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5 Surprising & Controversial Cannes Film Festival Winners From Years Gone By

by Oliver Lyttelton
May 31, 2012 10:05 AM
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Controversial Surprising Cannes Winners

As much as people have quibbles with (much more democratically voted-on) awards like the Oscars, the decisions by juries at film festivals tend to be even more contentious. Usually drawn from practitioners and actors, with a few other curious participants in there as well, jurors often come in with their own likes, dislikes and agendas, and in the absence of a unanimous choice, often end up settling for compromises.

Indeed, this year's Cannes Film Festival jury president Nanni Moretti said, after the awards were unveiled this past weekend, that none of the them were unanimously voted for (word is Andrea Arnold in particular was a fervent opponent of Leos Carax's "Holy Motors"). That being said, their Palme D'Or winner was a popular one: while a few critics were rooting for "Holy Motors," almost everyone was delighted that Michael Haneke's "Amour" picked up the prize (his second in four years, making him one of only seven directors to pick up two Palme d'Ors).

But there were other choices that were more controversial, from Denis Lavant's turn in Carax's film being snubbed, to Grand Prix and Best Director awards for Matteo Garrone's "Reality" and Carlos Reygadas' "Post Tenebras Lux," which were mostly coolly received by critics. As such, we've delved into the history books to pick out five controversial and/or surprising Palme D'Or winners at the festival when the jury swerved expectations, and made selections that kept talk going long after the red carpet at the Palais was rolled up...

Chronicle Of The Burning Years
1975: "Chronicle Of The Burning Years"
We can't quite speak to the quality of "Chronicle of the Burning Years" (or "Chronique des Annees de Braise"), the Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina film that the jury, headed by Jeanne Moreau (that also included "Clockwork Orange" author Anthony Burgess and "Butch Cassidy" director George Roy-Hill), picked as their Palme d'Or winner in 1975. That's not a slight on the film, it's just that despite its victory, the three-hour epic about the Algerian Revolution barely got distribution outside France at the time. It's not like Moreau & co were lacking in other options, either: Herzog's "The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser," Costa-Gavras' "Special Section," Bob Fosse's "Lenny," Martin Scorsese's "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" and, perhaps most importantly, Michelangelo Antonioni's "The Passenger," were all in contention. Perhaps Antonioni was overlooked because he already had one in the bag, or maybe because star Jack Nicholson had won Best Actor the previous year for "The Last Detail." "Chronicle of the Burning Years" was, after all, apparently well-received at the time. But it doesn't exactly seem to have taken its place in cinema history.

Pulp Fiction
1994: "Pulp Fiction"
"Pulp Fiction" is one film that certainly has taken its place in cinema history, having been endlessly ripped off by American independent cinema and elsewhere in the nearly two decades since it premiered. But at the time, Tarantino took to the stage to a chorus of boos. It had been a strong year, with new films from Mike Figgis, Edward Yang, Nanni Moretti, Zhang Yimou, the Coen Brothers, Guiseppe Tornatore, Abbas Kiarostami and Alan Rudolph. Patrice Chereau's "La Reine Margot," Atom Egoyan's "Exotica" and Nikita Mikhalkov's "Burnt By The Sun" (which would go on to win the Foreign-Language Oscar) all received particularly enthusiastic responses, but it was widely expected that the winner would be "Three Colors: Red," the final film of Krzysztof Kieslowski's trilogy, and according to the director, likely the last picture he would helm. It was very much a movie on home soil, examining as the trilogy did the ideals of the French revolution. Furthermore, the Polish helmer had never won the Palme (although he got the Grand Jury Prize in 1988 for his earlier opus "The Decalogue"). But the jury was headed by Clint Eastwood (with Catherine Deneuve and Kazuo Ishiguro among those joining him), and his affinity for American crime pictures must have won through. Furthermore, The Guardian reported at the time that only two jury members had seen either of the earlier "Three Colors" films, and that producer Marin Karmitz had offended some of them. That didn't curb the boos on the night, and it's still hard to argue that "Pulp Fiction" is a superior picture.

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  • Kris | May 31, 2012 6:33 PMReply

    "But the jury was headed by Clint Eastwood (with Catherine Deneuve and Kazuo Ishiguro among those joining him), and his affinity for American crime pictures must have won through. "

    This really is utter, UTTER bs and says far more about your own prejudices than it does about Eastwood. Why don't you do your research? Here's Clint speaking at Cannes in 2008: 'On the jury here when 'Pulp Fiction' won, somebody said 'Oh, Clint Eastwood was on the jury, so he voted for the American film.' But my sensibilities are European, here is where my success started. Actually, Zhang Yimou's 'To Live' was my favorite piece, but most of the European jurors seemed to like 'Pulp Fiction,' That's from The NY Times piece entitled 'Clint Eastwood, a director who aims to get to the heart of the whole story'. But so much easier to peddle the old myths that anything with guns and blood in it is going to be Eastwood's pick. Wake up, for Christ's sake.

  • Huffy | May 31, 2012 11:22 PM

    Seriously, if you're going to write a professional blog at least research your shit.

  • Christopher Bell | May 31, 2012 1:11 PMReply

    "The Wind That Shakes The Barley" was a snooze to me. I dig the subject material (particularly because it's a part of history that hasn't seen much light in the film world), but it was a tough slog. I'd give it another chance, but Loach generally doesn't do it for me, so I'm in no particular rush to catch that one again... On another note, I think "Taste of Cherry" is my favorite Kiarostami next to "Close-Up."

  • Tyler | May 31, 2012 2:55 PM

    I recently discovered Kiarostami. The Wind Will Carry Us is my favorite of his so far, I'll have to check out Taste of Cherry.

  • StephenM | May 31, 2012 12:35 PMReply

    Worst decision in Cannes history? Fahrenheit 9/11 winning the Golden Palm. No contest.

  • Huffy | May 31, 2012 11:29 PM

    It was a political statement through-and-through, end of story, and hardly a bold one given that Bush was the American entertainment industry's favorite stooge for the next four years (let alone Europe's). The Cannes film festival is supposed to be a celebration of film, not of political agendas, and any way you slice it Fahrenheit 9/11 was not the best film of that bunch. Nobody Knows should have won hands down, and I'd even take Oldboy over the eventual winner.

  • Edward Davis | May 31, 2012 12:52 PM

    Well, to many outside viewers, yes. But to the Cannes jury? It was almost unanimous. Gotta remember the European contingent in Cannes. They all loved Fahrenheit and felt it was a bold statement and I think much of everyone in the Jury, and those in attendance in Cannes thought that giving it the Palme was the appropriate bold statement.

  • JD | May 31, 2012 12:08 PMReply

    So many strange opinions in this article. Funny Games a "game-changer"? The Sweet Hereafter a "masterpiece"? To each his own, I guess. However, it's worth noting that many of these films were received quite differently at Cannes than they were in later months/years. 2007 is a good example. Silent Light was widely derided at Cannes -- much like Post tenebras lux -- and both No Country For Old Men and We Own the Night were dismissed in some quarters as slight, inconsequential genre films. It's one of the dangers of trying to find consensus about Cannes: most of the films screened there are highly original, unusual works that are designed to divide (or at least challenge) critics, audiences, jury members, etc.

  • Ted | May 31, 2012 11:42 AMReply

    I wouldn't really rank 2006 or 2007 as particularly controversial years. Both films were pretty fantastic. I would rank 2004 as far more controversial. I'm no fan of George Bush so this isn't politically motivated, I just think "Fahrenheit 9/11" is a really shoddy documentary. Not only it is misleading in parts, but I just think it's a poorly constructed film - Moore's documentaries always look like some high school civics class project uploaded to Youtube. But consider the other films in the 2004 competition: 2046, Nobody Knows, The Holy Girl, & Tropical Malady. I'd even rank Oldboy and The Motorcycle Diaries above Fahrenheit 9/11, in terms of film quality. 2004 should definitely be considered a controversial year. To me, it looks like "Fahrenheit 9/11" won solely for a political agenda, rather than film quality. 1990 was another weird year for me. While the film quality in 1990 was pretty mediocre, I still think David Lynch's "Wild at Heart" is just a bad movie. I've only seen two other films from that year, and while not monumental cinematic achievements, I still thought Cyrano de Bergerac & Ju Dou were far and away superior to "Wild at Heart." I wouldn't call 1986 as surprising or controversial at the other's listed, but I'll just point out the absurdity of Roland Joffe's "The Mission" winning over Andrei Tarkovsky's magnificent "The Sacrifice."

  • Huffy | June 1, 2012 8:23 AM

    1986 is pretty shocking now that I think about it, especially considering the fact that Tarkovsky was on his deathbed at the time. The Sacrifice was literally his final artistic expression and everyone knew it, which makes it all the more shocking that he wasn't rewarded.

  • zatopek | May 31, 2012 11:37 AMReply

    Death Proof must be a disappointment only to those who think The Edge of Heaven and The Diving Bell and the Buttefly are excellent.

  • Zack | May 31, 2012 10:39 AMReply

    Wait, you're arguing that a heavy British contingent led to an IRA film winning?

  • Oliver Lyttelton | May 31, 2012 11:08 AM

    Yes, but Ken Loach, the director, was British. And believe it or not, us Brits, particularly if you're a left-leaning liberal involved in the film industry, like Frears and Roth, are not particularly keen on the way we treated Ireland over the years, and so might be inclined to show support for a film like Wind That Shakes The Barley. But Agreed raises a good point, in the Iraq war issue, although this was three years after the war began. Fahrenheit 9/11 winning in 2004 was a more obvious knock-on effect.

  • agreed | May 31, 2012 11:03 AM

    Agreed... Irish and British are completely different, they are separate counties with completely different identities, though one was colonized the other. But you know United States, Mexico same thing.

    You could argue that more than anything the Iraq war had a profound effect on the jury's decision given the films textural examination of the divides caused by civil war, family and class.

    Maybe the wind that shakes the barley is the better film than the other films that year... I think there are actually quite a few people who feel this way.

  • jake | May 31, 2012 10:17 AMReply

    Pulp Fiction is one of the most influential & memorable American movies ever made. While I agree, "Red" is a masterpiece, it is no travesty that Pulp Fiction won an award.

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