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From ‘I, Daniel Blake’ to ‘American Honey’ to ‘Toni Erdmann,’ the Best Films at Cannes Were Bulletins From a New World

Movies channel the world, even when they’re not trying to. At a festival like Cannes, the films that win awards — and the ones that are most celebrated, which aren’t necessarily the award winners — have almost always had a heartbeat of relevance. They’re movies that speak to us because they matter, and they matter because they express what’s going on around them.

Yet at Cannes this year, that reality was only heightened by a gathering awareness — of a theme that cuts across movies, directors, cultures, nations. Accepting the Palme d’Or for “I, Daniel Blake,” director Ken Loach observed, “We must say that another world is possible, and necessary.” He was speaking of the issue that runs like a current through “I, Daniel Blake,” and that makes it such a trenchant and moving film: not just the bureaucratic perils of the British welfare system, but the fraying social safety net in the world at large — the loss of security, jobs, the whole promise of a room with a view. What once might have seemed a “leftist” or even “Marxist” vision has become, for people across the globe, and for movie audiences everywhere, the new normal. The rich are concentrating their wealth; the sense of stability for almost everyone else is slowly eroding. It’s a brave, scary, threatening new world. And the best films at Cannes this year were about pulling back the curtain on what that looks like.

“I, Daniel Blake” does it with scalding passion, which is why this may finally be the movie to give Loach, at 79, his Mike Leigh crossover moment. Another Cannes highlight, “Hell or High Water,” tells the story of two bank-robbing brothers in West Texas — it looks like a gun-totin’ wild-boy pop-genre exercise, and might have been nothing more had it been made 10 years ago — and embeds that crackling tale in the maw of middle-class economic erosion. In these two movies, the desperation is right up front. To watch them is to touch a nerve of topical anxiety.

But two of the other festival highlights tap into this theme with a sidelong resonance that sneaks up on you. “Toni Erdmann,” Maren Ade’s two-hour-and-42-minute-long German comedy about an oil-company consultant, Ines (Sandra Hüller), who is trying to come to grips with her shambling, annoying, prankish semi-wreck of a father, is one of the first movies you have ever seen about the one percent that’s really about the one percent, the intricacies of their spirit and style. It shows us the new breed of suits who are operating in a world far above the rest of us, so that almost nothing they do seems real, whether it’s cutting deals or cutting the jobs that grow out of them.

Ines, beneath her tailored pantsuits and PowerPoint manners, actually appears to be a loving person, but she has made herself over into the high-level version of a human computer chip. She earns a lot of money, but that means that she can never speak truth to power. She’s on call to power, 24/7. Enter her dad, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), who’s the grizzled, eccentric German-goofball version of one of those insufferable aging boomers who thinks that the world has been getting worse ever since he started getting older. He shows up in Bucharest, where Ines lives and works (one of the film’s themes is that the new money culture is an international club too expansive to have borders), and he tracks her to parties and meetings as if he were Bill Murray in “What About Bob?” He does it wearing false teeth, which make him look like Fredric March in the 1931 version of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and then a more elaborate disguise consisting of a long-haired wig and slovenly jacket and tie that make him look like Leatherface minus his skin-mask. You may sense the theme here: He’s a walking horror. And an irresistible one.

He is, in other words, the walking horror that Ines deserves. “Toni Erdmann” is about a father and daughter who need to lay down their arms — which, on the film’s art-house crowd-pleaser terms, means either getting naked or putting on a massively oversize furry monster suit. This may be the most naggingly Teutonic movie ever made that builds to a big hug — and a giggle. Yet what gives “Toni Erdmann” its subtle juice is the way that Ines and her father seem to be occupying completely different planes of existence. The way the film bridges them is not, in the end, entirely convincing, yet the double portrait is memorable. We all know that family relationships can be impossible, but in “Toni Erdmann,” it’s the crack in the earth between the haves and the have-nots that has left these two on separate spheres.

Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey” plunges the audience, with dizzying hand-held exhilaration, into the lives of a couple of dozen young pierced and tattooed drifters who have banded together into a roving derelict cult, driving around the Midwest in a van, where they have a scam going to use their hustle and beauty to guilt-trip people into buying magazine subscriptions. You may never have seen a movie that so eloquently captures the feeling of living not for the future but for the moment — and, let’s be clear, living that way is not a good thing. But there’s a haunting question that shadows the flying-high hip-hop catharsis of “American Honey,” and that is this: How did these kids get here?

The answer is everything the movie is really about. They are refugees of the new American non-dream. The heroine, Star (Sasha Lane), is fleeing a home of indifference and abuse, but in nearly three hours, hers is the one and only backstory we get, and that’s by design. The movie is saying: We don’t need to hear the other backstories — we know them in our bones. They’re about children who have not been given the structure and love they need, because the love and structure was disintegrating above them. “American Honey” is about the morphing of youth culture into a big-beat deadbeat party. What’s beautiful about the movie is that the characters have lost their innocence, yet they remain innocent. They’re the fallout of the new world.

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