Has Cannes’ Palme d’Or lost some of its sheen? A search for relevance

"Taxi Driver" star Robert De Niro at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival. (AFP / Getty Images)
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The Cannes Film Festival is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. That makes the gathering, which kicked off Wednesday night in this seaside town, sound really old. And in a sense it is. But some of those really old movies exert a powerful pull on modern film culture.

Nowhere is that felt more than with Cannes’ top prize, alternately called the Palme d’Or and the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film over the last seven decades.

It’s a cliche that taking the top Cannes prize is like winning an Olympic gold medal, but it’s also true. To look back at the winners is to take a tour through some of the most significant movies in history – far more than the Oscars, which always surprises you with what great movies didn’t win.

For a six-year spell beginning in 1949, for instance, the top Cannes prize went to movies like “The Third Man,” “The Wages of Fear” and “Marty” – all great films that still cast a long shadow today.

Another period of half a dozen years, this time in the 1970s, saw the honor going to works like Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” and “Apocalypse Now,” establishing both directors as formidable voices of 1970s cinema – and setting a template that half the high-quality directors in Hollywood (and plenty of directors of lesser quality) still cite as a model in 2017.

"sex, lies and videotape's" Steven Soderbergh and Jane Fonda at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival. (AFP / Getty Images)

“sex, lies and videotape’s” Steven Soderbergh and Jane Fonda at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival. (AFP / Getty Images)

You don’t even have to go that far back. Over a six-year period beginning in 1989, the winners included “sex, lies & videotape,” “Barton Fink” and “Pulp Fiction.” All come from filmmakers very much emulated today. (All come from filmmakers still very much making movies today.)

This doesn’t feel as true for the winners from recent years. It’s not that there aren’t bold or visionary works (though it’s maybe slightly that). It’s really that the films don’t seem to pack the same cultural punch.

In the last 10 years one of the most notable winners is Michael Haneke’s “Amour” (2012), a piece of unsparing honesty about aging. A very strong film, but does it have the sheen of some of these past winners? At least it’s a film that many casual films fans have heard of.

Perhaps I’m guilty of overly revering the past. Maybe 25 years from now people will talk about “Blue Is the Warmest Color” (2013) and “I, Daniel Blake” (2016) with the same admiration we now talk about “Taxi Driver” and “The Third Man.” But it’s hard to avoid the fact that the recent winners just don’t feel as far-reaching in their significance.

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