Daniel Walber May 15, 2013
This is an impossible undertaking. Since 1955, when the Palme d’Or was introduced, there have been 66 feature winners. Many of them, if not most of them, are worthy of rising to the top of any list. This isn’t the Best Picture Oscar winners list, where there are a bunch of almost universally agreed-upon duds. This is the cream of the crop of international cinema, going back more than five decades. These rankings are somewhat meaningless, every film from about #30 on down to #1 can probably be considered a masterpiece, and most of the ones behind in the ranking are pretty darn excellent in their own way. Take this with a grain of salt.
The experience of watching all of these films was like a spiritual marathon on a couch (“The Palme D’Chore”). Many of them are quite long, too. There were the obvious films I had somehow missed in school, and then there were the obscure classics that are in great need of rediscovery. I stumbled upon stunning work and squirmed through one or two disasters that somehow found their way to the Palme. Mostly I learned an awful lot, in particular about the landscape of international cinema in the 1960s and 1970s that we have mostly forgotten about.
66. “Scarecrow,” by Jerry Schatzberg (1973)
The 40th anniversary of Jerry Schatzberg’s “Scarecrow” is this week, so perhaps it’s an unfair time to pick on it. But pick on it I shall. This is one of the lesser ‘70s road movies, a well-shot meandering trip through America without much to say. Its casual misogyny doesn’t help, including a character played by Ann Wedgeworth that seems mostly like a total misunderstanding of what Karen Black was doing in “Five Easy Pieces.” A central diversion into homophobic prison clichés only makes it worse, defining “Scarecrow” as a confused meditation on masculinity that just doesn’t hold up.
65. “Under the Sun of Satan,” by Maurice Pialat (1987)
Now, Maurice Pialat’s agonizing Catholic drama isn’t necessarily a bad film. It has some interesting ideas and a handful of interesting images, and Gérard Depardieu isn’t awful. Its problem is simply that it expresses its ideas with very, very little style. The screenplay lobs its overwrought religious anxieties at the audience, and little is done to soften the blows. A film about self-flagellation, it lashes at us as well with an almost medieval obscurity.
64. “Fahrenheit 9/11,” by Michael Moore (2004)
More than any other film on this list, Michael Moore’s indictment of the George W. Bush Administration represents a particular moment in time. The Iraq War had just entered its second year and left-wing European outrage about the invasion of Iraq was at a fever pitch, especially in France. The problem is simply that the film is not at all Moore’s best, not even close. It is his most abrasive work, and regardless of its political validity it runs far afield of the razor-sharp effectiveness of “Roger and Me” or “Bowling for Columbine.”
63. “Marty,” by Delbert Mann (1955)
The only film to win both the Palme d’Or and the Best Picture Oscar has not aged well. It’s short but not concise, and its final stumble into real dramatic conflict in its last ten minutes doesn’t really save anything. Ernest Borgnine is ok, but his performance pales in comparison to Rod Steiger’s turn in the original TV movie. It may have been a dry year for the Oscars, but the Marcel Pagnol-led Cannes Jury’s decision to award “Marty” over “Rififi” continues to baffle me.
62. “The Son’s Room,” by Nanni Moretti (2001)
In some ways Nanni Moretti is his own worst enemy. “The Son’s Room” could be one of the great films about loss, but it’s derailed by the character at its center: a psychiatrist and father, played by Moretti himself. He wants to be 1970s Woody Allen but ends up being 2000s Woody Allen, with little of his comedy and all of his smugness. The snide attitude the film takes toward his patients is at odds with its own treatment of grief, and a finally cathartic last act can’t make up for Moretti’s tonal missteps.
61. “Wild at Heart,” by David Lynch (1990)
“Wild at Heart” is a bad movie. There’s really no way around it. The first half is admittedly entertaining, absurd and almost unintentionally raucous in the same mode as “The Paperboy.” Yet somewhere along the way, around the entrance of Willem Dafoe, the comedy collapses and we’re left with a bad-tasting last act that overstays its welcome. David Lynch’s signature weirdos are haphazard and unpleasant in this case, and not even Isabella Rossellini can save the day.
60. “Yol,” by Yılmaz Güney and Şerif Gören (1982)
There are some moments of stunning beauty in “Yol,” particularly those set in the frozen mountains of Eastern Turkey. Yet the grandiose cinematography is in service of one of cinema’s most over the top narratives, one which feels even schmaltzier than it reads. Like many other films, it is perhaps more historically than artistically significant – due to Yılmaz Güney’s political activities it was banned in Turkey until 1999.
59. “A Man and a Woman,” by Claude Lelouch (1966)
Take everything stylistically interesting about the French New Wave and throw all of its thematic accomplishments into the nearest ocean. Claude Lelouch’s romance is an ode to samba, walks on the beach and charismatic coloration, all set to Francis Lai’s earworm musical score. Anouk Aimée and Jean-Louis Trintignant are convincing but in a film that has almost nothing to say, how much do their voices matter?
58. “The Tree of Life,” by Terrence Malick (2011)
Oh, come at me. I acknowledge that this is a gorgeous film, but it’s also so darn simplistic and retrograde. It’s as if Terrence Malick is stuck in 1953, at least in his view of life the universe and everything, which is what this film attempts to be about. It’s beautifully sculpted blandness, and I will have none of it.
57. “The Eel,” by Shohei Imamura (1997)
The eel in “The Eel” is a pet. Its owner is a recently released convict, who spends the first few minutes of the film killing his wife and her lover. That’s quite the opening sequence, which I assume is the principle reason for which it won the Palme. The whole first act is pretty interesting, actually, engaging with whether or not its protagonist has any real intent on pursuing remorse. Yet it veers off into the direction of a soap opera with a screwball finale, losing its urgency and ending on a bland note.
56. “Friendly Persuasion,” by William Wyler (1957)
The dilemma that the American Civil War caused the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, is a fascinating one. They were both vehemently anti-slavery and resolutely pacifist, abolitionists who refused to fight. William Wyler’s adaptation of Jessamyn West’s novel looks at the impact of this theological burden on a Quaker family in Southern Indiana, starring Gary Cooper, Dorothy McGuire and Anthony Perkins. If only Wyler chose to actually get to the war before his wholesome epic’s final half hour, after a whole lot of humble and mundane family drama.
55. “L’enfant,” by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (2005)
What is social realism when it’s contrived? “L’enfant” is not lacking in the Dardennes Brothers’ typical down-to-earth Belgian empathy, but its thematic thrust approaches triteness in its facility. It’s a film with a single idea, that young people who are essentially still children themselves should probably not have children of their own. In execution is not quite so moralistic, but the way that Jérémie Renier’s youthful antics are featured and even harped upon in the film almost squash its resonance. It has the mood but none of the subtlety of the Dardennes’ other Palme d’Or winner, “Rosetta.”
54. “The Class,” by Laurent Cantet (2008)
On the one hand, Laurent Cantet’s classroom drama might be the greatest single entry in the “well-meaning teacher brings light and wisdom into the lives of a bunch of unfortunate youths” genre. On the other hand, its competition is mostly drek like “Freedom Writers.” The kids are mostly quite excellent and François Bégaudeau (essentially playing himself) is well worth a watch. But be honest, how well do you really remember this film?
53. “When Father Was Away on Business,” by Emir Kusturica (1985)
This, the first of Emir Kusturica’s Palme-winning films, brushes up against greatness without quite breaking through the wall. It’s a charming film about totalitarianism in Yugoslavia shortly after World War Two, when the nation was at odds with the Soviet Union. Told from the perspective of a child to soften the blow of political oppression, “When Father Was Away on Business” has all the comedy of Forman’s “The Fireman’s Ball” or Kusturica’s better “Underground” but not quite as much bite.
52. “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” by Ken Loach (2006)
A great many Palme d’Or winning films start slowly and only find their footing in their second halves. It is what it is. The Irish War of Independence is a great story, but the Irish Civil War is a better one. You need the emotional victory of the first to truly express the tragedy of brother turning against brother in the second, but you can’t let the early years get boring along the way. Nevertheless, this is still Ken Loach’s best film of the 21st century and it does pack quite a punch in its latter half.
51. “The Ballad of Narayama,” by Shohei Imamura (1983)
“The Ballad of Narayama” is a little bit silly. It is also about mortality, set in a village where upon reaching the age of 70 the aged residents are expected to climb to the top of a nearby snowy peak to die. In this way it’s an awful lot like “Amarcord,” a warm and often comic portrait of a small community with a darkness hiding under the surface. It’s occasionally quite mild, but its dramatic wintertime conclusion is one for the ages.
THE LIST CONTINUES ON PAGE 2 (50-41)
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