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2012: Not The Best Year At Cannes

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John Powers, Fresh Air's critic-at-large and the movie critic for Vogue, returns from the 2012 Cannes Film Festival to share his thoughts on the films he liked and the films he didn't care for.

Though Powers says 2012 was not the best year at Cannes, the experience once again left him feeling rejuvenated about the movies.

"Day after day, you see things where people are trying something," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "At Cannes, you do have individual visions, you do have people trying to do individual shots that knock you out, and you do have people trying to tell stories in entirely new ways."

Here, an edited overview of Powers' thoughts on the films that won some of the festival's major awards, including the Palme d'Or, as well as some of his other favorites from the festival:

Amour, directed by Michael Haneke
The simple film from a director Powers calls the "most unpleasant filmmaker working anywhere in the world" was the favorite to win Cannes' grand prize from the moment it played, says Powers. "It came along at a time in the festival when people were grumbling that there was nothing good there," he says. Amour's plot couldn't be simpler: Basically, it's about an older, happily married man (Jean-Louis Trintignant) taking care of his dying wife (Emmanuelle Riva).

"Essentially the whole film is a process film about watching this man handle the death of his wife, and manage it, and essentially try not to be overwhelmed by the grief that he feels," says Powers. "The film's called [Amour,] I think, because Haneke's suggesting that the real fact of love is that you have to deal with the loss of your love, as well as dealing with all of the glorious romantic stuff. Most films called 'Love' would take place when the couple meets. This is at the end of life." (Winner: Palme d'Or)

Reality, directed by Matteo Garrone
The Italian satire about the effects of reality television stars Aniello Arena as a fishmonger who becomes obsessed with the idea of appearing on a Big Brother-style reality show. "He essentially goes crazier and crazier because he thinks that as they're preparing to put him on the show, they're testing him," says Powers. "So whenever he meets people, he thinks that they work for the show and are actually trying to see whether he's fit to be on the show." (Winner: Grand Jury Prize)

On the Road, directed by Walter Salles
Powers calls the adaptation of Kerouac's novel both effective and slightly disappointing. "On the Road is more a feeling than a collection of scenes, so it's very hard to know how you dramatize what's going on in it," he says. "It's one of those movies where you feel kind of guilty in not loving it more because it's so admirably well done, it's well acted, it's nicely directed — and yet it's not magical. And the problem with this is that it needs to be magical because this book, for people who love it, is magical."

Holy Motors, directed by Leos Carax
Back in the '80s and '90s, Carax became the l'enfant terrible of French cinema after his movie Lovers on the Bridge outgrew its original budget and then flopped at the box office. His latest movie, Holy Motors, which drew equal amounts of boos and cheers at Cannes, is about a guy being driven around town in a stretch limo while meeting various people. "In this particular case, it's what we presume is an actor of some sorts who goes from place to place putting on costumes and then acting the equivalent of movie scenes," says Powers. "The fact is Holy Motors isn't just a movie — it's a movie about movies, or a meta-movie. There's a sci-fi sequence, a Beauty and the Beast sequence, a murder sequence, a deathbed sequence, a musical sequence — and all of it's told in this great, flamboyant style and becomes a reflection on the movies, and on perhaps the loss of the movies, as well."

Antiviral, directed by Brandon Cronenberg
The horror film, directed by the son of David Cronenberg, is set in a dystopian future world in which people obsessed with celebrity culture buy viruses that have been in celebrity bodies to be more like the celebrities themselves. Powers says he didn't care much for the end result. "I've seen many better movies this year on similar topics, but they're not by David Cronenberg's son," he says. "It sounds mean to say it, but one suspects he got in [to Cannes] because he was David Cronenberg's son. And Cronenberg's a great Cannes favorite, so I can imagine they would think it's exciting to have [Brandon] there. If I sound too disdainful, I was at the front of the line to see the movie by David Cronenberg's son. So they were not wrong in thinking this would be a hot ticket."

Paperboy, directed by Lee Daniels
Powers describes Daniels' post-Precious film as a "Southern white trash thriller that's basically like a Jim Thompson novel made by John Waters." It stars Matthew McConaughey as a journalist sent to investigate a creepy guy (played by John Cusack) who may or may not be a murderer. Meanwhile, Cusack's character is involved in a letter-writing romance with a trashy woman (Nicole Kidman) who falls in love with McConaughey's character's brother (Zac Efron). Sound confusing? It's "incredibly fun to watch," says Powers. "What Daniels has done is unhinged [the film] from all the stuff we think of as normal, straight-forward storytelling, and heightened every single thing so that it becomes this crazy meditation on race, the South, on sex. I don't know if I could say it was good, but I can't say there's a single person who saw it who wasn't incredibly entertained."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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