First off, I just need to mention that Best Films of Our Lives officially turned one year old a couple days ago. I know my updates have been incredibly sporadic over the past four months, but I appreciate that the few of you out there who actually read this thing have stuck with me through this Petersburg interlude. I plan on going absolutely film-crazy this summer after this period of (relative) deprivation, and will push myself to write as much as I can in turn. In any case, I feel like after a year I’m really beginning to hit my stride with the reviews, lists and awards coverage; my goal for the next year is to invent a few new features to spice things up a bit. As always, your comments and criticisms are always appreciated, and thanks for reading!
Now, that’s out of the way, let’s get to the movies. Sunday saw an eventful year at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival draw to a close. Terrence Malick’s long-awaited “The Tree of Life” finally debuted to equal parts ecstasy and vitriol, while Nicolas Winding Refn’s super-charged action/noir flick “Drive” blasted its way to instant critical success (and likely cult status), setting a strong precedent for excellent genre work to establish a steady presence along the usually artsy-fartsy Croisette. Controversial director Lars Von Trier bucked his reputation by creating his most subtle, broadly appealing, and all-around civil film yet, only to instantly incite furor again by jokingly commenting in an interview that he considers himself a Nazi, resulting in the Cannes organizers actually declaring him “persona non grata” and banning him from the festival (you can watch the director’s “gaffe” for yourself; I personally believe Von Trier’s expulsion was a complete overreaction to the man’s misguided attempt to use humor to tamper his intentionally provocative ideas).
All in all, this year’s field was considered much stronger than last year’s, and while I obviously can’t yet speak to the quality of the films shown, I can say that there were sure as hell a lot more titles that I find intriguing. Besides “The Tree of Life,” “Drive,” and “Melancholia,” all of which now hold a firm place in my must-see list, there was “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” featuring what is by all accounts a gut-wrenching, career-best performance from the already-astounding Tilda Swinton; “The Artist,” a love letter to silent cinema featuring a star-making turn by French actor Jean Dujardin; “Midnight in Paris” (playing out of competition), a return to whimsically charming form by Woody Allen; “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” a slow-burning Turkish police procedural; “The Skin I Live In,” a scathing and freaky, if somewhat impersonal, genre thriller from Pedro Almodóvar; “Le Havre,” a smooth and pleasurable comedy about a French shoeshiner who tries to save an immigrant child from difficulties with the police; “This Must Be the Place,” a risky little piece featuring Sean Penn as a middle-aged rock star who goes searching for his father’s tormenter, an ex-Nazi war criminal hiding out in the U.S.; and “The Kid with a Bike,” a touching naturalistic piece from the Dardenne brothers (who already have an impressive two Palme d’Or wins to their name).
So who took home the prizes?
Palme d’Or: “The Tree of Life,” Terrence Malick
Grand Prix (tie): “The Kid with a Bike,” Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, and “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Jury Prize: “Polisse,” Maïwenn
Best Director: Nicolas Winding Refn, “Drive”
Best Actor: Jean Dujardin, “The Artist”
Best Actress: Kirsten Dunst, “Melancholia”
Best Screenplay: “Footnote,” Joseph Cedar
You have no idea how strange it felt to type Kirsten Dunst’s name in there, but by all accounts Dunst has delivered career-defining work in Von Trier’s latest, and the feisty Dane has certainly been known to coax stunning performances out of his leading ladies in the past. Meanwhile, Refn has now certainly established himself as a major international presence after sterling, innovative cult work like the “Pusher” trilogy, “Bronson” and “Valhalla Rising.” It would be amazingly cool to see Refn and his leading man Ryan Gosling push their slam-bang genre film into further awards contention, but Cannes success rarely translates into Oscar nods; “The Pianist” may have won the Palme d’Or, but that one was a soft lob for the Academy anyway, and Javier Bardem’s nomination for “Biutiful” last year would’ve been much more frisky if Bardem wasn’t already an Oscar-approved star.
In any case, points to jury president Robert de Niro and his cohorts for surprising many and steering away from safer choices like “Le Havre” and going for the divisive choice of “The Tree of Life.” No matter what my opinion of the film ends up being, it’s great to see a bold auteur like Malick get his due. If you’re thinking that Oscar’s more likely to come calling now, I’d say hold up: the Palme d’Or changes nothing about the fact that cerebral, philosophical, emotionally distant head trips aren’t exactly the Academy’s cup of tea. Nominations for cinematography, visual effects, and maybe even supporting actor (for a reportedly brash and commanding Brad Pitt) aren’t out of the question, though.
The only really disappointing thing is that in a fantastic year for female directors, including Lynne Ramsey (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”), Julia Leigh (“Sleeping Beauty”), and Naomi Kawase (“Hanezu”), only Maïwenn went home with a prize. But at least that’s something.
One last tidbit: the Dardenne brothers have now collected at least one prize for every one of their five films that have played in contention. So next time around, you’ve got some pretty safe money there.