“Barton Fink” (1991)
It’s become such an almost-cliché that aspirant writers experiencing creative difficulties have a tendency to write about aspirant writers experiencing creative difficulties, that often the first thing a screenwriting teacher will beg of their students is that they avoid this most obvious of tropes. Nothing good has ever come of it, right? But the exception that doesn’t so much prove the rule as burn it to the goddamn ground, bellowing, is the brilliant, gonzo and deeply creepy fourth feature from the Coen Brothers. The film starts as a piquant period Hollywood satire as John Turturro’s Barton heads to Hollywood on the back of a successful, if painfully sincere stage play about the Working Man and is immediately tasked with writing a Wallace Beery wrestling picture. The nature of creative compromise is then explored in his interactions with a Faulkner-esque fallen idol (John Mahoney) and his girlfriend (Judy Davis) but most especially with the crumbling, sweating hotel he stays in (definitely a character of itself) and his salesman neighbor there (John Goodman) a decent, jolly type who can nonetheless be heard sobbing at night through the thin walls. But thereafter it’s a descent into hell for Barton—possibly the hell of self-awareness— and how the Coens and their note-perfect cast (especially Turturro and Goodman) smoothly manage the gear shift from quirky comedy to downward spiral of horror in the second half (after a certain unforgettable mosquito-swatting) is nothing short of a masterclass. So the Coens take a screenwriting no-no and turn in a film that could be (and is) taught in screenwriting seminars—ever get the feeling they’re just showing off? Beating out Lars Von Trier’s “Europa,” Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever” and Kieslowski’s “The Double Life of Veronique” among others for the top prize, ‘Fink’ also picked up Best Actor for Turturro and Best Director for the Coens, and while they’ve gone on to even bigger successes since, it feels totally right that their Palme win came for this film—so early in their careers, so unmistakably auteurist and so deeply in love with the movies.
“La Dolce Vita” (1960)
Choosing the winner in 1960 couldn't have been more difficult. How do you watch Michelangelo Antonioni's “L'avventura,” Mikhail Kalatazov's “Letter Never Sent” or Ingmar Bergman's “The Virgin Spring” and not think of bending the rules to award all three at once? Answer: by having Federico Fellini's “La Dolce Vita” in the same competition. This masterpiece must have screened to the relief of the jury because we can imagine the collective wipe of the sweaty brow after its closing credits; regardless of what else comes before or after, the only thing that remains when the dust settles is “La Dolce Vita.” The Palme d'Or couldn't have gone to any Bergmans, Bunuels or Antonionis that year (maybe it wasn't so hard after all). An episodic look into the transcendental and flirtatious adventures of Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni, showing why he's one of the brightest stars to ever shoot into the silver screen) the film transports itself above any cinematic conventions, like the monumental opening aerial sequence, and does what every truly great film does; whisks you away to another world. In this case, it's a decadent Rome full of razor sharp wit and sarcasm, empty promises, misunderstood declarations, and more erratic energy than all the energizer bunnies in the world. One cannot merely watch “La Dolce Vita,” as it's a near-sensual experience that can only be inhaled, devoured, gazed upon, and allowed to attack all of one's senses. Mastroianni's iconic pose from another Fellini gem “8 1/2” was chosen as the Cannes poster for this year's edition, citing the celebration of a cinema “free and open to the world.” This kind of spirit was magically captured in “La Dolce Vita” and has never been sweeter.
Every major director needs a Palme d'Or somewhere in their career to really put the cap on their mountain of achievements, and Akira Kurosawa had to wait until he was 70 for his (1955's "I Live In Fear" was the only one of his films to compete at the festival otherwise). And while "Kagemusha" might not quite rank with the very best of the Japanese master's output, second-tier Kurosawa is superior to first-tier stuff from just about anyone else, and the film is, as such, one of the worthier winners in the history of the festival, even if it had to split the award with the as-good-if-not-better “All That Jazz.” Made after a decade-long battle of depression that brought the helmer to the brink of suicide, the film’s Shakespearean plot sees a thief (Tatsuya Nakadai, a last minute replacement for Shintaro Katsu, who fell out with Kurosawa on the first day of filming) press-ganged into replacing the dead warlord that he bears an uncanny resemblance to, in an attempt to hold the clan together. It’s a simple, almost fable-like tale, but told on a scale and with a scope that dwarves anything that the director had ever done in the samurai genre before, not least thanks to the stunning photography (the director had been quietly planning it for years, with acres of storyboards and paintings). One might suspect that the jury gave the prize to Kurosawa as much to welcome his return as for the virtues of the movie itself, and even better was to come with “Ran” a few years later, but it’s still an absolutely remarkable piece of work that dwarves most that took the same prize over the years.
“Taste Of Cherry” (1997)
Arguably the most important cinematic movement to emerge at the end of the 20th century (sit down, vulgar auteurists) was the one that came out of Iran, the second generation of the nation’s New Wave, including filmmakers like Samira and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Mohsen Amiryoussefi and, more recently Asghar Farhadi, producing some of the most vital filmmaking in the world. First and foremost among them was the great Abbas Kiarostami, whose “Taste Of Cherry” in 1997 became the first (and so far only) Iranian picture to win the Palme. It’s a story that’s simple to the point of minimalist, as a man, Mr. Badii (Homayon Ershadi) travels through Tehran seeking someone to bury him after he commits suicide. It’s slow, meticulous fare, much to the aggravation of some (Roger Ebert loathed the film, calling it “a lifeless drone”), but we’d respectfully disagree: the film serves beautifully as a portrait of a man, a nation and, thanks to its bold, fourth-wall breaking conclusion, a medium, feeling quietly profound about big questions about life and death without ever losing touch with the humanism, and humanity, that’s always been so prevalent in the director’s work. It’s a film with a richness and complexity that a capsule review like this one could hardly hope to do justice to it, one that looks both outwards and within, and even in a remarkably strong year (which also included “L.A. Confidential,” “Happy Together,” “Funny Games,” “The Ice Storm,” “Nil By Mouth” and “The Sweet Hereafter”), there was surely no other choice for Isabelle Adjani’s jury. The only puzzle is why they chose to split the prize with Shohei Imamura’s inferior “The Eel."
A list of favorite Cannes winners is subject more than most to the vagaries of subjectivity—even more so than with our recent Ranked Best Picture Winners, when you’re talking about Palme d’Or/Grand Prix winners, you’re working off a very high base level. Very few Palme d’Or-awarded movies are actually bad. And so there was quite a lot of going round the houses before we settled on the above picks, and there were more than a few heartbreakers—seriously, painful, strife-laden decisions—along the way. But if you'd like to make yourself feel a little bit better (and we do), you could see this list as an extended 16-25 which would look a little like Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” Jane Campion’s “The Piano,” Luchino Visconti’s “The Leopard,” “Lindsay Anderson’s ”If…” Luis Bunuel’s “Viridiana,” and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s ”The Wages of Fear” while “The Tin Drum,” “Pulp Fiction” and The Dardennes’ “Rosetta” also had some passionate advocates. As a result we just know there’s not a hope in hell that any of you agree 100% with our picks (hell, probably no one writer among us is 100% on them either), so feel free to give full vent to your feelings on our most egregious exclusions in the comments section below. -- Jessica Kiang, Nikola Grozdanovic and Rodrigo Perez