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The 14 Best Movies at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival

We live in interesting times. Sadly. Many of the titles at this year’s Cannes Film Festival seemed understandably preoccupied with the role of the artist in a changing world — be it through stories of writers and filmmakers wrestling with the political and economic realities around them, or through allegorical tales that asked whether goodness and beauty could be found amid madness and horror. It was an unusually introspective Cannes, and maybe that’s one reason there were so few “buzz” titles — not a lot of big deals or chatter-inducing breakout hits or even bait for Oscar prognosticators.

What there was instead: a number of excellent films, many of which will probably make their way to theatrical release and struggle to find viewers in a marketplace obsessed with the big and shiny. Promise me you’ll take a long, hard look at these pictures when they finally hit screens near you. I didn’t see everything — I couldn’t, even if I had wanted to — but here’s the best of what I saw.

Jia Zhangke’s “Ash Is Purest White”

Ash Is Purest White (Jiang Hu Er Nv)

Jia Zhangke’s expansive, exhausting love story is set in China during the first decade and a half of the 21st century. Qiao (the riveting Zhao Tao) is the tough but loyal companion to small-time gangster Bin (Liao Fan), who runs a small mah-jongg parlor in the dying coal mining town of Datong. When Bin is attacked, Qiao fires off a gun and winds up in prison for five years. After she gets out, she embarks on a long, picaresque journey to reunite with him. But Bin himself has been stripped of the power he once had and is now a sad, embittered shell of his former self. It’s a relationship whose true nature remains elusive: Bin never quite seems worthy of Qiao’s loyalty and affection, and the latter often seems too headstrong, too independent-minded, to remain so obsessed with him. Both of them are adrift in a China that’s supposedly changing dramatically, with towns being laid to waste by a rapidly shifting economy. What we’re seeing, however, is not an actual transformation, but a kind of escalating repetitive cycle. The technology and the landscape may be changing; the people, not so much. There’s a timeless quality to Qiao and Bin’s relationship, to its elemental cycles of loyalty, power, and humiliation.

The Image Book (Le Livre d’Image)

Despite being at times impenetrably dense, Jean-Luc Godard’s The Image Book also makes for one of his more engaging, maybe even “entertaining” recent works. The film carries you along in part because it consists largely of other film images — you can lose yourself in the dexterity and texture of Godard’s editing, in the way he matches compositions, gestures, subject matter. Along the way, he cuts in surveillance footage of ISIS attacks, sometimes directly brutal, sometimes merely ominous, alongside images from American and Russian and European movies (including some of his own). It feels as if, true to the title, Godard is creating a compendium of images, an encyclopedia of visual references for the Western mind; the marvelous final section ends up in the Middle East, where Godard includes footage from a variety of surprisingly obscure films from the region. Is he perhaps asking us to take a step back and see many of the images he’s presenting not as memorable moments from beloved movies but as part of a cultural discourse that, for all its artistic bounties, is still used to marginalize, to terrify, to manipulate?

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Three Faces (Se Rokh) 

Jafar Panahi was one of Iran’s leading cinematic lights when the government banned him from filmmaking a few years ago. Since then, he has become perhaps the country’s most important director, creating powerfully personal, intimate tales of artistic stasis and what it means to create. This is the fourth film he’s made since his ban, and it might be his most ambitious. Here, Panahi again plays himself, as he and acclaimed actress Behnaz Jafari (also playing herself) travel to a remote Turkic village to investigate a mysterious video they’ve received in which a teenage girl with dreams of showbiz appears to commit suicide. As fascinating as it may be, the mystery is something of a red herring: Panahi is interested more in exploring the subtle dynamic between himself and Jafari, and looking at his own role as a filmmaker and manipulator in a remorselessly patriarchal society. In some ways, he’s more critical and introspective of his own work and persona than the Iranian government could ever be.

Shoplifters (Manbiki Kazoku) 

The winner of this year’s Palme d’Or, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s gentle drama about a made-up “family” of thieves living on the margins of society is shot through with the director’s trademark generosity and attention to behavior. The setup feels like a fable, but it’s based on a real news item, and Kore-eda leans into the paradoxes of the story. These people steal and cheat, but some also have jobs. They are not actually related, but they often share the intimacy and loyalty of a real family. The director has always been good at showing love manifest itself in surprising ways, and his ability to tell this story with a minimum of sensationalism and judgment feels like a small miracle.

Benedikt Erlingsson’s “Woman at War”

Woman at War (Kona Fer I Strid) 

Mild-mannered, fortysomething Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) has single-handedly declared war against the massive new power plant being built near her town, creatively disrupting it any way she can. At the same time, an application she made years ago to adopt a Ukrainian child is finally coming to fruition. Does she continue on her course as a resolute eco-warrior, or does she cool things down and prepare to become a mother? Should one cancel the other out? Benedikt Erlingsson’s droll comedy-drama looks at first like it’s charting a fairly basic conflict (something something can she have it all something), but the director plays a sly little game here, effectively interrogating both the protagonist and the audience about our reasons for seeking a better world.  Beneath the playful surfaces — musical interludes, quirky neighbors, happy smiley eco-terrorists, Rube Goldbergian sabotage attempts — lie some uncomfortable truths about citizenship, family, and privilege.

Capharnaüm

To some, Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s gritty tale about a young Syrian runaway’s journey through Lebanon’s slums and refugee communities was just another manipulative wallow in miserabilism, milking easy tears out of the spectacle of a tyke put in extreme circumstances. But I was struck by how unsentimental Labaki’s film is. Twelve-year-old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), who runs away from home after his impoverished parents decide to marry off his beloved eleven-year-old sister for a few chickens, is a rough, angry kid with a chip on his shoulder, and the director makes very few appeals to our pity. The story is carried by Zain’s practical-minded efforts to survive; his resourcefulness, not to mention his twisted sense of right and wrong, can be quite gripping. Labaki has done her homework, and the film carries a tough-minded authenticity. And in presenting us with a protagonist who, despite his age, is unusually hardened and at times even ruthless, the director does something surprising: She allows us to enter into the boy’s mind. We watch this movie not as concerned adults but as complicit secret-sharers, and that makes all the difference. Despite an awkwardly didactic climax, the results are grueling and powerful.

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The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

Terry Gilliam has been trying to make this film for three decades, and frankly, it was worth the wait. Adam Driver plays a cynical commercial director who discovers someone selling a bootleg DVD of his student thesis film, and seeks to reconnect with the idealism and passion of his youth. Meanwhile, the aging Spanish shoemaker (Jonathan Pryce) he once got to play Don Quixote in his film still thinks he’s Cervantes’s legendary faux-knight errant. Their absurdist misadventures combine a medieval quest with contemporary topicality. The movie’s a madhouse, by design: Gilliam loves the sweet delirium of a story that runs on images, impulses, and manic energy instead of on characters and logic. If you feel a little lost, that’s because he wants you to. And it all ties into the great theme of the director’s career: that the world needs dreamers, however wrong or deluded or doomed to failure those dreamers may be.

Burning

The notion of imagination powering the world and how that fits into the creative life runs through Burning, Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s demented love triangle about class, jealousy, and creation. A shy, hardworking small town boy reconnects with a girl he once knew, but their burgeoning relationship is interrupted by her hooking up with a rich, smooth-talking playboy whose calm, rational manner seems to hide something darker. The filmmaker’s dexterity with the telling minutiae of human interactions makes this emotionally gripping — even if the finale feels more convenient than convincing. Even so, this is a compelling look at how we imagine ourselves in the world, and all the ways that class, family, and desire can come to complicate that.

Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman”

BlacKkKlansman

Spike Lee’s neutron bomb of a movie is also a tonal roller coaster, and therein lies much of its unique power. It’s alternatingly comic, heroic, tragic, horrifying, ridiculous, dead serious, clear-eyed, and confused; it shifts into moments of documentary and even essay film, but it’s also one of Lee’s more entertaining and vibrantly constructed works. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie exploit its tonal mismatches so voraciously and purposefully. Based on a crazy true story (or, as an opening title puts it, “some fo’ real, fo’ real sh*t”), BlacKkKlansman follows the efforts of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), an African American detective in the Colorado Springs police force who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the mid 1970s, passing as white over the phone, with fellow cop Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) posing as Stallworth’s white avatar at actual Klan meetings. Lee seizes every opportunity in that startling setup to play with the notions of identity and belonging that have always fueled his work. He also adopts contrasting styles for each of the tribes that Ron moves through in the movie — the police, black activists, and the Klan, with the latter usually shown as a bunch of bozos, a dangerous but also often hilariously incompetent collection of ignorant brutes and slack-jawed yokels. In some ways, it’s a brilliant trap: Laugh all you want, Lee seems to say; you laughed at Trump, too, and look where that got us.

Cold War (Zimna Wojna)

Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War begins in 1949, as Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), an urbane, educated musician, travels the Polish countryside with colleagues, putting together a folk ensemble. During auditions, he meets Zula (Joanna Kulig), a provincial girl with a striking voice and a no-bullshit attitude. Soon, they’re entangled with each other, but there’s a sublimated quality to their passion: She is preternaturally calm in his presence, while his intent, seductive glances rarely edge into outward emotion. This is, after all, Communist Poland, and sincere feelings, one suspects, are best kept under the surface. As the years pass, and their relationship becomes ever more complicated, music becomes Wiktor and Zula’s bond — an emotional space they’ve created in which they’re able, to some extent, to be themselves. In effect, the music does the feeling for them — and the music, like their relationship, changes. We have folk chorals that speak of lost loves, sweetly wounded jazz twinkling in French cafés, and the furious, overpowering charge of rock ’n’ roll. Meanwhile, the “cold war” of the title may refer to more than the geopolitical struggles of the twentieth century. Wiktor and Zula’s relationship is a war of sorts as well — one in which they battle each other and the world. This may be something more than mere love: It’s a compulsion, a codependence, a mutual assured self-destruction. The more we see this relationship, the more its mystery grows.

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Summer (Leto)

“This never happened,” is a recurring refrain in Kirill Serebrennikov’s explosive pop musical about the legendary Soviet musician Viktor Tsoi and the Leningrad underground rock scene of the 1980s. It’s a line usually uttered after yet another exuberant musical sequence in which the streets and halls of Soviet Russia are transformed into utopian visions of creativity, rebellion, and wild choirs of ordinary citizens singing international post-punk hits. This never happened: It’s both a confrontation and a lament. This film was initially billed as something of a biopic, but with its languid, freewheeling narrative, its constant blurring of fantasy and reality, its mixing of Soviet garage rock with better-known pieces from around the world, Summer proves a lot more than that: an ode to a world without boundaries. Serebrennikov, not unlike Iran’s Jafar Panahi, is currently under house arrest in Russia, having run afoul of Vladimir Putin’s goons. But ironically, more than any other film I saw at Cannes, this felt the most like the work of a free man.

The Wild Pear Tree (Ahlat Agaci)

In the first half of The Wild Pear Tree, Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan delivers what might be his funniest, most politically poignant work yet, with a series of extended, tense, and often hilarious conversations about literature, popularity, love, modernity — issues central to the role of an artist today, especially in a place like Turkey. But gradually, this absorbing tale of a young, aspiring writer shuttling between city and town, between ambition and family, becomes a dreamy meditation on belonging — filled with imagery that combines apocalyptic portent and languid poetry. In some ways, it’s Ceylan’s most personal work yet. And despite being the longest movie he’s ever made, it’s mesmerizing and impossible to let go.

Alice Rohrwacher’s “Lazzaro Felice”

Lazzaro Felice (Happy as Lazzaro)

Building on the work of Italian forebears such as Pier Paolo Pasolini and the Taviani brothers, Alice Rohrwacher’s Lazzaro Felice is an escalating parable, a film that starts in a somewhat realist vein and then gradually becomes more unreal, gathering symbolic force along the way. It begins on an Italian farm that’s being worked by sharecropping peasants, with generations living on top of one another, bonded to the land — slaves, kept in perpetual penury by the ruthlessly creative bookkeeping of the landowner. Amid the peasants, Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) is a special case. A kind of innocent whose understanding of the world is simple and generous, he is used by the others for his strength and perseverance. You might say he’s being exploited by the peasants in a way not dissimilar to the way they’re being exploited by the landowner. But Lazzaro’s symbolic value and his human-ness are not at odds, and his goodness is recognizable because it feels rooted in character. The fabulist turns of the story eventually build into a portrait of a society founded at every level on exploitation — of workers, immigrants, consumers, the poor, the gullible, the unfortunate. Rohrwacher’s most impressive feat here might be her ability to find just the right narrative and emotional distance for each section of the story, as it moves from rustic drama to picaresque journey to more pointed social allegory. But for all the metaphoric power of her film, Rohrwacher always complicates what she shows us: This is a society where people’s understanding of right and wrong is forever changing, where being a truly good human is an impossibility not because the world is evil but because each person’s world is different.

Gaspar Noe’s “Climax”

Climax

Probably my favorite film at Cannes this year, Gaspar Noé’s mind-melting musical is essentially a series of increasingly disturbing dance sequences depicting the initial glory and eventual destruction of an inclusive, exuberant community that may or may not represent the dream of a vibrant, multicultural France. The story, loosely based on real events, unfolds over one night. In front of a giant French flag, an ethnically, sexually diverse group of voguers, krumpers, waackers, contortionists, and others puts the finishing touches on an absolutely blistering dance. Their performance is a barrage of styles, of posing and strutting and encouragement, moving between controlled chaos and perfect unison — democracy and power expressed as a rhythmic, sensuous experience. But soon, the dancers all start to feel a little sick, and things go haywire. Someone’s spiked the sangria with an unknown drug, and recriminations and retaliations ensue, as buried secrets and desires and resentments rise to the surface. Noé wisely doesn’t aim for anything resembling realism, opting instead to lean into a surreal physicality. This is a cast made up of dancers, so he lets them dance their psychic disintegration: Now, what was once a constellation of individuated movements working together fractures into wayward particles of gyrations and gestures. Each person, it seems, malfunctions in his or her own way.

 

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“The Wild Pear Tree”: Nuri Bilge Ceylan Gets Personal

And then there’s the Ceylan…” I lost count of how many times I heard this during Cannes this year. When one looked at the competition schedule, it was hard to ignore the rough, fearsome beast lurking there right at the end: Ahlat Ağacı (The Wild Pear Tree), a 188-minute film from Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, a tough-sit capper to a fest where the movies already demand your full attention and engagement. The final title in competition can be there for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes, it’s because the filmmakers are racing to finish the movie and need the extra time. But such placement still always feels like a statement of some sort. Ceylan isn’t a director one can ignore: He’s one of the world’s great filmmakers; won the Palme d’Or for his last effort, Winter Sleep (2014); and has never returned from the festival empty-handed. He is also generally not known for brisk pacing or light subject matter, so it seemed perverse and even a little sadistic to schedule his latest, longest work right as the fest was supposed to be winding down.

The Wild Pear Tree is certainly long, but luckily it’s also fairly entertaining. I never thought I’d laugh this much during a Nuri Bilge Ceylan film. It’s not that he’s a stranger to humor: Uzak (Distant), the film that put him on the map internationally in 2003, is basically an odd-couple comedy, and there are sidesplitting moments in the first half of his 2011 magnum opus, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. But in the first half of The Wild Pear Tree, which follows an aspiring writer after graduation as he shuttles between the city of Çanakkale and his rural hometown of Çan, Ceylan delivers what might be his funniest, most politically poignant work yet. It also happens to be achingly personal.

Ever since his first film, Kasaba (The Town), which was effectively an extended conversation among the members of a rural family, Ceylan has struggled to capture the languid, ruminative quality of a Chekhov story. That may come as some surprise to those who know him largely as a director of stone-faced deadpan and quietly dreamy reveries. But in Winter Sleep, he seemed to renew his efforts at portraying the wandering rhythms of an evening’s discussion. I’m not entirely sure he succeeded there, but in Pear Tree Ceylan presses his fondness for dialogue and debate in new directions, effectively structuring the first half of this expansive film as a series of extended, tense, and often hilarious conversations about literature, popularity, love, modernity — issues central to the role of an artist today, especially in a place like Turkey.

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In the picture’s most bravura sequence, our protagonist, Sinan (Doğu Demirkol), a teaching-school grad and wannabe writer who oscillates between extremes of shy apprehension and dogged impertinence, approaches an acclaimed novelist in a bookstore and engages him in a debate about — among other things — whether stories should have messages, whether the personality of an artist should affect our readings of their work, whether it’s OK to take things other people consider sacred and make them your own. Their conversation starts on an awkward footing to begin with and becomes increasingly confrontational; Sinan the young idealist can’t stop his relentless questioning, and the writer goes from gentle, avuncular befuddlement to outright anger.

Beneath it all, one senses Ceylan himself trying to make sense of his own journey from brash young outsider bursting with ideas to renowned, respected artist weighed down with responsibility. Beneath that, there are thoughts here — conflicted, unresolved ones — about how an artist should engage with his times. That’s a critical question for Ceylan, an internationally beloved, progressive but outwardly apolitical artist working in a politically volatile country. (I’m told by those in the know that this scene with the writer also includes an inside-baseball nod to Ceylan’s own falling-out with his old friend and onetime cinematic partner-in-crime Zeki Demirkubuz, the Turkish director of The Third Page and Innocence.)

Ceylan isn’t trying to resolve any of these debates but rather to have them as openly as possible. Even Sinan’s most ridiculous foils have a point to make. Not long after his argument with the writer, our hero visits the head of a construction firm who, he’s been told, “likes to read.” The man, who has sponsored lots of local cultural projects as a way of greasing the rails for his own business, has a completely different idea than Sinan about what kinds of stories are worth reading about: He remarks on how the region of Çanakkale is home both to the ruins of Troy and the Gallipoli battlefield, and is astonished when Sinan expresses more interest in the inner lives of everyday nobodies than on the heroic acts of famous soldiers and historical figures. This man need not be a metaphor just for the stuffy gatekeepers of official culture in Turkey, but for those who demand more overt, political engagement in general from artists looking for human stories.

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Sinan’s conversations are framed by visits to his family — to his beaten-down gambling-addict dad (Murat Cemcir, in a performance that mixes charm and pathos), a longtime teacher preparing for retirement; and his much put-upon mother. Everything Sinan’s father touches seems to collapse: He has somehow never won anything in all these years of gambling, and owes money left and right. The well he’s trying to dig on their property is clearly doomed to failure. Thus, Sinan initially sees himself as other to both the broader world and his own family; he is embarrassed by what he perceives as his father’s irresponsibility and lack of dignity, his odd, lackadaisical view of the world. Paradoxically mixed in with the young man’s self-defeating gloom is a kind of self-sustaining grandiosity: He is the intellectual who will escape this world, who will transform his troubled experiences into the stuff of art, into the “quirky, auto-fiction meta novel” that he claims to be writing.

Unlike the fairly simple walk-and-talks or two-shots of Sinan’s conversations, these moments back home with family and friends are often filmed as expressive journeys through landscapes — through fog, and sun, and snow, often with captivating, mysterious imagery that combines apocalyptic portent and languid poetry: a sleeping baby covered in ants, an afternoon nap that looks like a crime scene, a loving kiss that turns into a vicious bite. The mystical, earthy pull of these sequences stand in sharp contrast to the basic, streamlined style of the conversation scenes, effectively creating a cinematic dialogue between the discursive and the dreamlike.

And so, within the structure of The Wild Pear Tree lies a direction, if not an answer to some of Sinan’s questions. As it enters its final hour or so, the film leaves the comedy and conversations behind and becomes something quietly devastating. Sinan finds that he has more in common with his father than he realizes, and he’s pulled into the older man’s drama of poverty, pain, and resentment. But somewhere in there is a kind of hope as well, a growing solidarity with one’s roots that may or may not hold at least one answer to the question of just how one goes about creating and living in the world.

Watching The Wild Pear Tree, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Ceylan’s first two films, The Town and Clouds of May, which he shot back in his hometown, using his friends and family, particularly his parents, playing variations on themselves. Despite moments of stirring loveliness that marked its director as a name to watch, The Town was a rough first effort; the far more successful Clouds of May was about a filmmaker who came back home to shoot a movie starring his parents that looked very much like The Town. (It was clear that Ceylan had studied Kiarostami’s metafictional Koker Trilogy.)

These efforts were warm, ambling, wry little looks at small-town life, but it now occurs to me that we rarely got a sense from them of what Ceylan thought of his parents, or what they thought of him. They acted for his cameras, often revealing a certain bemused indifference to matters of cinema or realism or continuity. The Wild Pear Tree feels like a necessary third chapter to those earlier works, or maybe even an informal prequel, a philosophical journey through the mind of an aspiring artist trying to figure out who he is and where he belongs. The closing credits, played out over the sound of that aforementioned, eternally useless well being dug, suggests that the work, for Ceylan, still goes on.

 

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A Search for a Corpse is So Much More in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

A few days into 2012, and we already have a favorite for the New Year’s best movie: Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.

Turkey’s leading filmmaker has several accomplished festival-friendly evocations of urban isolation to his credit—notably the city mouse–country mouse character study Distant (2002) and the pensive breakup not-quite-comedy Climates (2006). In themes and style, both films are evocative of early Antonioni; a 157-minute police procedural at once sensuous and cerebral, profane and metaphysical, “empty” and abundant, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is closer to the Antonioni of L’Avventura, and it elevates the 52-year-old director to a new level of achievement.

I first saw Once Upon a Time under less than optimal circumstances, as the last competition movie shown on the last night of last May’s Cannes Film Festival. It knocked me out, seemed even stronger on second viewing, and left me curious to see it again. The title suggests a shaggy-dog story or a fairy tale, or you could call it an epistemological murder mystery: Like several recent Romanian movies, Police, Adjective and Aurora (as well as the recently released Iranian hit A Separation), Once Upon a Time is a nominal genre film that, in the way that its narrative is delivered, invites the viewer to meditate on the nature of truth or the basis of knowledge.

It’s also, like Ceylan’s earlier films, an impeccably beautiful representation of the everyday—as demonstrated by the brief prologue, a slow, steady zoom through a service station’s dirt-encrusted window into a barren room where three guys, one of whom will perhaps be killed by the other two, eat and drink under the blind gaze of a blurry black-and-white TV. Cue the distant thunder—let the investigation begin. At once absurd road film and grand metaphor, the movie’s first third is a search for meaning in the void. A convoy of official cars drive by night through the barren countryside; they have two suspects in custody and are vainly seeking the spot (by a “round” tree) where they claim to have buried the third. “How do you know it’s not here?” one of the increasingly frustrated cops demands.

Everyone on this journey is a student of life. The futile quest and fruitless interrogation are paralleled by inane small talk among the various investigators as well as a series of fraught private conversations between the party’s two professionals—the glib prosecuting attorney and a self-effacing young doctor riding along as a witness to pronounce the corpse dead if found. Headlights illuminate the landscape and transform it into a near-empty stage. (As much as Once Upon a Time concerns the problems of deductive logic, it’s also movie about the quality of the light.) Midway through, in a scene of uncanny loveliness and material visions, the group pulls into a remote village for a late-night meal at the headman’s house. The night has given birth to a dream. Later, with the sky beginning to lighten over a hill as bleak as calvary, the searchers find that for which they have been searching (perhaps) and go about creating an official report complete with detailed descriptions and photographs of . . . what?

“There’s a reason for everything,” someone says unconvincingly, once back in the car. With the mission accomplished, in a somewhat farcical fashion, the film might have ended here. There is, however, a morning after. The corpse is brought back to town so that the doctor may perform an autopsy. The night of mystery is over. The evidence can now be pondered by the dawn’s dreary light. Procedure is followed. Still, however banal the daytime images, a metaphysical darkness remains—and even grows. Will the presumed widow identify the body? Can she? The autopsy begins, presenting more puzzling facts. Why is there dirt in the corpse’s lungs? What is dug up must again be buried.

A grand narrative yarn spun from a number of smaller ones, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia demonstrates the truism that the more we know, the less we understand. Or is it vice versa? Perhaps the greater understanding is admitting how little we can know.

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NYFF: The Lineup, Plus 5 Must-Sees

Golden anniversary approaching, the New York Film Festival maintains a singular position. Because it’s curated rather than competitive, the annual Lincoln Center bash is a yearly bulletin on the state of world film culture—heavy on festival winners and critical favorites. The NYFF programmers order à la carte from abroad and bring it back home, garnished with a few crowd-pleasing treats for its board and the local media.

The quality varies from year to year, but the 2011 edition is solid. Building on a strong Cannes, which premiered 11 of the NYFF’s 27 Main Slate selections, the festival’s selection committee (Richard Peña, Scott Foundas, Dennis Lim, Todd McCarthy, and Voice critic Melissa Anderson) has created a mix of the hyped and the obscure, the familiar and the new, the tough and the tender, a soupçon of fluff and no less than three movies (Abel Ferrara’s 4:44: Last Day on Earth, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, and Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse) visualizing the end of the world.

Although impossible to equal the news value of last year’s opening night, the world premiere of The Social Network, this NYFF has a number of star-enriched, commercially viable, name-brand tent poles. Roman Polanski’s Carnage (adapted from Yasmina Reza’s Tony-winning God of Carnage) kicks off the fest Friday night with the director’s first NYFF inclusion, if not appearance, since Knife in the Water, 47 festivals ago. Michelle Williams’s Monroe turn, My Week With Marilyn, the first feature by British TV director Simon Curtis and a world premiere, is the designated centerpiece, while Alexander Payne’s George Clooney vehicle, The Descendants, closes the festival October 16.

Two more movies are flagged as galas: The Skin I Live In by Pedro Almodóvar, whose biannual presence at Lincoln Center is pretty much a given, and, from a director who has never been so honored, David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method—a deeply fascinating Freudian love story for the Jung at heart. It’s also—along with the doomsday trio, Gerardo Naranjo’s terrific Miss Bala, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s magisterial Once Upon a Time in Anatolia—one of the festival’s standout standouts.

Nothing this year from East Asia (a retro for the Japanese B-movie factory Nikkatsu aside), but there are two excellent entries each from Israel (The Footnote by Joseph Cedar and Policeman by Nadav Lapid) and Iran (This Is Not a Film by Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and A Separation by Asghar Farhadi). The two Israeli films evoke the nation’s fierce insularity from very different perspectives while, each in its way, the Iranian films are legal thrillers.

Bean-counters will further note the Main Slate is evenly split between vets and rookies. Polanski aside, the 13 returnees include Almodóvar, Ceylan, the Dardenne brothers (back to neo-neorealist form with The Kid With a Bike), Ferrara, Aki Kaurismäki (the mordant heart-warmer Le Havre), Steve McQueen (the much-hyped Shame), Naranjo, Panahi, Payne, Martin Scorsese (with a documentary portrait of George Harrison), Tarr, von Trier, and Wim Wenders (the Main Slate’s other doc and first 3-D picture, Pina). (Majorly snubbed: Aleksandr Sokurov, whose typically eccentric version of Faust won the Golden Lion in Venice.) Along with Cronenberg are a dozen first-timers: Cedar, Curtis, Sean Durkin (making his debut by evoking the Manson family in Martha Marcy May Marlene), Farhadi, Mia Hansen-Løve (Goodbye First Love), Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist, likely the NYFF’s biggest crowd-pleaser), Ulrich Köhle (Sleeping Sickness), Lapid, Julia Loktev (The Loneliest Planet), Santiago Mitre (The Student), Ruben Östlund (Play), and Alice Rohrwacher (Corpo Celeste, a/k/a Heavenly Body, a slyly understated verité-style comedy in which a 13-year-old girl confounds the Catholic Church).

What to see. Twenty-one of the Main Slate films already have distribution, and nine of these—The Artist, Carnage, A Dangerous Method, The Descendants, Le Havre, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Melancholia, Pina, and A Separation—are scheduled to open in New York before year’s end. (Shame is likely to join them, if only for an Oscar-qualifying run, and George Harrison: Living in the Material World will be telecast on HBO the day after its festival screening.) Here, then, in alphabetical order, are five to line up for. Two still lack passports as of this writing; the other three are gutsy festival films for which the cognoscenti (you know who you are) won’t want to wait.

The Loneliest Planet

Julia Loktev’s follow-up to her brilliant exercise in terror, Day Night Day Night, is an equally unsettling experiential experiment in directing the audience. Led by a native guide, a frisky pair of backpackers—sensationally embodied by Gael García Bernal and Israeli actress Hani Furstenberg—venture into the ruggedly beautiful Caucasian outback. It might also be the land of allegory. Like Day Night Day Night, which tracked 24 hours in the life of a would-be suicide bomber, The Loneliest Planet has a two-part structure, the hinge being an enigmatic threat and an all-too-human response. No distributor, showing October 1 and 4.

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

Turkey’s finest filmmaker, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, has made his finest movie to date. Ceylan seems to have taken a long, profitable look at two recent Romanian movies—Aurora and Police, Adjective—before making this bravura meditation on the inscrutable cosmos. Runner-up to The Tree of Life at Cannes, Once Upon a Time’s bleakly comic, superbly crafted, highly rigorous epistemological treatment of a police investigation conducted in the dark emptiness of the Anatolian night confirms its maker’s international status. The movie runs 157 minutes and is showing but once, October 8.

Policeman

Nadav Lapid’s first feature, a multiple award winner at last July’s Jerusalem Film Festival, is an eccentric corollary in ultra-insularity to The Footnote (the most Jewish father-son drama since The Jazz Singer), presenting an Israel that is even more balkanized. Two violent, violently self-absorbed tribal groups—one a highly disciplined elite police unit, the other an anarchic band of left-wing Jewish terrorists—find each other at a billionaire’s wedding in contemporary Tel Aviv. It’s ultra-macho muscle Jews versus fanatical neo-narodniks. No distributor, showing October 15 and 16.

This Is Not A Film

Made under house arrest and smuggled out of Iran in a loaf of bread, banned filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s home-movie essay (put together with the help of Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and, in some sequences, a cell phone) is an act of political bravery as precisely tuned as it is affectingly modest. Prevented from making films, Panahi thinks them through. One screening, October 13.

The Turin Horse

Béla Tarr might have been musing over This Is Not a Film when he characterized his latest and, according to him, his last feature (co-credited to his longtime editor Ágnes Hranitzky) as “something more than a movie . . . or maybe less.” The Turin Horse devotes 146 minutes to a week’s worth of an elderly father and his grown daughter’s mind-numbing daily routine—a morning shot of pálinka, an evening potato—as an apocalyptic wind blows away the world outside their cabin. A death-haunted masterpiece of sensory underload, with a surging hypnotic score, The Turin Horse is Tarr’s most fully achieved, challenging movie since his 1994 epic, Sátántangó. One screening, October 9.

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Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan (2011).
Turkey’s finest filmmaker has made his finest movie to date. Runner-up to The Tree of Life at Cannes, Ceylan’s bleakly comic, superbly crafted, highly rigorous epistemological treatment of a police investigation conducted in the dark emptiness of the Anatolian night confirms its maker’s international status.

Sat., Oct. 8, 5:30 p.m., 2011

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Cannes Outdoes Itself

CANNES, FRANCE—The last day screening of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s ruminative, challenging Once Upon a Time in Anatolia strengthened an exceptionally ambitious and coherent competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival—although Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life won the Palme d’Or, Ceylan’s late entry shared the second-place Prix du Jury with the Dardenne brothers’ The Kid With a Bike.

Cannes 2011 yielded more exceptional movies than any edition I’ve attended since 2007. The festival benefited from a return to form by a number of established favorites as well as the continued vitality of Latin American cinema. I had no difficulty pulling together a list of 10 exceptional movies from the 35 that I saw—and regret having to omit another half-dozen.

1. Made under house arrest by an Iranian filmmaker banned for 20 years from making films (or giving interviews) and smuggled out of Iran in a loaf of bread, Jafar Panahi’s home-movie essay This Is Not a Film, put together with the help of Mojtaba Mirtahmasb (and, in some sequences, a cell phone), more than lived up to its ironic title. Confined to his apartment, Panahi takes phone calls from his lawyer, explicates scenes from his earlier movies, tends to his daughter’s humongous pet iguana, watches stricken Japan on TV, and riffs with a young building superintendent who may or may not have been sent to report on him. All the while, New Year’s fireworks are exploding in the streets. As precisely tuned as it is affectingly modest, This Is Not a Film is something more—a historical document and a courageous moral statement.

2. Upstaged by its creator’s compulsive buffoonery, Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia is his finest film in the eight years since Dogville. A disaster film, it features two disasters: The frenzied first half is devoted to the appalling disintegration of a storybook wedding; the startlingly calm aftermath has the bride (Kirsten Dunst), her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg), her brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland), and their young child waiting for the mystery planet Melancholia—a mere speck of light when the movie opens—to collide with Earth. It’s Ibsen as science-fiction.

3. Another meditation on the inscrutable cosmos, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia has Turkey’s finest filmmaker rebounding from the arty mediocrity of his previous Three Monkeys (2006) to confirm his international status with an impressive, bleakly comic epistemological treatment of a police investigation conducted in the dark emptiness of the Anatolian night. Ceylan seems to have taken a long look at two Romanian films—Aurora and Police, Adjective—but the pyrotechnics are his own. Anatolia included my favorite shot of the festival: An apple falls from a tree, rolls down a hill, plops into a stream and is carried off by the current, until it’s not.

4. As bang-bang as its title, Gerardo Naranjo’s third feature Miss Bala (Miss Bullet) is at once an example of virtuoso action filmmaking, an impassioned response to the collapse of civil order in northern Mexico, and a horrific Alice in Wonderland, in which an aspiring beauty queen becomes an unwitting pawn in the international drug trade, as well as a metaphor for her nation.

5. Cannes 2011’s greatest comeback was Aki Kaurismäki’s warmhearted comedy of international working-class solidarity, Le Havre, made in the French port city with a mixed Finnish-French-Senegalese cast. This utopian evocation of Europe’s refugee problem brilliantly expresses the director’s pessimism by showing everything as it is not. “Even the loveliest dream bears like a blemish its difference from reality, the awareness that what it grants is mere illusion,” Theodor Adorno wrote of Kafka’s America—a book pointedly cited in the movie.

6. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne do what only they can with The Kid With a Bike, a gritty, stripped-down action meditation on redemption and grace, in which a pinch-faced throwaway kid—single-minded, unlovable, their most remarkable protagonist since Rosetta—struggles to find his place in the world.

7. Footnote, Joseph Cedar’s Talmudic tale of Talmud scholars, father and son, competing for the Israel Prize, is another sort of parable—a Kafka story that could have been played out in 18th-century Vilna or 1930s Hollywood. If immersing oneself in the history of the Jews is the essence of Jewish religion, this profoundly ironic, dryly absurdist burlesque is the most Jewish movie I’ve ever seen in Cannes. Fittingly, it won the prize for best screenplay.

8. Closely adapted from Alejandro Zambra’s 2006 cult novella, Chilean director Cristián Jiménez’s Bonsái (shown, like Miss Bala, in the fest’s “Un Certain Regard” section), is the essence of cosmopolitan provincialism—a superbly grounded, meta-literary tragicomedy of student-boho life. Deadpan exchanges, shabby locations, and a lively indie-rock score by the Franco-Chilean band Pánico accentuate the poignancy of Santiago’s distance from Paris: Life Is Elsewhere (but cinema is not).

9. Shown as part of the International Critics’ Week, Pablo Giorgelli’s Las Acasias is a quiet tour de force. Like more than a few young Argentine films, this minimalist road movie is shot situation-documentary-style. The camera rides with a taciturn truck driver as he hauls a load of timber—and a woman with her infant child—from Paraguay to Buenos Aires. It’s part pilgrimage, part love story (or the idea of one) and the deserved winner of the festival’s Caméra d’Or for best first film.

10. Bruno Dumont ran off the rails so long ago that I thought this theologically minded Bressonian brutalist would never return to the bizarre vérité mysticism of The Life of Jesus or L’Humanité. Thus Hors Satan (imperfectly translated as “Outside Satan”) was a mild revelation. Two non-actors with a matching absence of affect and complementary hairstyles—his slicked back, hers spiked up—tramp silently around the beautifully photographed dunes and marshes of northwest Normandy, engaging in strange rituals and precipitating peculiar outbreaks (including one of Dumont’s trademark sex acts). It’s a Stone Age tale, ascetic, enigmatic, and intermittently violent.

Also noted with pleasure: Markus Schleizner’s audience mind-fuck Michael, Michel Hazanavicius’s silent-movie pastiche The Artist, Nicolas Winding Refn’s spaghetti-HK-’80s mash-up Drive, Hong Sang-soo’s The Day He Arrives (not just the same movie he always makes, but a movie about making that same movie), Takashi Miike’s well-conceptualized but poorly realized (or projected) 3-D samurai flick Ichimei, and Sean Durkin’s spooky Manson family gloss Martha Marcy May Marlene. Like I said, it was an excellent festival.

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Three Monkeys an Exemplary, Deadening Exercise in Malaise

You can imagine frame grabs from Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s art noir Three Monkeys popping up in a Bordwellian film-studies textbook (or blog post). Observe the jack-in-the-box close-up (against deep-background action) for a politician hiding after a hit-and-run; notice how his fall guy’s family apartment is shot from unsettling heights and at angles slightly askew to the walls; soak up the digitally manipulated jaundiced palette, like watching an entire movie through the shades that eye doctors give out. The Turkish director’s shifting story of guilt—the politico’s flunky comes back from serving time and confronts his wife and son over infidelities—does not lack for carefully engineered technique, which is as stringently orchestrated as in past acclaimed films Distant and Climates. But Ceylan is essentially talking past his characters, whose thoughts are treated as secondary to DP Gökhan Tiryaki capturing their faces with the right hope-curdling hue. The heavy mood of indolence and rage, calibrated with ellipses in action, is stifling—everyone seems to move in a queasy haze. The climactic landscape shot—storms brewing over a harbor streaked with tankers and a distant man in silhouette—is suggestive of broader, communal malaise, yet confirms the film as an exemplary but deadening exercise.

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Heavy Weather

A terrific movie in the Antonioni tradition, Climates confirms 47-year-old Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan as one of the world’s most accomplished filmmakers—handling the end of a relationship and the cloud of human confusion rising from its wreckage as if the subject had never before been attempted.

Urban professionals on vacation: Bahar is a sullen twentysomething TV art director; Isa, 20 years older, is an overbearing university instructor. The opening sequence alternates between mega close-ups of bored Bahar in the summer sun and long shots of Isa, glimpsed between the pillars of the Roman ruins that he’s photographing for his still unfinished dissertation. What is she looking at and what is he looking for?

The imperfect not-quite-disengagement of these two isolated figures makes for a more emotionally complex tale than Ceylan’s 2003 Distant, in which a country bumpkin moves in with his massively indifferent city cousin. The tone is pensive and the narrative fluid. (Sitting on the beach, Isa wants to end the affair; he rehearses a line that segues into his actual conversation with Bahar.) A symbolic motorbike mishap notwithstanding, the couple’s breakup is more mediocre than bad. The situation is rendered extraordinary through Ceylan’s use of landscape as objective correlative—the action, such as it is, moving from Black Sea resort to Istanbul to wintry province in eastern Turkey.

Superbly crafted on high-definition video, Climates is a movie of intimate, unbalanced compositions. Ceylan specializes in human microbehavior. Were it not for the studied sound mix (so crisp you can hear the cigarettes sizzle), he might be directing a silent movie. Climates‘ best moments chart the reactions of one character to another when the second unexpectedly appears. The default mode is a watchful look at once sheepish and challenging. Alienation is palpable and ambivalence universal. (The sense of the human condition is that expressed by Marilyn Monroe in There’s No Business Like Show Business: “After you get what you want you don’t want it.”) When the newly single Isa drops in on his ex, she can’t decide whether to be hostile or hysterical. After a few preliminaries, he pins her on the floor.

Climates is filled with unforced metaphors— the tacky music box Isa gives Bahar, the televised earthquake he watches—many of them meteorological. Isa tells a colleague that he’s going south for his vacation: “I need some decent weather.” He next appears in a snowy dump where he’s heard Bahar has gone on location. (In one of the movie’s several extraordinary one-on-ones, Isa corners her as she waits in a van, the film crew loading equipment behind them, and proposes.)

Knowledge that Isa is played by the director and Bahar by his wife, Ebru Ceylan, inflects Climates less toward confessional psychodrama than ultra-professional acting exercise. Ceylan wants to make certain that his character is understood as a mildly odious, self-pitying passive-aggressive type; his wife’s character has the monopoly on inner life, expressed not only by her mood-flickering close-ups but two dreams. The wonderful ending ponders her face once more. The falling snow substitutes for unshed tears.

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Unmistakable Art Film From an Unlikely Turkish Source

Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s third feature is a movie of quiet revelations that is itself quite surprising. Ceylan’s exotic Istanbul may remind some viewers of celluloid Scandinavia—a hushed and wintry world of secular alienation, broken marriages, and artistic angst. Distant is an unmistakable art film from an unlikely source. (Actually, the filmmakers to whom Ceylan seems closest in his use of repetition and droll understatement are Abbas Kiarostami and Tsai Ming-liang, both of whom adapted the old-fashioned cine-modernism of Michelangelo Antonioni to urban Asia.) Thoughtfully orchestrated and filled with visual wit, Distant is predicated on a sense of lives that converge but never intersect: Yusuf has left his village looking for work and has invited himself to stay with his older cousin Mahmut, a craggy loner who came to Istanbul years ago and has managed to reinvent himself as a successful photographer. The remote Mahmut is a modern man. He’s distanced from his own feelings, but the title also describes Ceylan’s method. The movie is carefully framed, the camera is more observer than participant, musical cues are absent, and there are lengthy passages without dialogue. The emphasis falls on the space between people—and their failure to bridge that void. The pale light and the constant chill are pervasive presences. Reserve takes on a hard, gem-like quality.

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Only Disconnect

Distant, the third feature by the 45-year-old Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, is a movie of quiet revelations that is itself quite surprising. Ceylan’s exotic Istanbul may remind some viewers of celluloid Scandinavia—a hushed and wintry world of secular alienation, broken marriages, and artistic angst.

One of the few hits in competition at Cannes last May, Distant is an unmistakable art film from an unlikely source. Thoughtfully orchestrated and filled with visual wit, the movie opens in contemplation of a man crossing a snowy landscape in the early-morning light; the camera pans left to an empty road and the figure reappears in the frame just in time to flag down an approaching car. Cut to an out-of-focus sexual encounter in an urban apartment, where some time later the first line of dialogue is filtered through a telephone answering machine.

Distant is predicated on a sense of lives that converge but never intersect. Yusuf (Mehmet Emin Toprak), the man first seen, waits on the street in a fashionable Istanbul neighborhood, where his presence sets off a car alarm. He has left his village looking for work and has invited himself to stay with his older cousin Mahmut (Muzaffer Ozdemir), a craggy loner who came to Istanbul years ago and has managed to reinvent himself as a successful photographer. The remote Mahmut is a modern man. He’s distanced from his own feelings, but the title also describes Ceylan’s method. The movie is carefully framed, the camera is more observer than participant, musical cues are absent, and there are lengthy passages without dialogue.

The emphasis falls on the space between people—and their failure to bridge that void. The pale light and the constant chill are pervasive presences. The relationship between the cousins seems elusive, although it is inevitable that the fastidious Mahmut will grow increasingly irritated with the gauche bumpkin camped out in his spare room. Actually, city mouse and country cousin have a few things in common. Both have sick mothers, both follow women in the street, both are lonely, and both grow to resent each other tremendously. Mahmut hires Yusuf as his assistant when he goes on assignment in Anatolia—with predictably negative results. (The expedition echoes Ceylan’s 2000 Clouds of May, in which a filmmaker returns to his Anatolian village to make a documentary.)

Ceylan several times references Andrei Tarkovsky—Mahmut is seen glumly watching both Stalker and Solaris on his TV monitor (although he switches to porn once Yusuf turns in for the night). But Distant is the opposite of visionary mysticism. Its reserve takes on a hard, gemlike quality. The filmmakers to whom Ceylan seems closest in his use of repetition and droll understatement are contemporaries like Abbas Kiarostami and Tsai Ming-liang, both of whom adapted the old-fashioned cine-modernism of Michelangelo Antonioni to urban Asia. Mahmut’s profession recalls Antonioni’s Blow-Up but is even more related to Distant‘s autobiographical subtext: Ceylan was himself a photographer. His mother plays Mahmut’s mother, and Toprak, who also appeared in Clouds of May, is his actual cousin—Toprak’s death in an automobile accident shortly after the movie’s completion adds an unintended tragic dimension to his performance.

A series of incidents in which the presence of a pesky mouse and the disappearance of a watch take on cumulative narrative weight, Distant does coalesce into something—but what? The naive Yusuf dreams of going abroad but can’t find a job that will take him there; Mahmut’s ex-wife is moving to Canada with her new husband; the photographer is unable to form another relationship and is increasingly unhappy with the commercial aspect of his work. Is it possible to make a rich and satisfying movie about loss and emptiness? Reviewing Distant when it screened at the New York Film Festival, The New York Times deemed it dreary; like Jafar Panahi’s comparably modest, deadpan, and artful Crimson Gold, also an NYFF alum, Distant could easily fail to attract an audience. (Given their geopolitical significance, Turkey and Iran should be of enormous interest to Americans, but as David Denby’s dim dismissal of the “annoying” Kiarostami some years ago illustrated, our educated middle class has precious little interest in theirs.)

Distant is mainly political in its existence. Mahmut’s obligatory, and typically ineffectual, airport pilgrimage is an homage to the transient. People do nothing but disappear from his life. The poetic final image of the photographer watching a ship pass in the icy harbor is a sort of burnt offering. Shivering in the cold, he smokes a cigarette from the pack that his unwelcome houseguest left behind.