The best movies from this year's Cannes Film Festival are marked by indelible images.
Individual scenes of explicit violence and torture are shocking in Amat Excalante's Heli, Jia Jhang-ke's A Touch of Sin and Hany Abu-Assad's Omar. Meanwhile, there are heartbreakingly tender scenes in Asghar Farhadi's The Past where a single tear crawls slowly down a cheek at a crucial moment and in Hirokazu Kore-eda's Like Father, Like Son in which anguish is quietly witnessed on the faces of torn parents and children.
Desperation is palpable in JC Chandor's All Is Lost when a stranded man, alone in the middle of a wide open ocean, screams a single expletive that is heard by no one. Then there's the isolation realized when a solitary older man confesses his love for a frisky younger one as the two friends sit alongside each other on a beach in Alain Guiraudie's Stranger By The Lake.
There's exasperation and humor in the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis when a clever cat escapes from a New York City apartment building, sending a young musician on a wild chase. Laughs lead to an emotional sci-fi moment in The Congress as an aging actress stands inside a full body scanner to have herself digitized to preserve her on-screen image forever. And finally, there's intense, explicit sensuality witnessed in an extended moment of sexual discovery for two French women in Abdellatif Kechiche Blue Is The Warmest Color.
These are the 10 best films from 66th Festival de Cannes (some of which were included in last week's mid-fest piece).
Blue Is The Warmest Color (La Vie d'Adele, Chapitres 1 et 2)
On the Sunday before the start of this year's Cannes Film Festival, I was in Paris and happened upon a demonstration against gay marriage. Protestors had gathered around a statue of Joan of Arc as a conservative speaker warned the vocal crowd that France was under attack. Days later, gay marriage was legalized as this year's Cannes Film Festival got underway amidst persistent Parisian right wing protests.
So, when Steven Spielberg announced the Palme d'Or for Blue is the Warmest Color, the award was celebrated as a multi-faceted victory: artistic, social and political. The prize was presented on a day that the French capital saw as many as 150,000 people demonstrate against the recent passage of gay marriage.
Well-known French actress Lea Seydoux praised the movie as "a witness to our time," while newcomer Adele Exarchopoulos said, "If it can show everyone tolerance, then it's gratifying." Tunisian-born French filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche revealed, "It taught me a lot about the spirit of freedom."
Yet the jury tried to keep the focus on the movie's artisti,c rather than social and political, merits. They praised the film, first and foremost, as a profound, courageous love story from, in jury President Steven Spielberg's words, a "sensitive, observant filmmaker."
Set in Lille, north of Paris, Blue Is The Warmest Color is a coming of age movie about a teenager (Adèle Exarchopoulos) who falls for an older artist (Lèa Seydoux). Adapted from a graphic novel, it is an emotionally and sexually graphic portrait of a relationship that plays out, in two parts, over three hours. Passion draws the two women together, but over time, social class differences challenge their bond.
Screening during the second week of Cannes, Blue immediately energized the festival and dominated the conversation leading right into awards day. Sundance Selects quickly acquired the film in Cannes for a U.S. release. Heartbreak and maturity take center stage as the intense and revealing story of a young woman unfolds.
Stranger By The Lake (L'Inconnu du Lac)
Similar themes can be found in other queer stories from Cannes 2013, the most accomplished of which is Alain Guiraudie's Stranger By The Lake (L'Inconnu du Lac). This French feature takes a surprising turn, it starts out as a seemingly light and idyllic summer story about gay men who gather for fun and sun on the shores of a beautiful lake. But their carefree encounters are challenged once a mysterious death occurs in their midst and threatens their isolated cruising spot.
Exuberant and emotional, Stranger By The Lake is eye-opening for its graphic portrayal of gay sex, but equally touching for its deeply felt examination of the urges and feelings driving gay men of muitlple generations.
Guiraudie plays with genres in the film, exploring slasher elements alongside surprisingly graphic porn scenes.
"Something that I had in mind the whole time I was writing the film [was] how to mix these two genres, the comic and the tragic, the laughter and the so-called thriller," Guiraudie told FilmLinc Daily Buzz last week in Cannes. Winner of the Best director Prize in the Un Certain Regard section of the festival, Guiraudie added, "I wanted to show, on one hand, the depths of a romantic feeling and at the same time the triviality and even what some consider the obscenity of the sexual act itself."
A Touch of Sin
In both Heli and A Touch of Sin, Amat Escalante and Jia Zhang-ke are grappling with rising violence in their home countries, Mexico and China respectively.
Concerned about the growth of Chinese violence. Jia Zhang-ke made a film that he hoped would resonate for various audiences.
Based on four true stories, Jia Zhang-ke's A Touch of Sin looks at the impact of violence and human loss amidst the Chinese economic boom. It includes stories set in different regions of the country, rural and urban alike. But the director feels that his new film also addresses the issue internationally.
"I hope to use this film to help me think about violence and also let everyone re-think about it," Jia Zhang-ke, winner of the Best Screenplay prize in Competition, told FilmLinc Daily Buzz.
Jia's latest may feel like a departure from his observant recent work, but with time to let it sink in I discovered a revealing cultural critique.
Amat Escalante, winner of the Best Director prize in Competition, wanted to address the reality of a drug war at home that has left more than 2,000 people killed this year alone. From an at times removed, often unemotional vantage point, Heli witnesses grotesque moments.
"It's a great country that has this virus that invades certain parts, and many people are suffering a lot from it. I wouldn't have shown those scenes they way I did if it wasn't for the idea that there were very young people being affected by that violence," Escalante explained in a FilmLinc Daily Buzz interview. "That is what's happening. I felt the need to show it and, to have a great impact, I wanted to go all the way with the violence."
Heli follows a few characters who encounter dramatic violence, but it also tracks a burgeoning relationship between two young people. It is a powerful new film, crafted over five years and approached with sensitivity and a sharp viewpoint, that provocatively grapples with a devastating situation that continues unabated in Mexico.
"My only defense is that it's really like that," Escalante said of the drug violence in Mexico. In fact, he added, "It's worse. Worse than it is in the movie."
Hany Abu-Assad's Omar shares an unforgettable on-screen moment of torture with Amat Escalante's Heli. although the act is depicted differently in each film.
Adam Bakri, who plays the title character, is constantly on the run in Omar, an energetic Palestinian feature in which he's playing a cat and mouse game with an Israeli agent. Bakri sprints, jumps and climbs through the narrow streets of his Palestinian neighborhood in a highly athletic (yet subtly touching) performance. The film won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at this year's festival.
"He’s just a regular guy. He works at a bakery," Bakri said of his character in a FilmLinc Daily Buzz interview. "He has dreams and ambitions just like any other guy in the world. The only difference between him and a guy who lives in New York is that he lives in an occupied land... He has to actually climb the wall to cross over to see his love, his sweetheart, Nadia. And he finds himself facing a really difficult choice and he knows it’s going to be risky, but he takes the risk because, for him, it’s the only way to resist the occupation."
Inside Llewyn Davis
Oscar Isaac is also perpetually moving in Ethan Coen and Joel Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis, winner of the Grand Prix (runner-up award) in Competition. The story of a couch surfing musician, the film is situated squarely in that moment when folk music was in a dramatic time of transition. Dylan emerged on the scene and catapulted folk music to greater awareness, the actor explained. Similarly, his character was in a time of transition. Will Llewyn Davis ever achieve wider attention or should he give up his career and join the Merchant Marine?
"It's about this edge of success and failure," Isaac elaborated during an interview with FilmLinc Daily Buzz. "There's very few geniuses that come and revolutionize everything. For the rest of us that want to be artists and have something to say, it's a lot of work and a lot of luck."
Funny and revealing, Inside Llewyn Davis, set mostly in New York City in the 60s, positions the young singer in the muddled gap between success and failure as an artist at the exact moment before folk music burst out of Greenwich Village coffee houses and to a wider audience.
All Is Lost
Very few words are ever spoken in JC Chandor's harrowing second feature, All Is Lost.
Robert Redford is the only actor in this stranded at sea drama. When we meet him, he's at the end of his rope.
"All is lost," our man writes to no one in particular as he pens a final message before giving up hope. Flash back eight days and we witness the harrowing experiences that lead him to fight for survival alone on a treacherous sea. A hole has opened up on the side of his boat and water is rising quickly one morning. Then a dramatic storm strikes. Redford's face tells the story, his expressions displaying his silent desperation, fear and isolation.
Very little is said but so much is conveyed in this surprising adventure.
Like Father, Like Son
A lot is also left unspoken in Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda's Like Father, Like Son, a drama with a light touch about two families whose sons are switched at birth. The debate it raises is provocative: What would you do if you'd mistakenly raised someone else's biological son for six years? Keep him or trade him in for your rightful heir?
That core question drives Kore-eda's narrative, winner of the Jury Prize (or second runner-up award) in Competition. Are Japanese traditions at odds with what's appropriate? Kore-eda explores two families, from different backgrounds, and how they navigate an unimaginable decision. Compeling and touching, the story unfolds on the faces of fathers and sons leading up to a curious conclusion.
"This isn't the only topic I address in my films," the director explained during a Cannes press conference. "It's the subject that is closest to me." He added that with his own parents gone, and now that he's a father himself, the subject is even more rich for him.
"I want to study the topic further," Kore-eda explained last week.
The Past (Le Passe)
Asghar Farhadi's The Past employs melodramatic touches and a collection of sharply constructed scenes to build towards a singular tender moment at the film's emotional climax. It is probably the most expertly crafted film I saw in Cannes. Watching each scene unfold is exhilarating as the film builds towards its affecting conclusion.
Set and shot in France, Farhadi's film explores some of the same terrain, namely a troubled marriage, that the Iranian filmmaker studied in his previous film, A Separation. Farhadi said this week that he finds intimate relationships fodder for rich exploration.
"There's so much suffering and pain linked to a couple," Asghar Farhadi said in Cannes. "I could spend my entire life with this theme and not cover it completely."
Blending live action and animation in a futuristic sci-fi fantasy, Ari Folman has created a compelling commentary on Hollywood and the future in The Congress. Robin Wright stars as actress (named Robin Wright) who's approaching middle age and facing an uncertain future for her own career. Tough to describe but exciting to watch, Folman's alluring film is full of emotional scenes even as it offers a sharp critique.
Among the 30 films or so I saw in Cannes, Ari Folman's The Congress was one of the first and also one of the best. It's a wild ride that is hard to forget.
Eugene Hernandez is the Director of Digital Strategy at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (@filmlinc). Follow him on Twitter at @eug. Get the latest daily FilmLinc coverage from Cannes in our special section.