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 — not just Ceylan and the Dardennes, but Bruno Dumont, Aki Kaurismäki, and Lars Von Trier — 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), 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 humungous 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 As precisely tuned as it is affectingly modest, This Is Not a Film is something more — a historical document and a courageous moral statement.
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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, featuring 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, the new Miss Baja (model Stephanie Sigman), 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 warm-hearted 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.
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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 (1997) or L'Humanité (1999). Thus Hors Satan (imperfectly translated as "Outside Satan"), shown in UCR, 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' 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.