For a certain population at this year's Cannes Film Festival, the biggest thrill on the red carpet was the return of a sixtysomething guy who wears a retro fedora in a little movie called Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. For another crowd, equally ardent if less prone to wearing souvenir T-shirts, the thrill was the triumph of a bunch of vibrant, multiethnic teens from a tough-district Parisian junior high school, none of them professional actors, who shared in the Palme d'Or for their great ensemble work in the docu-like French drama The Class. Laurent Cantet's engrossing adaptation of François Bégaudeau's nonfiction account of teaching in just such a school stars the author-teacher himself although ''stars'' isn't quite the right word for the collaborative nature of such an observant, unsentimental, superior addition to the canon of classroom-conflict movies.
It's unlikely the hardcore Indy crowd will ever cross over to sit in on The Class when the picture eventually comes to a nearby Netflix distribution center. But that, after all, is the importance of the gigantic Cannes cinema bazaar, where, as usual, many of the year's best films by the world's best filmmakers grappled with conflicts that can't be solved by a superhero or special effects. Tops on the list, both for jury members who handed out awards and for this jury of one, was Matteo Garrone's Gomorra, a bleakly realistic, electrifying drama of Mafia brutality in Naples that brings startling insights into the reach of organized crime. Gomorra rightly won the Grand Prix essentially the silver to The Class' gold while Il Divo, an enjoyably, almost crazily stylish entry from fellow Italian Paolo Sorrentino about the incorrigible Italian politician Giulio Andreotti, took home the bronze equivalent, i.e., the Jury Prize. I'm not alone in my disappointment that no honors went to Waltz With Bashir, Ari Folman's outstanding animated memory piece about his Israeli army service during the 1982 Lebanon war an audience favorite, and certainly one of mine. But then again, the most valuable prize may be the promise of a commercial release that might push this innovative project to Persepolis-like success.
I was no great fan of the adoring attention to details of human torture and death in Hunger, about the fatal hunger strike of IRA militant Bobby Sands in 1980s Belfast. But I understand the fervor of those impressed by the compositional rigor applied by British visual artist Steve McQueen. In contrast, there was little fervor to be generated by the heavy-handed allegorical drama Blindness, from City of God's Fernando Meirelles; by the unsubtle Brazilian-poverty-is-crushing drama Linha de Passe, from Walter Salles (Central Station) and Daniela Thomas; and by the tonally challenged, Brooklyn-is-a-melting-pot romantic drama Two Lovers, from We Own the Night's James Gray. Likewise, artistic over-control and the glamorously alien vibe of Angelina Jolie eroded any fervor in Changeling, a studied study in 1920s LAPD corruption vs. motherly determination. There was plenty of heated discussion about all four-plus wildly imperfect, never dull hours of Steven Soderbergh's Che, but there's scant space here to analyze its messy ambitions only to say that Benicio Del Toro is to the revolutionary beret born.
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