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All 21 movies in competition at Cannes, ranked from worst to best

By Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times
Published: June 4, 2023, 6:00am

CANNES, France — I saw all 21 films playing in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and as you might guess, many were good, a couple were great and a few were mystifyingly terrible. It’s worth noting that few were as moving or satisfyingly accomplished as “Close Your Eyes,” the first picture in several years from the 82-year-old Spanish master Víctor Erice (“The Spirit of the Beehive”). An exquisite tale of cinema, memory and aging, “Close Your Eyes” would have been a worthy addition to the competition lineup; it was instead relegated to Cannes Premiere, a noncompetitive sidebar that this year presented new work by other established filmmakers including Takeshi Kitano (“Kubi”), Katell Quillévéré (“Along Came Love”) and Lisandro Alonso (“Eureka”).

The festival’s treatment of Erice is especially glaring, given its fondness for programming revered masters in competition, sometimes to the neglect of newer talent; Ken Loach, 86, and Marco Bellocchio, 83, have competed numerous times and are doing so again this year. Erice, for his part, hasn’t stayed quiet: He skipped his movie’s Cannes premiere and published an open letter accusing the festival’s director, Thierry Frémaux, of not being transparent or communicative about the selection process. (According to his letter, Erice was less bothered by his placement than by how late he was notified, which kept him from potentially taking “Close Your Eyes” to another section or even another festival.)

Filmmakers grumble privately about their Cannes placements every year but rarely voice such concerns publicly, probably for fear of festival retaliation. Erice clearly has no such qualms; a festival spokesperson did respond, expressing “surprise” at the director’s complaints. In any event, I hope you’ll get to see “Close Your Eyes” in a theater, and also some of the better movies that actually did make it into competition.

Here they are, ranked in order from worst to best:

  • 21. ‘The Old Oak’ (Ken Loach)

Good intentions and unimpeachable politics predictably abound in this latest drama from England’s reigning master of social-realist filmmaking not named Mike Leigh. What’s missing from the story — set in an impoverished former mining town where the arrival of a Syrian refugee family draws racist ire — is a sliver of subtlety or even a passing interest in drawing on the visual (as opposed to the purely expository) properties of the medium. Paul Laverty’s script drops clunker after unbelievable clunker; speeches are delivered, tears are yanked and, in a miserablist twist of the knife, a dog gets needlessly mauled to death. Loach, a Cannes veteran and two-time Palme winner, has said that this might be his final feature. I truly hope it isn’t, because it’s terrible to save the worst for last.

  • 20. ‘Black Flies’ (Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire)

The unpleasantness-to-insight ratio is off the charts in this punishingly grim yet hysterically over-amped portrait of a young New York City paramedic (Tye Sheridan) as he spends long days and nights riding shotgun with a cynical partner (Sean Penn). Along the way there are blood-gushing wounds, ungrateful patients, free-floating racist stereotypes, ludicrous sex scenes, pseudo-Malickian aesthetics and thuddingly obvious lessons about what a thankless job it is trying to save others when you can’t even save yourself. Sauvaire’s jaggedly kinetic filmmaking (better applied in “Johnny Mad Dog” and “A Prayer Before Dawn” ) has never been for the faint of heart, but for all the bodily trauma on display here, it’s the viewer who leaves feeling bludgeoned.

  • 19. ‘A Brighter Tomorrow’ (Nanni Moretti)

Not for the first time, Moretti, a mainstay of Italian cinema and the Cannes Film Festival competition (he won the Palme d’Or for 2001’s “The Son’s Room” ), plays a version of himself: a stubbornly outspoken, genially egomaniacal film director whose latest project — a politically charged drama about the Italian Communist Party circa 1956 — allows him ample opportunity to decry everything that’s wrong with modern cinema, including the twin scourges of excessive violence and Netflix. Perhaps you’ll thrill to this sentimental, self-aggrandizing comedy, especially if you harbor fond memories of Moretti’s screen persona dating back to his earlier autofictional efforts, like 1993’s “Dear Diary.” I myself do not, and I found him and this shapeless, didactic meta-jumble close to insufferable.

  • 18. ‘Asteroid City’ (Wes Anderson)

I don’t always trust my immediate reaction to a new Anderson, so consider this a provisional rating until after a second viewing (the movie opens June 21 in theaters). Even so, in the context of a generally strong competition, this is about where I’d situate his latest, a 1950s Roswell riff that strands a bunch of precocious kids and stunted adults in a small desert-town bubble and subjects them to close encounters of the whimsical kind. A spaceship floats overhead but, like a lot of the jokes, doesn’t quite land. The theatrical conceits are leaden; the all-star cast barely registers, an achingly good Jason Schwartzman aside. It’s dull to reduce the problems (or the pleasures) of Anderson’s work to his ever-fastidious style, though never quite as dull as I found much of “Asteroid City” itself.

  • 17. ‘Club Zero’ (Jessica Hausner)

Hausner is a gifted Austrian formalist (“Lourdes,” “Amour Fou”) who satirizes religious faith and social groupthink through a deadpan tragicomic lens, though a lot of her critical admirers abandoned her when she made the 2019 English-language horror-thriller “Little Joe.” Continuing the trend, “Club Zero,” starring Mia Wasikowska as a boarding-school teacher who urges her impressionable students to eat less and less and finally reject food altogether, might have been the most widely reviled movie in this year’s competition. I didn’t hate it, though: While Hausner’s ideas can be both repetitive and undernourished, there’s something undeniably hypnotic about the way her actors, with their glum expressions and stilted zomboid cadences, interact with their immaculately furnished and color-coded environs. She gets at something insidious about how the more well-ordered the world looks, the more out of whack it really is.

  • 16. ‘Firebrand’ (Karim Aïnouz)

After his 2019 melodrama “Invisible Life” won the top prize in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar, Aïnouz, a Brazilian director with a gift for intimate, richly sensual filmmaking, certainly seemed ready for an upgrade to the main program. But this watchable if too well-behaved English period drama — starring a wan Alicia Vikander as Catherine Parr, the sixth and final wife of King Henry VIII — isn’t an especially inspired beneficiary. The best reason to watch it is Jude Law’s swarthily entertaining performance as Henry at his vilest, with state-of-the-art support from a horrifically pus-leaking, maggot-ridden leg wound. Give it this year’s Palme d’Orifice.

  • 15. ‘Banel & Adama’ (Ramata-Toulaye Sy)

First features rarely crack the Cannes competition lineup, but the selectors made a welcome exception for Sy’s dramatically slender, intoxicatingly lyrical Senegalese desert romance, starring Khady Mane and Mamadou Diallo as star-crossed but often furiously at-odds lovers. Throughout this tale of drought, dust and drudgery, the characters’ names, Banel and Adama, take on a hushed, incantatory power that’s matched by the sun-blasted beauty of Sy’s visuals. Those sights linger in the mind, even if the story — about a thwarted wife, a stubborn husband and a love that wilts into tragedy — never achieves the operatic heights or mythic depths that you sense she’s aiming for.

  • 14. ‘Monster’ (Hirokazu Kore-eda)

One of Japan’s most beloved living filmmakers, Kore-eda has yet to regain the peak form of his worthy 2018 Palme winner, “Shoplifters,” but after last year’s weirdly flat-footed Korean-set drama “Broker,” “Monster” certainly represents an improvement. Its story, set in and around a school where bullying runs rampant, unfolds in three chapters from three different perspectives: a worried mom, a maligned teacher and a troubled kid. The structure is cumbersome and less revelatory than it wants to be, but in its third and most narratively liberated act, the movie finally arrives at a beautiful — and exquisitely Kore-eda-esque — moment of grace.

  • 13. ‘Homecoming’ (Catherine Corsini)

Corsini’s absorbing drama about three Black women — a mother (Aïssatou Diallo Sagna) and her two daughters (Suzy Bemba, Esther Gohourou), returning to a Corsican home they had fled years earlier — was one of the first competition titles to screen, and it looks better and better as the days have progressed. Marred in its later stretches by some overly convenient spilling of secrets and lies, it nonetheless locates a sturdy bedrock of emotional truth in the performances of Bemba and Gohourou, who are entirely believable as two often-combative sisters who encounter strains of hostility, danger and resentment, but also a deep renewal of love.

  • 12. ‘Four Daughters’ (Kaouther Ben Hania)

Another drama of frayed sisterly bonds, this formally adventurous docu-fiction hybrid burrows its way into the story of two older Tunisian sisters who joined ISIS as teenagers, and of the grief-stricken mother and two younger sisters they left behind. It’s a story of maternal love, religious radicalization and unhealed loss, approached through a playful, often unexpectedly funny Brechtian lens that itself means to provide a kind of healing as real-life subjects and professional actors sit side by side, reminiscing and learning about a painful past. The sheer beauty of Ben Hania’s filmmaking (the colors approach the Almodóvarian) strikes a note that can seem incongruously glossy in the moment but feels ever more politically meaningful in hindsight.

  • 11. ‘Kidnapped’ (Marco Bellocchio)

In some of his best movies — notably “Vincere,” his 2009 drama about Mussolini’s rise to power — Bellocchio dramatizes history with galvanic, operatic force. He does that periodically, and to riveting effect, in this well-told account of Edgardo Mortara, a 6-year-old Jewish boy who was ripped away from his family and raised Catholic due to the belief that he had been secretly baptized as a newborn. The Mortara affair drew considerable public outrage and played a significant role in the fall of the Papal States and the unification of Italy — climactic events that the movie doesn’t lay out as clearly as it should. But its anger is fiercely resonant, never more so than when young Edgardo (Enea Sala) meets his mother (Barbara Ronchi) after some time apart. I wept — and not just because after nearly two weeks in Cannes, I really miss my kids.

  • 10. ‘Perfect Days’ (Wim Wenders)

Solitary male journeys are nothing new for Wenders; they’ve reaped him gold at Cannes before, notably for his 1984 Palme d’Or winner, “Paris, Texas.” But it’s been many erratic years since he’s given us a protagonist as quietly engaging as Hirayama (the great Koji Yakusho), a lover of habit, literature and classic rock who spends his days, perfect and otherwise, cleaning public toilets around Tokyo. “Perfect Days” is stronger in its wryly touching observational mode — the sheer range and variety of Japanese commodes could furnish a documentary in itself — than when bits of narrative and backstory begin to intrude, but Yakusho’s performance sustains it from quotidian start to lyrical finish.

  • 9. ‘About Dry Grasses’ (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

A regular Cannes honoree who won the Palme for 2014’s “Winter Sleep,” Ceylan can usually be counted on to deliver the longest movie in competition; that this 197-minute epic gabfest was only the second longest (see No. 4 for the first) is the least of its surprises. Opening against majestic landscapes that stand in striking contrast to its characters’ narrowly constricted lives, the movie begins as a story of potential sexual misconduct, morphs into a drama of romantic rivalry, makes a startling formal rupture midway through and builds to a finale of startling, elegiac grace. Featuring superb performances by Deniz Celilo?lu as the movie’s deeply, fascinatingly unlikable protagonist and an electric Merve Dizdar as a woman who both entices him and cuts him witheringly down to size, the movie meanders, marinates in its own juices and every so often enthralls.

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  • 8. ‘Last Summer’ (Catherine Breillat)

A French-language remake of a well-received Danish movie (2019’s “Queen of Hearts”) wasn’t the comeback anyone expected of Breillat, who’s known for her fearless and provocative explorations of sexuality ( “Romance,””Fat Girl,””Anatomy of Hell” ) but hasn’t made a new feature in 10 years. Still, there’s a telltale absence of easy moralizing in this drama about a married lawyer (a fantastic Léa Drucker) who has a torrid affair with her teenage stepson (Samuel Kircher). That’s not a spoiler; what’s surprising here is the explosive, ever-shifting power dynamics that ensue, which Breillat explores and unpacks with delectable, diamond-hard rigor. It’s wonderful to have her back.

  • 7. ‘Fallen Leaves’ (Aki Kaurismäki)

The title readies you for an autumnal work from Finland’s master of deadpan comic melancholy, though of all the familiar Kaurismäkian virtues on display here — the precise compositions, the brilliant gags, the swells of emotion that the characters feel deeply but can’t express — it’s the curious timelessness of the whole endeavor that shines through. That’s true even when the director ushers in overheard radio chatter about the war in Ukraine, a pointed touch that exists in steadily pulsing tension with an exquisitely directed love story, beautifully acted by Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen. Oh, and it runs 81 minutes, making it the shortest movie in competition as well as one of the best.

  • 6. ‘May December’ (Todd Haynes)

In exploring the decades-later aftermath of a sexual relationship between a woman and a young boy, Haynes’ densely layered, disarmingly funny, Netflix-acquired melodrama finds itself in playful, coincidental conversation with a few other movies on this list: “Last Summer,” of course, and also “Four Daughters,” with its layered inquiry into the nature of acting and cinematic artifice. Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman give superbly matched performances as, respectively, the movie’s Mary Kay Letourneau figure and the actor chosen to play her, and Haynes shrewdly leaves it to us to decide which of the two, if either, deserves condemnation. Caught in the middle is the young boy turned confused man, played by a revelatory Charles Melton, with a heartache so real and vivid it chokes the laughter in your throat.

  • 5. ‘The Pot-au-Feu’ (Tr?n Anh Hùng)

The purest pleasure in this year’s competition is this two-and-a-half-hour French foodie romance, adapted from Marcel Rouff’s novel, that consists of long, dramatically uninflected sequences of Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel cooking up a storm in their enormous 19th century kitchen. But what a graceful, perfectly controlled and utterly mouthwatering storm it is, and what an ideal vehicle this is for Tr?n, a Vietnamese French director known for his sensuality-first filmmaking. If you’ve wanted to see vol-au-vent and baked Alaska assembled from the inside out, or observe the proper, napkin-over-the-head consumption of an ortolan, or just watch Binoche juggle veal racks and cream sauces with masterly ease, this is a picture to place on the arthouse culinary porn shelf alongside “Babette’s Feast” and “Eat Drink Man Woman.” You’ll never bother with “Julie & Julia” again.

  • 4. ‘Youth (Spring)’ (Wang Bing)

Though it clocks in at more than three and a half hours, this utterly engrossing documentary — the first nonfiction work to compete at Cannes in some time — is a relatively short effort from Wang, whose films can stretch to six, eight or more hours at a time. His subject, as ever, is the perilous state of modern China, witnessed here in the numbing daily routines of teenage garment workers as they manufacture children’s clothes in the privately owned workshops of Zhili City. As this lengthy but never-leisurely work unfolds, you may find yourself mesmerized by the speed and dexterity with which these workers stitch each piece together, infuriated by how ruthlessly they’re exploited, and reminded — by all the laughter, horseplay and sexual frustration that occasionally burst into the frame — of just how young they truly are. Long as the movie is, its grim observations and implications linger far longer.

  • 3. ‘La Chimera’ (Alice Rohrwacher)

The best archaeological adventure yarn at Cannes this year wasn’t “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny”; it was Rohrwacher’s richly enveloping story of a young Englishman (a superbly scruffy, melancholy Josh O’Connor) with a heart full of ache and a talent for rooting out buried artifacts in the Italian countryside. With her wondrous 2018 Cannes entry, “Happy as Lazzaro,” Rohrwacher inflected the traditions of classic Italian cinema with a bracingly modern spirit. In this strange, layered and moving new work — by turns a ghost story, a romance, a crime drama and a bittersweet evocation of communal life — she shows a similar fascination with the old and the new, weaving the treasures of the past into a work of art rooted in the here and now.

  • 2. ‘Anatomy of a Fall’ (Justine Triet)

A man falls to his death in the snow; did he stumble or jump, or was he pushed? The murder trial that follows in this intricate and enthralling courtroom whodunit, acquired for theatrical distribution by Neon on the strength of its enthusiastic Cannes reception, means to get at the truth. But it succeeds only in teasing out more questions: about men and women, parents and children, and the burdens of guilt and responsibility in a difficult marriage. There are, however, a few matters that can be settled beyond a reasonable doubt: Sandra Hüller, who plays the widow on trial, is one of the foremost actors of her generation, and Triet, who previously directed Hüller in their enjoyable 2019 meta-comedy, “Sibyl,” has taken a major leap forward.

  • 1. ‘The Zone of Interest’ (Jonathan Glazer)

I’ve written much already about this one and will be writing more about it in the future, when it’s released theatrically by A24. But Glazer’s brilliantly unfaithful adaptation of a novel by the late Martin Amis was the most gripping movie I saw at Cannes and the one that refused to leave me alone. A formally controlled portrait of a Nazi commandant (Christian Friedel) and his family going about their lives right next door to Auschwitz, it’s a brilliant negative-space vision of the Holocaust, a mesmeric portrait of human evil observed from the inside, and its images and words have come rushing back to me with alarming frequency and clarity all Cannes long. Given the mixed festival reactions to Glazer’s earlier triumphs “Birth” and “Under the Skin,” it feels gratifyingly right to see “The Zone of Interest” already getting its due.