The Cannes Film Festival is the most famous, and one of the most renowned, international film festivals in the world. It started it 1946, and just finished up it’s 68th year this May. The Palme d’Or is its highest prize (for a portion of its history it also went by The Grand Prix du Festival). The award itself, once they eventually decided on the design (the palm), was an homage to the city’s coat of arms.
Each year, a jury of artists and filmmakers, chosen by the board of directors, vote for the best film at the festival (among other awards handed out, like the Grand Prix and the Prix du Jury, ostensibly 2nd and 3rd prize).
There is a jury president selected, a role that has been filled by such highly credible names as Jean Cocteau, Fritz Lang, Tennessee Williams, David Lynch, Wim Wenders, and, most recently, Joel and Ethan Coen (co-presidents, as it were). This give the festival an added reputation, a real sense that the award is handed out by artists, for artists.
There are only 68 films to parse through here, making it a much more feasible undertaking, were you to find yourself motivated to run through them all. Many of these films have remained highly regarded (Blowup, The Leopard, Barton Fink), and others have fallen out of the mainstream, but retain their interest for the impact they had (i.e. Le Monde Silence, by Jacques Cousteau and Louis Malle, which was the first film to shoot underwater in color).
The various winners of the Palme d’Or are a diverse assortment that reach virtually every corner of the globe. Looking at the films that have won the top honors at this festival gives us a good sense of the films that made an impression in their time, specifically from the point of view of one of international film’s brightest spotlights.
Roger Ebert is probably the most famous movie critic of all time. He was a veracious filmgoer, a true lover of the art and believer in its possibilities. He helped bring Martin Scorsese, a virtual unknown at the time, onto the scene by raving about his debut feature Who’s That Knocking At My Door? Errol Morris, one of greatest, most popular and influential documentary filmmakers in history, thanks his career to Ebert’s support of his debut, the masterpiece Gates of Heaven.
Speaking of, Gates of Heaven was often the film Ebert would cite when he was asked to name his favorite movie. He didn’t believe in lists in this way, claiming he would only cite Gates of Heaven because it was a film he believed no one else would recommend as highly, and he wanted to share that with his readers. He knew if he said it was good, more people would see it, and he respected the influence he wielded.
In 1996, he started his “Great Movies,” in which he would pick a film he loved, watch it again and write about it with fresh eyes. The website introduces the section with this quote from him: “One of the gifts a movie lover can give another is the title of a wonderful film they have not yet discovered. Here are more than 300 reconsiderations and appreciations of movies from the distant past to the recent past, all of movies that I consider worthy of being called great.”
He used this column to investigate what made these films great, and to try to explain his love for them. This is 1 of only 2 lists ranked here that is concocted solely by one individual. Through his writing, he exposed his tastes, his passions, and his favorites. Roger Ebert did not like star ratings or lists, but he utilized both, knowing that it was the simplest and most effective way to share the great things he had seen. These are the movies he really wanted to convince us to go and see for ourselves, and he makes a wonderful argument for why we should see each one of the films he deemed worthy of calling “Great Movies.”
The Criterion Collection is a peerless collection of “important classic and contemporary films.” They have released hundreds upon hundreds of great films from all over the world, from cult classics (Repo Man, Hausu) to classic documentaries (Salesman, Hoop Dreams), from the avant-garde (Symbiopsychotaxiplams, By Brakhage: An Anthology Volumes I and II), to old school Hollywood (My Man Godfrey, The Lady Eve). Their catalogue is vast, and almost endlessly diverse – a bottomless well of cinema that you could disappear into.
Criterion has also been a hugely influential force on the industry at large. The Criterion Collection spearheaded letter boxing when they released Invasion of the Body Snatchers on laserdisc, deciding that it was important to preserve the correct aspect ratio for home video by simply placing black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. With their release of King Kong, their second ever, they introduced the audio commentary to the world. Even the concept of special features and collector’s editions starts with this company.
They have also made a significant impact in the world of film restoration. This year they are releasing The Apu Trilogy (Pather Panchali, Aparajito and The World of Apu), hugely influential and beloved films that have been largely unavailable, or in poor condition, for decades. Now they are available again, restored by Criterion in association with the Academy Film Archive, presented in a condition that’s said to be as crisp and clear as when they were premiered over 50 years go.
Browsing their collection is a blast. On their website, you can “explore” by theme, country, or genre. They even reach out to writers and directors and other famous film fanatics, who then share their own “Top 10 Criterion Releases.” Lists upon lists! You would have a difficult time not finding something new and interesting.
They release films that were previously unavailable, or barely available in the United States. Their Eclipse series offers collections of several films bundled by studio (Nikkatsu Noir), director (The Delirious Works of William Klein, The Complete Jean Vigo), or a similar theme (America Lost and Found: The BBS Story). With their “Essential Art House” series, they put together a number of classic “standards” like Jules et Jim and Knife In the Water for less money than buying them all separately. Even their box art is acclaimed.
Looking at their catalogue list, it is impressive, and they make their product worth owning. They make it feel worth collecting. They partnered with Hulu to offer a vast portion of their catalogue for subscribers, including some of their laserdisc-only releases. You can be going through this list forever – and even if you were to miraculously catch up, they release around a half dozen films every month.
In 1988, the National Film Preservation Act was passed, which tasked the Library of Congress with selecting as many as 25 films every year to be acquired and preserved. It was a big deal that the government got involved in film preservation, as we have seen that it is a crucial measure if we want these works to last another century (or, ideally, even longer).
In 2013, the National Film Preservation Board released a report: 75% of American films from the silent era have been lost. These films from the birth of the motion picture are gone forever — degraded, or burned, or as was often the case, simply abandoned by studios that had no idea anyone would want to see them again after they played theatrically (and with no conception that they would need special care to maintain).
Three-quarters of all our silent films is an astronomical figure, and it is good to know that, at least on some scale, we as a country have decided to take the issue of film preservation seriously.
As you read in the previous entry with the massive restoration of The Apu Trilogy, if we don’t protect them, they are not going to last. Film was the most popular medium of the 20th century, and continues has continued its reign into the 21st. it is a huge platform to tell stories and share ideas with the entire world, and represents a vital part of our heritage.
Any list has its own internal (or stated) set of criteria, but the National Film Registry’s is determinedly simple: a film must be at least 10 years old, and be deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” This seems broad, but it is also wonderful, because it shifts focus away from “greatness” or personal taste. This is not meant to be a “best of” list. This is a handpicked collection of the films we want to represent us into the future. This is cinema as an American autobiography.
The public can nominate up to 50 films a year for consideration, ensuring that the voice of the people is heard. A committee of industry professionals, filmmakers and scholars, chosen by the Library of Congress, argue for what should be included that year. This is also, by far, the most varied list presented here. This quote, from James Billington of the Library of Congress, sums it up:
“… the films in the National Film Registry represent a stunning range of American filmmaking—including Hollywood features, documentaries, avant-garde and amateur productions, films of regional interest, ethnic, animated, and short film subjects—all deserving recognition, preservation and access by future generations.”
To date, there are 650 film registered for preservation. If you are interested in more detail, check out These Amazing Shadows, a documentary about the registry, or look up the full list online and submit your own choices directly to them for next year!
Once each decade, Sight & Sound magazine (published by the British Film Institute) conducts a poll considered by many to be the ultimate consensus list of the greatest films ever made. Roger Ebert called it “by far the most respected of the countless polls of great movies—the only one most serious movie people take seriously.”
There are some who says that this is a pretentious list. And the thing is, it absolutely is. Why shouldn’t it be? This is a list that places value on expertise. There is no such thing as a definitive “best of anything” list. This just comes about as close as you can hope to get.
One other criticism of this list, and other lists like it, is that it is “slanted” toward older films, and in many cases, films that have fallen out of the mainstream (or were never there at all). Much like the National Film Registry (with their rule that a film must be at least 10 years old to be eligible), they are ensuring that the films stand the test of time.
The newest films on the most current list, David Lynch’s fever dream Mulholland Dr. and Wong Kar-Wei’s deeply sumptuous In the Mood For Love, are exceptions that prove the rule, and yet, 30, 40, or 50 years from now… who knows if they will still be remembered the same way?
Much was said about how Vertigo upended Citizen Kane’s run at the top slot, though it is still number two, so what is truly the difference? Every other film in the top 10 are almost universally considered masterpieces, representing several of the most influential masters of the craft: after Hitchcock and Welles there is Ozu, Renoir, Murnau, Kubrick, Ford, Vertov, Dreyer, and Fellini. Plus the directors that appear elsewhere in the top 50, like Tarkovsky and Antonioni, Kurosawa and Bresson. These are hugely important figures in film history.
There is a legitimate and concerted effort here to gather the opinions of educated and passionate film critics, academics, writers and directors (experts in the field), with a clear and simple aim: to see which films they agree on the most. There is no list that comes close to this level of credence.
For the most recent poll, 846 top 10s were received (from over 1,000 invitations) from 73 different countries. There were 2,045 different films mentioned in these top 10s. Tallied up, you are left with the films that received the most votes, and there is no fairer way to make a list this compelling.
This is really a remarkable list of films. Any one of their lists, from each decade – offers an infinite number of movie recommendations. As with all of the lists presented in this List of Lists, its greatest asset is that it might help you discover something transformative – a new favorite, or just a really good movie.
Author Bio: Ryan Jeffrey is an independent filmmaker in Queens, New York. He’s been a film buff since he was a kid, and enjoys being able to talk about the films he loves and explore what makes them great.