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After Attending Cannes From Afar, Justin Chang Recommends 7 Bold Festival Films

<em>Stillwater</em> centers on an Oklahoma oil worker (Matt Damon), who seeks the help of a French theater actress (Camille Cottin) when his daughter is accused of murder in Marseille, France.
Jessica Ford
Focus Features
Stillwater centers on an Oklahoma oil worker (Matt Damon), who seeks the help of a French theater actress (Camille Cottin) when his daughter is accused of murder in Marseille, France.

Having been fortunate enough to attend the Cannes Film Festivalevery year since 2006, skipping this year's event wasn't easy. Cannes is the most important event of its kind: a thrilling, maddening 10-day marathon of red-carpet glamor and behind-the-scenes deal-making as well as a showcase for some of the best new movies from all over the world.

Since the 2020 festival was canceled due to the pandemic, part of me was extra-tempted to take the plunge this year and brave the crowds that descend on this sleepy French Riviera town. But in the end, like many of my wary film-journalist friends and colleagues, I opted to stay back.

Happily, over the past couple of weeks, I've been able to see quite a few Cannes movies here in Los Angeles — about half the number I usually do. It's been a typically mixed bag of the good, the bad and the sometimes great, but it's also been wonderful to see so many bold, ambitious movies on the big screen — like experiencing a mini-festival of my own.

Some of these films will be arriving in U.S. theaters shortly, such as Stillwater, the latest drama directed by Tom McCarthy, best known for the Oscar-winning Spotlight. This one stars Matt Damon as Bill Baker, an Oklahoma oil worker who visits his daughter in Marseille, France, where she's in prison for the murder of her girlfriend.

The story, in which Baker sets out to prove his daughter's innocence, was loosely inspired by the notorious Amanda Knox murder trial, but it's anything but a straightforward dramatization. At times it feels like multiple movies crammed into one: a detective thriller, a culture-clash comedy and even a romance. But despite some implausible detours, Stillwater holds your attention and benefits from moving performances by Damon and a fierce Abigail Breslin as his daughter. It opens July 30 in theaters.

Opening the following week, on Aug. 6, is Annette, an enjoyably unhinged musical from the idiosyncratic French director Leos Carax, with a script and songs by the brothers Ron and Russell Mael, better known as the art-pop band Sparks. Annette premiered on the festival's opening night, and it begins with a delightful musical number fittingly titled "So, May We Start?" It must have been a tonic for audiences in Cannes, as it seemed to be channeling the hopeful on-with-the-show spirit of the festival itself.

A standup comedian (Adam Driver) and an opera singer (Marion Cotillard) fall in love and then fall from grace in <em>Annette</em>.
/ Courtesy of Amazon Studios
Courtesy of Amazon Studios
A standup comedian (Adam Driver) and an opera singer (Marion Cotillard) fall in love and then fall from grace in Annette.

Two of the voices in Annette's opening number belong to the leads, Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. He plays a standup comedian; she plays an opera singer. They fall in love and then fall from grace in ways that recall countless tragic showbiz romances such as A Star Is Born. Annette is an intensely sad movie, with a performance from Driver that goes deeper and darker than anything he's ever done. It's also one of several movies in Cannes this year that focus on the inner lives of artists, both fictional and nonfictional.

One of the best of these is The Velvet Underground, Todd Haynes' richly immersive documentary about the legendaryrock band and its roots in the '60s New York avant-garde scene. Also drawn from real life, though it's not a documentary, is the beautifully animated drama Where Is Anne Frank, from the Israeli director Ari Folman. He finds a clever if sometimes overly didactic way of retelling Frank's story, drawing a connection between her experience in hiding and the plight of refugees in Europe today.

Another artist's story is Drive My Car, an exquisite slow burn of a movie from the Japanese filmmaker Ryûsuke Hamaguchi. It follows a grieving theater director who finds a powerful solace in his many hours behind the wheel. This movie, expanded from a Haruki Murakamishort story, has a novelistic richness that pulls you in; it runs nearly three hours and earns every single minute.

Rather shorter and similarly involving is the charming romantic fable Bergman Island, from the French writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve. It stars Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth as a filmmaking couple who visit the tiny Swedish island where master director Ingmar Bergmanonce made his home. What begins as a playful riff on Bergman's cinematic legacy gradually morphs into a sly and moving story about a woman finding her way as an artist.

That description could also apply to what may be the best movie from Cannes I've seen so far, which is all the more remarkable for being a sequel. It's called The Souvenir Part II, and it continues the story told in The Souvenir, Joanna Hogg's 2019 drama about her early years as a film student in 1980s London.

Once again Honor Swinton Byrne gives a superb performance as Hogg's alter ego, who's reeling from a personal tragedy and trying to figure out how to turn that painful experience into art. But unlike most of the sequels the movie industry regularly cranks out, this follow-up is much more than just an unimaginative retread. It's not yet clear when The Souvenir Part II will arrive in U.S. theaters, but like so many movies that screen at Cannes each year, it's well worth waiting for.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.