Big Screen Brilliance: 9 Favorite Films at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival
by Alex Billington
May 28, 2019
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 72nd Cannes Film Festival, after 30 screenings, it's time to present my 2019 list of my Top 9 Favorite Films. This was my 10th 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 nine listed 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 outstanding films this year, and this is my final recap of the 2019 festival - see all of these.
This year at Cannes was exhausting. Due to procedural changes in the press screening schedule, it felt like all my time was spent going from one film to the next, queuing early enough to make sure I get in and get a good seat, and occasionally grabbing food and sleeping. Barely time to write or think or relax. I was still able to see 30 films by the end of the festival, which is my goal every year. I'm extremely happy that Bong Joon-ho's Parasite won the Palme d'Or, as it's definitely one of the best films of the year. It's also the only press screening I was at where the entire audience (of tough critics!) erupted into applause, including at the end when the credits started and everyone cheered. My least favorite films of 2019: Young Ahmed, perhaps the worst film the Dardennes have made, it's manipulative and sloppy; and Gasper Noé's boring medium-length (50 minute) film Lux Aeterna, in which nothing happens. I'd rather focus on the positive, and talk about the films I did love, that I can't forget about, all of the ones that have inspired me to just exclaim effusive praise.
I won't delay any further with my Top 9 films of Cannes 2019, 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 Lighthouse - Directed by Robert Eggers
THIS FILM. A masterpiece. The Lighthouse is one of two perfect films at Cannes 2019, and I have no qualms saying that. It really is perfect, there's not a thing I would change about it. All hail Robert Eggers, one of the most exciting filmmakers working today. I wasn't a big fan of his first film, The Witch (yes I know many others loved it but it's just not my thing), but this one blew me away. From my review: "Every single shot is masterful. The score is exquisite. There are frames from this that will be studied for decades. It's visceral, intense, hilarious, terrifying, engrossing storytelling about two men and madness." Part of what makes The Lighthouse a masterpiece are the performances by Robert Pattinson & Willem Dafoe. They truly plumb the depths of insanity, and it makes for such a ravishing watch. The other part of this that is so brilliant is the framing, the nearly 1:1 aspect ratio and grainy B&W cinematography makes it all feel like a fever dream.
Parasite - Directed by Bong Joon-ho
This is the other perfect film at Cannes 2019. Bong Joon-ho reigns!!!! Parasite is AMAZING! I love love love this film. It's a complete and total knockout. A brilliant dark comedy and fantastic take down of rich people, with meticulously crafted social commentary worked into every scene. Even though it's about social classes in Korea, this story has universal appeal, and everyone will be pulled right into it. One of Bong Joon-ho's best, and I say this as someone who already loves his films, which is really saying something about this one. Parasite is a masterclass in filmmaking, with perfect composition, every performance dialed in, and a genius screenplay with so much depth and intelligence and humor. IT RULES. I can't wait to see it again!! We all know Song Kang-ho (from Memories of Murder, The Host, Snowpiercer) is an excellent actor, but I think the two best performances in Parasite are from the two kids - Choi Woo-sik as Ki-woo, and Park So-dam as Ki-jung. The cinematography is stunning, as always with Bong Joon-ho, but man does this look amazing.
I Lost My Body (J'ai Perdu Mon Corps) - Directed by Jérémy Clapin
An odd but surprisingly beautiful film - about a conscious, chopped off hand that goes on a thrilling journey across Paris to get back to its body - a boy named Naoufel. This animated drama is one of the most original, life-affirming, endearing animated films to debut in years. Director Jérémy Clapin spent years developing this, and it's an unconventional story that defies categorization. Even though it's about a chopped off hand, it's not a horror film, nor is it a comedy; it's partially a love story, and a story about identity, while also a gripping adventure. One friend described it to me as having the sweetness of Amelie, and although I don't want to make that comparison, after seeing it I'll agree that it works - if only to possibly convince even more people to watch this. My favorite part of the film is the score, by Dan Levy. I adore this score, it's as unique and memorable as the film, and provides the emotional base that makes this animated feature so touching.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire - Directed by Céline Sciamma
For Sama - Directed by Waad Al-Khateab & Edward Watts
Wow wow wow. How much of a difference there is when a woman makes a war documentary. The story of a young mother in Syria, made as a film for her daughter to watch one day. It's remarkable. Truly horrifying & astoundingly beautiful all at once, an unfiltered story of humanity. I would even call this is a seminal film in the documentary genre. The fresh perspective we get from Waad Al-Khateab making this is phenomenal. There's footage in this that we're not usually supposed to ever see. I don't think any western country would show this kind of footage - uncensored shots from a hospital. It's so sad and yet also inspiring to see these two parents keep fighting. This the first doc I've seen this year that should be a guaranteed Oscar nominee. It's more than just a time capsule, an awe-inspiring and brutally honest look at humanity that no matter what language you speak, or where you come from, will have an impact on you. You will never forget it. And hopefully more and more people will discover it with time, and forever be changed by the story Waad tells.
The Wild Goose Lake - Directed by Diao Yinan
Noir is back! Well, maybe not entirely, but award-winning Chinese filmmaker Diao Yinan has given us one of the best modern noir films around. The film is a bit confusing at times, I admit, but I still loved it. I saw The Wild Goose Lake (also titled Nan Fang Che Zhan De Ju Hui in Chinese) on the last day, after missing it at its original premiere earlier in the festival. I'm so glad I went to see this, and I hope others feel that way taking a chance going into something they don't know much about. It's one hell of a mesmerizing film to see on the big screen. "The way Diao Yinan plays with light and shadows is so slick, he's undeniably a master of visual storytelling… He uses that grungy, lived-in, sullied feel of these places to add extra dimensions to the look of every frame. Shots focus on walls and the ground and corners and streets and it's never distracting, because it's a part of the scenery." I am in awe by how the film looks and how splendid every single shot is.
The Whistlers - Directed by Corneliu Porumboiu
You'll be obsessed with learning the odd whistling language from this film once you see it, whistling to your friends all day long. Corneliu Porumboiu! He's so so crazy, but such a talented filmmaker, experimenting with a Hitchcock-esque ensemble heist drama this time around. And it's so much fun! I was laughing my ass off in a few scenes, and that made me feel so good in the midst of so many more serious Cannes films. The Whistlers is a story told in seven chapters, involving various double-crossing individuals who work for the cops or a crooked businessman or neither. I love the two lead performances by Vlad Ivanov (who looks a lot like a Romanian Michael Keaton) and Catrinel Marlon as Gilda. From my review: "It's inventive and entertaining, full of fun and memorable characters, and a superb music selection. Porumboiu is pretty much a genius, we just live in his world now." One of the most original and enjoyable films in the festival this year.
Les Miserables - Directed by Ladj Ly
I saw this at the beginning of the festival thanks to a tip from some French friends who told me I don't want to miss it. It's incredible, an intense urban thriller that builds to a powerful, unforgettable, iconic finale. The big ending is awesome and sums up everything director Ladj Ly is trying to say with a gripping showdown. The film has stuck with me all the way through the festival, and I hope audiences outside of France will give it a chance. I wrote about its optimism in my full review: "In addition to the charged, riveting filmmaking, there's a positive edge to the film that really makes it stand out, especially when it gets really intense in the second half. I really loved seeing Ladj Ly's fresh vision and the choices he made with this story. I very much appreciate the way he gives us a bit of hope, and doesn't fall into the cinematic trap of death and destruction as the only way out." This might just be the most exciting feature directorial debut I saw at Cannes this year.
Vivarium - Directed by Lorcan Finnegan
The best of the three sci-fi films I saw in Cannes (the other two being Jessica Hausner's Little Joe and the Brazilian film Bacurau). It's a smart, sharp little film, and impressively engaging despite its fairly repetitive concept contained in one location, with some sneaky teases at something much bigger going on. Vivarium is yet another "Black Mirror"-esque sci-fi concept extended into a 97 minute feature film, but it works well and it's entrancing - the peculiarity and quaint design of the "perfect" neighborhood they get trapped in is part of why it's so thrilling to watch. Compliments to Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg for giving visceral performances as the young couple who freak out when they discover they're trapped in a neighborhood full of little starter homes. Director Lorcan Finnegan got my attention with this film, and I'm looking forward to discussing it, and all the freaky hints hidden within, once more sci-fi fans get a chance to catch up with it.
A few other films from the festival I want to mention even though they weren't my favorite. I really, really liked Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but it's not one of the best of the fest. I just didn't love it, at least as much as I was hoping (read my full review). Maybe watching it a second time will make me feel differently, though I think everyone will have their own thoughts on it once it opens in July anyway. I also really enjoyed Dexter Fletcher's Rocketman film, starring Taron Egerton as Elton John, an upbeat, emphatic, lively musical biopic that is much better than (ahem) last year's big rock biopic. Terrence Malick's WWII drama A Hidden Life is a bit too long, but still solid, and still worth a watch if you're a fan of Malick. I've heard opinions all over the place on that one, and I am curious to hear what everyone else thinks once you all get to see it. Mati Diop's Atlantique (the Grand Prix winner - also known as Atlantics) is good, but not great, and has some good ideas but never really excels in any way. I'm surprised it won this award, I don't think it really earned that. But I do think Diop will get even better with every film she makes.
Up next I'm headed to the Karlovy Vary Film Festival starting on June 28th. Until then, my full list of films that I screened at Cannes 2019 is included below - in the order in which I saw them during the festival. Ciao.
Alex's Cannes 2019 Films:
1. The Dead Don't Die (dir. Jim Jarmusch) - Just Okay
2. Les Miserables (dir. Ladj Ly) - Loved It
3. Bacurau (dirs. Juliano Dornelles & Kleber Mendonça Filho) - Liked It
4. The Swallows of Kabul (dirs. Zabou Breitman & Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec) - Liked It
5. Atlantics (dir. Mati Diop) - Just Okay
6. Sorry We Missed You (dir. Ken Loach) - Liked It
7. The Climb (dir. Michael Angelo Covino) - Liked It
8. Rocketman (dir. Dexter Fletcher) - Loved It
9. Pain & Glory (dir. Pedro Almodóvar) - Just Okay
10. Little Joe (dir. Jessica Hausner) - Just Okay
11. Vivarium (dir. Lorcan Finnegan) - Loved It
12. I Lost My Body (dir. Jérémy Clapin) - Loved It
13. Family Romance LLC (dir. Werner Herzog) - Just Okay
14. The Whistlers (dir. Corneliu Porumboiu) - Loved It
15. Lux Aeterna (dir. Gasper Noé) - Hated It
16. The Lighthouse (dir. Robert Eggers) - LOVED It
17. A Hidden Life (dir. Terrence Malick) - Liked It
18. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (dir. Céline Sciamma) - Loved It
19. Diego Maradona (dir. Asif Kapadia) - Liked It
20. Young Ahmed (dirs. Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne) - Hated It
21. Frankie (dir. Ira Sachs) - Liked It
22. Chicuarotes (dir. Gael García Bernal) - Liked It
23. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (dir. Quentin Tarantino) - Liked It
24. Parasite (dir. Bong Joon-ho) - LOVED It
25. Matthias & Maxime (dir. Xavier Dolan) - Just Okay
26. Ice on Fire (dir. Leila Conners) - Liked It
27. The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil (dir. Lee Won-Tae) - Just Okay
28. Sibyl (dir. Justine Triet) - Just Okay
29. The Wild Goose Lake (dir. Diao Yinan) - Loved It
30. For Sama (dirs. Waad Al-Khateab & Edward Watts) - Loved It
And that's it for Cannes 2019, wrapping up our coverage of the festival. Bong Joon-ho's Parasite won the Palme d'Or - find the full list of 2019 awards winners here. My coverage wraps up with this list of favorites and additional trailers 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.