The Cannes Film Festival stands apart from many other similar events in how it unconditionally celebrates with its winners the freedom and power of art, notably cinema, the world’s most popular entertainment medium.
Born in response to a fascist cinema event in Venice in 1938, Cannes has maintained its position as a bastion of artistic liberty, becoming an annual meeting place for the world’s best directors and actors.
However, it is not just a showcase for the most illustrious names in cinema; Cannes also promotes movies that defy commercial conventions and provides smaller productions with a vital gateway to meet international distribution and promotion.
In this article, we celebrate all those people working tirelessly to keep this event alive, tracing back its history in the way we like best: through the films, recommending several award winners for each decade in the history of the Cannes Film Festival.
A list that highlights how the struggle and changing of worldwide cinematic culture around the turn of the century passes through this small town on the French Riviera.
Table of contents
La strada (1954)
Among the many names in cinema, who could open the dances of such a list better than Federico Fellini?
It all begins in a forgotten corner of poor Italy, with misery and desolation ruling the day since the end of the War, where the tender Gelsomina is placed/sold by her needy mother into the hands of Zampanò, a wandering behemoth whose trade is a strongman circus act.
Gelsomina, with her innocence and goodness, is an alien figure in this harsh and bare reality marked by deprivation, while Zampanò is a rough and unyielding individual with a granite soul.
The girl becomes part of this wacky walking performance, during which the man charms the crowd with his ability to break chains with only the vigor of his chest.
It quickly mutates into a slave-master relationship, while the girl repeatedly has a chance to depart from Zampanò’s brutality, staying with him more out of desperation than genuine desire or need.
Their gypsy routine change at the arrival of the Fool, a tightrope walker who performs with philosophical levity on the taut thread of existence, day in and day out, infusing a breath of cheerfulness and a glimmer of hope into Gelsomina’s burdened heart.
However, this newfound happiness only upsets Zampanò even more, unable to accept that the girl is no longer dependent on him, leading to a tragic and inevitable fatality.
In this mosaic of Federico Fellini‘s life and suffering, among the rips in the social tissue still wounded by War, stands out the touching couple consisting of Giulietta Masina and Anthony Quinn, an actor I crazily admire and do not want to be the least bit objective toward.
And so, through pain and loss, this movie culminates among the memorable early winners at the Cannes Film Festival.
Let’s keep the roundup of Cannes Film Festival winners continuing with another Italian director, Michelangelo Antonioni, who transports us to London for a strange mystery where we don’t even know if a murder has really been committed.
So we follow young Thomas, a successful photographer in the 1960s fashion world, a lonely artist searching for the perfect shot in the myriad environments of the bustling English metropolis.
However, photography can only partially satisfy him, although money and women are no problem: he seeks an adventure outside the ordinary scope of what he knows so well.
The opportunity happens ideally when one day, during a break, he decides to visit a quiet London park, a would-be oasis of peace in the city’s throbbing heart.
Yet while enjoying the quiet solitude, Thomas comes across a couple frolicking not far away, taking some shots with automatic reflex-like breathing.
Between the two lovers, the woman notices and demands the return of the footage. Still, he flees, discovering later that that harmless incident may be hiding a choking murder.
Only some others can do so well; Antonioni pushes the visual element to the limit by telling a slow-moving, winding story through images, with little dialogue explaining what is happening.
Fifteen years later, Brian De Palma would reintroduce the idea in his own way with the almost namesake Blow Out, where instead of David Hemmings/photographer, we get young John Travolta/sound technician who improvises as a detective to solve a murder.
What is real and what imaginary in the protagonist’s mind?
It’s hard to say how much is the fault of the beautiful Vanessa Redgrave and how much paranoia rises from photographic art. Still, Antonioni’s genius lies precisely in leaving it up to us to decide which truth we prefer and choose to believe.
We switch backgrounds completely, and with the next movie travel back to the 1950s, during the horrific Korean War.
Here we are in a mobile medical camp near the front, where every day, soldiers arrive in the most awful conditions, and for many of whom, there is not much to do but relieve their suffering.
Among the camp’s new medics are Captains Duke Forrest and Hawkeye Pierce, the latter a sarcastic but big-hearted doctor who quickly stands out among his colleagues for his sharp humor and unwillingness to follow strict (and often stupid) military rules.
At his request, the skilled and equally nonchalant and rebellious surgeon John McIntyre also arrives at the base, with whom the group forms a small gang trying to keep spirits high during the daily horror of war.
Between baseball games and flirting with the many pretty nurses, they also strive to fight the idiocy of their more obstinate colleagues like Frank Burns, a feckless doctor and insufferable religious exalted.
A story so successful that it went on to have an equally beloved television series and one of the most acclaimed winners at the Cannes Film Festival.
Finally, you always need a solid antagonist in the struggle between good and evil, and here we have the excellent Robert Duvall, an equally hilarious and annoying man we love to hate from the get-go.
If you have never seen this movie (or the long-running TV series of the same name), run to remedy without hesitation.
After a lighthearted comedy among merry military nutcases, we now move to a story giving voice to all those victims condemned into silence during the terrible army coup in Chile in 1973.
Just as the bloodthirsty Pinochet rose to power, young American journalist Charles Horman vanished into thin air, plunging his father, Ed, into the middle of the revolting country to search for him.
The man desperately contacts U.S. ambassadors, who, however, foist explanations on him and his daughter-in-law Beth.
Ed and Beth never agree on anything, having very different political and religious views and quarreling on every occasion.
However, out of love for Charles, they put aside their rivalry and find some people who convince them that the boy may have stepped into a raid of opponents against the new government.
Even worse, through an honest yet obnoxious army officer, they discover that maybe the U.S. government may be involved in the military takeover, supporting a new dictator instead of the democratically elected president Salvador Allende.
Of course, given the hot topic, director Costa-Gavras went through a highly unpleasant period after the release of this movie in 1982 and the subsequent rainfall of Oscars and triumphant walk as the undisputed winner at the Cannes Film Festival.
Indeed, over the next five years, his production company and the book’s author, Thomas Hauser, were left hanging with a libel suit against the U.S. government, fortunately, buried under the right of freedom of artistic expression.
A victory that sublimates even more, the outstanding performance of Jack Lemmon, usually a comic actor, but here is intensely dramatic as never before or since in his career.
By his side is the naive and candid Sissy Spacek, a sweet wife searching for a husband whose sad fate we, unfortunately, know from the beginning.
Barton Fink (1991)
We remain somewhere between drama and comedy with Joel and Ethan Coen, two brothers with a flair for mixing healthy laughter with dark violence like few others, for whom this movie represents the first and only time they were winners at the Cannes Film Festival.
The story follows the adventures of young Barton Fink, a romantic writer who moves to Hollywood in the 1940s to write a script for his first film.
Staying in a crumbling and sinister hotel, Barton struggles with creative block, failing to write a single page, until he meets successful colleague William Mayhew and his charming secretary Audrey.
The woman helps him overcome his blank page crisis and also becomes his mistress, breathing new life and confidence into the shy writer.
However, before the unexpected ending, Barton must face the gigantic Charlie Meadows, an insurance salesman with an indecipherable personality who lives next door.
The Coen brothers poke fun at Golden Hollywood by showing us the darkness behind the dream machine through a character struggling to find ideas to write a story he doesn’t believe in.
Surrealism, comedy, romance, and horror: you can find everything and its opposite in this movie, as well as Hope’s birth and death in the space of one night.
John Turturro ironically plays a person who passively endures everything that happens, a sponge who soaks up the emotions of others without finding the words to describe his own.
One word alone can describe Barton Fink: unmissable.
Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)
We turn from a fictional tragedy to one that is, sadly, as real as it is universally known: the terrorist attack of September 9/11.
In his usual wry style of investigative documentary, Michael Moore dissects the small and large sins of President George W. Bush‘s administration before and after the tragic Twin Towers collapse.
A harsh frontal attack on White House politics, where Moore also examines the complex and deep relationships between the various Bush, father and son, intertwined with the most influential Middle East families, including, of course, Osama bin Laden‘s.
From here begins the U.S. president’s obsession with starting an unnecessary war in Iraq at all costs, blatantly driven by big corporations and their lobbies to make as much money as possible from the destruction, reconstruction, and, of course, the region’s abundant oil reserves.
There may be naivety in the somewhat overly romanticized description of the country under Saddam Hussein‘s iron fist. Nonetheless, Moore’s wide-ranging and circumstantial mockumentary raises, as always, several disturbing and sinister issues about the true nature of the democracy in which we live.
Between the memorable interview and editing work, along with more regrettable mystification in other circumstances, Fahrenheit 9/11 still remains one of the movies that created the most controversy when it was proclaimed the winner at the Cannes Film Festival.
Many jurors were indeed opposed or undecided, although eventually, it took dear old Quentin Tarantino to literally push the prize into his colleague’s hands, turning it into the most successful documentary in entire cinematic history.
As mentioned, Moore’s work skillfully alternates between pure journalism and Hollywood-style melodrama in a blend that is not always perfect but, like a few others, capable of injecting controversy around subjects that deserve to be debated.
Our next is one of the most recent and popular South Korean movies that, with a stunning mixture of drama and comedy, emerged as a winner at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
It revolves around the Kim and Park families, who are different in every conceivable way regarding attitude, wealth, and social class.
The Kims are a poor, unemployed family living off petty scams in a dingy basement, while the Parks, a more than wealthy family, live in a vast, luxurious mansion.
Everything changes when the Kims’ son Ki-woo gets a job as an English tutor for the Park’s daughter, Da-hye.
Through cunning and deception, members of the Kim family gradually infiltrate the Park’s life, later going directly to live in their mansion by taking advantage of their absence during a camping trip.
Hiding in a bunker that the hosts did not know existed, these families will lead a ridiculous parallel life until they come face to face with each other when the truth emerges.
Already the maker of the spectacular Snowpiercer in 2013, director Bong Joon-ho is back to tackle inequality and social injustice, this time through comedy instead of sci-fi action.
However unbelievable, the story maintains a believable realism, mixing irresistible and funny moments with the sadness and horror of an inevitable ending.
The difference between the father Song Kang-ho and Lee Sun-kyun, makes us reflect how far apart can be between two families who, despite everything, live not far from each other and, indeed, later become even roommates.
Can we judge the “parasites” intruding into someone else’s home so harshly?
Indeed the Kims take advantage without restraint and overstep the mark, yet the Parks also show their dark side in an ending that is heavy, literally, like a stab straight to the heart.
We finish with one of the latest winners of the Cannes Film Festival, at the time I am writing, with an absolutely off-the-wall story requiring a tough gut and a highly flexible cinematic morality.
The protagonist is the young and sultry Alexia, a dancer and showgirl with a perverse passion for cars and a deep scar on her head where a titanium plate was put in as a child after a car accident.
From the very beginning, we understand the girl is completely crazy when we realize she is the serial killer that all the newspapers have been talking about in recent days, because of the numerous corpses she leaves behind.
Situation after situation, Alexia kills with her infallible hair carrier anyone who interferes with her path, friend or enemy, it does not matter, in the same way as she hurts herself to slow down a mysterious pregnancy growing in her belly.
Now away from her family, the girl goes to live with the reclusive Vincent, a fireman who fools into believing she is his son missing many years before.
Of course, the deception can’t last forever, and when the baby is about to arrive, she can no longer hide the truth from her wacky new foster father.
Julia Ducournau writes and directs a hallucinating movie that never wants to put the audience at ease and sometimes even seems still deciding what kind of story to tell.
Is it a horror story? A sci-fi movie? A thriller?
The only thing we are sure of is Agathe Rousselle‘s overflowing, aggressive beauty while we see her slowly transforming into a monstrous, almost supernatural creature.
Equally maddening is Vincent Lindon‘s performance, an unsuspecting father who may be the only one who can eventually accept the bizarre nature of the protagonist nonetheless.