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The 15 best movies we saw at Cannes this year

The annual film festival sets the pace for the rest of the year in cinema. Here’s what we’ll be talking about.

“Atlantique” and “Young Ahmed.”
Atlantique and Young Ahmed.
Les Films du Bals / Christine Plenus

The unofficial theme of the 2019 Cannes Film Festival was impossible to miss: This year’s event, with its slate of films from around the world, focused on stories about people who are struggling against inequality and oppression. Not every film fit that bill, of course. But many of the best films did — and they painted a picture of a world on the brink of revolt.

And that feeling of revolution extended to the festival’s awards slate, too: When this year’s prizes were handed out on May 25, it turned out several winners had made Cannes history. The top prize, the Palme d’Or, went to Parasite — making it the first Korean film to take home the honor. And the Grand Prix (which is essentially second place) went to Atlantics, making director Mati Diop not just the first black woman to have a film in competition at Cannes, but the first to win an award at the festival as well.

At least one part of this year’s festival hewed to tradition, however: As it often does, Cannes served up many films we’ll be talking about for the rest of the year. Here are the 15 best movies I saw at Cannes this year, and why they’re worth seeing.

Atlantics

Mame Bineta Same in “Atlantics.”
Mame Bineta Same in Atlantics.
Les Films du Bal / Cinekap / FraKas / Arte France Cinéma / Canal Plus international

Mati Diop, the first black woman in Cannes history to have a film in the festival’s main competition, tells the story of Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), a Senegalese girl living in a poor village that’s been exploited by a wealthy developer. One of the developer’s workers is Soulemaine (Traore), and Soulemaine and Ada are in love. But she’s already promised to the aloof, wealthy Omar. Then Soulemaine and a number of other young men disappear in the night, and mysterious fires are lit around town. And that’s when things start getting really weird. It’s an extraordinary feature debut for Diop — who came away from Cannes with the Grand Prix, essentially second place to the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or — and an unforgettable tale of the poor struggling to assert their right to what’s theirs.

Atlantics was acquired at Cannes by Netflix.

Bacurau

Bacurau
A scene from Bacurau.
Victor Jucá

The frenetic, confounding Brazilian film Bacurau, from directors Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho, was one of many films about inequality and revolt in this year’s competition, where it won the Jury Prize. It’s unusually challenging to describe the movie, which plays out like a particularly bonkers episode of Black Mirror crossed with a Western, and which veers from action to horror to dystopian sci-fi to gallows comedy. Centering on a tiny Brazilian village named Bacurau, the film sees a mysterious threat endangering the lives of the residents — who then decide they have had just about enough of being exploited by that threat.

Bacurau is awaiting US distribution.

Beanpole

A scene from Beanpole.
A scene from Beanpole.
Wild Bunch

In Beanpole, from Russian director Kantemir Balagov, the struggle never ceases. The Russian films that play at Cannes tend to be very bleak (consider 2018’s Leto, or Loveless in 2016), but Beanpole may take the (gravel-filled) cake for sheer misery. It’s a period piece about two young women living in Leningrad just after the war. They met in combat and now work in a hospital, and both bear the physical and mental scars of their young, troubled lives. Beanpole tells the story of their stormy relationship as it’s crunched and crushed by life, much like the patients in the hospital. The film — which won Balagov the Best Director Prize in the festival’s Un Certain Regard competition — is not easy to watch. But it’s achingly beautiful, with unnerving performances.

The Climb

Kyle Marvin and Michael Angelo Covino in The Climb.
Kyle Marvin and Michael Angelo Covino in The Climb.
Topic Studios

Mike (director and co-writer Michael Angelo Covino) and Kyle (co-writer Kyle Marvin) are two longtime friends who see their friendship fracture when Mike tells Kyle that he slept with Kyle’s fiancée. But that’s not the end of The Climb, a very funny story of a long-enduring friendship. The film occasionally slides into flights of fancy, even magical realism, while feeling very true to the kinds of twists and turns real friendships can take. It’s a triumphant feature debut for Covino and Marvin, and at Cannes it was awarded the “Coup de Coeur” (essentially “blow to the heart”) by the Un Certain Regard jury.

The Climb was acquired at Cannes by Sony Pictures Classics.

Frankie

Isabelle Huppert in Frankie.
Isabelle Huppert in Frankie.
Guy Ferrandis / SBS Productions

Written and directed by Ira Sachs (Little Men, Love is Strange), Frankie is a modest and quietly deep story about a family adjusting to change. Frankie (Isabelle Huppert) is a world-renowned actress who summons her family — her husband (Brendan Gleeson), son (Jérémie Renier), stepdaughter (Vinette Robinson) and family, and her ex-husband (Pascal Greggory) — to the idyllic landscape of Sintra, in Portugal. She also invites an old friend (Marisa Tomei), who brings along her boyfriend (Greg Kinnear). Over the course of a day of conversations, old relationships are realigned and new ones are formed. All things in life eventually end; Frankie suggests the endings can be as beautiful as the beginnings.

Frankie was acquired at Cannes by Sony Pictures Classics.

A Hidden Life

a scene from A Hidden Life
A scene from Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life.
Iris Productions

Set during World War II and based on a true story, A Hidden Life — the latest film from Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life, Badlands, Days of Heaven) — is about Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who could have lived a prosperous life if he’d agreed to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler. But he refused. A Hidden Life is Malick’s most overtly political film and one of his most religious, urgent, and sometimes even uncomfortable because of what it says — to everyone, but specifically to Christians in places where they’re the majority — about the warp and weft of courage. It also seems designed to lodge barbs in a comfortable audience during an era of rising white nationalism.

A Hidden Life was acquired at Cannes by Fox Searchlight.

Young Ahmed

A scene from Young Ahmed
A scene from Young Ahmed (Le Jeune Ahmed).
Christine Plenus

In films like The Promise (1996), The Son (2002), and Two Days, One Night (2015), the Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, have told stories about people on the outskirts of French and Belgian society, exploring the ways that poor people, immigrants, and others left on the margins work to stay afloat. They’ve won a number of awards at Cannes in the past, including two Palme d’Ors, and this year brought their latest win, for directing Young Ahmed. It’s the story of a young boy who becomes radicalized by his imam and tries to kill his teacher, which sounds like a dicey premise. But the Dardennes handle it deftly, with a recognition of the complex factors that bring a teenager to that point.

Young Ahmed is awaiting US distribution.

Les Misérables

A scene from Les Miserables
A scene from Les Miserables.
SRAB Films / Rectangle Productions / Lyly Films

Les Misérables, the first film from French director Ladj Ly, isn’t based on the famous Victor Hugo novel whose title it shares. But that’s where it takes its cues, concluding with a quotation from the book: “Remember this, my friends, there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. Only bad cultivators.” Ly, who is of Malian descent, sets his story in Bosquets, an ethnically diverse suburb of Paris. It’s an ambitious movie about the challenge (for both residents and authorities) of keeping a neighborhood peaceful when tensions run high, and at times recalls both HBO’s The Wire and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing in how it illustrates the interlocking factors and factions at play. But it ends with a clear statement: When the police, through brutality, have lost the trust of the neighborhood, it doesn’t matter who’s really in charge; violence is inevitable. The curtain between uneasy peace and outright war is gauzy indeed.

Les Misérables was acquired at Cannes by Amazon.

The Lighthouse

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse.
Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse.
A24

The Lighthouse, from The Witch director Robert Eggers, strands Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson on an island with a lighthouse and some devious seagulls, and surrounds them with a fierce sea. The film is somehow a whacked-out period comedy populated by saltily bearded sea dogs; a psychosexual drama about dramatically fractured psyches; a Beckett-style dive into guilt and shame; and, at times, kind of a takeoff on Aquaman. Which is to say, it’s certainly not boring. But its pyrotechnics aren’t designed to mask below-par filmmaking. Shot in grainy black and white and in Academy ratio (which appears square to most audiences), it’s like a movie made by a director who knows just what he’s going for and just how to get there. Like The Witch, it’s a real shot in the arm and a riot, to boot.

The Lighthouse will be distributed in the US by A24.

Little Joe

Emily Beecham in Little Joe.
Emily Beecham in Little Joe.
Essential Filmproduktion GmbH

It’s a little hard to know what to make of Little Joe, a stylized horror sci-fi drama from director Jessica Hausner. Emily Beecham (who won Best Actress at Cannes for her performance) and Ben Whishaw star in a story about scientists endeavoring to create a houseplant that makes its owner happy when they smell it. The plant, the scientists say, will help cure depression and anxiety around the world. But then things go ... sideways. There are some chin-scratching implications about mental illness in the film (I’d have to spoil the plot to explain; suffice it to say it gave me pause). With those connotations aside, however, as a horror film, it’s great: slow-moving, filled with dread, set in a pastel landscape that makes the fiery red flowers all the more creepy.

Little Joe is awaiting US distribution.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Columbia Pictures

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s ninth feature film (and penultimate, if the director’s threat to retire after his 10th is to be believed) is a fairy tale, a fantasy, and a wistful elegy for a world that many feel nostalgia for — including Tarantino himself. Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Margot Robbie lead a star-studded cast in a tale about the summer of ‘69, the Manson family, and most of all, a Hollywood grasping for its fading golden era. Tarantino, famously obsessed with the history of cinema and its preservation, has recreated an era he wishes he could have worked in with such care and skill and love that, for the most part, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood feels like his most personal film. The result is lots of fun, but it’s also strangely, hauntingly sad.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood opens in the US on July 26.

Parasite

A scene from Parasite.
A scene from Parasite.
CJ ENM Corporation / Barunson E&A

It’s hard to categorize a Bong Joon-ho film; the director excels at movies that blow up boundaries. His dark-comedies-slash-monster-films, like The Host (2006) and Okja (2017), double as biting social commentaries, often aiming barbs at social inequality, particularly in his native Korea. Parasite returns to those themes with superb control; it’s a darkly comic story about family that’s also a caustic tale of class conflict. The film won Bong the Palme d’Or, in a unanimous decision among the jury — and in so doing, it became the first Korean film to ever win the festival’s top prize.

Parasite will be distributed in the US by Neon.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel in Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel in Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Lilies Films/Hold-Up Films/Arte France Cinéma

French director Céline Sciamma has often made coming-of-age films about young women, frequently exploring the ways that gender expression and sexual desire morph, shift, and evolve during youth. For Portrait of a Lady on Fire, she casts her gaze to the past, telling the story of a young painter (Noémie Merlant) near the end of the 18th century. The painter has been commissioned to make a portrait of a woman named Marianne (Adèle Haenel), who’s being pressured by her mother to get married. The two become closer, and when Marianne’s mother leaves for a while, desire flames into life. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a restrained film until it isn’t, and exquisite both in its rendering of the women’s relationship and of its period.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire was acquired at Cannes by Neon and Hulu.

Sorry We Missed You

Debbie Honeywood, Kris Hitchen, Katie Proctor, and Rhys Stone in Sorry We Missed You.
Debbie Honeywood, Kris Hitchen, Katie Proctor, and Rhys Stone in Sorry We Missed You.
Joss Barratt

Sorry We Missed You is an angrily searing piece of social realism set in modern-day Britain’s gig economy. Director Ken Loach specializes in realistic dramas built atop roiling class-based anger, movies about the ways ordinary people’s lives are disrupted and upended by systems that leave them powerless to change even as they try everything in their power to change. Sorry We Missed You is the story of a working-class English family trying to scratch out a living any way possible, and of the indignities they experience while trying to navigate within a system of short-term contracts and gig work that ostensibly make employees the “masters of their own destiny” (to paraphrase a employer in the film) but actually just remove any responsibility the employers might bear.

Sorry We Missed You is awaiting US distribution.

The Dead Don’t Die

Bill Murray, Chloe Sevigny, and Adam Driver in The Dead Don’t Die.
Bill Murray, Chloe Sevigny, and Adam Driver in The Dead Don’t Die.
Abbot Genser / Focus Features

The Dead Don’t Die opened Cannes with a zombie apocalypse. Jim Jarmusch’s gently scathing tragicomedy, set in small-town America, is quietly castigating, for the audience: The apocalypse happens because fracking tips the Earth off its axis, and people are all too preoccupied with their own concerns to care. Starring Bill Murray, Chloe Sevigny, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, Caleb Landry Jones, Tom Waits, Selena Gomez, and many others, The Dead Don’t Die is a portrait of a weary world. For the most part, the characters aren’t particularly powerful or vulnerable or bad or angry, and they live comfortably enough. They’re just tired. And they’re ready for the end to come.

The Dead Don’t Die opens in theaters on June 14.