Sunday, April 22, 2012

5 Lesser-Known Palme d'Or Winners You Can Watch on Netflix Instant

The big movie news last week, temporarily bumping anything else off the main headline, was the announcement of the lineup at this year's Cannes Film Festival.  It's as intriguing and exciting a list of films that will compete for the Palme d'Or, possibly the most prestige-inducing award in international cinema.  Right out the gate, the heavy-hitters for American cinephiles are David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis and Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom.  But the festival will also show new films by previous prizewinners like Abbas Kiarostami, Michael Haneke, Ken Loach, Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) and Matteo Garone (Gommorah).  Not to mention the legendary Alain Resnais, who, at the age of 89, has titled his new film You Haven't Seen Anything Yet.  And if the history of the festival has taught us anything, it's that we shouldn't discount the newcomers.  You can see the full rundown of the official selection here.

Of course, many of these films will only become available to American audiences in fits and starts, sometimes long after the fact and with little fanfare or presence.  (In fact, some of last year's prizewinners have only just opened in US theaters now).  So for anyone who'll be stuck waiting, now is as good a time as any to sift through the Palme d'Or winners of the festival's very rich past.

Naturally, the Cannes jury (a different set of cine-ratti each year) is only human, and any superlative connotations about one film or another being the "best" should, as ever, be taken with a grain of salt.  In retrospect—or even at the time—it can be clear that the top prizewinner isn't always the most essential.  In fact, there's no guarantee that the "best" film is even playing in Competition, and not in one of the parallel sections.  But even keeping this is mind, moving through old Palme d'Or winners is a rewarding endeavor, much more so than, say, the Oscars or the AFI Top 100, if only because the festival embraces a broader definition of what a film can be.  For this reason, they have one of the more solid track records for keeping their finger on the pulse of a changing cinema and a changing world.

Previous winners include films as popular and iconic as Pulp Fiction, Taxi Driver, and Apocalypse Now, and cinephile staples like La Dolce Vita, The Third Man, The Conversation, and Blow-Up.  But the honor roll also includes many more obscure, off-the-beaten path films, including some that seem to have all but disappeared after their moment on the Croisette.  The most obscure of these are very difficult to track down, and many don't even exist on a US DVD.

Fortunately, between the classics and the rarities, a lot of under-acknowledged Palme d'Or winners can be found buried in Netflix Instant, for any American movie buff with a Netflix account (which by this point I assume is all of us).  I've picked five that deserve more attention or often get overshadowed.  I'd recommend them all to new and veteran cinephiles looking for a fix while they wait for the news from Cannes.  See if anything strikes your fancy.

One small disclaimer: the top prize at Cannes wasn't always called the "Palme d'Or", but spent many years as the "Grand Prix du Festival International du Film."  Regardless, I refer to the top prize for all years as the Palme d'Or for simplicity, and so I don't have to keep writing "Grand Prix du Festival International du Film."


2001: The Son's Room (Nanni Moretti, Italy)

Italian writer-director-actor Nanni Moretti is the President of the Jury this year, and his latest is now in American theaters, so it's worth looking back at the film that won him the top prize ten years ago. The first thing that strikes you about the film is how utterly unassuming it is: no political statements (coded or overt), no epic sweep, no formal tinkering, nothing boundary-pushing—just a fine, small-scale drama that cinephiles can comfortably show to their parents. Moretti stars as a psychiatrist whose son dies in an accident, leaving him, his wife, and his daughter bereft and unsure how to move on.  It's a quiet story, the sort whose final revelation is done practically at a whisper, and which assures us and the characters that life will go on, and isn't that at least as wonderful as it is sad? And Moretti, presiding over it all, shows a gift for human observation. Whether it deserved to beat out more respected competition like, say, Mulholland Dr., is a fairly one-sided argument (the kind I like to avoid). But it's nice to know that films of such modesty aren't kept out of the running.

1998: Eternity and a Day (Theo Angelopoulos, Greece)

One of the unending debates around movie buff/auteurist circles is the relative importance of screenplays.  Some directors call them the cornerstone of a film, some hardly used one.  Being pro-screenplay always made the most sense to me, but then you have to wonder why words on paper seem so schematic when compared to the might of sounds and images.  All of which is to say that when I first saw Eternity and a Day, I had issues with drama: the structure was odd, supporting characters didn't feel right, the personal and political elements weren't quite balanced.  And yet, none of that explains why I was gripped for two straight hours.  The camerawork, always gliding slowly from composition to composition, is like a filmmaker writing in calligraphy while most choose to print, and the lead performance by Bruno Ganz seems to come from a deep emotional wellspring.  Cinephiles will note the similarities to Andrei Tarkovsky, only it's much less dry and much more generous.  The story, or rather the set-up for what comes after, is about an elderly man nearing the end of his life.  He's scheduled to go into the hospital for what is euphemistically referred to as a "test", though it's clear that once he enters, it's likely he'll be there for the rest of his days.  And so he spends his last day visiting family and, very much against plan, getting involved with an orphaned refugee.  This is clearly the work of an artist in the twilight of their life.  The director is Theo Angelopolous, the eminent figure in Greek cinema.  He passed away just this year, was over sixty when he made the film, and had been behind the camera for decades.  As a personal work, set more in a dreamscape, it's most comparable to older films like Wild Strawberries or 8 1/2, and it may well be that this film's Palme d'Or win served as a kind of sweet farewell to an earlier arthouse era.  Few movies in the mainstream tackle what it's like to be old, and fewer have tackled it this well.  With aching sincerity like this, any concerns melt away.


1985: When Father Was Away on Business (Emir Kusturica, Yugoslavia)

Made during the waning days of Soviet power, this drama from Serbian director Emir Kusturica offers a child's-eye-view of life during the Stalin era, when tensions between Yugoslavia and the USSR were running high. Mesa is a loving father (though also a serial philanderer) who, for reasons that aren't explained to him, is arrested and exiled. This whole situation—the father's behavior, the politics, and daily life in Yugoslavia—are all refracted through the innocently curious faces of his two children, who serve as the heart of the film. This is a film that knows that any political movie worth its salt is also a movie about people, and can have the full range of emotions therein. So for all its topicality, this is also a film film full of warmth, humor, and character. There's a close-up near the end of a woman, and for a moment you can't tell if she's laughing or crying. That image sums up the film's vision, which is simultaneously light and dark, tongue-in-cheek and contemplative, wry and empathetic. Of all the films mentioned here, this may be my favorite.

1980: Kagemusha (Akira Kurosawa, Japan)

Akira Kurosawa, never one to think small, reportedly referred to this stately samurai epic as a "dress rehearsal" for Ran, his reworking of King Lear that is often seen as his late career masterpiece. It's unfortunate that Kagemusha exists so much in Ran's shadow, because it's arguably the better, more complex film. Its story is a variation on a folkloric staple: during a time of conflict, a powerful warlord is killed, so to prevent a panic, his generals find a double—a poor thief who bears an uncanny resemblance—to take the lord's place as a figurehead. And so the film becomes a look at not only the folly of ambition, but at the subjective nature of identity. The question looms of how the thief, who tellingly is never given a name of his own, can possibly live up to a larger-than-life image. Throughout the film, he is alternately treated like both a king and a beggar, and he must know that he deserves neither. It's not hard to imagine that this idea had some personal resonance for Kurosawa, who, after a run of masterpieces in the 50s and 60s, fell on hard times. The decade leading up to Kagemusha was filled with personal and professional woes for him, culminating in a notorious suicide attempt. (Famously, Kagemusha was funded with help from George Lucas, fresh off the success of Star Wars, who was amazed that his longtime idol couldn't get financing). It may be a dress rehearsal in the sense that it's lighter on scale and spectacle than his other epics, but it's still visually stunning—just look at the screengrabs above—and it marks both a return and an advancement into new territory.  One of the most underrated films by one of the most venerated directors.

1965: The Knack...and How to Get It (Richard Lester, UK)

In between his two Beatles films (A Hard Day's Night and Help!), Richard Lester won the top prize for this freewheeling 60s sex comedy, which, especially compared to the films that bookend it, is little known today. Of course, the film has a hurdle with modern audiences, which is that it needs to prove it's something more than just an artifact of its time. The plot is simple. Tolan has "the knack": an unerring ability to get any woman he wants (the opening sequence shows a long line of beautiful, blank-faced, tight-sweatered women waiting to get into his bedroom). His roommate Colin does not. In fact, Colin knows little about sex, and even seems to be slightly afraid of it. Enter Nancy (the doe-eyed Rita Tushingham), a naive new girl in town who drifts in between them. And what was surreal to begin with becomes increasingly chaotic.

The pacing is downright manic, as the characters run, dance, and jump-cut their way through Swinging London. But ultimately, whether someone sees The Knack as grotesquely dated or surprisingly advanced depends on how they interpret the last 20 minutes, when the chaos takes a sudden, serious, and controversial turn.  It is, I must admit, difficult to know what to make of it, especially since if you take it at face value, it runs a heavy risk of tastelessness.  A fair number of critics frown on this film as a relic, but I don't think they give full credit to how ironic and emotionally attuned it is, or how it spoofs the male sex drive (rather than celebrating it), or how much it's in love with the innocence of its central romantic duo. The title is misleading: the boys' club fantasy of having "the knack"—and bedding a long line of beautiful automatons—is revealed to be hollow and regressive, and the true potential of newfound sexual liberation is pairing up with someone to whom you feel a connection. So the film, beneath its tricky editing and innuendo-laden humor, has a lot to say about vulnerable young people flying blind and tentatively trying out love and sex at a time when the rules are changing. Reactions to this one widely vary, but the undeniable thing is that the film remains energetic and fascinating.  Recommended for students of the Mod era, British comedy, sexual politics, and general weirdness.