The 2014 Cannes Film Festival, led by jury president Jane Campion, will release its lineup this Thursday, and, per usual, there’s lots of speculation about which films will compete for the top prize. But for over a decade, the more interesting category at Cannes hasn’t been the Palme d’Or but the Un Certain Regard, which has already announced the first film in its lineup: Marie Amachoukeli, Claire Burger, and Samuel Theis’s directorial debut, Party Girl. The Palme d’Or remains one of the top prizes in international cinema, but it has long favored specific kinds of filmmakers: white, middle-aged men from the United States and Europe. There are always exceptions, of course, but you’re much more likely to find female filmmakers, minority filmmakers, and films from countries whose cinematic reputations aren’t the strongest (Cambodia, Senegal, Morocco, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Philippines, etc) in Un Certain Regard; additionally, you’re just as likely (if not more likely) to see work by a major filmmaker, as directors like Claire Denis, Hong Sang-Soo, Manoel de Oliveira, and Jean-Luc Godard are seemingly barred from Palme d’Or contention.
Basically, the more worthwhile films are usually featured in Un Certain Regard rather than the main competition, which continues to favor “prestige” over anything else. Since Cannes started awarding it in 1998, the Prize Un Certain Regard has, arguably, become the more respected award. You can see my five favorite winners after the jump.
5. Blissfully Yours (dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2002) This early feature from the SAIC alum remains one of his best films. Winning the award essentially put Weerasethakul on the map, and he’s since become one of the world’s most beloved directors. Idyllic, dreamlike, and sensuous in the way we’ve come to expect of a Weerasethakul film, it put me to sleep the last time I watched it—not because I was bored, but because it creates an increasingly soothing effect with each revisit.
4. Tulpan (dir. Sergey Dvortsevoy, 2008) A feat of poetic realism and ambitious characterization, this Kazakh drama makes ample use of its unique setting to tell the story of a former Russian Navy officer living with his sister in a remote village. Before Tulpan, Dvortsevoy made documentaries, so a sort of nonfictional tone imbues the material with plausibility and ethnographic qualities.
3. Dogtooth (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, 2009) When this Greek satire won the Prize Un Certain Regard, it drew attention to a supposed new Greek cinema, marked by a decidedly disparaging view of Greek nationalism and disturbing subject matters. I’m not sure how viable the idea of a Greek New Wave is, but I can’t deny the greatness of Dogtooth, whose director, like so many to win this award, has since become an international staple.
2. Hahaha (dir. Hong Sang-Soo, 2010) Another SAIC alum and one of the most important filmmakers of his era, Hong and his work barely get any play in this country (read Ben Sach’s thoughtful account of that unfortunate truth here). Such is the case with this masterful, self-reflexive comedy about a filmmaker and his friend who swap stories of a trip they both took to a small town at different times. It never received U.S. theatrical distribution, but, hey, you can watch it on Hulu!
1. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (dir. Cristi Puiu, 2005) The Romanian New Wave staple, notable for its bleak humor and measured, almost exhaustive pace. While it’s never outwardly political or satirical, the film nevertheless illustrates inefficient healthcare practices in post-Ceaușescu Romania by using decidedly dark comedy and a deadpan approach to drama and pathos. It’s not the easiest film to watch, but that’s precisely the point; as the critic Kyle Smith aptly put it, “It’s supposed to be about a Kafkaesque experience. Instead, it is a Kafkaesque experience”