While the Oscars are often marketed as the authoritative cinema event in the annual calendar, it has become more of a social spectacle than something that is a part of film culture. The latter is mostly protected by the festivals around the world and there is no better representative of film culture than the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.
As this year’s edition of Cannes is getting ready for its launch later this month, the current public discourse around cinema is being dominated by the festival’s lineup. Film fans around the world are extremely excited about getting the chance to experience new gems by the likes of Claire Denis and David Cronenberg among many others.
In order to get you in the mood for Cannes, we have compiled a list of cinematic masterpieces that have previously won the Palme d’Or – the highest honour at the festival. Ranging from a Martin Scorsese classic to the works of master auteurs such as Federico Fellini and Wim Wenders, this list proves why Cannes is so important for film culture.
The 15 greatest Palme d’Or winners:
15. Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2014)
Nuri Bilge Ceylan has emerged as a serious artistic force in the contemporary landscape of cinema, having directed masterpieces like Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and The Wild Pear Tree. When it comes to Ceylan’s body of work, this might just be his magnum opus.
A stunning adaptation of Anton Chekhov and Dostoyevsky, Winter Sleep is a haunting exploration of class divides in Turkey as well as other social structures. Ceylan masterfully crafts his investigations through the story of a former actor who now runs a tiny hotel.
14. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
Probably one of the most famous films on this list and definitely among the most iconic winners of the Palme d’Or, there have been very works that have been as influential as the impact that Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction had on American filmmaking.
A non-linear vision of the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles, Tarantino provided an incredibly irresistible aesthetic framework which perfectly portrayed the stories of criminals and other lowlifes while reminding audiences of how fun cinema can be.
13. Eternity and a Day (Theodoros Angelopoulos, 1998)
Theo Angelopoulos has gone down in history as one of the greatest and most respected filmmakers of all time. Eternity and a Day is also a very good example of Angelopoulos’ unparalleled ability to conjure up a vision of cinema that was completely singular.
The film follows the journey of a dying writer who is forced to confront his own mortality. Eternity and a Day is the work of a true master who devoted his own life to the cinematic art and it contains questions that are present throughout his body of work.
12. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)
Apichatpong Weerasethakul garnered a lot of critical attention last year because of his recent project Memoria which starred Tilda Swinton. Although his new film shows why he is loved by a global audience, it is this 2010 masterpiece that is a definitive gem from his filmography.
A surreal exploration of the all-encompassing subject of death, the film tries to toy with the boundaries of our own subjective realities by presenting us with the idea of reincarnation and alternate spiritual ideas that are dominant in many cultures.
11. Kagemusha (Akira Kurosawa, 1980)
While Kagemusha isn’t as celebrated as Seven Samurai or Throne of Blood, it is one of the most fascinating works of Japanese master Akira Kurosawa. The title translates to “shadow warrior” and the film tells the story of a lowly thief who is hired as a double for a lord.
The reason it is not preferred over some of Kurosawa’s other works is because of the film’s narrative but it is a visual spectacle which served as the warm-up exercise for Kurosawa before he went on to make his unforgettable opus Ran.
10. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
Francis Ford Coppola’s body of work is defined by the cultural phenomenon started by The Godfather films but for many, Apocalypse Now is the real magnum opus by Coppola. A dizzying contextualisation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness within the Vietnam War, Apocalypse Now is an American classic.
Inspired by the likes of Werner Herzog, Coppola set out to direct one of the most ambitious films ever made. Despite the fact that the production ran into all kinds of problems and was almost shut down on multiple occasions, Coppola emerged victorious and delivered a truly powerful cinematic experience.
9. Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami, 1997)
A remarkable feat of minimalist filmmaking, Taste of Cherry is one of the most enigmatic films by Iranian maestro Abbas Kiarostami. An incisive meditation on the nature of existence and human condition, Taste of Cherry is probably among the greatest works ever made on the subject of suicide.
We follow a middle-aged man who drives around the suburbs while looking for someone who is willing to bury him after he kills himself. In such a situation, the car itself becomes a physical representation of the human body while the soul longs for an escape.
8. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)
The film that solidified Martin Scorsese’s status as a pioneer of the New Hollywood movement, Taxi Driver isn’t just a film anymore. It has become an indispensable part of popular culture due to Scorsese’s genius as well as the iconic performance by Robert De Niro.
De Niro is flawless as Travis Bickle, a lonely cab driver who grows increasingly disillusioned with the sociopolitical realities he encounters everyday during his routes which ultimately drives him to the logical conclusion of existing in such a society – overwhelming violence.
7. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964)
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is routinely cited as one of the greatest musicals ever made and there is a good argument for that. Jacques Demy’s 1964 masterpiece is a magical work of art which manages to infuse the monotony of normal life with unadulterated magic.
During an interview about the film, Demy was asked why he would have “people singing for no reason” and whether he had envisioned “people singing ‘I’d like the apple pie’ in the restaurant?” The director responded: “Why not? It would make life more pleasant.”
6. The Cranes Are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957)
An indispensable Soviet cinema classic, The Cranes Are Flying explores the devastation and widespread destruction of the Second World War. It does so by examining the impact it had on human lives, telling the story of its female protagonist who loses her lover.
Cinematographer Sergey Urusevsky later claimed that he was in control of the film’s stunning visual narrative: “No one held anyone back, prompted, dictated. The graphic side of the picture depended on me, and Kalatozov attached great importance to that.”
5. I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach, 2016)
Ken Loach is getting ready for the premiere of his new film The Old Oak at this year’s edition of Cannes. If you’re a fan of Loach’s political filmmaking and haven’t caught up on some of his recent work, I, Daniel Blake is the perfect point to jump in.
One of the best films of the last decade, it follows the hardships of its 59-year-old protagonist who fails to get any assistance from the welfare system even though his doctor confirms that working in his condition can have lethal ramifications.
4. La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960)
Federico Fellini’s famous 1960 classic La Dolce Vita features a wonderful performance by Marcello Mastroianni who stars as a gossip columnist. The film follows him as he embarks on a strange odyssey which makes him explore the labyrinths of Rome.
“What I intended was to show the state of Rome’s soul, a way of being of a people,” the filmmaker later explained while commenting on how his work was perceived by the media. “What it became was a scandalous report, a fresco of a street and a society.”
3. The Wages of Fear (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953)
Based on Georges Arnaud’s work, The Wages of Fear is a compelling thriller by Henri-Georges Clouzot which has influenced many other filmmakers like William Friedkin. It chronicles the misadventures of four unfortunate men who are hired by an American company to transport nitroglycerine.
Clouzot once said: “You have to choose between chiaroscuro and colour. If you are going to work with the shadow and the light then you have to be very careful with the colour. In black and white, you work with the greys but if you are going to work with the colours then you have to get the light very flat. Otherwise it is too close to reality. It looks like it was carved.”
2. Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984)
Paris, Texas is one of those rare films which almost everyone falls in love with after watching it for the first time. It doesn’t matter whether you exclusively watch action flicks or horror films, the human element of Wim Wenders’ opus resonates deeply with all of us.
Harry Dean Stanton delivers the performance of a lifetime as Travis, a man who has lost everything there is to lose. Presented with the opportunity to pick up the fragments of his own broken existence, he decides to reunite his son with his mother at the cost of distancing himself.
1. The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)
Although most conversations about Orson Welles tend to revolve around some of the more well-known films he directed, his work in The Third Man was one of his greatest contributions to the world of cinema. A sublime film noir by Carol Reed, The Third Man is often named among the greatest films ever made.
Almost every scene in the film has become iconic and it has influenced other famous works as well, including Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Featuring Robert Krasker’s breathtaking cinematography and an endlessly engaging screenplay by Graham Greene, The Third Man is a giant when it comes to cinematic achievement.