The 8 best movies we saw at Cannes Film Festival 2024

The best of this year’s festival as selected by Jacob Stolworthy, including a controversial body horror, one of the bleakest films in history – and definitely not ‘Megalopolis’

Saturday 25 May 2024 10:02 BST
(BFI / Nordisk Film / MUBI)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


It was a strange Cannes Film Festival this year. Usually by the festival’s halfway mark, there are plenty of films earmarked as future classics – titles whose premieres lead to a spring in journalists’ steps as they leave the screening rooms and ones whose journey towards awards success might just have been kickstarted.

In their place this year seemed to be films of varying quality, whose quality nobody could agree on. But sure enough, the brilliant films started flowing in as freely as the booze being poured at the many parties peppered along the croisette – and with them, a sense of haughty unease was replaced by excited relief.

Enthusiastic word-of-mouth soon started eclipsing what had initially been the festival’s divisive conversation starters: Francis Ford Coppola’s $130m experiment Megalopolis, Jacques Audiard’s crime musical comedy genre mash-up Emilia Pérez (which, on 25 May, won the Jury Prize as well as joint Best Actress for its four lead stars, including Zoe Saldana and Selena Gomez), and the first part of Kevin Costner’s Western five-part franchise, Horizon: An American Saga.

Our personal count this year was 22 films screened across the In Competition and Directors’ Fortnight strands, and below are the eight films that stood out as highlights.

All We Imagine as Light

Kani Kusruti and Divya Prabha in ‘All We Imagine as Light’
Kani Kusruti and Divya Prabha in ‘All We Imagine as Light’ (BFI)

“Some people call this the city of dreams, but I don’t – I think it’s the city of illusions,” one character says of Mumbai midway through Payal Kapadia’s enthralling All We Imagine as Light. It perhaps best sums up a film that, on the surface, is a gentle tale about love, and past and present merging with the uncertainty of the future. But Kapadia creates something altogether deeper, depicting the Indian city in ways rarely seen before, her direction free-wheeling yet note-perfect. Accompanied by an ethereal original score by Topshe, All We Imagine as Light is a search for meaning, an ode to belonging – and a quiet masterpiece. (On 25 May, All We Imagine as Light won the Grand Prix – the second biggest prize behind the Palme d’Or.)


Mark Eydelshteyn and Mikey Madison in ‘Anora’
Mark Eydelshteyn and Mikey Madison in ‘Anora’ (Neon Pictures)

If there were any doubts that Sean Baker is one of the most exciting American directors working today, Anora douses them in petrol, sets them alight – and then does it again to be sure. His slice-of-life storytelling style, so brilliantly captured in Tangerine, The Florida Project and Red Rocket, this time around focuses on an exotic dancer whose life is upheaved by the kooky, and very rich, son of a Russian billionaire (a star-making role for Mark Eydelshteyn). Mikey Madison is wondrous as the protagonist, effusing Ani – don’t call her Anora – with an abrasive energy that never drags, while the midway point sees the film evolve from a Pretty Woman-lite romcom into a screwball comedy of errors that would have made Preston Sturges proud. And blush. (On 25 May, Anora won the coveted Palme d’Or.)


Ariella Mastroianni in ‘Gazer’
Ariella Mastroianni in ‘Gazer’ (Cannes Film Festival)

Electrician-turned-filmmaker Ryan J Sloan’s debut (co-written by and starring his partner Ariella Mastroianni) is a striking cult hit-in-waiting – a paranoid thriller with Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch in its veins. There’ll be dissenters who say this muted thriller, following a woman who struggles to perceive how much time has elapsed, wears its influences too obviously on its sleeve, but that is to do it a disservice: Gazer is an admirably accomplished first feature made independently by two film enthusiasts with no formal training in screenwriting or directing. The result is a mystery drama oozing in confidence that places two new filmmaking voices on the map.

The Girl with the Needle

Vic Carmen Sonne in ‘The Girl with the Needle’
Vic Carmen Sonne in ‘The Girl with the Needle’ (Nordisk Film)

The Girl with the Needle was perhaps the bleakest film screened in competition at this year’s Cannes, and has a strong case for being one of the bleakest in cinema history – one look at the far-too-revealing plot synopsis will fill you in as to why. But don’t let that put you off. This staggeringly bold second feature from Sweat director Magnus van Horn is a chilly, shape-shifting descent into hell set in the aftermath of the First World War. It’s a worthwhile watch if you can stomach the film’s surprises. Danish national treasure Trine Dyrholm is on remarkable form (the less you know about her character the better), but Vic Carmen Sonne is the tie that binds. The actor is perfectly cast as Karoline, a force of nature whose pep for life erodes with every bad turn she experiences after falling pregnant with her boss’s baby.

Grand Tour

Crista Alfaiate in ‘Grand Tour’
Crista Alfaiate in ‘Grand Tour’ ( Uma Pedra no Sapato)

Miguel Gomes might make films more attuned for arthouse lovers, but Grand Tour is an unusually accessible work from the Portugese filmmaker. The mystery it presents – recounted by a series of anonymous narrators – feels low stakes, which heightens its soothing nature. Set in 1918, Grand Tour follows a British civil servant (Gonçalo Waddington) who purposefully evades his fiancée Molly Singleton (Crista Alfaiate), who is attempting to locate him. The result might not win Gomes any new fans, but his loyalists will lap up the film’s shining and beguilingly evocative moments. (On 25 May, Gomes was awarded with Best Director for his work on Grand Tour.)


Wanlop Rungkumjad and Kuo Shu-wei in ‘Mongrel’
Wanlop Rungkumjad and Kuo Shu-wei in ‘Mongrel’ (Cannes Film Festival)

There were multiple walkouts in my screening of the challenging Mongrel, but that’s no reflection on the quality of Wei Liang Chiang and You Qiao Yin’s impressive film. Executive produced by slow cinema supremo Hou Hsiao-hsien, Mongrel is, at its core, about suffering, and has a moroseness pervading every one of its beautifully captured shots. It’s arthouse cinema for the most patient of viewers, anchored by a magnetic performance from Wanlop Rungkumjad, who plays a caregiver also caught up in a scheme involving illegal migrant workers. (On 25 May, Mongrel received a Special Mention during the annual prize-giving ceremony.)

The Substance

Demi Moore in ‘The Substance’
Demi Moore in ‘The Substance’ (MUBI)

Every Cannes has one: a love it or hate it title that becomes a word-of-mouth sensation thanks to the sheer division it creates among festivalgoers. No, we’re not talking about the so-bad-it-still-isn’t-good Megalopolis, but The Substance, a body horror that goes places even body horror aficionados will be shocked by. Helping this film’s cause are a few things – firstly, it’s the second film from Coralie Fargeat, whose gory thriller Revenge marked her out as one to watch back in 2017 – but, secondly it marks a return-of-sorts for 1990s icon Demi Moore, who is fantastically cast as an ageing Hollywood star who takes a black market drug to create a younger version of herself. The Substance is as gruesome as they come, culminating with an extended sequence that needs to be experienced with a crowd. (On 25 May, The Substance was awarded with Best Screenplay)

To a Land Unknown

Aram Sabbah and Mahmood Bakri in ‘To a Land Unknown’
Aram Sabbah and Mahmood Bakri in ‘To a Land Unknown’ (Cannes Film Festival)

The fact this started filming six months before its Cannes premiere is nothing short of impressive. The labour of love placed into this film, from Palestinian-Danish director Mahdi Fleifel, is clear from scene one and right through to its heart-wrenching final shot. The story follows cousins Chatila and Reda, two immigrants shafted by a smuggler who leaves them stranded in Athens despite their family living in Germany. Midnight Cowboy is a clear reference point for the nuanced performances by Mahmood Bakri and Aram Sabbah, whose charisma is cast-iron proof they’ll be on screen again very soon.

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