My Cannes 2020 At-Home Experience: Catching Up with Terrific Films
by Alex Billington
May 26, 2020
Even without Cannes this year, we Cannes still have our own festival anyway. Even without film festivals, we can still experience the excitement of cinema watching films at home. The 2020 Cannes Film Festival was supposed to take place from May 12th to May 23rd, and this would've been my 11th year attending. But the festival has "postponed", although it seems like it's cancelled for 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic. They decided not to host a virtual festival and instead are considering some kind of online offering and/or a partnership with another festival in the fall. So what else is there to do during these 11 days in May? Watch more films anyway! I wouldn't want to be anywhere else besides in Cannes anyway, so in the spirit of the festival, I decided to host my own version at home and watched 15 extraordinary films over the last 11 days.
Inspired by the Norwegian film magazine Montages' concept for a "Film Lover's Alternative Cannes Festival (At a Distance)", I decided to program my own "Cannes At-Home" festival for 2020 and still spend all 11 days (that I would've been in Cannes anyway) watching more great films. Because why not? I even topped it off with a few pasta meals (in honor of the Italian restaurants La Piazza / La Pizza being my usual mainstays in Cannes) and a few midnight screenings (exhaustion is part of the festival experience!). I've been watching at least one film I haven't seen every single day since the lockdowns began back in March, so it was easy to transition into Cannes mode. I won't write about every last film I watched (see my quick thoughts on each on Letterboxd) but I do want to highlight some of my favorites. Especially because I chose a bunch of highly acclaimed, prestigious films and at least three became instant favorites. Masterpieces that I now adore, too.
Here is my selection of 15 films that I watched (they didn't all play in Cannes, but they should've): William Dieterle's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) - the opening night film of the very first ever Cannes in 1939 (which was then cancelled the very next day due to the start of WWII), Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo (1982), Agnieszka Smoczynska's The Lure (2015), Spike Lee's Malcolm X (1992), Jules Dassin's Topkapi (1962), Edward Yang's Yi Yi (2000), Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957) - it played in Cannes, too!, Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale (2000), Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive (2011), Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's Asako I & II (2018), Jûzô Itami's Tampopo (1985), Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966), Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies & Videotape (1989) - winner of the Palme d'Or, Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956), and Jules Dassin's Rififi (1955). Out of all of these, the only one I had seen before was Drive, which I rewatched because it was such an unforgettable experience seeing it in Cannes in 2011 (here's my review).
Tampopo (dir. Jûzô Itami) - This is, without a doubt, one of the best food movies ever made. And it's easily the best ramen movie ever made, that's for sure. This one has been on my radar ever since they re-released it back in 2016 to celebrate the Criterion 4K release. But I only finally watched it this year. It's heaven. It's perfect. Lots of film fans already call this of their all-time favorites, and I'll happily join that club, because it's foodie bliss. I watched this one at home with a take-home order of ramen (they give the noodles / soup separate to combine once you're at home) and it was the best choice. An impossible film to watch without some kind of food, because half of it is literally about the amazingness of food - preparing and eating it. And the rest of it is just about Japan and how much they love ramen and how hard it is to make the perfect bowl of ramen – it's not just some noodles and soup, nope. This film is a happy, joyous, delicious taste of cinema.
The film's premise is part of what makes it so awesome - two Japanese cowboy truck drivers help a single mother perfect her ramen and liven up her ramen shop. But there's also a helping of erotic foodie vignettes inbetween the main story, too. They really pack in all kinds of flavor and ingredients into this whammy of a Japanese story. And best of all, it's a feel-good, eat-ramen-happy film that will leave you grinning at the end.
Yi Yi (dir. Edward Yang) - Winner of Best Director at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival. Many critics already talk about this film as one of their all-time favorites, but I still wanted to give it a look myself. The nearly-three-hour running time seems daunting, but once you get into it, the time flies by. It is truly magnificent - a bonafide masterpiece. A breathtakingly beautiful film that captures the grandeur of life, as impossible as that is, in a stunning 173 minutes of cinema bliss. It's hard to grasp in just one viewing how rich and layered and insightful every last scene is. It's so refreshing to watch something that feels like it's instantly working its uplifting magic on you with every delightful moment. Even the sad moments are a reminder that every single one of us experiences hardships and challenges in life. It gave me that feeling of lightness that I crave with heartier cinema because it makes even three hour films entirely engaging to watch. And rewatch. A few laugh out loud moments also gave me that sweet pang of pure joy. And the cinematography and composition is some of the best I've ever seen in any film. I already feel like rewinding it and starting this all over again.
Indiewire's David Ehrlich also wrote a tribute to Yi Yi - a must read essay. "Time and again, through death and even murder, this intricate ensemble story returns to the same idea: If people could see everything for themselves, there would be nothing for us to show each other. Reminding us of that might be the single most valuable thing that movies can do, and no movie has ever done it better than Yi Yi." Yep - agreed. He goes on to eloquently explain why the film is an everlasting work of life-affirming, affecting cinema. "There is no end of things to see in Yang’s magnum opus… What makes Yi Yi special is that it restores our sight."
The Lure (dir. Agnieszka Smoczynska) - This is a kinky, amusing Polish mermaid musical horror comedy thriller and it's AMAZING. This is another film I've heard plenty about already, but still had never seen it until now. Sensational! I didn't know it was going to be THIS amazing, but it totally is. Absolutely loved it, another instant favorite. I seriously enjoyed every song in this, even though I didn't understand any of the Polish singing (the subtitles were a bit shaky). It's an instant classic horror musical (which isn't easy to pull off to begin with) that is supremely entertaining. And kinky. It moves at a swift pace, breaks out into song often, and is packed with style and spunk. I really believe Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Smoczynska went all out with an ambitious, one-of-a-kind concept that shouldn't work as well at it does - but it does. She took a huge risk with every last detail (and song) in this, and ended up making something truly glorious. She made a film that will be talked about forever, and it's going to be discovered by more and more people every week.
I've noticed that a lot of film websites and film critics have been honoring Cannes in their own way over the last two weeks. And it's exciting to see! We may not be united in our experiences together, but we are united in our love for cinema. Many have put together their own mini film festivals and guides to Cannes. Others have written lists of their favorite Cannes films (see the NY Times' 8 Cannes Film Festival Prizewinners We Love [and 3 We Don't]). Picturehouse Cinemas in the UK has published a daily recommendation of Cannes favorites under the hashtag #CannesWatchAtHome (organized by @PaulRidd). Australian critic Stephanie Bunbury wrote a fun "Enjoying the glamour of cancelled Cannes – at home" article. It's reassuring to see so many other film lovers also feeling lost without Cannes and coming up with ways to fill that gap. And we've chosen to honor cinema by celebrating cinema, and celebrating the filmmakers we love and want to support.
Hopefully everything will be back to normal in 2021, and hopefully we'll be back in Cannes in May in 2021. Until then, keep watching more films. Films with subtitles, films that are three hours, challenging films, experimental films. One of my favorite things about Cannes is that it's a place of discovery. Not only a place to discover new filmmakers, but to (re)discover old ones, too. I had never seen a Alejandro Jodorowsky film until I saw the documentary Jodorowsky's Dune in Cannes (in 2013). After I got back from the festival, I started watching his films and quickly caught up. In all honesty, I enjoyed every last one of the films I saw during my at-home experience this year, and learned more about the filmmakers who made them. It was a chance to "catch up", but also to explore and learn about these films. And at the end of these two weeks, I feel entirely enriched and rejuvenated by my experience. Even though there is no Cannes this year, I could still bring that festival experience home and reach the end of May feeling more enlightened and invigorated.
As always, you can follow me @firstshowing for more updates. Or follow my Letterboxd page @firstshowing to see what I'm watching recently and some of my thoughts. I'll definitely be back to Cannes again next year.