All the Films in Competition at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival, Ranked from Best to Worst

The seventy-seventh annual Cannes Film Festival came to a startling and joyous conclusion on Saturday night, when the competition jury, chaired by Greta Gerwig, awarded the Palme d’Or, the festival’s highest honor, to “Anora,” a funny, harrowing, and finally quite moving portrait of a sex worker’s madcap New York misadventures. It was startling because the movie, though one of the best-received in the competition, had not been widely tipped for the top prize, which seldom goes to a U.S. film; with “Anora,” Sean Baker becomes the first American director to win the Palme since Terrence Malick did, for “The Tree of Life” (2011), thirteen years ago. And it was joyous not only because the award was bestowed on a worthy and remarkable film but because Baker used the occasion to deliver the best, most eloquent and impassioned acceptance speech I’ve ever heard a Palme winner give.

Reading from prepared remarks, Baker singled out two other filmmakers in the competition, Francis Ford Coppola and David Cronenberg, as among his personal heroes. He dedicated the award to sex workers everywhere, a fitting tribute from a filmmaker who has put their lives front and center, with drama, humor, and empathy, in movies like “Starlet” (2012), “Tangerine” (2015), and “Red Rocket” (2021). He tossed some exquisite shade in the direction of the “tech companies” behind the so-called streaming revolution—including, presumably, Netflix, which came away as one of the night’s big winners; its major acquisition of the festival, Jacques Audiard’s musical “Emilia Pérez,” won two prizes. And, in a moment that drew rapturous applause, Baker delivered a plea on behalf of theatrical films, declaring, “The future of cinema is where it started: in a movie theatre.”

I was fortunate to see all twenty-two films in the Cannes competition on the big screen, projected under superior conditions in houses packed with fellow movie lovers. It’s my hope that, when these movies are released in the U.S., as the great majority of them likely will be, you will seize the chance to see them on the big screen as well—even “Emilia Pérez,” which Netflix may not keep in theatres for long, but whose bold dramatic and stylistic risks have the best chance of winning you over if they have your undivided, wide-awake attention.

I have ranked the movies in order of preference, from best to worst. Here they are:

1. “Caught by the Tides”

Jia Zhangke, a Cannes competition veteran, has long been the cinema’s preëminent chronicler of modern China (“Mountains May Depart,” “Ash Is Purest White”), mapping its social, cultural, and geographical complexities with great formal acumen, and also with the longtime collaboration of his wife, the superb actress Zhao Tao. Jia’s latest work, drawing on an archive of footage shot in the course of roughly two decades, unfurls a story in fragments, about a woman (Zhao) and a man (Li Zhubin) who fall in love, bitterly separate, and have a melancholy reunion years later. It’s an achievement by turns fleeting and monumental: a series of interlocking time capsules, a wrenching feat of self-reflection, and a stealth musical, in which Zhao dances and dances, standing in for millions who have learned to sway and bend to history’s tumultuous beat.


2. “All We Imagine as Light”

As the first Indian feature invited to compete at Cannes in nearly three decades, Payal Kapadia’s narrative début (after her 2021 documentary, “A Night of Knowing Nothing”) would be notable enough; that the movie is so delicately felt and sensuously textured is cause for outright celebration. Winner of the festival’s Grand Prix, or second place, it tells the story of two roommates, Prabha (Kani Kusruti) and Anu (Divya Prabha), who work as nurses at a Mumbai hospital. It teases out their personal circumstances—Prabha’s estrangement from her unseen husband, Anu’s frowned-upon romance with a young Muslim man (Hridhu Haroon)—with a quiet truthfulness that, like the glittering lights of the city, lingers expansively in the memory. (A forthcoming Sideshow/Janus Films release.)


3. “Grand Tour”

The Portuguese director Miguel Gomes (“Tabu,” “Arabian Nights”) delivered some of the most virtuosic filmmaking in the competition—as the jury recognized by giving him the Best Director prize—with this characteristically yet extraordinarily playful colonial-era travelogue. Shifting between color and black-and-white, set in 1917 but full of fourth-wall-breaking anachronisms, the movie tells a story of sorts about a roving British diplomat (Gonçalo Waddington) and a fiancée (Crista Alfaiate) he’s in no hurry to marry. But its true fascination lies in the humid atmosphere and wanderlust-inspiring splendor of its East and Southeast Asian locations, ranging from Singapore and Bangkok to Shanghai and Rangoon. It’s a movie to get lost in.


4. “The Seed of the Sacred Fig”

It’s impossible to absorb this blistering domestic drama without thinking of its dissident director, Mohammad Rasoulof, who recently fled Iran after being sentenced to prison and a flogging. (His appearance at his film’s première made for one of the most emotional moments in recent Cannes memory.) Shot entirely in secret, the story follows a Tehran-based husband (Missagh Zareh) and wife (Soheila Golestani) who are increasingly at war with their progressive-minded young-adult daughters (Mahsa Rostami, Setareh Maleki) during nationwide political protests led by women. The result is a thriller of propulsive skill and blunt emotional force, marrying the muscularity of an action film to the psychological intensity of a chamber drama. (A forthcoming Neon release.)


5. “Anora”

The director Sean Baker is near the height of his storytelling powers with this dazzling (and now Palme d’Or-winning) portrait of a Manhattan strip-club dancer (a revelatory Mikey Madison) who impulsively marries the ultra-spoiled son (Mark Eydelshteyn) of a Russian oligarch. Much comic chaos ensues, some of it pushed past the brink of plausibility, but Baker’s multifaceted love for his characters proves infectious and sustaining, as does his belief that acts of unexpected kindness can redeem even the darkest nights of the soul. (A forthcoming Neon release.)


6. “The Shrouds”

Early on in this elegantly sombre yet mordantly funny new movie, which stars Vincent Cassel, Diane Kruger, and Guy Pearce, the director David Cronenberg, a master of cerebral horror, unveils his latest invention: a technologically advanced burial shroud that allows people to watch a loved one’s body decomposing in the grave. So begins a drolly fluid inspection of classic Cronenberg themes—the deterioration of the flesh, the instability of the image, the paranoia-inducing incursions of technology into every aspect of life—but imbued with a nakedly personal dimension that the director has noted in interviews; the story was inspired by his wife’s death, in 2017, from cancer.


7. “Megalopolis”

In this legendarily long-gestating passion project, which I’ve written about at length, Francis Ford Coppola posits that our fragile, battered civilization is headed the way of the Roman Empire. The grimness of that prospect is unsurprising from a director accustomed to peering deep into the heart of American darkness (the “Godfather” movies, “The Conversation,” “Apocalypse Now”). For all that, the filmmaking here glows with a particularly hard-won optimism, even a welcome sense of play—borne out by an ensemble of actors, including Adam Driver, Giancarlo Esposito, and especially Aubrey Plaza, who fully embrace Coppola’s rhetorical and conceptual flights of fancy.


8. “The Substance”

Sympathetic or sadistic? Feminist or misogynist? Coralie Fargeat’s body-horror bonanza, which won the festival’s award for Best Screenplay, has been one of the competition’s more polarizing hits, which is unsurprising; divisiveness should be expected from a story about an aging actress and TV fitness guru who, desperate to regain her youthful bod of yesteryear, effectively splits herself in two. Whether the outlandish premise (think “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by way of “Death Becomes Her”) and its blood-gushing fallout withstand intellectual scrutiny, there’s no doubting the ferocity of the two leads, Demi Moore and Margaret Qualley, or Fargeat’s sheer filmmaking verve as she pushes her ideas to their sanguinary conclusions.


9. “Motel Destino”

Just a year after the Brazilian director Karim Aïnouz appeared in competition with a surprisingly stiff-corseted English period drama, “Firebrand,” it was bracing to watch him rebound with the competition’s most sexually uninhibited and flagrantly horny title; corsets don’t apply here, and even underwear proves blissfully optional. Set at a seedy roadside motel where the clientele never stops moaning, it’s a feverishly shambling erotic thriller starring three very game actors (Iago Xavier, Nataly Rocha, and Fábio Assunção) in a romantic triangle that plays like James M. Cain with sex toys—“The Postman Always Cock Rings Twice,” as it were.


10. “Emilia Pérez”

A trans-empowerment musical set against the backdrop of Mexico’s drug cartels might sound like a dubious proposition on paper, and, for the many detractors of this genre-melding big swing from the French director Jacques Audiard (“A Prophet,” “The Sisters Brothers”), what actually made it onto the screen was no better. But I was disarmed from the start by Audiard’s quasi-Almodóvarian vibes, his touchingly imperfect embrace of song-and-dance stylization, and, most of all, his three leads: the remarkable discovery Karla Sofía Gascón, a scene-stealing Selena Gomez, and a never-better Zoe Saldaña. All three (along with Adriana Paz) were recognized with the festival’s Best Actress prize, awarded collectively to the movie’s ensemble of actresses; Audiard also won the Jury Prize. (A forthcoming Netflix release.)


11. “Oh, Canada”

After a tense trilogy of dramas about male redemption through violence (“First Reformed,” “The Card Counter,” “Master Gardener”), the writer and director Paul Schrader has taken a gentler turn with an adaptation of “Foregone,” a 2021 novel by the late Russell Banks. (It’s his second Banks adaptation, after the 1997 drama “Affliction.”) In exploring the fragmented consciousness of an aging documentary filmmaker (played at different ages by Richard Gere and Jacob Elordi), Schrader bravely forsakes the narrative fastidiousness of his recent work and takes on grand themes of memory, mortality, and artistic self-reckoning, to formally ragged but sincerely moving effect.


12. “The Girl with the Needle”

This stark and terrifying black-and-white drama from the Swedish-born, Polish-based director Magnus von Horn (“Sweat”) was perhaps the competition’s bleakest entry. Set in Copenhagen immediately after the First World War, it pins us so mercilessly to the hard-bitten perspective of Karoline (an excellent Vic Carmen Sonne), a factory seamstress who becomes pregnant out of wedlock, that we scarcely notice her story shifting in a different, more sinister direction. It’s a bitterly hard-to-stomach brew of a movie, at once hideous and beautifully made, with a chilling supporting turn by Trine Dyrholm as a friend whose interventions turn out to be anything but benign.


13. “Three Kilometres to the End of the World”

The setting of this well-observed but emotionally opaque drama, from the Romanian actor turned director Emanuel Pârvu, is a small rural village where a closeted teen-age boy, Adi (Ciprian Chiujdea), is brutally beaten after being caught in an intimate moment with a male traveller. Pârvu teases out the legal, psychological, and moral fallout with the pitch-perfect performances and laserlike formal focus that have become hallmarks of new Romanian cinema. But, though the movie is persuasive enough as an indictment of small-town religious fundamentalism and homophobia, it proves curiously incurious about Adi’s perspective, to the detriment of its own human pulse.


14. “Kinds of Kindness”

After his Oscar-winning period romps “The Favourite” (2018) and “Poor Things” (2023), the Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos scales back—but goes long—with a sprawling, increasingly tedious compendium of comic cruelty. My favorite of the film’s three disconnected stories, all featuring the same actors, is the one where Jesse Plemons (the ensemble M.V.P., as the jury recognized with its Best Actor award) plays Willem Dafoe’s Manchurian candidate; my least favorite is the one where Emma Stone joins a sweat-worshipping sex cult. The one where Stone slices off her finger and cooks it for Plemons falls—much like the movie in Lanthimos’s over-all œuvre—somewhere in the middle. (A Searchlight Pictures release, opening June 21st in theatres.)


15. “Bird”

My admiration for the English filmmaker Andrea Arnold (“American Honey”) is such that I’m eager to revisit her latest rough-and-tumble coming-of-age story and find that I undervalued it. Arnold is certainly skilled at integrating recognizable actors, which in this case includes Barry Keoghan and Franz Rogowski, into her grottily realist frames, and she has an appealing lead performer in Nykiya Adams, as a twelve-year-old girl who overcomes persistent abuse and neglect. But the story may lose you—as it lost me—with a magical-realist turn that magnifies, rather than minimizes, the tortured-animal symbolism that has often dogged Arnold’s work.


16. “Beating Hearts”

An exchange of insults at a high-school bus stop provides a saucy meet-cute for a good girl (Mallory Wanecque) and a ne’er-do-well boy (Malik Frikah); so begins a raucous and endearing love story for the ages, in which the director Gilles Lellouche, with outsized glee and little discipline, merrily appropriates the conventions of classic Hollywood musicals and gangster flicks. The result is much too long at nearly three hours—the story spans several years, with Adèle Exarchopoulos and François Civil playing older versions of the two leads—but I can’t say I didn’t warm to its rambunctious cornball charm.


17. “Limonov: The Ballad”

Why make a film about Eduard Limonov, the globe-trotting Russian dissident poet and punk provocateur reviled for his pro-fascist sympathies? The filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov never musters a satisfying answer in this muddled English-language bio-pic, despite an energetically uninhibited central performance by Ben Whishaw and a cheeky panoply of filmmaking techniques—jittery camerawork, lengthy tracking shots—meant to catch us up in the épater-la-bourgeoisie exuberance of Limonov’s revolt. Considering his earlier work, I prefer the rebel-youth vibes of “Leto” (2018) and the dazzling cinematic assaults of “Petrov’s Flu” (2021), both of which also screened in competition here.


18. “Parthenope”

Nearly every new picture from the Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino could be reasonably called “The Great Beauty,” the title of his gorgeous 2013 cinematic tour of Rome. (It left that year’s Cannes empty-handed, but won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.) His latest work remains most intriguing for its ambivalent but still sensually overpowering vision of the director’s home town, Naples, from which springs a modern-day goddess, named after Parthenope, a Siren from Greek mythology. She’s played by Celeste Dalla Porta, a great beauty indeed and an empathetic screen presence, though only fitfully does her character seem worthy of this movie’s epic enshrinement.


19. “Wild Diamond”

Another disquisition on beauty and its discontents, this time from the débuting French writer and director Agathe Riedinger. She hurls us the life and busy social-media feed of a nineteen-year-old, Liane (a terrific Malou Khebizi), who has nipped, tucked, and tailored every part of herself to realize her dream of being selected for a hot new reality-TV series. Part influencer-culture cautionary tale, part bad-girl Cinderella story, the movie glancingly suggests the soul-rotting effects of beauty worship, but it falls victim to the trap that Liane is trying to avoid: in a sea of worthy candidates, it doesn’t especially stand out.


20. “The Apprentice”

Donald Trump’s attorneys have threatened legal action to block the release of this drama about his early rise to fame and wealth under the mentorship of the attorney Roy Cohn (Jeremy Strong). It speaks to the useless proficiency of Ali Abbasi’s movie that the prospect of such censorship provokes more indifference than outrage. Shot to evoke cruddy nineteen-eighties VHS playback, the movie is well acted by Strong, Maria Bakalova as Ivana Trump, and an increasingly makeup-buried Sebastian Stan as Trump himself, depicted from the start as a sack of shit that gets progressively shittier. It’s not dismissible, but it’s hardly the stuff of revelation, either.


21. “Marcello Mio”

In this trifling meta-comedy from the French filmmaker Christophe Honoré (previously in the 2018 Cannes competition with the lovely “Sorry Angel”), the actress Chiara Mastroianni embarks on a strainedly whimsical personal odyssey to examine the legacy of her late father, the legendary Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni, and her own conflicted place therein. To that end, she spends much of this overstretched movie in “8½” and “La Dolce Vita” black-suited drag as she navigates a roundelay of industry in-jokes; among the French cinema luminaries making appearances are Fabrice Luchini, Nicole Garcia, and, most welcome, Chiara’s mother, Catherine Deneuve.


22. “The Most Precious of Cargoes”

The French director Michel Hazanavicius continues his uneven post-“The Artist” run with this animated Second World War fable, adapted from a 2019 novel by Jean-Claude Grumberg (and narrated by the late Jean-Louis Trintignant). It has an affecting opening stretch, in which a baby girl, thrown by her desperate father from an Auschwitz-bound train, is rescued and raised in secret by a woodcutter’s kindhearted wife. But when the child’s provenance is discovered, stoking local antisemitism, the movie becomes a bathetic wallow in Holocaust imagery, drowned in an Alexandre Desplat score whose every surge turned my heart increasingly to stone. ♦

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