Updated through 5/21 — with awards announcements.
As noted last week, with support from the 4+1 Film Festival, we're celebrating the 50th anniversary of Critics' Week with a free retrospective of some of the greatest films screened over the past 50 editions. What follows is a roundup of what the critics are saying about the films screening this year.
"Jonathan Caouette's film Tarnation — created for $300 (£185) on his iMac out of old Super 8 videos and family photos — created a stir at Cannes in 2004 for its original visual language," begins Charlotte Higgins in the Guardian. "In his latest he returns to Tarnation's material: his rich but intensely difficult family life. At the heart of Walk Away Renée is a road trip he takes with his mother, Renée, from Houston to New York State, as he helps her transfer from one assisted-living facility to another. Renée, who received electric shock therapy from the age of 12, suffers from serious mental illness. Halfway through the trip, they mislay her medication. Caouette phones doctors, pleading for an emergency prescription of lithium. 'It becomes, in a inadvertent way, a statement on the "cattywompusness" — to use a good southern word — of our mental healthcare system,' he says."
"Contemporary footage mainly involves Caouette on the phone with his mother and her doctors, usually on the verge of tears," writes indieWIRE's Eric Kohn. "While the sight of a weepy filmmaker in his own project has become something of a taboo in the documentary field, Caouette mostly gets away with it because his presence in the movie feels like a bonafide performance, one of the many props he deploys. There are others: In one memorable bit, he cuts to an eruption of trippy CGI visuals, displaying a computerized perspective of the solar system that veers toward Earth and literally winds up in his backyard. (Now there's something you can't do in iMovie.) If only there were more boldly abstract moments like that."
"Given the unconventional personalities around which the films are woven, it's tempting to compare Caouette's companion piece to what Albert Maysles did in 2006 with The Beales of Grey Gardens," suggests David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter. "That belated afterthought to Grey Gardens, the landmark cinema verite documentary he made 31 years earlier with his late brother David Maysles, unearthed a wealth of unseen footage. There was no shortage of fascinating material, and there are doubtless enough Edith/Edie cultists to ensure a DVD life for the second installment. But returning to a private world that has already been so beguilingly accessed can be deflating, even banal. As different as they are in style, superior personal documentary portraits like Grey Gardens or Tarnation provide a sense of intimate discovery that inevitably is missing on second acquaintance."
But in Screen, Howard Feinstein argues that "Walk Away Renée is a gigantic leap forward: a real crew and more refined footage, but with enough of an accessible, more linear structure — a quasi-road movie with many more naturalistic scenes than Tarnation." Also noted: "Once again, it took the French designer agnes b., who has supported the wildly unusual forays of Harmony Korine, to finance the work of an edgy young American filmmaker."
"There are lovely and affecting moments in this account of his life and his relationship with his mentally ill mother," finds Variety's Leslie Felperin, "which further underscore Caouette's considerable and innovative talent as a filmmaker. His ambition to extend his range with more scripted material here is even laudable, but it's precisely this element that falls flattest."
Two more clips: 1, 2. Filmmaker's Scott Macaulay gets a few words with Caouette; grades at Micropsiaare hovering at around 5 out of 10.
The program opened on May 12 with Declaration of War. "It sounds like a crazy risk," writes Lee Marshall for Screen, "to make a film about a young couple whose baby is diagnosed as suffering from a brain tumor — and to make it funny and romantic, with musical interludes, so that it plays like something Jacques Demy and François Truffaut might have cooked up together. But actor-director Valérie Donzelli's second film after the micro-budgeted romantic comedy The Queen of Hearts is a joy to watch."
"Based on Donzelli's and co-writer-star and ex-boyfriend Jérémie Elkaim's own real-life ordeal, the story is autobiographical through and through, giving it a magnitude that would have been tougher to nail down in a purely fictional tale," writes David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter. "The reality factor also allows the duo to engage in many flights of fancy, sprinkling their narrative with everything from a Magnolia-style sing-a-long to a rapidly edited romance straight out of Jules and Jim."
At Cineuropa, Fabien Lemercier praises the "ideal alchemy between strong emotions and stylistic lightness," while grades at Micropsia are currently averaging 6.73 out of 10.
Update, 5/21: "This film deserves a champion — its mere existence is fascinating, and its peak moments constitute some of the smartest character-based scenes in any film at Cannes this year," finds Karina Longworth at Voice Film, "but Donzelli's tendency to put much of the film's emotional content in quotes makes it difficult to shift gears when she suddenly turns sincere."
"Inspired by a 2008 incident where 18 American high school students were involved in an alleged 'pregnancy pact,' the French dramedy 17 Girls (17 Filles) offers a highly aestheticized yet incredibly hollow meditation on contemporary teenage angst," writes Jordan Mintzer in the Hollywood Reporter. "The much mediatized events took place in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and quickly became the source of public debate, as well as at least two TV shows, a documentary and a Lifetime movie. Filmmaking sisters Delphine and Muriel Coulin, here in their first feature outing after several shorts (one of which screened at the 2001 Critics’ Week), transpose the action to a humdrum seaside town in Brittany, casting a coterie of attractive actresses and non-actresses to play a group of girls who decide they all want to be pregnant at once."
"A more down-to-earth and mundane 21st-century answer to Picnic at Hanging Rock, the film is a portrait of schoolgirls caught up in exceptional circumstances," writes Lisa Nesselson for Screen. "A sort of group mind takes hold, perhaps analogous to a bunch of underage male buddies signing up for the army together — not because of a draft but because it seems like an adventure they can share."
"Versatile DP Jean-Louis Vialard (Tropical Malady, Inside Paris) lensed Girls on one of the Canon hybrid photo/film cameras, an increasingly common tool that's both agile and light," notes Boyd van Hoeij in Variety. "Cinematography looks aces, with crisp colors and beautiful use of the shallow depth of field typical of the equipment. Lighting is abundant, bouncing of the walls of the girls' bedrooms, where virginal whites and blood reds dominate."
Here's a second clip.
"A tender road movie infused with a subtle sense of loss and loneliness, Las Acacias marks an assured and gently beguiling first feature from writer/director Pablo Giorgelli," writes Allan Hunter for Screen. "Ruben (Germán de Silva) is a truck driver transporting lumber between Asuncion del Paraguay and Buenos Aires. He has agreed to take a passenger Jacinta (Hebe Duarte) who arrives burdened with bags and a cute, wide-eyed, chubby cheeked five-month-old baby Anahi (Nayra Calle Mamani) who steals the audience’s heart in much the same way as she charms Ruben."
"It turns out Ruben has a son of his own whom he's barely seen, and a truckload's worth of regrets for having lived such a solitary existence on the road for years," writes Leslie Felperin in Variety. "When strangers mistake the trio for a family traveling together, Ruben is at first annoyed and later somewhat take with the idea."
"Two craft contributions are key factors in making the film work," notes Boyd van Hoeij at Cineuropa. "The editing rhythms, credited to María Astrauskas, the wife of the director, help establish the film's mood and maintain audience interest, while the cinematography by Diego Poleri ensures that the film never feels too claustrophobic."
At Micropsia, the grades are close to 7 out of 10.
"Both naturally thrilling and grotesquely over-the-top, the feature length debut by Justin Kurzel is certainly unforgettable and at times unnervingly mesmerizing," writes Kevin Jagernauth at the Playlist. "Based on the true story of Australia's 'Body In Barrels' murders, Snowtown is structured much like Animal Kingdom, using an adolescent teenager as a gateway into a world and family (of sorts) that is profoundly disturbing."
"The dead-eyed teen, played with sullen effectiveness by newcomer Lucas Pittaway, lives with his single mom, Elizabeth (Louise Harris, another in a cast comprised largely of first-time actors), and two young brothers in a desperately poor fringe suburb awash with sexual predators and violent criminals. It's the kind of place where kids play demolition derby with abandoned shopping trolleys for fun." In the Hollywood Reporter, Megan Lehmann also notes that the "Adelaide-set film won the Audience Award at the Adelaide Film Festival earlier this year."
"The depiction of the murders — some seen in graphic detail but none, thankfully, containing the hideous extremes documented in court evidence — is less effective than the lengthy preamble," finds Richard Kuipers, writing in Variety. "Despite the pic's best efforts to create sympathy for Jamie, viewers have little option but to be appalled by his participation, no matter how reluctant he appears. Auds also may be confused by editing that clouds timelines and fails to adequately detail the social-security frauds that accompanied the killing spree. The result is a movie that can be admired in many respects from a distance but is progressively less emotionally engaging."
8 out of 10 from FirstShowing's Alex Billington; Ed Gibbs talks with Kurzel for the Guardian.
"Even without the wire hangers, Eva Ionesco's semi-autobiographical debut, My Little Princess, feels an awful lot like other monster-mommy tales, only this time, the director seems to be underplaying, rather than exaggerating, the particulars of her horrific upbringing," writes Peter Debruge for Variety. Ionesco, "daughter of Parisian photographer Irina Ionesco, achieved notoriety at an early age after appearing nude in her mother's provocative portraits. Princess shows her still quite conflicted on the subject — and the casting of Isabelle Huppert, here in ice-queen mode, conveys everything about the odd blend of alluring glamour and twisted psychology."
At Cineuropa, Fabien Lemercier notes that Monday evening's screening was organized in collaboration with Cannes' Official Selection to celebrate Critics' Week's 50th. "Hannah (Huppert) is an ambitious, extravagant Romanian night bird suffering from haphephobia (fear of physical contact with others), who enjoys nothing more than visiting graveyards and dressing in a completely anti-conformist manner. After having shown little talent for painting, the wannabe artist launches into photography. Her daughter Violetta [Anamaria Vartolomei] only has a year left at school and is fascinated by a mother who neglects her and disappears as quickly as she appeared in the small flat they share with Hannah's great-grandmother (Georgetta Leahu), who is in charge of rearing the child. Violetta starts posing for Hannah in her studio, thus casting away the dolls and toys of her age for a more toxic environment…. An account of adults' manipulation of children (one of the main themes running through the 2011 Cannes Film Festival), My Little Princess approaches the topic of a warped education where the obsessive search for originality of a mother (who dotes on her child in spite of her excesses) essentially marginalises her daughter."
"Huppert brings a feverish edge to Hanna suggesting the restlessness of an older woman perhaps only too aware that time and society are not on her side," writes Allan Hunter in Screen. "The character takes her inspiration from the glamour of old Hollywood and in her frizzy blonde hair and lushly colored gowns, Huppert's Hanna is like a cross between Jean Harlow and Baby Jane. Anamaria Vartolomei was only 10 when the film was shot, but brings an astonishing emotional maturity to her character, conveying the conflicting emotions within Violetta and the righteous anger that may have saved her from her mother's clutches."
For the Hollywood Reporter's David Rooney, though, this is Huppert "in her worst high-manic mode (think Jennifer Saunders' Absolutely Fabulous character in a humor vacuum). Overall, the "story could certainly be the basis for an intriguing psychological drama, but this isn't it. Lip service is paid to questioning the boundaries between art and pornography, but mostly this is just a lurid clash between overbearingly theatrical mama diva and petulant baby diva. Ionesco's command of tone is too shaky to make the emotional stakes remotely serious, so despite its grounding in reality, the movie plays like something cobbled by hacks out of Pretty Baby, Auntie Mame, Mommie Dearest and Velvet Goldmine. Actually, that makes it sound kind of fun, but don't be fooled."
"A single mother of two young girls gives free rein to her sexual appetite in the ambitious but ultimately unsatisfying Israeli drama The Slut, from multihypenate Hagar Ben Asher," writes Alissa Simon in Variety. "Strong on style and atmosphere, short on dialogue and totally lacking in character psychology, the pic seems destined to divide critical opinion between those who find it affected and schematic and those excited by its non-judgmental feminism and deliberate formal aspects."
"When an old acquaintance, Shai (Ishai Golan), a low-key, friendly veterinarian, returns to the area, Tamar sees no reason not to add him to her harem," writes the Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy. "But Shai offers her more than the others, providing her with some genuine human warmth, perhaps even love, and developing a good relationship with her two young daughters, whose father, or fathers, are never mentioned. Unlike the other erotic encounters, their big sex scene leaves nothing to the imagination; it's filmed like many others have been in features for years, except that it's clearly for real."
"But Tamar's 'regulars' can't accept this new family," adds Fabien Lemercier at Cineuropa. "At first, the young woman avoids them, but ultimately gives in to their psychological pressures and her sexual dependence. This creates a lot pain, which can be seen as the result of the inevitability of fate or an act of rebellion of an animal instinct that refuses to be encaged."
"Ben Asher introduced the same themes she develops here in her earlier short (Pathways), which won a Cinefondation award several years ago, but as they stand now, they would fit much more comfortably into yet another short," suggests Dan Fainaru in Screen.
"While there is an interesting semi-strain in the film about the older daughter’s ambivalent feelings towards this new man in her life," writes Matt Bochenski at Little White Lies, "and her unexpressed jealousy at the casual intimacy he shares with her younger sibling as the tendrils of a new self-awareness take root inside, at no point is the climax credibly foreshadowed. Rather, it comes across as a shock tactic of the cheapest kind, closing the film on a truly tasteless note."
Here's a longer clip. Ioncinema's Eric Lavallee has video from Ben Ascher's introduction to one of the screenings. Split grades at Micropsia.
Update, 5/19: "Two troubled teens hitchhike across Bulgaria in Avé, first-time filmmaker Konstantin Bojanov's slow-burning, and perhaps too slow-moving, indie road movie." Jordan Mintzer in the Hollywood Reporter: "Featuring strong turns from Eastern Plays actors Ovanes Torosyan and Andjela Nedyalkova, the film explores the travelers' burgeoning relationship as they reveal secrets about themselves along the way to an uncertain destiny."
For the New York Times, Melena Ryzik gets a few words with Spike Jonze: "Mourir Auprès de Toi, the short he co-directed that was screened as part of Semaine de la Critique here, involves stop-motion animation with felt characters. They're the work of Olympia Le-Tan, a Paris handbag designer whose whimsical felt-covered creations are based on the covers of first-edition books. 'I just loved them and loved the world she was making,' Mr Jonze said in an interview at the Hotel Martinez here the other day. 'So I asked if I could have one. And she said yeah, if you want to make a film for it.' Way to work it, Ms Le-Tan!"
Jeff Nichols's Take Shelter is also screening; here's the Sundance roundup.
Update, 5/19: Critics' Week has announced that the Jury — Lee Chang-dong (President) and film critics Scott Foundas (Film Comment), Nick James (Sight & Sound), Cristina Piccino (Il Manifesto) and Sergio Wolf (El Amante) — has named Jeff Nichols's Take Shelter best feature in the Competition. The film also takes the SACD Prize for screenwriting. Just today, Daniel Kasman wrote, "Nichols evokes the awkward, empty silences and looks that can pass between close friends and relations as they notice something amiss and express dismay over lack of communication as [Michael] Shannon avoids and excuses. [Jessica] Chastain in particular in a scene towards the end where she expresses a directive, positive firmness sends tremors through the film after so much hesitation and postponement."
Peter Knegt at indieWIRE: "Other winners in the program included Justin Kurzel's Snowtown, which earned a Special Mention by the President, and Pablo Giorgelli's Las Acacias, which took home two honors, winning both the OFAJ Young Critics Prize and the ACID (Association of Independent Cinema for its Distribution)/CCAS (Main Fund of Social Activities) award. Stephen Kang's short film Blue won the Canal Plus' Grand Prix, Valéry Rosier's Dimanches [Sundays] won the Discovery Prize and Guillaume Gouix's Alexis Ivanovitch vous êtes mon héros earned a special mention."