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Midway through festival, few good films in sight

CANNES, France--The best film at Cannes so far this year was made in 1979. That's the melancholy conclusion of Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, the daily trade journals printed at the festival and I didn't have to read the papers to figure that out.

At midpoint in the 54th Cannes there are a few good films in the official competition and a lot of disappointments. No film, in or out of the competition, has emerged as a sensational discovery, the way past festivals produced "Pulp Fiction," "The Piano" or "Apocalypse Now."

The opening night film, Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge," collected some revisionist sneers after its mostly glowing original reviews, but at least it represents the same kind of exuberance and passion that Francis Ford Coppola brought to his Vietnam epic in 1979. It's a wildly artificial showbiz extravaganza, with operatic emotions and lush visuals shot on boldly artificial sets, and you can feel the love that went into it.

There is passion of a more somber tone in "Kandahar," by the 44-year-old Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, whose 20-year-old daughter, Samira, won the jury prize here last year with "Blackboard." His film tells the story of Nafas (Nelofer Pazira), an Afghan who has long lived in Canada, and now tries to sneak back into Afghanistan from Iran, to convince her sister not to commit suicide.

Afghanistan cowers beneath the cruel Taliban regime, which makes the journey hazardous; no woman can be seen by a man not in her family, so Nafas pays a man to let her pose as his third wife and ride into Afghanistan on his cart. The land has seen an epidemic of amputations because of landmines; the sister lost both of her legs, and there is a harrowing scene where men with one leg race across the desert on crutches to compete for artificial limbs dropped by a UN helicopter.

Another favorite in the festival's first half was "No Man's Land" (2001) by Danis Tanovic of Bosnia, who tells a rich comic parable of his region's troubles in the story of a patrol trapped between two sides in the Bosnian-Serbian war. The situation centers on a man who has fallen on a land mine and cannot be moved without being killed. Building on irony and paradox, Tanovic has made a modern "Catch-22."

I also enjoyed the weird, mad intensity of "The Pianist," a film by Michael Haneke of Austria, starring Isabelle Huppert as a virginal music professor who explodes into a sadomasochistic relationship with one of her students. Having lived for years under the thumb of her domineering mother and nurtured her feelings in secrets, she gives herself over with abandon to the young man, who is not quite ready for her willingness, or her needs.

"The Anniversary Party," an American film co-directed by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, played in the sidebar Un Certain Regard section and shamed many entries in the Official Selection. The story of a long night of truth-telling and marital meltdown among rich friends and neighbors in Beverly Hills, it contains surprisingly powerful performances by actors such as Jennifer Beals, John C. Reilly, Kevin Kline, Phoebe Cates and the directors.

Among other high-profile American entries, "Shrek," the delightful animated feature from DreamWorks, generated great enthusiasm from audiences, who were surprised at the way it layers its story with elements of satire.

But "The Man Who Wasn't There" (2001), the new film from the Coen Brothers, got a more mixed reception. It's a black-and-white film noir in the 1940s style, starring Billy Bob Thornton as a barber who attempts to get rich quick with a dry-cleaning scheme by blackmailing the boss of his wife (Frances McDormand). "A 90-minute film that plays for two hours," Michel Simon, the influential French critic, sniffed to me after the screening. Yes, but I want to see it again, because I almost always find that a Coen Brothers film cannot be appreciated in a single viewing.

Todd Solondz, whose "Happiness" stirred up Cannes three years ago, is back with "Storytelling," another excursion into the psyches of sad, lonely, twisted people. Many of my colleagues decided Solondz has made one too many trips to the well, but I want to see it again, because in the arid wasteland of schlock Friday openings, most movies don't go to the well at all. One viewing was probably enough, however, for "Chelsea Walls," by Ethan Hawke, telling interlocking stories in New York's fabled Chelsea Hotel and never generating much interest in or between them.

Another disappointment was "Distance," by the gifted young Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose "Maborosi" and "After Life" are wonderful films. Here he tells the story of a group of survivors and relatives of a cult that attempted to poison Tokyo's drinking water; they gather for a morose pilgrimage in a story so unfocused, mumbling and low-key it's difficult to identify the characters and impossible to care about them.

Perhaps the most roundly disliked of the official entries so far is "Roberto Succo," by Cedric Kahn of France, who follows the adventures of an Italian serial killer as he murders his way through the French countryside. The film links one violent episode with another but develops no tension, no psychological depth, no point of view; it's a series of ugly, brutal crimes by a repulsive killer, who finds a series of extraordinarily stupid women to ride along with him. The cops in the movie look like college students who rented their uniforms.

The best may be still to come. Playing today is Sean Penn's "The Pledge," with one of Jack Nicholson's best performances. It was greeted with indifference by a lot of American critics when it opened at year's end. I admired it then, admire it more now, expect the Europeans to hail it. And there are new works in the week ahead by some of the giants: Olmi, David Lynch, Godard, Rivette, Moretti, Imamura.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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