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Knock On Any d’Or: Looking Back at Ten Years of Cannes Winners

Knock On Any d'Or: Looking Back at Ten Years of Cannes Winners

Knock On Any d’Or: Looking Back at Ten Years of Cannes Winners

Capsules written by Jeannette Catsoulis, Eric Hynes, Michael Koresky, Adam Nayman, Jeff Reichert, and Erik Syngle.

Alicia Miles and John Robinson in Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant.” Courtesy of HBO.

[ indieWIRE’s weekly reviews are written by critics from Reverse Shot. ]

As anyone who’s read indieWIRE over the past few days is surely aware by now, the Cannes Film Festival is in full swing with all the attendant pomp, bluster, hedonistic partying, and, also, occasionally, movies. There’s no film festival in the world that commands such attention, so we at reverse shot thought it might be an opportune time to look back over the last ten years of Palme d’Or winners and see where they went. Ten years is an arbitrary selection to be sure, yet we’re not trying to place the film festival as institution but merely get a barometer of what it’s been up to during the lion’s share of our active cinema-going lives (though I think many of us might find 1994 winner “Pulp Fiction” an important milestone, for better or worse). It’s also coincidentally a period of winners from around the globe that came not long after a run of American Palme dominance: “sex, lies and videotape” (1989), “Wild at Heart” (1990), and “Barton Fink” (1991). Simply put, Cannes is the festival and will remain so, as long as so many films choose to begin their lives here before moving on to eventual acclaim or obscurity.

1995 – “Underground” (Emir Kusturica, Federal Republic of Yugoslavia)

When Theo Angelopoulos‘ latest massive, self-proclaimed masterpiece didn’t win the Palme d’Or and instead garnered the Grand Jury Prize, the director stubbornly refused the gracious offer and left the stage in a huff of very few words. As dysfunctionally irascible as everyone’s favorite old-school Maker of Cinema with a Capital C is, it would be perhaps more understandable if he had lost to one of his more trifling knock-off competitors, like say, Kassovitz‘s “La Haine” or Merchant-Ivory‘s “Jefferson in Paris.” But Jesus Christ, Theo, you lost to Kusturica’s “Underground”: suck it up, man. Maniacally jam-packed with ideas, “Underground” isn’t much different stylistically from the Yugoslavia-born auteur’s other frenzied epics, yet it’s still his ultimate achievement: a jarring, terrifying, hilarious social parable that begins in WWII Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia, then ends 30 years later when its central three characters, engaged in a ludicrous love triangle, re-emerge from an underground weapons-manufacturing bunker where they’ve been holed up, convincing others and themselves that the war is still going on. No other director thrills in quite the same vulgar manner as the inimitable Kusturica, yet I still have one more thing to say to both he and Angelopoulos: Jarmusch‘s in-competition “Dead Man” should have made you both run up a tree. -MK

1996 – “Secrets & Lies” (Mike Leigh, U.K.)

Mike Leigh’s films often suffer for being so consistently good. Well-accustomed to his arduous preparatory method and unbowed decency, critical consensus usually backs far flashier fare. Which is why I still can’t believe “Secrets & Lies” actually won the Palme d’Or in 1996. True, his previous film, “Naked,” took home best actor and director awards at Cannes in 1993, but that was Leigh at his most aggressively pessimistic, an anomaly more likely to turn heads than the gentle, meandering humanism of “Secrets & Lies.” Considering the hard charges of “Breaking the Waves” (fronted by Lars von Trier‘s open expectation of Palme d’Or victory) and the Coen Brothers‘ own crowd-pleasing breakthrough “Fargo,” it’s pretty astonishing that Francis Ford Coppola‘s jury made the right call. All three films — along with competitors Hou Hsiao-hsien‘s “Goodbye South, Goodbye,” Arnaud Desplechin‘s “My Sex Life…”, and David Cronenberg‘s “Crash” — were as strong as anything their directors had made to date. And each one would have been a sexier choice than “Secrets & Lies.” But smack in the middle of shrill Nineties identity politics, Leigh made a film that forced stereotypes to sit in a room together until actual people emerged, and the result was as awkward and exhilarating as you could ever hope it to be. -EH

1997 – “The Eel” (Shohei Imamura, Japan) / “Taste of Cherry” (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran)

One of these films is an outright masterpiece that all but defines a nation’s cinematic output in the critical lexicon (and helped launched a brief vogue for its films on these shores) and asks profound questions of its medium. The other is a return from a long-missed master after an eight-year absence from filmmaking. One deserved the Palme because it’s just simply better than most films even aspire to be. The other feels like it received a complimentary nod of recognition for what must surely have seemed one of its director’s final works. It may be obvious which is which, but suffice it to say that I love them both, for different reasons. “The Eel” was my introduction to Shohei Imamura, who’s since become one of my favorite filmmakers, and though it seems minor when stacked against his other work, it veritably shrinks in the face of Kiarostami’s “Taste of Cherry.” Perhaps, a personal preference on my part, but I could say the same for “Cherry”‘s relation to just about every film on this list. “Taste of Cherry” may be better than “The Eel,” but when faced with their embarrassment of riches I can see where a jury might have had a difficult time picking a favorite. -JR

Bjork and Catherine Deneuve in Lars Von Trier’s “Dancer In The Dark.” Courtesy of Fine Line.

1998 – “Eternity and a Day” (Theo Angelopoulos, Greece)

Though 1998 will be forever remembered as the year that birthed the cinematic atrocity that was Roberto Benigni‘s “Life Is Beautiful” (which won the Grand Jury Prize), its near absolute antithesis took home the Palme. Where Benigni pandered his way to multiple Academy Awards, Theo Angelopoulos sat in his ivory tower and unspooled a 2-plus hour honest-to-goodness “art film” that crammed contemporary Greek-Albanian political tensions and Proustian memory-play into the blender with a greatest-hits tour of Modernist Euro cinema, with all the brooding seascapes, troubled, dying artists and epic-length takes that you’d imagine. I remember well watching it in a cramped New York theater while my father snored in the seat next to me — when a string quartet suddenly joined Angelopoulos’s protagonist (played by European cinema stalwart Bruno Ganz) on a generic public bus, set up, played, and then left, I nearly wet my pants with naïve excitement over the possibilities of cinema. Of course, we all know how the history played out — you can’t even rent “Eternity and a Day,” and we’ll be watching Roberto clamber over seats like the talentless monkey he is in Oscar highlight reels for the rest of our lives. -JR

1999 – “Rosetta” (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium)

With apologies to Gus Van Sant and Nanni Moretti, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s “Rosetta” was the last genuine masterpiece to win the Palme d’Or. And over some pretty stiff competition: Bruno Dumont‘s bracing “L’Humanité,” Manoel de Olivera‘s formidable “The Letter,” David Lynch‘s sublime “The Straight Story.” The Dardennes’ achievement, though, still looms above the rest. Someone once said that “Rosetta” suggested “Bresson on steroids,” and there is some element of homage, specifically to Bresson’s “Mouchette.” Both films offer an uncomfortably intimate rendering of one lonely girl’s precarious existence. But where Bresson’s film gains weight from its obvious religious allegory, “Rosetta,” like the Dardennes’ subsequent (and, in my opinion, even more potent) “The Son,” operates on firmly secular terms. Its humanism is forged without pity, condescension, or calculation — those who accuse the Dardennes of constructing proletariat straw men to serve their socialist agenda must be blind, both to the profound lack of sentimentality in their style and to the blistering moment-to-moment reality of Emilie Dequenne‘s performance. -AN

2000 – “Dancer in the Dark” (Lars von Trier, Denmark) Subsequent to the Hollywood-unplugged strategies of Dogme 95, the goings-on in Denmark were rarely out of the movie press — even as discussion of actual films was unhelpfully mired in analysis of the Dogme process itself. But in 2000, Lars von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark” — the tale of a poor Czech immigrant’s slide into blindness and violence — became the eye of this imperfect storm, sending critics scurrying for adjectives and theoretical footing. At the time, only the greenest of us drew comfort from the film’s Palme d’Or. At once embarrassingly bad and stunningly original, insultingly simpleminded yet with moments of shocking insight, “Dancer” combined crude, inarticulate characters and scenes that often achieve levels of great delicacy. Love it or hate it — and, if you’re anything like me, you did a little of both — “Dancer” still defies categorization or even explanation. Like an obscene hybrid of the visions of John Sayles and Busby Berkeley, the movie squats in front of you, so appalling in its otherness that every extraneous fact — even a Cannes success — is rendered irrelevant. -JC

2001 – “The Son’s Room” (Nanni Moretti, Italy)

Even with its Palme d’Or in tow, Nanni Moretti’s superb, unassuming domestic tragedy’s American release got buried by “In the Bedroom”‘s hype. Yet everything that Todd Field‘s similarly-themed American indie got right (the quiet moments of a family’s grief immediately following the violent death of a promising, sturdy young man) was overshadowed by its much easier to swallow Grand Guignol third-act. Miramax maneuvered “Bedroom” to showers of Oscar noms but could barely manage to make anyone notice Moretti’s devastating, layered depiction of sadness. Many felt that Moretti’s Cannes prize was due to it just being “his turn,” but its award was perhaps the most encouraging Cannes prize of the past 10 years: no grandiose statement, no abrupt narrative backflips, just a succession of truly troubling scenes of disrupted family life. “Bedroom”‘s “eye-for-an-eye” moralizing may have been a dramatic device par excellence, but for my money, Moretti’s final suggestion that the excruciatingly slow healing process begins when you least expect it carries infinitely more profound weight. Too bad this exquisitely understated movie’s Palme d’Or now seems like a gentle pat on the back than a true vote of support — Moretti, one of the very few redeemers of contemporary Italian cinema, needs all the encouragement he can get. -MK

Laura Morante and Giuseppe Sanfelice in “The Son’s Room.” Courtesy of Miramax.

2002 – “The Pianist” (Roman Polanski, U.K./Poland)

Palme d’Or winners don’t usually go on to become Oscar favorites, which may explain why they tend to remain interesting years down the line while most Best Picture contenders wind up as Trivial Pursuit questions. Recent exceptions are either American-friendly performance-driven dramas (“Secrets & Lies”) or that always irresistible Oscar catnip: a Holocaust film. The funny thing is that while the Cannes jury (headed by David Lynch) was probably rewarding Roman Polanski for not making another “Schindler’s List,” the Hollywood community was rewarding him for coming pretty close (and in true Oscar fashion, acknowledging his best work 30 years too late). How can this be? Only a figure like Polanski — with one foot in his Euro art-cinema past, one foot in his neoclassical American period, and a third foot about to slip into Europudding — could pull off such a trick. -ES

2003 – “Elephant” (Gus Van Sant, U.S.)

Maybe it was the put-upon, narcoleptic, arm-crossed shrug Gus Van Sant tossed off on his way into the New York Film Festival screening of his Cannes-approved Columbine toy-movie, but I trust this “Elephant” about as far as I could throw it. It’s not really its wrongheaded teenybopper cast (yeah, I get it, it’s his “aesthetic”), its preposterous mid-film interlude in which we meet the killers lazing about at home (violent video games! automatic weapon home delivery!), or even the fact that the film is overly conceptualized to the point of emotional nullification. Most troubling about “Elephant” is the project’s inherent opportunism, the use of the high-school massacre as a means to an end, in this case the director’s audacious claims to the highest art-film echelons. Smartly, Van Sant lets DP Harris Savides‘ gorgeous images tell the story, but the more lost we get in those endless corridors the more lost the film gets in its own abstract aspirations. Some cited “Elephant”‘s bravery in not showing much of the massacre as a way of further bashing Michael Moore’s “inexcusable” use of the Columbine footage. Whatever you want to say about Moore’s documentary ethics, there was no denying the effect he wanted to produce in his viewers, quite successfully; in Van Sant’s case I can honestly say I still have no clue as to what he was really trying to prove with his slack-jawed cast of beautiful amateur kids enacting some sort of millennial high-school ghost world. And I seriously doubt he does either. Van Sant’s most daring, failed experiments, like “Gerry” and “Psycho,” all seem to be vehicles for their creator’s own artistic ascendance, never containing any statements beyond their own vacuum-sealed movieness. No wonder then that the Cannes jury’s runner-up selection that year was Nuri Bilge Ceylan‘s “Distant,” another series of hopelessly studied frozen tableaux signifying not very much at all. -MK

2004 – “Fahrenheit 9/11” (Michael Moore, U.S.)

It’d be terribly easy to make the argument that 2004 was year that Cannes “took a stand,” dropped the pomp, and entered into a dialogue with the rest of the world. Michael Moore’s firebrand opus is nothing, if not populist, and the combined international grosses of all of the Palme d’Or winners listed above surely represent a drop in the bucket compared to “Fahrenheit”‘s mammoth earnings. An easy argument, but a reductive one–a glance at the breadth of tales, cultures, and ideas contained in these 11 films proves that even though the movies themselves may dabble in obscurity, the festival itself remains with its eye on the world. Cannes is regarded as a place where the “upper echelons” of cinema rub shoulders uneasily with a couple of cherry-picked “mainstream” Hollywood selections, but in truth, a film only becomes rarified through narrow-mindedness on the part of the viewer and the critic so it’s ironic that in some ways the most monetarily successful film on this list might also be its most parochial, so focused is its relentless assault on George W. Bush. It’s agitprop more than documentary for sure, but isn’t that just another part of what cinema can, and should be? We may have known “Fahrenheit” would win before the festival even began, but by awarding it the Palme the Jury did take a stand, yes, implicitly anti-Bush, but also pro- one of the more intriguing, personal statements to find its way to the festival, perhaps ever. -JR

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