After Attending Cannes From Afar, Justin Chang Recommends 7 Bold Festival Films

Jul 14, 2021
Originally published on July 14, 2021 5:11 pm

Having been fortunate enough to attend the Cannes Film Festival every year since 2006, skipping this year's event wasn't easy. Cannes is the most important event of its kind: a thrilling, maddening 10-day marathon of red-carpet glamor and behind-the-scenes deal-making as well as a showcase for some of the best new movies from all over the world.

Since the 2020 festival was canceled due to the pandemic, part of me was extra-tempted to take the plunge this year and brave the crowds that descend on this sleepy French Riviera town. But in the end, like many of my wary film-journalist friends and colleagues, I opted to stay back.

Happily, over the past couple of weeks, I've been able to see quite a few Cannes movies here in Los Angeles — about half the number I usually do. It's been a typically mixed bag of the good, the bad and the sometimes great, but it's also been wonderful to see so many bold, ambitious movies on the big screen — like experiencing a mini-festival of my own.

Some of these films will be arriving in U.S. theaters shortly, such as Stillwater, the latest drama directed by Tom McCarthy, best known for the Oscar-winning Spotlight. This one stars Matt Damon as Bill Baker, an Oklahoma oil worker who visits his daughter in Marseille, France, where she's in prison for the murder of her girlfriend.

The story, in which Baker sets out to prove his daughter's innocence, was loosely inspired by the notorious Amanda Knox murder trial, but it's anything but a straightforward dramatization. At times it feels like multiple movies crammed into one: a detective thriller, a culture-clash comedy and even a romance. But despite some implausible detours, Stillwater holds your attention and benefits from moving performances by Damon and a fierce Abigail Breslin as his daughter. It opens July 30 in theaters.

Opening the following week, on Aug. 6, is Annette, an enjoyably unhinged musical from the idiosyncratic French director Leos Carax, with a script and songs by the brothers Ron and Russell Mael, better known as the art-pop band Sparks. Annette premiered on the festival's opening night, and it begins with a delightful musical number fittingly titled "So, May We Start?" It must have been a tonic for audiences in Cannes, as it seemed to be channeling the hopeful on-with-the-show spirit of the festival itself.

A standup comedian (Adam Driver) and an opera singer (Marion Cotillard) fall in love and then fall from grace in Annette.
Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Two of the voices in Annette's opening number belong to the leads, Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. He plays a standup comedian; she plays an opera singer. They fall in love and then fall from grace in ways that recall countless tragic showbiz romances such as A Star Is Born. Annette is an intensely sad movie, with a performance from Driver that goes deeper and darker than anything he's ever done. It's also one of several movies in Cannes this year that focus on the inner lives of artists, both fictional and nonfictional.

One of the best of these is The Velvet Underground, Todd Haynes' richly immersive documentary about the legendary rock band and its roots in the '60s New York avant-garde scene. Also drawn from real life, though it's not a documentary, is the beautifully animated drama Where Is Anne Frank, from the Israeli director Ari Folman. He finds a clever if sometimes overly didactic way of retelling Frank's story, drawing a connection between her experience in hiding and the plight of refugees in Europe today.

Another artist's story is Drive My Car, an exquisite slow burn of a movie from the Japanese filmmaker Ryûsuke Hamaguchi. It follows a grieving theater director who finds a powerful solace in his many hours behind the wheel. This movie, expanded from a Haruki Murakami short story, has a novelistic richness that pulls you in; it runs nearly three hours and earns every single minute.

Rather shorter and similarly involving is the charming romantic fable Bergman Island, from the French writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve. It stars Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth as a filmmaking couple who visit the tiny Swedish island where master director Ingmar Bergman once made his home. What begins as a playful riff on Bergman's cinematic legacy gradually morphs into a sly and moving story about a woman finding her way as an artist.

That description could also apply to what may be the best movie from Cannes I've seen so far, which is all the more remarkable for being a sequel. It's called The Souvenir Part II, and it continues the story told in The Souvenir, Joanna Hogg's 2019 drama about her early years as a film student in 1980s London.

Once again Honor Swinton Byrne gives a superb performance as Hogg's alter ego, who's reeling from a personal tragedy and trying to figure out how to turn that painful experience into art. But unlike most of the sequels the movie industry regularly cranks out, this follow-up is much more than just an unimaginative retread. It's not yet clear when The Souvenir Part II will arrive in U.S. theaters, but like so many movies that screen at Cannes each year, it's well worth waiting for.

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Last year, the annual Cannes Film Festival was one of the many public events forced to cancel because of the pandemic. The festival returned this year with a larger lineup than usual. Our film critic Justin Chang, who usually attends but stayed home this year, was able to catch up with some of the movies from the festival at screenings in Los Angeles. Here's Justin's report on his Cannes away from Cannes.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Having been fortunate enough to attend the Cannes Film Festival every year since 2006, skipping this year's event wasn't easy. Cannes is the most important event of its kind - a thrilling, maddening 10-day marathon of red-carpet glamour and behind-the-scenes deal-making, as well as a showcase for some of the best new movies from all over the world. Since the 2020 festival was canceled due to the pandemic, part of me was extra tempted to take the plunge this year and brave the crowds that descend on this sleepy French Riviera town. But in the end, like many of my wary film journalist friends and colleagues, I opted to stay back. Happily, over the past couple of weeks, I've been able to see quite a few Cannes movies here in LA, about half the number I usually do. It's been a typically mixed bag of the good, the bad and the sometimes great. But it's also been wonderful to see so many bold, ambitious movies on the big screen, like experiencing a mini festival of my own.

Some of these films will be arriving in U.S. theaters shortly, like "Stillwater," the latest drama directed by Tom McCarthy, best known for the Oscar-winning "Spotlight." This one stars Matt Damon as Bill Baker, an Oklahoma oil worker who visits his daughter in Marseille, France, where she's in prison for the murder of her girlfriend. The story, in which Baker sets out to prove his daughter's innocence, was loosely inspired by the notorious Amanda Knox murder trial. But it's anything but a straightforward dramatization.

At times, it feels like multiple movies crammed into one - a detective thriller, a culture clash comedy and even a romance. But despite some implausible detours, "Stillwater" holds your attention and benefits from moving performances by Damon and a fierce Abigail Breslin as his daughter. It opens July 30 in theaters.

Opening the following week on August 6 is "Annette," an enjoyably unhinged musical from the idiosyncratic French director Leos Carax, with a script and songs by the brothers Ron and Russell Mael, better known as the art-pop band Sparks. "Annette" premiered on the festival's opening night. And it begins with a delightful musical number fittingly titled "So, May We Start?" It must have been a tonic for audiences in Cannes, as it seemed to be channeling the hopeful, on-with-the-show spirit of the festival itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANNETTE")

SPARKS, ADAM DRIVER AND MARION COTILLARD: (Singing) So may we start? May we start? May we - may we now start? It's time to start. May we start? May we - may we now start? High time to start. May we start? May we - may we now start? We've fashioned a world, a world built just for you - a tale of songs and fury with no taboo. We'll sing and die for you - yes, in minor keys. And if you want us to kill, too, we may agree. So may we start? May we start? May we - may we now start?

CHANG: Two of those voices you heard singing belong to the leads, Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. He plays a stand-up comedian. She plays an opera singer. They fall in love and then fall from grace in ways that recall countless tragic showbiz romances, like "A Star Is Born." "Annette" is an intensely sad movie with a performance from Driver that goes deeper and darker than anything he's ever done. It's also one of several movies in Cannes this year that focus on the inner lives of artists, both fictional and nonfictional.

One of the best of these is "The Velvet Underground," Todd Haynes' richly immersive documentary about the legendary rock band and its roots in the '60s New York avant-garde scene. Also drawn from real life, though it's not a documentary, is the beautifully animated drama "Where Is Anne Frank," from the Israeli director Ari Folman. He finds a clever if sometimes overly didactic way of retelling Frank's story, drawing a connection between her experience in hiding and the plight of refugees in Europe today. Another artist's story is "Drive My Car," an exquisite slow burn of a movie from the Japanese filmmaker Ryusuke Hamaguchi. It follows a grieving theater director who finds a powerful solace in his many hours behind the wheel. This movie, expanded from a Haruki Murakami short story, has a novelistic richness that pulls you in. It runs nearly three hours and earns every single minute.

Rather shorter and similarly involving is the charming romantic fable "Bergman Island," from the French writer-director Mia Hansen-Love. It stars Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth as a filmmaking couple who visit the tiny Swedish island where master director Ingmar Bergman once made his home. What begins as a playful riff on Bergman's cinematic legacy gradually morphs into a sly and moving story about a woman finding her way as an artist.

That description could also apply to what may be the best movie from Cannes I've seen so far, which is all the more remarkable for being a sequel. It's called "The Souvenir Part II." And it continues the story told in "The Souvenir," Joanna Hogg's 2019 drama about her early years as a film student in 1980s London. Once again, Honor Swinton Byrne gives a superb performance as Hogg's alter ego, who's reeling from a personal tragedy and trying to figure out how to turn that painful experience into art. But unlike most of the sequels the movie industry regularly cranks out, this follow-up is much more than just an unimaginative retread. It's not yet clear when "The Souvenir Part II" will arrive in U.S. theaters. But like so many movies that screen at Cannes each year, it's well worth waiting for.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is the film critic for the LA Times. On tomorrow's show, The New York Times' Ivan Penn tells us about a debate in plans for infrastructure spending that poses a once-in-a-generation choice about renewable energy use. Do we bank on huge wind and solar farms with new transmission lines connecting them to cities? Or do we go local, with rooftop solar panels and micro grids? The battle, Penn says, is intense. I hope you can join us. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACKY TERRASSON'S "LA VIE EN ROSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.