As we’ll never know what film was denied winning the Palme d’Or over the weekend at the never-happened 2020 Cannes Film Festival — likely due to a caged bat in a Chinese market — this is as good a time as any to size up some of the films that, deserving or not, have won the coveted gold trophy in the 64 years of the festival’s Palme era.
Gazing over the list, what’s immediately striking is the number of lasting classics that emerged from the 1960s and 1970s; seven of the top 10 best by my estimation had their world premieres at Cannes during that period, while only three from the past four decades made the grade.
By contrast, on my list for the 10 worst Cannes top prize winners were four films from the 1990s and three made since then. On the plus side, more countries not previously considered very significant on the international film scene have been invited into the competition over the past 20-30 years; still, a considerable number of these films have proven to be relative flashes in the pan, more curiosities or momentarily trendy works than anything of lasting significance.
Following are my choices for the 10 best and worst Palme d’Or winners since 1956:
1960—La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini). Essentially closing the door on World War II, its traumas and aftermath in order to hasten a new era, this voluptuous landmark set the stage for a European cinema devoted to looking hedonistically inward and ahead.
1963—The Leopard (Luchino Visconti). Long little-regarded in the United States due to its botched dubbed American version, Visconti’s towering masterpiece was finally universally recognized as such in the wake of the 2010 restoration that debuted in Cannes.
1964—The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy). This is a completely sung-through musical that beautifully stands the test of time, not only because of Michel Legrand’s rich score and Demy’s fervid style but because of the script’s tough-minded attitude about dreamy notions of fate and true love.
1967—Blowup (Michelangelo Antonioni). Infused with the vibe of Swinging London but shrouded by its internal mysteries and threat, Antonioni’s sidestep into international cinema was calculatedly trendy but remains one of the era’s defining works.
1974—The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola). Using audio for sketchy clues into a murder mystery with the same intent that Antonioni had employed fleeting visuals, Coppola confirmed the vaunted status he achieved with The Godfather with this mesmerizingly controlled study of an audio surveillance expert.
1976—Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese). Two years later, the other great new Italian-American director of his generation, Scorsese, made his definitive breakthrough with this unsettling look at a violence-inclined societal misfit. Its legacy has been lasting.
1979—Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola). After toiling on it for years, Coppola went for broke debuting his Vietnam War epic in Cannes and emerged triumphantly, setting the stage for the film’s successful release. The advance notoriety also sparked a huge increase in the number of American journalists covering Cannes, something that remained in place for decades.
1993—The Piano (Jane Campion). A legitimate Cannes discovery based on the director having previously shown her shorter work at the festival, Campion made history by becoming the first female to win the festival’s top prize, with a hauntingly beautiful and distinctive work.
1994—Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino). With just his second feature, Tarantino became a director to be permanently reckoned with in this utterly fresh and original crime picture. The director has had a long-lasting relationship with the festival, having debuted six of his films there.
2007—4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu). This tensely minimalist drama about a woman getting an illegal abortion in the late 1980s was at the forefront of a bracing new wave of Romanian cinema that burst upon the international scene in the late 2000s.
1956—The Silent World. Hometown favorites, deep sea explorer Jacques Cousteau and filmmaker Louis Malle, teamed up on an underwater documentary that may have once seemed novel but today looks routine in the extreme and has nothing to offer contemporary audiences.
1957—Friendly Persuasion. This amiable drama about Quakers during the Civil War was a perfectly pleasant Cannes entry, but its victory, voted by seven of the 11 jurors, was very far from deserved given that the competition was led by the Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria and Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Why the jury passed those two all-time classics aside in favor of the Hollywood film remains an inscrutable mystery.
1962—Keeper of Promises. There’s a reason you’ve never heard of this somber little film about a Brazilian peasant who, because his donkey survives a dire illness, lugs a big wooden cross 30 miles across Brazil to donate it to a priest. It’s excruciatingly awful and, to date, the only Brazilian film to win the Palme.
1973—The Hireling. Smartly acted to be sure, this period British drama about a chauffeur who becomes obsessed with his neurotic aristocratic lady boss is conventional and predictable in every way and not a film anyone has spoken about in decades. It shared the Palme with Jerry Schatzberg’s far more deserving Scarecrow.
1987—Under the Satan Sun. Maurice Pialat’s tough, merciless film about a priest who tries to save the soul of a young murderess is a love-it-or-hate-it affair. Booed when it won the Palme d’Or, Pialat famously shouted back at the angry crowd, “I don’t like you either!”
1992—The Best Intentions. After winning in 1987 for Pelle the Conqueror, Swedish director Bille August undeservedly copped his second consecutive Palme d’Or for this biographical drama about Ingmar Bergman’s parents, written by the great one himself. Proper, decorous and soap opera-ish, it’s a film that lingers in the mind not at all.
1998—Eternity and a Day. Every three or four years through the 1980s and 1990s, it seemed like Greek director Theo Angelopoulos would show up in Cannes to collect his Palme d’Or only to be disappointed until, finally, it happened. To his detractors, however, the title of this one was the only comment necessary to describe their feelings about the director’s work.
2003—Elephant. Any film about an atrocious incident like the Columbine school shootings is bound to be controversial, but Gus Van Sant’s discretion and restraint itself become a form of posturing consciously designed to withhold any discernable point of view on the tragedy.
2004—Fahrenheit 9/11. Careerist provocateur Michael Moore reached the pinnacle of his career with this rabid, often outrageous, sometimes absurd and occasionally spot-on takedown of George W. Bush and his misguided response to the attack on the Twin Towers. Never has a Cannes ovation lasted as long as the one that greeted the premiere, but to elevate Moore into the pantheon of great filmmakers on the basis of this scattergun attack stems from an emotional reaction rather than aesthetic achievement.
2008—The Class. Laurent Cante’s look at the challenges experienced by a French middle-school teacher with students from highly varied backgrounds is intelligent, balanced and insightful. On a second viewing, however, it strongly reveals its limitations and shallowness; much less than what first meets the eye, it resembles a student who initially dazzles to cover for his shallowness.
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