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The 15 Best Palme d’Or Winners of All Time

29 May 2017 | Features, Film Lists | by Anmol Titoria

No strangers to the prestige of the 70 year-old bonanza of cinema that is the Cannes Film Festival, most filmmakers aspire to get their films open there; an aspiration that even with the amount of controversy some experimental cinema generates there, remains undimmed. Controversy has become a part of Cannes, and even the infamous booing can often lead to unexpected dividends that are at the very least commercial in nature.

The controversy can be accentuated if a Competition feature that is not universally beloved wins the Palme d’Or. Think Michael Moore’s scathing indictment of the Bush administration “Fahrenheit 9/11” that faced accusations of inaccuracy, or Frederico Fellini’s quintessential masterpiece “La Dolce Vita” that ran into problems with the Catholic Church, or Steven Soderbergh’s game-changing indie “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” whose victory angered filmmaker Spike Lee who didn’t get the prize for his career-crowning achievement “Do the Right Thing.”

But with multitudes of backlash and constant reexamination of Palme winners, a lot of worthy choices that established a discernible identity to the filmmakers behind them warrant recognition. And so, here are the 15 greatest Palme d’Or winners of all time.

 

15. Eternity and a Day

Eternity and a Day (1998)

Not many filmmakers possess the humbling patience of Theo Angelopolous. His camera moves with the most ravishing stillness, whispering visual mastery that is inherently palpable to the audience. Nor can many of his peers stake claim to be as generous and as sagacious in their analysis of human vulnerability with as sumptuous a restraint as he does.

Although the fact that his most lauded achievement “The Travelling Players”, the second part of his trilogy on the history of Greece is also his greatest can hardly be disputed, “Eternity and a Day” is possibly his most personal work. It contemplates the insatiable desire of artists to foresee the scope of their legacy and a child’s apprehension of his ability to deal with a devastatingly dynamic world and its luscious visuals communicate everything with the decorous tendency to explore.

There is sovereignty in his use of filmmaking tools that although comfortingly familiar, disavows any conventionality. Bruno Ganz’s miraculously moving work as the terminally ill poet Alexander reverberates with a conscious serenity, telling nothing, but showing everything. He finds an unlikely partner in Achileas Skevis, whose mesmerizing restraint breaks the most hardened of hearts.

 

14. All That Jazz

All That Jazz

Think an adrenaline-fueled, electrifying, vibrantly colored version of the Fellini’s “8 ½” that combines the best elements of Hollywood musicals to Bob Fosse’s eccentric sensibility, and you’ve got the 1979 extravaganza that still manages to enthrall thanks to its vigorous, untamed editing and a dizzying excess that completely unlike the previous entry on this list, revels in its impatience.

With uproarious musical numbers that show how Fosse has determined to go full throttle, the production design and costuming done with inimitable flair and lack of consideration for restraint or conformity to any standards whatsoever. The result is an overwhelming, breathing, beast of a film that inspired a generation of filmmakers to never put a cap on frenzy when it’s so beautifully drenched in wit.

At the center of it all is an intoxicating performance from Roy Schreider, an odd casting choice who strips away his imposing demeanor for humanly uninhibited work that somehow manages to ground the film emotionally. It might effectively be the most accomplished work by an actor in a movie musical.

 

13. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” defies categorization. It moves at a pace so flawless, has a glowing, soft, yet sensual use of color, is melancholic and nostalgic in its treatment of the central romance, and humanizes its archetypical characters to a degree where the ache of their problems is supremely real and comprehensible.

Starring Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo as Geneviève and Guy, the lovers around whom the narrative revolves, the film make their situation longingly angelic until it’s just unbearably tragic. Jaques Demy, whose previous, less nuanced achievements “Lola” and “The Young Girls of Rochefort” seem to be leading up to this fully realized, enchanting film, incorporates a dangerously brutal realism into the story.

In the hands of a lesser director, this tonal shift might be an obstacle in relishing both the sheer joy of love and the immense agony of separation. But with Demy at the helm, the film has vulnerability in the joy and yearning in the separation so profound that incoherence of any kind seems out of the question. All dialogues are recited, but the lyrics enveloped in Michel Legrand’s exalted score don’t seem to rhyme, and on a closer look you’ll realize that they don’t need to.

 

12. Paris, Texas

Paris, Texas (1984)

Wim Wenders’s soulful, sweeping, intimate saga about a man who hopes to reconcile with his brother and son and find his missing wife pulsates with so much heart and depth, it’s hard to resist its unpretentious charms. Not many films give as generously to the audience as this one, and not many are so effective in their desire to genuinely move the viewer, but Wenders’s classic keeps getting better with time.

Wenders deploys extraordinary craftsmen to help him in his task. Cinematographer Robby Müller lends a contemplative, silent allure to the film that compels us to constantly be in conversation with the film. Wenders asks many questions even he doesn’t have definitive answers to, with Ry Cooder’s haunting score somehow filling in the gaps.

Harry Dean Stanton plays the protagonist with audacious sincerity. He opens himself up entirely, to the point where the need to know the truth behind his misery becomes secondary. His command on the medium and its deceptive ability to play with images results in an insightful, magnificent performance.

 

11. The Tree of Wooden Clogs

The Tree of Wooden Clogs

Hard to sufficiently decipher and point to, the magic of this Ermanno Olmi film never loses its power to enrapture an audience in the most mundane of life’s activities. The actors here are all non-professional, who don’t miss a single beat and sync themselves so utterly into Olmi’s potent, but nonetheless humble vision that its imagery pops right out of the screen and consumes us.

Set in the countryside of Bergamo of the late 1890s, “The Tree of Wooden Clogs” observes the lives of four families living in a single farmhouse going about their work and responsibilities. Crops are sown and harvested, people are married and children are born, some protest against the oppression and some accede to the same old. Nothing major happens, and yet everything is engaging, riveting and propels retrospection.

Olmi’s use of mise en scène to such indelible results with his cast and crew has been deemed influential by artists of the stature of Mike Leigh and Al Pacino. He never lets go of his auteuristic command on the film, without denying it its requisite breadth and depth. The thematic relevance of the movie might be epic, but its modest characterizations have far more depth and universality than an extensively mounted production.

 

10. The White Ribbon

White Ribbon

A man who won this prestigious prize for both of his most recent films, Haneke is most certainly not an unfamiliar presence at Cannes. He won the Grand Prix for his succinct, harshly economical “The Piano Teacher” and the Best Director prize for the unflinching dissection of the great slumber of modern life in “Caché”. His first Palme came for the rousing, bleak fictional story set in a German village before World War I that examines the human preoccupation with evil just like nearly everything else in his filmography.

Tightly focused, yet seeming to discuss wildly universal themes, the film sets the children of the village at its core, solidifying the horror with such raw use of our perception of the truth, that we remain constantly restless, with no escape in sight. His cast is unnaturally gifted across the board, transporting us into a time where divides have just begun to cast their shadow upon us as a society.

Haneke’s other films somehow form a companion piece to each other, but “The White Ribbon” has a visual and rhythmic language of his own. Christian Berger’s cinematography creates a somber atmospheric delirium that remains so true and so deeply immersed in the filmmaker’s ambitions and almost inherits its patience and indomitable intelligence.

 

9. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

Few films contain as much thrill in their horribly realistic premises as Cristian Mungiu’s towering film does. With Julian Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and Cannes favorite Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” in Competition, Mungiu’s little, tensely crafted masterpiece was a surprise, but highly deserving choice for the Palme.

The social relevance of this desperately enlivened tour de force cannot be understated. Hard to watch and hard to find solace in, the film’s harshness is never unearned. It quietly, resolutely sneaks up on you, and engulfs you in the tightly wound up narrative with its relatable characters caught in an unbearably frightful situation.

The central performances are electric, nervous portrayals that are as authentic as the plot feels. Anamaria Marinca is especially unforgettable, capturing the nightmare of loyalty in a time where it has fatal consequences with wondrous tension. The direction itself seems all-consuming but she takes to a completely new level.

 

 

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  • Klevis Cana

    The Pianist deserved a place in this list

  • colonelkurtz

    Came here just to make sure Apocalypse Now was at #1. I’m satisfied.

  • AmazingAmy

    I saw who wrote this…phew its not Vladas.
    Btw I freaking love this list
    But you should add :
    The Pianist
    The Piano
    Farewell My Concubine
    Sex, Lies and Videotape
    Paris Texas
    Uncle Boome
    Amour
    Blue is The Warmest Colour
    Taste of Cherry
    Kagemusha
    Ballad of Narayama
    If…….
    Lost Weekend
    Brief Encounter
    Rome, Open City
    Leopard
    Secret and Lies
    Dancer in The Dark

    • Mortimer

      It’s Anmol Titoria – and list is of course, more sophisticated, better. But there’s so much great winners in Cannes history and this is list only for 15 so there isn’t a place for all of them.

      Love this list.

  • Veteran

    Eternity and a day + Underground should be higher than #9.

  • Zwei

    Amour? Viridiana? The Wages of Fear? Il gattopardo?

  • Zbigniew Klima

    Is it joke??? The Tree of life? A list without Man with the Steel? The Piano?

    • Mortimer

      Yup, The Tree of Life – one of the best movies of all time. Next question ?

      • Daniel Krone

        How? Please explain how “The Tree of Life” is one of the best films of all time rather than just say it. I’m a huge fan of art films, namely the Qatsi trilogy but those films even as disjointed as they may seem still have a cogent theme. “Tree of Life” however is a strange mix of family life and the over arching theme of the universe. Malick doesn’t pick one or the other and the film flows rather oddly through both ideas. But to quote Kipling…’It’s pretty but is it art?’ I know many people that love this film but I don’t understand why. And non have focused enough to explain why they feel how they feel. If it was just the pretty images I’d love it as an art film but the stuff with the family just disjoints its value as an art film. It’s truly just beautiful cinematography, with some pretty images masquerading as ‘high-concept’ and a blatant misuse of great actors. If an actor is merely used just as a kind of symbol what’s the point of having such famous and talented actors in the first place when literally anyone would have done? It’s distracting too. (Which would not make that great considering the gigantic distraction they are being so under utilized.) That’s how I saw it. I wasn’t in anyway involved with it. But I know tons of people that loved it. You said “Tree of Life – one of the best movies of all time. Next question ?” But you clearly seem to be too lazy or lack the words to explain why you feel that way. You currently have a platform for debate with Zbigniew Klima…rather than troll…write a damn essay explaining why you feel that way, not that you feel that way, that’s not a review, who cares. Explain why it’s great? Why exactly is the “Tree of Life” worthy of such praise? For me it has the same themes as the Quatsi trilogy and something like Disney’s Fantasia (in places with observing the awe of the nature of creation) but lacks the focus of either of those. So what sets it apart from things I’ve already seen that I like better? C’mon, explain rather than state. Communicate man. Otherwise no one should ever be inclined to care about your thoughts.

        • Mortimer

          Calm down dude, it seems like you’re losing your sleep over this. After all, this is only about movies.

          But, I must ask you one thing – when someone here says The Tree of Life is bad movie (in obnoxious and rude manner and without any proof) you’re Ok with it; but when I respond to one such unfounded statement with “Tree of Life – one of the best movies of all time. Next question ?” you’re suddenly “Oh..you’re trolling man. I need proof !”. Why you don’t ask that people (three of them here) – what is your proof that this movie is the worst Palme d’Or winner ?
          You know, all this make you sound a little hypocritical. Make your mind man; at this point, I’m not sure if my explanation would have any effect on you with that mindset.

        • Vincenzo Politi

          I think I know who you are talking with. That guy was so obnoxious that I actually blocked him. By the way, I share every single one of your feelings re: The Tree of Life. You ask: “If an actor is merely used just as a kind of symbol what’s the point of having such famous and talented actors in the first place when literally anyone would have done?” The answer is: to attract more people at the box office. This is my theory about Terrence Malick anyway: basically, he is (badly) re-doing the same stuff that Tarkovsky did decades ago, without the artistic vision and genius of Tarkovsky but, as a compensation, with tons of popular Hollywood actors. For instance, in The Thin Red Line, George Clooney appears for something like 45 seconds, but his name was in the poster anyway and many people may have gone to see that movie just because there was George Clooney, in the same way in which many people have gone to see other movies just because they are fans of Ben Affleck, Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Ryan Gosling or Michael Fassbender. I do recognise that Brad Pitt was really good in The Tree of Life though: Pitt’s interpretation is actually one of the very few things I save of that movie.

          • Mortimer

            If by “obnoxious” you mean – me saying “lol” on your statement that ‘The Revenant’ is masterpiece than yes. And yeah, I also said that ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ is a bad movie and that ‘Boyhood’ is not a great film in my opinion. If this is enough for you to proclaim that I’m “obnoxious” then OK. And ironically all this coming from a guy who constantly thrashes “The Tree of Life” and “Gladiator”, finding stupid, cringe worthy reasons to hate on both movies.
            It’s almost unbelievable how some people here love to play a victim card. And they are actually doing the same stuff for which they accuse others.

  • Chrisychipz

    White ribbon and paris Texas should be in the top 5

  • Rhyan Mark Cotas

    Viridiana should be included.

  • Pica Lima

    another accomplishment of the inventor of the oxygen Terrence Mallick and his trend followers… he did it again!

    • Mortimer

      zzzZZZzzz…

  • My list so far is a little different as I have films I much prefer than some of the films on that list.

    • Mortimer

      Love your list. Brief Encounter and The Leopard deserve to be placed higher though.

      • Gracias. It is hard to pick a favorite as there’s so many good films that won the award as I love those 2. It often changes although I would love to do a marathon devoted entirely to Palme d’Ors.

        • Mortimer

          I was generally satisfied with winners two days ago (especially happy for Joaquin, Sofia and Lynne). 80% of Cannes jury decisions in 2015 and 2016 were disappointing to me.

          • Same here. I would be ecstatic for a woman to win the Palme d’Or and not tie with another film.

    • Dimitrije Stojanovic

      I agree with your first place.

  • Aleksandar Šurbatović

    hahahaha, you like american movies, don’t you?! Really poor choice. The Tree of Life is probably the worst Palm winner of all time, btw.

  • bd

    “Jaques Demy, whose previous, less nuanced achievements ‘Lola’ and ‘The Young Girls of Rochefort’ seem to be leading up to this fully realized, enchanting film”

    The Young Girls of Rochefort came out 3 years after Cherbourg… Seems like yet another journalist clambering to cite Cherbourg as much as they can, but says things that blatantly expose how little they actually know about Demy and his work. So it goes in the “post-La La Land” world I guess. My face wrinkled hard at the “Lola and Rochefort are far less nuanced” assertion. If this article is satire, you need a raise.

  • I am Immediately reminded of “Pather Panchali” a Bengali movie from India by Satyajit Ray based on a story written by Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay.It put India before foreign audiences who had to, literally, rub their eyes in disbelief at the realistic depiction of the pastoral and simple life story of ordinary people.Its natural universalism,poetry and lyricism evoked memories of the impressive neo-realist Italian and French Cinema though based upon Indian geographies.It won the Best Human Document Award at the Cannes Festival of 1956.This movie had established Ray as one of the finest movie makers in the world.Famously,Truffaut had walked out after watching the first few minutes being very bored.

  • Ufuk

    Winter Sleep should be included.

  • Cinema Phenomenology

    Where are The Cranes Are Flying and Kusturica?

  • Underground? Dancer in the Dark?

  • Relf

    Pulp Fiction is light years behind all the other winners. It’s a very mediocre movie

  • Aurelio Lamas

    Wild at heart!!!!