Once a year, the film community gathers in an otherwise sleepy Mediterranean retirement community in the South of France to throw the Granddaddy of film festivals: The Cannes Film Festival. There are a few sidebars, but in the main competition they screen at least two movies a night for a week and a half on the biggest screen in France. The screen sits meters from the water, and is famous for the red carpeted stairs lined with tourists and paparazzi. Black tie and cocktail attired attendees pile together in a bizarre scene prior to each film. The French are sticklers for their made-up rules and deny entry for any male not wearing a simple black bowtie or female in shoes with an acceptably high heel. A jury of filmmakers from around the world (which even the most pretentious academic can’t sell having a clue whom half of them are) vote for the best movies, and award what has become known as one of the most prestigious awards in the worldwide artistic scene—known as the Palme d’Or.
It’s this shiny, glossy laurel leafed trophy which arrives in a jewelry box and could not be further from what a sports championship trophy looks like. The laurels have become a sign of prestige, as you may have seen flashed in the advertisement for a film if your taste aligns with quality. The Palme d’Or has come to represent a few things. While far from a harbinger of success, the laurels have oftentimes awarded the arrival of a new and powerful voice in film. It also has often gone to some of film’s great filmmakers—but for their lesser, more forgettable films.
As the 2021 Palme d’Or was just handed out this past weekend, what better time to look back and pick six winners of the Cadillac of film awards worthy of a revisit.
LA DOLCE VITA (1960)
It is not an accident that the really good restaurant you once ate at is also named La Dolce Vita. It’s named after this Federico Fellini masterpiece about a journalist navigating the Italian way of life. So many iconic glimpses of Rome are from this movie, which captured the hearts of the neighboring French many years ago.
While many know the TV show better than the movie, these people should be castigated and publicly humiliated for not knowing shit. Robert Altman’s hysterical and winning slice of military life contains some modern taboos but still holds up impeccably well. Altman was famous for letting his actors explore their characters, and this ensemble is a perfect example of the magic this can create if done well.
THE CONVERSATION (1974)
In between The Godfather and The Godfather Part 2, Francis Ford Coppola made this terrific psychological thriller. Starring Gene Hackman and one of John Cazale’s taken-from-us-too-soon reminders of a performance, this story of a surveillance man was underappreciated for many years because of the epics that bookend it. Coppola actually won two Palme d’Ors, with the other coming for Apocalypse Now a few years later.
BARTON FINK (1991)
In this esoteric, self-reflexive film that feels like it’s a piece of every genre imaginable, we see a writer struggle with writing—but it’s about much more. The Coen brothers’ movies are always set in another era, allowing a timeliness to how they play. Their cast company of Johns (John Turturro, John Goodman, Jon Polito) are always terrific, and few filmmakers are the complete package like the Coen’s, as their dialogue and attention to detail are second to none.
PARIS, TEXAS (1984)
While written by born-in-a-worn-denim jacket Sam Shepard, it took German Auteur Wim Wenders to render this idyllic and striking take on the American Southwest that could only have been observed by a foreigner. Harry Dean Stanton really arrived with his performance in this all time great road movie where any single frame could hang on your walls and be the best piece of art you own.
Holding on a two-year victory lap as the festival was cancelled last year, do yourself a favor and watch this movie if you haven’t already. And if you’ve already seen this movie, do yourself a favor and watch it a few more times. It’s about a family who embeds themselves in the life of a much wealthier family, but this onion never stops peeling off layers. The cultural commentary only becomes more relevant as the days tick by.