So the 2016 Cannes Film Festival is well under way and as George Miller and the rest of this year’s jury deliberate over what will take the top prize, the famed Palme d’Or. This prize goes back for nearly three quarters of a century and though it’s gone by many names and titles it remains of one of the most prestigious prizes in cinema, awarded to films of a ground breaking, boundary pushing and not at all sometimes pretentious nature. Over the course of their history they have given the award to some truly incredible films and today I’m going to pick my ten favourite Palm d’Or winners.
But here’s the problem, there are a lot of films to choose from here and there are so many that can easily be called great. So here are a few honourable mentions ‘The Tin Drum’, ‘if…’, ‘The Leopard’, ‘All that Jazz’, ‘The Wages of Fear’, ‘Brief Encounter’, ‘M*A*S*H’, ‘sex, lies and videotape’, and ‘The Conversation’. So with that out of the way here are my final ten favourites.
10: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days
Few films have made trivial aspects of everyday life seem as claustrophobic and intense as Cristian Mungiu’s Romanian film that bagged the award in 2007. The plot follows two university students that try to arrange an illegal abortion (the procedure being banned in Romania) but ultimately the abortion aspect is only a McGuffin to move the plot along so the film can concern itself with life’s trivialities and the consequences of every little action. It’s a chance to flesh out unique characters and their struggles, actions and aspirations, something that Mungiu’s direction captures perfectly, limiting the audience’s perspective to that of the characters. The story itself just feels so honest and genuine, not providing any easy answers and emphasising that life goes on no matter what.
The Oscars may never have given a real statuette to Akira Kurosawa (not counting honorary ones) but Cannes got around to it five years before the Japanese director was even nominated for ‘Ran’. One of Kurosawa’s last great epics was daring enough to eviscerate and question the themes that the director had spent his entire career upholding, identity, politics and honour are all put under the surgeon’s knife here and the result was one of Kurosawa’s most commercially successful films ever. Telling the story of a lower class criminal who impersonates a dying warlord to enter the world of politics it stands as another classic example of Kurosawa at his best. At a time when he was being rejected by his own country as “old fashioned” he threw almost everything he had at ‘Kagemusha’ and bringing forward a film of great design, cinematography and one breath taking image after another.
8: Paris, Texas
They don’t make movies like ‘Paris, Texas’ anymore and if they do they tend to slip under the mainstream radar. For a film to be so radically experimental yet tackle issues of such resonance and universal evocation, to treat it with such loving intimacy and soaring grandeur seems impossible yet ‘Paris Texas’ achieves all this and more. The plot focuses on an amnesiac who, after mysteriously wandering out of the desert, attempts to reconnect with his brother and son. They end up embarking on a voyage to track down his long-missing wife. The tale is funny at times and heart breaking at others, but always emotional and set to the backdrop of the beautifully shot American Southwest.
7: Barton Fink
While Joel and Ethan Coen made a name for themselves on the independent circuit in the early 1990s, it was this surreal tale of Hollywood writers, demented hotels and serial killers, that really carved their style into our minds. It almost defies convention and categorisation, is it a comedy, a horror, a noir? It’s all of them and none of them, perhaps the only real way to describe it is as a Coen Brother’s movie. It manages to make statements on every subject imaginable from the creative process, to Hollywood as well as fascism, slavery, intellectualism and the differences between high and low culture. With Roman Polanski as Jury president for that year the film won big, taking the Best Actor award for John Turturo, Best Director for Joel and Ethan as well as the Palm d’Or itself,in fact it was the last film to do so as immediately after ‘Barton Fink’s’ victory Cannes changed the rules to prevent another film winning Best Director and Best Picture.
6: Rome, Open City
Though ‘Bicycle Thieves’ is often credited with introducing the wave of Italian neorealism (yeah, we’re getting nerdy here) that swept across the world in the 1940s it’s true genesis can be found with Roberto Rossellini’s drama set within Rome during the Nazi occupation in 1944. Ironically it was met with harsh reviews in its native Italy, whose audiences wanted escapism after the war rather than a harsh reminder of their reality but internationally the film was met with critical acclaim. Through the writing and direction it sought to capture the real experience of the era’s poverty stricken masses. Its effect was unflinching and sometimes harrowing, but with such a sense of humanity and beneath it ‘Rome, Open City’ can still resonate with audiences to this day as it did for the Cannes jury in 1945.
5: The Third Man
One of the most influential films of all time, considered to stand as one of the best noir’s ever made as well as simply one of the all-time great films, full stop. ‘The Third Man’ is a masterful display of atmospheric filmmaking at its finest, as well as having some terrific plot twists and what I will call Orson Welles’ best performance, being so utterly devious and wonderfully magnetic. Set within the war torn ruins of Vienna an American writer searches for a missing friend only to become embroiled in a complex plot of assorted players and a new world order. ‘The Third Man’ was not just great on a technical level, it tapped into something about the culture of the time, contrasting its damaged characters with the damaged landscape around it, forcing audiences to confront the collateral damage and aftermath of a devastating war, but dressing it up in some spectacular noir stylistics.
4: Pulp Fiction
Tarantino has always sited French cinema as a major influence on his work, so it was only fitting that his sprawling masterpiece won the top prize at Cannes, and even more fittingly that the 1994 Jury president was Clint Eastwood, the star of the film that Tarantino has frequently named his favourite of all time ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’. Following the interconnected stories of criminals and low life’s on the streets of L.A it was stylish, exquisitely executed, metaphysical and almost transcendent in its themes. Then there is the glorious dialogue, sentences that weave plot details and character backstories with small talk about burgers and foot massages. ‘Pulp Fiction’ revitalised the career of John Travolta and threw Samuel L Jackson into the stratosphere, it was unconventional, frenetic and magnificent.
3: Taxi Driver
‘Taxi Driver’ is the greatest character study ever put to film, it’s an introspective journey into the mind of a ticking time bomb as Travis Bickle, a damaged and isolated individual tries so desperately to conform with the society he both envies and despises. As a sociopathic, Vietnam veteran suffering from insomnia Bickle patrols the streets in his Taxi, searching for a purpose and meaning to his dilemma, trying to find some resolution to his suffering in whatever form he can. Martin Scorsese crafted a film of vibrant style and traumatic grittiness, adapting Paul Schrader’s intricate script to the big screen in a way that only he could. When it came out in 1976 it forced America to look at the collateral damage of a decade of war, the alienation and social decay felt by an entire nation. Robert De Niro turns in one of his best performances that resonates so deeply for so many reasons. We have all felt as lonely as Travis feels, was have all been angry with the world and searching for some kind of cathartic release.
2: La Dolce Vita
Translated to English as ‘The Sweet Life’, Federico Fellini’s 1960 masterpiece was an instant international success and forever cemented his position as one of the greatest auteurs in film history. The film follows Marcello Rubini, a journalist writing for gossip magazines, over seven days and nights on his journey through the "sweet life" of Rome in a fruitless search for love and happiness. Part fantasy, part expressionistic and part realistic ‘La Dolce Vita’ took that urge for escapism and used it as a mirror against its audience. Fellini played around on every level of filmmaking from structure, editing, scope and narrative to create a film that spoke of religion, love and society as a whole, making it a landmark of 20th Century cinema and the obvious choice for the 1960 Palm d’Or.
1: Apocalypse Now
Watching Francis Ford Coppola’s ultimate bad trip today, it only becomes more remarkable that from a production riddled with financial turmoil, freak weather conditions, underprepared actors and heart attacks, emerged this glorious masterpiece of insanity and darkness. In the midst of the Vietnam War a military captain is tasked with tracking down and assassinating a rogue colonel. It was a film that not only confronted the horror of war, it confronted the horror that lies within us all, the darkest parts of the human soul and our own fragile psyche. To this day no film scares or disturbs me to the core in the same way that ‘Apocalypse Now’ does, for its brutality and bleakness but also its beauty and what it all implies about the human condition. With the ensemble cast of Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Laurence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper and Harrison Ford it is epic in every sense of the word, winning the Palm d’Or in 1979 and remaining just as relevant and haunting since.