By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com May 31, 2012 at 10:05AM
Even with a handful of real stinkers in the line-up (Matthieu Kassovitz's swiftly forgotten "La Haine" follow-up "Assassin(s)," Johnny Depp's directorial debut "The Brave," which was barely seen again, and "The Serpent's Kiss," with Ewan McGregor), 1997 now looks like something of a banner year in competition at Cannes -- fortunate, given that it marked the 50th anniversary of the festival. There was Michael Haneke's startling, game-changing "Funny Games," Ang Lee's outstanding "The Ice Storm," Wong Kar-Wai's "Happy Together," Atom Egoyan's masterpiece "The Sweet Hereafter," Gary Oldman's bruising "Nil By Mouth" and Curtis Hanson's "L.A. Confidential," to this writer's mind the best studio movie of the 1990s. But a diverse, star-studded jury, led by Isabelle Adjani, decided to share the top prize between Abbas Kiarostami's "Taste of Cherry" and Shohei Imamura's "The Eel," two films falling firmly on the "difficult" side of the spectrum. In Kiarostami's case, it was probably as much a political decision as a creative one (the film is far from the director's best) -- rumor had it that the film's subject matter of suicide meant that it had been banned in Iran, and that Kiarostami had to smuggle the film out of the country. Both films are valuable, but there must have been more than a few on the Croisette who were shaking their heads at the decision.
Ken Loach has become a regular presence at Cannes over his career. He's had three films in competition in the last four years, and he's had nine films at the festival in total since "Kes" premiered at the Critic's Week in 1969. He's practically a part of the furniture at the awards ceremony: he picked up his third Jury Prize this year for "The Angels' Share." But he's rarely considered a front-runner for the Palme D'Or, which made his victory in 2006 for "The Wind That Shakes The Barley" so surprising. It must have helped that the film, an Irish civil war drama starring Cillian Murphy, had a bigger scope and concerns than his usual films, and got some of his best reviews since "My Name Is Joe" eight years earlier. But a number of heavyweights also had rapturously-received pictures in competition, and most saw Loach as a firm outsider, with Guillermo Del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth," Pedro Almodovar's "Volver" and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Babel" all winning raves, and festival favorites like Lou Ye, Paolo Sorrentino, Rachid Boucahreb, Nanni Moretti, Bruno Dumont and Nuri Bilge Ceylan all competing too. But the jury, headed by Wong Kar-Wai and also including Samuel L. Jackson, Patrice Leconte and Monica Bellucci, went with Loach, perhaps aided by the heavy British contingent of Helena Bonham-Carter and Tim Roth being among them. It wasn't the worst decision in the history of Cannes -- far from it -- but it certainly turned heads at the time.
Given that the year is considered one of the best for movies in recent history, it's not surprising that Stephen Frears' jury (which also included Toni Collette, Maggie Cheung, Orhan Pamuk and Sarah Polley) were spoiled with choices in 2007. There were disappointments, sure -- Wong Kar-Wai's "My Blueberry Nights" and Quentin Tarantino's "Death Proof" among them. But it was also an excellent year for world cinema, with Fatih Akin's "The Edge of Heaven," Julian Schnabel's "The Diving Bell And The Butterfly," Bela Tarr's "The Man From London," Ulrich Seidl's "Import Export," Carlos Reygadas' "Silent Light" and the animated "Persepolis" all getting great reviews, while David Fincher's "Zodiac," James Gray's "We Own The Night," Gus Van Sant's "Paranoid Park" and future Best Picture-winner "No Country For Old Men" all part of a strong U.S. showing too. But it was a first-time competition entrant who walked away with the top prize: Romanian director Cristian Mungiu, with his harrowing, stark, abortion drama "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days." It was an idiosyncratic pick for sure, and one that raised the hackles of many, not least 'Diving Bell' director Julian Schnabel, who later claimed that he'd been told that his film had won the Palme, but at "Around 2.00 pm, the jury changed their minds. That's why all the ['Diving Bell'] actresses were there." The director blamed the last-minute change on French actor Michel Piccoli, a jury member, saying "Perhaps he thought I was too successful or having too much fun." Still, Schnabel got Best Director at the festival, and was nominated at the Oscars, while "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" got exposed to a far wider audience, so it's difficult to be too upset about the decision.