Unlike the Oscars and the Golden Globes, which can be accurately predicted at least 90 percent of the time, the Cannes Film Festival likes to make its prizes a surprise. That's largely because they're chosen by a jury of fewer than 10 people, mostly film professionals; this year, the Coen brothers jointly served as president, watching the 19 Competition titles alongside the likes of fellow director Guillermo del Toro and actress Sienna Miller. With a small, eclectic group like that struggling to find common ground, anything can happen. All the same, it came as a genuine shock when the Coens announced that the festival's top award, the Palme d'Or, would go to Dheepan, the latest effort by French filmmaker Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, Rust and Bone). The tale of three unrelated Sri Lankan immigrants posing as a family in a dangerous Paris housing project, the movie got mildly respectful reviews from attending critics, but was not mentioned so much as once in multiple articles discussing possible Palme d'Or winners. Jaws dropped everywhere.
Prior to the ceremony, the smart money was one of three films. The Assassin, from Taiwanese heavyweight Hou Hsiao-Hsien, was the super-arty choice; technically, it's a wuxia film—see also Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—but Hou, who's never worked in the genre before, subordinates martial arts action to languorous shots in which the characters can barely be seen behind gently billowing curtains. It's one of the most beautiful movies ever made (and won the Best Director prize), but will frustrate anyone for whom beauty alone isn't enough. Other critics championed Todd Haynes' Carol, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's pseudonymous 1952 novel The Price of Salt, in which Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara play lesbian lovers during an era when that was truly taboo. At Cannes, this quietly devastating film had to settle for Best Actress—awarded, in another surprise, to Mara rather than to Blanchett—but it should fare better in the U.S. when it's released around Christmas. And then there was Son of Saul, an intense drama set entirely in Auschwitz II-Birkenau, which follows the efforts of a Sonderkommando (one of the Jewish prisoners forced to herd other victims into the gas chambers, then dispose of the corpses) to give a proper burial to a boy he claims was his son. Depicting the Holocaust's horrors in the background, obscured by the protagonist and/or out of focus, it inspired the usual debate about whether and how such atrocities should be depicted, but the jury admired it enough to award it the Grand Prix (second prize).
Third prize, formally called the Jury Prize, went to The Lobster, starring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz. The English-language debut of eccentric Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos (whose Dogtooth was a sensation at Cannes in 2009), it imagines a bizarre near future in which single adults are given 45 days to find a romantic partner; those who fail are transformed into the animal of their choice. As an allegory, The Lobster doesn't always make a lot of sense, but its sardonic wit was a tonic amongst the mostly somber Competition slate. More typical was Best Screenplay winner Chronic, in which Tim Roth plays a hospice nurse whose compassion constantly borders on creepiness, to the point at which the family of one patient sues him for sexual harassment. And Best Actor went to the great (but little-known in the U.S.) Vincent Lindon for The Measure of a Man, about a guy who spends the first half of the movie trying in vain to find a job and the second half of the movie trying to decide whether he can stomach the job he finally finds. It's a decidedly un-showy performance, nearly silent in the home stretch; Lindon's award was well deserved.
As is often the case, however, the best film that screened at Cannes this year went home empty-handed, and was generally underrated by critics as well—in part, perhaps, because it was the most commercial film in Competition. Sicario, directed by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners), appears on its surface to be a fairly basic if extremely grim thriller about the Mexican drug cartels, with Emily Blunt as a tough FBI agent who's asked to join a mysterious inter-agency task force headed by a character played by Josh Brolin. Villeneuve demonstrates a heretofore hidden gift for suspense filmmaking, epitomized by a white-knuckle ambush sequence set in a traffic jam at the U.S.-Mexican border. But Sicario's true, confounding virtue is the way that it subverts the standard lone-hero narrative, keeping Blunt's highly principled character in the dark for ages and very slowly squeezing her out of her own movie, to be replaced by a "consultant" (Benicio Del Toro) whose loyalties are uncertain. The film will open in September, right around the time "awards season" kicks off in earnest; odds are it'll be ignored again, but audiences seeking very pointed excitement can form their own jury.