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Revisiting some old Cannes film fest winners

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Year in and year out, Cannes, a small city on the French Riviera, becomes the biggest tease on the film calendar. The stars and the parties are grand spectacles, sure, but it’s the movies that really matter. Despite the hype that immediately builds up around them as each screening happens, it’s months before we get our first glimpse of any of the films here. The best we can do while Steven Spielberg and his jury pick a new winner is dig back through Cannes history and relive past winners.

There are winners in life and then there is this: Francis Ford Coppola put out two films in 1974; one of them, The Conversation (now streaming on Netflix), won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for Best Picture, and the other one was The Godfather Part II, which won Best Picture at the Oscars. A cold psychological thriller, The Conversation taps right into the paranoia, secrecy and guilt that drove media in much of the 1970s. It stars Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, a surveillance expert who begins to struggle with the ethics of his work after recording a couple having a cryptic conversation in the park. The deeper he gets into the recording, the more he fears for their safety if he hands over the tape to the men who commissioned him (played by Harrison Ford and Robert Duvall). Hackman plays Caul as reserved and introverted, a particularly careful man who maybe is a little too trusting once his guard is down – basically the opposite of Popeye Doyle.

Kitty Winn won Best Actress at Cannes in 1971 for playing Helen, an innocent girl from the Midwest who comes to New York and ends up a junkie, in The Panic in Needle Park (streaming on Netflix). Co-written by husband-and-wife duo Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, and starring the then little-known Al Pacino as the charismatic hustler Bobby, Panic is a stark, withering account of drug use that remains just as relevant 40 years later. Though she starts out straight, curiosity finally gets the best of Helen and she sneaks a hit while Bobby is out cold. There is a devastating moment later in the movie as they walk the streets together. He cradles her face and sees the drugs in her eyes. “When did that happen?” he asks sadly, but she can’t answer. The line may be Pacino’s but the scene’s disquieting heartbreak is all Winn’s.

We saw a completely new side of funny man Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love (streaming on Netflix), for which Paul Thomas Anderson won Best Director at Cannes in 2002. As Barry Egan, Sandler is still essentially playing a man-child looking for love, but differently than we’re used to. In one of the best fan theories ever floated, the film is viewed through the prism that Lena (Emily Watson), the object of Barry’s affection, is actually an alien seeking love. The clues seem to fit and to wade so freely into Barry’s supreme weirdness, she’d almost have to be.

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