The great thing about looking back at the history of the Cannes Film Festival, and in this case the illustrious Palme d’Or, is that I can pick out five winners and say, they might be the best five victors ever. It is not long before I see five more, and I think, wait a minute. These could be the best winners of the big prize. So I could read about, watch, re-watch, talk about, write about, embrace more great movies, I thought I would break down some Palme d’Or choices into three write-ups. The more the merrier, right?
You would struggle to find anyone who chooses the following five films as the best of Cannes winners. But I would like to think many of you agree they are right up there. And as per normal I am not claiming these as my absolute favorites, I would always rather say check out these fifteen films, than say here, this one is best. So there are ten more to come. Movies about the urge to clean up the streets, a dangerous mission, returning a boy to his country. Movies that tackle war in Poland, or Ireland. Documentaries about war. Semi-autobiographical musicals, eerie road movies. Sexual coming of age, or the vast universe.
Having made fifteen choices, I’m jumping ahead a little, so let’s begin:
2009 – The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke)
Bright Star (Jane Campion)
Enter the Void (Gaspar Noé)
The White Ribbon is by its own declaration a German children’s story (Das weiße Band, Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte). But it’s no fairy tale. Or at least, not as we know it. Set in the early 20th century, some time not long before World War I, in a small German village where the simple life is diluted with strange goings-on. This is not a thriller, nor a horror. The patiently-paced story seems to portray villagers of all ages, and age has no barrier to ask why or respond to the bad things that happen. At times it feels like a collection of harmonious short-stories scattered for harvest, their relation to one another not in question. A series of beautiful photographs capturing these terrible things, wonderfully crafted characters, and the importance of wondrous innocence. Haneke’s direction and writing, accompanied by the marvel that is Christian Berger’s black and white cinematography, gifts us story-telling that is never ever laborious or unappealing in its duration. A real gem indeed. A masterpiece you might say.
1994 – Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino)
Exotica (Atom Egoyan)
Three Colours: Red (Krzysztof Kieślowski)
I was a teenager when Pulp Fiction exploded all over the world’s cinema. Even I, though, as the young student of film, was aware that Quentin Tarantino had made a movie that was not suited for the likes of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, let alone the prestigious Palme d’Or. Tarantino and his team must have felt they had gate-crashed the party. Well, they kind of did. The ridiculously original, incomprohensibly funny crime caper appeared to get mixed reactions when announced as the winner of the big prize, but there is no denying Pulp Fiction as a master stroke of film-making of recent times. It would go to the Oscars, but they were not quite ready to give it Best Picture (or a certain prison movie). Tarantino has since built an illustrious, booming filmography on his terms, but he has certainly not matched the bravura or excellence of this.
1967 – Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni)
Accident (Joseph Losey)
Mouchette (Robert Bresson)
Based somewhat on London photographer David Bailey, Blow-Up is English language film territory for Michelangelo Antonioni. The photographer (a splendid David Hemmings) is charismatic, ambitious and haphazard. He becomes the focus of attention when he is confronted by the woman he photographed in public canoodling with a man. His photos taken there reveal much more than that. And Antonioni’s attention-grabbing film has further depth still, when the incredible sequence of revelation through photographs changes the pace and your own captivation. A crime scene emerges through the photographer’s gradual scrutiny of the shots. You are reminded of Rear Window, when James Stewart is seeing horror in real-time in front of his eyes. You think of that photo enhancing scene in Blade Runner, made fifteen years later. And why do you think psychedelic and the mod parts of Austin Powers are so familiar? Then comes the final moments of Blow-Up, which really challenge your perceptions of existence and illusion.
1999 – Rosetta (Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne)
All About My Mother (Pedro Almodóvar)
Wonderland (Michael Winterbottom)
Sinfully not even mentioned in my Best Actress piece, Émilie Dequenne is a simply perfect gem as the title character Rosetta. The seventeen year-old, who lives in a caravan with her wilting mother, is self-sufficient, determined, and somewhat uncompromising – she squabbles with most people she encounters at some point. Nobody gets in her way. The seemingly always on the move Rosetta, often running, appears to be in every frame of the movie, where the social hardship magicians Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne get right in her personal space or peer at her around corners. It’s the type of raw, candid, but utterly effective film-making that makes you wonder about how such a portrayal of reality can be so compelling (see last year’s Two Days, One Night). At times, and we are certainly not forced, we simply watch Rosetta briskly walk back and forth, going about her daily tasks, boiling an egg and then cracking the shell on her own head as naturally as she would fasten closed a padlock. The movie’s ultimate impact is far greater than any words here used to try and describe it.
1984 – Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders)
Voyage to Cythera (Theodoros Angelopoulos)
Where the Green Ants Dream (Werner Herzog)
How great to see two of the New German Cinema generation of directors (Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog) in attendance in competition at Cannes. It was Wenders who triumphed this time around, with a story on the shoulders of the terrific Harry Dean Stanton’s Travis. A remarkable, timeless motion picture. I mean, what is not to like? LM Kit Carson and Sam Shepard’s raw and thoughtful script, Ry Cooder’s enigmatic Texan score, or the vast cinematography of Robby Müller. It also has, for me, one of the most uniquely heart-tugging scenes captured on film. Ever. When Travis tells Jane (the luminous Nastassja Kinski) his story from the other side of a one-way mirror, and she begins to realise who it really is she listening to. My goodness, every time I re-watch the movie I get a build-up of all manner of emotions just knowing that moving sequence is yet to come. Paris, Texas also scooped the FIPRESCI Prize, as well as the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the great festival.