Cannes Rewind: 10 Essential Palme d’Or Winners

In just a matter of hours, the 70th annual Cannes Film Festival will open with Arnaud Desplechin’s “Ismael’s Ghosts,” kicking off an 11-day celebration of contemporary film. Amid the cinephilia, most of the attention will be focused on a select 19 films competing for the coveted Palme d’Or, the most prestigious film festival prize in the world. If chosen by the Pedro Almodóvar-led jury, the eventual winner will go down in history alongside an esteemed group of films. Indeed, the treasure trove of Oscar winners, arthouse classics and smashing debuts associated with the Palme d’Or gives us much to be excited about.

While most of us won’t be able to join in the festivities awaiting the lucky attendees, here are 10 Essential Palme d’Or winners from festivals past to get you feeling like you’re strolling The Croisette.

Honorable Mention

The Cannes winners for the years 1939-1954 and 1964-1974 (when the top prize was called “Grand Prix du Festival International du Film”) were not considered for the purposes of this list. However, among them are a number of highly recommended films. These include the stunningly shot “The Third Man,” Francis Ford Coppola’s mesmerizing “The Conversation,” and “Rome, Open City,” the first entry in Roberto Rossellini’s unofficial “Neorealist Trilogy.”

“Amour” (2012)

Just three years after winning his first Palme for “The White Ribbon,” Austrian director Michael Haneke scooped up another for his follow-up “Amour.” In this austere drama, Emannuelle Riva is devastating as an older woman suffering from a paralyzing stroke,  a role that garnered her a well deserved Oscar nod. By her side, Jean-Louis Trintignant is no less compelling as her doting husband, displaying a quiet passion as he caters to her through her pain. As we witness her demise, Haneke’s visual framing is typically patient and controlled, capturing the agonizing experience in unflinching detail. It’s undoubtedly bleak cinema, as Trintignant’s stubborn devotion leaves us asking the question, “Is it possible to love someone too much?”

“Apocalypse Now” & “The Tin Drum” (1979)

With one of the strongest lineups in Cannes history, it’s no surprise that the jury landed on a tie for the 1979 Palme d’Or. From a field including fellow Oscar nominees “Days of Heaven,” “The China Syndrome,” “The Europeans” and “Norma Rae,” it was Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” and Volker Schlöndorff’s “The Tin Drum” that emerged victorious. Though representing the contrasting styles of Hollywood and New German Cinema, the pair make for a fascinating double feature on the theme of war. The epic spectacle of “Apocalypse Now” is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, offering a profound meditation on the madness of the Vietnam War. The plot revolves around a covert mission to assassinate the insane Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who embodies the dark psychology of war to staggering effect.

“The Tin Drum” meanwhile looks at the events surrounding World War II from the perspective of a special child named Oskar. In this bizarre coming-of-ager, Oskar refuses to grow after the age of 3, witnessing the changes within his Polish hometown while never letting go of his tin drum. Mixing fantasy with the menacing reality of the Holocaust, this decades-spanning tale is a one-of-a-kind, captivating gem, deservedly winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

“Blue Is the Warmest Color” (2013)

Few premieres generate as much excitement at the notoriously snobbish Cannes Film Festival as Abdellatif Kechiche’s romance saga “Blue Is the Warmest Color” did. Galvanizing the enthusiasm of critics and the jury alike, it won the both the FIPRESCI and the Palme d’Or, the latter in a rare unanimous decision. The film portrays the coming of age and sexual awakening of a girl named Adele, who becomes infatuated with the alluring Emma, prompting heretofore unexplored lesbian desires. What follows is a provocative, exhilarating and heartbreaking journey of self-discovery, performed with raw emotion by Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux. Indeed, the pair of actresses were so impressive that jury president Steven Spielberg broke with tradition to award them a share of the Palme d’Or along with Kechiche.

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“Farewell My Concubine” & “The Piano” (1993)

It was a year of firsts at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, as the Palme was awarded to Chen Kaige’s “Farewell My Concubine” and Jane Campion’s “The Piano.” The former was the first Chinese-language winner, while the latter marked the first time a film directed by a woman took the prize.

More than 20 years later, they are still the only Chinese and female-directed films to achieve this feat. The years have lessened none of their power however. “Farewell My Concubine” remains a masterpiece of Hong Kong cinema, weaving a grand tale of class conflict, sacrifice, betrayal and love, all against the backdrop of the political turmoil of mid-20th century China. Likewise, “The Piano” is a timeless work of art, still capable of stunning audiences with its visceral intensity and impeccable craft. The film was deservedly nominated for eight Oscars, including wins for Campion’s screenplay and actresses Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin in her first acting role.

“La Dolce Vita” (1960)

If there’s one film that seemed tailor-made for the Cannes audience, it would definitely be Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” winner of the 1960 festival. Living up to its title (English translation: “The Sweet Life”), it follows the debonair Marcello Mastroianni as a journalist roaming Italy, wearing stylish suits, courting beautiful women – most notably Anita Ekberg’s iconic Sylvia – and enjoying all manner of nighttime debauchery. It truly captures the glamour, excitement and joie de vivre synonymous with Cannes. Under that intoxicating surface however, is a film with deeper meaning about the true meaning of life, love and happiness. Furthermore, its influence can be seen in the work of numerous other revered filmmakers, like Woody Allen and Fellini’s compatriot Paolo Sorrentino.

“Marty” (1955)

Over the years, the main competition selection for the Cannes Film Festival has become known for hard-hitting social dramas, ambitious productions or unique auteur visions. But for the first year of the newly named Palme d’Or prize, the winner was Delbert Mann’s relatively modest drama “Marty.” In this heartwarming tale, Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair are completely endearing as a pair of misfits who fall in love. It may be a simple premise, but Delbert Mann’s direction is pitch-perfect and the script makes some astute observations about American society in the 1950s. Indeed, the story certainly resonated with audiences back home, following up its Cannes victory with a Best Picture triumph at the Oscars. To date, it is still the only film to claim that unique double.

“The Pianist” (2002)

These days, Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist” is perhaps most commonly remembered for Adrien Brody’s ecstatic acceptance of his surprise Oscar. But while his harrowing performance is indeed the heart of this World War II drama, this reductive thinking doesn’t do justice to the tremendous filmmaking on display. A Holocaust survivor himself, Polanski has stated that this is his most personal film. And it certainly shows, as this powerful Palme d’Or winner feels deeply invested in the plight of its characters, capturing their grueling dehumanization in horrifying, journalistic detail. The real beauty of Polanski’s unshowy direction however, is that he doesn’t only dwell on miserabilism. Ultimately, “The Pianist” shines as a tale of resistance and survival. Indeed, some of the most indelible cinematic images of the last 20 years include those of a gaunt Adrien Brody staggering through the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto, his spirit and body bent but unbroken.

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“Secrets & Lies” (1996)

The Cannes Film Festival has sometimes been criticized for being too traditionalist in the films it champions. But for the 1996 Palme d’Or winner, the festival awarded Mike Leigh’s magnum opus “Secrets & Lies,” a film that remains just as relevant today. This brilliant dissection of race and class in the United Kingdom centers around an educated, middle-class black woman who has finally met her birth mother, a working-class white woman. The intriguing conversations that follow are exquisitely acted by Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Brenda Blethyn, with the latter also winning the festival’s Best Actress prize. Showcasing all the hallmarks of Mike Leigh’s filmmaking style, “Secrets & Lies” is intimate, authentic and deeply human.

“Sex, Lies, and Videotape” (1989)

Back in 1989, the Cannes Film Festival made one of its most inspired Palme d’Or choices ever, when it crowned a debut feature by the name of “Sex, Lies, and Videotape.” Widely credited with revolutionizing indie cinema, it is one of the rare films to claim top prizes at Sundance and Cannes, film festivals geared towards discovery and established masters, respectively. This unusual success is easy to understand however, as the film effortlessly combines gritty, stripped down production values with Steven Soderbergh’s distinctive formalist vision. Centering around an intriguing quartet of characters exploring the spectrum of sexual confidence and expression, “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” simmers with eroticism, remarkably without a single shot of nudity.

“The Tree of Life” (2011)

Easily the most ambitious – and most divisive – film to land on The Croisette, Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” was one of the most hotly anticipated premieres when it was announced for the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Wrestling with matters of the cosmos, evolution and the meaning of life through the perspective of a 1950s Texan family, this deeply spiritual and philosophical cinematic tome was famously booed after its screening. This hardly dissuaded Robert De Niro and his jury, however, who were moved by its awe-inspiring cinematography and gorgeously wrought performances, especially from Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain in a breakout role. Though its reach sometimes exceeds its grasp, this humbling, transcendent masterwork is truly a must-see.

Check out the latest Oscar Predictions and see where some the upcoming Cannes selections rank!

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| DOCUMENTARY FEATURE | FOREIGN LANGUAGE |

About Shane Slater

Shane is a passionate cinephile and Tomatometer-approved film critic residing in Kingston, Jamaica. When he's not watching or writing about film, he spends much of his time wishing he lived in a big city. Shane is an avid world traveler and loves attending film festivals. He is a member of the African-American Film Critics Association.
  • Nicola Maddalena

    I just did an article of the sort for my blog…my list was:

    1. Pulp Fiction
    2. Taxi Driver
    3. The Third Man
    4. Apocalypse Now
    5. The Pianist
    6. Underground
    7. Black Orpheus
    8. The Cranes Are Flying
    9. All That Jazz
    10. I, Daniel Blake

    Wild Card: Rome, Open City

  • Ferdinand

    Best:
    1. Apocalypse Now
    2. The Tree of Life
    3. La dolce vita
    4. All That Jazz
    5. The Third Man
    6. Pulp Fiction
    7. Taxi Driver
    8. Blowup
    9. La salaire de la peur
    10. Barton Fink

    The 14 most important winners (not necessarily the most important films to win the Palme d’or but the wins that I think were the most important):
    Le monde du silence
    La dolce vita (especially when considering the joined effect that La dolce vita and L’avventura, that won the Prix had/have)
    Les parapluies de Cherbourg
    If…
    MASH
    Taxi Driver
    Sex, Lies, and Videotape
    Wild at Heart
    The Piano
    Pulp Fiction
    Taste of Cherry
    Dancer in the Dark
    4 luni, saptamâni si 2 zile
    The Tree of Life

  • Alex Withrow

    Great list here Shane. Man, I forgot Sex, Lies, and Videotape actually won. That’s insane! Also crazy that that win started a three year winning streak for America, and they’ve only won 4 times since. Loved this post!