’s sophomore feature isn’t a stunningly original feat, but was still among the most pleasant surprises in Un Certain Regard: Few would have guessed from the French helmer’s costume-drama debut, “Augustine,” that she has such tough, tactile genre-filmmaking chops. Hollywood producers should take note. (G.L.)

7. “Inside Out.” Co-directors Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen somehow manage to deconstruct emotion while supplying it in generous measure in this deliriously funny, intensely cathartic romp through a young girl’s head space. The result is a wondrous return to form for Pixar, and a welcome reminder that there are still unexplored worlds waiting to be colonized by the imagination — including, perhaps, the imagination itself. (J.C.)

8. “Journey to the Shore.” Not since “Truly, Madly, Deeply” has the communion between the living and dead been depicted with such tenderness and heartache. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan’s maestro of psycho-horror, infuses this hushed, timorous drama of loss, regret and acceptance with his signature haunting mood, employing magical shifts of light and darkness. (M.L.)

9. “The Lobster.” Lonelyhearts who fail to find a suitable partner at a dating boot camp are transformed into animals, or else forced to hide out in the forest where they’re hunted for sport, in “Dogtooth” director Yorgos Lanthimos’ jury prize-winning absurdist social satire. Taking aim at the way modern society imposes a narrow definition of marriage on everyone, the crafty Greek allegorist sets out in the darkly comic Bunuel tradition, before turning its bachelor protagonist (an emasculated Colin Farrell) loose in its unexpectedly tender second half. (Peter Debruge)

10. “Macbeth.” That Justin Kurzel’s stormy new interpretation of Shakespeare’s punchiest tragedy was left until the very end of the competition led some critics to expect a cautious afterthought. What they got instead was an urgent, visceral update to enthrall the “Game of Thrones” set, unmistakably the work of the same director who electrified festival auds with “The Snowtown Murders” four years ago. With arresting performances by Michael Fassbender and a particularly inspired Marion Cotillard, this spare new adaptation stands worthily alongside Polanski’s 1971 version. (G.L.)

11. “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Having set the high bar for the modern action movie with “The Road Warrior” in 1981, George Miller surpassed himself (at age 70!) with this years-in-the-making “revisiting” of his iconic post-apocalyptic action hero (Tom Hardy, ably stepping in for Mel Gibson), here paired with a formidable female ally in Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa — arguably the greatest female action hero since Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. Miller’s dizzyingly kinetic, color-saturated, wall-to-wall chase sequences kicked off Cannes with a bang which it never quite surpassed. (S.F.)

12. “The Measure of a Man.” Veteran French leading man Vincent Lindon won a well-deserved best actor prize from the Cannes jury for this modestly scaled but powerfully affecting social drama from director Stephane Brize. As an unemployed factory worker turned supermarket store detective, Lindon appears in virtually every shot, effortlessly holding the screen with his weary brow and unassailable humanity. (S.F.)

13. “Mon roi.” While it passionately divided critics, Maiwenn’s power-romance should be required viewing for all aspiring American indie directors (especially those of the mumblecore school). The “Polisse” director demonstrates the raw, heartbreaking emotional truth that one can achieve through personal storytelling and collaborative improvisation, eliciting career-best work from Emmanuelle Bercot (who shared best actress honors with “Carol’s” Rooney Mara) and Vincent Cassel. (P.D.)

14. “Mustang.” Five headstrong sisters in rural Turkey are forced to conform to their society’s rigid concept of female self-expression in Deniz Gamze Erguven’s impressive feature debut. Undeniably scripted with Western auds in mind and not averse to exaggeration, the pic nevertheless boasts energetic performances of an intriguing nascent sexuality (think “The Virgin Suicides” by way of Sally Man) and a maturely fluent visual style very much in line with current arthouse aesthetics. (Jay Weissberg)

15. “My Golden Days.” Arnaud Desplechin imagines the childhood and adolescence of his cinematic alter-ego Paul Dedalus (first played by Mathieu Amalric in 1996’s “My Sex Life … “) in this transporting memory film set in the late 1980s, with Roxanne Shante on the soundtrack and a thick, bittersweet air of first loves, fractured friendships and lost youth. Denied a slot in competition, “Golden” was the toast of this year’s Directors’ Fortnight, where it was acquired by Magnolia Pictures for a U.S. release. (S.F.)

16. “One Floor Below.” Champions of new Romanian cinema long ago cottoned on to Radu Muntean’s minimalist storytelling, and while he stays true to his style here, there’s a slightly simmering quality that turns this story of a regular guy unwilling to finger a murderous neighbor into a quietly tense anti-thriller. Wrestling with questions of societal responsibility via a protag used to playing the system, the pic may seem understated, but its themes are weighted with a moral dilemma of quasi-Dostoevskian proportions. (J.W.)

17. “Our Little Sister.” Hirokazu Kore-eda’s portrait of blossoming womanhood is a lightweight yet graceful divertissement that, a few arch Ozu-esque flourishes notwithstanding, reps a companion piece to the hypersensitive feminine sensibilities and visual luxuriance of Kon Ichikawa’s “The Makioka Sisters.” (M.L.)

18. “Sicario.” Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin are all aces in Denis Villeneuve’s serpentine, pulse-pounding thriller, but the film’s undeniable MVP is the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, in his second visually stunning collaboration with the director of “Prisoners.” After the likes of “Traffic” and “Heli,” Villeneuve tells us little that’s new about the horrific cycle of violence and corruption that has ensnared both the Mexican drug trade and America’s war against it, but there’s no denying he tells it in muscular, bracingly cynical style. (J.C.)

19. “Son of Saul.” The most powerful and provocative Holocaust-themed film since “Fateless” (which coincidentally also hailed from Hungary), Laszlo Nemes’ Grand Prix winner engages directly with the impossibility that any film could possibly do justice to those events, while challenging the notion that consequently none should try. Nemes rejects the melodrama of “Schindler’s List” in favor of a rigidly formalist approach, one that forces audiences to evaluate and consider its artistic choices alongside the already profound moral dilemmas faced by its characters. (P.D.)

20. “Taklub.” Brillante Mendoza’s ode to the decency and dignity of ordinary people afflicted by the worst typhoon disaster in Philippine history thoughtfully reflects on the limits of faith, compassion and hard work. A welcome return to the studied simplicity of his earlier works like “Foster Child” and “Slingshot.” (M.L.)

21. “Youth.” Paolo Sorrentino’s most tender film to date is dividing the critics and took home no prizes, yet its champions are touting the emotional rich way the bravura filmmaker explores aging via two very different figures in the waning years of their lives. Selling points include standout performancess by Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, a blistering cameo from Jane Fonda, plenty of eccentric humor, expectedly wide-ranging musical choices and a visual banquet courtesy of d.p. Luca Bigazzi. (J.W.)

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