The month of May, for film nuts around the world, is usually pictured against a backdrop of tall palm trees, sunny beaches and glitzy red carpets.
These are the ingredients of the Cannes Film Festival – an annual showcase of the biggest and best new movies from esteemed filmmakers around the world – which, this year, has of course been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
But the festival’s impact has always been titanic, premiering works that have lasted decades, establishing pillars of the film industry and going on to win Oscars and the love of millions of fans around the world.
While we can’t discover any new gems in such a setting this year, there’s still a ton incredible titles to look back on. Here are 10 fabulous films that premiered on the French Riviera.
‘Taxi Driver’ (1976)
While his latest film, The Irishman, wasn’t eligible to compete at Cannes due to the festival’s rift with Netflix, Martin Scorsese is no stranger to the Croisette.
Six of Marty’s features played at the Cannes Film Festival, including After Hours, The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver. The latter earned critical and commercial success, but also substantial controversy – over its violent execution, and over the casting of 12-year-old Jodie Foster. Still, it’s one of Robert De Niro’s finest performances – and the drama only makes its memory more fascinating.
‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979)
Francis Ford Coppola won the Palme D’Or, Cannes’ highest accolade, in 1974 for his paranoid triumph The Conversation. His return four years later caused quite the stir – as the war epic we know and love today, was only presented as a “work in progress” at the time.
The version that screened ran for 139 minutes (the one most people watch these days is 147 minutes). Eventually, the Jury decided to give the Palme d’Or to two films at once: Apocalypse Now, and Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum.
Audience reaction: The film was met with rapturous applause – coming to represent Cannes’ penchant for a gloriously indulgent standing ovation. But the subsequent press conference caused tension, when Coppola scorned journalists for reviewing the film while still unfinished.
‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994)
Even if you know nothing about Cannes, or about Quentin Tarantino, you know about Pulp Fiction. The film that changed the fabric of Hollywood moviemaking debuted on the Croisette, where John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Tim Roth and so many more took home the gold together.
While Clint Eastwood, who presided over the jury in 1994, said the decision to give Pulp Fiction the Palme d’Or was unanimous, many at the time were rooting for Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours: Red – to the point that when the win was announced, there was, according to the Hollywood Reporter a cry from a woman in a balcony shouting: “Kieślowski! Kieślowski! Pulp Fiction is shit.”
‘The Virgin Suicides’ (1999)
In 1999, Sofia Coppola was just 29 years old, and was releasing her first film. For many filmmakers, Cannes can feel like a distant dream, something that might happen after a handful of features, or even more. But The Virgin Suicides, Coppola’s take on Jeffrey Eugenides’ best-selling novel of the same name, quietly premiered on the French Riviera, and changed everything.
The film screened in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar, which showcases somewhat more modest titles than the main selection. In 2019, Robert Eggers’ maritime riot The Lighthouse showed there, as did Gaspar Noé’s dizzy dance demonic Climax the year before.
Audience reaction: Coppola remembered her experience at her first Cannes for the film’s 20th anniversary last year, saying: “It was well received and the critics were really supportive. I feel like I owe the start of my career to that Cannes audience.”
While Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire might still feel fresh, four years before the film’s Cannes debut, another lesbian love story, entirely raw and incandescent in its own way, lit up the festival.
The film had been in development since 1997, with screenwriter Phyllis Nagy painstakingly reworking the script and the production facing financing and scheduling issues. Still, by the time it reached Cannes it was a resounding triumph – the film won the Queer Palm and Rooney Mara tied for Best Actress thanks to her performance as shy photographer Therese Belivet, who falls for Cate Blanchett’s eponymous older woman.
‘I, Daniel Blake’ (2016)
Ken Loach is another Cannes regular, winning not one but two Palme d’Ors – for The Wind That Shakes the Barley in 2006, and then gritty drama I, Daniel Blake 10 years later.
The sobering film about the titular character being denied employment and support allowance became Loach’s biggest success at the UK box office, after earning brilliant reviews from the festival circuit.
Audience reaction: While there’s no particular reaction to speak of from the Croisette, the film did cause quite the stir among Conservative politicians, with Iain Duncan Smith saying, “This idea that everybody is out to crunch you, I think it has really hurt Jobcentre staff who don’t see themselves as that.”
‘Toni Erdmann’ (2016)
2016 was something of a knockout year, even by Cannes’ standards. Maren Ade’s outlandish German-Austrian comedy is the perfect example of the best of the festival – something audiences and critics knew so little about, and completely exploded expectations.
The film was due to premiere in the ‘Un Certain Regard’ sidebar, often reserved for smaller titles and feature debuts – but the night before the April press conference announcing the Official Selection competing for the Palme d’Or, Ade was informed Toni Erdmann had made the cut.
‘American Honey’ (2016)
Cannes loves nothing more than an epic. Andrea Arnold’s sprawling road trip odyssey cast Shia LaBeouf and Riley Keough in a sun-drenched triumph, following a crew of magazine-selling youngsters across America.
But the major question upon its Cannes release was: who is Sasha Lane? Arnold’s protagonist here was street-cast in her first ever role. Since then, Lane has gone on to star in The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories.
Audience reaction: American Honey won the Jury Prize at the festival, the second highest accolade. No major walkouts to speak of – only glowing praise for one of the finest British films of the 21st century.
‘You Were Never Really Here’ (2017)
Somewhat following in the footsteps of Apocalypse Now, Lynne Ramsay’s outstanding You Were Never Really Here wasn’t entirely finished when it screened for audiences at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.
Still, it kept audiences on tenterhooks, and convinced the Jury so much that they gave Joaquin Phoenix the award for Best Actor, for his wired and threatening performance as hitman Joe, and Ramsay won the award of Best Screenplay.
Audience reaction: Tension you could feel across the seats, nervous laughter only when appropriate. Cannes audiences might be picky, but they often choose their champions well – no booing here.
Before history was made with Parasite‘s sweep at the 2020 Oscars, it all began this time last year on the French Riviera.
People who knew Bong were aware that Parasite was certainly worth looking forward to – but nobody could have predicted a film like this. Critics and audiences patiently queued late at night for the first screening, and came out in a daze. Everyone knew they’d just been part of something incredibly special.