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5 Surprising & Controversial Cannes Film Festival Winners From Years Gone By

5 Surprising & Controversial Cannes Film Festival Winners From Years Gone By

As much as people have quibbles with (much more democratically voted-on) awards like the Oscars, the decisions by juries at film festivals tend to be even more contentious. Usually drawn from practitioners and actors, with a few other curious participants in there as well, jurors often come in with their own likes, dislikes and agendas, and in the absence of a unanimous choice, often end up settling for compromises.

Indeed, this year’s Cannes Film Festival jury president Nanni Moretti said, after the awards were unveiled this past weekend, that none of the them were unanimously voted for (word is Andrea Arnold in particular was a fervent opponent of Leos Carax‘s “Holy Motors“). That being said, their Palme D’Or winner was a popular one: while a few critics were rooting for “Holy Motors,” almost everyone was delighted that Michael Haneke‘s “Amourpicked up the prize (his second in four years, making him one of only seven directors to pick up two Palme d’Ors).

But there were other choices that were more controversial, from Denis Lavant‘s turn in Carax’s film being snubbed, to Grand Prix and Best Director awards for Matteo Garrone‘s “Reality” and Carlos Reygadas‘ “Post Tenebras Lux,” which were mostly coolly received by critics. As such, we’ve delved into the history books to pick out five controversial and/or surprising Palme D’Or winners at the festival when the jury swerved expectations, and made selections that kept talk going long after the red carpet at the Palais was rolled up…

1975: “Chronicle Of The Burning Years”
We can’t quite speak to the quality of “Chronicle of the Burning Years” (or “Chronique des Annees de Braise“), the Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina film that the jury, headed by Jeanne Moreau (that also included “Clockwork Orange” author Anthony Burgess and “Butch Cassidy” director George Roy-Hill), picked as their Palme d’Or winner in 1975. That’s not a slight on the film, it’s just that despite its victory, the three-hour epic about the Algerian Revolution barely got distribution outside France at the time. It’s not like Moreau & co were lacking in other options, either: Herzog’s “The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser,” Costa-Gavras‘ “Special Section,” Bob Fosse‘s “Lenny,” Martin Scorsese‘s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” and, perhaps most importantly, Michelangelo Antonioni‘s “The Passenger,” were all in contention. Perhaps Antonioni was overlooked because he already had one in the bag, or maybe because star Jack Nicholson had won Best Actor the previous year for “The Last Detail.” “Chronicle of the Burning Years” was, after all, apparently well-received at the time. But it doesn’t exactly seem to have taken its place in cinema history.

1994: “Pulp Fiction”
Pulp Fiction” is one film that certainly has taken its place in cinema history, having been endlessly ripped off by American independent cinema and elsewhere in the nearly two decades since it premiered. But at the time, Tarantino took to the stage to a chorus of boos. It had been a strong year, with new films from Mike Figgis, Edward Yang, Nanni Moretti, Zhang Yimou, the Coen Brothers, Guiseppe Tornatore, Abbas Kiarostami and Alan Rudolph. Patrice Chereau‘s “La Reine Margot,” Atom Egoyan‘s “Exotica” and Nikita Mikhalkov‘s “Burnt By The Sun” (which would go on to win the Foreign-Language Oscar) all received particularly enthusiastic responses, but it was widely expected that the winner would be “Three Colors: Red,” the final film of Krzysztof Kieslowski‘s trilogy, and according to the director, likely the last picture he would helm. It was very much a movie on home soil, examining as the trilogy did the ideals of the French revolution. Furthermore, the Polish helmer had never won the Palme (although he got the Grand Jury Prize in 1988 for his earlier opus “The Decalogue“). But the jury was headed by Clint Eastwood (with Catherine Deneuve and Kazuo Ishiguro among those joining him), and his affinity for American crime pictures must have won through. Furthermore, The Guardian reported at the time that only two jury members had seen either of the earlier “Three Colors” films, and that producer Marin Karmitz had offended some of them. That didn’t curb the boos on the night, and it’s still hard to argue that “Pulp Fiction” is a superior picture.

1997: “Taste Of Cherry”/”The Eel”
Even with a handful of real stinkers in the line-up (Matthieu Kassovitz‘s swiftly forgotten “La Haine” follow-up “Assassin(s),” Johnny Depp‘s directorial debut “The Brave,” which was barely seen again, and “The Serpent’s Kiss,” with Ewan McGregor), 1997 now looks like something of a banner year in competition at Cannes — fortunate, given that it marked the 50th anniversary of the festival. There was Michael Haneke‘s startling, game-changing “Funny Games,” Ang Lee‘s outstanding “The Ice Storm,” Wong Kar-Wai‘s “Happy Together,” Atom Egoyan‘s masterpiece “The Sweet Hereafter,” Gary Oldman‘s bruising “Nil By Mouth” and Curtis Hanson‘s “L.A. Confidential,” to this writer’s mind the best studio movie of the 1990s. But a diverse, star-studded jury, led by Isabelle Adjani, decided to share the top prize between Abbas Kiarostami‘s “Taste of Cherry” and Shohei Imamura‘s “The Eel,” two films falling firmly on the “difficult” side of the spectrum. In Kiarostami’s case, it was probably as much a political decision as a creative one (the film is far from the director’s best) — rumor had it that the film’s subject matter of suicide meant that it had been banned in Iran, and that Kiarostami had to smuggle the film out of the country. Both films are valuable, but there must have been more than a few on the Croisette who were shaking their heads at the decision.

2006 – “The Wind That Shakes The Barley”
Ken Loach has become a regular presence at Cannes over his career. He’s had three films in competition in the last four years, and he’s had nine films at the festival in total since “Kes” premiered at the Critic’s Week in 1969. He’s practically a part of the furniture at the awards ceremony: he picked up his third Jury Prize this year for “The Angels’ Share.” But he’s rarely considered a front-runner for the Palme D’Or, which made his victory in 2006 for “The Wind That Shakes The Barley” so surprising. It must have helped that the film, an Irish civil war drama starring Cillian Murphy, had a bigger scope and concerns than his usual films, and got some of his best reviews since “My Name Is Joe” eight years earlier. But a number of heavyweights also had rapturously-received pictures in competition, and most saw Loach as a firm outsider, with Guillermo Del Toro‘s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” Pedro Almodovar‘s “Volver” and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu‘s “Babel” all winning raves, and festival favorites like Lou Ye, Paolo Sorrentino, Rachid Boucahreb, Nanni Moretti, Bruno Dumont and Nuri Bilge Ceylan all competing too. But the jury, headed by Wong Kar-Wai and also including Samuel L. Jackson, Patrice Leconte and Monica Bellucci, went with Loach, perhaps aided by the heavy British contingent of Helena Bonham-Carter and Tim Roth being among them. It wasn’t the worst decision in the history of Cannes — far from it — but it certainly turned heads at the time.     

2007 – “4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days”
Given that the year is considered one of the best for movies in recent history, it’s not surprising that Stephen Frears‘ jury (which also included Toni Collette, Maggie Cheung, Orhan Pamuk and Sarah Polley) were spoiled with choices in 2007. There were disappointments, sure — Wong Kar-Wai‘s “My Blueberry Nights” and Quentin Tarantino‘s “Death Proof” among them. But it was also an excellent year for world cinema, with Fatih Akin’s “The Edge of Heaven,” Julian Schnabels “The Diving Bell And The Butterfly,” Bela Tarr‘s “The Man From London,Ulrich Seidl’s “Import Export,Carlos Reygadas‘ “Silent Light” and the animated “Persepolis” all getting great reviews, while David Fincher‘s “Zodiac,” James Gray‘s “We Own The Night,Gus Van Sant‘s “Paranoid Park” and future Best Picture-winner “No Country For Old Men” all part of a strong U.S. showing too. But it was a first-time competition entrant who walked away with the top prize: Romanian director Cristian Mungiu, with his harrowing, stark, abortion drama “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.” It was an idiosyncratic pick for sure, and one that raised the hackles of many, not least ‘Diving Bell’ director Julian Schnabel, who later claimed that he’d been told that his film had won the Palme, but at “Around 2.00 pm, the jury changed their minds. That’s why all the [‘Diving Bell’] actresses were there.” The director blamed the last-minute change on French actor Michel Piccoli, a jury member, saying “Perhaps he thought I was too successful or having too much fun.” Still, Schnabel got Best Director at the festival, and was nominated at the Oscars, while “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” got exposed to a far wider audience, so it’s difficult to be too upset about the decision.

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"But the jury was headed by Clint Eastwood (with Catherine Deneuve and Kazuo Ishiguro among those joining him), and his affinity for American crime pictures must have won through. "

This really is utter, UTTER bs and says far more about your own prejudices than it does about Eastwood. Why don't you do your research? Here's Clint speaking at Cannes in 2008: 'On the jury here when 'Pulp Fiction' won, somebody said 'Oh, Clint Eastwood was on the jury, so he voted for the American film.' But my sensibilities are European, here is where my success started. Actually, Zhang Yimou's 'To Live' was my favorite piece, but most of the European jurors seemed to like 'Pulp Fiction,' That's from The NY Times piece entitled 'Clint Eastwood, a director who aims to get to the heart of the whole story'. But so much easier to peddle the old myths that anything with guns and blood in it is going to be Eastwood's pick. Wake up, for Christ's sake.

Christopher Bell

"The Wind That Shakes The Barley" was a snooze to me. I dig the subject material (particularly because it's a part of history that hasn't seen much light in the film world), but it was a tough slog. I'd give it another chance, but Loach generally doesn't do it for me, so I'm in no particular rush to catch that one again… On another note, I think "Taste of Cherry" is my favorite Kiarostami next to "Close-Up."


Worst decision in Cannes history? Fahrenheit 9/11 winning the Golden Palm. No contest.


So many strange opinions in this article. Funny Games a "game-changer"? The Sweet Hereafter a "masterpiece"? To each his own, I guess. However, it's worth noting that many of these films were received quite differently at Cannes than they were in later months/years. 2007 is a good example. Silent Light was widely derided at Cannes — much like Post tenebras lux — and both No Country For Old Men and We Own the Night were dismissed in some quarters as slight, inconsequential genre films. It's one of the dangers of trying to find consensus about Cannes: most of the films screened there are highly original, unusual works that are designed to divide (or at least challenge) critics, audiences, jury members, etc.


I wouldn't really rank 2006 or 2007 as particularly controversial years. Both films were pretty fantastic. I would rank 2004 as far more controversial. I'm no fan of George Bush so this isn't politically motivated, I just think "Fahrenheit 9/11" is a really shoddy documentary. Not only it is misleading in parts, but I just think it's a poorly constructed film – Moore's documentaries always look like some high school civics class project uploaded to Youtube. But consider the other films in the 2004 competition: 2046, Nobody Knows, The Holy Girl, & Tropical Malady. I'd even rank Oldboy and The Motorcycle Diaries above Fahrenheit 9/11, in terms of film quality. 2004 should definitely be considered a controversial year. To me, it looks like "Fahrenheit 9/11" won solely for a political agenda, rather than film quality. 1990 was another weird year for me. While the film quality in 1990 was pretty mediocre, I still think David Lynch's "Wild at Heart" is just a bad movie. I've only seen two other films from that year, and while not monumental cinematic achievements, I still thought Cyrano de Bergerac & Ju Dou were far and away superior to "Wild at Heart." I wouldn't call 1986 as surprising or controversial at the other's listed, but I'll just point out the absurdity of Roland Joffe's "The Mission" winning over Andrei Tarkovsky's magnificent "The Sacrifice."


Death Proof must be a disappointment only to those who think The Edge of Heaven and The Diving Bell and the Buttefly are excellent.


Wait, you're arguing that a heavy British contingent led to an IRA film winning?


Pulp Fiction is one of the most influential & memorable American movies ever made. While I agree, "Red" is a masterpiece, it is no travesty that Pulp Fiction won an award.

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