Cannes Recap: A Look at This Year's Key Films

  • Publish Date: May 23, 2011
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A lot to think about

Image Von Trier cast a dark shadow on this year's festival

As is typical for the Cannes Film Festival, which concluded its 12-day run on Sunday, there was as much drama off screen as there was on. The 64th edition of the festival opened warmly enough, with crowds (and most critics) embracing Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris as a return to form for the director, but once the competition began, so did the roller-coaster ride. Early talk was dominated by three of the four female-directed films in the competition: We Need To Talk About Kevin, Sleeping Beauty, and Polisse. Each had their supporters and detractors due to the unique formal style employed by each director and the occasionally disturbing stories that style served.

Two directing powerhouses dominated the middle of the competition. First up was Terrence Malick’s fifth film in almost forty years of filmmaking, The Tree of Life. The ambitious and divisive film received cheers and boos at its screenings, but one wonders how many of the boos were directed toward the film, which couldn’t possibly live up to the pre-festival hype, or toward its director, who chose to shun the press, as he always does. The real mystery might be why the press expected him to conduct a press conference in the first place (even with rumors of him sneaking into the gala premiere). Either way, The Tree of Life dominated conversations, until “that guy” came along.

“That guy” is Danish auteur and provocateur Lars von Trier. He’s had great success at Cannes in the past, where each of his feature films (except The Boss of It All) since 1991’s Europa has played in competition, with Europa winning the Jury Prize (third place), Breaking the Waves winning the Grand Prix (second place) and Dancer in the Dark winning the Palme d’Or in 2000. He gained an incredible amount of attention in 2009 at the post-screening press conference for Antichrist, but that was mainly because the film shocked so many people, not necessarily because of what he said (though he did bait the press by calling himself the best film director in the world).

This year, in a response to a question about his German roots, von Trier made the critical mistake of attempting to joke about something no one can joke about -- being a Nazi and understanding Hitler. Watch the full thirty-nine minute press conference here, or skip to 34:30, where the trouble begins. The general consensus amongst the press was that he was attempting a joke to enliven a press conference that had grown dull, but in probably the worst way imaginable. Von Trier even seemed to realize the hole he was digging for himself by the end asking, “How do I get out of this sentence?”, but he could not save himself. The festival immediately condemned the director’s comments, and von Trier issued an apology that afternoon. But the damage was done, and the fallout from the incident came quickly. The next day, the Festival’s Board of Directors banned von Trier from the festival declaring him “persona non grata,” but allowed his film, Melancholia, to remain in competition. Many interesting post-controversy interviews followed his expulsion (THR, the Chicago Tribune, indieWIRE,) in which von Trier claimed, among many other things, he’s “no Mel Gibson,” “the Malick strategy is a perfect strategy,” and “I will never do a press conference again.” Sure. Now lets move on to what really matters at Cannes: the films.

This year's winners

Image Tree of Life left festival-goers with a lot to contemplate

Despite the mixed in-theater reaction to Tree of Life, the Cannes jury -- headed, this year, by actor Robert De Niro -- selected Malick's epic as the festival's best in-competition film by awarding it the Palme d'Or. (The film, which opens Friday, has also been receiving a warm reception from American critics.) Sharing the "second place" award (known formally as the Grand Prix) this year were the Turkish drama Once Upon A Time In Anatolia and Belgian drama The Kid With A Bike. The latter film comes from the Dardenne brothers, who narrowly missed receiving an unprecedented third Palme d'Or.

Prior to this year, the last time an American film won the top award at Cannes was in 2004, when Michael Moore's controversial documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 received the Palme d'Or. That film, coincidentally, is the only Cannes winner to perform well at the box office in the last decade; as you can see below, most Cannes honorees typically earn stellar reviews and very little money in the U.S.

Recent Palme d'Or Winners
Year Film Country Metascore U.S. Gross (in millions)
2011 The Tree of Life USA ?? ??
2010 Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives Thailand 87 $0.2*
2009 The White Ribbon Austria 82 $2.2
2008 The Class France 92 $3.8
2007 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days Romania 97 $1.2
2006 The Wind That Shakes the Barley UK 82 $1.8
2005 L'enfant Belgium 87 $0.7
2004 Fahrenheit 9/11 USA 67 $119.2
2003 Elephant USA 70 $1.3
2002 The Pianist Poland 85 $32.6
Recent Grand Prix Winners
Year Film Country Metascore U.S. Gross (in millions)
2011 (tie) Once Upon a Time in Anatolia Turkey ?? ??
  (tie) The Kid with a Bike Belgium ?? ??
2010 Of Gods and Men France 86 $3.7*
2009 A Prophet France 90 $2.1
2008 Gomorrah Italy 87 $1.6
2007 The Mourning Forest Japan n/a n/a
2006 Flanders France 67 $0.0 (23k)
2005 Broken Flowers USA 79 $13.7
2004 Oldboy South Korea 74 $0.7
2003 Uzak Turkey n/a n/a
2002 The Man Without a Past Finland 84 $0.9

* Still in theaters. Source of box office data:

Though the jury was clearly impressed with Malick's film, Nicolas Winding Refn earned top director honors this year for Drive, while Israel's Joseph Cedar was awarded for his screenplay for Footnote. And von Trier's Melancholia did not go home completely empty-handed; that film's star, Kirsten Dunst, was named the best actress of the festival. Acting honors also went to France's Jean Dujardin for his work in The Artist.

In other award categories this year, the French drama Polisse took home the Jury Prize (typically considered the "third place" award), while the Camera d'Or for best debut feature went to the Argentine film Las Acacias.

The verdict on this year's films

Here are the films that generated the most buzz at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and the first opinions on those titles from reviewers and major film bloggers. Films that screened in competition are marked with an asterisk.

Las Acacias
Drama, from Argentina

This year’s winner of the Camera d’Or (best first feature) follows the relationship of a truck driver and the young mother he doesn’t know but agrees to transport from Paraguay to Buenos Aires. Editor and documentarian Pablo Giorgelli gets good performance out of his two leads and conveys a touching story though minimal dialogue. Variety believes the film will “enchant” audiences with “naturalistic but subtle camerawork” and “pitch-perfect” performance.

Documentary, from South Korea

Kim Ki-duk’s Arirang is about Kim Ki-duk. He writes, directs, shoots, edits, and stars in this film that surprisingly tied for the top prize in Un Certain Regard. In this self-portrait, he examines why he is struggling creatively after creating “fifteen internationally distributed and awarded” films. THR admits that the film is extremely “narcissistic” and “navel-gazing” but doesn’t dismiss it completely. Variety likens the film to “being stuck next to a drunk in a bar who keeps reminding you he used to be famous, all his friends are bastards and he now understands the meaning of life.” The A.V. Club agrees, calling the film “excruciating” and “self-indulgent, useless, ‘therapeutic‘ one-man tripe.” However, indieWIRE fully embraces the film, positing that “Kim’s upfront treatise on his life’s unusual trajectory is alternatively beautiful, frustrating and extraordinarily astute.”

* The Artist Watch trailer
Romantic comedy, from France

The first unanimous crowd-pleaser to play in competition this year was The Artist, a silent black and white film shot in the old school aspect ratio of 4:3 from director Michel Hazanavicius and actor Jean Dujardin, the team behind the OSS 117 comedies. The film looks at the life of a silent movie star in 1927 as the talkies gain acceptance and his career suffers while an extra from his films, played by Berenice Bejo, becomes a star. “Glorious ... a formally daring and sublimely funny movie,” says The Guardian. The Playlist agrees, calling it “wildly entertaining, with a big generous heart ... a beautifully told story that is classic and timeless in feel.” Giving the film an “A+”, Film School Rejects finds it “infinitely charming and incredibly clever,” adding, “Perfection is a difficult goal to aim for, but Hazanavicius has achieved something approaching it.” Less enthusiastic, but still positive are Todd McCarthy at THR -- “an enjoyable conceit” -- and Variety's Peter Debruge, who deems it “a heartfelt, old-school romance." The only dissenter seems to be at the A.V. Club, where Mike D’Angelo admits to enjoying “the first couple reels” but finds “the laughs gradually dry up” after a midway turn into melodrama. Thanks to its acquisition by The Weinstein Company, U.S. audiences should get to see The Artist sometime this year.

* Drive
Action, from USA; opens in U.S. on September 16

Image Ryan Gosling in Drive

Here's another film that everyone seemed to like. Director Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson, Valhalla Rising) won the Prix de la Mise en Scene (Best Director) at this year’s festival for this taut, violent and highly praised genre flick based on the James Sallis novel of the same name and starring Ryan Gosling as a Hollywood stuntman/getaway driver who is put in a precarious position after a heist goes bad. Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, and Ron Perlman also star, and all the actors fare well, according to Film School Rejects who find it to be the best cast of the year and give the film an “A+.” Andrew O’Hehir at Salon believes “Refn's composition and lighting and editing instincts are miles ahead of most people who work in action movies.” Movieline loves the film for being “unapologetically commercial” but defying “all the current trends in mainstream action filmmaking.” Alex Billington of calls it his “favorite film” of the festival and “an instant classic” based on Refn’s skill behind the camera, where “he makes every second count and every single frame stunning to watch.” Mike D’Angelo at the A.V. Club agrees, saying, “ At least half a dozen scenes are burned into my memory for life, including not one but two of the most jarring, heartbreaking juxtapositions of tenderness and violence this side of classic Kitano. At its best, it’s pure genre bliss.”

* Footnote (Hearat Shulaylm)
Drama, from Israel

Winner of the screenplay award, this drama from director Joseph Cedar (Beaufort) takes on the essence of its title -- a minor work amongst much grander ones -- according to most critics, but they aren’t complaining. The story revolves around rival father and son Talmud scholars whose pride and envy come to the surface when one of them is given a prestigious award. There is a general acceptance of the film's qualities, especially excellent lead performances, a subtle, darkly comedic tone, and a solid if slight story. Variety likes the way the film “nails academic gobbledygook along with the viciousness of professorial rivalries.” THR finds it to be “an intriguing tale of an ethical dilemma... told in erratic fashion,” while indieWIRE’s Eric Kohn thinks Footnote is “an enjoyable, and quite literal, textbook thriller.”

* Hanezu (Hanezu no tsuki)
Drama, from Japan

Coming into the festival, Hanezu was a favorite to win an award based on director Naomi Kawase’s previous record at Cannes (a Camera d’Or for Moe no suzaku and a Grand Prix for Mogari no mori), but the film, the story of a doomed love triangle set against the beauty of nature, failed to gain support. THR sees the film as “visually rhapsodic but overbearingly metaphorical and emotionally wan.” Variety also finds it beautiful but feels the details of the story emerge too slowly, and after noting the man snoring in front of her and the number of walkouts the film produced, Stephanie Zacharek of Movieline concludes, “it’s a particular kind of frustrating failure: A movie that gives you just enough texture and detail to make you want to understand it, and then leaves you wondering if there’s anything to understand in the first place.”

* Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (Ichimei)
Drama, from Japan

Image Hara-Kiri

This remake of the Jury Prize winning film of 1963 (Harakiri) -- and the first 3D film to play in competition -- covers the same ground as the original but not as successfully. Director Takashi Miike’s previous work (Ichi the Killer, Gozu, Audition), and his most recent film, 13 Assassins (also a remake), immediately built buzz that his first competition film failed to meet. The story follows a poor ronin who plans on committing ritual suicide but also questions its place in the samurai code of honor. Film School Rejects doesn’t appreciate the “more restrained Miike” on display here, while the A.V. Club finds it one of the director's poorer efforts, suggesting that “calling this unrepresentative of his work is an understatement.” Other critics agree that Miike fails to use the 3D in any novel way. Variety and Movieline find the images “murky” and indieWIRE sees “no depth” in the visuals while The Playlist wishes Miike had spared them the pain of “wearing the wretchedly uncomfortable glasses” since it’s light on action and gains nothing from the technology.

* Le Havre
Comedy/drama, from Finland

Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki won the Grand Prix in 2002 with his film The Man Without a Past, and his latest seems to be a return to form. The black comedy revolves around the relationship between a shoeshine man and a young African refugee. After receiving rounds of applause at its screening, the film was surprisingly shut out at awards time. Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir believes “it’s an intimate movie made on a small scale but very nearly an instant classic.” Lisa Schwarzbaum at EW puts the film high up on her list of favorites, calling it a “poker-faced, painted-picture fairytale,” while indieWIRE claims it to be a “deadpan delight” combining “clownish storytelling with a life-affirming plot” to produce a film that is “heartwarming and irreverent.” Movieline also embraces the film, claiming it to be a “wry mini-treatise on the necessity of being kind and having guts,” and The Playlist enjoys the film's ability to combine “comedy with a serious point and ... a deep emotional core.” One critic not fully buying in is the A.V. Club's Mike D’Angelo: “I don’t want to beat up on this small, well-intentioned, passably pleasant trifle, but people are actually touting it as a favorite for the Palme d’Or, which is insane.”

* House of Tolerance (L'apollonide [Souvenirs de la maison close])
Drama, from France

Director Bertrand Bonello’s latest film explores life inside an upscale brothel as the century turns (1899-1900). The film impressed a few, but most observers struggled to find meaning in its often grotesque depiction of the lives of prostitutes. Mike D’Angelo at the A.V. Club acknowledges the “risible moments,” but was still “touched by the film’s oddly idealized portrait of a defunct community.” Karina Longworth at the Village Voice also gives the film her hesitant approval, declaring, “Visually ravishing, troublingly seductive, alternately risible and irresistible, L'Apollonide may be the ultimate guilty pleasure.” Over at Variety, Leslie Felperin thinks the film “presents an accessible, credible portrait of what life was like for sex workers way back when, with all the career's pleasures (few) and perils (many),” and THR posits that the film both “fascinates with its exquisite period atmosphere and repulses in its cruel spectacle of young women trapped in a life from which there is practically no exit.” But The Playlist and Film School Rejects both dislike the film, calling it “creakily pretentious” and “ridiculously and impenetrably pretentious,” respectively.

* The Kid with a Bike (Le Gamin au Velo)
Drama, from Belgium

The Dardenne brothers, Jean Pierre and Luc, have never left empty-handed when bringing a film to Cannes -- 1999‘s Rosetta won the Palme d’Or, 2002‘s The Son won a special jury prize, 2005‘s The Child won the Palme d’Or, and 2008‘s Lorna’s Silence won best screenplay. Their streak continued this year when the jury awarded The Kid with a Bike a tie for the Grand Prix, the festival's second-place prize, and it would seem that critics agree with the jury. The film charts the relationship between a twelve-year-old boy who has been abandoned by his father, and a hairdresser played by Cecile de France (Hereafter). THR believes “the Belgian siblings are again at the peak of their powers in this impeccably observed drama,” while Slant claims that “stylistically, this is one of the Dardennes' most fluid films.” HitFix calls the film “elegant, spare, emotional, and human,” and Andrew O’Hehir at Salon says, “It's sometimes terrifying, often heart-rending and completely worth it.” The Guardian claims that “there are flaws” but enjoys it overall, as does the A.V. Club, though that publication clarifies, “It’s just too familiar to feel truly exciting.”

* Melancholia Watch trailer
Drama/sci-fi, from Denmark

Image Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia

Forget the press conference. How was the film? Good enough to help Kirsten Dunst win the Prix d’interpretation feminine (Best Actress) for her role as a depressed bride whose wedding takes place as the earth is coming to an end. In fact, jury member, and outstanding filmmaker, Olivier Assayas, believes, “It is one of his best films. We all agreed about the condemnation of his comments made during his press conference. But the film is very well acted, very well written. It’s a great work.” J. Hoberman of the Village Voice was blown away by the film, seeing it as a rebuke of Malick’s The Tree of Life, “On Monday I characterized The Tree of Life as a train wreck -- I was wrong. It's Von Trier who has contrived the spectacle impossible to turn away from. ... The comparison is not a matter of filmmaking (although the first five minutes of Melancholia are more innovative, accomplished, and visionary than anything in The Tree of Life); it's a matter of sensibility ... Von Trier has made a movie about the end of world -- when I left the theater and exited out into Cannes, I felt light, rejuvenated and unconscionably happy.” indieWIRE agrees, claiming, “Von Trier has constructed a mesmerizing elaboration on his favorite motifs, masterfully elevating them to an epic scale.” Variety finds the film “mind-blowing” and proclaims “Von Trier once again demonstrates a mastery of classical technique, extracting incredibly strong performances from his cast while serving up a sturdy blend of fly-on-the-wall naturalism and jaw-dropping visual effects.” Less enthusiastic are Todd McCarthy at THR and Mike D’Angelo at the A.V. Club. The former finds the film to be a bit of a “bore” absent of “characters or ideas with which to meaningfully engage,” and D’Angelo, while admitting his love for von Trier, can’t get past “a disconnect here between concept and execution” and, even on a second viewing, he thinks “Von Trier badly undermined his depression allegory by turning its first section into the Wedding Reception From Hell.”

* Michael
Drama, from Austria

Mikael Schleinzer’s debut film as writer/director (after serving as casting director for Michael Haneke) is a disturbing and dispassionate look at the last five months in the relationship between a pedophile and a ten year old boy. Considering the grim subject, Michael would need to amaze to capture the praise of critics, much less audiences, but descriptions of the film include “icily austere” from The Guardian, and “cold” and “clinical” from Film School Rejects. Mike D’Angelo at A.V. Club deems the film overly familiar with its “festival-approved style of clinical detachment, especially as applied to controversial or disturbing subject matter,” and rejects the epilogue in which his “neutral indifference (sole exception: a riveting scene in which Michael goes “shopping” for another boy at a drag race) shaded into outright hatred.” On the other hand, Eric Kohn at indieWIRE gives the film an “A-” calling it “a keen observational thriller,” and Alissa Simon at Variety, while agreeing that the film is “coolly nonjudgemental,” still finds that it “slowly reels viewers in with Michael Fuith's strong lead performance, a creepy accumulation of ordinary detail and suspenseful twists.”

Miss Bala
Crime Thriller, from Mexico

Director Gerardo Naranjo (Drama/Mex, I’m Gonna Explode) looks at gang warfare through the eyes of an aspiring beauty queen in this well received thriller. J. Hoberman at the Village Voice praises Naranjo’s “impressively fluid camera, feel for location, and terrific rapport with actors.” The A.V. Club loves the “high-octane action flick with deliciously ironic twists and flat-out gaspworthy set pieces.” Variety calls the film a “blistering firecracker” but feels Stephanie Sigman’s lead performance is lacking and the Voice's Karina Longworth agrees, embracing the film’s visual style but finding Sigman’s character “barely developed, making it difficult to invest in her escalating punishment.” But the fact that it didn’t win any awards at Un Certain Regard disappointed many critics.

* Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Bir Zamanlar Anadolu'da)
Crime thriller, from Turkey

This two hour and thirty-seven minute police procedural, which takes its first 90 minutes to slog through darkness and find the victim’s body, tied A Kid with a Bike for the Grand Prix. Even the director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan whose Distant won the Grand Prix in 2003, thanked the jury for sitting through his “long and difficult” movie. Echoing the jury’s thoughts, the A.V. Club finds the film “intelligent, meticulous, incredibly beautiful” but “downright torturous to actually sit through.” THR also mentions the slow pacing and long running time but finds each shot “rings with hidden feeling and a sense of intimacy,” and Eric Kohn at indieWIRE praises the “mesmerizing” film as a combination of Zodiac and Police, Adjective, an “analytical brain teaser, rendered in patient and sharply philosophical terms.”

* Pater
Comedy/drama, from France

Alain Cavalier’s 1986 film Therese, won 6 Cesars (France’s version of the Academy Awards) and the Jury Prize at Cannes, but his latest failed to make any noise at this year’s festival. Variety calls it “the epitome of an in-joke ... [a] sloppily improvised film about filmmaking [that] doesn't bother to make clear whether and how it's a mock-docu account of the shooting of a French prime minister biopic.” The A.V. Club's Mike D'Angelo is equally flummoxed, admitting that “I didn’t get it ... but the French were applauding madly throughout, apparently in response to policy statements.” While acknowledging that most viewers will “feel excluded from their private party,” THR finds the film “Witty, urbane and quintessentially French,” and believes, “the politics are so tongue-in-cheek and the protags so articulate and funny that the film works.”

* Polisse
Drama, from France

Image Polisse

This look at the daily lives of the officers of the Paris Juvenile Protection Unit is the third film from actress/director Maiwenn. The film is a sprawling, episodic ensemble piece that appealed to most observers but had a few major detractors. The Guardian declares the film to “be a strong contender for most awful film of the competition,” calling out the ending as “wildly unconvincing and melodramatic,” and Slant agrees, joking that the film is a “true crime.” However, other critics found some elements to praise. Karina Longworth of the Village Voice agrees about the “ridiculous” ending, but finds it’s “still an impressive feat of improvised ensemble performance and directing,” and while Mike D’Angelo of the A.V. Club feels the “film as a whole never takes shape,” he credits Maiwenn for being “firmly committed to documentary-style realism” and “coaxing effortlessly natural performances from her fellow actors," sentiments echoed by Variety in another mixed review. Nevertheless, Polisse earned the Jury Prize as the third best film of the festival.

Restless Watch trailer
Drama, from USA; opens in U.S. on September 16

Image Restless

Winner of the Palme d’Or in 2003 for Elephant, Gus Van Sant returned to the festival for the first time since 2007 with Restless. The film’s U.S. release dates has moved three times this year, so expectations were relatively low for this story of young love between Mia Wasikowska (Jane Eyre) and Henry (son of Dennis) Hopper. A few reviewers seem to enjoy Restless, including Movieline's Stephanie Zacharek, who describes the film as “fluttering and tender,” and Variety's Justin Chang, who thinks the film is “gently amusing and at times genuinely affecting” with a “low-key sweetness and charm” provided by the leads. Alex Billington of also praises Wasikowska’s charm while deeming the film “quaint," but THR disagrees, claiming Van Sant's film is a “terminally cloying and mushy-headed romance.” And according to The Playlist, “The only thing 'Restless' offers is the titular feeling you’re going to have enduring this at your local arthouse.”

* Sleeping Beauty Watch trailer
Erotic thriller, from Australia

Image Sleeping Beauty

Not to be confused with the similarly titled upcoming French drama The Sleeping Beauty (which did not screen at Cannes), this debut film from novelist Julia Leigh was the first (and by no means the last) film to divide critics at Cannes 2011. Variety finds the story of an affectless woman who takes a job at a high-end brothel “perplexingly oblique” and “maddeningly elliptical” and star Emily Browning (Sucker Punch), tackling another sexual role (often without clothes this time), “wooden and inexpressive." THR concurs, calling the film “psychosexual twaddle." Praise comes from indieWIRE’s Eric Kohn, who finds the film to be “undeniably creepy” with a haunting, dreamlike feel, and the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips, who is hypnotized by its "daringly steady rhythm." Over at Salon, Andrew O’Hehir describes “a strikingly impressive debut” but admits that “whether it's good-strange or bad-strange is a highly subjective question." And Sasha Stone at The Wrap also reflects that good/bad dichotomy, stating, “The best thing about the film is how disturbing it is. The film’s biggest problem is how boring it is.”

* The Skin I Live In Watch trailer
Thriller, from Spain; opens in U.S. on November 18

Image The Skin I Live In

Pedro Almodóvar has already experienced great success at Cannes (winning best screenplay in 2006 for Volver and best director the Palme d’Or in 1999 for All About My Mother), but this year’s entry, a twisty, bloody thriller based on the 2003 novel Mygale by Thierry Jonguet, with Antonio Banderas playing a brilliant and slightly crazy, plastic surgeon, didn’t receive such a glowing reception. Variety finds that the film “falls short of its titular promise, never quite getting under the skin as it should.” While Skin tackles many of the themes from Almodóvar’s previous work -- betrayal, loneliness, sexual identity, death -- THR likens the film to a “lab experiment” and a “melodramatic hybrid” with its added horror element, and indieWIRE calls the thriller “a meandering, tonally confused work.” However, some critics did embrace Almodóvar's film. The Guardian enjoys its “fanatical intensity” thanks to the “sheer muscular confidence of Almodóvar's film-making language.”

Stopped on Track (Halt Auf Freier)
Drama, from Germany

Tying Arirang for the Grand Prize in Un Certain Regard was Andreas Dresen’s (Cloud 9) accurate portrayal of a postal worker’s death by brain cancer. Variety praises the film’s “acute and raw sense of honesty,” great cast, and improvised dialogue. THR is less accepting of this “tough slog through the awful process of physical and mental deterioration,” though there are moments when the film comes close to achieving something “startling or metaphysical.”

Take Shelter
Drama, from USA; opens in U.S. on October 7

Image Take Shelter

Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter took the top prize at the 50th annual Critics Week. The film, which premiered at Sundance this year, stars Michael Shannon (soon to be General Zod) as a man who, after being haunted by a recurring nightmare, begins to prepare himself and his family (including The Tree of Life’s Jessica Chastain as his wife) for the end of the world. Nichols also directed Shannon in the well regarded Shotgun Stories. Reviews of their latest efforts are solid as well, with HitFix giving the film a “B” and noting its “buzz-worthy ending.” Michael Giltz at the Huffington Post gives the film three out of four stars, calling it “intelligent, engaging filmmaking,” but while still liking it overall, Mike D’Angelo at the A.V. Club doesn’t buy the ending, noting that the climax “began to feel pretentious” and the final scene “seemed both thematically muddled and a little cheap.”

* This Must Be the Place
Drama, from Italy

Image Sean Penn in This Must Be the Place

In this film from Paolo Sorrentino (who won the Jury Prize in 2008 for Il Divo), Sean Penn plays an aging, and decidedly Robert Smith-looking, rock star named Cheyenne who takes on his deceased father’s obsession for revenge. indieWIRE calls it a “godawful mess” thanks to “an uber-campy Sean Penn performance, a gratingly quirky soul-searching plot, and character motives that barely make any sense.” THR also finds the film erratic and “misguided,” but is won over by Penn’s “eccentric” performance. The A.V. Club finds the rambling road film to be “radically optimistic” and “ephemeral” and along with The Guardian mentions David Byrne’s song from which the film gets its title (Byrne himself performs in the film). Finally, Jay Weissberg at Variety fully embraces the “cool” film’s special mix of “warmth, humanity, and respect.”

* The Tree of Life Watch trailer
Drama, from USA; opens in U.S. on May 27

The most anticipated film of the festival became the most talked about film of the festival and won the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or. Terrence Malick’s meditation on life, the universe, and the fate of a family in small town Texas was his first film to play the Cannes Film Festival and audiences and critics alike came away with strong opinions. While acknowledging the divisive nature of the film, Variety raves that Tree of Life is “a transfixing odyssey through time and memory,” and Peter Bradshaw’s five star review at The Guardian can barely contain his enthusiasm: “It’s a cosmic-interior epic of vainglorious proportions, a rebuke to realism, a disavowal of irony and comedy, a meditation on memory, and a gasp of horror and awe at the mysterious inevitability of loving, and losing those we love.” THR calls it “a singular work, an impressionistic metaphysical inquiry into mankind’s place in the grand scheme of things that releases waves of insights amid its narrative imprecisions.” In giving it an “A-,” indieWIRE claims it is “more meditation than movie. . . .bound to mystify, awe and exasperate in equal measure.”

Over at the the Village Voice, two differing opinions emerged. Karina Longworth sums up her questioning but overall positive review by saying, “The Tree of Life is the only thing I’ve seen at Cannes this year that I can imagine engaging in a conversation with and about for years to come,” but J. Hoberman seems to despise the film: “Malick goes one on one with God, not to mention Stanley Kubrick, and on both counts comes up short--very short. ... The Tree of Life is less profound than profoundly eccentric, while too solemn, pompous, and genteel to be truly crazy. The movie disengages the mind, even as it dulls the senses.” Film School Rejects offers more rejection, calling it “an intentionally obtuse, impenetrable thing,” and Stephanie Zacharek at Movieline doesn’t fall for it either, deeming it a “gargantuan work of pretension and cleverly concealed self-absorption, featuring some absolutely gorgeous photography.” But Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir embraces the crazy film, suspecting that “The Tree of Life is pretty much nuts overall, a manic hybrid folly with flashes of brilliance. But even if that’s true it’s a noble crazy... alive with passion for art and the world, for all that is lost and not lost and still to come.” Last word goes to Mike D’Angelo at the A.V. Club who is disappointed, but mainly with the high expectations brought on by the first hour of the film: “Roughly an hour into Terrence Malick’s mind-bending The Tree of Life... I was fully convinced I was bearing world-premiere witness to the equivalent of Birth Of A Nation or Citizen Kane or 2001: A Space Odyssey -- an instant benchmark against which the entire medium would henceforth be measured. ... But the longer the film goes on, and the more its figures solidify into actual characters, the less magical it seems. ... I’d be perfectly happy to see it win the Palme d’Or ... but the space I’d cleared for it in my list of the five or ten greatest movies ever made remains empty.” (Even more reviews will be available this week on our Tree of Life page.)

* We Have a Pope (Habemus Papam)
Comedy, from Italy

Nanni Moretti won the the Palme d’Or in 2001 for The Son’s Room. His latest asks the question, what if a pope is elected but gets cold feet about taking the job? From there Moretti looks for lighthearted moments in what THR calls “a well-written, surprisingly mainstream comedy with an unbeatable setting, the Vatican’s inner chambers.” Film School Rejects’ description brings to mind this year’s Academy Award winner for best picture, The King’s Speech: “A strangely engaging thing, a lovingly shot, ironic comedy that never resorts to cheap digs to carry the weight of its message, while also offering an enduring humanist story about one man’s struggle to overcome his tragic personal situation.” However, not everyone is a fan. indieWIRE finds that Pope is “stuck somewhere between religious satire and an earnest look at a crisis of faith,” adding, “Moretti never delivers enough energy to make these ideas pop.”

* We Need to Talk About Kevin
Drama, from UK

Image Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin

Lynne Ramsey’s first film since 2002’s Morvern Callar is an adaptation of the Lionel Shriver novel about a mother, played by Tilda Swinton, coming to terms with the actions of her psychopathic son, played as a teenager by Ezra Miller (Afterschool). Even with the difficult subject matter and Ramsey’s challenging filmmaking style, the film, which also stars John C. Reilly as Kevin’s father, received solid praise from critics. Variety calls the film “exquisitely realized” and Swinton’s performance “rigorously subtle." THR is slightly less enthusiastic, saying, “It’s a film to think about and debate over but not one to embrace,” but Swinton’s performance stills earns high praise. In his four star (out of five) review, Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian claims that Swinton “brings her A-game” to what he describes as a “brilliantly nihilist, feminist parable.” indieWIRE gives the film an “A” stating, “With its non-linear design, ‘Kevin’ is the rare experimental work to contain a vast spectrum of emotions.” Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood provides the score (as he did for There Will Be Blood), and it sounds like he’s produced another haunting and effective one that blends well with the unsettling sound design.

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Comments (7)

  • graham  

    Fantastic article, much appreciated! Now if all of these would just play in the US...

    I would just like to add that The Tree of Life is not Malick's first film to play at Cannes--he won the best director award at the 1979 festival for Days of Heaven.

  • David  

    Ditto to the other positive feedback.

  • Jason Dietz  

    @Pedro: Thanks -- you are absolutely correct, and the sentence has been fixed in the article.

  • Pedro  

    Pedro Almodovar's "All About My Mother" did not win the Palm D'Or. He has actually never won a Palm D'or. The film won for Best Director.

  • Grand Champion  

    Yes, this was a really great feature. Here's to more like it in the future.

  • Matt  

    As usual, great article.

  • Mitch Tough  

    Thanks for the wrap-up!

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