What, Exactly, is the Cannes Film Festival?

– by JD Westfall, VW’s film connoisseur –


Odds are you can name a variety of film award ceremonies. The Academy Awards, Golden Globes, BAFTAs, Satellite Awards, maybe even those MTV Movie Awards. Each of these groups has clearly different criteria in judging films. The Academy Awards typically go to prestigious films. The Golden Globes go to well-crafted movies with public appeal. The MTV awards go to garbage.

But out of all of these, probably the most varied, unpredictable, eccentric, and somehow most widely respected has to be the awards given out at the Cannes Film Festival.

Cannes: What Is It?

The Cannes Film Festival is an event held yearly in France, showcasing a crazy and eclectic assortment of movies. The festival lasts for eleven days, this year going from May 17 to May 28. This year’s ceremony features a staggering 150 films showing in a variety of different theaters throughout the city. To keep these films straight, they’re subdivided into eight categories. Let’s go through these one by one.

In Competition

This is the primary field, and as such the one with the greatest focus on it. This year the In Competition category features 18 films, representing 12 different countries (Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Japan, Russia, South Korea, United Kingdom, Ukraine, United States). These films are the ones competing for the big prizes.

First off is the most prestigious award of the ceremony, the Palme d’Or (or Golden Palm), which goes to what is regarded as the best film of the festival. In years past this award has gone to a diverse group of films, from Taxi Driver to Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Obviously this is a very unpredictable field, and may award everything from slow-paced art films to psychedelic acid trips to blockbuster Hollywood movies (directors who have won this award in the past include Quentin Tarantino, Joel & Ethan Coen, David Lynch, Francis Ford Coppola and David Lynch). Odds are at least one of your favorite movies has won this award at some point.

The Cannes festival has a peculiar rule though, one that makes predicting the winners even more difficult. Whichever film wins the Palme d’Or is immediately ineligible for any further awards. Ever been bored by the Oscars because one film plows through and collects every single trophy? That can never happen at Cannes. So when I, Daniel Blake won the Palme d’Or last year, that ruled it out from winning any other award, such as the Best Director, Actress, Actor, or Screenplay trophies.

In addition to awarding the best film of the festival, Cannes also features awards for the second place film (the Grand Prix award) and third place (Jury Prize). These two fields are even more crazily unpredictable than the Palme d’Or.

Oldboy? The Lobster? Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life? David Cronenberg’s Crash? Go home Cannes. You’re drunk.

Un Certain Regard

This is the second category of films presented at Cannes. This one prioritizes originality, especially from lands that aren’t commonly thought of as film making countries. Countries that have won the top prize in this field include Thailand, Bosnia, Kazakhstan (twice!) and Senegal.

This year the selection features 16 films, a surprising number of which are from France. But hey, bizarre ranges of countries aren’t the only focus of this field. Originality, remember? France makes some pretty original films.

Out of Competition

Of course, not every film at the festival is competing for a prize. Many films are presented for different purposes, and some of these are purely for entertainment reasons. Last year, Woody Allen and Steven Spielberg each debuted their latest works, alongside Shane Black’s beloved The Nice Guys.

This category is the hardest to classify as it displays the widest array of films. Some are premieres of highly anticipated films (Mad Max: Fury Road saw its debut at the 2015 festival), while others are in a Special Screening segment, films viewed as being culturally relevant to the world scene today. For example, the sequel to An Inconvenient Truth will be shown this year. Some controversy may possibly ensue.

Short Films

All good awards ceremonies have awards for short films, and recognizing that sometimes the best things come in small packages, Cannes is no different. This year nine different shorts will be competing for the appropriately named Short Film Palme d’Or.


My favorite category, this field highlights films made by students from around the world. Many of these films are shorts, or possibly feature films leaning towards a shorter runtime. I especially adore this category as, not only do we get to see imaginative works by young upcoming filmmakers, many times these films are from students on the international scene. This year we’ll be seeing films by students in Iran, Israel, Bosnia and Taiwan, to name a few.

So those are the primary selections. From here, the remaining of the 150 films (number subject to increase) are featured in one of the many so-called Parallel Selections. These are categories added by critic groups, directors and such, which give out awards for things such as first or second time filmmakers, best performance in an LGBT film, best performance by a … dog? All right, whatever floats your boat, Cannes.

However, we do have one final thing to discuss.


Unlike many awards ceremonies where a vast number of members vote on which films and persons get the trophies, Cannes has a small, diverse jury chosen to judge in the different categories. For example, this year the main awards for the In Competition section will be given out by a jury of nine filmmakers – Pedro Almodovar (director of Talk to Her), Maren Ade (director of Toni Erdmann), Fan Bingbing (star of Lost in Beijing), Park Chan-wook (director of Oldboy), Jessica Chastain (star of Zero Dark Thirty), Agnes Jaoui (director and screenwriter of The Taste of Others), Will Smith (star of … oh please, like I even have to say), Paolo Sorrentino (director of The Great Beauty), and finally Gabriel Yared. Never even flipping heard of this guy. A cursory investigation on the Internet tells me he’s a composer from Lebanon. Oh, he composed The English Patient! I hated The English Patient


J.D. became a film buff at age four after viewing his first Buster Keaton movie. Since then he’s found a passion for everything from Shakespeare to Sharknado.

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