Robin Write at writeoutofla.com has selected his favorite Best Director winners at Cannes.
At the 1958 Cannes Film Festival French film-maker François Truffaut was nowhere to be seen. Truth is, he was not allowed to attend that year as a result of him verbally lashing out at the competition as an institution. I won’t say he had the last laugh, but the very next year his very first feature film The 400 Blows won over audiences at Cannes – as well as rewarding Truffaut with the Best Director prize. Film politics are fickle, always have been, but what a victory for cinema that was. I don’t believe many people reading this were not at all aware that the French New Wave had arrived that year.
I love how the juries at Cannes reward the movies. The winners of Best Director are so diverse, and yet still feature many names we know to be acclaimed. Not necessarily following any trend with regards to what the best film might be, for example. Did you know Joel Coen has won it three times between 1991 and 2001? Michael Haneke won for Cache, though it was two other of his films, The White Ribbon and Amour, that took the Palme d’Or. New German Cinema directors Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders have both taken the prize. Even Martin Scorsese has been named Best Director – for After Hours believe it or not. Cannes has also seen those fifth slot, yet arguably most deserving, Oscar nominees win the prize – Robert Altman (The Player), Pedro Almodóvar (All About My Mother), and David Lynch (Mulholland Drive). Last year’s Best-Picture-less Foxcatcher somehow earned a Best Director nod, and Bennett Miller was the last recipient in Cannes last May.
Here are five excellent examples of how Cannes Best Director winners really do seem to acknowledge a director’s significant and commanding presence on a film’s impact. That they are honoring actual stand-out film directing. Madness, right?
2007 – Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly)
Wong Kar-wai (My Blueberry Nights)
David Fincher (Zodiac)
The Diving Bell and The Butterfly is an extraordinary looking film, and concept, unlike much you have seen before, or could see in the future. A grand achievement by Julian Schnabel. The set-up is purely about perspective, we see much of the movie through the point of view of the main character. And I mean this quite literally, through his eyes. For those who have not seen it, or know what it is about, the movie is based on real events, when Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) suffered a stroke and was left paralyzed from the head down. Bauby’s eyes guide us (well, one eye actually), not the exact way they guided him, but Schnabel certainly gives it a good go. The film also tells the story of Bauby’s life prior to the ailment. Some of the technical story-telling is so astonishing you wonder what kind of trickery this really is. Schnabel’s direction is so tight and meticulous, it flourishes – at times you suffocate as your heart breaks.
2011 – Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive)
Julia Leigh (Sleeping Beauty)
Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin)
I feel I have exhausted my merits of Nicolas Winding Refn, both in my written form, and that personal praise I give him for his work on directing Drive. I will, though, never stop singing the praises of this. The movie is so perfectly stylish and refreshingly cool, even in its very dark and violent moments. You can see the director’s blueprint all over the movie, via the edgy, yet very different, performances from main actors (Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks in particular), to the shifts in movement and pace. I mean, at times it almost lingers so much it comes to a complete halt, but is not for one second tedious or uninteresting. Even the dance music Refn uses sits right beside the chugging tone of the film’s narrative, and could have been so out of place in anyone else’s grip – but is a perfect companion to it. With the disappointing reception of Only God Forgives, we hope to experience more of the kind of showcasing from Refn in the future he gave us with Drive.
2002 – Paul Thomas Anderson (Punch-Drunk Love)
Alexander Payne (About Schmidt)
Mike Leigh (All or Nothing)
Hooray for Cannes once again for acknowledging one of the finest, and most talented directors of today’s generation, but also rewarding one of his most under-rated works. Punch-Drunk Love is a love story more than anything else, but is smeared with Paul Thomas Anderson’s signature ingredients. The characters are likable oddballs, especially Barry played by Adam Sandler, acting, really acting. Anderson shoots with vigor and energy, his camera pulls back and forth as effectively as it did in Magnolia – only on a much smaller story-scale. His arsenal as a film-maker is full to the brim with expertise, he makes movies likes he has been doing it since the seventies. Punch-Drunk Love is a much better film-watching experience now (and earns its place in Anderson’s consistently brilliant filmography) knowing what he has since achieved with the likes of There Will Be Blood, The Master and Inherent Vice.
1979 – Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven)
Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now)
Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career)
I remember when I was very, very young, and seeing a documentary about cinematography, and there was a significant discussion on Days of Heaven by Terrence Malick. I watched film frames capture so much scenery, and the camera moving with Richard Gere as he shoveled coal into a furnace, eloquent and glorious camera-work I, as a kid, had not really seen too much of. But was certainly appreciating now. Néstor Almendros won Best Cinematography at the Oscars, and this movie is a text-book example of the craft, even now. Malick, though, is a true master behind the camera, an artist who can incorporate his bold skill as a director into the movement and vision of the camera frame. He has since worked with the likes of cinematographers John Toll and Emmanuel Lubezki, with similarly amazing visual results. Sometimes his landscapes are untouchable, a real treat for the eyes. Days of Heaven was the promise he has kept.
2006 – Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel)
Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth)
Sofia Coppola (Marie Antoinette)
Oscar winner for Best Director for Birdman. But not 21 Grams. Or Babel. That’s another discussion altogether. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s win at Cannes was another notch on the bedpost of Mexican film-makers that year, with fellow nationals Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) and Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men) also at the chair of terrific movies. Brave, incomparable movies. Babel was a multi-character piece, over several main story strands (as was 21 Grams, though the narrative time-shifts were a world apart). Iñárritu sets a formidably different tone in each of the stories, though we’re never allowed to assume this is not one complete movie. He gets intense and emotive performances from his cast, and manages to surprise us with both the faces we know, and those new ones we do not – Rinko Kikuchi and Adriana Barraza rightly got the most attention, and were eventually nominated for Oscars. Compellingly sluggish and rather gloomy, Babel still hits hard, and not one frame is wasted.
Robin Write, longtime fixture at AwardsDaily, runs his own site at writeoutofla.com
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