The Best Films at Cannes 2023

From Jonathan Glazer's triumphant Cannes debut to the first Sudanese production to be honoured by the festival, here are six films to keep an eye out for this year

BY Rory O'Connor AND Angel Lambo in Film , Opinion | 25 MAY 23

The Zone of Interest (2023), Jonathan Glazer

Drawing on Martin Amis’s acidic 2014 novel about Auschwitz commander Rudolf Höss, Jonathan Glazer’s eponymous feature, The Zone of Interest, is nothing short of a sensation. Following the daily routines of the Höss family, the film examines monstrous indifference in the face of suffering without ever glancing over the camp’s barbed-wire fences. Adopting a rigorous formal setup – few close-ups and multiple static cameras positioned so the actors don’t always perform to the audience – Glazer creates a horrifying sense of the uncanny. Arguably the film’s strongest asset, however, is its audacious sound design of distant horrors – screams, gunshots, approaching trains, the relentless rumble of furnaces – and a typically monolithic Mica Levi score.

The Zone of Interest
Jonathan Glazer, The Zone of Interest, 2023

As Glazer’s first film in competition at Cannes – and his first production since Under the Skin (2013) – The Zone of Interest was one of the festival’s most highly anticipated films, yet it still managed to blow most people away, further confirming the filmmaker as one of the most original of his generation. Considering Amis died less than 24 hours after it premiered, surely a Palme d’Or would be a fitting send-off? –Rory O'Connor

Goodbye Julia (2023), Mohamed Kordofani

Mohamed Kordofani’s sumptuous Sudanese saga revolves around two characters: Mona (Eiman Yousif), a wealthy Arab Sudanese woman married to the distant and distrusting Akram (Nazaar Goma), and Julia (Siran Riak), an impoverished mother from the country’s Christian south who hopes to provide a better future for her son.

Wracked with guilt after triggering the racially motivated shooting of Julia’s husband, yet unable to confess to the crime, Mona employs the unsuspecting widow as a live-in maid. Despite Akram reminding her of their maid’s inferiority, the women develop a friendship based on mutual dependence: Julia encourages Mona, a former singer, to return to the stage; Mona pays the tuition fees for Julia’s son.

Goodbye Julia
Mohamed Kordofani, Goodbye Julia, 2023

Kordofani’s layered screenplay turns what could have been a time-worn drama about the caustic effects of secret-keeping into a mesmerizing cinematic treatise on the religious and racial divisions that led to Sudan’s 2011 independence referendum and subsequent national rupture. The result is a utopic – albeit fleeting – vision of reconciliation between two sides of a country governed by social apartheid. As the first Sudanese filmmaker to be honoured at Cannes, Kordofani’s efforts to alleviate tragedy through hope and suture division with empathy should be acknowledged by the judges. –Angel Lambo

Anatomy of a Fall (2023), Justine Triet

Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall is as much a courtroom drama as The Godfather (1972) is about gangsters. Starring a phenomenal Sandra Hüller as a woman who may or may not have pushed her husband out of a window, Triet’s morally shapeshifting film is so brilliantly written and skilfully acted that you barely notice its 150-minute runtime.

Anatomy of a Fall
Justine Triet, Anatomy of a Fall, 2023

Hüller stars as a famous writer living in a secluded Austrian chalet with her husband and son. The accident – or crime – happens fewer than ten minutes into proceedings, allowing Triet to take the complexity of the couple’s marriage into fascinatingly uncertain places. By the end, it’s difficult to tell what guilty means anymore. Hüller stars in two of this year’s Official Selection at Cannes. (She also plays the commander’s wife in The Zone of Interest.) But, if the jury is to honour the actor, it should be for this film. –Rory O'Connor

Only the River Flows (2023), Wei Shujun

Wei Shujun’s Only the River Flows suggests a new direction for the 32-year-old auteur. Set in 1990s provincial China, before the country became a global economic powerhouse, the film stars Zhu Yilong as a downbeat and obsessive chief detective on the hunt for a serial killer.

Only the River Flows
 Wei Shujun, Only the River Flows, 2023

Revelling in the ephemera of a bygone era – clues are discovered on cassette tapes; the investigation unit sets up shop in an empty movie theatre – Only the River Flows is as pleasing on the eye as it is rich with symbolism. The film unfurls like a traditional thriller, but Wei’s interests lie more in narrative subterfuge and the shadows of film noir. One of the only recent Chinese productions to be shot on celluloid, this confounding film is also one of the most visually entrancing at this year’s festival: late nights and black leather jackets, dark waters and even murkier pasts. It is a mystifying gem. –Rory O'Connor

May December (2023), Todd Haynes

Inspired by a true story about a teacher’s affair with a 13-year-old boy, Todd Haynes’s May December channels daytime soap opera energy into a stylized film that never feels gimmicky. Natalie Portman plays a fictional Hollywood actress who visits ex-felon Gracie (Julianne Moore) – now living comfortably with her young lover (Charles Melton) and their two children – to research an upcoming dramatization of the scandal. In her local community, Gracie is seen as naive, but more knotted complexities are soon revealed.

May December
Todd Haynes, May December, 2023

Haynes’s best work has always looked below the surface of suburban life – notably in earlier collaborations with Moore, such as Far from Heaven (2002) – although their last outing together, Wonderstruck (2017), proved to be the biggest dud of his career. Quoting fluently from Ingmar Bergman’s psychological masterpiece Persona (1966), however, and featuring a playfully garish aesthetic from cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, May December is proof that the 62-year-old filmmaker still has ideas to burn. –Rory O'Connor

Banel & Adama (2023), Ramata-Toulaye Sy

Ramata-Toulaye Sy’s feature debut is a visually intoxicating fable about what happens when self-interest locks horns with community tradition. In the film’s opening scenes, the independently minded Banel (Khady Mane) is depicted as a modern heroine contending with the expectations put upon women in rural Senegal: she wears boyish t-shirts, refuses to do laundry and expresses a desire to remain child free. She also stands by – perhaps initiates – her husband Adama’s (Mamadou Diallo) decision to reject his ancestral birth right of becoming village chief.

Banel & Adama
Ramata-Toulaye Sy, Banel & Adama, 2023

Soon afterwards, a drought ravages the already parched village, causing Adama to spend long days with his cattle in search of pasture. Enraged, Banel accuses him of going back on his promise to dig out their matrimonial home: a pair of ancient, and seemingly mystical, houses outside the village that have been buried by sand over time. The more Adama excavates them, however, the more Banel’s mind unravels.

Combining Sy’s magical realist script with Amine Berrada’s weighty cinematography, this toxic love story is a sumptuous watch: canary-yellow blouses, watermelon-pink shawls and azurite-blue waters fill early frames but, as the story develops, the screen is consumed by Sahel grey. A cautionary tale about building houses on sand. –Angel Lambo

Rory O'Connor is a writer based in Berlin, Germany.

Angel Lambo is associate editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin.