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The 10 Best Cannes Film Festival Competition Lineups Ever

The 10 Best Cannes Film Festival Competition Lineups Ever

There may not be a red carpet or a bevy of Hollywood stars present, just a bunch of coughing journalists, but tomorrow will see one of the more momentous events in the cinema calendar: the announcement of the Official Selection for the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. The general hubbub of anticipation has ramped up in recent weeks (here’s our own 20 Films We Hope To See In Cannes feature), with speculation and rumor flying back and forth about everything from the readiness of certain titles, to the health of certain directors, to completely spurious fabrications about biases and beefs that might prevent the selection committee, headed again by Festival President Thierry Frémaux, from picking certain films.

Tomorrow will see an end to, or at least a temporary ceasefire on, all that (you can read about the most recent speculations/confirmations here), but we will get to prematurely judge how “stacked” a lineup it is compared to the previous 68 iterations of this great cornucopia of cinema. To help you rate 2016’s selection as it happens, and to prove just what a high bar Cannes sets, here are the stories of 10 different years across Cannes’ history, each of which featured one of the festival’s best-ever competition lineups.

1946 — The 1st Cannes Film Festival
Notable Competition Titles: “Brief Encounter” (David Lean); “Beauty And The Beast” (Jean Cocteau); “Gaslight” (George Cukor); “Gilda” (Charles Vidor); “Notorious” (Alfred Hitchcock); “Rome, Open City” (Roberto Rossellini); “The Lost Weekend” (Billy Wilder); “Caesar And Cleopatra” (Gabriel Pascal); “The Battle Of The Rails” (René Clément)
September 20th, 1946, dawned bright and clear in the South of France and changed the cinematic landscape of the world forever. It was actually the second attempt at mounting a film festival in the Côte d’Azur destination — the first had been scheduled to begin on September 1st, 1939, the day that Hitler invaded Poland, and was called off after just one screening (William Dieterle‘s brilliant “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” starring Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara, since you ask). It’s highly ironic that one of the original Cannes organizers’ founding principles back in ’39 had been opposition to the Fascist influence that the cineaste community viewed as undermining the Venice Film Festival since its establishment in 1932.

But the war ended eventually. And although the shadow the devastating conflict cast over the inaugural selection is impossible to ignore, and though including this first year, in which all 44 selected features were In Competition (more than twice the current maximum) might seem unfair, the sheer proportion of stone-cold classics still marks the festival’s first year as surely one of the all-time greatest. This is not simply because it includes so many auteurs like Hitchcock, Lean, Cocteau, Rossellini, and Wilder (after all, every Cannes has its fair share of huge names), but because the films from those directors are among the best, if not the best, in their respective filmographies. Partly as a result of that, but also partly because of the post-war spirit of celebration and international co-operation rather than competition that the inaugural festival wanted to foster, the jury awarded 11 Grands Prix that year (this was before the Palme d’Or was introduced, when the Grand Prix was the festival’s highest award). And what’s maybe most interesting of all — perhaps a reflection that the Jury President Georges Huisman was a politician and a historian rather than a film professional — is that of the films listed above as the most renowned classics, many being U.K. or U.S. titles from émigré directors, only three were so honored (Rossellini, Wilder and Lean), with the remaining eight prizes going to films from Sweden, Switzerland, Mexico, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Russia, India and France.

1955 — The 8th Cannes Film Festival
Notable Competition Titles: “Bad Day At Black Rock” (John Sturges); “The Crucified Lovers” (Kenji Mizoguchi); “Rififi” (Jules Dassin); “East Of Eden” (Elia Kazan); “Gold Of Naples” (Vittorio De Sica); “Marty” (Delbert Mann); “The Country Girl” (George Seaton)
Presumably in response the festival’s ascending profile, 1955 saw the creation of the Palme d’Or as its highest honor, bumping the previous biggest accolade, the Grand Prix, off the menu for a few years, while the Special Jury Prize (which today is kind of the bronze medal) became, confusingly, the second-highest award. The first-ever Palme went to an American film — Delbert Mann’s “Marty,” starring Ernest Borgnine, which would also manage a unique double when it won the Best Picture Oscar too (Billy Wilder’s “The Lost Weekend” also took Best Picture along with the top prize in Cannes in 1946, but since it shared the latter with 10 other films, that feels a little less spectacular an achievement). The film, based on Paddy Chayefsky‘s Oscar-winning script, is kind of an anthem to blue-collar decency and co-stars Gene Kelly‘s then wife Betsy Blair, who had to overcome anti-communist blacklisting to land the role.

Indeed it’s hard to look at the English-language 1955 selection without referring to the Hollywood blacklist and the Red Scare era (and you should be listening to Karina Longworth’s “You Must Remember This” podcast series about it if you’re not). At least two of the titles were directly tainted by differing associations with the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings: One of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten, director Edward Dmytryk, had his U.K.-backed version of Graham Greene‘s “The End of the Affair,” starring Deborah Kerr and Van Johnson, screen in competition, while Elia Kazan, director of the unassailable “East Of Eden,” which introduced James Dean to the world, would later come under fire for “naming names” before the committee. In fact, one of the careers he’s alleged to have damaged with his testimony was that of playwright Clifford Odets, whose play “The Country Girl” was adapted by George Seaton, starred Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly in a role that would later win her an Oscar, and occasioned Kelly’s attendance at the festival that year, where she met Prince Rainier. And nearly 60 years later, “Grace Of Monaco” opened the festival, so… yeah, hard to make out the moral of that story.

But of course, there was plenty of thriving cinema happening outside of the U.S. — De Sica’s “Gold Of Naples” is a highly enjoyable anthology film featuring an early Sophia Loren role (it’s here in our De Sica Essentials), if a little more lightweight than his neo-realist classics; Jules Dassin’s “Rififi” is sheer, taut heist-movie brilliance; while Kenji Mizoguchi’s “The Crucified Lovers” is difficult to find but one of the Japanese master’s best — reportedly even among Akira Kurosawa‘s favorites of Mizoguchi’s films.

1962 — The 15th Cannes Film Festival
Notable Competition Titles: “Advise & Consent” (Otto Preminger); “Cleo From 5 To 7” (Agnes Varda); “The Exterminating Angel” (Luis Buñuel); “L’Eclisse” (Michelangelo Antonioni); “The Innocents” (Jack Clayton); “The Trial Of Joan Of Arc” (Robert Bresson); “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (Sidney Lumet); “A Taste Of Honey” (Tony Richardson); “Divorce Italian Style” (Pietro Germi); “Mondo Cane” (Gualtiero Jacopetti, Paolo Cavara, Franco Prosperi)
With such a dazzling array of U.S. and European auteurs in the selection, it’s somewhat surprising to note that the Palme d’Or in 1962 went, for the first and so far only time, to a Brazilian film that time has largely forgotten: “Keeper of Promises” by Anselmo Duarte. Perhaps the story of a simple man’s quest to carry a cross to a priest in thanks to the Lord for saving his donkey seemed refreshing for its austerity in a year when the provocateurs who started the whole “Mondo” craze for exploitation documentaries ruffled feathers with their bawdy and explicit (and totally unmissable) “Mondo Cane,” and when the never-knowingly-uncontroversial Luis Buñuel was welcomed back into the competition fold the very year after his 1961 Palme d’Or-winner “Viridiana” had been banned by the Catholic Church. “The Exterminating Angel” would prove just as scandalous — perhaps another win would have brought on papal apoplexy.

Still, it does seem a bit strange that with so many more striking films in competition — from Antonioni’s glimmering ode to disaffection “L’Eclisse” (you can read about it in our Antonioni Essentials), to Robert Bresson’s economical, 61-minute “The Trial Of Joan Of Arc” which both shared second prize (here’s our Bresson Retrospective), to Preminger’s flashy, starry “Advise & Consent” to Jack Clayton’s sublime and chilling “The Innocents” with Deborah Kerr, the jury, which included François Truffaut that year, went for such a relatively unheralded film. Of course, if righting the wrongs of history were my business, the Palme would have gone to Agnes Varda’s unimpeachable and completely essential “Cleo From 5 To 7.” As it was, the festival would have to wait another 31 years before a female director would win Cannes’ top award — and Jane Campion remains the only woman to have managed that feat (for 1993’s “The Piano“).

1974 — The 27th Cannes Film Festival
Notable Competition Titles: “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” (Rainer Werner Fassbinder); “Thieves Like Us” (Robert Altman); “The Sugarland Express” (Steven Spielberg); “Arabian Nights” (Pier Paolo Pasolini); “The Conversation” (Francis Ford Coppola); “The Last Detail” (Hal Ashby)
For once, we’ve no axe to grind with the Jury, including president René Clair, and jurors Monica Vitti and Alexander Walker, as we probably would have chosen Francis Ford Coppola’s brilliantly understated “The Conversation” for the Palme, too, unless we’d been tempted by the jerky brilliance of Fassbinder’s Sirkian melodrama of xenophobia and ageism instead. But that’s only of the films in competition — had opening film “Amarcord” from Federico Fellini, which played inexplicably out of competition (and opening films can be either) been involved in the melee, it might have been a three-way fight. Also worthy of note is that this was the year of lovers on the lam films from rising American directors, with both Robert Altman’s “Thieves like Us” and Steven Spielberg’s “The Sugarland Express” making it into the selection, possibly marking the last time two such different filmmakers would ever have even superficially similar movies to shill for: The following year, Spielberg would invent the summer blockbuster with “Jaws,” while Altman would perfect the sprawling ensemble drama with “Nashville.”

With those two titans figuring in the lineup (and Spielberg taking the screenplay award), Hal Ashby’s iconic “The Last Detail” scooping Best Actor for Jack Nicholson (shared with Charles Boyer for Alain Resnais‘ now-neglected “Stavisky…“) and “The Conversation” winning the Big One, it was a year quietly dominated by American cinema — outside of the ever-controversial Pasolini, whose ribald “Arabian Nights” took the Grand Prix. But deeper in the selection were international auteurs, like Spanish director Carlos Saura, who would win the Grand Prix two years later for the great “Cria Cuervos;” Ken Russell with “Mahler;” and Mexican pioneer Arturo Ripstein with “The Holy Office,” though all of them would enjoyed greater success than with the films they presented this year. Even the (somewhat dubious) honor of closing the festival went to a U.S. title — Irvin Kershner‘s “S*P*Y*S*.” So yes, this was a year that started with the guy who did “” and ended with the guy who did “The Empire Strikes Back.” Don’t you just love Cannes?

1980 — The 33rd Cannes Film Festival
Notable Competition Titles: “All That Jazz” (Bob Fosse); “Kagemusha” (Akira Kurosawa); “Being There” (Hal Ashby); “The Big Red One” (Sam Fuller); “Breaker Morant” (Bruce Beresford); “Every Man For Himself” (Jean-Luc Godard)
Another year, another baffling out-of-competition choice. Andrei Tarkovsky‘s “Stalker” did not get a competitive berth, and its screening was interrupted by an electrician’s strike. One wonders if the choice to down tools in a display of worker rebellion during the showing of a film made under the Soviet regime — Tarkovsky’s last in Russia, as it happens — was deliberate (unlikely, seeing as it was a national strike, but still). In any case, it’s not like the competition lacked for big names without him, though in advance, the 1980 festival was all about the final return to screens of Japanese master Akira Kurosawa with “Kagemusha,” his first film in five years, and his first Japanese film in a decade (1975’s “Dersu Uzala” was Soviet-funded, as Kurosawa had been finding it hard to raise financing at home). It’s perhaps the mark of only the greatest greats that a film can be so heavily anticipated and still dazzle — “Kagemusha” is a masterpiece, and wholly deserved the Palme d’Or that the 1980 jury, headed (or chinned) by Kirk Douglas, awarded it.

Except they didn’t wholly award it — as had happened the year before with “Apocalypse Now” and “The Tin Drum,” the samurai epic shared the top honor with the very different and yet similarly balletic “All That Jazz” from choreographer/director/genius Bob Fosse. Elsewhere, the lineup was fleshed out in impressive form by “The Big Red One” from Sam Fuller, a director consistently embraced by the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd while still being regarded as a faintly B-movie genre filmmaker in his native U.S. And also by Hal Ashby’s terminally gentle “Being There,” with Peter Sellers, while French masters Alain Resnais and Jean-Luc Godard both featured in the lineup too, with the former picking up the Grand Prix for “My American Uncle” with Gérard Depardieu.

1989 — The 42nd Cannes Film Festival
Notable Competition Titles: “sex, lies, and videotape” (Steven Soderbergh); “Do The Right Thing” (Spike Lee); “Cinema Paradiso” (Giuseppe Tornatore); “Mystery Train” (Jim Jarmusch); “Sweetie” (Jane Campion); “Jesus Of Montreal” (Denys Arcand); “Time Of The Gypsies” (Emir Kusturica); “Monsieur Hire” (Patrice Leconte); “Black Rain” (Shohei Imamura)
With the news just in that Jim Jarmusch’s new film “Paterson” will be competing this year, it’s fitting that we’re featuring 1989, the year his rich, delightful anthology film “Mystery Train,” that in aesthetic seemed to mark a slight change of direction from his no-wave roots, became his third title, after “Stranger Than Paradise” and “Down By Law” to play in Cannes. It’s important that indie Godhead Jarmusch was represented this year as in retrospect it certainly seems like a banner occasion for the then-emerging U.S. independent cinema scene. Jury President Wim Wenders even seemed to sense a changing of the guard in the zeitgeist when he handed the Palme d’Or to Steven Soderbergh, claiming that his film gave him confidence in the future of cinema (here’s a long read on the impact of “sex lies, and videotape” on its 25th anniversary).

Not everyone was quite so sanguine though — Spike Lee was vocal about feeling that “Do the Right Thing” not lifting the prize (as had been hotly tipped) was a snub by an all-white jury that just didn’t get the film’s incendiary, furious humanism. Even jury member Sally Field, according to an anecdote in Dennis Abrams’ book “Spike Lee,” reportedly later told him that while she had actively campaigned for it to win, her fellow jurors had not understood why Mookie threw the trashcan, and that was that. Still, though it’s tempting from a U.S. perspective to reduce Cannes 1989 to this clash, there was plenty of other stuff going on, notably the premier of Tornatore’s eternally beloved “Cinema Paradiso” (which won the Grand Prix) and the screening of the first feature from future Palme d’Or winner Jane Campion, “Sweetie,” as well as the brilliantly harrowing “Black Rain” (not the Ridley Scott one), in which Shohei Imamura imagines the emotional and literal fallout from Hiroshima, plus the premier of Emir Kusturica’s “Time Of The Gypsies” which won him Best Director in between his two Palmes d’Or (for “When Father Was Away On Business” and “Underground“).

1994 — The 47th Cannes Film Festival
Notable Competition Titles: “Pulp Fiction” (Quentin Tarantino); “Three Colors: Red” (Krzysztof Kieślowski); “Through The Olive Trees” (Abbas Kiarostami); “La Reine Margot” (Patrice Chéreau); “Exotica” (Atom Egoyan); “The Browning Version” (Mike Figgis); “Dear Diary” (Nanni Moretti); “To Live” (Zhang Yimou); “The Hudsucker Proxy” (Joel & Ethan Coen); “Mrs. Parker And The Vicious Circle” (Alan Rudolph)
Bookended by what has to be the funnest opening/closing double act in the history of the festival (the Coens’ delirious, affectionate, underrated screwball comedy “The Hudsucker Proxy,” which opened proceedings, also played In Competition; John Waters’ suburban camp “Serial Mom” starring Kathleen Turner which closed the fest sadly did not), 1994 seems like it might have been one long highlight in between, especially if you had shares in Miramax. And while often the selection of the jury can feel out of step with the feel on the ground, let alone posterity, this year president Clint Eastwood and his panel that included Catherine Deneuve, Kazuo Ishiguro and Lalo Schifrin — more fun! — seemed perfectly in sync. The Palme d’Or went to Tarantino’s era-defining sophomore film, with “Reservoir Dogs” having played in Directors’ Fortnight a couple of years before, while in 1994 that same sidebar was playing host to Kevin Smith‘s “Clerks,” meaning the Quinzaine can take responsibility for launching the careers of two of the most divisive and garrulous U.S. filmmakers of the 1990s.

But the quality didn’t just didn’t quit that year — even relatively overlooked titles, blasted somewhat out of the water by “Pulp Fiction,” have their pleasures. And there are a handful, like “Exotica,” “Dear Diary,” “Three Colors: Red” and Zhang Yimou’s exceptional follow-up to Cannes title “Ju Dou” and Venice Silver Lion winner “Raise the Red Lantern,” “To Live,” that any other year would have been vying for that top spot. In many ways, it must have been a great year to be on that jury — films of sky-high standard across the board, but a clear, popular, groundbreaking winner emerging nonetheless.

1997 — The 50th Cannes Film Festival
Notable Competition Titles: “Funny Games” (Michael Haneke); “The Ice Storm” (Ang Lee); “Nil By Mouth” (Gary Oldman); “L.A. Confidential” (Curtis Hanson); “Taste Of Cherry” (Abbas Kiarostami); “Welcome To Sarajevo” (Michael Winterbottom); “Unagi” (Shohei Imamura); “Happy Together” (Wong Kar-wai)
We’re approaching territory that’s probably more familiar to all of us now, not quite so moss-covered with memory and the lore of intervening years, but if you need orientation, just remember this was the year that Michael Jackson walked the Red Carpet and a clean-shaven Johnny Depp was still together with not-ugly girlfriend Kate Moss. But the 50th incarnation of the Cannes Film Festival was also blessed/cursed with some erratic awarding, especially considering the depth of the lineup — normally we’re all for things being shaken up a bit, but the only explanation for Sean Penn scooping Best Actor for the pretty dreadful “She’s So Lovely” was that director Nick Cassavetes based it on an unproduced screenplay written by his father John, though all that serves to do is highlight is how far the apple can fall from the tree.

Justice was better served elsewhere with the Jury, presided over for this prestigious anniversary year by Isabelle Adjani, awarding an immensely well-earned Best Actress to the scorching Kathy Burke in Gary Oldman’s directorial debut “Nil By Mouth,” and giving the Palme jointly to Kiarostami’s beautiful, mysterious, minimalist “Taste of Cherry” and Shohei Imamura’s vivid, exuberant “Unagi” (“The Eel”). The Grand Prix went to Atom Egoyan for the “The Sweet Hereafter,” which was timely since after a couple more more middling entries, he’d be kidnapped and replaced by the pod person who’d make “The Devil’s Knot” and “Captives.” And Best Director was taken by Wong Kar-Wai for his wondrous “Happy Together,” to leave this entry on a high note (which is more than happened at the festival, which closed with Clint Eastwood‘s “Absolute Power,” a middling thriller that had already been out in the U.S. for two months).

2009 — The 62nd Cannes Film Festival
Notable Competition Titles: “Antichrist” (Lars Von Trier); “Bright Star” (Jane Campion); “Broken Embraces” (Pedro Almodóvar); “The White Ribbon” (Michael Haneke); “Enter The Void” (Gaspar Noé); “Fish Tank” (Andrea Arnold); “Inglourious Basterds” (Quentin Tarantino); “A Prophet” (Jacques Audiard); “Thirst” (Park Chan-wook); “Kinatay” (Brillante Mendoza)
The all-star lineup above — and three of those directors (Park, Arnold and Almodovar) mentioned — are hotly tipped to return this year, while a further two that made a splash in 2015 (Noé, with the, um, damply received “Love” and Audiard with the slightly surprising Palme winner “Dheepan“) was if anything matched in wattage by the international jury lineup. Under the leadership of Isabelle Huppert, the panel included Cannes favorite James Gray, future Palme winner Nuri Bilge Ceylan, South Korean master Lee Chang-dong, British screenwriter Hanif Kureishi, and actresses Robin Wright Penn, Shu Qi, Sharmila Tagore and Asia Argento. Not only that, but the festival boasted one of the most delightful openers ever — Pixar’s “Up,” the first animated film ever to open Cannes. With that kind of pedigree, you would expect the choices for awards to be impeccable, and you know what? They pretty much are: The Palme d’Or went to Haneke’s subzero-chilling pre-WWI parable “The White Ribbon” (if it were any other actor or an even marginally less worthy film, you might suspect Huppert of favoritism toward her frequent collaborator Haneke, but it isn’t and no one does, especially not me, please don’t hate me, Ms. Huppert).

In fact, with this much quality in the lineup, the jury could essentially have thrown darts and landed on worthwhile winners in almost every case, but any year that sees “A Prophet” take the Grand Prix, “Thirst” and “Fish Tank” share the Jury Prize, Charlotte Gainsbourg take Best Actress for “Antichrist” and Christoph Waltz take Best Actor for “Inglourious Basterds” (it was the first time any of us had seen that performance from him, after all) is pretty impressive. Add to that the Un Certain Regard win for “Dogtooth,” and you have a nearly perfect set of winners, which means we can forgive the odd one out — Brillante Mendoza’s Best Director award for the borderline unwatchable “Kinatay,” especially as it led directly to his underseen but very good collaboration with Huppert in “Captive.”

2012 — The 65th Cannes Film Festival
Notable Competition Titles: “Amour” (Michael Haneke); “Rust & Bone” (Jacques Audiard) “Beyond the Hills” (Cristian Mungiu); “Holy Motors” (Leos Carax); “The Hunt” (Thomas Vinterberg); “Killing Them Softly” (Andrew Dominik); “Moonrise Kingdom” (Wes Anderson); “Post Tenebras Lux” (Carlos Reygadas); “Paradise: Love” (Ulrich Seidl); “Mud” (Jeff Nichols); “Cosmopolis” (David Cronenberg); “Reality” (Matteo Garrone)
To those of us who’ve been lucky enough to attend Cannes recently, the 2012 festival feels roughly like last Thursday, and without any distance on them either geographically or temporally, I took the years 2013-2015, when I actually attended the festival, off the table. Even so, making our final selection of which 10 to focus on was a tricky process: There are other years that have featured films we’ve perhaps individually loved more than any of those listed here, but really what we were looking for was depth and breadth of quality across the whole competition. But it’s a trade-off I happily do not have to make with 2012, a year of immense strength across the board that also featured a strong contender for my favorite film of the new century, the deliriously mindfucking “Holy Motors.”

Leos Carax’s wild, beautiful, indefinable masterpiece may not have won anything, but it still glitters like a jewel in this wildly impressive crown. Indeed, you almost feel sorry for Jury president Nanni Moretti and his team (which included Andrea Arnold and Alexander Payne, among others), with Moretti admitting that their final choice for the Palme, Haneke’s “Amour,” was anything but unanimous, and further revealing that the films that inspired the hottest debate were the Reygadas epic (which went on to win Best Director), Ulrich Seidl’s venomous portrayal of sex tourism, and ma boi Carax’s magnum opus. The idea of a Haneke film being a “compromise” choice is pretty amusing. But then, this is a year in which a John Hillcoat movie (“Lawless“) and a Hong Sang-soo (“In Another Country,” with Isabelle Huppert) don’t even warrant an up-top mention — it has to make 2012 the strongest lineup in recent memory. Until, we hope, tomorrow reveals that 2016 is going to be even better…

Tune in tomorrow morning to see what Frémaux and co. have got lined up for us for the 69th Cannes Film festival in May, and let us know how you feel it stacks up, sight unseen obviously, against these and the many other vintage Competition lineups that Cannes has given us.

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