Some of the greatest films of all time have shown or been sold at the Cannes Film Festival, and a few of those have also won awards. From acknowledged classics such as Blowup and The Tin Drum, to near-forgotten gems like The Knack… and How to Get It and Black Orpheus, to the Hollywood-approved likes of The Tree of Life, Pulp Fiction and sex, lies and videotape, the number one prize of the Palme d’Or has honoured some truly excellent films. This year’s winner will be announced on 25 May. In the meantime, here are our top ten Palme d’Or winners, littered with art-house buzzphrases like “social realism” and “ambiguous ending”:
10. Rosetta (1999)
With this wonderfully raw display of social realism, including an open and somewhat ambiguous ending, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne actually inspired employment policy changes in their native Belgium. The title character (an award-winning Emilie Dequenne) is a put-upon teen living in a trailer park with her alcoholic mother; all she wants is a job, something with which to support herself and her pesky parent. As Rosetta continues through her meandering, quiet journey, the Dardennes choose to keep their camera resolutely on their protagonist, only rarely voyaging out of her immediate purview. It’s a clever approach that allows us to experience things with the character whilst afforded a slightly distanced objectivity on her complex choices. When it closes, seemingly unresolved, 90 minutes later, we understand completely what keeps Rosetta going: sheer determination, even when everything threatens to remain bleak. This is the film’s power: as a driven humanist tale of strength, no matter how it pans out there’s always some strange sense of uplift that remains.
9. The Conversation (1974)
Somewhat ironically, given its title and subject matter, The Conversation is so much quieter than the “thriller” it poses as. P.I. Gene Hackman hears something potentially troubling during a routine surveillance, can’t quite decipher it, and slowly, agonisingly, moves from professional frustration to personal obsession to, finally, absolute paranoia. While this is a compelling story with all sorts of political messaging, what makes it such a quintessential Palme winner is its rigorous dissection of cinematic tropes, notably the manipulative qualities of sound and editing. Like Coppola’s later Palme d’Or winner Apocalypse Now, The Conversation is both compellingly intimate and grandly horrifying, though also tighter and more poetic: a towering testament to the power of business, surveillance, and moviemaking itself.
8. Taste of Cherry (1997)
Big themes, big setting… minimal style. As a mysterious man drives around the vastness of the Iranian desert and its surrounding small towns and broken villages, trying to solicit help in his impending suicide, there’s only one thing mitigating the crushing spiritual darkness of it all: Abbas Kiarostami. The director crafts a film based subtly around apparent contradictions, such as the unsettling tension between protagonist Mr. Badii’s metaphysical worries and the earthy concern of the hole he’s quite literally dug for himself. Slowly but surely, further problems are revealed through long, meditative conversations held in Badii’s claustrophobic car, until the final moments, readable in many different ways, which controversially throw up further issues. An incredible central performance and visionary, deliberate craftsmanship combine in a film that, as with much of Kiarostami’s canon and the Palme d’Or winners’ list, makes one rethink the possibilities of cinematic storytelling in surprising and deeply-reaching ways. It’s easy to have an opinion on Taste of Cherry (Ebert hated it), but another challenge entirely figuring out what, exactly, to make of it.
7. The Piano (1993)
On the New Zealand frontier, a woman arrives to meet the husband she’s been sold to. More mystical than most remember it, The Piano‘s driving motifs involve music and a sort of psychic connection as Holly Hunter’s mute protagonist navigates both her Maori surroundings and her own womanhood. From highly poetic images (certain piano-related tableaux from both beginning and end are simply unforgettable) to the uncomfortably base and raw, the triangle (definitely not of the love variety) between Hunter, Sam Neill and Harvey Keitel is presented with great clarity; the classicism of the film’s design just barely conceals its resemblance to some brilliant post-modern novel. Costume dramas may have a certain reputation for blandness, but this sparkles and burns with pointed elegance.
6. Rome, Open City (1946)
Italian Neo-Realism begat the Nouvelle Vague, and the Nouvelle Vague begat New Hollywood, and New Hollywood begat… well, all the rest of it. Rome, Open City is, in many (albeit reductive) ways, a grandparent, a Cronos figure, for all that was to come in cinema. So if you care an iota about your Wookies and your Big Kahuna Burgers, you’ll give this one a go. Not that it’s all about history: Rome, Open City is still one of those great artistic achievements that stands up solo. Following the tribulations of Italian Resistance members steadfastly refusing to crack in the wake of SS pressure, there is a fantastic and powerful quasi-thriller nestled within the film’s political and human grittiness. Roberto Rosselini’s score-less, shaky-cam pseudo-documentary, filmed with largely non-professional actors on the burned-out streets of Italy, proves that a solid story and unique vision is all one needs to create brilliant, immediate drama.
5. Barton Fink (1991)
The Coen brothers’ fourth feature is completely unique, telling an allegorical Hollywood story as if it were The Shining. John Turturro’s title character is a critically-acclaimed New York playwright who is offered a Hollywood contract and, having checked into a dank hotel, promptly struggles to write the wrestling picture he’s assigned to. His neighbour, a travelling insurance salesman played beautifully by (who else?) John Goodman, tries to offer help but – in one of the film’s more barbed Coenesque ironies – Barton, a self-proclaimed man-of-the-people whose work deals with the “harsh realities” of working-class life, won’t actually listen to him. The protagonist, of course, is almost completely unlikeable, but the film’s bizarrely haunting quality nevertheless forces us into sympathising with his plight as everything falls apart and Barton discovers Hollywood may actually be Hell (or at least a terrible limbo). Packing its explorations of art, neurosis and image with humour and queasy symbolism, Barton Fink is a black Surrealist fable for the ages.
4. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007)
If only it were as simple as calling a doctor. When Găbița, a student in 1987 Communist Romania, falls pregnant, she and her friend Otilia have to take an increasingly grim series of steps into the world of illegal abortion procedures. The film very loosely takes a sort of procedural structure, as the women do things like book the correct hotel room – harder than it seems – and spar and barter, with quiet resolve, with the man they’ve hired to help. Brilliant scene plays after brilliant scene from beginning to end in Christian Mingiu’s serious, yet utterly gripping, social drama.
3. The Third Man (1949)
In the rubble of a divided post-war Vienna, an alcoholic American dime novelist ends up enacting one of his own cheap stories in the hunt for his not-so-dead friend, a charismatic profiteer. As with many of screenwriter Graham Greene’s best novels, the plot is deceptively pulpy, yet masks layers and layers of potent political allegory nestled amongst almost casual depictions of true-life horrors. And as its stars, including a rarely-better Joseph Cotten, Trevor Howard and Orson Welles, navigate these ruins, it’s exactly this unease that stays with us. Director Carol Reed constructs a woozy Expressionist nightmare bolstered by canted camera angles and a hauntingly spare, yet witty, zither score – the result may be known as a British classic, but it’s also a truly magnificent dissection of international relations at their darkest.
2. Paris, Texas (1984)
Wim Wenders’ slow-burning masterwork rests largely on the interplay between the viewer and Harry Dean Stanton’s world-weary wanderer Travis, whose exhausted eyes always communicate much more than they may let on. So it is in two key sequences, each in their own way emotional apexes, where aside from the screen and the audience there seems to be another, entirely intangible, dimension somewhere behind the characters – fitting, because these sequences are visually structured around screens and glances. First, Travis – who has spent four years in the desert and is finally found by his brother, sister-in-law and young son – watches a series of home movies and reflects on whatever concealed emotions he may have over this long abandonment. Second, he opens up entirely, in an incredible ten-minute monologue, to his estranged wife, now a sex worker sitting on the other side of a two-way mirror. Somewhere between the performances, the words and the imagery, all impeccable, a quirky-ish drama of almost indescribable soul develops.
1. La Dolce Vita (1960)
We’d bet not a single English-speaking film fan has ever referred to this by its translated title, such is the icon that is Federico Fellini’s rambling, beautiful masterpiece. Over three hours divided ingeniously into seven (sins/virtues/days) sequences, Marcello Mastroianni’s magazine writer meets friends, lovers, stars, aristocrats, Catholics and more in a witty, alienated orgy of satirical detail. Whatever plot there is can’t be easily summarised, so Fellini’s protagonist goes with a question instead: what next? Rubini is suave and intelligent, glamorous and well-paid, yet feels completely listless. Perhaps his settled family-man friend can give him some answers. Or perhaps his wise, adjusted father. Or maybe that self-confident actress he has a fling with. Or maybe they’ll all expose their own gaping flaws and abandon him again. Such is the “sweet life” of the title. Half a deep character study and half an unsettled, beautifully-photographed essay on Italy’s sweeping moral and spiritual crises, few other Palme d’Or winners have blended together so many iconic and bravado scenes, characters and ideas.