The Cannes Film Festival — which could be considered the French equivalent of the Academy Awards — just recently ended, leaving the usual trail of award controversies, bizarre new indie movies and stunning red carpet moments in its wake. And the certainly doesn’t help sorting out the good movies from the bad, the ones worthy of a watch from those that made a lot of noise at the festival, but will live a short life at the box office.
Take The Brown Bunny, which premiered at the 2003 festival: Directed by Vincent Gallo, the movie caused an uproar because it included a scene where Chloë Sevigny performs unsimulated oral sex on Gallo himself. While the actress defended the scene and her choice to participate in it, many critics felt it went too far, and her talent agency actually dropped her. The fact that the movie didn’t even make a tenth of its $10 million budget at the box office goes to show that the movies making themselves known at Cannes aren’t necessarily the most successful ones.
To complicate matters further, some movies on the other hand get slammed but don’t feel that negative impact once they’re out in theaters. Critics at Cannes are known for defending such strong opinions that their outrage doesn’t always match the later reaction of the general public. This year, Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, his second movie starring Kristen Stewart after the César-winning Clouds of Sils Maria, was at its public premiere.
So where should you start if you want to discover the cinematic legacy of the Cannes Festival? Looking at the recipients of its most prestigious award, the Palme d’Or, is a first step, but there’s been plenty of winners since . Let’s narrow it down even more, and take a look at the most successful winners at the US box office ever since the award was renamed “Palme d’Or” in 1975. For if they combine the praise of the jury and the approval of audiences, there’s got to be something good about them.
1. Fahrenheit 9/11, 2004 — $119 million
When Michael’s Moore Fahrenheit 9/11 won the Palme d’Or in 2004, unhappy critics argued the movie was merely relying on the buzz around the events of 9/11. But the then president of the jury, Quentin Tarantino, insisted that the quality of this documentary fully earned it its award. Reportedly, he told Moore:
“I just want you to know it was not because of the politics that you won this award. You won it because we thought it was the best film that we saw.”
As if to confirm its merit, Fahrenheit 9/11 received a standing ovation that was nearly 20 minutes long at its Cannes premiere. Diving into the Bush administration’s strategy to promote the war in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11, it was dubbed “Moore’s most powerful movie” by The New Yorker’s David Denby.
2. Pulp Fiction, 1994 — $107 million
This Tarantino classic was quite the unexpected winner at Cannes, as Time’s Richard Corliss recalls:
On closing night, Jury President Clint Eastwood — a man who likes to take his time — drew out the tension, saying, “The Palme d’Or… goes to… Pulp Fiction.” Pandemonium and protest, as Tarantino, Travolta, Jackson, Willis, co-star Maria de Medeiros and producer Lawrence Bender mounted the stage. Many cheers, some derisive whistles. Before the director spoke, a woman in the audience shouted, “It’s a scandal!”
Starring John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman, to name just a few, this signature Tarantino piece with its eclectic mix of ultra violence and witty dialogue is the epitome of a must-watch.
3. Apocalypse Now, 1979 — $83 million
Another controversial winner, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now was screened as a three-hour version at Cannes. But once the movie premiered worldwide, it was an instant critical success.
Starring Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen and Robert Duvall, the story adapted from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness takes you deep into the insanity of the Vietnam war. Capt. Willard is sent on a mission to locate Col. Kurtz, who went AWOL and reportedly established himself as the godly leader of a local tribe.
4. The Piano, 1993 — $40 million
The Chicago Sun-Times’ Rogert Ebert wrote it was “as peculiar and haunting as any film I’ve seen,” while the New York Times’ Vincent Canby went even further by saying that this movie could awake entirely new feelings:
“Ms. Campion somehow suggests states of mind you’ve never before recognized on the screen.”
Directed by Jane Campion and featuring Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel and Sam Neill, The Piano tells the dramatic and erotic story of a 19th-century mute woman, Ada McGrath, and her daughter, who move from Scotland to New Zealand with their most prized possession, a piano. But when McGrath’s new husband doesn’t keep the instrument, a neighbor gets his hands on it and uses it to seduce her.
Holly Hunter went on to win the Oscar for Best Actress that following year, making her one of the few actresses to earn the distinction for a silent role.