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From an awkward scene with a knife to an A-listers comeback with the sounds of Fiona Apple, Guardian writers pick their favourite big screen bits of the year

The ride Ford v Ferrari

Photograph: Merrick Morton/AP

In Ford v Ferrari (AKA Le Mans 66), Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) has been tasked by the Man in the guise of Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) to build a racer that can beat those rotten eye-talians who think they are better than us. Shelby can do it, but he needs Letts to get off his back with the rules and regs and let his genius soar! (Ayn Rand would love this movie.) After some comedic business, Ford winds up in the test vehicle alone with Shelby, who zooms him through sphincter-clenching turns at incredible speeds. When he slams the brakes, Ford sobs.

At first you think the scene is just to mock the unmanliness of this pencil-pushing suit. Then it changes. Shelbys velocity has so rattled Fords emotions he explodes in grief that his late father cant see his name on such a powerhouse, and in deep sadness that hes not a man of vision himself. He recognizes in Shelby everything he isnt, and it floods out his eyes and nose. It is a weirdly tender moment, reminding us that even comedic baddies in a dad film are people, too. JH

The strip Hustlers

Photograph: Barbara Nitke/AP

Jennifer Lopezs dazzling pole dance caused a ripple of gasps around the screening room where I saw Lorene Scafarias clever con movie Hustlers. Its not just that J-Lo looks so great for her, or anyone elses, age. And its not just that the moves required for this dance are so demanding, she later released a YouTube video of the rehearsals in which she gazed horrorstruck at her own bruised thighs. Its mostly that its a very old-school star move: the flaunting of talent, professionalism and charisma that we associate with a routine by say, Fred Astaire. But also, Ramona is the films central enigma and this moment, her first appearance, sums up the movie.

Her gymnastic display inspires something more tangible than mere lust: admiration (from an overawed Constance Wu), and financial reward. Ramona hugs those dollar bills close to her heart as she strides off stage. The choice of song, Fiona Apples Criminal, is as prophetic as her payoff line is prescient: Doesnt money make you horny? PH

The arrival Homecoming

Photograph: Parkwood Entertainment

A quote from Toni Morrison, some grainy analog establishing shots of the Coachella grounds, and then: it is time. The camera dollies up to a drum majorette who taps out a count, mean-mugs for a moment, and then blows her whistle to summon the demi-deity known as Beyonc Knowles-Carter. The director of photographys choreography works in perfect tandem with the dancers as one continuous shot pulls forward while they twirl out of the way to reveal Queen B, so resplendent and regal that both the nickname and the crowds slavering idol-worship of her instantly make sense.

To the strains of a HBCU-styled marching band, she strides down a catwalk to the stage with one foot in front of the other to maximize the swing of her hips. She might as well be walking on water, so supremely in command of this massive spectacle that she reminds us why we talk about pop stars in religious terms. CB

The evaluator Marriage Story

Photograph: Netflix

As rapturous as the reception might have been for Noah Baumbachs shattering divorce saga Marriage Story on the festival circuit this fall, no one could have predicted its instant virality earlier this month when it landed on Netflix. But while Adam Driver and Scarlett Johanssons devastating argument became its most memed moment, its the lighter, yet still astute, set piece involving a court-appointed evaluator that made the biggest impression on me.

Its a perfectly calibrated sequence of awkwardness with Drivers theatre director Charlie painfully determined to show that hes a stable parent but knowing, as his soon-to-be-divorced wife says earlier on, that outside observation on any given day would reveal flawed parenting. This tension lingers throughout as he tries to bury his instinctive reaction to his sons gentle insolence while trying, unsuccessfully, to seek some humanity or humour from the unknowable visitor Nancy Katz, played hysterically by the standup comic Martha Katz. Im not sure if another line has amused me this year quite as much as Charlies son asking him to do the thing with the knife over dinner in front of an understandably suspect Nancy and silently raging Charlie. Uncomfortably brushing it off, he eventually decides to explain his trick but it goes horribly, stomach-churningly wrong and he ends up bleeding profusely while trying, yet again, to pretend everything is fine. Its gruesomely, outrageously funny and a reminder of Baumbachs ability to make drastic yet effortless tonal switches. BL

The karaoke Booksmart

At a graduation eve party in Booksmart, one of the most criminally underseen movies of the year, shy overachiever Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) sits on the floor in a crowded room, sloshing through the end of her drink and admiring an overconfident theater friend belt out Alanis Morissettes You Oughta Know on a karaoke mic. Amy, out for two years but inexperienced, spends most of the film careening from confident and brash, in the presence of best friend Molly (Beanie Feldstein), to tongue-tied in front of Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), her crush of two years; when Ryan hands her the mic halfway through the song, the sound cuts out a fever pitch of nerves. But then Amy crushes it, nailing the songs ending and revealing to her classmates that, low-key, she can sing.

This scene does an impressive amount in about a minute, namely: live out the fantasy that has occupied about 65% of my daydreams since age 13 (I cant sing), prove that Dever has ARRIVED, salute an ultimate banger of a song. But it also captures the warm invincibility at the bottom of your first drink, the high of leaning into someone elses confidence or of unlocking that fearlessness in yourself the type of finely observed, wild yet grounded fun that made Booksmart one of the most resonant high school movies in a long time. AH

The fuckbox – High Life

Photograph: Allstar/Alcatraz Films

When Claire Deniss desolately beautiful science-fiction nightmare High Life premiered at the Toronto film festival, the fuckbox scene became a brief but intense meme for the few on film Twitter who had seen it: in a film that was hard to describe and distil as a whole, it was the salacious detail singled out to pique others interest. Thats a reductive way to tease a film prickling with so many layers of philosophical and sensual detail, but once seen in context, its also an entirely indelible image: Juliette Binoche, nude and scar-torn, entering a space-borne masturbation chamber, straddling a dildo seat and riding it until, as Lil Nas X might say, she cant no more. Performed with abandon by Binoche and shot with visceral candour by Denis making a tensing, thrashing map of the actors back alone its one of the most extraordinary sex scenes in modern cinema: an expression of female erotic autonomy that outlasts any early quips about it in the memory. GL

The crying Midsommar

Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy Stock Photo

Ari Asters Midsommar is a portrait of how a toxic relationship quietly, but surely, unravels. At first its subtle: Florence Pughs Dani frets that she overburdens boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) with her own drama and mental health issues, and that her need for emotional support is unattractive. When her whole family dies suddenly, shes desperate to hold on to Christian. She appeases. She apologizes. She stifles her cries after Christian and his friends subtly pressure her into taking shrooms, as specters of her dead sister haunt her.

The whole film is about Dani feeling silenced and invalidated by a man who views himself as the saddled victim. Thats why its so weirdly refreshing when, in Midsommars terrifying climax, the Hrga women embrace Dani for who she is, cupping her face and encouraging her to sob as loudly as she wants. Crouched on the floor, they cry as one, and as their wails reach a communal crescendo, you see Dani finally finding some measure of healing. Sure, its a crazy Swedish cult, but there Dani finally finds someone who actually acknowledges her agony. GS

The tai chi – The Farewell

Photograph: AP

The quiet sentimentality of Lulu Wangs charming sleeper hit shines brightest for me in a scene where twentysomething Billi (played by Oscar-buzzed Awkwafina) and her grandmother, Nai Nai, practice tai chi outside.

Nai Nai coaches her granddaughter through some of the movements, lightly nagging Billi about practicing tai chi everyday in that cute, but kind of annoying, manner family members are known for. Its obvious Billi has no plans of practicing tai chi after this scene and doesnt deem it particularly useful. Then Nai Nai proudly and confidently credits the martial art for her continuing good health, a big smile on her face. Thing is: Billis grandmother has terminal lung cancer but does not know it. So Billi performs the tai chi movements with a renewed energy, owed to the strange mixture of guilt, sadness and stress she feels over the secret illness. She pushes out bad energy and inhales good, yelling out an awkward, meek Hai!

An hour later, at the end of the film, we see Billi walking down the streets of south Williamsburg. Shes still upset over her grandmothers cancer and visibly overwhelmed and stressed. Out of nowhere, she stops in the street, takes a deep breath and yells out a loud, reverberating Hai! The circularity of the moment Billi going from disinterest in tai chi to seeking relief through it highlights how our families can arm us with specific tools to handle the stressors of life. It reminds me of the hours me and my late grandmother would spend putting together 1,000-piece puzzles. As a kid, I was confident I would never take part in such a boring, odious activity as an adult. Today, its my favorite pastime. AW

The confrontation The Souvenir

Photograph: Bbc Films/Allstar

Generally speaking, scenes in which lovers kiss and make up following an infraction are joyful affairs. They come at the close of a movie, following heart-rending misunderstandings that have left a happy ending in jeopardy. Thats not the case in The Souvenir. After months of casual, incremental borrowing to fund his heroin habit, Anthony (Tom Burke) stages a robbery at the flat of young girlfriend Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne). This is purely to bankroll smack not the luxe trip to Venice they embark on soon after, which she pays for, and during which she twigs what hes done.

When they return to London, Julie asks and Anthony admits. But hes not sorry. Hes wounded she has brought it up his abhorrent behaviour compounded by this cavalier attitude. Youre shocked, and relieved surely shell give him the boot?

And she quietly forgives him. Anthonys arrogance and obfuscation, his hurt words about only doing what he needs to, in a world she wouldnt understand, which hes protecting her from, fall on appalling open ears. Blame is smoothly shifted. Repentant Julie strokes his foot and forgets her heirlooms.

Joanna Hogg shoots the confrontation in one static shot; the couple sitting opposite in armchairs, until Julie bridges the gap. The viewer knew the truth would out and assumed it would be a bigger scene. That its not moves the relationship into new territory. You can no longer underestimate Anthonys actions or his hold over Julie. The moment she reaches out in supplication is the chilling heart of a fairly scary film. CS

The knife fight John Wick 3

Ignore the whys (the film-makers did); basically, its Keanu Reeves versus a bunch of faceless goons in a surprisingly tooled-up antiques shop, and for me, one of the most exhilaratingly gruesome action scenes in recent memory.

It starts with a few gunmen, easily dispatched, but things really kick off when Reeves and an opponent realise they are in a corridor of glass cases packed with all manner of bladed weapons. So much glass-smashing, knife-throwing, shooting, stabbing, punching, kicking, grunting and limb-twisting ensues, you can barely keep track. It is brilliantly choreographed and executed, but whats so great is how messy it all looks. And painful. Nobody is neatly killed. Knives miss their targets. The deaths get ever-more cartoonishly horrendous. And the scene ends with a flourish: the last, wounded assailant sits groaning in the foreground; from way back down the corridor Reeves hurls a final axe, which, of course, hits its target in the side of the head. The first time I watched this scene I laughed out loud in horror and admiration, which was kind of awkward as I was sitting on a crowded plane. SR

The heroin Pain and Glory

Photograph: Lifestyle pictures/Alamy Stock Photo

Painfully clean-living as I am, I have never understood why so many films I like feature the consumption of heroin. Christiane F, Trainspotting, The Souvenir, Permanent Midnight and of course, the champ: Requiem for a Dream. Now we can add another to the list: Pedro Almodvars autobiographical reverie Pain and Glory. Now, most films posit heroin as a one-way ticket to the morgue, or at least to total social dysfunction; for Almodvar, though, it seems to be the next best thing to an after-dinner mint. His alter ego Salvador (Antonio Banderas) appears to handle it all with remarkable ease, using it to soothe his emotional worries and act as a vehicle for remembrance. Experiencers of the real thing may have a different view, but I presume Almodvar knows what hes talking about. Its quite the eye-opener. AP

The brow mop Amazing Grace

Photograph: Collection Christophel/Alamy Stock Photo

Sydney Pollacks lost concert movie Amazing Grace was finally brought out this year showing the live filming in 1972 of Aretha Franklins gospel album of that name at New Temple Missionary Baptist church in Watts, Los Angeles. Franklins calm and restraint at the centre of this boiling cauldron of musical energy is compelling. The most startling moment involves her father, the Rev CL Franklin, who addresses the congregation and then, while Aretha is actually singing, he rushes forward to mop her brow. Was this the sort of thing he used to do when she was a little girl? Is it touching that he does it now? Or weirdly dysfunctional and coercive? Either way, it is a compelling image in a remarkable film. PB

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Starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, Noah Baumbachs film doesnt just put you off divorce it puts you off marriage in the first place

It is amazing how much great pop music has been inspired by break-ups and how little great cinema. Perhaps we are happier dealing with heartbreak via three minutes of Adele or Fleetwood Mac than we are poring over it in live-action detail for two hours. Give us a romcom any day. This is what makes Noah Baumbachs Marriage Story, if not exactly refreshing, at least very honest.

Marriage Story is one of the rare movies to stare divorce in the face. Or faces. Intensely focused on its unhappy couple (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson), it tracks the mechanics of the modern break-up with compassion and wit but also unsentimental precision: the micro-aggressions, the macro-aggressions, the custody tug of war, the bittersweet vestiges of love, and the way the lawyers can make a bad thing much worse.

The film pays homage to the Citizen Kane of divorce movies: Kramer vs Kramer, which won Oscars for Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep in 1980. But also Alan Parkers Shoot the Moon, Bergmans Scenes from a Marriage, Starting Over, and several Woody Allens. You would hesitate to call it a golden age, but divorce rates were at a high in the 1970s and early 80s as were appetites for movies on the subject, perhaps. Baumbachs own parents were divorcing around the same time, an experience he processed in his excellent debut The Squid and the Whale. It would be tempting to read Marriage Story as a veiled account of Baumbachs own separation from his wife Jennifer Jason Leigh, but despite admitting a real connection to the material, he insists the film is not purely autobiographical, although the husband character is treated noticeably more sympathetically.

It is not as though first-hand experience of divorce is in short supply in the film-making community. Baumbach has some way to go to catch up with the likes of Lana Turner (divorced eight times), Billy Bob Thornton (five) or Martin Scorsese (four). Despite, or perhaps because of, this, divorce is more often material for comedy, whether that is perky twins reuniting Mom and Pop (The Parent Trap), husbands cross-dressing to see their kids (Mrs Doubtfire), or exes taking revenge on their wealthy husbands (The First Wives Club). Whether it is a comedy or a drama, the feuding couple usually end up getting back together. In theory at least, Hollywood is firmly committed to the institution of marriage.

Intriguingly, a recent US academic study found that making couples watch, and then discuss, movies about relationships halved divorce rates a more effective treatment than counselling. So maybe the romcoms are a better way to go after all. But if ever there was a movie that showed just how ugly it can all get, its Marriage Story. It doesnt just put you off divorce; it puts you off getting married in the first place.

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Every day for Paterson is exactly the same. And every day for Paterson is sublimely unique. Each morning, Paterson (Adam Driver) wakes up next to his beautiful, eccentrically creative wife (Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani). He eats a single serving of cereal out of a coffee mug. He walks to his job, where he spends the day driving a bus around Paterson, New Jersey, watching little slices of other peoples lives as they cross paths with his. He goes home, has dinner, walks the dog, has a beer at a local pub, and goes crawlsinto bed, ready to do it all again the next day. Like most of us—even if we dont want to admit it—Patersons life unfolds mostly as routine and repetition. But within those patterns, Paterson continually finds inspiration and beauty even in the most mundane of subjects, like a book of matches.

Paterson, the latest film from indie legend Jim Jarmusch (Broken Flowers, Only Lovers Left Alive), is a celebration of the creative impulse, and its ability to impart mystery to even the most innocuous of things. In Paterson and his wife, Laura, Jarmusch presents two different visions of creativity. Laura is a whirlwind of constant, frenetic creation—decorating and redecorating every corner of their small home with her trademark black-and-white patterns. She also has big dreams: She wants to open a cupcake store, unless she becomes a country music star first (just as soon as she actually learns to sing and play the guitar).

In contrast, Paterson is hesitant even to show his poems to anyone but Laura. She constantly urges him to make copies—something that becomes important late in the film—but he never seems to get around to it. While he might occasionally court notions of his poems leaving behind a legacy like that of his own favorite poet, former Paterson resident William Carlos Williams, for the most part Paterson writes for himself, and for Laura. He writes because he enjoys it, and because it helps give his life meaning, and because he cant not. Jarmusch underlines this friction between pure creativity and creativity as a means to an end over and over in the film, such as with the celebrity wall in Patersons favorite bar, where the regulars gather and reminisce around pictures of famous Paterson residents like Lou Costello and boxer Hurricane Carter. In a world where fame is often celebrated as an end in itself, Patersons simple embrace of creativity for its own sake seems all the more noble.

The film makes wonderful use of repetition and recurring imagery to showcase how, in spite of Paterson following the same routine every day, each day nevertheless manages to be vibrant and memorable. This comes down entirely to the fact that Paterson is forever looking for those small, wonderful moments. Sometimes its a conversation with another young, aspiring poet while she waits to be picked up by her mother. Sometimes its the countless conversations he overhears while driving the bus. Jarmusch underlines his themes of finding unexpected beauty within sameness with countless little visual touches, from the recurring appearances by different sets of twins, to Lauras own fixation on circles in her art. Theres so much of this, its truly jarring when, late in the film, Jarmusch begins to break those patterns.

Driver gives a beautiful, understated performance, one which proves how powerful stillness can be as an acting choice. There are whole scenes where Paterson is, on the surface, not really doing anything at all. But even when hes doing nothing, hes doing a lot. Within the rigid refrains of his daily life, hes perpetually soaking in every detail he can. This is Patersons life, and it could be depressing as hell, except he chooses not to see the sameness, but all the little ways in which each day is new. Thats a lesson all of us could benefit from.

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After almost 40 years in cinema, the director remains the quintessential leftfield auteur. He discusses how his gentle new film Paterson offers a Zen alternative to blockbuster chaos

Theres a line in Jim Jarmuschs 1986 film Down By Law that seems apposite in November 2016. It goes: My mama used to say that Americas the big melting pot. You bring it to a boil and all the scum rises to the top.

Over tea in a Paris hotel, Jarmusch considers whether hed agree. Kind of appropriate, but also kind of cynical, he says finally. But its a scary and sad time with these creeps coming to the top. I think we all have to be vigilant around the world now with Brexit, and Marine Le Pen in France. Theres a lot of scary shit, you know?

Jarmusch is 63 but looks exactly as he has for the last 30 years. Hes wearing dark glasses indoors and is dressed as if he may at any moment be called on to play guitar with the Velvet Underground. His hair is that crown of pure white that makes him look like David Lynchs beatnik brother. It turned that way when he was 15 due to an inherited condition. Tom Waits once said it must have made him an immigrant in the teenage world, casting Jarmusch as a lifelong outsider.

He made his first film, 1980s Permanent Vacation, with a grant he was supposed to use to pay his tuition fees. Ever since, his meditative stories about societys waifs and strays have blurred the line between mainstream movies and arthouse cinema. Films such as 1995s psychedelic western Dead Man and 1999s Ghost Dog, about a mafia hitman who follows the code of the samurai, established him as a singular voice in US film with a taste for subverting genre. He remains fiercely independent and has never made a film for a major studio. The only thing thats changed over the years are his vices. The director of Coffee And Cigarettes no longer touches either. He quit coffee in 1986, and cigarettes followed a few years ago.

Forest Whitaker and John Tormey in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

I have caffeine in tea and sugar, thats a vice, he says. I drink only dry white wine and very dry champagne, but not daily. I dont drink hard alcohol and I dont drink any other stuff. I love weed, but I dont smoke now. Maybe I will again. Im just trying to be, you know, clear.

That clarity of thought comes through in his latest film, Paterson. In a loud and angry world, it is a soft and still voice. It follows a week in the life of a bus driver named Paterson, played by Adam Driver. He lives and works in the town of Paterson, New Jersey with wife Laura, an aspiring country singer played with manic pixie energy by Golshifteh Farahani. Paterson writes poems, although he has no desire to publish them. Laura bakes and sells cupcakes. They encourage one another and never fight. If this all sounds a little underwhelming, thats sort of the point. Its a celebration of the everyday.

Driver tells me hes such a fan of Jarmuschs work he would have been on board for whatever it was he wanted to do but that he fell for Paterson because its the antidote to movies that are full of action, chaos and crisis. The biggest action is the bus breaking down, and how funny it is that thats the thing that sends people into a crisis. Theyre all talking about it exploding into a fireball, which is kind of hilarious.

There have been so many high-stakes blockbusters where the destruction of the Earth is threatened that its become banal, but Jarmusch says he wasnt consciously responding to that. This is just a quiet story, he says. Life isnt dramatic, always. This is about the day-to-day. It was less intentionally an antidote to all this action, violence, abuse of women, conflict between people, but Im sure thats part of it. We need other kinds of films. With my films, my hope is that you dont care too much about the plot. Im trying to find a Zen way where you are just there each moment and youre not thinking too much about whats going to happen next.

Jarmusch has alluded to poets such as Walt Whitman and Robert Frost in his films before, but here he places the act of writing at the heart of the story. Its not easy to do that without smacking of pretension, yet Patersons poems in fact written by the New York School poet Ron Padgett all seem to rise naturally from the routine of the bus drivers life. Jarmusch, who studied poetry under Kenneth Koch and David Shapiro at Columbia University, may have turned to film-making early on, but he still delights in incorporating other media into his work. What I love about film is it has all the other forms inside of it. It has composition, music, time, language, everything, he says. Its the closest thing humans make to dreaming.

He calls the New York School poets his aesthetic godfathers and is full of praise for Frank OHaras Personism manifesto. They said: Make a poem to one other person, dont make a poem to the world. Dont take yourself too seriously. Allow humour, he explains. Their poems are very funny and have so much exuberance. Why shouldnt poetry be that way?

A perfect example of such a poem is William Carlos Williamss This Is Just To Say, read aloud in the film and undoubtedly the loveliest lines ever written about nicking your wifes plums. Williams was a Paterson native, and Jarmusch first conceived the film when he visited the town in the early 90s on a pilgrimage to understand the poets home. Much as Down By Law was a prison-break movie where you didnt see its leads break out of prison, Paterson is a love film where you dont see its leads fall in love. Jarmusch has been with his own partner, the film-maker Sara Driver, since they worked together on his first movies almost 40 years ago, and says he wanted to make a film about the mutual understanding needed to make a relationship last.

Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani in Paterson

If you love somebody, if it works, its because, most often, in my opinion and observation, you let that person be who they are, he says. You dont try to change them. Of course, you have to make compromises in any kind of relationship, whether its a love one or a working one, but as soon as you start telling the other person why you want them to be some other way thats the beginning of the end. Thats conflict. How does that feel to the other person? That theyre inadequate.

In the film, the couple live independent lives. Paterson goes out every night to the same bar, and at the weekend when Laura goes off to sell her cupcakes Paterson doesnt go with her. For me, its incredibly important to have space, says Jarmusch. I need time always in my life to be alone. Its when I work things out and get ideas. They allow each other that.

Paterson is an adult movie, in the sense that its about grownup love and work and routine but its not X-rated. Quite the opposite: Paterson and Laura are affectionate but chaste onscreen. Some critics have argued that the idyll of the film would be broken by the friction of sex but Jarmusch doesnt see it that way.

Theyre very tender, he says. I just didnt need to show them fucking. I shy away from it in films because I find it very cliched. Sex is very varied. Sex can be funny, tender, a little rough, wild, soft, frustrating, incredibly satisfying so when you isolate a sex scene between two people, are you going to define their sexuality in that one way? It makes me a little nervous as a storyteller.

If he ever makes a film about sex it would have to represent that totality. I have an idea for a script that Ive been carrying around for a long time, he says. Its about two young lovers, and if I make this film they will have sex a lot so that I can show the variations and permutations.

Ready to offend… Jarmusch and Iggy Pop

Its not hard to imagine why he hasnt got round to the project yet. Paterson is the second Jarmusch film to be released this month. The other is Gimme Danger, a documentary about another American poet, Iggy Pop. It tells the story of the formation, self-destruction and eventual redemption of the Stooges. In it, Iggy describes his desire to write short, reductive lyrics and to never, ever write like Bob Dylan. Jarmusch believes hes being self-effacing. If you listen to China Girl, I bet Bob Dylan would love to have written that, he says. [Iggy]s an unrefined intellectual, but totally intellectual. Its like Mark Twain said: Dont let school get in the way of your education.

Iggy has appeared in two previous Jarmusch films, Dead Man and Coffee And Cigarettes, and has always seemed at home among his cast of drifters, hustlers and down-and-outs. Compared to the nervous energy of those films, Paterson is a departure, being about a couple whove found a measure of contentment.

Often my characters are outsiders who are against conforming to the world, says Jarmusch. In Paterson they are within the world and yet they find their own outlets to be creative. For the last 10 or 20 years Ive been studying tai chi and qigong, and Ive learned that when I was young I wanted to stop the thing. He strikes his fist with his palm: Thats hard, and harsh. In martial arts you realise that you can let that energy carry it away from you. You dont go against it. You move it, and control it if you can. Maybe the secret of the universe is to go with the grain.

Paterson is in cinemas now

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With a wild Andrea Arnold film, a hilarious German comedy and Jim Jarmuschs hymn to Iggy and the Stooges, Cannes 2016 has been the best in years

Here at the Cannes film festival, the organisers like to get the day under way with some animal antics aboard the main stage. With the delegates still finding their seats for the 8.30am screening, a sniffer dog named Strafus inhales the scent of the curtain that conceals the big screen. On the assumption that if the creature likes what it smells it will go about its job quietly and create an unholy ruckus if it doesnt, you might say that at Cannes, even the dogs are film critics.

Anyway, Im taking the absence of barking as proof that this, the 69th festival, has been an especially good vintage. Outside the Palais the weather has been balmy. Inside, at times, it has felt positively fevered as visitors barely have the chance to proclaim one film a masterpiece before, hey presto, theyre shuttled straight into the next. This, some are excitably saying, has been the best lineup in years; maybe (whisper, dont jinx it) the best in living memory. Everybody has been drinking the same addictive Kool-Aid. Theyre wandering the Palais with wide, dopey grins. Indirectly, I suspect, we have Toni Erdmann to thank.

When Toni Erdmann played on the opening weekend it sent the place into raptures. Written and directed by Maren Ade, the film is that reputed oxymoron, a German comedy, except that this time the joke is on us because Toni Erdmanns a hoot. Sandra Hller is Ines, a brittle, Bucharest-based management consultant whose sterile existence is sent into a spin by her puckish, burly dad (Peter Simonischek), who rocks up in a wig and Ken Dodd-ish false teeth, variously claiming to be the German ambassador or Ion Tiriacs tennis partner. True, Ades high-concept conceit is not dissimilar from a Hollywood TV caper (zany father teaches kid to laugh again). But Toni Erdmann possesses a disreputable charm that is constantly surprising and finally deeply moving. It established a giddy, buoyant air that Cannes has been riding ever since.

Adam Driver, who plays a bus-driving poet in Jim Jarmuschs Paterson. Photograph: Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images

That said, forced to choose between two dad-daughter classics in this years competition, Im still leaning towards Cristian Mungius Graduation. The Romanian film-maker won the 2007 Palme dOr with his superb 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and yet this urgent morality tale may just be its equal. Its about a flawed, decent doctor (Adrian Titieni) who pulls all manner of strings to ensure his anguished teenage daughter (Maria Dragus) secures a scholarship to London. Along the way, Mungiu gently pulls back the drapes to reveal a body politic that is rotten to the core; a place where pedestrians turn a nervous blind eye to a sexual assault and where any rule can be broken so long as it provides a way out. When youre in Kensington Gardens with all the squirrels chasing you, this world will feel so far away, the doctor promises at one point. He makes dirty old London sound like Shangri-la.

While Mungiu probably wont win the top prize this year, Andrea Arnold just might. The British directors latest work, American Honey, is a gorgeously wanton and poetic affair; a film that runs wild with a band of youthful itinerants as they freewheel towards the sunset, selling magazines door to door. Some have lamented its woozy longueurs, its lack of narrative drive or clear-cut resolution, although this seems to me to be missing the point. Not every movie that wanders is lost and American Honey knows exactly what its doing.

I fucking loved it, Kristen Stewart tells me when we meet under the flapping canvas of a windblown beach bar. I dont care that its transient. Transience is what its about.

Most celebrities bounce in and out of Cannes like Peter Pan on a wire. Stewart, by contrast, has been marooned here the whole time. She came for Caf Society, which opened the event, and has been forced to stick around for the unveiling of Olivier Assayass Personal Shopper, a ghost story of sorts in which she gives a sterling performance as the gaunt, flailing heroine, desperate to make contact with her dead twin brother. Personal Shopper, sad to say, found itself roundly booed at its evening press show, although I rather liked its off-beam, skittish nature, its marriage of stock genre thrills with lugubrious human drama.

Besides, Cannes needs such audience flash points, if only to prevent the event becoming too cosily consensual. It hungers for films such as Nicolas Winding Refns brilliant The Neon Demon, an outrageous sugar-frosted nightmare of LA, which had some viewers swooning and others howling at the screen. Perhaps it even needs Xavier Dolans Its Only the End of the World, a screeching family melodrama that comes framed in so many oppressive close-ups that the actors (Marion Cotillard, La Seydoux) start to resemble drooping, rotting orchids inside a hothouse. After about 20 minutes of this I wanted to kick out a window to let some air in, but even Dolans folly boasts a band of ardent defenders. The dog didnt bark, so Im guessing the dog liked it too.

As the lights go down for an evening screening, a disembodied voice in the cinema will shout out Raoul! and this cry is answered in turn by a ripple of laughter and applause. This happens each night, almost without fail, and apparently dates back to some notorious bygone incident when a delegate showed up late and started blundering through the darkened aisles, screaming for his friend. In the intervening years (decades?) the cry has been enshrined as a part of Cannes tradition, a jubilant whoop to launch the nightly festivities. Unless, of course, its the same idiot delegate, forever blundering in late and screaming for Raoul. In which case its really annoying. Something ought to be done.

Elle Fanning, left, and Bella Heathcote on the set of Nicolas Winding Refns The Neon Demon.

Id dearly love to cite Paterson as another of those polarising Cannes productions but that would be a stretch, given that Im one of the rare few who wasnt completely bowled over. Paterson (alongside Toni Erdmann) remains the best received film from this years competition, adored for its goofy asides and quiet epiphanies. And, yes, undeniably there is much to enjoy in Jim Jarmuschs ode to a bus-driving poet (Adam Driver), who writes perfectly clean copy inside his secret notebook; its just that the whole thing felt a little bogus to me. Paterson amounts to a piece of shrink-wrapped existentialism. Its too neat and tidy; comfortable and complacent. Jarmuschs recipe for artistic fulfilment? A modest outlook, a regular daily routine and a beautiful, doting wife who is presented as simple to the point of outright imbecility.

Line them up and roll them out. Hundreds of pictures screen during the 10 days of Cannes. They come rushing past our ears in an ongoing stampede. Its an impossible task to keep track of each and every one; its hard enough remembering some of those weve already seen. I had high hopes for the Dardenne brothers The Unknown Girl but its a minor work from the two-time Cannes winners, a kind of holistic murder mystery starring Adle Haenel as a sleuthing small-town GP. Pedro Almodvar was regarded as an early Palme dOr favourite for his Julieta, adapted from a dazzling series of Alice Munro stories, although I came away with the sense that the finished film (stirring though it is) doesnt gel. Where Munros material relies on elegant understatement, Almodvar favours bold gestures, bright colours, everything writ large. He seizes hold of a tragedy and manhandles it into melodrama.

And then, look, heres Jim Jarmusch back again. Hes playing in the midnight screening slot with Gimme Danger, a documentary about Iggy Pop and the Stooges, who provided a brutish alternative to flower power. The film itself is intoxicating; a splash of hard liquor inside a filthy shot glass. I relished it a lot more than I did Paterson.

Worst in Cannes show? That would have to be Sean Penns preening Liberia-set aid drama The Last Face, which turned its imperilled African characters into tacky set dressing and had the audience guffawing right from the start. Still, it could be argued that the very best lineup depends on the odd imperfection; an unseemly blot to make us appreciate the beauty elsewhere. If so, even Penn merits a berth at this years Cannes film festival.

Kristen Stewart at the Personal Shopper premiere. Photograph: David Fisher/Rex/Shutterstock

Outside the Palais the street is lined with thrill seekers, photographers and black festival cars. A newspaper vendor cries Liberacion beside the red carpet. Ive grown fond of him a rumpled, whippy man with an astonishing foghorn delivery, bellowing seemingly from dawn until dusk.

Liberation sounds good; it turns more enticing by the day. By this stage of the festival, many of the guests appear ready to drop. Over the past week and a half they have gorged themselves on too many good films, broiled themselves witless in too many queues and talked themselves hoarse in too many post-screening discussions. And now, at last, they are being set free. The Cannes market has been swaddled in bubble wrap, its waste bins emptied. The vast spate of screenings has slowed to a trickle.

On the walk back from the Palais, I notice a phalanx of delegates already heading out, liberated by the shuttle-bus that runs across to Nice airport. Their cases are doubtless packed with sweaty, wine-stained clothes and clogged, tattered notepads. But their heads ring with tales of rule-breaking fathers, haunted personal shoppers, rowdy American youth. The escapees sit behind the smeared glass as the bus takes them off, each cradling cherished souvenirs from their 10 days by the sea. Cannes, like Hemingways Paris, is a movable feast. They carry it with them back into the world.

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