All in all, it was an extremely solid year for the world’s oldest film festival. But here are the five standout titles you should really start getting hyped for:
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
After the relative misfire of Seven Psychopaths, Martin McDonagh at last delivers a worthy follow-up to In Bruges with this masterly, pitch-black comedy thriller. Frances McDormand is jaw-dropping as Mildred Hayes, a boiler-suit wearing bad-ass who wages war on the local police chief (Woody Harrelson) for failing to solve the brutal murder of her teenage daughter. Constantly toying with your expectations and allegiances, McDonagh’s elegant screenplay is on par with the very best of Tarantino or the Coens. Meanwhile Sam Rockwell steals the show as a sleazeball cop seeking to atone for previous misdeeds.
The Shape of Water
For its first spine-tingling half-hour or so, I thought Guillermo del Toro had achieved the impossible and delivered a film to rival his 2006 fantasy masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth. Alas, that’s not quite the case, but this is nevertheless a thoroughly deserving Golden Lion winner. It’s a fascinating genre hybrid, equal parts trashy creature feature, Cold War thriller, brooding film noir and Douglas Sirk-tinged romantic melodrama. Sally Hawkins is sensational as Eliza, a mute cleaner at a US government aerospace facility, who strikes up an extremely unlikely relationship with a mysterious amphibious creature. It’s perhaps a little too outlandish to totally captivate, but Hollywood films this dazzlingly inventive are all too rare.
Israeli director Samuel Maoz won the Golden Lion back in 2009 for Lebanon, his intense evocation of the horrors of modern warfare, set entirely in the claustrophobic confines of a tank. In its early scenes, Foxtrot seems like something of a play-it-safe follow-up. Middle-aged couple Dafna (Sarah Adler) and Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) are visited by soldiers bearing devastating news – their son has been killed in the line of duty. In what feels like real time, we witness the intense early stages of the pair’s grieving process, rarely moving away from the confines of their apartment. But then, a darkly hilarious twist turns the story on its head, and the film expands into a scathing satire of the inanity of military life.
Xavier Legrand’s nerve-shredding debut feature was by far the festival’s most exciting under-the-radar gem. Expanding on his Oscar-nominated short Just Before Losing Everything, the emerging French auteur throws us into the orbit of Antoine (Denis Menochet) and Miriam (Lea Drucker), an estranged couple locked in a bitter dispute over custody of their young son Julien (Thomas Gioria). Level-headed naturalism slowly and almost imperceptibly gives way to amped-up horror, as it becomes apparent that Antoine poses a serious threat to the safety of his loved ones. Over the course of three beautifully orchestrated, increasingly horrifying set pieces, Legrand boldly establishes himself as one of the most exciting new voices in European cinema. This is surely the closest we’ll ever come to a Dardennes brothers-directed remake of The Shining.
Ex Libris: The New York Public Library
Who else but Frederick Wiseman could make a three-hour plus trip around the libraries of New York City this hypnotic and essential? For his 42nd documentary film, the director is once again exploring public institutions as living organisms. We see music rehearsals, lectures, board meetings, library employees at work, computer literacy programs, gala evenings, as well as on-stage discussions with the likes of Richard Dawkins, Patti Smith and Elvis Costello. As one speaker says: “libraries are not just about books – they are about people.” Wiseman takes this to heart, employing his fly-on-the-wall approach to craft a deeply compassionate and empathetic mosaic, brimming with moments that will restore your faith in humanity.