20 Best Breakout Movies From The Cannes Film Festival's Un Certain Regard Section

With a reputation for being the most prestigious and hotly anticipated film festival in the world, Cannes is full of riches beyond the films playing in Competition. And yet, the movies programmed in the Un Certain Regard (UCR) section are often left out of initial mainstream conversations. It’s only until after the festival when the discussion slowly tilts towards a breakthrough title or notable film that managed to stand out from the pack. Cineastes who are well aware of this (and who are perhaps not as dazzled by big names that inevitably populate part of the main line-up) know that it’s history and time that’s kindest to UCR. On many past occasions, the program showcased films from directors who went on to become the festival’s biggest discovery, leaving critics and fans scratching their heads and asking how they didn’t get invited to the bigger party.

With Cannes kicking off today, we’re taking a moment to celebrate those films that earned attention in the category. Produced from nearly all corners of the world, the 20 films highlighted below show the very best of the main sidebar. Even with a notorious reputation for having the biggest oddballs on its slate, UCR often acts as a springboard for newcomers or a new pedestal for once-acclaimed directors. The films below have loads of connective threads — many are directorial debuts, more than a few went on to be at least nominated for an Oscar — each re-affirming or heralding cinematic styles that have that certain je ne sais quoi.

And if you’re still Cannes-hungry, you can read our ranking of the 21st-century Palme D’Or winners here, and our reviews from this year’s installment of the festival will be rolling in right here.

Babette's Feast

Babette’s Feast” (1987)
As with a few others on this list, the trajectory of Gabriel Axel’s Danish delicatessen started with a UCR premiere and ended in golden fashion with an Academy Award. It was, in fact, the first Danish film to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, turning the story of a small, heartwarming breakout picture into stuff for the history books. A rigorously subtle film built on self-sacrifice and the notions of expanding ones beliefs through once-denied pleasures, the movie begins with a 19th-century Parisian refugee, Babette Hersant (Stéphane Audran), who seeks shelter in an isolated Danish coastal town, eventually taken in by two strictly puritanical sisters, Philippa and Martina (Bodil Kjer and Birgitte Federspiel). From there, it goes to a place of absurd and joyous black humor, never going against its painstakingly patient nature. “Babette’s Feast” may sound a little silly on paper — repressed Protestants see the light thanks to a kick-ass meal — but Axel’s restrained, graceful direction is as Bressonian as the banquet, and the artistry behind it takes on a spiritual level of resonance.

Bad Lieutenant Harvey Keitel

Bad Lieutenant” (1992)
Abel Ferrara has been making movies since the ’70s, so this might seem like a misnomer entry, but the sleazy, dirty, profane and unhinged “Bad Lieutenant” has developed such a massive cult status that it’s become the quintessential Ferrara film — yes, even dwarfing (if only slightly) its predecessor, “King Of New York.” The film works simultaneously as a case study of a horrible assault on a Catholic nun, and a character study of a cop who snorts, smokes, sucks, fucks, steals, deals, guzzles, and gambles everything in his path. Harvey Keitel delivers one of the grungiest and most iconic performances of his career as the titular cop in the same year that saw him as Mr. White in “Reservoir Dogs.” But it’s tough to recall when he’s been as good as he is here, providing soulful nuance to a degenerate personality dangerously close to having only one dimension. Inspiring Werner Herzog to do a spiritual sequel, “Bad Lieutenant” works to the strengths of its director and actor in unforgettable ways at every twist, punch and turn.

Blind Chance

Blind Chance” (1987)
A couple of years before his seminal opus “The Decalogue,Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Blind Chance” premiered at UCR to major acclaim. The film was inextricably linked to the politics of its country: Produced in 1981, it was repressed by the Polish regime until 1987. It sees everyman Witek (Boguslaw Linda) following a train and bumping into a beer-drinker in three different variations: 1. dodges the man, gets on the train; 2. bumps into the man, misses the train; 3. avoids the man politely, still misses the train. Witek becomes a remarkably different person in each scenario, highlighting how the smallest details we’re so often blind to have in themselves that which can alter one’s whole life. Kieslowski’s prismatic play with life’s hidden consequences would go on to inspire the Gwyneth Paltrow-starring “Sliding Doors” and (in less obvious fashion) Tom Tykwer’s “Run Lola Run” but as the original experiment of an infinitely fascinating concept, “Blind Chance” set Kieslowski on the international stage as one of the world’s leading philosopher-filmmakers, with only bigger and better things to come.

Blissfully Yours

Blissfully Yours” (2002)
How re-affirming it is that in a list full of feature film debuts, none are quite like the other. For the most recognizable name in Thai film history, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, being unlike anything else is integral to his films’ elusive charms and idiosyncrasies. “Blissfully Yours” has now been overshadowed as Apichatpong’s later films (“Tropical Malady” and “Syndromes And A Century” especially) all managed to define the director’s trademark tone in more assured ways, but once re-examined, the film is certainly an early signifier of his meditative style, the healing nature of his cinema beautifully foreshadowed through the homegrown medicine so ingrained in the film’s plot. Through the three central characters — Min (Min Oo), Roong (Kanokporn Tongaram) and Orn (Jenjira Jansuda) — Weerasethakul explores sexuality and identity under a veil of enchanting mystery (the jungle and Min’s rash, to name a few visual cues) until the mystery is stripped naked (quite literally and, in Thailand, controversially). Winner of the Prix UCR, “Blissfully Yours” is at once sensitive and abrasive, marking a blissful beginning indeed for its auteur.

Boyz N The Hood

Boyz N The Hood” (1991)
It’s tough for any other entry on this list to compete with this breakout in terms of cultural significance alone. John Singleton‘s debut is a trailblazing entry in the history of African-American cinema, even while its release was sandwiched between two of Spike Lee‘s essential pictures in “Do The Right Thing” and “Malcolm X,” and coming a few years before the equally influential “Menace II Society.” The fact that “Boyz N The Hood” stands on it own feet among such a crowded time for teen hood flicks is impressive by itself, but after premiering at the UCR, the movie went on to famously make Singleton the youngest person, and — more importantly — the very first African-American ever to be nominated for a Directing Oscar. The story of Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and his life in the LA hood has all the familiar beats, but on the strength of many iconic scenes (and one seriously fantastic Laurence Fishburne turn), it has become a permanent fixture in the Black Cinema canon.