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Variety Critics Name the 12 Best Movies From Cannes 2018

The 71st Cannes Film Festival may have gotten off to a bumpy start, underwhelming audiences with Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s Spanish-language “Everybody Knows” and taking several days to serve up anything that felt universally praised (eventual Palme d’Or winner Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters”), but by the end, even those who had arrived skeptical seemed to agree that the overall quality of this auteur-thin, American-light edition was higher than usual. Looking back on 12 days of discovery, here are a dozen films that most impressed Variety chief critics Owen Gleiberman and Peter Debruge.

BlacKkKlansman

Spike Lee has made three extraordinary films that toss incendiary racial firecrackers: the classic “Do the Right Thing” (1989), the majestic “Malcolm X” (1992), and the wild (and insanely underrated) black-face satire “Bamboozled” (2000). Here, for the first time since then, he creates a scalding zeitgeist spectacle of American bigotry laid bare. Set in Colorado Springs in the early ’70s, “BlacKkKlansman” is an undercover thriller, at once light-fingered, ominous, and deeply funny. It casts John David Washington as Ron Stallworth, a rookie cop as furtive as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, who infiltrates the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan by impersonating a white racist over the phone. Adam Driver, as his fellow officer, joins the chapter in person and hoodwinks these small-town haters, who are so open about the ugliness of their “Keep America white!” paranoia that they could almost be…the voices of the alt-right today. The story is ingenious but slightly cracked, never more so than when Stallworth bonds with David Duke (Topher Grace), the KKK Grand Wizard who puts a civilized face on racial terrorism. “BlacKkKlansman” is another Lee firecracker, and when it comes out this summer you’d better believe it will detonate. — Owen Gleiberman

Birds of Passage

After leading audiences into seldom-seen recesses of the Amazon jungle with “Embrace of the Serpent,” Oscar-nominated director Ciro Guerra and creative/life partner Cristina Gallego (here billed as co-director) show us a side of Colombian history that has somehow never reached the outside world, revealing how the indigenous Wayuu people were drawn into the early days of the country’s drug problem — a period known as “la Bonanza Marimbera,” when impoverished natives tempted by a chance for illicit wealth found themselves caught up in the marijuana trade, which in turn sparked outbursts of violence that devastated the community. If that sounds like the setup for a formulaic drug-trafficking epic, think again. Mixing established actors with wonderfully authentic-looking nonprofessionals, Guerra and Gallego go out of their way to document the Wayuu traditions, giving the entire story a visually stunning, hyper-surreal quality that reinforces how such criminal activity directly threatened an almost mystical way of life. — Peter Debruge

Climax

Gaspar Noé’s latest plunge into the forbidden zone is a drug-shock party movie, and for 45 minutes it’s mesmerizing. We’re in a rehearsal studio that looks like a bomb shelter, where 20 young dancers perform a double-jointed krump-in-overdrive EDM ensemble number that’s one of the most astonishing dance sequences you’ve ever seen. Noé then draws us into who these people are — at least, until the LSD in the spiked sangria they’re drinking kicks in. At that point, the movie becomes a descent into hell that’s both gripping and numbing; by the end, less has become more. Yet as bad trips about The Beast Within go, this one remains an experience, which is why it may have been the most buzzed-about movie at Cannes. — OG

Shoplifters

Unlike much of the Western world, theft is so uncommon in Japan that people often leave their bicycles parked unchained. Culturally speaking, that suggests just how deep the shame must be for a clan of petty criminals who rely on shoplifting to survive in Hirokazu Koreeda’s deeply humanist family drama. “Whatever’s in a store doesn’t belong to anyone yet,” reasons the gang’s ersatz father figure, and in a strange way, that logic extends to the abandoned little girl he finds starving and shivering on his way home one evening. Because her parents clearly don’t want the child, the man essentially adopts her (others might say “kidnaps”), setting up the director’s most sensitive look yet into the meaning of family. As Sakura Andô’s character heartbreakingly asks toward the end, “Is giving birth enough to make you a mother?” Turns out the answer isn’t anywhere near as simple as we thought. — PD

The Image Book

Jean-Luc Godard’s momentous new film feels like a bulletin. It’s the rare work of his that has the aura of a horror film (it’s suffused with images of violence, intertwining old movies and new atrocities), and the world he’s looking at through his color-saturated semiotic kaleidoscope is one that’s spinning out of control. Godard, who has now come around to ditching actors entirely, works in a free-associational collage mode that suggests MTV meets the Beatles’ “Revolution 9.” He rips images out of context, crashing together bits of music, old film clips, and video footage of terrorist murders to let us see and hear each one anew. The political killers seem to be carrying out a degraded — or maybe heightened — version of what the movies taught them. On the soundtrack, speaking to us in a voice so low and sonorous and croaky with import that he sounds like Charles Aznavour crossed with Gollum, the 87-year-old Godard says, “War is here.” He means that it’s here, and that it’s coming. —OG

Burning

In much the same way that binge-viewing has ruined the television experience, film festivals subvert the way movies should be seen by forcing audiences to cram multiple screenings into the same day, sinking their teeth into the next ambitious artistic statement before fully digesting the last. Consider this a partial explanation for my not immediately “getting” South Korean master Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning,” although no film has stuck with me more at Cannes — in part because it grapples with a poor, powerless character’s desire to find meaning in an unfair and often senseless world, meticulously teasing certain possibilities while denying easy explanations at every turn. What begins as a light romance inexorably builds to something much more complex — an existential thriller, of sorts — as an insecure writer fancies himself the protagonist in a mystery of his own imagining, one that may not actually exist, and whose irreconcilable ambiguity still haunts me a dozen screenings later. — PD

Bergman — A Year in a Life

Jane Magnusson’s portrait of Ingmar Bergman in the pivotal year of 1957 (though it covers his entire life and career) is one of the most honest and overflowing portraits of a film artist you’re likely to see. It captures Bergman as the tender and prickly, effusive and demon-driven, tyrannical and half-crazy celebrity-genius he was: a man so consumed by work, and by his obsessive relationships with women, that he seemed to be carrying on three lives at once. It was in 1957 that he first ascended to the iconic plateau of his creative power and fame, and Magnusson shows how his insatiable workload was about creating a bubble of alternative reality he lived inside: a neurotic fairy tale that never had to end. What got left in the lurch were his children and families. Without fail, Bergman’s films were about himself (they turned out to be the one place where he could be entirely sincere), and “A Year in a Life” captures his hunger and genius, the stories he needed to tell, and something else — a moment in the 20th century when a great many people got hooked on movies that turned the darkness of our hidden hearts into drama that wounded and cleansed you. — OG

Cold War

After struggling in near obscurity for the first part of his career, director Pawel Pawlikowski surprised everyone by making a risky black-and-white art film called “Ida,” earning the foreign-language Oscar for the gamble. Now, after having discovered an approach that earned him the respect he craved, it takes considerably less guts to make a second film in the same format, and yet, “Cold War” is more accomplished and satisfying in many ways, relaxing the Bressonian austerity somewhat to deliver an elegant film noir about the impossible relationship between a Polish musician (Tomasz Kot) and the beautiful young singer (Joanna Kulig) he recruits with the clear intention of seducing. The film was not only set but also written in a pre-#MeToo state of mind, and yet, as in “Ida,” Pawlikowski has not only created a formidable female role, but discovered a star in the process. — PD

Arctic

A quiet and captivating slow-build adventure film, starring Mads Mikkelsen as a researcher-explorer who has crash-landed in the frozen wilderness. It’s the first feature directed by Joe Penna, the Brazilian video auteur who became a sensation on YouTube, so you might expect it to be made with a touch of 21st-century flash. On the contrary, Penna tells this solo-survival story with an austerity that makes it feel, at times, like you’re seeing an ice-cap remake of “A Man Escaped.” There are no cut corners, no overly obvious only-in-the-movies gambits. This stranded man has little to rely on beyond his will, so we feel at every step that he could be us. The film is built around the gruff mystique of Mikkelsen, whose acting, like the filmmaking, never betrays a hint of showiness. His height and stalwart presence fill the frame, but his face looks inward and outward at the same time; it’s tense, focused, ravaged. The movie, in its rough-hewn, trudging-through-the-tundra, one-step-at-a-time way, is the anti-“Cast Away,” and that’s what’s good and, finally, moving about it. — OG

Girl

It was a good year for LGBT cinema at Cannes, with two gay films in competition (Christophe Honoré’s “Sorry Angel” and Yann Gonzalez’s “Knife + Heart”) and another four outside-the-box offerings sprinkled throughout the lineup. Both the Queer Palm and the Camera d’Or (awarded to the best first feature) deservedly went to Belgian director Lukas Dhont’s sensitively made debut: an intimate, infinitely relatable look into a 15-year-old’s uphill battle to become a ballerina, complicated by the fact that the aspiring dancer in question was born into a boy’s body. The filmmakers held an open casting call to find their star, cisgender actor Victor Polster, who juggles the role’s many demands, while literally embodying the film’s conflict — which isn’t conservative parents or homophobic bullies (virtually everyone is supportive here), but an internal one, where the young character’s transformation isn’t happening nearly as fast as she’d like. — PD

Whitney

Kevin Macdonald’s documentary about the life and death of Whitney Houston is entrancingly well-done. You can’t watch it without hoping that somehow, the beautiful enraptured young singer you’re seeing will find a way to defeat her demons, that they won’t drag her down. Cocaine addiction, of course, is an insidious monster, but to see Houston’s life story is always to be buzzing with a single question: Why? Why did the most astonishingly gifted singer of her generation go down a road of darkness and self-sabotage? The most knee-jerk answer is that she should never have gotten involved with the lightweight B-boy smarm-dog Bobby Brown. There’s truth to that, but as “Whitney” captures it’s too easy an answer. Macdonald pays tribute to the goose-bump bliss of Houston’s sound, but mostly he creates a multi-faceted portrait of Houston that allows us to touch the intertwined forces that did her in. It’s all capped with a smoking gun: Mary Jones, Whitney’s aunt and longtime assistant, claims there was a sexual abuser in her family, and that Whitney, as a child, was one of the victims. In a charged moment, Jones names the abuser: It’s the singer Dee Dee Warwick (who died in 2008). This is the missing piece in a potently plausible vision of how, and why, Whitney Houston couldn’t accept who she was. As a singer, she was graced with a gift that could heal the world. But she lacked the greatest love of all. — OG

Happy As Lazzaro

As diverse as the 21 films in Cannes’ official competition were this year, none seemed more surprising than Alice Rohrwacher’s third feature, which begins as a fanciful modern fable and ends as a wrenching critique of those overlooked and exploited by contemporary capitalism. Adopting a style that recalls Italian filmmaker-poet Pier Paolo Pasolini, the director mixes rugged realism with a dash of the supernatural, presenting a hard-working young sharecropper named Lazzaro who, in his wide-eyed naïveté, could be the Chauncey Gardiner of a tobacco estate in decline — a little soft in the head, but graced with a kind of magic. Though you never know where this movie is headed, something especially unexpected happens at the midway point that sets the already-unique tale on an altogether new course. Some audiences check out when the story shifts, although it is here that as relatively new voices go, Rohrwacher proves she has something fresh to say. — PD

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