A Vibrant Year - My Favorite Films from the 2017 Cannes Film Festival
by Alex Billington
May 30, 2017
What are the best films out of this year's Cannes Film Festival? Which ones should you be taking an interest in? What films should be a priority for you to see? After 12 days at the 70th Cannes Film Festival, after 30 screenings, it's time to present my 2017 list of my Top 5 Favorite Films. This was my 8th time back to this festival, and I love being there in the middle of all, committing fully to seeing as many films as I can. These five below are the ones that I adore, that connected with me emotionally or intellectually, and I hope everyone plans to check them out when they arrive in their neighborhood. They are worth the wait. There were many great films this year, and this is my final recap of the fest (with my list of all the films at the end).
I was lucky to catch 30 films at Cannes this year. Along with the films highlighted below, another one of my favorites is the French activism docudrama titled 120 Beats Per Minute, about an AIDS activism group in Paris in the 1990s. I also caught the Safdie Brothers' Good Time with Robert Pattinson, but didn't like it that much (read my review here). My very favorite film might just be the one I saw twice at the end of the festival in the final two days - Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here, which I will discuss more below. I was also enamored by the epic Russian film A Gentle Creature (or Krotkaya), which some critics hated. I didn't see the film Jupiter's Moon, about a Syrian refugee with superpowers, because I heard terrible things from pretty much everyone. And I also missed but really want to see Léa Mysius' film Ava, about a French girl and her black dog friend. There's always more films to see, and never enough time to see them. Such is life.
I won't delay any further with my Top 5 films of Cannes 2017, as these are the films that I loved the most, or left the greatest impact on me, and they all deserve to gain recognition outside of France. My favorites:
The Florida Project - Directed by Sean Baker
What a wonderful film, full of so much humanity, full of so much life. There is nothing else like it, and it's outstanding on so many levels. Sean Baker, who previously directed the indie hit Tangerine, tells a story of poverty set in Orlando, Florida right on the outskirts of Disney World. The Florida Project focuses on three very young kids living with their parents in motels, doing anything they can to get the money they need to pay their "rent'. The performances from all three of the kids are extremely impressive, and to top it off, Willem Dafoe gives one of the best performances of his career as the manager of the motel. It's a film that will grab you, pull you in, and never let you forget it exists. I like what Tim Robey had to say in his review: "Baker finds poignancy but also irony in these economics, and hardly ever risks poverty porn, hitting you with swift and brutal developments that, miraculously, skirt Loachian melodrama to ring loud and true."
You Were Never Really Here - Directed by Lynne Ramsay
This film is the one that left me floored and it's the one I was waiting to discover. I saw it twice, two days in a row, at the end of the festival and enjoyed it even more a second time. It's taut, streamined filmmaking telling the story of a "hire-guy" protector played by Joaquin Phoenix. His work is to rescue young girls from tormentors, and his latest job seems to be going fine right up until the hand-off. Phoenix won the Best Actor award at Cannes, and for good reason, because he really is at the top of his game in this and Ramsay took him just as far as he needed to go. I wrote in my glowing review that it is "masterful filmmaking telling a story of a brutal, broken man who has a big heart. I wasn't expecting this film to be so damn good, but it really is." The score by Jonny Greenwood is also utter perfection, and I'm desperate to get a copy of it as soon as I possibly can. This film will probably end up on my Top 10 list by the end of the year, it's that good.
Visages, Villages (Faces, Places) - Directed by Agnès Varda & JR
Visages, Villages (which just translates to Faces, Places in English) left me in such a good mood, more than any other film at the festival. It's a brisk, 90 minute documentary that is short and sweet and a beautiful reminder of how it's possible to find carefree happiness in connecting with other people. I fell in love with both JR and the immutable Agnès Varda, who show off their quirky friendship in this road movie. The two of them hop into JR's custom-outfitted photography van and drive around to rural parts of France taking pictures of the locals and pasting giant prints onto buildings. As simple as it seems, it's the charm and the optimism and unfiltered joy that makes it such a memorable doc. Visages, Villages is one of those films that will make you smile non-stop the entire time, and you'll leave feeling so refreshed and so happy and so good. Wouldn't it be great if all films could achieve that? Either way, I'm just glad this charming film is out there.
The Square - Directed by Ruben Östlund
I love The Square!! It's so brilliant, funny, compelling, and challenging. Ruben Östlund has quickly become one of my favorite filmmakers working today, between his ski resort dark comedy Force Majeure and now this film, The Square, which is another intelligent dark comedy making fun of things that most would never dare make fun of. This time, Ruben skewers the modern art world and the way wealthy people think they're helping when they're really not. There's so much to unpack with this film, so many layers to it, and so many things being discussed in each and every scene. I love the way Ruben frames everything, working with his cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel, giving us a different look than expected for this kind of story but still allowing us to understand what's happening. The lead performance by Claes Bang is fantastic, because it drives so much of the plot and the emotions in the film. Just wait ’till you get to experience this for yourself.
Okja - Directed by Bong Joon Ho
The more I think about this one, the more I like it. Okja isn't a perfect film by any means, it has awkward moments and tonal problems, but it is still a great film. Plus, it's totally original and totally from the mind of Bong Joon Ho. He mixes a story about a girl and her animal friend, with a story about capitalism and its bad sides, with action/adventure scenes, with a story about animal activists, with a strong message about the pitilessness of factory-farm raised animals. There's a lot going on in Okja, and at times it feels like it's specifically made for kids, but it's still an enjoyable and amusing film that may hit you emotionally in ways you're not expecting. I like what Emily Yoshida had to say in her review: "The film is packed with so many strange gems of moments, and while a few feel like Bong’s losing the plot (specifically any time Okja decides to loosen her bowels), it always snaps back… For all its wackiness, Okja is also a deeply humane film." Yep.
Runner-ups: Yorgos Lanthimos' The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and Eugene Jarecki's Promised Land.
I very much enjoyed both The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Promised Land and these two films also deserve to be mentioned along with my other five favorite films above. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a very wicked dark comedy that will make you upset (exactly what Lanthimos is going for this time), which inspired my editorial during the festival about "Accepting the Challenge of Viewing Provocative Cinema". Even though it was uncomfortable to watch, I still enjoyed it and kept thinking about it throughout the entire festival. Jarecki's Promised Land is a fascinating documentary where they take Elvis' old Rolls Royce and drive it around the country, discussing the American dream and comparing the rise/fall of Elvis with the rise/fall of America. I didn't expect to enjoy this film as much as I did, but man oh man is it totally engaging to watch.
As always, these are just my own favorites, the ones that meant the most to me, and there are many more films from Cannes that other critics loved (and hated). To recap all 30 films I saw at Cannes 2017, below I present my complete list of all the films I screened and my feeling on each one. Some of the films I missed that I kept hearing great things about include Chloé Zhao's The Rider, Andrey Zvyagintsev's Loveless, Byung-gil Jung's The Villainess, Valeska Grisebach's Western, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa's sci-fi Before We Vanish. I also already saw Brigsby Bear and Wind River at the Sundance Film Festival and loved both of them. They also played in Cannes this year, but I didn't have time to catch them again (even though I do want to see both of them again). And I also already saw Patti Cake$ at its Sundance premiere. My 2017 list:
Alex's Cannes 2017 Films:
1. Ismael's Ghosts (dir. Arnaud Desplechin) - Just Okay
2. Wonderstruck (dir. Todd Haynes) - Liked It
3. Blade of the Immortal (dir. Takashi Miike) - Liked It
4. Bright Sunshine In (dir. Claire Denis) - Just Okay
5. Okja (dir. Bong Joon Ho) - Loved It
6. A Man of Integrity (dir. Mohammad Rasoulof) - Liked It
7. The Square (dir. Ruben Östlund) - LOVED It
8. 120 Beats Per Minute (dir. Robin Campillo) - Loved It
9. Promised Land (dir. Eugene Jarecki) - Loved It
10. Visages, Villages (dirs. Agnès Varda & JR) - LOVED It
11. Redoubtable (dir. Michel Hazanavicius) - Liked It
12. The Meyerowitz Stories (dir. Noah Baumbach) - Just Okay
13. How to Talk to Girls at Parties (dir. John Cameron Mitchell) - Just Okay
14. Happy End (dir. Michael Haneke) - Just Okay
15. The Killing of a Sacred Deer (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos) - Loved It
16. Filmworker (dir. Tony Zierra) - Liked It
17. The Florida Project (dir. Sean Baker) - LOVED It
18. 24 Frames (dir. Abbas Kiarostami) - Boring
19. The Workshop (L'Atelier) (dir. Laurent Cantet) - Liked It
20. The Beguiled (dir. Sofia Coppola) - Liked It
21. Demons in Paradise (dir. Jude Ratnam) - Hated It
22. A Gentle Creature (dir. Sergei Loznitsa) - Loved It
23. Good Time (dirs. Josh & Benny Safdie) - Just Okay
24. Nothingwood (dir. Sonia Kronlund) - Liked It
25. I Am Not a Witch (dir. Rungano Nyoni) - Liked It
26. In the Fade (dir. Fatih Akin) - Loved It
27. April's Daughter (dir. Michel Franco) - Hated It
28. You Were Never Really Here (dir. Lynne Ramsay) - LOVED It
29. Based on a True Story (dir. Roman Polanski) - Just Okay
30. You Were Never Really Here (dir. Lynne Ramsay) - LOVED It Again
And that's it for Cannes 2017, wrapping up our coverage of the festival. Ruben Östlund's The Square won the Palme d'Or - find the full list of 2017 awards winners here. My coverage is finishing up with this list and a few more interviews on the way. I'm very much looking forward to returning to Cannes next year, it's one of my favorite festivals and I always enjoy going back to get introduced to the latest that cinema has to offer.