Bertolucci, Ozon, Noe started in sidebar

The first independent sidebar of the Cannes Film Festival, Critics’ Week, which brought helmers ranging from Kevin Smith to Denys Arcand into the public eye, celebrates its 50th edition this year.

The anniversary edition kicked off Thursday with opener “Declaration of War,” the sophomore feature of local actress-helmer helmer Valerie Donzelli.

Each year, Critics’ Week presents just seven first and second features in competition, voted on by the attending press.

Three more films are presented as special screenings, which this year include the opener and “Walk Away Renee,” Jonathan Caouette’s follow-up to his debut “Tarnation.”

The sidebar is programmed by members of the French Union of Film Critics. One of the main goals of the section is to give Gallic critics a means to spotlight and support filmmakers at the start of their career.

Many directors got their first break — and first taste of the Croisette — thanks to Critics’ Week.

Bertolucci, who was honored with the first honorary Palme d’Or this year, screened his second pic, “Before the Revolution,” at Critics’ Week in 1964, during the same era as Chris Marker and Denys Arcand.

French helmers Philippe Garrel, Leos Carax, Arnaud Desplechin, Jacques Audiard, Francois Ozon and Gaspar Noe also preemed their first or sophomore efforts in the sidebar.

“What is great about Critics’ Week, is that the selection is very small. As a young and inexperienced filmmaker, you feel protected,” Ozon told Variety.

“The parallel sections of the festival also allow for a richer variety of films to be shown on the Croisette, since they are programmed by different people who have different selection criteria,” Ozon added.

International helmers who got their start at the Critics’ Week include Wong Kar Wai, Ken Loach, Andrea Arnold, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Ousmane Sembene.

The sidebar has always programmed an eclectic mix of films, from pure arthouse to more mainstream and genre titles, including early work of helmers such as Guillermo del Toro, Tony Scott and Smith.

“Daytrippers,” the first pic from Greg Mottola (“Superbad”), screened in Critics’ Week in 1996 after it had been rejected by Sundance (but played at Slamdance).

Critics’ Week “basically saved my movie,” Mottola recalled. “I don’t know if I would have had a career without it.”

U.S. rights were only sold after the film screened in Cannes and some European distribs bought the film.

Like Ozon, Mottola praises the general atmosphere of the sidebar, which is “very international and not fiercely competitive. It’s an amazing place to be with a first film, it’s kind of the ground zero of cinema.”

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