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The 10 Biggest Cannes Palme d’Or Blunders

The 10 Biggest Cannes Palme d'Or Blunders

Over a week in, and we’ve seen almost all that the 2014 Cannes Film Festival has had to offer in the Official Competition—only Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “Leviathan,” which just screened right about now, and Olivier Assayas’ “The Clouds Of Sils Maria” have still to unspool, and you’ll have read our verdicts on everything (and if not, you can catch up on our coverage here). Jane Campion’s jury have probably already started to deliberate, and Cannes gossip is already focused on who’s going to win. The Dardennes? (Again) The Leigh? The Miller? The Ceylan? The Kawase? The Dolan?

As we saw last week, the history of the Palme d’Or has seen all kinds of classics take the prize home, but that’s not to say it’s an automatic stamp of quality. Juries with even more storied members than this one have sometimes come up with a winner that, either at the time or decades on, proves a bit of a headscratcher. And it’s also important to remember the the juries are very subjective, with the ego, personalities and tastes of eight randomly assembled people trying to find some common ground, all with the buzz of Cannes swarming around their head. It’s not an enviable task, and much different than Oscar campaigns, which finds the entire industry spending million and dollars and months trying to create a consensus.

So, with 48 hours to go until we learn the winner of this year’s Palme, we’ve rounded up, entirely subjectively, ten of the more questionable decisions in the history of the festival. You can check out our picks below, shout at us about them in the comments section, and stay tuned until Saturday to see if Campion and co pick a winner that belongs in this list, or in last week’s.

What Won:
Friendly Persuasion” by William Wyler, a story of a Quaker family whose religious values come into direct conflict with the ongoing Civil War.
What Should Have Won
: It’s not hard to find a replacement for this one, especially because we have Ingmar Bergman‘s “The Seventh Seal,” Federico Fellini’s “Nights Of Cabiria” and Robert Bresson‘s “A Man Escaped” to choose from. Need we go on? Alright then,
: Because William Wyler is remembered for a lot of movies, and “Friendly Persuasion” isn’t one of them. Like most of the films on our list here, this pleasant slice of home grown American pie can’t exactly be called bad (Palme d’Or winners are rarely, if ever, that) but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the biggest misfires from the Cannes canon. A story soaked in pacifism, Christian values, and off-screen political symbolism (Reagan gifted the film to Gorbachev in the ’80s as a way to say “let’s be more like these Quakers”), the performances from Gary Cooper and, especially, a raw pre-Norman Bates Anthony Perkins are the biggest mainstays from this outdated picture. If we were talking about Wyler’s “Best Years Of Our Lives” perhaps we’d be singing a different tune here, but even that can’t really hold a cinematic candle to Bergman, Bresson, or Fellini’s films competing in the same year. What on Earth happened to this jury and who managed to spike their drinks? All three of our picks are bonafide classics of cinema, with “The Seventh Seal” especially considered as one of the most defining films of its decade (hell, perhaps even the century). Oh, and guess what? We haven’t even mentioned Andrzej Wajda‘s “Kanal” — another war-film, except, much better — which was also competing. Whatever the deciding factor to award one of Wyler’s most forgettable films was, everything points to an appreciation of an art that has a tangy smell of politics, and not the refreshing liveliness of cinema in its purest form.

What Won:
Shared between Claude Lelouche’s French New Waver “A Man And A Woman,” about the romance between a widow and a widower, and Pietro Germi’s “Signore & Signore,” a three-part sex comedy released under the English title of “The Birds, The Bees & The Italians.”
What Should Have Won: A strong line-up in competition this year, with David Lean’s megahit “Doctor Zhivago” probably the headliner, along with Orson Welles’ “Chimes At Midnight,” Karel Reisz’s “Morgan: A Suitable Case For Treatment,” Jacques Rivette’s “The Nun,” John Frankenheimer’s “Seconds” and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “The Hawks And The Sparrow” all selected as well. Frankly, we’d take any of them over the shared winners of the top prize (still called the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film at this point).
Why: Call it a blind spot, but we struggle a bit with Italian comedy of this era, and ‘The Birds…’ is no exception — Germi is a very fine comedy director, and it’s fitfully funny, but feels somewhat ropey nearly a half-century on. Meanwhile, taking on “A Man And A Woman” feels like more of a sacred cow: the film also won Foreign Language and Screenplay Oscars, and was a global hit that inspired a sequel 20 years later. But if you ask us, it’s deeply bland, a sort of Gallic version of “Love Story” that looks very pretty, and is well-acted by Anouk Aimee and Jean-Louis Trintignant, but is otherwise cinematically disposable. And the idea that either are better than Welles’ Shakesperean masterpiece, Frankenheimer’s paranoia classic, or even Lean’s romantic epic (which is far from the director’s best) feels patently absurd.

What Won: A split for the Palme, with Costa-Gavras’ thriller “Missing,” in which the father and wife of a journalist attempt to find him after he disappears during the U.S backed coup by General Pinochet in Chile, sharing honors with Yilmaz Guney’s Turkish prisoner drama “Yol.
What Should Have Won: Not a year for the ages, necessarily, but with one stone-cold classic in the line-up in the shape of Werner Herzog’s astonishing “Fitzcarraldo.”
Why? As is often the case when the Palme goes to an eyebrow-raising film, 1982 appeared to be a year where politics trumped art when it came to picking the winner, not least with figures like Jean-Jacques Annaud and Gabriel Garcia Marquez serving on the jury of legendary Italian theater director Giorgio Strehler. “Missing” is an absolutely solid film with a terrific performance from Jack Lemmon at its center, but it’s also a poor cousin to Costa-Gavras’ earlier “Z,” with a rather crudely drawn arc for Lemmon’s character. Meanwhile, “Yol” is a case where the better story was off-screen rather than on: director Guney had spent most of his years in prison since 1972 (partly as a political prisoner, partly for shooting a judge in a drunken row), with his assistant Serif Goren directing scripts that Guney wrote from jail. “Yol” was such a film, but the helmer actually managed to escape from prison and finish the editing personally from Switzerland. There’s powerful stuff in “Yol,” and if nothing else it causes an interesting wrinkle in the auteur theory, but in general it’s rather crude and, frankly, dull filmmaking that indicates that the film got the top prize as a gesture rather than anything else. Especially against “Fitzcarraldo,” Herzog’s masterpiece of hubris and madness that might still be the director’s finest achievement.

What Won:The Mission,” the prestige-happy religious drama about a missionary in South America in the 18th century, starring Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro, produced by David Puttnam, penned by “A Man For All Seasons” writer Robert Bolt, and directed by Roland Joffe, who was coming off the success of “The Killing Fields.”
What Should Have Won: Jim Jarmusch’s “Down By Law” would probably be our pick of the litter, but there was also Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours,” Neil Jordan’s “Mona Lisa,” Nagisa Oshima’s “Max Mon Amour,” Andrei Konchalovsky’s “Runaway Train” and Tarkovsky’s final film “The Sacrifice.”
Why? It’s interesting to remember that “The Mission” won the Palme d’Or, because it’s the kind of film that would now be dismissed as “awards bait”: handsomely mounted, defiantly middlebrow, star-studded, and few expenses spared. That it would go on to get a Best Picture nomination isn’t a shock, that it won over Sydney Pollack’s jury is a little more surprising (though Pollack was never Mr. Avant-Garde, as such). The film is stunningly photographed by Chris Menges, and has a hall-of-fame score from Ennio Morricone, but it’s completely dramatically inert, aimless and sometimes even clunkily written. It might have been the kind of film that felt important at the time, but against the Tarkovsky (admittedly difficult even by the Russian director’s standards), Scorsese’s lean, sharp comedy, or Jarmusch’s joyful black-and-white picture, it feels like the film was wildly, wildly overrated at the time.

What Won: “Eternity And A Day,” from slow-cinema pioneer Theo Angelopolous, which focuses on a dying poet, played by Bruno Ganz.
What Should Have Won: Possibly controversial, but in a strong year, we’d have given the Palme to Thomas Vinterberg’s searing Dogme family drama “Festen.” There were other strong choices too, though: Tsai Ming-Liang’s “The Hole,” Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s “Flowers Of Shanghai,” Ken Loach’s “My Name Is Joe,” John Boorman’s “The General,” Todd Haynes’ “Velvet Goldmine,” Lodge Kerrigan’s “Claire Dolan” or even Terry Gilliam’s flawed-but-fascinating “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas.”  Still, at least it didn’t go to Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful,” we suppose…
Why? With Martin Scorsese heading up the jury, you were bound to get an interesting choice, and Scorsese’s gang definitely picked the cinephile’s option: Angelopolous is slow and steady stuff in general, but many wags at the time commented that “Eternity And A Day” was an appropriate title. It’s not the pacing that bothers us so much, however, as the film’s soppiness: there’s nothing particularly eye-opening about Angelopolous’ take on mortality, and one has to resist rolling your eyes when Ganz bonds with a cute kid, which takes up a fair old chunk of the running time. In a year that saw a certain amount of formal inventiveness from directors both young and old, and bold visions from the likes of Tsai, Hou and Haynes, there were certainly more daring picks to be made, even if we’re glad that Angelopolous picked up the prize at some point in his career (he died tragically in 2012 after being hit by a motorbike while shooting a film).

What Won: Nanni Moretti‘s “The Son’s Room” a story centred around a premature death of a beloved family member, and how the grieving father, mother, and sister handle the shock.
What Should Have Won: The chock-full competition was sizzling with masterpieces, most notably; David Lynch‘s “Mulholland Drive”, Michael Haneke‘s “The Piano Teacher”, and Oscar-winner “No Man’s Land” from Danis Tanovic. They’re all bigger winners in our books.
Why: While we realize that criticizing Moretti’s film is like walking on eggshells with little fuzzy baby chicks trapped beneath, we’re going to do it anyway. Kind of. “The Son’s Room” is far from being a bad film, but its use of a true and tried emotional trope – only the blackest of souls isn’t compelled to tears by the death of someone’s child – feels more manipulative and less organic on repeat viewing. Moretti bets all of his chips on this one major event, and while the scenes of grief and inability to let go are assuredly effective on first viewing, they feel a bit like a broken record in hindsight. And what’s more, it’s a broken record of a Brian Eno song that’s, dare we say, cheesy? When you pit it against a Lynchian Hollywood nightmare that’s impossible to forget, Haneke’s psycho-sexual adventures of a deeply troubled piano teacher, or Tanovic’s entertaining tragedy of war, Moretti’s soapy drama wilts away. We’re guessing the jury wasn’t feeling particularly moody and went with the safe choice that plucked their heart strings the softest, but looking back on it now, it boggles our minds to know this won over the other much stronger contenders.

What Won:Fahrenheit 9/11,” Michael Moore’s button-pushing documentary, unashamedly released as polemic, examining President George W. Bush (who was campaigning for re-election at the time), the aftermath of 9/11, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. It was the first documentary to take the top prize since Jacques Cousteau and Louis Malle’s “The Silent World” in 1956.
What Should Have Won: One could argue that this wasn’t the strongest year, with a handful of missteps by famous auteurs (“The Ladykillers” by the Coen Brothers, “2046” by Wong Kar-Wai), and a few rather baffling choices (made-for-TV biopic “The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers,” uh, “Shrek 2”) in the competition line-up. But you also had Olivier Assayas’ “Clean,” Walter Salles’ “The Motorcycle Diaries,” Lucrecia Martel’s “The Holy Girl,Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Consequences Of Love,” and Apichatpong Werasethakul’s “Tropical Maladies.” And best of all, Park Chan-Wook’s instant classic of a revenge caper “Oldboy,” which would have got our vote.
Why? Politics, pure and simple. Michael Moore is not, let’s face it, an especially great filmmaker, but he’s made some very effective and entertaining films, particularly in the case of “Roger & Me” and “Bowling For Columbine.” But “Farenheit 9/11” is an ugly, hastily-put-together and muddled mess that one suspects might have done more to harm its cause than to do anything to change it. But the jury (led by Quentin Tarantino, who you think would have favored cinema above making a statement) were clearly out to make a gesture, and so Moore’s film became one of the most controversial Palme winners ever. One can’t fault the intentions, but one wishes they’d picked a better film to do it with.

What Won: “The Child,” Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes’ bleak drama about a young couple who sell their baby for quick cash, only to instantly regret the decision.
What Should Have Won: Look, we know this sounds like heresy, but  it was a very tough year, and given he’s won the Palme twice since, we’d probably pass over Michael Haneke’s “Cache,” in favor of Carlos Reygadas’ “Battle In Heaven.” But Johnnie To’s “Election,” Tommy Lee Jones’ “Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada,” or Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s “Three Times” would have all been worthy winners.
Why? Like we said, this was a festival that was stacked — even without the above, there were flawed but interesting works by Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wenders, Gus Van Sant, Lars Von Trier, Hong Sang-Soo, Atom Egoyan and Robert Rodriguez in the line-up (plus Christi Puiu’s “The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu,” arguably better than anything in competition, playing Un Certain Regard). And the Dardennes have never made a bad film, and “The Child” is no exception: it’s searing, powerful stuff, and beautifully acted by stars Jeremie Renier and Deborah Francois. But it’s to some extent the Dardennes doing what they’ve done before and since, and we found it less powerful than their earlier Palme winner “Rosetta,” or even the more recent “The Kid With The Bike,” with the film slipping into wallowing in misery in places. Perhaps in a quiet year (hell, even the year before), we wouldn’t feel so strongly, but with decade-defining work from Haneke and Reygadas in the hunt for the prize as well, the Dardennes somewhat seemed like the safe option for Emir Kusturica’s jury.

What Won: Ken Loach‘s effort about the Irish war of independence, “The Wind That Shakes The Barley,” starring Cillian Murphy.
What Should Have Won: Anything else? OK, that’s harsh, but we would take our pick from Guillermo Del Toro‘s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” Pedro Almodovar‘s masterwork “Volver,” Andrea Arnold‘s “Red Road,” or even “Babel” from Alejandro Inarritu Gonzales.
Why: This opinion might not go down well with some readers, but Ken Loach doesn’t scream Palme D’Or to us, which is ironic because his invitation never gets lost in the mail. In what is arguably his best film, and certainly his most epic, Cillian Murphy and the rest of the cast (special shoutout to Liam Cunningham, who gives a ferocious performance) are excellent, the cinematography is as picturesque and atmospheric as befits the grandiose themes and setting, and it’s easy to see why it’s the highest grossing independent Irish film to date. And yet, something is missing. More precisely, it’s the lack of any genuine intrigue or innovation that gives us pause; the movie never hides what it wants us to feel, making every intended reaction blandly pre-packaged. Nevertheless, the film is imbued in patriotic importance, and swayed the 2006 jury away from Del Toro’s brazenly creative fantasy, some of the best stuff Almodovar and Arnold ever directed, and Inarritu’s multi-storylined thesis on communication. As much as Cannes loves Loach, we feel like this is a glitchy Palme d’Or winner at best; everything it lacks is spread out evenly among the ones that should have won instead.

What Won: “The Class,” Laurent Cantet’s moving story of a French teacher in an inner-city school in Paris. The film was the first French movie to win the Palme in 21 years (1987’s “Under The Sun Of Satan” was the last before it).
What Should Have Won: Again, you would be spoiled for choice. Even excluding high-profile misfires like “Blindness” and “Changeling,” you had Jia Zhangke’s “24 City,” Steven Soderbergh’s two-part “Che,” Arnaud Desplechin’s “A Christmas Tale,” Paolo Sorrentino’s “Il Divo,” Lucrecia Martel’s “The Headless Woman,” Matteo Garrone’s “Gomorrah,” the Dardennes’ “Lorna’s Silence,” Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche New York,” Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Three Monkeys,” James Gray’s “Two Lovers” and Ari Folman’s “Waltz With Bashir.”
Again, don’t get us wrong: “The Class” is a very fine film, one that deservedly became an international hit. But it’s still a dressed-up, somewhat conventional take on the inspirational-teacher picture, that’s hardly doing anything hugely exciting with the medium. In a year without the fierce competition of one of the most varied and exciting Cannes line-ups in memory, it might have been a fine winner. But again, this is one that just feels like the dullest choice that Sean Penn’s jury could have made, whether put against more classical, restrained fare like “A Christmas Tale,” “Two Lovers” or “Gomorrah,” or formally bolder pictures like “Synecdoche New York” or “Waltz With Bashir.” Well, except for “Changeling,” obviously. 

Thoughts? Any films you thought should’ve taken the Palme, or those you think that didn’t deserve it? Let us know below. — Nikola Grozdanovic, Oliver Lyttelton

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