At the end of every Cannes Film Festival, juries of cinematic eminences deliver verdicts on the films in competition. The name of the top prize has changed over time — from Palme d’Or to Grand Prix and back again — but the winners include a roster of modern classics.
This year’s prizes would have been announced on Saturday, but the festival was canceled because of the pandemic. Instead, our chief critics, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, have selected some of their favorites, and a few that don’t shine quite so brightly.
‘Rome Open City’
Directed by Roberto Rossellini, 1946
Stream it here.
When Cannes started up after World War II, it gave out 11 Grand Prizes, a gesture of encouragement to the art form and its practitioners. Among them was Roberto Rossellini, who was a veteran of the Italian film industry under Mussolini and who contributed a rough epic celebrating the struggles of the anti-fascist resistance.
Shot in Rome shortly after the end of the German occupation, “Rome Open City” was an early, decisive example of neorealism. It used scavenged film stock, real-life locations and a cast that included many nonprofessional actors (as well as the great Anna Magnani), Part thriller, part documentary, part manifesto, it’s striking not only for its blunt depiction of political violence but also for its warmth, humor and unstinting humanism. (A.O. Scott)
“The Third Man” hangs on a slippery mystery named Harry Lime, memorably played by a scarcely seen Orson Welles. Crammed with sinister shadows, shady characters and skewed angles, it takes place in the rubble-strewn, postwar Vienna, opening right after Lime has ostensibly died. Graham Greene scribbled the story’s opening on an envelope — “I had paid my last farewell to Harry a week ago, when his coffin was lowered into the frozen February ground.” The British director Carol Reed took plenty of tips from Welles, who wrote his own dialogue for this masterpiece. (Manohla Dargis)
Of course a movie in which photographers pursue movie stars, movie stars misbehave in public and journalists flit from party to party pretending that what they’re doing is work would triumph in Cannes. Of all the festival’s prizewinners over the years, this one may be closest to the spirit of Cannes itself, at least as it sometimes appears from the outside. Critics have continued to debate the meaning of “La Dolce Vita” — satire or tragedy? diagnosis or symptom? masterpiece or folly? — and Fellini himself was always coy about his intentions. But there is still nothing to equal the experience of following Marcello Mastroianni through an inferno of romantic failure and a purgatory of ethical compromise that is also a movie lover’s paradise. (A.O.S.)
In the 1960s and ’70s, international casting was something of an Italian specialty, as filmmakers conjured ensembles of movie stars to light up the screen and have their voices dubbed in postproduction. For his opulent, operatic, three-hour adaptation of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel, Visconti brought together the French heartthrob Alain Delon (the star of Visconti’s earlier “Rocco and His Brothers”), the Italian diva Claudia Cardinale and the mighty Burt Lancaster. Their polyglot charisma, rather than detracting from the realism of this drama set in mid-19th-century Sicily, somehow deepens its historical resonance. The ambivalence that accompanies change has rarely felt so piercing. (A.O.S.)
When Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) tells her sweetheart, “I love you,” in Jacques Demy’s musical “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” she doesn’t simply deliver the line — she sings it. And because Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) is a garage mechanic, she adds, “You smell like gasoline.” To which he replies, liltingly, “It’s a perfume like any other.” It’s a funny and sweet note in a film that seduces you with its charm, popping palette and Michel Legrand’s sublime score. Yet what both delights and destroys me each time I watch it, raising goose bumps on my arms, is its unembarrassed emotional sincerity. “People only die of love in the movies,” someone sings — and sometimes other people’s hearts break while watching them, too. (M.D.)
Francis Ford Coppola, 1974
Stream it here.
“The Conversation” tends to be classified as a mystery thriller but it’s also an era-appropriate horror freakout, as a terrifying gurgle of blood underscores. In his New York Times review, Vincent Canby hit on the spookiness when he called its protagonist — an emotionally locked-down surveillance expert played by a brilliant Gene Hackman — “the uptight Watergate era’s equivalent of the mad doctors in old-fashioned Vincent Price films.” Written, produced and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, “The Conversation” won top honors at the festival in May 1974, the same month that the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to begin hearings into the Watergate cover-up. (M.D.)
‘L’Enfant’ (‘The Child’)
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2005
Stream it here.
The Dardenne brothers, steadfast in their commitment to depicting working-class life in the industrial towns of French-speaking Belgium, have become fixtures of the Cannes awards ceremonies. Their first Palme d’Or, for “Rosetta” in 1999, caused a bit of an outcry, especially among Hollywood players who were expecting more love from the jury. When “L’Enfant” won six years later, there was hardly a whisper of complaint. A fable about money, commitment and the difficulty of behaving decently in a world defined by Darwinian competition and consumerist distraction, the film is simple, suspenseful and shattering. It’s anchored by Jérémie Renier’s sly, naturalistic performance as a young man who doesn’t know that his flight from responsibility is also a journey toward grace. (A.O.S.)
One of the pleasures of attending Cannes is watching movies before they’re repeatedly fed into the media hopper. I saw Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters” — a delicate, devastating family story — at the 2018 edition. It was a great year, with “Burning” and “Happy as Lazzaro” among the other critical favorites in the main competition. The jury headed by Cate Blanchett awarded the Palme to “Shoplifters,” making Kore-eda the first Japanese director to win the award in more than two decades. (M.D.)
Joel and Ethan Coen, 1991
Three of my favorite filmmakers; two of their worst films. Don’t @ me. (A.O.S.)
‘Blue Is the Warmest Color’
Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013
Nearly universally adored at Cannes, Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Blue Is the Warmest Color” may not be the worst movie to play at the festival (it’s had a lot of competition). Even so, I deeply dislike it, turned off by its dribbling camerawork and self-indulgently slack storytelling. Mostly, I object to how it slobbers over its female lovers, turning them into the kind of exploitative spectacle that has long defined the representation of women and limited their role in the art. (P. S. I love “Barton Fink.”) (M.D.)