Friday, November 13, 2009

Weekly Top Tens: Palme D'Or Winners This Decade

In the new year, I intend to do many of these “decade recap lists” with Oscar winners and other things. But since the Cannes film festival has already wrapped for the decade, and I have seen all 10 of the Palme D’Or Winners, I decided to rank them first. All 10 of these films are solid – better than most films in a given year, but that doesn’t mean they were all deserving. I have to admit that I was surprised that I would have picked something else to win in every year this decade of the festival, but for the most part, the juries selected great films.

10. The Son’s Room (Nanni Moretti, 2001)
There is nothing wrong with Nanni Moretti’s The Son’s Room. It is an expertly crafted and acted drama about a family who has to deal with the death of their son. Hollywood has made many films like this – including Ordinary People – but rarely is the film as full of life, and as real as this one was. It is a touching drama. But that’s about it. Moretti is a popular filmmaker, and at the time this was a very popular choice, although I cannot say that I have felt any need to revisit the film in the 9 years since I have seen it. Considering that films like the Coen’s Brothers The Man Who Wasn’t There, Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge, Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land, Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, Sean Penn’s The Pledge and best of all David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive were all in competition this year, this seems like an especially weak choice.

9. The Wind That Shakes the Barley (Ken Loach, 2006)
Like The Son’s Room, there is nothing wrong with Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley. It is a well made film about the “troubles” in Ireland, set during their war of independence from 1919-1921. It focuses on two brothers – Damien, a doctor who reluctantly joins the IRA and Teddy (Padaric Delaney) a more staunch supporter. For a time, they are on the same side, but when the Anglo-Ireland treaty is introduced they are divided. Damien wants to reject the treaty, as it only gives Ireland Dominon Status, not Freedom, whereas Teddy argues in favor of trying to make the new arrangement work. Eventually this leads to war between the two factions, placing brother against brother. We have seen this type of story told before, but Loach handles it all very well. The acting is superb, and the filmmaking excellent. If I place it at number 10, it’s because I have seen this type of movie before, and better, and this award stinks to me of a career achievement award to a great filmmaker like Loach who had never won the Palme before. Personally, I would have given the Palme to Colossal Youth, Pedro Costa’s daring film about an old man and all his “children” or Guillermo Del Toro’s wildly popular Pan’s Labyrinth. Both were more satisfying, and more accomplished films.

8. Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore, 2004)
Jury President Quentin Tarantino tried to tell the press that given this award to Moore was not about politics, but about filmmaking. It didn’t fly then, and it doesn’t fly now. Moore’s angry rant of a film is a first class documentary of its kind. He lashes out at the Bush administration over all of its many failings over their first four years and office, mocking them mercilessly, and accumulating data that was widely available everywhere by that point to try and change the outcome of the election. It was a film very much of its moment, and remains one of Moore’s best films. It was certainly a political statement giving Moore this award. With films like Lucretia Martel’s The Holy Girl, Hirokazu Koreeda’s Nobody Knows, Wong Kar Wai’s 2046 and best of all Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy in competition, the jury would have looked better giving the award to something else.

7. L’enfant (Jean Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 2005)
I like the Dardenne brothers as much as the next guy, but I certainly did not think they deserved to pick up their second Palme on only their fourth film. Having said that, L’Enfant is one of the brothers best films. It deals with a young couple, the father who is small time hustler who finds a way to make a quick buck – by selling his newborn son. The mother is understandably upset, so he spends most of the movie trying to track down his son and get him back. Jeremie Renier is excellent in the lead role, and the brothers had perfected their neo-realist style by this point, documenting his pursuit and his life in painstaking detail. This is a great film. Having said that, 2005 was perhaps the best year of the decade for the Cannes festival with absolute masterpieces like David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, Michael Haneke’s Cache and Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, not to mention superior films like Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City, Carlos Reygadas’ Battle in Heaven, Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, Johnnie To’s Election, Lars von Trier’s Manderlay and Hsiao-hsien Hou’s Three Times, so there was no shortage of greatness this award could have gone to.

6. The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002)
The love fest that ended in Polanski winning the best director Oscar (making him the only director this decade to win both the Palme and the Oscar in the same year) started in Cannes when his Holocaust film won the Palme. There is no doubt that Polanski’s film ranks among the best Holocaust movies ever made. Brilliantly well directed by Polanski, incorporating long periods of silence into the movie, and featuring a brilliant, Oscar winning performance by Adrien Brody, no one can really complain about the jury’s choice this year. Polanski is a master filmmaker, and he had never won the top prize before, so this was also a way to salute his career. So while personally, I think that Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love were superior films, and I could argue that David Cronenberg’s Spider or the aforementioned Dardennes brother’s The Son were at least as good, I have no complaints about this one.

5. The Class (Laurent Cantent, 2008)
The Class is probably the best, most realistic movie made about teaching ever. The movie follows the year in the life of a teacher in Paris’ inner city trying to teach French to a group of students who mainly the children of immigrants, who don’t care about the ins and outs of French grammer. For every triumph the teacher has, he is equally frustrated by another student who fails. Constantly having to put up with the students, other teachers and parents, he becomes frustrated, but continues on to the end of the year, then prepares to do it all over again. So few movies actually allow teenagers to talk, but this one does, and Cantet listens. It is a remarkable little film, truly powerful and emotional. Personally, I preferred Steven Soderbergh’s Che, Arnaud Desplechen’s A Christmas Tale and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, and think an equally good case could have been made for Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah or Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo, yet The Class is admirable choice.

4. Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, 2000)
One of Lars von Trier’s best films, Dancer in the Dark combines his usual, Dogma style of filmmaking (handheld camera work) with flashy, Hollywood style musical numbers in this classic melodrama. Bjork gives an amazing performance as an immigrant factory worker in America slowly going blind, but still saving up money to get an operation for her son to spare him the same fate. She is painfully shy and quiet, except in her mind, when she comes alive and delivers brilliant musical numbers as only Bjork can. Von Trier may have returned again and again to the female martyr movie, but Dancer in the Dark is probably his best example of that genre – a brilliant stylististic exercise and fully realized movie. Personally, I may have been tempted to give the award to Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown, Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love or the Coen Brothers O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but I hardly complain about the award going to this masterpiece.

3. Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003)
The audience was infuriated when the jury announced the top prize going to Gus Van Sant’s school shooting drama, but personally, I think it is perhaps Van Sant’s best film. Elephant looks at a Columbine like shooting, but strips away all the reasoning and excuses people make for tragedies like this. Van Sant goes down the list and checks off the reasons one by one, eventually concluding that they are all meaningless. Van Sant also forgoes normal film grammer, shooting almost the entire movie in long, flat tracking shots neither emphasizing nor deemphasizing any single event. The result is a school shooting movie that sidesteps the normal complaints that it may inspire copycats – no one is going to want to relive what the killers do here – and also just leaves the audience sitting in their own thoughts. A masterpiece. You could argue that Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River or Lars von Trier’s Dogville deserved the prize more, but I’m not going to bother.

2. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)
The most recent Palme winner is also one of the very best. Haneke’s film details life in a small German town at the outset of WWI, where the adults rule over the children with a kind of iron fist, slowly making them accept a fascist sort of governance, much like the German government would do in the coming decades. The White Ribbon is brilliantly shot in black and white, and is a slow burn of a movie, only gradually revealing its mysteries. Many viewers will become infuriated by the pace of the film, but I for one absolutely loved it. Personally, I would have given the Palme to Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, but Haneke was way overdue for this award, so I won’t complain.

1. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristain Mungiu, 2007)
The best Palme winner of the decade was also one of the most surprising, as the film had zero buzz and was a relatively unknown filmmaker when the festival started. But Cristain Mungiu’s film about a woman who has an illegal abortion in 1980s Communist Romania is one of the most powerful films of the decade. The film is only partially about the abortion itself, as the main character is not the woman getting the procedure, but rather her best friend. Their horrifying confrontation with the abortionist is one of the most degrading, and intense, sequences of any film I have ever seen, and is followed up by a wonderful sequence where the friend has to go to a family dinner, where she is not even paying attention. The film is shocking, but grounded in realism and is neither pro-life nor pro-choice, but rather lets the audience make up their mind. An absolute masterpiece. I still would have given the Palme to the Coen’s even better No Country for Old Men or Fincher’s Zodiac, and also loved Tarantino’s Death Proof, Van Sant’s Paranoid Park and Chang-dong Lee’s Secret Sunshine, but there are no complaints from me over this choice.

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