From a biopic of Joseph Mallord Turner to a comedy pitting gay rights activists against striking miners, from a mountainous meditation on isolation to Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, this year’s Cannes Film Festival is filled with gems from near and far, diverse in both its topics and its nations. While we’re sure that one day we’ll be strolling down la Croisette and bringing you reviews live from France, for now we picked three of our favorite films that have taken home the coveted Palme d’Or.
“The Cranes Are Flying” (1957)
Cast: Tatiana Samoilova, Aleksei Batalov, Vasily Merkurev, Aleksandr Shvorin, Svetlana Kharitonova
Available for instant streaming, with subtitles, on YouTube and Hulu Plus, on disc from Netflix
“The Cranes Are Flying” opens, like many a film, with a pair of young lovers walking home in the morning, laughing about their night out, making plans, and shushing each other for being too loud. But then it takes an unusual turn. As Boris is about to leave his beloved Veronica, he suddenly remembers something and sprints back up the stairs of the apartment building, the camera following him in a dizzying blur as he completes each ascending circle. It’s a startling choice by director Mikhail Kalatozov, but one that returns in lyrical, poignant fashion as the movie continues.
It is one of many colorful touches in this artful, sensitive testament the Russian people and their struggle in the Second World War. Unlike many Soviet depictions of the Great Patriotic War, it does not shy away from the uglier aspects of the time, from draft dodging to the black market to the wounded and dead. Its realism makes it a rich historical document; the lead performance by Tatiana Samoilova, who passed away earlier this month, makes it unforgettable. Made only four years after Stalin’s death, “The Cranes Are Flying” marked the beginning of Russia’s thaw with the West, and remains to date the only Russian film to win the Palme d’Or. Should Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “Leviathan”, a meditation on the human condition based on the Book of Job, claim the top prize this year, it would be joining mighty company.
“Paris, Texas” (1984)
Cast: Harry Dean Stanton, Dean Stockwell, Hunter Carson, Aurore Clément, Nastassja Kinski
Available streaming on Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant, iTunes; on disc from Netflix
Roger Ebert once wrote that “Paris, Texas” is a story of “loss upon loss.” When we first meet Travis (Harry Dean Stanton, in one of the all-time great screen performances), he’s wandering the deserts of Texas – no family, no purpose, barely even a name or a memory. Wim Wenders’ gentle, deliberately paced masterpiece will both build Travis back up from and strip him down again to that state, as we slowly piece together the path that led this ragged, broken man to abandon civilization altogether. The hole that he’s stumbled into is self-made, but will he manage to clamber back out again?
A modern rejiggering of John Ford’s “The Searchers,” Wenders’ unanimous Palme winner is first and foremost about a man who doesn’t fit in society, and his search for a woman burdened with being his only link to redemption. The German director’s main narrative addition to the formula, however, is the presence of Travis’ son – a suggestion of fatherhood as an alternate path for Travis to escape his self-destruction. But beyond that, what sets “Paris, Texas” apart is Wenders’ peculiar brand of magical realism: like “Wings of Desire,” the setting and narrative trappings are the stuff of mundanity (Peter Falk getting a cup of coffee and smoking a cigarette, Harry Dean Stanton ambling into a dive bar as the worn-out sign creaks in the desert breeze), but the archetypical sense of questing for fulfillment and absolution catapults the film into the realm of fable and myth.
“Barton Fink” (1991)
Cast: John Turturro, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Judy Davis, Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, Tony Shalhoub, Jon Polito
Available streaming on Netflix, Amazon Instant, iTunes
Even for the Coen brothers, “Barton Fink” is a weird, weird film. You could call it the Coens’ David Lynch movie, their Kafka movie, their Faulkner movie, and their Wallace Beery movie and technically you’d be right on all counts. If it’s about anything at all, it’s about artistic frustration – supposedly spawned during the troubles the brothers had while writing “Miller’s Crossing,” “Barton Fink” follows a successful Broadway playwright (Turturro) who quickly finds himself completely out of his element when offered a Hollywood studio contract. What follows is a hodgepodge of literary allusions, religious overtones and horror film tropes that somehow adds up to a comprehensive and utterly bizarre vision of what it’s like to have writer’s block. Turturro and Goodman are standouts but as always the Coens brilliantly cast right down to the smallest bit players; Michael Lerner’s portrayal of the Louis B. Mayer-esque studio head Lipnick is a particular delight.
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