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The 10 Best & 5 Worst Cannes Film Festival Openers Ever

The 10 Best & 5 Worst Cannes Film Festival Openers Ever

The Big Show that is the 2015 Cannes Film Festival is now officially bearing down on us, like the unstoppable juggernaut of quality international filmmaking, hype, backlash, Nespresso and overpriced sandwiches that it is.

As ever, Cannes is bigger than any one film or any one slot. That said, the Opening Film sets the tone for the event  —it’s announced earlier than the rest of the program and always comes under possibly unenviable scrutiny from the world’s press, who for this one screening if no other, go in with eyes unbloodshot, minds sharp and pens primed.

This year, the selection of Emmanuelle Bercot‘s “Standing Tall” as the opener (announced earlier in the week) already raised some eyebrows, as it seems a pointed departure from the recent operating procedure of securing a glitzy Hollywood project to kick off the festival in a flurry of glamorous red carpet photos. With that strategy taking a nosedive last year with the terrible “Grace of Monaco,” we can certainly see why Cannes honchos changed up the usual playbook.

The long history of the Cannes Film Festival has provided its fair share of both terrific openers and outright duds. So here’s our Official Selection of the 10 Best and 5 Worst Cannes Openers ever —to see how Bercot’s film stacks up against these check back in with us in, oh say about a month’s time. 


The Best 

“An American In Paris” (1951)
Aside from an early Lumiere short at the 1949 festival, “An American In Paris” was the first big Cannes opener and the festival more or less knocked it out of the park to a degree that makes it surprising that there’s been so many ropey ones since. Vincente Minnelli‘s musical, which went on to win a host of Oscars including Best Picture, is admittedly a pretty loose excuse to string together a bunch of George & Ira Gershwin music. But the same could be said of many of the classic musicals, and make no mistake, this is a classic musical if ever there was one. The plot, such as there is one, centers on the titular ex-pat (Gene Kelly), a painter who’s wooed by rich girl Milo (Nina Foch), even as he falls for Lise (Leslie Caron), who’s seeing Henri (Georges Guetary), the man who kept her alive during the war. It’s not entirely successful on a narrative level (poor Milo gets a pretty raw deal here) and isn’t as lean, moving or funny as the next year’s Kelly-starring masterwork “Singin’ In The Rain,” but there’s a lovely, melancholy evocation of post-war Paris to the picture. And when Minnelli gets to play with the musical sequences, it’s positively unforgettable —Gershwin’s music, the killer choreography and near-superhuman talent of its leads creating something truly transcendent. 
What they said at the time: Bosley Crowther in the New York Times said that some of the musical numbers “were contrived just to fill out empty spaces in Alan Jay Lerner’s glib but very thin script” but that “all things are forgiven when Miss Caron is on the screen.” 


“Rififi” (1955)
American director Jules Dassin was targeted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 1950s (he had been a Communist Party member until 1939), and fled the U.S. for France. Oddly enough, it was there that the celebrated director of such noir classics as “The Naked City” and “Brute Force” would make his inarguable masterpiece with heist classic “Rififi.” The muscular, hardboiled style of his 1940s films is much in evidence, but it’s tempered here with a Bressonian attention to detail and an indefinably cool Frenchness that prefigures the gangster-influenced New Wave films of Jean Luc Godard et al. The film is most celebrated for the bravura dialogue-free half-hour-long heist sequence that with crisp, absorbing, procedural focus follows the break-in and robbery of a jewelry store, including a terrific use for an umbrella. The film is so explicit in the heist sequence that Cannes critics weren’t the only ones who were taking notes: aspiring criminals paid attention too, leading to the banning of the film in Mexico and other territories when copycat crimes began to occur. While it’s value as an instructional manual for burglary has waned with time (pesky digitization of alarm systems!), the admiration for its consummate craft has only grown since Dassin picked up a deserved Cannes Best Director award at the festival.
What they said at the time: Francois Truffaut was glowing in his praise: “Out of the worst crime novels I ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best crime film I’ve ever seen”


“The 400 Blows” (1959)
As we wrote recently in our 15 Greatest François Truffaut Films, the great French New Wave Director not only took his frenemy Jean-Luc Godard’s adage “the only way to criticize a movie as to make another movie” at face value, switching hats from Cahiers du Cinema critic to filmmaker in 1959 and charging at full gallop out of the gate, with the seminal, wonderful “The 400 Blows.” Establishing a collaboration with actor Jean-Pierre Leaud, who would play Antoine Doinel, a thinly disguised version of Truffaut himself in five later films, here he’s just 14 years old, and while the touches of whimsy and the idiosyncrasies that come to characterize the later Doinel films are not so much in evidence here, instead we get a furiously empathetic, moving and deeply personal account of troubled youth. Doinel progresses through stages of teenagerly rebellion and truancy, graduates to petty theft and ends up in reform school, but throughout we identify with him, which is down to Truffaut’s innate confidence and supremely focussed directorial control. The film took Cannes by storm, winning Truffaut the Best Director award, which is all the more ironic considering he’d been banned from the festival the year before for denouncing the festival as archaic. This great film would not only help revitalize the festival, but would do the same for French film and for cinema history in general.
What they said at the time: Jean Cocteau was quoted in France-Soir as saying he had “never been so overwhelmed.”


“The Birds” (1963)
“Master of Suspense” is well-known as a nickname for the great Alfred Hitchcock, but it can slightly undersell the diversity of his filmography. And perhaps the most remote outlier in the roll call of his most famous signature films (aside possibly from “Vertigo“) is “The Birds,” which suits the arthouse profile of Cannes by being Hitch’s most enigmatic film —in a subtle, well-disguised way, it’s about as avant garde as the classicist filmmaker ever got outside of dream sequences and flashbacks. Like Hitch’s hit “Rebecca,” it’s based on a Daphne Du Maurier story, concerning a burgeoning romance between Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren, whose arrival in a small coastal town coincides with its avian residents suddenly and inexplicably beginning to attack the human population. Unlike almost everything else in his canon, the mystery is never solved and the film ends on a very ambiguous note. At first blush, “The Birds” can feel unsatisfying — it’s technically marvellous in the brilliant bird-attack sequences but is frustrating and opaque on a narrative and characterization level. Yet as a direct result of its eerie unfathomability, it is also endlessly rewatchable and re-interpretable, and has grown in stature since release to become one of Htich’s most studied and most admired movies, as much for what it doesn’t do (explain, resolve etc), as for what it does.
What they said at the time: The 1963 review from The Times suggested that while it was hardly top-tier Hitch, “…when all this is said, second-grade Hitchcock is still about twice as exciting as first-grade anyone else.”


“Amarcord” (1974)
It would have been a shame if Frederico Fellini had never got the chance to open Cannes, but it’s truly satisfying that the festival picked “Amarcord,” one of the Italian master’s finest hours, to kick off the 1974 instalment of the festival. Made at the peak of his powers (and arguably his last truly great film, though he continued working for another fifteen years), it’s a grotesque comic ensemble tale that, as the title, which translates loosely as “I remember,” might suggest, is steeped in autobiography. The sprawling cast of characters pivots around Titta (Bruno Zanin), a character based specifically on a childhood friend of the director, but which serves as something of a surrogate for his own experiences of growing up in a small village in Mussolini-era Italy. Rich, novelistic and very, very funny, it’s a film about burgeoning sexuality, and yet a time of relative innocence in the country, when fascism was mostly a subject of fun and mockery, though Fellini makes it clear that darker days are ahead for the film’s colorful community. Episodic and almost dream like (there’s an unforgettable moment where a giant Mussolini head begins talking), “Amarcord” plays with tone and form in a way that serves as not just Fellini’s look back at his own adolescence, but also his career up to that point. He would never make anything quite as good again, but he almost seems aware of that here: this is his grand summing up statement, and as such a perfect pick to open a festival that had awarded him a Palme d’Or for “La Dolce Vita.” 
What they said at the time: Winning the Foreign Language Oscar and nominations for writing and directing, “Amarcord” was among the director’s best reviewed pictures. Roger Ebert wrote that “moviemaking for [Fellini] seems almost effortless, like breathing… He’s the Willie Mays of movies.” 

“The King of Comedy” (1983)
Martin Scorsese‘s brilliantly scathing satire of television, media and fame now stands as proof that people in olden tymes, like the early 1980s, were stupid: it was a huge flop on release. To be fair, it’s firmly established as a not-even-cult-anymore cult classic nowadays, and it’s not hard to see why. “The King of Comedy,” centering on Robert de Niro‘s indelibly oleaginous performances as ultimate antihero Rupert Pupkin, can be genuinely hard to watch —especially the first half, in which Pupkin’s desperate and ill-founded delusions have not yet sublimated into violence. But it’s part of Scorsese’s genius that by the time Pupkin springs into totally misguided, bumbling and very dangerous action, you find yourself rooting for this hideous creep. As awful as Pupkin undoubtedly is (and he is a pantheon all-time creep), he is a product of forces more malign, insidious and dangerous than he is for being glazed in a sheen of social success. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is King, and in Scorsese’s dark vision of the morally repugnant rot beneath the inanity of late-night laugh-track chatter, Rupert Pupkin deserves to be our King of Comedy.  
What they said at the time: Unlike the public, critics were on board though even positive reviews, like Ebert’s 3-star take in the Chicago Sun-Times sound like a warning-off : “[It is] not a fun movie. It is also not a bad movie. It is frustrating to watch, unpleasant to remember, and, in its own way, quite effective.”


“Dreams” (1990) 
If there was ever a chance of Akira Kurosawa becoming neglected by cinephiles, the patronage of the younger filmmakers he’d inspired like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Scorsese prevented that: they talked him up, presented him with an honorary Oscar and teamed up to persuade Warner Bros. to back this curious, experimental collection of vignettes that proved, even at the age of 80, that the Japanese legend could come up with something awe-inspiring. Based, as the title indicates, on dreams that Kurosawa had, the eight segments follow Kurosawa’s various different surrogates through visually stunning, abstracted not-quite-stories, from a peach orchard full of living dolls, to a hellish Second-World-War landscape by way of a post-apocalyptic world full of demons, to a strange vignette featuring Scorsese himself as Vincent Van Gogh. The film frustrated many fans and critics at the time: a master of cinematic narrative was eschewing storytelling altogether for an abstract, self-consciously difficult and inarguably indulgent work. Yet the film’s aged beautifully in the last couple of decades, providing a still-dazzling selection of imagery (though the blue-screen in the Van Gogh sequence is lacking) that doesn’t just look pretty, but provides rare insight into the mind of one of the greatest, most complicated filmmakers the medium’s ever produced. In light of the film’s fantasy elements, you wouldn’t quite call it autobiography, but as a portrait-of-the-artist-as-an-unconscious-man, it’s something unique, remarkable and a worthy film to have opened Cannes. 
What they said at the time: Critics were sharply divided: Rolling Stone said the film “will knock your eyes out without ignoring the mind and heart,” but Jonathan Rosenbaum criticized the film’s “sentimentality and preachiness.” 


“The City Of Lost Children” (1995) 
Having become sensations at home with their oddball, visually stunning apocalyptic film “Delicatessen,” Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro were obvious picks to open the festival with their follow-up, steampunk fantasia “The City Of Lost Children.” But unlike when another local hero Luc Besson opened the festival a few years later with “The Fifth Element,” this was a film that satisfied most —it’s a stunning, Hollywood-level spectacle that won approval from many cinephiles as well. The film revolves around mad scientist Krank (Daniel Emilfork), who kidnaps children and takes them to an oil rig in order to steal their dreams and prevent himself from aging. When his adopted brother is taken, circus strongman One (Ron Perlman, in a French-speaking role despite not knowing the language) teams up with an orphan thief for a rescue mission. Undoubtedly indebted to Terry Gilliam, Jeunet and Caro’s vision isn’t totally original, but is so confidently and stylishly executed that you stop drawing comparisons and slowly become absorbed in as complete and compelling a world as had been seen on screen in some time. Some might dismiss the film as style over substance, and there’s undeniable plenty of style here, with Jeunet and Caro displaying bravura filmmaking that makes it a shame that this proved their last collaboration. But there’s also a soulful emotional core that makes it closer to, say, “The Wizard Of Oz” than some empty present-day blockbuster. A full-on stunner. 
What they said at the time: Jonathan Rosenbaum at the Chicago Reader wasn’t convinced, saying that “the emotions seem almost as manufactured as the sets,” but Kim Newman was much more taken, calling it “as great a film as you thought ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ was when you were five years old.” 


“Bad Education” (2004) 
Recent years have seen Pedro Almodovar become a staple presence at Cannes, and it’s a mark of the esteem in which he’s held on the Croisette that his 2004 meta-fictional drama picture “Bad Education” was picked to become the first ever Spanish film to open the festival. It could be argued that the film doesn’t quite hit the heights of its predecessors “All About My Mother” and “Talk To Her,” but it’s not far off and certainly registers as one of the finest festivals openers of the 21st century. Drawing equally on noir, the movie business and the sex abuse scandals roiling the Catholic Church, the film sees director Enrique (Fele Martinez) approached by a man (Gael Garcia Bernal) claiming to be his old boarding school love Ignacio, who’s written a short story about their childhoods and molestation by an old priest (Lluis Homar) that he wants his old friend to turn into a film, but only if he can play the transsexual lead. As you might well imagine, all is not as it seems…  This is arguably Almodovar’s most personal movie, but it’s neatly buried under a twisty blackmail story and layers of narrative trickery, amounting to a powerful attack on the abuses and corruption of the Church. Admittedly, some of the meta-playfulness means that the film’s at more of an emotional distance than the very best of the director’s work, but the staggering, mercurial turn from Gael Garcia Bernal more than makes up for it. 
What they said at the time: Reviews were pretty stellar across the board: New York Magazine’s Logan Hill said that “like the best of  Almodovar’s work, it throws you a first-love sucker punch that will stagger your heart, mind and soul.” 


“Up” (2009) 
In the middle of the best run of movies in its history (coming after “Ratatouille” and “Wall-E” and ahead of “Toy Story 3”), Pixar entered the record books as not just proffering the first animated movie to open Cannes, but also the first 3D film. Some might have decried the decision as the festival submitting to corporate interests, but that was likely before they saw the film (which we recently named as the third best animated film of the 21st century so far). The movie famously opens with a five-minute punch-to-the-gut as Carl and Ellie fall in love, get married, grow old together and are parted by her death, but that’s only the beginning, as the now-cantankerous Carl (Ed Asner) flies his house, complete with Boy Scout stowaway Russell, to South America in an attempt to fulfil a promise to his late wife, only to find an unlikely adventure full of talking dogs, giant birds and a maniacal explorer. Tinged with more of the spirit of Miyazaki than most of Pixar’s work, it’s also one of its most successful attempts to tinge kid-friendly humor (like the amazing dog Dug) with adult concerns, with the film proving a parable not just for grief but of making a new start. While it’s likely that nothing could have matched that initial montage, the remaining 90 minutes are still thrilling, hilarious and, when the payoff to the opening comes and Carl discovers the secret part of his adventurer’s book, just as emotional. 
What they said at the time: People flipped for the movie, rightly so: The Hollywood Reporter called it “Winsome, touching and arguably the funniest Pixar effort ever” and “an idea choice to serve as the first animated feature ever to open the Festival de Cannes.” 


The Worst

“Godspell” (1973) 
There was a run of musical openers in the late 1960s and ’70s, ranging from the pretty good (“Sweet Charity”) to the pretty bad (“Hair”) to the somewhat pointless (anthology film “That’s Entertainment Part II”). One only has to look at something like “Godspell” to realize why only one, “Moulin Rouge!,” has opened Cannes since the start of the 1980s. Adapting the long-running stage hit by John-Michael Tebelak and Stephen Schwartz, it’s a rock opera retelling of the Gospel of St. Matthew set among a bunch of young bohemians in New York, with Victor Garber (better known for stern character actor roles on the likes of “Alias”) as Jesus. Popular at the time, it’s now a relic, with a source material made up of forgettable songs and baffling narrative choices (John The Baptist and Judas Iscariot are the same person, for some reason). The cast are game enough in a slightly creepy musical theater major kind of way, but the direction by TV helmer David Greene is pedestrian and stagy. More than anything, it’s painful —the conceit of mixing religion as told by a ranting Times Square preacher and general post-Woodstock hippie bullshit renders it unwatchable today. It’s hard to imagine that it was ever viable as anything other than as something to show kids on a rainy day at church camp, and harder still that Cannes would pick it to open the festival in a year that, while perhaps not a vintage one, also included Truffaut’s “Day For Night,” Lindsay Anderson’s “O Lucky Man!,” Jerry Schatzberg’s “Scarecrow” and Jodorowsky’s “The Holy Mountain.” 
What they said at the time: Surprisingly kind words, to some degree, though the New York Times found it dated even then: Vincent Canby said the film “pretty much reduces the story of Jesus to conform to a kind of flower-child paranoia that was probably more popular three or four years ago than it is today.” 


“Pirates” (1986)
Even Roman Polanski‘s hardiest fans, high on contrarian bravado and settling in to watch his notorious flop “Pirates,” will find a single question buzzing round their brains as this turgid film unfolds for what seems like 17 hours: “what the fuck is this shit?” Desperately unfunny, utterly charmless and gifted with about as much dexterity as Walter Matthau‘s one-legged Cap’n Red, the reclamation squad can move along swiftly: nothing to see here. Of course there were factors at play that had little to do with the actual film —pre-production was interrupted, postponed and ultimately uprooted to a new continent after the director was arrested on the rape charge that keeps him out of the U.S. to this day. Yet lack of werewithal can’t be blamed —this is very expensive crap, with Polanski having the film’s Spanish galleon built from scratch and sparing no expense on costumes and extras. But Matthau is squandered (he replaced first choice Jack Nicholson, who reportedly wanted too much money) and there’s no interest to be found in the chemistry-free romance between Cris Campion and British actress Charlotte Lewis, in a role that Lewis would later cite in a 2010 allegation brought against Polanski as the bargaining chip he used to have sex with her at 16. Ugh all round.
What they said at the time: The New York Times review sums it up nicely:”the production design of Pierre Guffroy, as photographed by Witold Sobocinski, is pretty, too, tempting one, unfortunately, to keep watching the screen.”


“Hollywood Ending” (2002) 
Woody Allen returns to Cannes this year with “Irrational Man,” and opened the festival a few years back with Midnight In Paris one of his biggest hits. He’s got a long history with the festival, but one element of the history of Woody and Cannes that’s always likely to be glossed over is the first time one of his movies opened the festival. As the title suggests, the film is a movie-biz satire about a director fallen on hard times who gets an offer to make a big-budget movie, only to go psychosomatically blind when the shoot approaches. The premise is almost exactly as one-joke as it sounds, and though Allen gets some decent slapstick gags in early, it gets very tired very fast and ends up feeling like an over-extended “Mr. Magoo” reboot. Tone-deaf and without much insight into the movie industry (which has never really been Allen’s strong point, given that he’s survived outside the system for so long), the film feels unusually slack, in part because of behind-the-scenes turmoil: Allen fired DoP Haskell Wexler after a week and had parted ways with much of his crew, including longtime editor Susan Morse. The movie doesn’t even have the starry cast that’s become Allen’s standard: in the place of A-listers comes a bafflingly low-rent collection of actors including George Hamilton, Tea Leoni, Treat Williams and Debra Messing. It’s hard to call this an absolute nadir for Allen in a decade when he also made “Anything Else,” “Cassandra’s Dream” and “Whatever Works,” but it’s certainly not worthy of being a Cannes opener. 
What people said at the time: Short and to the point, Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek said that the film “just isn’t very funny.” 


“The Da Vinci Code” (2006)
Let’s first head off at the pass anyone wanting to leap to this film’s defense by reminding those pitiable, misguided souls that there’s no earthly reason “The Da Vinci Code” had to be quite so bad. The book is terrible, but its main terribleness is in the lumpen prose — there at least lurked a pacy, twisty, somewhat original plot. It could easily have been a Vatican-set, playfully blasphemous “National Treasure” and it would not have darkened this list’s doors. But instead Ron Howard‘s lumbering, ludicrously self-serious film takes on the Dan Brown bazillionseller as if it were Gospel, making a pretty good job of mimicking the sheer slog of reading the book by rendering it as murky 2 1/2 hour long odyssey through darkened passageways (which in fairness have the benefit of making Tom Hanks‘ wigginess less overt). 2006 was before our time in terms of Cannes attendance, but we can only imagine how deflating it must have been to have suffered through this dreadful film as the kick-off to the festival, less a fanfare than an extended sad trombone. It must have seemed like the tendency for Cannes to pander to the lowest, Hollywood star-driven common denominator with its opening film had reached its nadir. But had it?
What they said at the time: Anthony Lane lamented the film’s devastating uncontroversiality in the New Yorker: ” It is not just tripe. It is self-evident, spirit-lowering tripe that could not conceivably cause a single member of the flock to turn aside from the faith.”


“Grace of Monaco” (2014)
The recent news that Olivier Dahan‘s joke film “Grace of Monaco” was going to get the punchline it deserved by bypassing U.S. theaters altogether and will premiere ignominiously on Lifetime has one up side. It means the majority of Americans will be spared the big-screen version of the seasickness that can result from all those woozy wandering closeups of Nicole Kidman‘s face, as though the cameraman is desperately (and unsuccessfully) hunting for any shred of resemblance to the tragic princess. A staggeringly ill-conceived and poorly executed film which blithely assumes a passionate, empathetic interest in seeing Monaco’s status as a tax haven for the super rich protected at all costs, “Grace of Monaco” has absolutely nothing to recommend it, except possibly as a conversation-ender between Cannes critics comparing war wounds. Though that’s not exactly true —where the likes of “The Da Vinci Code” and “Pirates” are just too tawdry and dull to even excite much derision, there is some real pleasure to be had in ripping into “Grace”‘s horrible smugness, and Derek Jacobi (and parrot!), Tim Roth (and scowl!), Parker Posey (and Mrs. Danvers impersonation!), et al are all on hand to make sure there’s no shortage of risible dialogue and characterisation. Some films are too mediocre to be truly kitschily bad. That, unlike every single other thing, is not “Grace of Monaco”‘s problem.
What they said at the time: Oli’s review from Cannes last year is here, and you can find Jess’ additional take here, but the choicest and most to-the point extract is probably simply the grade, on which both agree: [F]

Honorable Mentions: With 68 festivals to choose from, there was plenty more to include, and we nearly picked “Ben Hur” (1960), “The Collector” (1965), “Sweet Charity” (1969), “Gimme Shelter” (1971), “The Duellists” (1977), “Witness” (1985), “Homicide” (1991), “The Hudsucker Proxy” (1994), “Primary Colors” (1998), “Moulin Rouge!” (2001) and “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012) as particular standouts. 

There were plenty more bad movies as well, including “Modesty Blaise” (1966), “I Killed Rasputin” (1967), “Hair” (1979), “Basic Instinct” (1992), “The Fifth Element” (1997), “The Barber Of Siberia” (1999), “Vatel” (2000), “Blindness” (2008) and “Robin Hood” (2010) as among the worst of the worst. Anything else you think we missed? Let us know in the comments.

— Jessica Kiang, Oliver Lyttelton

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