Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: In honor of the Cannes Film Festival, the 70th edition of which starts this week, what is the best film to ever win the coveted Palme d’Or?
For a complete list of Palme d’Or winners, click here.
This question is impossible because I clearly haven’t seen all 40 Palme d’Or winners (it’s on my to do list, I swear). But I could easily say “Apocalypse Now,” “Paris, Texas,” “Taxi Driver,” “Amour,” or even “Pulp Fiction.” But since this is a personal question, I have to say “The Tree of Life.” No film has moved me as much as Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or winner.
Malick haters can mock it all you want, but it’s a masterpiece of spiritual filmmaking that plays with the macro and micro questions of our existence. It marks a marriage between Malick’s more straightforward filmmaking style that preceded it, and the experimental that has since defined the reclusive director’s career. It’s the type of movie you return to again and again, not only to try and understand it better, but to use it to try to understand yourself. If that’s not worthy of a Palme d’Or, what is?
I don’t want to choose a best, because it’s impossible to compare “The Conversation” and “Dancer in the Dark,” which are my two favorites (maybe only the latter semantically counts as a “Palm d’Or winner”?). Instead I’ll ignore the question and answer another: the most important Palme d’Or winner is “The Silent World,” the first and only one of two docs to ever take the prize.
Cannes hasn’t always done well to recognize documentary as cinematically significant, and sadly the second one — “Fahrenheit 9/11” — isn’t the best representation of the form. As many as 30 docs have been in competition since the start of the festival, most of them in the earlier years and from such Cannes-favored auteurs as Louis Malle or focused on artists as subjects. I’d love to see more, and I’d love to see another truly great doc win as Malle and Jacques Cousteau’s oceanographic feature did 61 years ago.
READ MORE: What Movies Critics Are Most Excited To See At Cannes 2017
Thank you for asking. I hadn’t realized how few stone-cold masterpieces have won the top award. The best is probably “The Taste of Cherry.” Though I have soft spot for the weird ones, like “The Ballad of Narayama” and even “Wild at Heart.” Bringing worldwide attention to the weird ones is perhaps the festival’s strength.
A1. It’s of course impossible to pick the best Palme d’Or winner of all time. But among the ones I have seen, Jane Campion’s “The Piano” is one of my favorites. Every moment of “The Piano” is poetry — the kind of film where you see an auteur at work and sense her touch on every delicate detail.
Looking over the list of Palme d’Or winners, it’s astounding how many bad films received Cannes’ top honor – Delbert Mann’s “Marty” won the initial prize in 1955 for God’s sake – and how many “just okay” films seemed to be selected because they were “important” rather than artistically accomplished. As a companion to this list I’d suggest a counter-canon of “films that were booed at Cannes,” which is stunning a round-up of titles: “L’Avventura,” “Fire Walk With Me,” “Gertrud,” “Personal Shopper.” And remarkably there are a number of films that were both Palme d’Or winners and the recipient of boos: “Taxi Driver,” “Pulp Fiction,” “The Tree of Life.”
My pick for the best all-time Palme d’Or recipient, however, is “Barton Fink.” The Coens’ dreamlike view of Hollywood and its discontent is as surreal as a latter-day Buñuel film and just as fun – formal sophistication aside, it’s the entertainment value of Fink that brings a smile to my face more than anything. It is a profoundly watchable film, and part of that comes from the fact it feels like a movie the Coens themselves would want to see. It’s a personal statement as rollicking romp, and it’s the culmination of Cannes’ three-year coronation of the American indie movement: “Sex, Lies and Videotape” in 1989, “Wild at Heart” in 1990, and then the Coens’ ode to peeling wallpaper and Wallace Beery wrestling pictures.
Before this trifecta of indies, Cannes seemed to award the Palme d’Or based on seriousness of intent as much as style: even a film like 1964 Palme d’Or winner “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” that revels in surfaces could be equally acknowledged for its “importance” as a serious, revisionist, tragic take on the Hollywood musical. “Apocalypse Now” is a masterpiece, but how much of its Palme d’Or win was due to its kinesthetic pleasures or to voters taking Coppola’s pontificating that his film “was Vietnam” oh-so-seriously? That’s why “Barton Fink,” as a culmination of the indie films acknowledged the two previous years, stands apart – it’s playful, it’s fun, it’s a film where the memory of the ringing of a lobby bell can put a shiver down your spine long after you’ve left the cinema. It’s the final triumph of Manny Farber’s “termite art” over the “white elephant” art that had long defined Cannes’ top honorees. “Barton Fink” is nothing more than a direct portal into the minds of its creators, the cost of admission is that, by the time the credits roll, they’ve colonized a bit of your brain as well.
It’s tough to pick the best movie that won the Palme d’Or since there are so many wonderful movies that stand the test of time on that list. But I’m going to go with “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” in part because it was such a perfect example of how this worldly festival has the power to catapult a unique filmmaker and sensibility onto the world stage. Suddenly, an esoteric, dreamlike vision of Thai history and mythology touched toes with popular culture. My favorite Cannes moment was Apichatpong Weerasethakul accepting the Palme d’Or and telling Tim Burton, “I love your hair.”
Unlike the Oscars, the Cannes Film Festival frequently rewards films that actually deserve praise, which makes it difficult to pick a favourite. Yet among all these great victories, some have a particularly delightful taste. Steven Soderbergh’s filmmaking career may be on hold today, but his output so far has been consistently impressive from his very beginnings. His 1989 debut feature “sex, lies and videotape” put him in the spotlight for the outstanding quality of the film itself, but also because of the impact it would have on the independent film industry.
The film, despite its low budget, limited settings and lack of stars, managed to be one of the most entrancing cinematic explorations of our patriarchal and capitalistic society and the disconnect and fear it creates between people. When the drifter Graham (who, as played by a young, longhaired and nonchalant James Spader, strongly recalls David Hemmings’ Thomas, the iconic lead in Antonioni’s own Palme d’Or winner “Blowup”) arrives in Baton Rouge to visit his long-lost college friend John Mullany (Peter Gallagher, aka the greatest eyebrows in Hollywood) and his very square wife Ann (Andie MacDowell in a career-best performance), not only does he disturb their lives, he also finds himself transformed by his relationship with this repressed but kind woman. As they discuss sex through the medium of video, they both acknowledge their sexual insecurities and disclose their deepest psychological traumas. Even Ann’s sister Cynthia, played with heat and heart by Laura San Giacomo, will have to thank Graham for showing her that, after all, Ann’s issues aren’t so different from her own. Like Cynthia, only those willing to face their fucked-up nature will be able to change and finally relate to other people instead of using them. Soderbergh’s ability to discuss sex with astonishing creativity, understanding and humanity aged only 26 put him on everyone’s radar, and proved that a movie needn’t be big to be beautiful.
Cannes has been almost uninterruptedly behind the times since the very moment when it could have joined them. Scan the list of Palme d’Or winners; not one of the filmmakers who propelled the French cinema into the forefront of modernity, whether Godard or Truffaut or Rivette or Rohmer or Chabrol or Varda (she at least got an honorary one in 2015), is on the list; without these filmmakers, the French cinema would be more or less what the Italian cinema is today, local stories told in borrowed styles with no world-historical reach. Also, has a sub-Saharan African director or a director from the African diaspora ever won it? No; and, though “sex, lies, and videotape” is a very good movie, the fact that it won the prize over “Do the Right Thing” is, among other things, a celebration of chilly classicism (and eroticism) over Spike Lee’s modernity.
Like most prize-giving organizations, Cannes almost always gets it wrong. A multi-part answer for a multi-part matter–in 1946, in the first post-war festival, Cannes handed out Grand Prizes like candy, to eleven films, but one of them is the best film ever to win one: Rossellini’s “Open City.” On the other hand, that diluted award hardly honors discerning judgment; four other awards leap out as exemplary: Orson Welles’s “Othello,” from 1952; “Taxi Driver,” 1976; “Taste of Cherry,” in 1997; and “The Tree of Life,” 2011. At least in these five awards, the festival looked to the future of cinema.
I’m not just going with Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” because it is one of my favorite films of all time, but because it is the Palme recipient that most wholly captures the spirit of Cannes and the festival’s value system. A film overtly concerned with the rotting soul of Europe, a critical perspective on the hollow nature of glamour and celebrity, it might as well be a piece-by-piece deconstruction of the toxic particles in the Cannes atmosphere.
My answer is “The Cranes Are Flying.” Based entirely of when and where and with whom I saw it, but I’m not divulging that here.
The list of winners at Cannes over the years – at times awarded a Palme d’Or (1955-63, 1975-present), at others a Grand Prix (1939-54, 1964-74) – includes many of my favorite films. Indeed, unlike our own Motion Picture Academy, Cannes appears to have been a fairly consistent arbiter of high-quality cinema. All of this makes it extremely difficult to choose one “best” among the lot. So I’ll cheat and pick two, all the while feeling guilty about the others I leave out. On a purely emotional level, my favorite is probably the Soviet film “The Cranes Are Flying” (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957). Shot by cinematographer Sergey Urusevsky, who had worked as a cameraman in the battlefields of World War II, the movie features brilliant visuals and stunning performances in a tale about the human cost of war. Its release was one of the harbingers of the new cultural “thaw” put in motion by the anti-Stalinist reforms of new Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Profoundly sad, yet also life-affirming, it combines melodrama and stylized hyper-realism in a heady mix.
That’s what my heart tells me to pick. My head says that the Coen Brothers’ brilliant 1991 dissection of writer’s block, “Barton Fink,” is equally worthy. Featuring John Turturro as the hapless titular character, fixated on turning intellectual musings into moving drama, yet unable to see the real story right in front of him, the film remains a great parody of the Hollywood dream machine, even today. So much else is good, though: Fellini’s “La dolce vita”; Visconti’s “The Leopard”; Antonioni’s “Blowup”; Coppola’s “The Conversation”; Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”; Soderbergh’s “Sex, Lies, and Videotape”; Campion’s “The Piano” (the only woman to win one of these); Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction”; Leigh’s “Secrets & Lies”; Kiarostami’s “Taste of Cherry”; the Dardenne Brothers’ “L’enfant” … and more and more and more …
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