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

Features
by Oliver Lyttelton
May 31, 2012 10:05 AM
15 Comments
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1997: "Taste Of Cherry"/"The Eel"
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.

2006 - "The Wind That Shakes The Barley"
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.     

"4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days"
2007 - "4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days"
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.

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15 Comments

  • 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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