For decades, we Angelenos have been deeply fortunate to have gifted writers covering film for us in the L.A. Times. Charles Champlin, Sheila Benson, Kevin Thomas, Kenneth Turan, Manohla Dargis and a strong stable of freelancers brought and now Justin Chang brings indefatigable movie love combined with trenchant insights and historical knowledge to our doorsteps (and now phone and computer screens) every week. For proof, read Justin Chang’s dispatch from the French Riviera, where he somehow managed to see dozens of films within a very short span of time and emerge bleary-eyed but still able to write beautifully and succinctly about the world cinema he had just digested. It goes without saying that Laemmle Theatres be screening most if not all of these in the months ahead. To whet your appetite, M. Chang’s favorites are below, ranked from quite good to superb. (Click through to the full story to read about the ones he panned or gave mixed reviews.)
8. ‘Last Summer’ (Catherine Breillat) ~ A French-language remake of a well-received Danish movie (2019’s “Queen of Hearts”) wasn’t the comeback anyone expected of Breillat, who’s known for her fearless and provocative explorations of sexuality (“Romance,” “Fat Girl,” “Anatomy of Hell”) but hasn’t made a new feature in 10 years. Still, there’s a telltale absence of easy moralizing in this drama about a married lawyer (a fantastic Léa Drucker) who has a torrid affair with her teenage stepson (Samuel Kircher). That’s not a spoiler; what’s surprising here is the explosive, ever-shifting power dynamics that ensue, which Breillat explores and unpacks with delectable, diamond-hard rigor. It’s wonderful to have her back.
7. ‘Fallen Leaves’ (Aki Kaurismäki) ~ The title readies you for an autumnal work from Finland’s master of deadpan comic melancholy, though of all the familiar Kaurismäkian virtues on display here — the precise compositions, the brilliant gags, the swells of emotion that the characters feel deeply but can’t express — it’s the curious timelessness of the whole endeavor that shines through. That’s true even when the director ushers in overheard radio chatter about the war in Ukraine, a pointed touch that exists in steadily pulsing tension with an exquisitely directed love story, beautifully acted by Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen. Oh, and it runs 81 minutes, making it the shortest movie in competition as well as one of the best.
6. ‘May December’ (Todd Haynes) ~ In exploring the decades-later aftermath of a sexual relationship between a woman and a young boy, Haynes’ densely layered, disarmingly funny, Netflix-acquired melodrama finds itself in playful, coincidental conversation with a few other movies on this list: “Last Summer,” of course, and also “Four Daughters,” with its layered inquiry into the nature of acting and cinematic artifice. Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman give superbly matched performances as, respectively, the movie’s Mary Kay Letourneau figure and the actor chosen to play her, and Haynes shrewdly leaves it to us to decide which of the two, if either, deserves condemnation. Caught in the middle is the young boy turned confused man, played by a revelatory Charles Melton, with a heartache so real and vivid it chokes the laughter in your throat.
5. ‘The Pot-au-Feu’ (Trần Anh Hùng) ~ The purest pleasure in this year’s competition is this two-and-a-half-hour French foodie romance, adapted from Marcel Rouff’s novel, that consists of long, dramatically uninflected sequences of Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel cooking up a storm in their enormous 19th century kitchen. But what a graceful, perfectly controlled and utterly mouthwatering storm it is, and what an ideal vehicle this is for Trần, a Vietnamese French director known for his sensuality-first filmmaking. If you’ve wanted to see vol-au-vent and baked Alaska assembled from the inside out, or observe the proper, napkin-over-the-head consumption of an ortolan, or just watch Binoche juggle veal racks and cream sauces with masterly ease, this is a picture to place on the arthouse culinary porn shelf alongside “Babette’s Feast” and “Eat Drink Man Woman.” You’ll never bother with “Julie & Julia” again.
4. ‘Youth (Spring)’ (Wang Bing) ~ Though it clocks in at more than three and a half hours, this utterly engrossing documentary — the first nonfiction work to compete at Cannes in some time — is a relatively short effort from Wang, whose films can stretch to six, eight or more hours at a time. His subject, as ever, is the perilous state of modern China, witnessed here in the numbing daily routines of teenage garment workers as they manufacture children’s clothes in the privately owned workshops of Zhili City. As this lengthy but never-leisurely work unfolds, you may find yourself mesmerized by the speed and dexterity with which these workers stitch each piece together, infuriated by how ruthlessly they’re exploited, and reminded — by all the laughter, horseplay and sexual frustration that occasionally burst into the frame — of just how young they truly are. Long as the movie is, its grim observations and implications linger far longer.
3. ‘La Chimera’ (Alice Rohrwacher) ~ The best archaeological adventure yarn at Cannes this year wasn’t “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny”; it was Rohrwacher’s richly enveloping story of a young Englishman (a superbly scruffy, melancholy Josh O’Connor) with a heart full of ache and a talent for rooting out buried artifacts in the Italian countryside. With her wondrous 2018 Cannes entry, “Happy as Lazzaro,” Rohrwacher inflected the traditions of classic Italian cinema with a bracingly modern spirit. In this strange, layered and moving new work — by turns a ghost story, a romance, a crime drama and a bittersweet evocation of communal life — she shows a similar fascination with the old and the new, weaving the treasures of the past into a work of art rooted in the here and now.
2. ‘Anatomy of a Fall’ (Justine Triet) ~ A man falls to his death in the snow; did he stumble or jump, or was he pushed? The murder trial that follows in this intricate and enthralling courtroom whodunit, acquired for theatrical distribution by Neon on the strength of its enthusiastic Cannes reception, means to get at the truth. But it succeeds only in teasing out more questions: about men and women, parents and children, and the burdens of guilt and responsibility in a difficult marriage. There are, however, a few matters that can be settled beyond a reasonable doubt: Sandra Hüller, who plays the widow on trial, is one of the foremost actors of her generation, and Triet, who previously directed Hüller in their enjoyable 2019 meta-comedy, “Sibyl,” has taken a major leap forward.
1. ‘The Zone of Interest’ (Jonathan Glazer) ~ I’ve written much already about this one and will be writing more about it in the future, when it’s released theatrically by A24. But Glazer’s brilliantly unfaithful adaptation of a novel by the late Martin Amis was the most gripping movie I saw at Cannes and the one that refused to leave me alone. A formally controlled portrait of a Nazi commandant (Christian Friedel) and his family going about their lives right next door to Auschwitz, it’s a brilliant negative-space vision of the Holocaust, a mesmeric portrait of human evil observed from the inside, and its images and words have come rushing back to me with alarming frequency and clarity all Cannes long. Given the mixed festival reactions to Glazer’s earlier triumphs “Birth” and “Under the Skin,” it feels gratifyingly right to see “The Zone of Interest” already getting its due.
And finally, this is how my personal Cannes jury of one would dole out the awards. In spread-the-wealth fashion, I’m allowing a couple ties, and I’m also limiting each movie to just one win, with one exception (per the festival’s rules, a movie can win both an acting prize and a screenplay prize).
Palme d’Or: “The Zone of Interest” (Jonathan Glazer)
Grand Prix: “Youth (Spring)” (Wang Bing)
Jury Prize (tie): “The Pot-au-Feu” (Trần Anh Hùng) and “Fallen Leaves” (Aki Kaurismäki)
Director: Alice Rohrwacher, “La Chimera”
Actress: Sandra Hüller, “Anatomy of a Fall” (Justine Triet)
Actor (tie): Charles Melton, “May December” (Todd Haynes), and Koji Yakusho, “Perfect Days” (Wim Wenders)
[To see how the festival jury doled out the prizes, click here]