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The 10 Best Movies of Cannes 2019

The Cannes Film Festival is too rich an event to truly have an “off” year, but by the end of the 72nd edition, it was more or less universally acknowledged that the festival had regained a full-on, holy-moutaintop-of-art luster that was a bit lacking the year before. It helps, of course, to have headline-making movies by iconic auteurs, and Terrence Malick, Pedro Almodóvar, and Quentin Tarantino all had films in competition that delivered that blend of artistic rush and gravitas. But there were, in addition, many up-and-coming voices who rose above the fray, from Céline Sciamma (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”) to Robert Eggers (“The Lighthouse”), pointing the way to cinema’s future.

La Belle Époque

Hidden in plain sight among the out-of-competition premieres at Cannes, this mainstream French comedy from writer-director Nicolas Bedos is the kind of movie that journalists routinely ignore in favor of flashier titles from international directors. So it was a breath of fresh air to discover a locally made studio movie worthy of comparison to “The Truman Show” or the work of Charlie Kaufman. The high-concept film imagines a luxury service in which rich people can pay to immerse themselves in the past, meticulously re-created for their pleasure by a bespoke film crew. Most choose to drink or dine with famous people — such as Marie Antoinette or Ernest Hemingway — but not the recently-dumped cartoonist (Daniel Aueuil), who opts to relive the day he met his wife (Fanny Ardant). As romantic comedy ideas go, it’s almost a ridiculously elaborate way to illustrate the mysteries of attraction, but Bedos wins us over through the charms of his cast (especially Doria Tillier’s as Ardant’s “understudy”), the strength of his script, and sheer the virtuosity of its execution. — Peter Debruge

Deerskin

Clothes make the man. Whoever coined that expression couldn’t have imagined the hilariously twisted extremes to which someone like absurdist director Quentin Dupieux (who achieved a certain cult status via his movies “Rubber” and “Wrong”) might take it. No question, Dupieux’s work is an acquired taste, although he does audiences a favor here by casting Oscar-winning “The Artist” actor Jean Dujardin as a middle-aged loser convinced that buying a wildly out-of-fashion fringed leather jacket will improve his self-image. When the ladies aren’t impressed, he decides to accent him image with a lie, claiming to be a filmmaker prepping a shoot in the vicinity — as if dressing like Howdy Doody makes that plausible. Even as the man spirals farther out of control, reaching a point where he starts to kill the strangers who refuse to surrender their coats, Dujardin never breaks the façade of faux-seriousness such a pathetic role requires. The movie would make an ideal double-bill with Peter Strickland’s “In Fabric,” although here, the outfit isn’t the one on the attack. Dujardin’s character has simply taken his killer look a bit too literally. — PD

A Hidden Life

Terrence Malick, returning to the filmmaking majesty he showed in “The Tree of Life,”
has made a sweeping pastoral religious epic poised between agony and rapture. Even if you rejected the wooziness of Malick’s recent work (“To the Wonder,” “Knight of Cups”), this one may blow you away, though it does have some of those signature motifs — the thoughts whispered in voice-over, the characters poised against landscapes that define them more than their words. This time, though, Malick uses his lyrical techniques to forge a drama that’s all of a piece. He tells the true story of Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), an Austrian farmer who couldn’t bring himself to fight in Hitler’s army — or even to swear allegiance to the Führer, though his refusal to simply say those words almost surely meant that the German military would condemn him to death. Instead of “explaining” Franz’s stance, Malick coaxes the audience, step by step, into his soul, so that we answer the question: How could this man, living in a countryside as idyllic as Eden, with a wife and three young daughters he adores, agree not just to sacrifice himself but to leave his family deserted? The answer is that he can’t not do it; there’s a line of humanity and spirit he won’t cross. In tracing Franz’s journey, Malick has told a story of a dialogue with God that is also a drama of the most searing and deliberate topicality. It says: If we don’t have people who can draw that line in the sand, by doing it within their own hearts, then our civilization will not stand. — Owen Gleiberman  

I Lost My Body

As bizarre a concept as I’ve ever seen in animation, Jérémy Clapin’s debut feature imagines a severed hand that takes on a life of its own, wandering the streets of Paris in search of the person to whom it belongs. At first, given the macabre tone of early scenes — which begin with the hand scuttling across the floor of a shadowy science lab — we half-expect this unconventional mystery to lead down the shadowy corridors of film noir, but instead, it actually turns quite poignant and relatable, as the limb slowly “remembers” moments from the life it took for granted. But can the disembodied limb find its way back to the person from whom it’s been separated? Certainly, as cartoon quests go, that’s far stranger adventure than, say, crossing the sea to find a lost clownfish, or rescuing a lost toy, and the Critics’ Week jury was right to recognize what a unique and special film this is, awarding Clapin the section’s top prize. — PD

The Lighthouse

The second feature directed by Robert Eggers (“The Witch”) was greeted at Cannes with such resounding enthusiasm that there was a mini-outcry over why it hadn’t been selected for one of the competition slots. The explanation — if not justification — was simple: The movie felt like too much of a genre film, which doesn’t clear the bar of the Cannes “class” factor. In this case, though, I’d defy anyone to classify the genre. “The Lighthouse” is a gripping and turbulent drama that’s very much its own gothic historical ominoso art-thriller thing. Set in the 1890s, and shot in shimmeringly austere black-and-white, and with a startling old-fashioned 1.19:1 aspect ratio (a nearly perfect square, like that of early sound film), it’s set on a desolate island of jagged rock, where a gnarled old sea dog (Willem Dafoe, declaiming his lines like Captain Ahab on a bender) is tending the lighthouse there while training his new assistant (Robert Pattinson). Are we seeing a tale of survival, a Victorian ghost story, or a study in slow-brewing mutual insanity? How about all of the above? Dafoe and Pattinson, playing these gruff yokels, act out what often feels like the period version of a Sam Shepard two-hander, and they’re fascinating enough to fixate our attention. — OG

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

It was overwhelmingly the most anticipated movie of the festival, driven by a single hope: Could this be one of those Quentin Tarantino movies that enters your bloodstream like a drug, where every moment is marked by a certain ineffable something, the X Factor that made “Pulp Fiction” the indie touchstone of its time? In the end, “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” isn’t quite that X Factor film — though for long stretches (a good more than half of it), it feels like it could be. It’s a heady, engrossing, kaleidoscopic, spectacularly detailed nostalgic splatter collage of a movie, an epic tale of backlot Hollywood in 1969. Tarantino tells the dual story of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a TV-Western actor whose career has hit the skids, and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Rick’s stunt double and best pal. DiCaprio and Pitt fill out their roles with such rawhide movie-star conviction that we’re happy to settle back and watch Tarantino unfurl this tale in any direction he wants. And he does digress, in that following-his-free-associational-bliss way. Bruce Lee, spaghetti Westerns, foot fetishism: The movie is a heady cornucopia of Tarantino obsession, all coalescing around the Hollywood that’s the very source of his dreams. And then, of course, there’s the Manson murders. Tarantino takes us deeper than we’ve been into the life of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and he brilliantly uses the presence of the Manson girls to suggest something in the Hollywood cosmos that’s diabolical in its bad vibes. Yet the way the movie resolves all this feels too easy. By the end, Tarantino has done something that’s quintessentially Tarantino, but that no longer feels even vaguely revolutionary. He has reduced the story he’s telling to pulp. — OG

Pain and Glory

For those who remember the days when Pedro Almodóvar was thought of as a rebel, rather than a respected Spanish auteur, “Pain and Glory” represents the full bloom of a decades-long maturation process. It also serves as a kind of second coming-out for the openly gay director, shifting the focus from his sexuality to reveal another facet of his life about which he’s been quite secretive until now: the way in which the director’s daily existence is defined by a constant struggle against pain, owing to a number of ailments weighing on him at all times. To learn this intimate detail about Almodóvar at this point in his career adds a surprising insight into the rest of his filmography, which is made richer by this movie. Adding further layers to this beguilingly ambiguous work of autofiction, Almodóvar casts an actor whose career was launched by his early films, Antonio Banderas, as a director seeking reconciliation with one of his estranged stars, inviting audiences to speculate about where the line between imagination and reality lies. — PD

Parasite

Just one year after Asian masterpieces “Shoplifters” and “Burning” premiered in competition at Cannes, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho (“The Host”) showed up with this dynamite thriller, which so spookily subverts both films that it almost feels like a calculated response. In fact, “Parasite” just goes to show how exciting auteur cinema has been in that corner of the world lately, as directors look for different ways to comment on social prejudice and the stratified class struggle. In “Shoplifters,” we met a household of law-breaking opportunists bound together by necessity more than blood; here, a family of petty con artists pretend they’re not related in order to take advantage of a wealthy family, who hire each of them in different support roles around the house. Where “Burning” dramatized a lower-class loser’s desperate attempts to impose meaning on events beyond his control, “Parasite” operates on the premise that its tricksters have “no plan,” improvising their way through the scheme until things spiral out of their control. Bong has claimed the film can’t be fully understood outside its native Korea, though it’s plenty unsettling even for outsiders. — PD

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Over the course of 72 editions, the Palme d’Or has only once been awarded to a female director. Céline Sciamma’s fourth feature — and her first to screen in official competition — is every bit as strong as that previous winner, 1993’s “The Piano.” Embracing an entirely different kind of period romance, Sciamma takes as her subject the dynamic between a late-18th-century female artist (Noémie Merlant) and her muse (Adèle Haenel), examining what it means for women to find themselves on both sides of the artistic process: represented in painting, but also included in the process of making it. Until quite recently, that particular freedom has always depended on the permission of men, who have also dictated the style and subjects deemed appropriate. In her own slyly subversive way, Sciamma challenges such notions, playing by men’s rules, but only to a degree, even as she reinvents how a sex scene might unfold, or goes out of her way to include a subplot about abortion at the time. The result is both intellectually rich and emotionally powerful — a revolutionary act disguised in polite period finery. — PD

Sorry We Missed You

There are filmmakers who get younger as they grow older — against all odds, they become more spry, clear-eyed, muscular, and relevant. At 82, the British director Ken Loach is making films that connect, with a nearly karmic sense of timing, to the social drama of our moment. “Sorry We Missed You” is about a stressed-out family trying to make a go of it in the gig economy, and like Loach’s 2016 Palme d’Or winner “I, Daniel Blake,” it’s another intimate and powerful drama about what’s really going on in people’s lives — not just in England, but all over the world. When Ricky (Kris Hitchen), a day laborer in Newscastle, goes to work as delivery van driver for PDF (Parcels Delivered Fast!), he’s told that he’s going to be an “independent” worker, beholden to no one. Actually, he’s become an indentured servant. The multi-tasking anxiety of Ricky’s job, of sidestepping the glitches and never messing up, becomes the source of the film’s texture, yet this is also a wrenching drama of a family in limbo. It’s Loach’s big-picture vision of the precarious economic forces that are holding our world together — and, increasingly, tearing it apart — that makes “Sorry We Missed You” a fraught, touching, and galvanizing movie. — OG

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