It’s that time of year when all of World Cinema’s elite is preparing to gather on the French Riviera once again in order to stage the world’s most prestigious film festival, Cannes. On the morning of April 14, this year’s hotly anticipated lineup announcement finally arrived and with it the promise of a slew of new films directed by some of the most renowned and respected filmmakers in all of the world. Like countless other devout film enthusiasts, I found myself dumbfounded at the sheer gluttony of talent assembled for the purposes of screening their film at this year’s festival which is scheduled to run from May 11 to May 22. This year’s Main Competition lineup looks especially formidable as it includes brand new films from such longtime festival favourites as Jim Jarmusch, Pedro Almodóvar and the Dardenne brothers. It’s also slated to feature new films from other, younger filmmakers who’ve only recently gotten their feet wet on the festival circuit like Jeff Nichols, Nicolas Winding Refn and Xavier Dolan. That’s just the tip of the iceberg really as Cannes is also set to premiere new films by the likes of Andrea Arnold, Paul Verhoeven, Park Chan-wook, Sean Penn and Olivier Assayas. Just In case your familiarity level with some of the names being listed only goes as far as: “Sean Penn? Isn’t he the El Chapo guy??” Here are a few reasons why you should be really excited to see what’s in store for this year’s festival.
American Honey | Dir: Andrea Arnold
Andrea Arnold is something of a rare breed. She’s a woman in a creative industry that a lot of people consider to be a boys club. Still, the 55 year old Brit has never let this deter her from forging a successful movie career for herself over the last 10 years or so. She initially made her directorial debut with the 2006 indie Red Road after years spent working in various positions in UK television. Red Road, which Arnold also wrote, premiered at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival where it won the Prix du Jury which is considered the third-most prestigious prize at the film festival. Her follow up film, 2009’s Fish Tank is really what put Arnold on the map as a filmmaker worthy of attention. The pulverizing bleak inner city drama that featured Michael Fassbender in an early film role would go on to win the Prix du Jury that year making it her second film in a row to take home the honor. In the wake of Fish Tank’s success came Wuthering Heights (2011), the most recent adaptation of Emily Brontë’s famous novel. Arnold’s take on the novel sort of came and went and is now largely forgotten however but after a lengthy 5 year absence, Arnold is now finally set to premiere her newest film titled American Honey at this year’s festival. The film, which stars Shia Labeouf is Arnold’s first film shot on American soil.
Elle | Dir. Paul Verhoeven
Paul Verhoeven is assuredly the most famous, or infamous, director competing in this year’s main competition. Verhoeven, the 77 year old Dutch director, initially made a name for himself back in the seventies with a slew of well received films made in his native Netherlands such as Turkish Delight (1973) and Soldier of Orange (1977). Verhoeven would transition to Hollywood literally with a bang with the 1987 film Robocop. The ultra-violent dystopian sci-fi film has since gone on to become one of the most acclaimed and well remembered action films of the 1980s. Even greater success followed with the 1990 blockbuster Total Recall starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Philip K. Dick adaptation would go on to become one of the highest grossing films of that year at the box office and I still consider it to be the greatest film to ever be set on planet Mars (sorry Matt Damon). The now world renowned director would go on to make his Cannes Film Festival debut 2 years later with the highly controversial Basic Instinct. Despite initial mixed reviews due to the film’s controversial subject matter and emphasis on violence, the film still went on to become one of the highest grossing films of 1992 and it’s now considered an icon of 1990s Hollywood cinema. The less said about Verhoeven’s next film cough*Showgirls*cough the better so let’s all move on shall we? Starship Troopers marked Verhoeven’s return to the science fiction genre and as always the filmmaker heavily emphasised satire as a subtext to the film’s over the top emphasis on action and violence. 2000’s Hollow Man effectively signaled the end of Verhoeven’s Hollywood film career as he then retreated back to his native Netherlands for the excellent World War II drama Black Book (2006) about a young Jewish woman who becomes a spy for the resistance. After a 10 year absence, Verhoeven is set to make his return to filmmaking with his latest film Elle starring the queen of Cannes herself Isabelle Huppert. The film is an adaptation of the novel Oh… written by Philippe Djian and if it’s anything like any of Verhoeven’s previous films then it’s bound to be memorable at least.
The Handmaiden | Dir. Park Chan-wook
Park Chan-wook is a South Korean filmmaker who’s so-called Vengeance trilogy brought him international recognition during the first half of the 2000s. That trilogy of films consists of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003) and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005) and, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, each film dealt heavily on thematic elements of violence and revenge. Oldboy proved to be particularly noteworthy by winning the Grand Prix (considered the second-most important prize awarded at Cannes) when it screened at the 2004 Festival. The movie about one man’s quest for revenge against the individual responsible for holding him captive for 15 years eventually became one of the rare foreign films to really cross over into Western popular culture. After finally wrapping up The Vengeance Trilogy, Park Chan-wook moved on to other projects such as the 2006 film I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK and 2009’s vampire saga Thirst. Both drew a positive critical reception and Thirst eventually won the Prix du Jury at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Park Chan-wook then went on to successfully transition to Hollywood with the moody and heavily atmospheric 2013 film Stoker which starred Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode and Nicole Kidman. Fast forward 3 years later and Park Chan-wook makes his return to his South Korean roots with his latest film The Handmaiden which is set to become his 3rd film in competition for the prestigious Palme D’Or award this year. Much like Andrea Arnold, Chan-wook has yet to leave the festival empty handed so it’ll certainly be interesting to see if he can continue his streak going at this year’s festival with even more hardware.
Julieta | Dir. Pedro Almodóvar
Pedro Almodóvar is a legendary Spanish director whose filmmaking roots date all the way back to the early 1980s when he made his feature film debut with the 1980 comedy Pepi, Luci, Bom. A series of darkly humorous films followed until Almodóvar really knocked out of the park with the 1988 film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The film would go on to earn a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards that year and solidified Almodóvar’s status as being among the most important Spanish filmmaking voices. More success followed with the controversial 1990 comedy Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! which starring a then relatively unknown named Antonio Banderas. The film marked the 3rd of 4 collaborations between actor and director. After coming up short for the award with Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Almodóvar finally took home the coveted Best Foreign Language Film Oscar with his critically-lauded 1999 film All About My Mother. The film also took home the Best Director prize at the Cannes film Festival that same year. The film was the first in a vastly impressive string of hits that followed. Almodóvar really broke through to the American mainstream consciousness with his 2002 film Talk to Her which became the rare foreign language film to actually win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay that year. It’s now considered one of the greatest films of all time and a shining example of the level of excellence that can be achieved from Spanish cinema. Almodóvar made his triumphant return to Cannes in 2004 with the film Bad Education. The film became the first Spanish film to ever open the festival that year. Two years later, Almodóvar’s film Volver took home the Best Screenplay and Best Actress honors at the 2006 festival. The film which starred long time Almodóvar collaborator Penélope Cruz would go on to become one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2006. Almodóvar and Cruz reunited once more for 2009’s Broken Embraces which also competed for the fabled Palme D’Or at Cannes that year but ultimately came short. The Skin I Live In (2011) reunited Almodóvar once again with Antonio Banderas for a film that was a considerable change of pace for both director and star. By then Almodóvar had earned a reputation for more comedic and/or romantic fare but the gothic horror styled The Skin I Live In signaled a considerable about-face for the filmmaker. The film also debuted in the main competition at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. 35 years and counting into his career, the one prize that’s ultimately alluded Almodóvar thus far has been the Palme D’Or and after 4 failed attempts it will be interesting to see if his latest film Julieta has what it takes to finally take home the top honors.
The Last Face | Dir. Sean Penn
This guy needs no introduction. Over the years, Sean Penn has cultivated a considerable reputation for being both a celebrated, two time Academy Award-winning actor as well as a highly controversial public figure. What he’s less well known for though, is for being for an accomplished filmmaker which is unfortunate because he’s easily one the most talented actor turned directors this side of Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford. The actor made his debut behind the camera with the low-key 1991 film The Indian Runner which was adapted from the Bruce Springsteen song Highway Patrolman that featured on the boss’ stark 1982 record Nebraska. Next came his first of two collaborations with the legendary Jack Nicholson, the indie flick The Crossing Guard. The film came out in 1995, the same year that Penn earned his first Academy Award nomination for acting for the stellar Tim Robbins directed Dead Man Walking. Penn re-teamed with Nicholson once more for the 2001 mystery thriller The Pledge which became Penn’s first film to screen in competition at the Cannes Film Festival that same year. Penn next earned the best reviews of his filmmaking career with the wonderful 2007 indie Into the Wild. The Emile Hirsch-starring film that told the real life story of Christopher McCandless who elected to escape civilisation and embark on a wilderness journey that took him all the way to Alaska back in 1992. The film itself is near and dear to my heart as it’s one my all time favourite films. 9 years later, Penn makes finally returns to the director’s chair with the film The Last Face which he’s set to star in as well. It will become the first film of his which he’ll be featured in front of the camera as well as behind.
Loving | Dir. Jeff Nichols
Jeff Nichols has rapidly become one of my favourite directors working in movies today. The 37 year old made his directorial debut with the 2007 drama Shotgun Stories. The low budget indie about a violent family feud set in Nichols’ own home state of Arkansas starred Michael Shannon who would go on to become a fixture in all of his subsequent films. Lo and behold they teamed up again for the 2011 film Take Shelter which starred Shannon as a husband and father plagued by apocalyptic visions who takes drastic measures to ensure his and his family’s survival. Next came Mud which premiered in competition at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. The southern gothic film starred Matthew McConaughey who was smack dab in the middle of his “McConaissance” as the title character, a fugitive hiding out on a small island near the Mississippi River. Michael Shannon also appeared in a small role as the uncle to one of the boys that Mud enlists to help him reunite with his former flame Juniper played by Reese Witherspoon. 2016 has all the makings of a potential breakout year for the young director as Nichols has already premiered one film this year, the science fiction tinged Midnight Special which reunites him once again with Shannon. The film has earned a highly positive critical response and is currently enjoying a theatrical run in limited release. Nichols’ second film of 2016 is Loving which also stars Michael Shannon and fellow Midnight Special alumni Joel Edgerton. Loving is the real life story behind the 1968 Loving v. Virginia case about an interracial couple who were sentenced to prison for marrying each other. The moral of the story, kids, is that racism is seriously not cool. The film is set to be the second Jeff Nichols film to premiere in competition at the Cannes Film Festival.
The Neon Demon | Dir Nicolas Winding Refn
Nicolas Winding Refn first made a name for himself as a director with the Pusher trilogy, a series of films made in his native Denmark and released between 1996 and 2005. The first two films in the trilogy notably starred Refn’s fellow Dane Mads Mikkelsen who has gone on to achieve considerable success of his own. In the middle of making the Pusher trilogy, Refn also released a pair of films starting with Bleeder (1999) which also starred Mikkelsen and the director’s English-language debut Fear X (2003) which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival that year. Next came Bronson (2008) which featured a breakout performance by another future superstar actor, Tom Hardy. The film was inspired by the true story of notorious British criminal Charles Salvador AKA Charles Bronson. A year later came Valhalla Rising which reunited the director with Mads Mikkelsen once more. By now, Refn had made a name for himself as one of the most interesting young filmmakers working exclusively within genre fare. The follow up to Valhalla Rising was really what put Refn on the map as one of the most visually striking filmmakers working in cinema. That film was Drive which premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival to a rapturously divided response. The brutally violent, ultra-stylish LA noire odyssey starring Ryan Gosling became one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2011 while at the same time appropriately drew the ire from the mainstream movie-going population who were apparently expecting another Fast and the Furious knockoff. Refn and Gosling reteams with the Thailand-set thriller Only God Forgives which premiered at Cannes 2 years later. Only God Forgives earned an even more divisive response this time around but unfortunately the critics weren’t nearly as kind to Only God Forgives as they were to Drive and the film is now largely forgotten. Still, anticipation level is high for Refn’s next film The Neon Demon which is to be Refn’s first attempt at the horror genre. The film stars Elle Fanning, Jena Malone and Keanu Reeves and will premiere in competition at Cannes.
Paterson | Dir. Jim Jarmusch
Jim Jarmusch along with fellow directors like John Sayles, Spike Lee, Gus Van Sant and the Coen brothers helped to nurture the burgeoning American independent film movement during the 1980s. That movement eventually exploded in the 90s thanks to the rise of Miramax and the Sundance Film Festival but Jarmusch really paved the way in the beginning thanks to his 1984 cult classic Stranger than Paradise. The film screened at the Cannes Film Festival that same year taking home the Caméra d’Or award thus forging a decades long love affair between the director and the festival. The follow up to Stranger Than Paradise was Down by Law which screened at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival. The film starred musicians Tom Waits and John Lurie as well as Italian actor Roberto Benigni as a trio of incarcerated felons plotting their escape from prison. Next came a pair of loosely structured and internationally set anthology films Mystery Train (1989) and Night on Earth (1991) which continued Jarmusch’s emphasis on heavily dialogue-driven films. Jarmusch later returned to the anthology genre with the 2003 film Coffee and Cigarettes. Dead Man starring Johnny Depp premiered at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival. The black & white postmodern Western fable became arguably Jarmusch’s most commercially accessible film up until then while at the same time maintaining his trademark irreverent brand of humour. Next, Jarmusch teamed up with Forest Whitaker for the 1999 film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Whitaker starred as a mysterious hit man who still follows the ancient code of the samourai. Jarmusch earned some of his best reviews in years with his 2005 indie Broken Flowers starring Bill Murray which premiered in competition at Cannes that year and won the Grand Prix. The film, along with Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), helped to re-establish Murray as an unlikely romantic leading man. Jarmusch reunited with Murray for the 2009 film The Limits of Control which earned uncharacteristically poor reviews from critics and is now largely forgotten. He bounced back strong however, with his 2013 vampire fable Only Lovers Left Alive which starred Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton. The film also premiered at Cannes and it’s easily one of Jarmusch’s best film in years. Next up is Patterson which stars Adam Driver as the eponymous bus driver who shares his namesake with the New Jersey city in which he serves as a bus driver.
The Unknown Girl | Dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
The Dardenne brothers from Belgium have become arguably the most honored filmmakers in recent years at the Cannes Film Festival. 7 out of the 8 films they’ve made have screened in the Main Competition at the festival and out of those 7 films, two took home the prestigious Palme D’Or: Rosetta (1999) and L’Enfant (2005). Their 2011 film The Kid with a Bike also took home the Grand Prix and their 2008 film Lorna’s Silence won the Best Screenplay award at Cannes. There’s really only the Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke that can lay a claim to own more hardware from Cannes over the last 20 years or so. Luckily for the Dardennes and for the other filmmakers whose films are set to premiere in the Main Competition, Haneke doesn’t have a film playing at this year’s festival. This cracks opens the floodgates for a new filmmaker to step up and take home the honors but if I were a betting man, I’d bet the farm on the Dardenne’s latest film The Unknown Girl to take home the Palme D’Or based on their extensive past history of excellence at the festival. The Dardenne’s latest film was Two Days, One Night starring Marion Cotillard. The film premiered at Cannes in 2014 to a rapturous response and eventually earned Cotillard an Academy Award nomination for her performance in the film. The Dardenne’s minimalistic approach and trademark brutally realistic tone has made them darlings in the art house circuit. If you want to sample the best that World Cinema has to offer then I suggest you look no further than these two sibling auteurs.
Personal Shopper | Dir. Olivier Assayas
Like a lot of other filmmakers featured in this article French director Olivier Assayas’ name has become synonymous with the Cannes Film Festival over the years. Assayas’s first two films Cold Water (1994) and Irma Vep (1996) were both screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the festival. Assayas finally graduated to the Main Competition with his 2000 film Les Destinées. Assayas’s next 3 films Demonlover (2002), Clean (2004) and Boarding Gate (2007) each premiered in the Main Competition at Cannes as well to varying degrees of success. It wouldn’t be until 2008 and his film Summer Hours that Assayas really broke out onto the World Cinema scene. The film went on to be released on DVD and Blu Ray by the prestigious Criterion Collection in 2010, a feat that Assayas would later repeat with his films Carlos (2010) and Clouds of Sils Maria (2014). (Criterion has also handled special editions of films made by Andrea Arnold, Paul Verhoeven, Pedro Almodóvar, Jim Jarmusch and the Dardenne brothers). Carlos premiered in competition at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival while airing concurrently on the French television network Canal+ as a 3 part mini series. The highly ambitious film starred Édgar Ramírez as the infamous Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal. Carlos went on to become one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2010. Clouds of Sils Maria starred Juliette Binoche as an aging European starlet and Kristen Stewart as her fiercely loyal, young assistant. The film premiered in the Main Competition at Cannes and the predominantly English-language film saw Stewart became the first American actor to take home a César Award for Best Supporting Actress last year. Kristen Stewart and Assayas will re-team again for the upcoming film Personal Shopper which is the latest film to be written and directed by the French filmmaker. Personal Shopper is set to premiere at this year’s Cannes and it’s poised to be a strong contender for the highly sought-after Palme D’Or.
For a more detailed look into the career of Xavier Dolan please see my article on the rise of Quebecois filmmakers in Hollywood.